TURKEY HAS FOR CENTURIES stood astride the crossroads of East and West, between major world religions and great powers. The very name evokes mystique and intrigue. In its modern incarnation, Turkey has been a hoped-for counterweight and moderating influence on the roiling pressures in the Middle East: the vicious “Islamic State,” wars in Syria and Iraq, the increasingly muscular foreign policy of Russia and Iran. But instead, Turkey has turned inward, governed by an ever more autocratic regime that is tightening the reins at home.
In his illuminating new book Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey, author Kaya Genç personalizes the tensions within Turkish society by bringing to life the stories of young people. He begins, as all good Turkish storytellers must, in a cloistered Istanbul cafe, where he is hunkered over a cup of sweet yet bitter Turkish coffee and listening to Kurdish love songs on his headphones. The scene turns quickly when a group of youthful protestors piles in to escape riot police outside. The cafe owner locks the front door and rolls down the shutters, but neglects to turn off the air conditioning. Soon the darkened room is filling with the acrid smell of tear gas as it billows unimpeded through the vents, making it nearly impossible to breathe.
From that stark moment, Genç reflects on the old and the new Turkey. He summons the notion of keyif, a Turkish word that means unremitting joyfulness and carefree abandon. It was this prevailing mood that had made Istanbul a magnetic pole, once the home of empire, embodying the fascinating mix of trade and culture of a great port city now squeezed between quasi-military occupation and the implied threat of terrorist bombings.
“Turkey has become a dangerous place to live peacefully,” he writes. “It is like a passage between two rooms, or a tunnel between two cultures.” As a young reporter for the Toronto Daily Star, Ernest Hemingway saw in 1922 that the keyif had been blown away in the aftermath of war. In its place, a drab and threadbare utilitarian state had replaced the colorful whirling dervishes and teeming bazaars of the exotic Orient. Unsurprising, perhaps, that this moroseness — heavy like lead — has its own Turkish word, hüzün. In Genç’s telling, the hüzün has returned.
Charles King writes in Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, that casting off the old Ottoman order to create a nation-state came at a high price, including the forced displacement of one million Greeks who had known no other home. And of course, the Armenian nightmare.
The progressive Republic of Turkey as we understand it today had not yet taken shape. Istanbul residents, for example, considered themselves subjects of the Ottoman empire, yet often lived in separate ethnic neighborhoods and were ruled under differing commercial and religious laws, creating a patchwork of societal mores that was inordinately complex yet somehow held together.
The rise of Kemal Atatürk meant the end of the old (dis)order. The nation’s political capital decamped to Ankara. The idea of a multiethnic state no longer seemed possible. Atatürk relied heavily on Ottoman infrastructure, but he also inherited a country that was in poor economic shape and thoroughly un-modern. With his military training, Atatürk built up a modern Turkish state based on an authoritarian model and a heavily reliance on state power.
Andrew Mango writes in The Turks Today, “It was within this firm framework of a hierarchical state which was an amalgam of French republicanism and Ottoman authoritarianism that the Muslim inhabitants of Turkey were moulded into a Turkish nation made up of citizens equal before the law, but manifestly unequal in wealth, educational attainment, lifestyle and access to power.” Yet, he continues, “the ideal of equal citizenship […] did not find a place in the national psyche.” The Turkish language itself tells the story. “Citizen, speak Turkish!” went one nationalistic slogan of the Atatürk years, meaning that the languages of other ethnic minorities, like Arabic, Kurdish, or Armenian were not part of the new “Turkish” identity.
All of this background is important to place the characters in Genç’s book in the proper context. Even though his book takes place very much in the here and now, it is hard to throw off the yoke of history. The pattern of the authoritarian state under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan follows the same strongman blueprint of his forebears; it would be recognizable in many a centrist state.
Genç makes only two brief forays into the historical past to illuminate the present, a deliberate choice to make his book about current events, but one which some readers may find lacking. In one section, he explains the fractious nature of political protest among two main youth movements in the early-to-mid 19th century as a prelude to the different strains tugging at Turkey’s current identity. The Young Ottomans wanted to reform the empire from within and saw Westernization as a threat. The Young Turks, in contrast, wanted a secular and progressive society. In another brief mention, he remarks that the post-Atatürk period of industrialization the state and its industrialists were indelibly intertwined as Turkey’s modernization accelerated. Its echoes in the form of crony capitalism persist.
