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“The Turkey I miss is no more. This is the natural consequence of the last 20 years of authoritarianism and the limitless oppression in the previous six.”

When Your Country Is Not Your Country Anymore

Ceyda Sungur showered with teargas at Gezi Park as she came from her nearby university office to defend park from diggers, photographed by Osman Orsal.

ESSAY
ESSAY

When Your Country Is Not Your Country Anymore

Our fellow Ece Temelkuran asks if she will ever be able to return home to Turkey – or worse, will there be a home to return to?

ESSAY

There is a strange nation growing in European cities, a nation of the “eternally” homeless: female journalists from Afghanistan, Iraqi academics, Syrian poets, Yemeni doctors, and many more whose homes may seem too ruined even to long for. As of yesterday (April 25), like many others from my country who have to live abroad, I wondered whether the Turkish dissidents are the new members of this broken nation. When the criminal court in Istanbul delivered its outrageous verdict in the Gezi trial, my question of “When will I be able to return home?” morphed into “Will there be a home to return to?” It wasn’t the draconian court decision that induced the unbearable question, but the breaking point Turkey is about to arrive at.

Osman Kavala, a leading Turkish civil rights activist, businessman, and a dear friend, was charged with an aggravated life sentence, and the other seven defendants were sentenced to eighteen years of imprisonment. Despite the international reaction, without any evidence—except for the illegally acquired tapped wires—and with the in-your-face nonsense of an indictment, the court felt no shame to decide what President Erdogan has been openly demanding since the case began four years ago: no mercy for the disobedient. When the court decision was read, one of the defendants, seventy-two-year-old architect Mücella Yapıcı, who dedicated her life to defending the public space from the greed of the rich and the powerful, raised her right fist and said, “We lost eight children in the Gezi protests. Eighteen years in prison is nothing compared to that! I don’t give a damn!” One of those children, Berkin Elvan, was hit by a police canister when he was out to buy bread and died when he was barely fifteen. Her mother was in the courtroom hugging another defendant, Can Atalay, a civil rights lawyer. Atalay was holding Yapıcı’s arm during his last speech to his friends as the police pulled and pushed, “We will not give in before this oppression. We will resist!”

I left Turkey in 2016, after the strange military coup attempt in July when Erdogan’s purge of the opposition began. I was exhausted from fear and paralyzed with anger.

Çiğdem Mater, a film producer who has been charged because of a film she never shot, was back from Germany, where she lives to attend the hearing with the certainty that she’d be acquitted. They suddenly were charged with “attempting to throw down the government.” As their shocked faces disappeared behind the unruly police crowd, a handful of lawyers and friends of defendants tried to inspire determination outside the courtroom with their broken voices. Former journalist and Turkish Workers’ Party MP Ahmet Şık preferred to be angry rather than sad when he addressed the millions who joined Gezi protests yet were absent at the court, “Look at yourselves in the mirror and ask, ‘What kind of a person I am?’” Şık’s words resonated with only tens of thousands during the night who gathered under the hashtag #WeWereAllThere (at Gezi), tweeting in desperation and outrage. Ironically, the night Elon Musk bought the social media company, they reminisced about the Gezi protests that began on Twitter in 2013, mainly in shame for their absence.

Photo by Sabine Vielmo

I am one of those who were supposed to be there but wasn’t. I left the country in 2016, after the strange military coup attempt in July when Erdogan’s purge of the opposition began. I was exhausted from fear and paralyzed with anger—being stigmatized as the regime’s opponent didn’t help when trying to do my job as a political writer. Although I reject the term, for many Westerners “exile” has become the sexiest line in my bio. For the last six years, even though the prospects for Turkey have been getting worse, like every other disowned, I had secretly expected to go back home. Home is a magic word; it feels like landing after a long and turbulent flight. However, on April 25, what I had been told several times by friends back home finally felt like the reality, “The Turkey you miss is no more.” This is the natural consequence of the last twenty years of authoritarianism and the limitless oppression in the previous six; many were gone, some were imprisoned, and many more disheartened after facing the government’s violent suppression in 2013 during the uprising. And add to that the pandemic and a severe economic crisis. Turkey finally fell into a maddening silence that a dictator would drool for. Yet, the rage is still there. That is why both Erdogan and the opposition parties try to manage the gathering storm in their own way. The Gezi verdict shows us that Turkey will be going to elections under even harsher suppression. Erdogan will not even pretend to loosen his grip on society to lure some liberal hearts. The main opposition parties, all radical centrists if not radical right wing, are only hoping to regulate the general outrage to finally channel the political energy to ballot boxes in an early election.

Meanwhile, many back in Turkey silently ask whether they should go on the streets now or clench their teeth and wait for the polls, which have close to zero chance of being fair. The breaking point is close, but it is uncertain in which direction it will break. And my only hope is the clenched right fist of Mücella Yapıcı, who doesn’t give a damn. That is the only thing now that reminds me of the home I miss.


Ece Temelkuran is a novelist and political thinker whose writings appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times and the New Statesman. She has twice been named as Turkey’s most read woman columnist. In the book “How to Lose a Country” she looks at political events around the world and addresses trends of Authoritarianism. Ece joined THE NEW INSTITUTE in the spring of 2022 and is involved in the programme “The Future of Democracy“.

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