“There will be a military coup,” said my partner over six months ago. He was so right, he was so wrong. What is happening right now in Istanbul, this Sunday morning? The streets around me are calm; the odd helicopter overhead, the birds singing, the horns of passing tankers on the Bosphorus, men drinking coffee in the street below my window. All the clichés of a city still perceived as ‘oriental’ continue. But these things are just normal life to me – except the call to prayer, which sounds different now. It resonates throughout the city again for what feels like the hundredth time in the last 48 hours. I will come back to this.
Header image: Cecilia Kinnear, Untitled, a work in progress, Istanbul, Turkey.
What has happened since Friday night? I can tell you what I lived. What is really happening in Turkey is very complicated; many say many things, and many things are unclear. First and foremost I urge people to read and educate themselves on the complexities and propaganda behind the headlines.
Friday evening, walking home, my partner and I became aware that a military coup was being attempted. ‘Troops are on the Bosphorus Bridge!’ a potent symbol for connecting east and west and an artery of movement for millions. But we had just come from Asia by boat, so this was odd. My partner is Turkish and lived through the last two military coups. His experience of them tells that a military coup is like a blanket that suddenly and simultaneously comes down on all limbs and channels of the country. Bridges, roads, ferries, airports and media are controlled. The signs were there early that this situation was different. I kept looking to him with eyes saying ‘so what happens now?’ but his expression simply reflected back that this coup was equivocal, and it was written all over its face.
However, was this attempted coup – equivocal or not – a surprise? This is a very important question. I have heard many news outlets and experts being interviewed that say it is. That the people, the government and international players were not expecting it. In late 2015 my partner, on one of numerous nights spent doing the same, sat at home with friends deliberating the rocky road Turkey is on, from secularism to religious conservatism. On this night he said, “There will be a military coup.” So either he is a genius, which of course my loving eyes could biasedly believe, or there is another explanation as to why this view is not expressed widely by the mainstream media politicians or experts.
But as I said, he was also wrong. Back to Friday night. Once home, we took up our now well-known positions in such situations, of up-and-down head tennis. TV screen, phone, TV screen, phone. The rhythm changed when within a couple of hours the theatre grew from our screens to live full sensory surround sound. As one poor-humoured person joked on social media, “are all the people in Turkey on the streets playing Pokémon?” Ironically this distasteful comment has stuck potently in my head. Screen to real life has new meaning for me. Army helicopters, gunfire, explosions and military fighter jets surrounded us, 360 degrees. I live right in the heart of Istanbul – five minutes to İstiklal Street, the main avenue, and 15 to Taksim Square – in a very conservative pro-AKP (the government party) neighbourhood.
This developed into the one of the scariest but shortest nights of my life. Things changed fast. We saw Facebook timelines and statuses become outdated in minutes – as I look back now, at 00:10 I wrote: “Military coup. Military have made first declaration, also announced not to leave your homes till their second declaration. Since social media may well be closed and messages starting to arrive from friends and family afar I may not be able to post. I know no more…watching it unfold on our screens like you, just with the real time sound affects of gunfire, fighter jets and helicopters overhead.” But before the hour was over we were saying, this is not a military coup, not in the normal sense. At 02.06 my partner posted “Dar be or not dar be! That is the question….” Darbe meaning coup in Turkish. We enjoyed brief moments of laughter, seeing Tayyip’s head – or chin, rather – held up via FaceTime on news channels with a teeny tiny microphone. So presidential!
But at 04:45 my status became one word: “terrified”. I hadn’t wanted to post it, for Mum and friends. But I was. My head said I knew we would be ok, but I will never forget the moment a fighter jet flew very low, directly overhead. Looking out the window I saw a red, blazing light streak across the sky above me in the direction of Taksim Square. I thought it was a missile. I quickly realised it was a fighter jet but its sonic boom left me shaking and tearful. “They are just trying to scare us,” my partner comforted me. I knew this, but our human form is not made or evolved to deal well with the weapons we have created.
This fear was visceral, a response to vibrations and noise. I could rationalise it, albeit my hands still shook. Then came a deeper psychological fear when the mosques started up. The five-times-a-day call to prayer is like noise wallpaper when you live here. Sometimes too loud, sometimes quite magical in certain places in the city if the muezzin has a beautiful voice. But now it was very disconcerting.
My dear friend had joined us, having been alone in his apartment nearby, and our little urban family stood discussing the nature of this call. Was it a call to prayer? Was it a Sela (a call for funeral ceremonies when people die)? Or something else. It went on and on and was followed by an announcement in Turkish calling people to come to the streets. Forget social media or even the SMSs that the government sent to all our phones on Saturday saying “For the will of the nation we are inviting citizens to comes to the squares and stand up for democracy”, this was the ultimate form of governmental control of the public spaces. My heart sank. To hear through these tinny speakers political commands resonating from the dozens of minarets around us has sadly left me unable to hear the call to prayer in the same way again. I deeply respect my neighbours’ religion, their freedom to practice is a freedom I want and would fight for. To live side-by-side in this world requires ways to govern the public spaces inclusively.
