We Want Our Refugees and Exiles to Be Victims

Ece Temelkuran

“I am Now Obliged to Tell a Story, But Only the One Particular Story”

I was supposed to be writing about a refugee in Istanbul. Then she disappeared. Most of them do disappear now and again. Then I had to disappear myself. So I am now the subject of this text, although I am not a refugee, but in self-imposed exile, or a seemingly self-imposed exile. Does the terminology matter if you feel the constant heartache of that Syrian woman, talking to a journalist on the Turkish coast upon her arrival last summer, saying, “I wish I was dead so my pride would not be broken like this?”

Pride is the one basic need an exile or refugee must supply for themselves. There’s no refugee center or NGO that can help you with that. You find these things out while learning that living is far more complicated than not dying.

Is there an honorable way of dealing with the reality of being obliged to leave your home? Or is the question of pride a luxury available only to those able to whine eloquently about it? What happens to the exiles who do not have the fancy words that I do? They become numbers. Numbers are crossing the Mediterranean right now. And by the way, some numbers are drowning in the sea. Look, there they are! Other numbers are making it to shore. Surviving numbers are even applying for “papers.” Now these numbers have to live. They have to recover their names.

There is a page on the UNHCR web page called “Refugees Who Have Made a Difference.” There are only 20 profiles listed. So the thousands of others who drowned in the ocean remain nameless numbers, even those who survived the journey remain anonymous. Those who succeed in crossing the Mediterranean are obliged to go on another difficult journey to become a person.

I’m amazed people do not obsess about the possibility of coming across a dead body on a Mediterranean beach while swimming on their summer holidays, of touching those refugees who could not “make a difference.”

I am not a number. I have my name printed on books in several languages. I have people asking me: “What title do you prefer in front of your name? Author or author and journalist?” But even I’ve become a known-off-by-heart paragraph now: “who lost her job due to the political oppression and had to leave Turkey” etc . . . This little paragraph that I drag along behind me supposedly tells the most important thing about me, with the rest of me supplied on demand to keener enthusiasts.

Times of oppression create the spectacular oppressor and the spectacular victim. I am now supposed to fill the shoes of this person called “the victim.” It is a full-time job, a non-stop act. Like a refugee waiting for a piece of bread with a stupid ticket in her hands, I should be ready to perform my victimhood whenever the act is called to the intellectual stage. I am now obliged to tell a story, but only the one particular story, the stupid story of my suffering that I hold like a ticket for my passage to the civilized world. I am so ill-suited to the role that at one point, at a Front Line Club book event in London, when a woman from the audience, holding her hands together with the graciousness of the Pope washing the feet of the poor, asks me, “So what CAN WE do for you?” I answer: “I feel like a baby panda that you’re trying to adopt on a website!”

Nobody laughs.

The victim should be the victim but nothing else. Otherwise it becomes confusing for the audience. Be a number. Be a paragraph.

I remember this man from Somalia I met in a refugee camp on the Tunisian-Libyan border. It was right after Gaddafi had been killed and I was in the middle of the desert interviewing people, all from Black Africa. I was asking the same questions over and over again, “Do you have enough water to meet your daily needs?” “Do you have enough food to eat?” etc . . . And this man, smiling the most sarcastic smile I’ve ever seen, asked me in perfect English, “I see it doesn’t occur to you to ask me do I have a CV.” He was kind and mature enough to smile in a friendly way when he saw I was mortified by my own shallowness. Now I imitate the same smile to audiences when they are confused by my silly jokes, my defying the cliché of the suffering exile.

I have started doing normal things that I never actually did before. The supermarket Billa, in Zagreb, is giving away tiny stickers. If you collect enough stickers you can buy a cooking pan half-price. I neither need the pan nor have the patience to collect stamps. Besides, I’ve never been decisive enough to pursue such goals, which actually require considerable determination. But since I’m pretending these are not extraordinary times, I do the normal thing and buy the pan with the stickers, along with my middle-class entry pass: the supermarket loyalty card. I am now not only a victim. I am now a distinguished member of the Billa shopping crowd. I keep the card in the see-through part of my wallet, covering up my Turkish driver’s license. There you go, I couldn’t be more normal. I now have a brand new, gentler form of identity. I am a Billa person, not an exile.

In fact, my new identity is as a citizen of “Screen-Nation.” This is a supra-nation with citizens from chaotic countries who are spread about in Western countries. We look like new-generation Celtic warriors, our blue faces glued to flickering screens: computers, TVs, smartphones. Our physical beings are in different countries but our unquenchable thirst is for news from our countries of origin.

The TV is spouting news about Turkey. After hours of unblinking concentration, I finally manage to tear my face from the screen and lean out the window to smoke. From my belly down I am in the room, from my belly up I am in Zagreb. An absent-minded magician forgot to put my pieces back together after cutting me in two.

