Turkey’s rulers say the world does not understand how much the attempted coup in mid-July traumatized the country. To judge by three weeks in the rural backwoods of the southern province of Antalya, they are not far wrong. But the distress is not just because of the shocking acts of the night of July 15, but also the aftermath.
At first glance, much looked normal around my part-time village home in the pine- and cedar-clad mountains of the Mediterranean coast. Roadbuilding continues. Provincial markets bustle with people and overflow with fresh produce. The country’s politicians are even making a show of overcoming their partisan divides.
But daily life is moving visibly more slowly. And underneath it all, most ordinary people in this country of 79 million are in a deeply apprehensive funk.
Unless uttered among trusted friends, once free-flowing diatribes about politicians dry up or turn into worried whispers. Weeks after the coup was crushed, national television stations still broadcast feverish programming in the name of national unity. Business people say they feel paralyzed. Tourism had already been hit by an eight-month long travel ban imposed by Russia after Turkey shot down a warplane on the Syrian border in November, and the bombing of Istanbul airport in March. Nobody in the sector has a clue what to plan for next.
Keeping up appearances is a well-established art in a country that has long suffered rollercoaster swings of sentiment and boom-and-bust economic cycles. But Turks fear that many real, broad achievements of the past two decades are unraveling. While everything may turn out alright in the end, as everyone says they hope, the frightening forces now at work mean nobody knows how bad it will get before it gets better.
A long-running Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency is back with a vengeance. It is not just crippling the southeast of the country. Since the conflict span out of control again a year ago it has killed more than 1,900 people, including 650 members of the security forces from all over the country.
A typical funeral in August near Antalya for a commando killed by a landmine showed how each new casualty adds layers of trauma with female relatives weeping and kissing photos of the “immortal martyr,” officers wiping sweat from the brows of the honor guard in the sweltering heat, a huge Turkish flag leading a procession of thousands to the dead soldier’s family house, and a huddle of politicians in attendance, including the provincial governor, the mayor and several members of parliament.
The spillover of Syria’s war is no longer just the burden of 2.7 million refugees, a surprising number of whom are making new lives working in Antalya’s greenhouses, garages and workshops. Over the southeastern frontier with Syria, Turkish troops have in the past month been openly sucked into cross-border ground operations. And over the past year, the suicide bombers of Islamic State have kept relentlessly and skillfully probing Turkey’s ethnic, economic and religious fault lines.
And now there is the phenomenon of what the government and the newspapers call FETO/PDY, an obscure formulation meaning something like “Fethullah Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure.” This refers to a Sunni Muslim movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a former cleric now in exile in Pennsylvania. For years, Gulenists were opportunistic allies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But a struggle between the two broke into the open three years ago. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plausibly blames the coup attempt on Gulenists who had infiltrated the military.
The problem is that Fethullah Gulen’s multitude of adherents have been working assiduously for four decades to be appointed to key posts in Turkish institutions. To outsiders, they talked little of their religious bonds. Those close to the network could often be worldly, moderate and progressive, part of an international network of hundreds of schools and civil society charities that supported each other in business and more recently in sponsoring political figures.
However, as early as the 1990s, Turkish military officers shared video evidence with reporters that appeared to show their leader’s explicit intent to win power. Now they are seen to have been behind the coup, and the government is acting to uproot what it regards as a mortal threat. Prosecutors say that Gulenists had risen to high levels in all provinces, except perhaps for Tunceli, known as Dersim in Kurdish, with its strong Alevi, or non-Sunni community. That means that national politics is no longer something remote that happens in Istanbul or Ankara, each a long day’s drive away from Antayla. Deep in the coastal mountains of a province like Antalya, it is has all become suddenly and scarily local.
Every day, local newspapers have pictures of glum lines of policemen being led away for questioning by other policemen. Teachers are being removed from their jobs, and a university in a neighboring province is one of 15 across the country that has been summarily shut down. Headshots show several local kayimakams (district prefects), normally the state’s first line of provincial authority, who have lost their jobs or worse. Even Antalya’s deputy governor has been removed from his post.
“It’s not like before. There are judges, prosecutors, even businessmen being taken away for no reason anyone can understand. It feels like anybody can denounce anyone. Our institutions may not have been great, but we knew what to expect. Now if you have a problem, you don’t know who to turn to any more,” one hardware store owner told me — once he’d stepped out of his shop.
These are not the only certainties under attack. The once all-powerful Turkish armed forces, which have seen their mighty prerogatives cut hugely over the past decade, are now suffering the indignity of seeing civilians take aim at their large urban property holdings. In Antalya’s city center, a demolition excavator made the front pages as it smashed down a gendarmerie-owned building as a symbolic first step.
