The market in Tarlabaşı is teeming.
A friend, Cian, and I decide to hold an impromptu breakfast with a few others in the neighbourhood.
‘Is there any coffee in the house?’ I ask.
‘Does chai (tea) count?’ He replies.
‘You’ve lived here too long.’ We laugh, a moment of brevity.
We take the dark, stone stairs five flights to the bottom. The light from outside filters in just enough to reveal a kitten sitting insolently in the doorway. Her eyes shine in the dark before she scurries in under a small hole beneath the porch stairs.
I coo, hoping to coax her out. No luck.
My friend digs into his pocket for the keys as we walk out into the street and the pouring rain.
I’m checking to see if I’ve remembered my phone. Another friend is supposed to call up and needs directions.
I look up.
Cian’s eyes are fixed at the door. My eyes move quickly towards what he is gazing at. A lump in the throat, my heart jumps.
The kitten has emerged again. She sits in the doorway, in between the darkness and the light. She looks up at Cian – defiant.
Cian smiles, he feels her spirit, it’s contagious.
We make our way up the steep meandering street. A fruit seller calls his prices in song. The beauty of the sound falls on us gently, like the rain. People look up from their exchanges with fleeting smiles before the drone of a police car breaks the mood.
We continue to climb the street up towards Tarlabaşı Boulevard. The street bends up under an overpass. A banner calling ‘Hayır!’ (No!) signed by the Resident Association of Beyoğlu is affixed to the bridge. A flutter of light from the sun pierces through the clouds and falls across the banner and nods to the universe.
Cian and I exchange some money when we finally reach the top of the street, only to come back down again.
My hand is clenched on my phone inside my coat pocket. I want a picture of the banner, its mere presence is political, with each letter straining under the hopefulness of millions across this country.
Speaking to friends and comrades we agree that either vote – ‘evet’ (yes) or ‘hayır’ (no) will likely make for a similar outcome. The point of a referendum like this, like much of what Turkey’s government is doing these days, is meant to further polarise society.
Nonetheless, it’s important to campaign for a ‘no’, and to continue to resist the unabashed fascism of the AKP and Erdoğan, and to use the opportunity to build a strong, cross-ethnio-religious base, spreading a vision of another Turkey / Middle East / world.
A few nights previous, after taking in our fill of Paddy’s Day in Istanbul (which was uncannily similar to Dublin city centre adorned with ‘foreigners’ in Viking crowns, guzzling green-dyed beer and singing to ‘whiskey in the jar’ for the thousandth time that evening)we were stopped by a cop thinly veiled as a ‘drug dealer’.
The cop calls out, hoping to snare us in some shadowy deal. Cian abruptly makes the sound for ‘no’, more of a click in the mouth than a word per se. Nevertheless, its already too late, the drug dealer/cop has made up his mind about our intentions in Tarlabaşı.
Unsurprisingly, the cop/drug dealer appears ‘high’ himself, like the kids who used to sell coke at parties in college, he is talking a mile a minute, aggressive, sparing with his words.
Only Cian gets a pat down, his hand-rolled tobacco a thorough check, before I feel I lose my mind,
‘Why are you doing this?’
I wish I could roll the words back in just as I feel them exit my mouth. I know I’ve transgressed what is expected. I know I am supposed to stay silent, to nod, to play the role of the ‘submissive woman’ – most because I have the least to lose. Cian has lived here five years, it’s his home, it’s his neighbourhood.
Serif, who is also with us, has plans to join his girlfriend in Europe – but for now this is his home, and my indigence could fall hardest on his future.
More than this I know there aren’t many ‘whys’ or ‘whats’ or ‘hows’ or questions fit for answers in Turkey these days.
Fascism is only really exceptional at the top, at the bottom it looks quite doltish, like Hannah Arendt’s apt description of a ‘thought-defying banality of evil.’
At a going-away party afterwards, I ask Serif another question I know I shouldn’t. It’s a question I ask myself as well, but does appear to me as fabulously arrogant in the given circumstances.
‘How do you accept that?’
I am talking about the over-reach of the police officer and the casual ways in which we all have been calibrated by such realities that we begin to see these things as ordinary.
How familiar oppression feels, we bow to it not because we concede, but because its mundane.
Serif, rightfully, corrects me,
‘I don’t accept it, but what can I do?’
He is too polite to turn the question on me. I wish he would, even though I know my answer is woefully insufficient.
‘Pardon,’ a paunchy man with a long, white beard and black thawb is trying to squeeze himself between me and a table of olives. Suddenly I am brought back to reality and Cian calling me from a shop where he is trying to find a good bargain on Syrian coffee.
It’s two days until Nevrooz – the Zoroastrian calendar’s ‘New Year’ and the Spring Equinox.
The (painful) myopia of my privilege has sheltered me from ever experiencing Nevrooz as anything but a joyous occasion: the making of the haft-sin, the excitement of chahar-shanbe soori, the amaranthine platters of food, and a fortune straight from the lips of Hafez himself.
And though I’ve celebrated Nevrooz across the Middle East, it was never very political for me, lest forbidden.
As I stroll the market streets searching for eggs, bread, tamar, strawberries – a market that looks as if it will burst at the seams – is only deceivingly so, as it is missing its centre: Nevrooz.
There are no banners to celebrate, no Kurdish coloured flags or the general buzz that fills space just before a celebration. People seem tense, the atmosphere feels heavy and greetings are punctuated with silence instead of laughter.
The image of ‘what could be’ hangs in the air, and for a moment I try to imagine it.
The feeling brings to my mind the words of Khalil Gibran:
Then a woman said, speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Standing amongst a community that has seen so much pain, it is difficult to also write about the meaningfulness of suffering. Or, indeed, to speak cerebrally of its ‘other side’.
Though it also occurs to me that to make meaning from suffering is an act of resistance – it is the attempt to ask and answer the question, ‘why?’
To say plainly, ‘I don’t accept this.’
To be critical even of the universe’s absolutism on life and death.
I’ve come again to Turkey to be amongst the Kurdish freedom movement, who even after being denied and deprived those things that define ‘a community’: language, culture, ritual, rights – has imagined something meaningful from its suffering, and for more than just themselves.
It’s not perfect, and imperilled from within and without – but it is imaginative and more than that, it’s brave.
The ‘illegality’ of Nevrooz has put dozens of its organisers in prison, but it has not stopped it from going ahead. To make Nevrooz illegal, to ban a community’s most cherished holiday is a cowardly act, and aspires to nothing but blind power.
Khalil Gibran wrote in the The Madman ‘to understand the heart and mind… look not at what [she] has already achieved, but at what [she] aspires to.’
Despite the ‘illegality’ of all the tangible signs of the Kurdish community/ies and its freedom movement–from the banning of its flags in Germany, to the banning of celebrations in Turkey– it is more visible than ever.