It is great in fact that Temelkuran was the one to write it. She is one of the most eminent Turkish writers (known to Polish readers from two other books – What Good is a Revolution if I Can”t Dance? and The Sounds of Bananas), but also an experienced journalist, writing for international periodicals. Temelkuran knew perfectly well the kind of nuances she should use in her insightful analysis of Erdoğan“s regime to create an informative, but attractive work.
It’s these nuances – short anecdotes, jokes, or shocking images from the margins of political events – that are the book’s most valuable asset. A reader who knows very little of Turkey’s recent history or knows it only from media reports has the opportunity to look at it with the eyes of someone who grew up in Turkey and has a great understanding of its complexity.
The book is divided into three parts: “Yesterday”, “Today”, and “Tomorrow”. “Yesterday” is a collection of essays based on six photos Temelkuran uses to explain 20th-century Turkey, from the creation of the Turkish national state by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk until Erdoğan’s rise to power. It’s a great shame that the Polish edition does not include the photos described by the author.
In “Today”, the book’s most sizeable part, Temelkuran exposes in great detail the ploys used by Erdoğan’s regime: dehumanising alleged enemies of the Turkish state, newspeak or politicising even the simplest of everyday activities. “Tomorrow” is a loose collection of the author’s premonitions – despite being desperate and rebellious against the “new Turkey”, she tries to find some hope for the country’s future.
Temelkuran loves Turkey even though it hurt her many times, limiting her rights of journalistic expression, killing her friends from the opposition and forbidding her from talking about the wrongdoings against the weak (since it is the Armenians, the Kurds, and the women she sympathises with the most). She is sensible in talking about Turkey’s most difficult moments, trying to understand all of the actors, even though most of them would gladly kill her as an enemy of the Turkish state.
The author’s story is full of personal memories, since her journalistic biography is emblematic of the “new Turkey” in and of itself. Temelkuran uses her own example to show how Erdoğan’s regime manipulates information, destroys the lives of their critics and turns those in positions of power to their side (in this case, the owners of media companies). However, it is not a heroic story, full of narcissist martyrdom, as is often the case with male narratives on being a part of the opposition. It is full of irony and humour, and Temelkuran transforms her own memories into collective experiences.
Temelkuran talks about Turkey from a clearly left‑wing position. She seeks the reasons behind strengthening the regime both in frenzied nationalism and in neo‑liberal, seemingly pro‑Western attitudes of previous governments. Her reflection is highly critical and ideologically motivated, but that does nothing to distort the facts.
Temelkuran tries to understand everyone – both the young, hateful recruit in the Turkish army and the helplessness of the regime‑supporting women whose private life was encroached upon by ideology, which limited their ability to participate in public life almost entirely. This does not mean she wants to whitewash Turkey and its modern history, however. It is actually quite the opposite: Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy was written to prevent forgetting, sweeping under the rug and hiding one’s faults.
The author is also critical when talking about the West’s strategy of thinking about Turkey, exposing the seemingly pro‑democratic attitude of the cult of Atatürk, the West’s geopolitical hypocrisy and its misplaced hopes (associated for example with one of Erdoğan’s main opponents, Fethullah Gülen). Thus, she sheds light not only on the situation in Turkey, but also on modern history of the entire Middle East, with the Arab Spring and its consequences front and centre.
“New Turkey” is not an isolated instance. In her book, Temelkuran talks about the authoritarian state of the 21st century and its tools, means of disseminating information and hybrid wars. She is aware that Turkey is just one of the victims of the so‑called “non‑liberal democracy” epidemic, and places it in a wider context.
Polish readers will not escape inevitable comparisons. When Erdoğan’s regime brutally pacified the Taksim square protests, we were sure that it was happening somewhere far away, that the “Middle Eastern mentality” was to blame. But when Temelkuran talks in detail about solidarity across divides during protests, about the appropriation of the insults uttered against them (“yes, we are looters!”), about the regime’s feckless attempts to appropriate science and culture – we are forced to be humbler. It is worth reading this book, if only to better understand what is happening in Central
Europe. • Kaja Puto
Translated from the Polish by Piotr Czarnota