In his new book, Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey, Index on Censorship magazine contributing editor Kaya Genç explores the country’s struggles through the eyes of Gezi Park protesters, pro-government conservatives, artists, censored journalists and more.
“This is your future … if your generation does not fight for it, it will be a disastrous one.”
Recently I took a walk down Istanbul’s central Istiklal Street. Every day here crowds of pedestrians float around in small groups, surrounded by the cries of street vendors and the ding-dongs of tramvay, Istiklal’s beloved old wooden streetcar that travels up and down this populous shopping quarter from seven in the morning to ten thirty at night. When I feel overwhelmed by this crowded city I wander by the Bosphorus Strait and watch the reflections of the sun on the slow waves of the Marmara Sea. But on lonelier days I prefer to mix with the crowds of Istiklal and come across new fashions, new people, new ideas. On that Friday I came all the way to the middle of Istiklal, to a square called Galatasaray, to sit down and enjoy a cup of strong black Turkish coffee. A little bell rang as I opened the door to a small and serene coffee shop. Taking a seat, I began listening to a song by the Kurdish singer Aynur on my headphones, and typed up the opening paragraph of a new chapter in my novel. I felt lucky to be living in such a beautiful and vibrant and history-filled city. As I wrote, I entered my fictional world and felt at peace.
At some point I looked up as the hand of a young man appeared silently against the thick glass of the coffee shop window. The hand banged the glass loudly, passionately, one, two, three times and I saw that he had company: a darkhaired youth carrying a bright flag that bore the colours red, yellow and green, which signalled Turkey’s Kurdish political movement. Seconds later, a group of high school students followed behind them and the crowd began to force its way into the shop, signs of panic discernible on their faces. A cup fell and broke. Almost immediately a cloud of smoke enveloped the first activist as the street leading to the square filled grimly with the outlines of heavily armed riot cops marching towards us in single file, chasing this small group of rebels. The barista instantly rushed to the doorway; in an attempt to save her customers from the swiftly approaching cloud of smoke and tear gas, she let the protestors inside, closed and locked the door, and took down the shutters. For a few moments, in the darkness, it seemed as if we were safe from harm – but that was before we realized the air conditioning was still working. It took 15 seconds for the interior of the five-square-metre room to fill with tear gas. If you have ever come into contact with tear gas you will know how every breath you take burns your insides, how your eyes sting – and my mind, filled with joy, ecstasy and serenity only three minutes ago, was now occupied by the question of whether I would survive this experience alive. Apparently, while I was travelling through my fictional world, a protest had kicked off in the adjacent square, which the police had forcefully suppressed.
It is a sign of where Turkey is today that nobody was really surprised. Young people are furious in Turkey. So far, the massive protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013, two years ago on that day, had been the most visible demonstration of this temperament. During a humid, anxious and violent month in Istanbul, it had seemed as if angry Turkish men and women were willing to sacrifice everything in order to change their country. Marching in solidarity in about 90 different locations, young people in Turkey attempted to stage a revolution and were ready to defend their right to protest even against thousands of heavily armed police officers. In epic scenes coloured by the sight of huge water cannons spraying water into protestors, the 20 days between 28 May and 15 June 2013 shook Turkey and, as I’ll show here, changed its political scene beyond return. It brought Turkey’s troubled and energetic political, cultural and artistic spheres right to the centre of the international stage. Events that defined the three years since Gezi – from the crisis in Syria to the rise of ISIS and to the changing relationships with the US and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) – were somewhat energized by the big boom effect Gezi has had on Turkey.
But the roots of this explosion of energy lay deeper, in the country Turkey was before it became ‘modern’.
Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey by Kaya Genç publishes on 6th October (£14.99, I.B.Tauris)
Upcoming events with Kaya Genç
Turkey beyond the headlines at Asia House
What can be made of recent events in Turkey where a coup attempt was stopped by people on the streets? Asia House is pleased to welcome acclaimed writer Kaya Genç, who currently lives in Istanbul and has been covering his country for the past decade. Genç will talk to Rachael Jolley, editor of Index on Censorship magazine, about his forthcoming book Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey.
The State of Turkey with Kaya Genç, Ece Temelkuran and Daniel Trilling at London Review Bookshop
Join Index on Censorship magazine’s contributing editor Kaya Genç and fellow Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran for a discussion about the state of Turkey in the aftermath of the failed military coup. Editor of the New Humanist, and author of Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right, Daniel Trilling will chair the discussion about the past present, and future of Turkey at the London Review Bookshop on 15 September.
Index on Censorship magazine
Kaya Genç is a contributing editor to the magazine. Look for his piece in the next issue.
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Recent coverage of Turkey
Turkey: Charges must be dropped in high-profile trial of journalists following failed coup
Turkey: Losing the rule of law
Turkey’s continuing crackdown on the press must end