Saturday, October 17, 2015

10/10/2015 Ankara. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Whatever I write will fail. But something has to be written, though the words have all been gutted. People say “massacre”, “murderer”, “barbarous”, “genocide”, “liar”, but we have been using those words for years, and they have exhausted their sting. So what’s left? Something hurts and we need something besides rhetoric and ideology to answer it.

Today, I was coming off the ferry in Kadıköy. It was windy on the wharf. There were the usual gypsy flower sellers, the simit stands, the Black Sea band by the water. Some schoolgirls were tossing bread to gulls and terns flying by the sea. A melancholy, beautiful blue sky reflected in the waves. Near the highway there was an AKP election tent. A group of men stood in front, holding pamphlets no one was taking. One disheveled, bearded man handed some brochures to a boy I assumed was his son. I stopped.

“Monsters,” I said aloud, reflexively. “Killers.” And the whole world seemed to go dark with hate.

The whole afternoon had changed.

Everything has changed.

I’ve never kept an enemy. When I think about it now, I’ve never truly hated anyone, not for very long and not for real, but for the past week a storm of violent thoughts has raged in my head, and they profoundly disturb me. Worse, I don’t really want them to go away.

Last week, over one hundred innocent people were blown to shreds in a bomb attack in the capital of Ankara. More have died since and countless others are lain up in the hospital. The victims were students and middle-aged mothers and grandfathers. There were two young newly weds and an eighty year old woman, one of Turkey’s “Saturday Mothers” who for years has protested the State’s disappearing of her son. They were all gathered for a peace march, to protest the renewed fighting between the Turkish Army and the PKK. Their bodies were literally blown apart, so that even days after the attack chunks of meat are still being found in the area around Ankara’s train station.

The people of the AKP party, the people I now stare at on this wharf, have been celebrating these murders.

A glance at the week’s news.

On Sunday, pop star Tuğba Ekinci tweets to President Erdoğan in response to the murders, “We should remake the East, take the clean people and put them in government housing and then bomb the rest to oblivion.”

On Wednesday night, in Konya, at a soccer game between Iceland and Turkey, the two teams stand on the field for a moment of silence to mourn the dead. The Turkish fans jeer and boo them. Some shout Allahu Akbar.

On Friday, former President Gül tweets, "If we cannot even express our sympathy, how can we still claim we will live together?" After the bombings, he had called HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş to express condolences and had been reprimanded by the AKP.

A media ban is issued. No one is allowed to report on the investigation on the bombing. Lawyers for the victims are banned from accessing their files. This does not apply to the government papers, who report daily on the results of the investigation. ISIS was working with the PKK, they say. The Kurds bombed themselves to get votes, they say. And then because these absurdities are the official news, foreign agencies pick them up and introduce their obscene assertions with phrases like “The Turkish press has determined…” “The Prime Minister’s Office says…”

You can only stand aghast at the way such malignant disinformation becomes news. It’s an abomination, a deliberate polluting of the memory of those who died.

The trouble is the foreign press can’t read the secret codes.

Days before the bombing, a mafia boss named Sedat Peker led a rally in Erdoğan’s hometown in Rize. He said to the maddened crowd, “We will make all of their blood flow like a flood!” On Thursday, he was awarded two police escorts by the state security bureau to guide him around—presumably to protect him from revenge attacks against those who “misconstrue” him as responsible. This is one of those things that someone not neck-deep in recent Turkish history would never get the significance of. This man worked with the state in the nineties—implicated in murder, racketeering, everything you can think of. He is what’s called a Turanist, a Turk who believes that the destiny of Turkey is to seize all the land belonging to Turks from Xinjiang to Anatolia and transform it into Lebensraum for the master race. People know, but have never proven, that he was involved in the Deep State assassinations of the 90s. People suspect, with good reason, the hand of the Deep State in this bombing, too. No one assigned an escort to Hrant Dink when he received direct assassination threats, and he was shot in front of his own office in a case that is still ongoing and implicates many government officials. And what does a mafia boss who controls a crime organization need with someone else’s security anyway? The assignment of state protection is a message to the country that most foreigners, and certainly the press wouldn’t understand. A sly wink.

And there are so many such messages.

