The Big Read: Let's talk Turkey about SA
22 July 2016 - 10:05
You can't really make a comparison between South Africa and Turkey. Well, obviously you can, but it wouldn't be very accurate or illuminating.The two nations sit at the nexus of very different geographic, religious and ideological pressures, subject to very different intensities of global scrutiny and expectation.Novelist Orhan Pamuk describes the national emotional state of Istanbul as being huzun - the eternally half-formed and inchoate state of melancholy for a more glorious time that has always already passed - while it feels like the South African national mood has pretty much always been angry fear for the future.Because of where Turkey is located - the literal meeting point of Europe and Asia, the place where the Greeks landed their thousand ships against the Trojans, the siege-line between the Ottoman and Holy Roman empires, the toll booth between Russia's Black Sea fleet and the Mediterranean, the modern notional border post between Islamic State and the West - it has always been a strategic boiling point. Constantinople was referred to as The City of the World's Desire; if we're honest, no one else really cares what we do to each other in South Africa.Our histories are very different and I'd suggest our futures are very different too, but because I love Turkey and South Africa both so deeply, and within that love is so much contradiction and confusion, I'm more interested in the echoes and resonances, the ways my feelings for the two places overlap. More than anything, it's the people.I spend a lot of time in the steep, cobbled, whitewashed town of Kalkan on the Mediterranean coast. It used to be a Greek fishing village until the forced removals of the 1920s. Today the hills around the village are dotted with the villas and swimming pools of rich Brits who arrive for three months of the year. I asked a local what he thought of them. He shrugged. "They come, they go, they come back," he said. "If we are lucky, one day they don't come back. But also, if we are unlucky, one day they don't come back."Once, drinking raki at a table beside the water in Selimiye on the Bozburun peninsula I complained drunkenly to three strangers about an old friend who had become very wealthy and successful and happy. One of them leaned forward with glittering eye and boomed: "Call no man happy until he is dead!"He seized his glass and stood on his chair and recited from memory the chapter from Herodotus whence that sentence comes: the story of Croesus, Greek king of Lydia, who set in motion the long history of war between west and east with his foolish and unnecessary invasion of Persia.My new friend was a Kurd, dispossessed by the Turkish state. He learnt Herodotus as a child, listening to his father read aloud to the family. He works as a fisherman on a small wooden boat with peeling paint. He refused to let me pay for my drinks.Over the weekend I sat up through the night watching the failed military coup against the Erdogan government. "Democratically elected" still means something, no matter how contemptuous the government is of the people who elected them. My heart swelled to watch people fill the streets of Istanbul in defiance of the curfew, including thousands who do not themselves support Erdogan: lying down in front of tanks, making citizens' arrests of armed soldiers, booing each new hail of gunfire, baring their chests to the guns in defence of their young and precious democracy.This week Erdogan completed the coup his enemies had started, detaining or firing or revoking the work status of more than 60000 citizens, including judges, teachers, academics and journalists. It is an exercise of capricious state power so flagrant and unconcerned with the opinion of decent citizens that it had Hlaudi Motsoeneng sitting up straighter in the pleather beanbag in his lair, blinking his rheumy, bloodshot eyes in envy.On Wednesday night Erdogan declared a state of emergency, using his democratically conferred power to place a choke-hold on the democracy that his people risked their lives to protect.This, finally, is what we can take from the unfolding tragedy of Turkey: the fierce joy that we are not yet them, that the mechanisms and safeguards of our democracy creak and strain but still hold. This is what we can cherish: the determination to defend those mechanisms against the forces that would tear them down in the name of democracy.Our democracy is flawed and tenuous and our society is compromised and unequal and must be fixed, but we still have the bones of something beautiful, without which it's difficult to conceive of a future that doesn't include long nights of gunfire in the streets, and none of us happy.