One of the things I’m learning is that arrogance is the best remedy for broken pride. If you’ve had your pride broken, put lots of arrogance balm on it and eventually you’ll become a different person, a person you might have hated back home. I already know how easy it is to mistake wounds for organs and unwittingly use those wounds as if they were healthy body parts. This is a different version of that. I’ve added a body part to myself, a clumsy, prosthetic arrogance organ. I’ve done this by way of reaction, because arrogance is the one thing you’re not allowed to have if you’re an exile. You are obliged to be more humble than you have ever been before because you need help. So I am laying claim to the forbidden and being arrogant nonetheless.

It makes everybody angry, even the most tender souls trying to help me. It would have made me angry too, but this is me, trying to find a way to exist unlike any other exile who has walked the planet. I say, “I prefer not to,” and explore a Bartleby-style exile, as if there is such a thing. It makes people angry and sooner or later they tell me so. And then I’m happy because anger is the one and only emotion that can save you from being pigeonholed as a “victim” in their eyes. And I know this is as stupid as the supermarket stickers. But I’m just trying to find my own way, as doubtless millions of others have. I claim a better defeat.

I have always been compassionately furious with Walter Benjamin. “You fool, how could you have left it so late to leave? How could you, genius that you were, I mean how could you not have seen it coming?” I am not asking these questions any more. Because now here I am, out of the country. Not too late, on the contrary, clever enough to have maybe been too early. However, you still poison yourself. Not with the same poison that Benjamin used to commit suicide on the Spanish border, perhaps, but with a variety of different ones. Invisible poisons.

Lately Stefan Zweig, who committed suicide in 1942, has also been getting on my nerves. Why didn’t you just grit your teeth and bear it for three more years and then it would all have been over? But I also know that in order to survive exile, you cut out a piece from your heart. Your heart becomes a new sculpture, one longing for the rock that it came out of. Leaving home is an irreversible act. Even when your home calls you back with loving arms, your heart, by now missing a vital piece, cannot hear the call. All it elicits is a phantom ache for the missing part, a reminder that your heart is no longer whole.

I now understand how and why a person can commit suicide. I am not the type, though. But just in case, I’m taking my Vitamin Bs. They are the new anti-depressants and available without prescription, convenient for the exile.

The articles I write for international media, every single one of them, appear with a picture of Erdogan, the Turkish president. All of a sudden we are a duo, like David and Goliath, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. His face is becoming the face of my country and my name inseparable from his face on newspaper pages. I find this funny somehow. Not for me, but for him. Though I am pretty sure he doesn’t laugh when he reads what I write.

I am also pretty sure that, at the current rate that worldwide political insanity is sweeping the planet, all the intellectuals of the world might soon be refugees. I am listening to Meryl Streep’s speech during the Hollywood Foreign Press Awards. She cries when she talks about the crudeness and cruelty of Trump. Anyone in the world capable of feeling concern is touched. Myself included. And the next day Trump’s response is to say that Streep is “overrated.” When our eyes are still wet because of Streep’s speech, this vulgar response catches us off guard. The moment is symbolic of the current problem with the world. We are losing our hold of a fundamental agreement whereby if you speak to someone as a human, that human will, by default, respond in humane language.

So how can we escape such a clash of values? Where do you take refuge when the entire world decides to become a bully? Who is an exile when all countries become lands of vulgarity? Soon we will all be Syrian.

A few years ago, when I likewise had to leave the country, I asked myself: “What is a country?” My answer was that the country is a table and the abstract space which surrounds that table. The country is a moment. It is the moment when you make a spontaneous joke and your friends at the table laugh without need of further explanation, without needing the references explained. When someone says they miss their country, they mean they miss that moment at the table, rather than the vast space that surrounds it or the eternity surrounding the moment itself.

Now my jokes are nervous because I am creeping around the endless plateau that is English. It is a sneaky language. It deceives you with the illusion of knowing it, and then at the very moment you feel confident and relax, it trips you up and jabs you with the tip of its sword, to remind you that you are a commoner who will not be accepted at Court, ever. The people seated at my table are already scattered about the world anyway. In different countries, in different lines at supermarket counters, they stand on their own wondering whether to say yes or no to the person at the counter who asks every time: “Would you like the supermarket loyalty card?”

The people who once sat at my table were artists, musicians, writers and actors, people who are now trying to figure out the practicalities of living in a new country while deciding whether to make a spectacle out of their victimhood through art. Every one of us now has a new table in a different land. My table is a small black one that I bought at Ikea. And just as Thor Heyerdahl once built Kon-Tiki, I built it myself. Heyerdahl and his five friends were trying to prove that people from South America might once have sailed with balsa wood rafts to Polynesia to form settlements. On my Kon-Tiki, as the sole member of crew, I am exploring the possibility of crossing the waters of victimhood with my pride intact. If I manage it, it will prove that people once travelled through interesting times and built settlements on the brighter side of history.

If I were a story, this period of my life might have been the best part. But I am a person. How unfortunate.

ece temelkuran