Genç reflects on his own life growing up under authoritarian rule. From the endless military parades and political speeches on state-run television, recitations of the national anthem, and the transmogrification of his grammar school — with its drill-like line formations and physical education — into a training academy for every boy’s later life in the Turkish army.
As Genç explores the undercurrents of discontent in modern Turkey, he centers his book on Gezi Park, a well-loved urban oasis in Istanbul that became the scene of protests in 2013 after city officials announced plans to uproot the trees, rip out the flower beds, and make room for a new shopping mall. Genç cleverly and patiently interviews participants on both sides of the protests to build a fuller picture of today’s Turkish youth. He is driven forward by one fundamental question: what made these young people, many of whom hold college degrees and live comfortable lives, want to throw themselves against the police barricades and potentially risk everything?
The reader meets for example, Cenk Yürükoğulları, a college student studying conservation, who on the night of May 27, 2013, receives a text message that a demolition crew was trying to cut down trees at Gezi Park. It’s nearly midnight, but he convinces a friend to head there with him. Cenk had been passing out handbills the week before to halt the demolition. From two little pup tents the young men’s protest grew and intensified for about two weeks until the police rushed in with gas canisters to bring the whole thing to an end. After some to-and-fro between police and protesters over the next couple months, the protestors finally give up, weary of standing up to the security forces. “The events proved to be a big intermission in our lives. But it was a necessary intermission,” he tells Genç, seemingly resigned to the quixotic nature of the protest.
Mehmet Algan is a 27-year-old activist and regime supporter campaigning for political office. He observed the protests in Gezi Park and expresses sympathy for the youth who want to make change. “The state has no conscience. Civil society brings a breath of fresh air to that cold mentality of the state apparatus,” he says. But, he adds, democratic elections, not street protests, are the most appropriate way to bring change.
Struggling writer Aytuğ Akdoğan gains enough fame to leave the cloistered world of his parent’s home, that of the White Turks, a wealthy and apolitical class of Turkish society. The events of Gezi Park would become his inspiration for a new novel. Akdoğan calls Gezi an “existential event.” He notes how the protests changed his own character, which for him was more important than any change in the political system.
Slightly offstage but still central to the events in Under the Shadow is President Erdoğan himself. Raised in a hardscrabble Istanbul neighborhood before becoming the city’s mayor, Erdoğan was once jailed for reciting Islamic poetry. In a now-famous interview, he questioned the government’s ban on headscarves; their absence a potent symbol of Atatürk’s secularization at all costs. Erdoğan faces myriad pressures both at home and abroad. In response, he has enshrined a vigorous statism on the Atatürk model, but one with political Islam at its core.
So new are the events chronicled in Under the Shadow that it reads like a first draft of history, with many as-yet unanswered questions. Just prior to the book going to press, Genç had enough breathing space to insert a final note about the murky and ill-fated coup attempt against the Turkish government on July 15, 2016. Following in its wake has been a series of crackdowns and further centralization of government power. Thousands of military personnel and civil servants cashiered, scores of journalists arrested.
The stories in Under the Shadow are all very personal and written with a close-up lens. Readers not familiar with Turkish internal politics may find the narrative in parts difficult to follow. Nevertheless, Genç brings an important perspective to a tumultuous period in national and international politics. He demonstrates that it is necessary to understand how broader issues impact the people who live them.
For their part, Genç’s youthful protestors seem to face a choice of imprisonment, silence, or expatriation. Do they stand a chance of reforming Turkish society from within, or like the bulldozers of Gezi Park, will the machinery of state prove unstoppable? As each passing week brings more arrests, firings, and newspaper closings, the long shadow of hüzün hangs heavily over Turkey and its citizens.
Greg Cullison is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College and co-author of the Handbook of American Slang and Serbian Jargon (Belgrade: Interprint). He studied Turkish at the Volkshochschule in Vienna, Austria, and traveled to Turkey in 2013.