Photo: Kelly Bedeian
In some countries, your encounter with the State is not limited to television screens, institutions, or streets. It roams your house with its huge bulk of a body, smashing this and that. It hops up onto the dining table and juggles its soccer ball among the chinaware. Sips from your tea, eats from your plate, pees on your bed, spoons marmalade onto your pillow. As for me, it was an unwanted visitor who appeared on the couch in our living room, leaving barely any room for us, never getting up at all. And no matter how hard we might have tried to seem disinterested, the State was deeply interested in us, taking up space, shouting, demanding, constantly making one feel anxious.
So people in Turkey gradually isolated themselves. Call it fear of being with others, learned helplessness, or simply a survival strategy. Call it a syndrome of conscience-numbness or a wishful collective amnesia—something that isn’t at all rare in societies where remembering is too painful, and therefore marginalized. And, as the silence grows denser, it becomes easier—indeed more normal—to become its perpetrator.
It is essential, this silence, because it protects you from the turmoil “others” suffer. It encapsulates you so that you can disown “the rest.” By the time the silence is thick enough, what is true and false is only a matter of perception management: the fabrication of truth, the manipulation of faith, the invention of a new normal. And its dissemination can only happen on its holy ground, where the polyphonic nature of truth is upended. Obviously, this is a warfare of narratives. Obviously, the rising extremism and polarization we now face everywhere in the world are being manufactured within the narratives of power structures and networks—narratives that are coercive, monopolizing, exclusive, patriarchal. The television screen, the billboard, the chalkboard, the newspaper—the homophony they create together to shout you down, to tune you up, to basically silence you, is as powerful as it is loud.
Three years ago, I would have been shocked had my neighbor called me “that traitor upstairs.” If that happened now, I would not be surprised at all. Narratives of hatred, exclusion, coercion, are being disseminated at breakneck speed. They do not need to be articulate, convincing, or rational; they do not even need to make sense: they depend, rather, on the long-term absence of the polyphonic aspect of human life, thriving in the lonely silence people suffer, when there is no one to remind them that such silence is deadening even as it encapsulates, deafens.
It was three days after the July 15, 2016, military coup attempt in Turkey that I came to understand what can happen to people living in a society that has, for an extended period of time, inhaled the toxic air of tumultuous social unrest. How chronic social turmoil, systematic violations of fundamental human rights, an absence of healing justice, and the normalization of everyday violence all tend to afflict any self-respecting person living in such circumstances with a certain kind of paranoia. And how nightmarish the world may then look.
I was trying to fall asleep in my house on an island off Istanbul’s shoreline with an ear turned toward the unusual thickness of postcoup silence. Now, I cannot say what it was that made the night so uncommonly silent, as nights on the island are generally silent, a silence every now and then underscored by the barking of a dog. Was it the absence of a newscast coming from next door nightly, until late? Was it because no one around seemed to be in a heated discussion about what would happen in the coming days? Or maybe it was merely the absence of a summer breeze: no trees rustling, no sound of the waves from the nearby Marta Beach, clouds hanging oppressively in the sky. I felt lonely and insecure, much like half of the population did in those days—bottled up in an uneasy silence, desperately projecting onto the island night. Only a week ago my neighbor now warning me to bury my flash stick somewhere in the garden would have sounded quite neurotic. Now the conditions were perfect for a “cleansing”; a government-sponsored witch-hunt was perhaps about to begin, or a civil war was about to break out now that half of the country hated the other half.
Fear and the feeling of helplessness are contagious, especially for those who always stay on the sidelines: no sooner had my sweaty head sunk into the pillow than the silence was suddenly torn apart by a man shouting at the top of his lungs “Hands up!” and in that moment I was sure it was the Kristallnacht. It took me less than a minute to appear on the balcony looking down at Marta Beach, an empty wine bottle in hand. There I saw a boat flashing lights from every one of its holes. Something like belly-dance music was blasting away, and the same man was tirelessly repeating the call: “Hands up!” It was all perfectly clear: the antiterror police, wearing snow masks and heavy shoes, was out “cleansing” the country of its pernicious “viruses.” This time they didn’t even bother with excuses: the state would take care of everything under the guise of fighting back the putschists, the “enemies of democracy.” And the loud music from the antiterror police boat was a clever trick, or so I thought: no one would be able to hear their neighbors’ screaming as they were hustled out of their homes. It took almost three minutes before it dawned on me: the antiterror police boat was nothing more than a yacht with some drunk passengers on board. For those three minutes, I was blind with fear, convinced I was in real danger. Now the relief was infused with sadness.
I was not a little nervous about the polarization in the country, which had picked up speed in recent years, and the deliberately exclusionary language of the government, coming with a male bravado that did not bode well for the near future. Moreover, like many others, instead of seeing the state as a lawful entity there to serve and protect me because I pay my taxes, I was taught to always fear it and the erratic ways in which it exercised power on its people. Gradually I became deeply fearful for my own safety, as well as for the safety of friends and my family, who were already equally fearful. Step by step we isolated ourselves, especially from people who did not feel under threat at all—a process we already knew by heart. Of course, the uneasy song we were all singing in unison within our bubble turned out to be the only song we could hear. I am not saying that we were wrong in being so nervous about things to come. But the problem was not being right or wrong: the problem was our being too self-confident in our common sense, too decisive in excluding anything that was outside our zone of common sense, and too angry because our narrative was not going to occupy a position of power at the time. Put another way, we were locked in a matrix of polarization, and therefore unconsciously both confirming and reproducing the dichotomy of discourses that was the real cause of our uneasiness. Living in a bubble is easy because you do not have to face and cope with what is different from you. And it is dangerous because, in the absence of difference, you lose your own reflection.
