Now, angry young men publish revolutionary poems in xeroxed magazines.
Sometimes, when politics gets too chaotic, you need poetry to make sense of it.
Like the time when millions of Turks took to the streets and almost brought down the authoritarian regime but in the end they only rushed the descent into dictatorship.
“We felt powerful. We would change something. We thought we could win.” says Volkan, a young Turk who jumped in over his head in the Gezi Park protest of 2013. It was the happiest moment of my life. He lived in that park for a week. He built a free library for protesters and he carried away the wounded. Too many were injured, too many people died, too many lost their eyes. They screamed.
Poetry of Dictatorship
by Vlad Ursulean / casajurnalistului.ro
The government waited for a rainy day and then it attacked. It was early in the morning. We could only hold them back for a couple of hours. And then we ran. Hundreds of people killed. Hundreds of thousands of purges. Hundreds of newspapers crushed.
Silence. Now, angry young men publish revolutionary poems in xeroxed magazines. Don’t think that poetry is only a thing for fiery young men. Erdogan himself, before being supreme leader, went to jail for reciting a verse. This one:
The mosques are our barracks,
the domes our helmets,
the minarets our bayonets,
and the believers our soldiers.
Volkan is a big fan of Tristan Tzara and you can see it in his hairstyle, in his room, in his life, in the magazine he’s editing. He pours into it the hopes of his generation. It’s called VOID Zine.
He went to his first protest when he was three years old. His mother took him, she was a teacher in Adana. It was a demonstration for a journalist who was killed. For some time he wanted to be a journalist himself, but he chose life. He went to Istanbul to study film. He lived on Taksim, he worked in a bar there, that’s where he met his friends and that’s where he tried to make a revolution.
Hard to live in Istanbul after this. Police everywhere. The islamic society puts pressure on you. My mind always tried to hide. People don’t even want to go back there so they won’t remember. says James Hakan Dedeoğlu, a friend of Volkan, who edited a proper cultural magazine BANT Mag. for the last 15 years.
After the ‘80s, marked by a military coup, Turkish culture opened up in the ’90s to the West. Its core was Taksim. It was rough, chaotic. Everybody had a voice. When Erdogan came to power, he triggered an economic boom and an era of islamic capitalism. Everywhere they built malls and mosques. That’s how the Taksim revolution began, with protests against the demolition of a historic cinema. The police attacked film directors, sprayed them with tear gas.
Poetry made a jump!
Gezi was so strong, so powerful, but it ended in a bad way. It was a defeat. People retreated to their neighbourhoods. They started doing things locally.
“Poetry made a jump!”
shouts poet Şevket Kağan Şimşekalp while listening to Metallica at full volume. In the underground there’s a very strong reaction to this dictatorship. He thinks the whole society suffers from some kind of mental illness and this is its chance to wake up. In the ‘80s, an apolitical generation was born. Sleeping people were created. They did not wake up until Gezi. The poet gets filled with enthusiasm, he claims the rebirth of poetry as computer programming, then falls into himself: Avant-garde poets in the East are either put in prison or hanged…
“I try to resist. I write poetry. revolutions too like grand plans can’t be plotted in great detail.”
Political poetry is a local tradition. says Efe Duyan, poet and professor at the University of Arts. Poetry is political since the 19th Century. The elites were poets. They saw the French Revolution and came back with ideas of nationalism and modernism and futurism. Also a local tradition: sending poets to prison. Nâzım Hikmet, the most important poet, was sentenced to 28 years. Everything he was writing was a shock. In the ‘60s and ’70s, every demonstration had poets reading. Efe Duyan was himself arrested while attending demonstrations. 10 years ago I spent 10 days in prison. They took me in, beat me like crazy. That’s when you see what they really are. They don’t believe in this democracy bullshit.
Taksim changed Erdogan. He was so affraid of the revolution he quit the role of democrat. He became a proper dictator. I’m openly opposed, but I try to say it in a careful way. Even students could go to the police after the course. These things happen. Trying to stay hopeful trying to live drinking out wearing a skirt asking for some basic justice maybe less corruption… I always had this feeling that I have to change the world. I try to resist. I write poetry. revolutions too like grand plans can’t be plotted in great detail.
Sometimes, you don’t even have to write it yourself to get in trouble.
Doctor Altay Öktem was forced to resign from his hospital in Istanbul because he owned a collection of illegal magazines.
My colleagues saw I was collecting fanzines and asked me: Are you satanist?
