The market in Tarlabaşı, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Taksim Square, 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 my pockets to see if I’ve remembered my phone. A friend is supposed to call in need of 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.
But my fears are soon allayed; 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 gently falls on us, like the rain.
People look up from their exchanges with fleeting smiles, but the drone of a police car soon breaks the mood.
Cian and I continue to climb the street up towards Tarlabaşı Boulevard. The road 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, falls across the banner, and nods to the universe.
A moment of hope.
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 fragile 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 in Turkey’s constitutional referendum. Part of the aim of this referendum, like much of what Turkey’s AKP government is doing these days, is meant to further polarise society. Nonetheless, we agree it’s important to campaign for a ‘no’, and to continue to resist the brazen fascism of the AKP and Erdoğan. And, perhaps most importantly, to use the opportunity to build a strong, cross-ethnio-religious base, that might represent another Turkey, a democratic one.
A Turkey that does not yet exist, and may have never existed, especially for the Kurds and the Alawites–and they demand that peace will only come when and where there is justice.
A steep demand for a world at the mercy of so many forces intent on its destruction.
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 (badly) to ‘whiskey in the jar’ for the thousandth time) 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 clicks his tongue, a universal Middle East sound for ‘no’, but its (apparently) already too late–the drug dealer/cop has made up his mind about our intentions in Tarlabaşı.
As the police officer approaches us, he seems erratic, aggressive. I know the behavior, it reminds me of the kids in college who used to sell coke in the basement cafe of our university library, talking at us a mile a minute, combative, sparing with each word.
He begins to pat- down Cian, releasing each pocket of his jumper of its assorted contents: some change, a lighter, chapstick, some crumpled up receipts. The cop acts as if the items are baiting him, each presenting a further opportunity to intimidate us.
When he finally gets to Cian’s rolling tobacco, and insists on scrutinizing each strand, I lose my mind.
‘Why are you doing this?’ My voice is soft, but firm.
The words buzz in front of me like mosquitoes waiting to draw blood. I flinch, wishing I could simply roll the words back into my mouth as purposefully as they exited.
I’ve transgressed what is expected. I was supposed to stay silent, to keep my eyes pointed down, to play the role of the ‘submissive woman’. I’ve never been very good at surrendering to authority, a condition I suffer from innately, since birth, really. I fear I shan’t recover.
In an instant, however, my mind plays its own judge, jury and prosecutioner.
‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ It asks me.
‘Do you know of all here, you have the least to lose? This is Cian’s home, his neighborhood. What were you thinking?’
Serif, a Turkish friend from Beşiktaş who is also with us, looks over at me, eyes wide. He is a lawyer and a Leftist. He spent the evening gushing about his new girlfriend and his plans to move to Europe to be with her (and escape, in his words, ‘the hell hole that is Turkey;’). Of all, my indignance could fall hardest on his future.
What is more, however, is that I know (amply) that there aren’t many ‘whys’ or ‘whats’ or ‘hows’ or any prudent questions fit for answers in Turkey these days.
Fascism is only really exceptional at the top. At the bottom it looks quite doltish, much like Hannah Arendt’s apt description of a ‘thought-defying banality of evil.’
Later, at a going-away party, I ask Serif a question I know I shouldn’t.
It’s a question I ask myself as well, but does appear to me as fabulously arrogant in light of the given circumstances in Turkey:
‘How do you accept that?’
I am somber, and I keep my eyes glued to his. I want him to know that the question is genuine, but also compassionate.
I am trying to empathise with something I know I cannot understand. Not like him anyway, and I want him to sense the difference.
He squints his eyes, and furrows his brow. On his face I read confusion.
In a soft voice I say, ‘I am talking about the over-reach of the police officer.’
My mouth stops there, but in my mind, I continue,
‘…and the casual ways in which we all have been calibrated by such realities that we begin to see these things as ordinary. And also, how familiar oppression feels that we bow to it not because we concede, but because its mundane.’
Serif takes a swig from a bottle of beer, contemplative. Then resolutely corrects me:
‘I don’t accept it, but what can I do?’
We both define ourselves as ‘activists’, so we have all the fancy, Left-wing answers. But none seem to square with the paradigm of Turkey, of fascism, of the seemingly intractable conflicts that have swollen this country with refugees and recession.
Serif is too polite to turn the question on me. Though, I wish he would. Not because I have a response, but because I don’t.
Because so-called ‘Western civilisation’, with its ‘bombing you to democracy,’ and its ‘worthy prices’ (paid in the blood) does not have an explanation, or solutions, or answers or ‘help’ — it’s all just the facade that keeps some at the top and others at the bottom.
We’ve commodified and exported the ideology of the ‘War on Terror’ to countries, like Serf’s, all to eager to buy their own petty versions to exact against their own endemic racist motifs.
American imperialism is not about patriotism and products. It’s about the colonisation of ideologies, about autocracies finding their own ‘9/11’s’ so that they too can fight a ‘war of terror’.
‘Pardon,’ a paunchy man with a long, white beard and black thawb is trying to squeeze himself between me and a table of olives. I look at him for a few seconds before I understand, and clumsily move out of his way.
Suddenly, I hear Cian calling me from a nearby shop where he has found a good bargain on Syrian coffee.
People move in the street like a flowing river, and you have to sort of dive in, in order to move.
I find Cian’s voice and go ‘upstream’ towards the shop. I emerge from the street soaked in my own awkwardness, bumbling my bags and terrible excuse for Turkish.
I hear a man in the shop tell Cian that ‘it’s two days until Nevrooz – the Zoroastrian calendar’s ‘New Year’ and the Spring Equinox’. He nods in my direction as if to also let me in on the news.
I know Nevrooz, or Norooz as we say in Persian, well. It is also celebrated in Iran, where my family is from. However, fixed in this market full of Kurds forbidden to show any outward sign of their most important yearly holiday, the (painful) myopia of my privilege begins to materialise.
For me, sheltered in a culture where Norooz is the cornerstone of the year, I have never experienced it as anything but public and joyous: 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, I never recognised it as political, lest something that could be made illegal or forbidden.
As Cian and I make our way back through the market, searching for eggs, bread, tamar (dates), strawberries, a market that feels so crowded it could almost burst. Suddenly, its as if only one component really matters – and its missing: Nevrooz.
My eyes scour the streets, the stalls, the tarps, the walls, but there are no banners, no Kurdish coloured flags, no special foods or people requesting donations like on most holiday. There is no pulse, especially not the kind that fills a space just before a celebration.
Instead, people appear tense. The atmosphere is 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.
My mind, molded by catholic/shia conceptions of the meaningfulness of suffering, and how it can bring joy into full colour, seems remarkably difficult a concept when standing, literally, amongst a community that has experienced so much pain.
So, instead I think about how the act of making (or taking) meaning from suffering can be an act of resistance. An attempt to both ask and answer the question, ‘why’. Or to say plainly, ‘I don’t accept this.’ To be critical even of the universe’s absolutism on life and death.
I breathe in the corpulent air of such a proposal, and I think of how it doesn’t simply defy Erdoğan, but (probably) God. And I remind myself that I left the house for coffee, which I haven’t had yet, and certainly will need if I am planning an afternoon of taking on the Creator.
I also know that 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, its brave.
The ‘illegality’ of Nevrooz has put dozens of its organisers in prison, but it has not stopped it from going. It seems that by making it forbidden, the Turkish state has sanctioned it ever the more in the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people, and it is more visible than ever.