Monday, April 19, 2010

‘Living together with tolerance, in peace’

Being in Turkey means changing moods in every breath. Because of the slow but persistent pace towards a democratic order, it has almost become a cliché to talk about a geography of sharp swings between pessimism and optimism.

The path selected in the past decade has left no doubt as to the complexity of this society as it was more and more exposed to the intensity of the demands that accumulated due to decades of suppression of diverse identities.
It is, therefore, the stiff resistance of the shocked elite to the emerging Turkey that is the source of the sharp mood swings and puzzlement of “foreigners,” who tend to expect an “easier” scheme as a formula for transition.

Not in this case. The more civil society takes shape and seeks dominance, the faster it will happen. That point has not yet been reached.

But, there are stronger signs, seemingly synched with and encouraged by the government’s efforts at reform.

When you see who was present at the breakfast meeting the prime minister had with writers on Saturday or, if you were present, like I was, at the two unrelated, but subsequent events in the evening of the same day in İstanbul, you would be impressed by the optimism about a promising future.

Some 40 poets and novelists gathering at the prime minister’s office at Dolmabahçe Palace was unique in a sense. Never had a prime minister invited such a diverse crowd from the literary establishment, both in terms of political and ethnic background. Jews, Kurds, Turks and Armenians were all represented, as well as leftists, liberals and conservatives.

The content of the speech could easily have been written by the chairman of an organization like Amnesty International. Not sparing his words, Erdoğan mentioned in one breath names such as Eşber Yağmurdereli (a blind leftist who was harassed for years by the police and the judiciary), Şanar Yurdatapan (a leftist human rights activist), Mehmet Uzun (a Kurdish novelist who lived in exile), Abdi İpekçi (Milliyet’s editor who was murdered by Mehmet Ali Ağca), Musa Anter (a Kurdish intellectual and front figure killed by “dirty warriors”), Nazım Hikmet and Orhan Pamuk as targets of systematic oppression.

Even if one could label it as political outreach, it nevertheless means an unusual, “shockingly new” attitude by a Turkish authority figure.

If this was an official event, there was something more powerful in the meaning of the evening’s events.

The first was the “Living Together Awards” by the 15-year-old Journalists and Writers’ Foundation (with links to the Gülen movement), an event re-launched after a hiatus of some 10 years. Many wondered what kind of “statement” the awards would make. The result, to outsiders, was impressive: Award winners were liberal think tank Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), Rakel Dink (the wife of the late Hrant Dink), the movie (about the Kurdish problem) “Güneşi Gördüm” (I Saw the Sun) and its Kurdish director, Mahzun Kırmızıgül. Another Kurd (of Dersim), a hardworking music collector and owner of the Kalan Music label, Hasan Saltık, was also given a prize.

And three awards were given to the media: the Taraf daily, the independent Açık Radyo radio station and veteran columnist Hasan Cemal. The message to the audience (one of the guests was Parliament Speaker Mehmet Ali Şahin) was also clear: This society wants and deserves to live together in peace and tolerance.

I left the ceremony in an optimistic mood and found myself, some hundred yards away, in another powerful manifestation: the awards ceremony of the internationally renowned İstanbul Film Festival. Attended by the local, traditional elite, it represented yet another face of the society. Yet, its stage was also full of surprises: the house band was the famous Kardeş Türküler, which is known for its repertoire of Turkish, Alevi, Kurdish, Assyrian and Armenian songs from Anatolia. They sang them as they were broadcast live and as part of the audience shouted slogans for the protection of a cultural landmark, the Emek movie theater, threatened by demolition.

And the best director award went to Miraz Bezar, whose Kurdish movie “Min Dit” (about the slaughter of Kurds and the notorious Diyarbakır Prison) was one of the highlights of the festival. It also won the best actress award. The striking part was how everyone seemed happy, everything seemed, in a sense, “normal.”

It was a remarkable day. In such moments, a journalist, any journalist, might feel utterly lucky to be in the midst of the pregnant turmoil in this country, whose great diversity is lit by rays of hope and threatened by forces of evil.

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