“In those times they were on a satanist hunt. Police made list of rockers. They picked them up on the street if they had long hair or black shirts. He got away by resigning and ended up writing books about underground culture. When he was little, he didn’t like football. He liked to read. His father was an officer, so he sent him to a military highschool. I didn’t like militarism! I was depressed. When I had a bit of time, I read poetry. Poems helped me. Turkey was very chaotic. Lots of people were killed that year, In 1980 there was a military coup. They fired me because I was a socialist. I was 16 years old! I didn’t even know what socialism means. There was chaos. How could I earn money? I went to medicine, because I like to help people. My job was very bloody. Lots of dead people.”
In the meantime, he read Ginsberg and Edgar Allan Poe.
He started to collect fanzines, informal xeroxed magazines passed around peer-to-peer. They had interesting ideas, but couldn’t write them in legal magazines. They had famlies, you know… The protest in Taksim was the moment when his passion took over his life. He went into the street with his family. In Turkey nobody felt freedom like this before. Only in Gezi park I feel myself free. They think we are terrorists Actually, we are the best side of Turkey. We live like Europeans. We drink beer, we have sex… We lost our utopia. We have lots of dystopias, but no utopia anymore. We have to fight with the government. The pencil is a weapon.
Turkish songs about fighting eternal enemies.
I wake up late in the morning. OMG, it’s election day! While I was sleeping, millions of people already voted. My head is roaring with all the people I’ve been talking to. I don’t understand how they can live like this, between terror and exaltation. Last days I’ve been to an opposition march and I saw millions of Turks fluttering like flags and shouting like loudspeakers amplifying the contender, a mustached physics teacher who once wrote erotic poems. Did you ever hear millions of people shouting together one word at a time? The hills are trembling. The Marmara sea resounds. And it still resounds in my head, through last night’s beers and Turkish songs about fighting eternal enemies.
I go out into the streets, automatic rifles everywhere, like it was in the marches for Erdogan, who toured the country in a bus featuring his huge face, surrounded by a personal army, with helicopters buzzing around and snipers mumbling on rooftops. Armed soldiers were throwing toys to children hanging on fences. People animated by the thought that all the other places are not safe. This can’t go on, Volkan tells me. He used to think that all the parties are the same crap, but this time you just can’t stay on the side. It’s all or nothing. We go to a voting place filled with portraits of sultans and security cameras. Then we go to a funeral. I go out into the streets, automatic rifles everywhere, like it was in the marches for Erdogan, who toured the country in a bus featuring his huge face, surrounded by a personal army, with helicopters buzzing around and snipers mumbling on rooftops. Armed soldiers were throwing toys to children hanging on fences. People animated by the thought that all the other places are not safe. This can’t go on, Volkan tells me. He used to think that all the parties are the same crap, but this time you just can’t stay on the side. It’s all or nothing. We go to a voting place filled with portraits of sultans and security cameras. Then we go to a funeral.
A friend of his, an artist died in shady circumstances and is now covered in a green blanket with a verse from the Holy Quran “Every creature will taste death”. Young people with leather jackets and spikes are hugging each other while the imam is shouting: Allāhu akbar
then they shove him into a van, fasten him with a belt and leave, almost running over a cat missing the tip of its ear.
In the evening we hear gunshots. They’re celebrating. Others are protesting. People are running around chanting. Young men cheering for Erdogan and islamist girls from the allied party are snaking around the streets. Here and there a brawl. They brought water cannons in our neighbourhood.
The morning after. I wake up at noon, on the floor, with a swollen head – can’t even remember why. Ashes everywhere, chants of a muezzin creeping in through a broken window, waking up the others. They look at one another, confused, remember what happened and shrug in disbelief. They gather around a table, open a notebook and brainstorm: what now?
The paper stays blank.
I went to Turkey last year (2019 Summer) for the elections that democratically enshrined the authoritarian regime. All the people I knew there left the country when things got nasty.
Where could I go? Who should I talk to? I told my dilemma to a hardcore German photographer who I was hosting in The House of Journalists. He put me in touch with a guy named Erman who told me everything is fine in Istanbul then sent me his fanzine, which said ‘people not protest anymore, but commit suicide.’
Bucharest looked like a neighbourhood of Istanbul when I left in a bus full of thieves and smugglers thinking that I have the best chance of getting arrested. Erman picked me up in the Kadıköy harbour and put me in contacts with loads of people from the underground scene, then he vanished just like that.
He liked Emil Cioran and was depressed like many of the people I met in those horrible days for the free spirit. I was horrified myself because there was a similarity to the situation in Romania and other countries seduced by illiberalism. I took me a year to write this poem as a tribute fanzine.
Meanwhile, Romania cut the head of its ruling party Turkey voted against Erdogan for the first time and Volkan published a dystopian SF novel very popular on insta stories.