Last weekend Turkey marked one year since its failed coup, a year that has been a gift to President Erdogan and a curse for democracy.
I was not in Istanbul on the anniversary, but in Midas’s city, Midas of the Golden Touch. The Phrygian Highlands lie between Istanbul and Ankara, east of the small city of Eskişehir, and this was where the legendary Midas is believed to have lived, as well as his father Gordias – the mastermind of the Gordian Knot destroyed by Alexander the Great.
Midas’s glitzy reputation, we learned, came from a local method of treating textiles to produce something like gold lamé. The Phrygians, one senses from the few traces they left behind, enjoyed a good party. Draped in lamé, they sent off the dead with a tempting brew of wine, beer, honey, and saffron – the crusty residue of which was buried with them. Gordias’s tomb is the oldest standing wooden structure in the world, a cool chamber buried beneath a grassy mound in a now barren countryside. Gordion, his capital, one of the sites we visited, was discovered in the 1890s during the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad Railroad.
Facing the crude historicization of the present, we sought refuge in the halcyon days of the seventh century BC. But we hadn’t missed the 15th of July altogether – olmaz. Over the last month we’ve witnessed a steady acceleration of commemorative propaganda, the transformation of public spaces into fantastical billboards marketing the failed coup. Stars Wars-esque images and bolded slogans adorn every bus stop and street corner in the city. “15 Temmuz Destanı – Şehitlerimiz ve Gazilerimize Saygıyla” they scream, “The Saga of July 15: With respect to our martyrs and warriors.” These are government billboards, of course, erected by the President’s office and the municipality; they are anti-coup, not pro-coup. What they are celebrating is the public response to President Erdoğan’s call to the streets that night; and, by association, the anti-democratic steps that the government has since taken to suppress dissent in the name of patriotism. The battle, as it appears in the artist’s renderings and in official narrative, pits “the people” against shadowy terroristic elements in the army – and all around us.
A few weeks ago, the lively Beyoğlu Street Festival in Taksim Square was given a change of clothes, becoming overnight the 15 Temmuz Festival. Musicians played all night in honor of those who died suppressing the coup, and screens flipped through the winning entries in a nationwide commemorative photo contest. Banners throughout the city announced democracy marches converging on major squares. The phone company alerted us that we would receive extra minutes on July 15, and the President informed us that public transportation would be free. All, we were reminded, was because of, and to honor, Turkish democracy.
The cognitive dissonance that has defined much of my experience in the Middle East over the last five years or so is powerfully present in this beautiful city. This sense of contradiction has in fact felt so familiar that I’ve wondered if I have much new to say.
Hundreds of journalists are imprisoned and tens of thousands of civil servants have lost their jobs. Hunger strikes, justice marches. Eight professors from my university, jailed. Even Wikipedia has been banned since March.
But there is still the blinding turquoise of the Bosphorus, dyed by psychedelic phytoplankton, and crisp yachts bobbing at the shore with names like Zeynep, Kaderim, and Şanselize. Fishermen stacked shoulder to shoulder along the boardwalk, waiting for their catch of çupra or levrek. Lavish breakfast tables spread with olives, tomatoes, cheese, and bal-kaymak. Crowded bars in the narrow streets behind Istiklal Caddesi, with sweaty dance floors and frosted brown bottles of Bomonti Filtresiz shared among friends. At night, fireworks erupting in red and green and purple. There are still art exhibitions and concerts, outdoor movies and barbecues in the park. The summer is bright.
Routine makes us comfortable with a state of crisis. As foreigners, we are guaranteed, for now, a safe distance, from which the political crisis can be a constant topic of conversation without real danger. We watch myths being manufactured with a clinically critical eye. We mock their shallowness knowing even as we do that even the hollowest of myths can harm.
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When I began my PhD, a professor gave us a piece of advice, which came back to me as we were scraping through a hillside of hollyhocks and mullion at Midas City, searching for an ancient cistern. Most works of history begin with an important date, or sometimes even an unimportant date: “On March 15, 44BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated…” And so on. We can be elegant with these entrances, but rarely do we shake ourselves free of them. “For God’s sake, how boring, find another way to start!” this professor said, and his advice was duly recorded in our notebooks.
Such beginnings are dull, but Turkey’s rapid mythmaking points to something else. Already I can’t remember what the name of the July 15 Martyrs’ Bridge used to be (only 12 months have passed). Already that day, such an ordinary day, has grown to monumental stature in collective consciousness, even for those of us who lived it as it was. How many future historians will begin their works “On July 15, 2016, …,” and so much else will be forgotten.
Here are a few photos from the commemorations:
“This image is the image of heroism.” “#Together, we’re really nice.” – A billboard in my neighborhood for one of the main cell providers, showing President Erdoğan appearing via FaceTime to urge his supporters to go to the streets and resist the coup.
Near Kabataş. A long line of glossy rotating billboards bearing the slogan of the anniversary and a scary image of a Special Forces red beret.
Banner advertising a democracy vigil at Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa Square in Beşiktaş, beginning at 11:30pm.
Formerly known as Beyoğlu Festivalı, now with a makeover. Taksim Square.
Billboard erected by the President’s Office with an artist’s rendition of events on the (now named) 15 July Martyrs’ Bridge – specifically, a confrontation between angry people and the soldiers who carried out the coup.
Boğaziçi University basketball court. Usually it’s more common to see posters for the socialist club or reminders of liberal journalists’ hunger strikes, but this is of a different breed. The images are of the damage caused by the coupists. The slogan on the left reads “The house is a rental, but the nation is ours!” and the one on the right reads “It never occurred to you that the person across from you would strike you!” You never imagined, in other words, that the army would rise against you.
Ice cream bar authoritarianism. This billboard has nothing to do with the coup attempt, just a harmless lady tasting a Bravo bar. On the back side (and also in white and red, in the background), however, are coup billboards. Normal/not normal.