But as the AKP leaders voice multiple and doubtless sincere apologies for having been “cheated” by their former Gulenist allies in power, there is a puzzle. The newspapers cheered as former football star and Gulen associate Hakan Sukur — a member of parliament for AKP before falling out with the ruling party — was stripped of scores of assets including a building in Antalya. But AKP’s loyalist former speaker of parliament Cemil Cicek begged for understanding for his past relationship with the Gulenists, and seemed to be getting away with it.
“Maybe I got the plague 90% … but Turkey is really the country of people who’ve been fooled, politically, religiously and commercially. And the easiest cheating is with religion,” Cicek told the newspaper Hurriyet. “[The Gulenists] are being cleaned out of the state now. If everything was transparent, this wouldn’t happen. What’s important is who will take their place. Otherwise it’ll all just happen again.”
The erosion of transparency and the rule of law is indeed what is possibly most disturbing thing for most ordinary people.
The move to start legal procedures against 80,000 suspects nationwide — in Antalya province alone, 257 people had been arrested, 345 detained and 149 were on the run by Aug. 13 — has had consequences beyond fears that people will try to settle local scores through random denunciations. Ugly messaging lurks behind the bruised faces of some of the suspects taken in, or the indubitable truth of the news story about a family retrieving the body of a diabetic FETO/PDY “suspect” who mysteriously died in custody. State institutions refused to offer his family its right to a normal burial.
As the uncertainty spreads, nobody can miss the economic downturn. One of my village neighbors normally manages big busy hotels, but cannot find work. Those of his peers who do find jobs have to accept nominal wages or even just room and board. The lack of visitors means that one of Antalya’s two airport terminals has closed, marooning a newly opened tramway station. The tramway extension was built for Antalya’s Expo 2016, an international horticultural and youth celebration running until end-October, but now struggling to make an impact after years of preparation. The British singer Sting canceled a planned concert at the opening because of the situation.
Some people in Turkey appear to think it is still business as usual. When she returned from a five-day trip to Europe, columnist Gulse Birsel wrote in the Sunday supplement of Hurriyet newspaper that “if Turkey is a holiday village with all-in entertainment, Europe is like an old age pensioners’ camp!” She added: “Turks who keep shouting ‘let’s get out of here’ should know that after getting used to this level of adrenaline, you’ll miss Turkey a lot…”
Would Turks really miss today’s febrile uncertainty? I reread the column and discovered I could not be sure whether the writer was being satirical. Many newspapers now appear to be communicating in code, but it is not clear what the key is. As my hardware store friend put it, “The biggest problem is, we simply have no idea what to believe any more.”
The bombs in my new hometown of Brussels didn’t go off close to me. But they did kind of wake me up.
In Brussels airport’s modest departure hall, the explosions were at places I’ve passed through a hundred times over the years. Many of my acquaintances have done so too. The boyfriend of the online editor who works at the desk beside me was on his way to check in, and a colleague was parking her car nearby.
Shortly afterward, a mile away from us, another bomb exploded on a crowded metro train between Schumann and Maalbeek stations, killing 20 people, ripping the carriage into twisted metal and filling the underground with screams and choking smoke. My 12-year-old daughter had taken a nearby metro to school just an hour earlier.
Brussels is not a big town. My former home of Istanbul has as many people as the whole of Belgium, and it probably takes more time to drive across. As my neighbour said as I met her walking her dog that morning, when something bad happens you always know somebody connected to it. I’m new here, so luckily for me, I knew nobody who was hurt. But my daughter’s schoolfriends did.
After 33 years living in the Middle East, I’d have thought I was immune to shock. I’ve seen plenty of bombs. My reporting job took me to warfronts, and once trapped me for ten weeks in a Sudanese town under rebel siege. The 2003 car bomb at Istanbul’s British Consulate-General sent its gatehouse up in smoke before my eyes. In 1983 I even witnessed one of the Middle East’s first suicide car bombs, when, as I describe in my book Dining with al-Qaeda, “a shockwave of explosive force whomped through the office … a column of evil, yellowish smoke and debris was spiraling up into the sky … ” (I’ve reproduced the page below).
But somehow these Brussels bombings shook me up, even though I didn’t go near them.
Perhaps it’s because just three days before, an apparently Islamist suicide bomber attacked the Istanbul street where until recently I had lived for 15 years, the latest of several such attacks in Turkey. We could pass the spot several times a day. At the moment of the blast, our caretaker’s son was taking an exam opposite. He sent pictures of what he saw, gruesome, guts-spilling-over-the-pavement images of the four crumpled dead and the stunned gaze of the injured .
Perhaps it was because I thought that by moving to Europe, I was coming somewhere safe. Perhaps I underestimated the angry sentiments of the pro-Islamic State element in the Brussels inner city districts; a journalist friend told me of residents stoning and harassing him as police arrested the organiser of the Paris attacks in the Moroccan district, telling him: “What are you doing? Belgians shouldn’t come here”.
