‘How dare you! How dare you!’ A Turkish novelist fights back against the populist Erdogan government.
His features wouldn’t look so “rural” if his glasses were less ostentatiously hip. His accent wouldn’t sound so “provincial” were his boldness not so inflammatory and vulgar. He sports a moderate-Islamist, nouveau riche suit, and a huge Ottoman ring that must have worked before on the women of his acquaintance, for he cannot stop playing with it.
Although he has begged for this appointment for about a year, and has been turned down numerous times, he speaks with a certain impatience, as if he is too busy to spare time for me: a well-practised business-world attitude aimed at damaging the self-esteem of others. We are in one of Istanbul’s hip cafés in the summer of 2006, and I just sit there and listen, not only because the conversation disgusts me to the bone, but also because he never stops talking, as if to remind me how important he is and what great influence the movement has over the media.
My blank expression is obviously mistaken for approval, as he gradually becomes more blunt, until finally he comes to the heart of the matter.
“So, to cut to the chase, you write good things about us in your column, and we help you in return. We know you very well. We know that you are not interested in money or promotion, but … Well, let me put it this way: a group from the movement will be going to southern Africa for an official visit, and only one journalist will have an interview with Desmond Tutu, if you know what I mean.”
His clumsy, mafia grin paralyzes me, and I just say “Oh?” which he apparently takes as an invitation to elaborate, so he goes a little deeper.
“As you already know, this movement is not really about religion. To be frank, I too look at women and girls.”
At this point he lowers his gaze to my breasts, grinning as though this is some kind of groundbreaking libertarian statement.
“This is about power and money. Well, you already know that. You keep writing about it all the time. Ha ha ha … So, as I said before — you support us and we help you, if you know what I mean.”
Poor guy, he is simply incapable of anticipating what is going to happen.
“How dare you! How dare you!” I shout, pounding the table. Heads turn towards us as his body shrinks into his shiny suit and back to his provincial roots; back to the time before the ruling party furnished him with power.
I tend to repeat myself when enough disgust and fury have boiled up inside me. So before storming out of the café, I shout it one more time: “How dare you!”
From this point on, beginning the very next day, I become an object of obsession for government-supporting papers and websites. For 10 years and more I’m the evil woman with a thousand faces. One day I’m an Iranian spy, another I’m the concubine of a Saudi sheikh; one day I’m betraying the country by conspiring with devious Brits or treacherous Germans, the next I’m single-handedly organizing the Gezi uprising, travelling to the capital to speak to alien enemies, “on flight TK 768, seat 7C.”
When they cannot come up with something creative, or are unable to track me close enough to know my seat number on the plane, they just put some irrelevant content on Twitter with an outrageous heading about me, confident that hardly anyone will actually read the tweet itself, but that the slur will stick if repeated often enough.
So, if nothing else, my experience with the stooge in the café, and the years of written and verbal abuse that followed, helped me to understand how a populist right-wing movement attempts to drag left-wing intellectuals onto its side to form temporary alliances that legitimize it in the eyes of a wider audience. There is no sophistication, no subtlety, not much in the way of intellectual content. As a famous Turkish football coach once said: “No tactics! Bam bam bam!”
I’d always imagined the process would follow some kind of secret-services-recruitment protocol, but it is actually as cheap and repugnant as any dirty bargain. The movement’s representatives, a human resources department of sorts, ask for an appointment, you sit at a table, they talk the small-time mafia talk, you take the deal, and your life suddenly becomes prosperous — or not, in which case you find yourself having to tell people that you’re not a sex slave in a Saudi palace, in fact you’re in Tahrir Square following the protests.
The café encounter took place at a time when Erdogan and his party were basking in praise from both inside and outside the country, so it would not have been quite as embarrassing as it would have been in later years for me to have accepted such a pact, to have left the table with a handshake rather than a shout, and then seen my face adorning billboards as I was heralded as a star opinion-maker.
For some, the justification for making such an alliance lay in shared resentment of the army’s strong-arm administration. For others it was enthusiasm for re-establishing Turkey’s ties with Middle Eastern countries. Others perhaps believed that co-operating might bring about a solution to the Kurdish conflict, or have trusted in the new, liberal constitution that Erdogan personally promised.
For all these reasons, and more, it was easy for opinion-makers to convince themselves that Erdogan was simply a strong leader in need of a little support from proper adults, and some educated advice — in other words, their advice. They became the wise men of the time, and being invited onto Erdogan’s plane to enjoy the lukewarm glow of basking in the prince’s favour was sufficient reward.
Maybe some of them applied their higher political theory to the realpolitik of the day and, on an intellectual level, genuinely believed that once the oppressed real people were given their voice they would become active agents of a liberal democracy. They may also have believed that the politicized provincialism would be respectful of the rights of others once they were given the chance to lead their provincial lifestyles to the full.
But in general terms, these commentators all took part in a political game in which they overestimated themselves. When the populist party started to colonize the judicial system, and army generals were prosecuted with false allegations, I was talking to one of the newly aligned newspaper columnists, who had been a prominent leftist opinion leader since the seventies. “This is dangerous,” I said. “They’re politicizing the already crippled legal system, and you’re supporting this process. Aren’t you afraid this might come back to haunt you in the end?”
He was at least 25 years older than me, and he proceeded to offer me a few life lessons. “Well, sweetie, let’s get rid of these army bastards first, then we’ll deal with Erdogan.”
“But how? With whose support? With what power?” I asked.
He gave me that patronizing, compassionate smile every young woman knows only too well, and said, “You are so naïve, my dear. This is politics. You make alliances. And then you make new alliances.”
In a short while he was given his own talk show on state TV.
A few years later, however, almost all the intellectuals who’d supported Erdogan either sought exile in other European countries or ended up in prison. Some of them managed to reinvent themselves in Western countries as deceived members of the opposition, making new alliances to carry on their careers abroad as the spectacular victims of the spectacular dictator. And the stooge in the café who had offered me a prosperous future, having once been a prominent figure in the Gulen movement, Erdogan’s closest allies for a long time, became an enemy of the real people, hunted down internationally by the president. He disappeared. Because this is politics, sweetie, and Erdogan made new alliances, if you know what I mean.