During the 2013 Gezi Park protests people were pepper-gassed, water-cannoned and called rioters. Continuously, the minorities that make up 50% of this country have not been allowed to walk in protests or Pride. But this weekend this ‘other half’ to ‘us’, as they have sadly become known, were also claiming the streets in the name of democracy. Them and us is eroding Turkey and the wider world. I am left feeling like the textbooks of my history and politics degree are jumping off the pages in real-time. As an undergrad at Liverpool University, where I lived for 13 years, I pontificated youthfully about Mill’s On Liberty. Little did I know I would come to live the tyranny of the masses. I read again his words:
“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” ― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.
Talking to the guy in our local bakkal (corner shop/grocer) yesterday, who elected Tayyip Erdoğan along with the majority, we listened to him expound his love of the President. I respect his views and I hope we can continue to live cheek-by-jowl. So far we have been kind to each other. I don’t want to move into an expat enclave, I don’t want to move from Turkey. Wherever I live I believe my right is to be the guardian of my body – I will laugh in the street, I will enjoy a glass of beautiful Turkish wine (ironically, this fertile crescent of land was the crucible of winemaking). My womb will have as many or no babies as I choose, or nature permits. All of which Tayyip tries to take over guardianship of. I believe my right is to be the guardian of my mind; I will read what I want and express my views peacefully, educate my children as I choose and fight for a free press and for social media to be open. All of which Tayyip tries to take over guardianship of. I believe my right is to be the guardian of my spirit and that I should not be forced to hear political governmental instructions from a holy building. A new low that Tayyip stooped to this weekend.
As dawn broke, time took on a new pace. It drags with a sorrow and heaviness that is hard to bear for my friends and I. With the sound of the majority’s car horns and cheers in the streets, I am left feeling the way the aftermath of the coup is playing out is the worst outcome. I am not suggesting a military coup is a good thing, my partner’s memories give me the shivers. But what we think we are living through now, crazy as it sounds to say, is one of two possible scenarios and both are worse. One is that this was a self-coup. To read Wikipedia’s explanation of a self-coup reads for many of us like a definition of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “A self-coup (or autocoup, from the Spanish autogolpe) is where a form of putsch or coup d’état in which a nation’s leader, despite having come to power through legal means, dissolves or renders powerless the national legislature and unlawfully assumes extraordinary powers, not granted under normal circumstances. Other measures taken may include annulling the nation’s constitution, suspending civil courts and having the head of government assume dictatorial powers.”
I acknowledge it is possible this could have been a real attempted coup in some form, from a small opposing section of the army – affiliated with Fethullah Gülen or not I have no idea. But this doesn’t change the main plot of this potential storyline. The government, knowing of this dissent, and possibly soon to close in on it, led it to launch a disorganised or rushed coup. Ideal for Tayyip to manipulate, become a hero of democracy at home and internationally. More importantly and slyly he achieves the same desired results. He has already dissolved the legislature. He will now change the constitution; maybe it will even become religious, we wait to see. Any small vestiges of checks and balances in this so-called secular democracy are gone with the last tourists.
Looking at the faces of the soldiers, we should ask ourselves what they say, what they knew. Ask the logic of launching a military coup with around 3,000 soldiers in a country with one of the largest standing armies in the world. And that doesn’t include the police, who in Turkey are not what I understood police to be in Britain. I now long for the ‘British pigs’, warts and all. Our understanding of police here is that they are not servants of the citizenry. In other democracies we understand police can and should protect fellow citizens against any authority that acts illegally. Not so here. They appear the Janissaries of a new Sultan. Since I moved here from the UK – arriving by coincidence on June 1, 2013, the first day of the Gezi protests – when asked by tourists what to be careful of I simply say “the police”.
Already the news cameras have switched from a continuous feed to intermittent updates, and with the certainty of a next tragic ‘Nice’ coming down the road, they will surely turn away and back to the politicians of the West, post-Brexit wranglings or Pokémon distractions. But mark our warnings, it is not over, it is ‘the end of the beginning’ for a Turkey that is divided. Half-wedded to Tayyip, but it is less and less recognisable for many of us who love it dearly.
As for me, a visual artist and now also a teacher in Turkey, why did I come here you might ask, and will I stay? I came to Istanbul in a personal pursuit for meaning. Suffering depression and no longer happy with my so-called lot, I chased meaning and dreams in the belief that would be better for my health than trying to simply avoid discomforts – an obsession in our western capitalist world. Many were surprised at my decision at the time. But somewhere deep inside I knew the best way for me to make a decision was to go after what creates meaning in life and then trust myself to handle any stress that followed. There have been difficulties living here, different ones from the UK. Clearly the last 48 hours heightens them. Though, any calls from family or friends to ‘come home now, it is too dangerous’ leaves me slowly shaking my head. Or the shouts thrown to some foreigners in the streets, to ‘go home!’ What is home? I have found happiness and deep meaning living here. I have a family here.
From the day I left the UK on Turkish Airlines, with the irony of their jingle “We are Turkish Airlines, we are globally yours” amusing my mind, I have held onto one quote day after day, through all the ups and downs. A great, wise woman, Maya Angelou said, “You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” Oh that our world of visas, migrants, refugees, nationalism, east, west, membership and non-membership could hold this too. I am human, I belong here.
Cecilia Kinnear is an artist and teacher from Dorset (UK), who currently lives in Istanbul. Image the author’s own.