Coup d’état Fiction: A Curiously Turkish Genre

In the wake of the military’s badly botched putsch, as of July 21st Turkey finds itself once again living under a formal State of Emergency (SOE). This should not come as a big surprise to many citizens, because according to Dr. Zafer Üskül, a law professor and founding member of the Turkish Human Rights Organization, as of 2001 during “40 of its 78 years the Republic of Turkey had, in some form or another, been under extraordinary rule,” (Wikipedia). Prominent among them, of course, being the military coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980.

President Erdoğan’s decision to declare a three-month SOE, while strongly supported by many Turks nationwide, certainly has its critics — though many must be fearful of speaking out. In Why State of Emergency Brings Back Bad Memories in Turkey, Diyarbakir-based Mahmut Bozarslan reminds us of what happened after it was implemented in several Kurdish-dominated provinces in southeastern Turkey starting July 19, 1987:

With the SOE regime, Turkey saw the emptying of villages. It started at Anilmis and Boyunyaka villages of Sirnak, continued with Diyarbakir’s Kelekci and would be repeated thousands of times.

Some villages were emptied for allegedly supporting the PKK, while others were abandoned under PKK pressure or for refusing to join the government-sponsored village guards. Villages were set on fire to prevent their residents’ return. According to a report by a parliamentary investigation committee in 1998, 905 villages and 2,523 rural settlements were emptied and 378,335 people were uprooted until that point. Civil society groups say the numbers are far greater.

This State of Emergency only ended in late 2002, after 15 years.

Bozarslan’s article was published in Al-Monitor, an independent online newspaper that reports on the Middle East. At this tense moment in Turkish politics, it is unlikely we will see many such opinion pieces that openly or indirectly criticize the post-coup actions undertaken by Erdoğan’s administration. One key reason: Like the army, judiciary and academia, the media is currently a prime target for purges. Just in the last few days, the Turkish authorities have “ordered the shutdown of 45 newspapers, three news agencies, 16 television channels, 15 magazines and 29 publishers in a decree that was published in the government’s official gazette on Wednesday,” according to the New York Times.  Arrest warrants have been issued for 47 journalists employed at Zaman newspaper, and 17 journalists have been charged with membership of a terror group.

Intriguingly, the Daily Sabah has published an article in which Hasan Bülent Kahraman, a professor of political and art philosophy at Kadir Has University, talks about how writers have dealt with modern Turkey’s tumultuous political history.

As the Red Carnation Fades“In Turkey we have a very rich ‘coup literature’,” he said [to his interviewer Kaya Genç]. “ ‘Coup novels’ are a genre of our literature. There are novels dedicated to describing the May 27, 1960 coup, for example. From Attila İlhan to Vedat Türkali, numerous authors have contributed to it, and looked at the atmosphere before and after that coup.”

Indeed. Just the “September 12 coup” alone generated some 200 political novels, according to Ece Cihan Ertem’s Political Novels of 1980 Coup d’état in Turkey. In her paper, Ertem, a Ph D. candidate in modern Turkish political history and sociology of education at Boğaziçi U, examines several novels by female writers that deal with the pre- and post-coup era. The novels mainly focus on “political immigration, prisons during the 1980 coup d’état, universities, political organizations, torture performed by the governmental entities, the political participation of working class and leftist political organizations, social changes after the 1980 coup, and the place of women activists in political organizations.”

Inspired by Genç’s interview with Kahraman, I’ve done a bit of online research into “coup d’état” novels that are available for those (Turkish illiterates) among us who want to get a feeling for what life might have been like in Turkey when democratic institutions were sidelined and power was almost totally usurped by a dictatorship. Sarah Waskom’s paper entitled Turkish State and Self Identity in Adalet Ağaoğlu’s Curfew and Bilge Karasu’s Night was also useful in compiling this list:

Dawn by Sevgi Soysal (excerpt)

The novel takes place in the southern Turkish city of Adana in the early 1970s following a military Snow by Orhan Pamukcoup on March 12 of 1971 which sought to restore order in the country after a period of economic instability and political violence. As they await interrogation, the protagonists Oya and Mustafa reflect on the recent developments in their lives that led them to the dinner at Mustafa’s uncle’s house that night. Unable to establish a solid case against them, the police are ordered to set them free just before dawn.

Night by Bilge Karasu (novel)

This Kafkaesque political parable, first published in Turkey in 1984, evokes the fear and paralysis of will that grip ordinary citizens in a modern police state. Karasu’s dystopia is a tyranny where squads of “nightworkers” randomly shoot or beat victims to death. The plot concerns a nameless, open-minded writer whose ex-schoolmate (known simply as “N”), now the head of a repressive state agency, orders him to attend a symposium abroad. The writer learns in advance that he is to be shot — though not killed — at the conference for propaganda purposes. Sevinc, the agent assigned to set him up, becomes his homosexual lover; another agent, Sevim, N’s former wife, develops a conscience and turns up dead on the writer’s doorstep. In postmodern footnotes, Karasu periodically interrupts the narrative to further the plot while commenting on its artifice.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (novel)

Believe it or not, this doesn’t take place in Pamuk’s beloved Istanbul. See the review, Headscarves to Die For.

As the Red Carnation Fades by Feyza Hepçilingirler (novel)

The story of a young female lecturer of Turkish literature who struggles as a woman and a mother to stake out her own claims to life. Following the military coup of 1980, martial law was established in Turkey with the aim of putting an end to the widespread social strife that had arisen as adherents of political movements turned to violence, and universities became hotbeds of protests and dissent. The narrator refuses to compromise her intellectual integrity and dedication to teaching, encouraging her students to think critically and debate. In the anti-Leftist environment of the time, she finds herself driven from her post in Izmir and reappointed to the far-flung Black Sea coast, where she is “exiled” for her supposed Leftist beliefs.

Curfew by Adalet AğaoğluCurfew by Adalet Ağaoğlu (novel)

Curfew is set in Turkey on a June evening in 1980, a time of revolutionary conflict, a military coup, martial law, and curfew. Seven people — lovers, friends, relatives — are gathered in different parts of Turkey: Ankara, Istanbul, and the Anatolian town of Eskisehir. Throughout the evening, the characters play out their shared history, their disagreements, and their hopes.

Don’t Let Them Shoot the Kite, by Feride Çiçekoğlu (movie)

Award-winning movie by the same name as the novel (Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar), which has not appeared in English as far as I know. Although the author was not an “activist,” she was interrogated because of certain questions she posed in her Ph D thesis, and sentenced to four years of incarceration. It is based on her real-life prison memoirs, but centers on a child who is brought up in prison.

2 thoughts on “Coup d’état Fiction: A Curiously Turkish Genre

  1. Hi Bruce,
    All very sad. We were in Turkey in 1972. Another beautiful country on the list of beautiful countries being destroyed by violent politics: Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Brazil ……. you get my drift. Just reading this morning in the Toronto papers about the heavy-handed crackdown in the Philippines and the scary mess that is Rio, both places that we spent time in way back when. And what word kept repeating in my head? Trump. Trump. Trump. We live in interesting times…


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