Perhaps it was because I’ve started to identify with one charming Belgium, and have now learned that there is another, less predictable country inside it.
Perhaps my anxiety was also because of the throw-away comments I’ve been hearing in meetings with Western political leaders, or listening to those who mix with them. They are a steady drumbeat of defeatism: “the situation is catastrophic”, “things are out of control”, “my generation was spoiled, and has failed”, or “the crises are piling on top of each other like we’ve never seen before”. After a meeting with the German chancellor during the euro crisis, one German party leader confided that the worst part of it was a sense that nobody knew what to do.
In Brussels on Tuesday 22 March, though, my unease was definitely because I knew I was watching conflict spread. Pale-faced people around me were going through the painful initiation into what what the denizens of war zones have to get used to: calling family and friends as news of real attacks mix with false rumours; discovering the narrow escapes of partners and colleagues; sharing shaken feelings as old certainties crumble; and staying anxious until you learn that everyone connected to you is safe.
Normally, too, my work has long been to pronounce on what’s best for far-away countries. Even Istanbul often felt like a spaceship hovering alongside the rest of Turkey. But on the day of the Brussels bombs, it was reporters from Africa, China, Lebanon and, yes, Turkey, who called up to seek comment on the twin attacks that had paralysed Brussels for much of the day. Perhaps I was still in partial denial about the meaning of the 9 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., and the ones in London, Paris, and Madrid. Now I live here, I get it. The angry Middle East’s conflicts really have gone global.
It’s not only the new reach of the so-called Islamic State that make Belgium feel inter-connected. The country is a famously close neighbour to France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. On top of that, my new house in Brussels feels as though it is in the midst of a neo-Ottoman empire, within short walking distance of a Bulgarian cafe, a Macedonian Turkish bar, a Moroccan furniture shop, a Greek corner store, and streets of Turkish butchers, tile merchants and grocers. Beyond them is a veritable casbah of Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian and other shops spilling their cheap clothing, bedding and wedding finery onto the street.
The languages spoken around me on Brussels trams make the city feel like every nation within a radius of one thousand miles is represented. Forty nationalities were represented among the bombing casualties. Indeed, the refugee influx of the past year is no great conceptual shock. The city is not just the geographic heart of Europe, but in terms of its population, it has Russia, the Middle East and north Africa coursing through its veins.
For me, in short, Europe and the Middle East overlap in Brussels, and indeed in many other European cities. I like Brussels all the more for that diversity and energy, and feel I should understand both sides. As an adopted Middle Easterner, I know the role the West, actively or negligently, has played over the past century in stoking up the mayhem that is now biting it back. And as a convinced European, I wish more could be done to integrate communities that could contribute much in the long term, and in any event, cannot be wished away.
I hope my new European neighbours can learn to feel that way too, and to tell the truth, many of the ones I know do. But for now, violent conflicts, bombings and wailing sirens in the streets are an increasing part of both sides of the Europe-Middle East equation.
The page in Dining with al-Qaeda describing the first bombing I witnessed, with my then colleague David Zenian, as a news agency reporter in Lebanon in April 1983:
Sometimes a novel can get across what others’ life is like more indelibly than the best-written news story. That’s certainly the case for the Turkish-Dutch marriage at the heart of Jessica JJ Lutz’s new novel De Nederlandse Bruid (De Geus, 2014). Like good non-fiction, this confident handling of a far-away culture has clearly been years in the making, and the well-told tale transports the reader to the heart of a normally inaccessible group of characters. And at a time when Europe is struggling with questions of Muslim, Turkish and other integration, it neatly flips the debate on its head by following a European migrant into Muslim lands.
The story of ‘The Bride from Holland’ is that of a young Dutchwoman, Emma, an under-employed recent university graduate who decides to follow love and the star of her fate. When her fellow-student boyfriend suddenly has to wrap up his studies in Holland and take over his dying father’s business, she leaves her homeland behind and travels east to stand at his side in his new job: clan lord of a remote Euphrates mountain valley in Turkey’s Kurdish borderlands.
Despite her privileges, Emma soon finds she has exchanged the middle-class comforts of north Europe for hard work, chronic feuding, codes of family honour, everyday deaths, loves, jealousies, suffocating traditions and lies that live for generations — the kind of all-or-nothing society that Shakespeare had to go to mediaeval Italy to find. For days after finishing the story, I couldn’t shake this completely convincing world out of my head, and wished that I could have stayed a part of it for longer.
The tightly woven plot is seamlessly sustained – a wedding, a murder, a suicide, adultery, treachery, ancient gold, a road, a mountain insurgents’ war and more – without losing any of Turkey’s intimate, audio-visual reality. People live vividly in the present tense, but are unable to cut themselves off from their past. And along the way, a first disoriented Emma is forced to grow up, find herself, and discover that even today, eastern marcher lords and their ladies, like everyone else, have many a dragon to slay before they can hope to secure their realm or riches.