Articles in Turkish newspapers reveal the names of the bombers. They had been tracked and bugged and followed by police for two years, taken into custody but not arrested because, quote, “there was not enough evidence against them,” despite the fact that their ISIS cell, the "Weavers" (Dokumacılar) had been infiltrated for months. The press calls this a "security lapse". Yet the same papers reported the arrest of three foreigners aid workers, helping Syrian refugees at the Bulgarian border—taken in for spying, working with Israel, and various other made up comic book crimes. And what about the arrests of thousands of Kurdish politicians in 2011 based on thousands of pages of phone taps? Or the arrest of people PROTESTING THE ANKARA MASSACRE? The message? Anyone living in Turkey knows that arrests are never made on the basis of real evidence. The security net, when they want it to be, is absolute. Letting these murderers roam free is a political choice, a chess move.

In Forbes, an article comes out that gives a paragraph to one of the forbidden eye-witness reports. A man was trying to help a woman who was bleeding to death. A cop yanked him off of her. “Don’t help them! They’re terrorists.” Others report that the police formed a line that prevented the crowd from escaping after the first bomb went off. In today’s paper, you read of a doctor massaging a man’s heart and being tear gassed by riot police who ran through the crowd of bleeding and dying beating and gassing whomever they found.  

One of these injured is my wife’s friend Gülşen. She is a young woman in her early thirties, barely five feet tall.  She lies in the hospital with a wound in her leg, infected because it is filled with bits of bone from other people. Because of the infection, she has been kept in isolation. She had assumed that the doctors were lying to her. That the wound wasn’t all that serious but that all her friends were dead and they were trying to protect her from this knowledge. For days, she waited for the “truth” that she was the only one left alive.

On Sunday, we went to the funeral of Kübra Meltem Mollaoğlu, a woman who worked at the Üsküdar HDP office with my wife. As the imam spoke prayers over the coffin, her twenty something daughter wailed and wailed, MOM! MOM! Something in the crowd broke when the pall-bearers began to carry it to the hearse. “MURDERER ERDOĞAN” they shouted. The men in the woman’s family tried to shush them. “Not here!” they hissed. Did they not approve of the chant or of the politicizing of the funeral? There were riot cops all along the street and a police helicopter overhead, monitoring the burial of this woman who chose to work for a cause that for the first time, offered something besides strongmen and race hate. Would the police attack? Would they let someone else attack? What was the point? What could these boys in their riot helmets be thinking?

When I consider these cops and that boy in the AKP tent, when I think of the fans in Konya jeering the moment of silence or that awful pop star. When I see the names of the police who gassed the dying in Ankara or think of the faces of the young men behind the helmets at the funeral, I want to see them suffer. I want them to go into prison and die under the torture that their kind used for years in Turkey’s prisons. And then I want the old religion to be right. I want to see their souls cast into the pit. I want to see them burn. I want to stand on the edge of the Pit with Azrael and hear them scream.

What ugliness they have awakened in my soul! In all of our souls. And I have no resistance any more, I don’t want to mediate, I don’t want to compromise or sit at a table and discuss our opposing views. This isn’t polarization anymore. This is a moral choice, to stand with monsters or against them. And I know how awful that sounds, how dehumanizing and demonizing, and what this government and the racism has done to me results in what I am now—someone sick with vengeance, who wants to feel this way, who is comforted by nothing else.

And if I feel that way, a newbie on the outskirts, what must countless others feel? For those still shouting peace I feel nothing but awe. There was a Kurdish woman whose video went viral on Twitter after the killings. She shouted, “We will have peace. Kill us, murderer us, butcher us. We will still have peace!”

I’m not that good anymore. If I ever was.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Bienal: Part 2

On Saturday, we went to Beyoğlu and Karaköy for Bienal exhibits. As I explained in my last entry, most of the installations are inside the city, not in a museum or a special venue but in the old mansions and köşks and historical buildings that normally are all boarded up or somehow else impossible to enter. A living part of Istanbul that makes the city and her past as much on display as the art. Each piece and place reflects and echoes some of the fear and darkness of the past, and of the present.

In Beyoğlu, we found an exhibit in a Greek mansion built in 1915. The artist has carved into what looks like slices of trees Armenian symbols and placed them in the ceiling. You lie on yoga mats on the floor and look up at them. The symbols are especially known by local "treasure" plunderers, for when the Armenians were driven out of their villages, they often hid their belongings somewhere in the landscape--or so it was believed--and marked or mapped out the location with these symbols carved into rocks. There are snakes and hawks and scorpions and ghostly figures marching in a line. The house itself is abandoned and dilapidated. You can wander all the floors. The walls themselves are works of art--layers and layers of colors painted one over the other and chipped and rotted and decayed.