Eventually I took a step away from this image of myself so that I could watch her from a distance. She was now hiding behind a plastic chair, bottle still in hand, self-assured that someone was coming after her. I sadly sat with her for a while before going back to bed.
There are times when we lose our faith in our common sense, and that is hard to bear. But before shame and self-condemnation overtakes one, there is a moment when things lose touch with truth, what is certain becomes uncertain, the valid void. This feels very much like turbulence, and your points of departure and arrival no longer make sense; there is nothing left but to hear and feel the turbulence as such. That night paranoia had a say; it wasn’t common sense but I heard it, though I did not understand it. I wouldn’t call this an encounter with a part of me I didn’t know existed until then, nor was it some “teaching moment” where I came to understand or feel compassion for my paranoid self. It was a moment of loss and crisis—a crisis of a mind anchored in an opinion—and it was freeing because it was ambiguous. The narratives of true and false, right and wrong, friends and enemies, sensible and paranoid were there just as they are, as narratives: partaking in the polyphony of ambiguity. It was more like a literary experience than an epiphany, though no less powerful in calming me, changing me.
I do not claim that every crisis is followed by awareness. Nor every loss by measurable gain. But I believe that crises and losses can indeed be opportunities that trigger change, especially in times when racial, economic, and spatial segregation are at a dangerous level, and when people in survival mode take shelter in homophonic bubbles. It seems to me this has to do with our capacity to bear, endure, crisis and loss rather than hastily rolling up our sleeves to find an immediate solution.
We are, and should be, preoccupied with thinking about and discussing how the political and societal polarization and the rising extremism we now face in many places around the world can be overcome. The questions we generally ask revolve around how better to understand each other, how to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But these questions are generally posed from a position where at least a certain type of familiarity is taken for granted. My neighbor and I count as neighbors as long as we share a certain zone of familiarity—between enemy and friend, or master and slave, inhabiting a shared spectrum of dichotomy no matter how far apart its two ends may seem. It is within this zone of familiarity that we easily recognize each other. And to better understand each other, we generally rely on our capacity for sympathy, empathy, patience, compassion, assuming that no matter who we are and where we come from, “human suffering” (pathos) is a universal we all can recognize and feel. Now I am not denying the healing power of our capacity to understand and feel sorrow and pity for each other. But what we mean by pathos, and the ways we relate to it (i.e., to the assumption that it can bring people together), rests not on universal but on historical conditions; we shouldn’t overlook the word’s Greco-Latin roots and the unfamiliar ground of such roots.
Lastly, we tend to forget that the capacity for sympathy, empathy, patience, and compassion demands not only mindfulness and a full heart, but also a privileged position allowing one to keep a comfortable distance from pathos itself, to keep calm in the face of its elusive nature. Yes, pathos is inclusive and healing, but we cannot demand it from everyone. Insisting on its power, universality, and inherent humanism is perhaps to dismiss those people who lack the abundance of feeling required to have compassion and forgiveness for others, those still recovering from a trauma themselves. Compassion is inclusive especially when it is aware of its position of power and history as a discourse on suffering.
There are people in the world who do not have room in their imagination for others: not only because they dwell in different cultural spaces, belief systems, or political histories, but mainly because they aren’t fully aware of this difference. People belong to different geographies and histories of feeling and thinking, with different repertoires of feeling and thinking performances. Recognizing the other is recognizing the difference without taking it as a threat, or a problem to be fixed; neither is difference something to be explored and fully understood. It is, rather, a proof of our authenticity. Only then can we imagine other authenticities. Only then can we feel safe, because we are contained.
I believe moments of crises can be seen as opportunities in that they tilt the fake balance of a mind anchored in opinion, and remind us that every reality has a unique voice, that what we call truth is indeed a boisterous polyphony of different voices. Crises are not disasters; what makes them seem like they are is that they reveal the fragility of the bubbles we inhabit. Being fragile doesn’t make a bubble less of a bubble, but confronting its fragility may free our imagination from its circumference. We need to bear with crises as much as we are able to because they remind us that difference is always already there as such, between our authenticities, unnamable. So just before we roll up our sleeves to assimilate difference into a hierarchical structure, to identify it psychologically, to agree with it, to nominate and define it, to embrace or deny it, or simply to reach for a wine bottle so as to smash its head, there is a possibility of pure recognition.
Literature is a natural space of polyphony; especially in times when resisting segregation is so crucial, it can bring us to the turbulence of different discourses, manners of speech, of different realities and belief systems, and remind us that homophony is not a natural state. Neither is any narrative that occupies a position of power, for it is likely to restart the engine of segregation.
There are enemies and friends, and there are spaces where neither can prevail.
Birgül OĞUZ was among the winners of the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature for her second short fiction collection Hah (2012); her first, Fasulyenin Bildiği, appeared in 2007. A PhD candidate in English Literature at Bosphorus University, she lectures on literature at independent academic institutions and theater houses in Istanbul.