A rural community in Turkey is no easy place to discover on one’s own. Much is left unsaid to outsiders, and more drama unfolds inside it than is apparent on the surface of poor concrete houses and chaotic family smallholdings. Jessica Lutz draws characters as they are, without a wasted word or a hint of condescension. The polished plot sweeps smoothly from the Rhine estuary commuter town of Ijsselstein to the ancient hill country of Gerger, which overlooks what is now the huge lake of Euphrates river water backed up behind the Ataturk Dam. The narrative is propelled forward by sharp, gripping dialogue that crackles with humour and cunning.
There’s one such comic moment a series of misunderstandings at the wedding – including a bottle of goat’s blood – when the bridegroom has to exclaim to his headstrong new wife: “Listen, here we don’t get married for pleasure”. Later, hearing tales of past battles when touring their new hardscrabble domains, Emma asks why the village clansmen no longer spend their winters pursuing heavily-armed blood feuds. She is told simply: “There’s television now”. Above all, what comes through is a Turkish Kurd community that is obviously very different in its concerns about religion and honour from Dutch society, but also principally motivated by much the same things as Europeans: power, love, land, jobs, money — and quick illicit profit if it might be got away with.
Lucky Dutch readers, who are already able to devour this novel. Buy it now! And producers of Turkish sitcoms, you need look no further for your next dramatic story. As for those other worried Europeans who struggle to make sense of how their societies are becoming ever-further intertwined with those of their Muslim countries to the east, I hope you will get the chance to read ‘The Bride from Holland’. Europeans are right to be worried by the problems of slow development in their eastern neighbourhood. But there’s a lot Europeans may not know, and above all, do not feel about their neighbours. When they finish a rare book like this, truly and elegantly able to reflect the inner dynamics of Anatolian society, they’ll find that they are a lot less scared.
(This is a version of an article published in Turkey’s Today’s Zaman. For the record: I am married to Jessica JJ Lutz.)
De Nederlandse Bruid, 234 pp, was published by De Geus in Breda, Holland in November 2014. Dutch paperback and ebook versions can be bought from the publisher here.
Endorsements and Reviews
“With some thirty years’ experience in Turkey, Jessica Lutz is the Netherlands’ best-informed connoisseur of this region. After her very successful book, ‘The Golden Apple: Turkey between East and West’, she has now turned to fiction. ‘The Bride from Holland’ is not just an exciting book. It lives and breathes Lutz’s deep bond with this land”. – Bram Vermeulen, Netherlands’ 2008 Journalist of the Year and a Dutch TV correspondent in Africa and Turkey.
“‘The Dutch Bride’ grabs you from the first pages, drags you into the claustrophobic isolation of a Kurdish village. Does love really conquer all? You will discover the limits of idealism, good intentions, and your belief that you can do things differently.” – Joris Luyendijk, Dutch anthropologist and best-selling author on the Middle East.
“An extraordinarily stirring and atmospheric book, which intensely brings to life the fragrance and hues of one of the most beautiful places on earth.” – Stine Jensen, Netherlands’ leading television philosopher.
“A thrilling cultural novel, in which the reader cannot escape from their own prejudices. Hooray, that a book this classy can still be written and published! Absolutely worth it: I read it at a gallop from beginning to end”. – Ebru Umar, Dutch-Turkish author, columnist and women’s magazine editor.
“A must-read in which the characters are tangibly real and the raw east of Turkey comes to life. I could almost see the morning light and smell the scent of wild flowers. Jessica describes the traditions, customs and life so vividly that I became homesick for my beautiful, complicated country”. – Fidan Ekiz, Dutch-Turkish television personality.
“Very successful, counter-intuitive and enriching … the cultural-historical background is woven into the personalities, dialogues and plot. In one great, flowing movement you are taken on a journey to an out-of-the-ordinary-world place where, amazingly easily, you can recognise your fellow man”. – Maryse Vincken, De Scriptor, 30 Nov 2014.
“An excellent, realistic, and most of all intriguing story. It’s a contemporary novel full of idealism and dreams, which find traditions and hard life standing in the way, without being unbelievable for a moment. The flowing writing style and the fine exploration of emotions, doubts and threatening situations complete the whole. I enjoyed it and while reading I felt that I was right there in Anatolia … five stars!” – Patrice, Leesclub van lettervreters De Perfecte Buren, 16 December 2014.
“A fascinating book with many unexpected twists and a surprising end … I really recommend it, especially for those who want insights into Turkey behind the scenes, and beyond inter-cultural frictions”. Nikolaos van Dam, former Dutch ambassador to Turkey, Middle East specialist and author.