Down the road from the Greek mansion, is an empty parking garage scheduled for demolition by the demolition-obsessed city government. Not that it's an architectural wonder or anything--just a vast empty gray space in which an exhibition consisting exclusively of sound has been installed. Clicks and drips and heartbeats and echoes of car noises fill the empty space. A blue collar place about to be gentrified into a upscale mall or hotel.

Down on Bank Street, a few Bienal exhibits are houses in the Salt Gallery, set in the gorgeous 19th century Neo Classic Ottoman Bank designed by Aléxandre Vallaury.

In the basement is an installation called "How Did We Get Here" about the censorship of books and life following the 1980 coup. It echoes what we are going through now--as journalists are attacked on the street, ordinary people are arrested for insulting Erdoğan during discussions in city parks, and a new campaign of coup-era nationalism has been revived resulting in war in the East and mob attacks on Kurds in the West. Among the titles censored by Turkey's military on "moral" grounds are Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the Plague by Albert Camus. The hatred of knowledge and science and intelligence and enlightenment is absolute.

In one section, artist Hale Tanger has reconstructed an apartment from the 1980s--complete with radio blasting military news and children's notebook filled with nationalist slogans and praises to Atatürk. All the rooms are Spartan, black and white, military clean--except for one. A small door leads to a closet full of hidden things--costumes, jeweled mirrors, colorful yarns. Soul and imagination and play stay cowered in the back.
Playing with the toys and costumes in the closet
In the Istanbul Modern, we see a young man with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down to his belly angrily approaching the young student workers one by one. "How dare you put something in this place that the State does not approve of!" he rants at one girl near the entrance. He spends at least an hour stomping from sign to sign, looking for the word "Armenian"--and every time he finds it, he harangues the nearest Bienal worker. It's almost a performance in itself. Will he come back with a mob and attack someone, burn something, kill someone even to deny there are killers in Turkey's past? Was he sent here by some government agency or just lone freak?

The angry young defender of the State

He hates this: A scroll painted with the crimson derived from an Anatolian insect. The secret of extracting the dye is known only now in Armenia. Drawings with the dye gradually give way to a more modern, industrial red--the red of the Turkish flag that blocks out the organic color of the past.

He hates this: a painting by an Australian, Vernon Ah Kee, who saw in the "violence in Turkey's East" a parallel with his government's oppression and massacres of the Aborigines, particularly the Palm Island riots of 2004.

This installation by Sonia Balassanian--an Iranian Armenian--particularly enraged the young man. It is tuff stone from quarries just over the Turkish border in Armenia, across from the ruins of Ani. Each one resembles a head and seems to recall the deportation and murder of Istanbul's Armenians in 1915 as well as the beheadings in the Middle East today. The man tells the young girl manning this installation, "You people have turned this place into a house to worship the Armenians and insult the motherland!"

Another exhibit takes the abstract economics data--graphs, charts, projections, and uses everyday materials to turn them into three dimensional forms. A rainbow colored pattern of sticks are the annual work fatalities in the coal industry, a three dimensional web of colored wire is a graph of industrial pollution over time. They are beautiful, and as Delal says, when I look at them, I get a strange feeling at the front of my forehead, like a part of my brain is developing that wasn't there before: the abstract ideas turned into math, turned into pictures, turned into toys.

One last exhibit is in the museum library, a thought experiment by Lebanese artist, Marwan Rechmaoui. It represents the kind of "partial censorship" prevalent in the world today, where the choices look like they are there, but nevertheless are not--a perfect metaphor for Turkey, where we are constantly being told by the government how free everything is and yet drowned in censorship. the library book shelves are covered with a clear plastic wall. In each section there is one slot where one book can (with difficulty) be pulled out and read. You can see all the others, but not touch them.

In the Italian high school is a film by a director from Inner Mongolia and a video by a German-Turk making a journey across Bulgaria to explore how the Ottoman past is remembered. From the top floor, glancing out the window toward the courtyard, you can see the vast ruins of the dilapidated French orphanage, now hidden behind other buildings in Beyoğlu. It's symbolic in itself--showing how behind the city's facades are gigantic relics of a past erased or purged.