Once Mark and I began moving about the city on our recent visit I noticed, despite being met by the usual Turkish friendliness and hospitality, a significant change. True, the street crowds were not quite as dense as I had remembered them to be, but more significantly it was a change in the character of the street activity, a change I initially described as “subdued.” But it was a description I felt never quite captured what I was seeing.
After much consideration I found myself taking a page out of Mark’s oft used book in seeing uncanny parallels between human and animal behavior. I found myself going back about ten years to when, while going about morning farm chores, I was staggered and horrified to find the headless corpses of around 19 of our turkeys scattered about their compound. In those days we allowed the turkeys to roost outside overnight, as was their instinct, in the apple trees.
It was, we determined, probably the work of a night predator, either a horned owl or a fisher that not only caused the carnage but also traumatized the surviving flock so much that it seemed to have lost all of its brio, the birds huddled together looking considerably diminished, their heads drawn down into their bodies, and their feathers seemingly drawn closer to their bodies. While they could not help but gradually resume their daily regimen of feeding and foraging, they did so for a time in a depressed, muted, very minimal way. They seemed to exist only in a basic survival mode; gone was their preening, displaying, and mock combat as the toms vied for dominance and the females looked on with bemused interest. All the glory of being a turkey, which the flock had daily celebrated up until then, was gone.
And so it seemed with the people of Istanbul.
At dinner there one night with a student I had taught in Izmir in the early nineteen sixties, who I’ll refer to as “Ayse,” to protect her from the stringently enforced law forbidding criticism of the President, I received some vivid insights into the traumatic events of the recent failed coup. Visibly shaken, “Ayse” described the terror of her family as low flying jets streaked overhead, so low, she said, you could see the pilots, and her growing apprehension as she heard of the parliament building in Ankara being bombed, of Istanbul’s major bridges being closed by troops, of the airport take over, and of the possibility of the President being assassinated. It was a sleepless night and obviously one in which her entire world was shaken.
The impact of this horrific event was, I think, intensified by following as it did on the heels of a year of sporadic acts of violence: the bombings in Istanbul, Ankara, and some of the eastern cities, in particular the attack on a tour group in Sultan Ahmet, the center of the ancient city, and the disastrous attack on the Istanbul airport.
While it was simple enough for Mark and me to address the trauma of our turkeys by driving them in to safety at night and ultimately building a special closed-in sleeping porch for them, there is no such easy solution in sight for the people of Turkey living as they are under the heavy hand of a President who is increasingly, as “Ayse” put it, “…becoming a megalomaniac”. (Note the thousand room multimillion dollar palace he has just built for himself outside Ankara– a ridiculous, fascistic Versailles.) A megalomaniac who is currently using the attempted coup not as a means of unifying his fractured population but as a pretext for carrying out a massive purge of tens of thousands of people in the military, the judiciary, the press, and academia. Add to this his reigniting the war within Turkey against its own Kurdish population, as well as the slowdown of the Turkish economy, particularly the tourist economy, that has resulted from his misguided policies, and it becomes only too clear how much damage one person with the wrong instincts and values can do to his people.
Let this be a warning to all of us as we approach the upcoming election on November 8.