The unbearable sadness of being a Turk this summer

Mehmet (16) years old student works in his father's 25 years old store in Kucukpazar, Istanbul.
Due to restrictions on schools, he can take his online classes in the store and help his father. Kucukpazar, Istanbul,Turkey 2021.

Turkey fares better than some of its neighbours, yet worsening circumstances have led to widespread dejection

This summer, every day in Turkey seems to bring a new outrage. The latest is the wildfires that have ravaged much of the south in recent days, killing at least six people, threatening an already troubled summer tourist season and destroying some of the country’s most beloved green spaces and coastal areas.

When Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stepped out of his family home in Antalya to defend the government’s response, he was booed, berated and jostled by dozens of angry neighbours who had helplessly watched the fires close in. A student seemed to sum up the mood after he tweeted a video of a wall of flames surging toward Marmaris’s modern resort towers as beach-goers hurriedly gathered their belongings.

“Not a scene from a horror movie,” he said. “This is Turkey.”

A perfect storm of apocalyptic natural disasters, pandemic-driven fears and restrictions, seemingly endless economic troubles and growing government incompetence have left Turkey teetering on the edge and its people at the end of their rope.

The evidence has been right in front of our noses for some time, on Turkish streets and college campuses, on social media, at the ballot box and beyond. But until last week’s release of the annual global emotions survey from leading pollster Gallup, an observer could not be certain that Turks lived with more stress than just about every other citizenry on Earth.

Tied for last place in terms of contentment, or first in terms of dissatisfaction, are Turkey and Lebanon – the only two countries out of more than 140 in which less than half the population finds some joy in their daily lives. And since Lebanon has faced that reality since 2019 and Turkey since 2018, the latter qualifies as the darker place.

The fires almost seem like a physical manifestation of the exasperation in so many Turkish hearts: 44 per cent experience daily anger, according to Gallup, second behind only Iraq. So why are people in countries such as Iran ($12,900 in PPP per capita income) and Bangladesh ($5,200) seemingly happier than people in Turkey ($27,660)?

Start with the muzzling of free speech. Nearly 200 news outlets have been shuttered in recent years, leaving a media landscape in thrall to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the second quarter of 2021, journalists went on trial at a rate of 2.5 per day. And the state continues to expand its reach: a fortnight ago, it moved to end foreign funding for media outlets and civil society actors. Speak out on social media and like thousands of others you will be charged with criticising the presidency. Attend a protest and you will be detained.

Maybe it’s best to focus on making and saving money. Good luck with that: five years ago, three Turkish liras were equal to $1; today it’s eight. The pandemic has driven some 1.5 million people into poverty, the World Bank reported, and inflation increased to 17.5 per cent in June, according to the government. The latter estimate is terribly low, says the Inflation Research Group, which puts the number at a wallet-busting 40 per cent.

Turkey’s unemployment rate has hovered around 13-14 per cent for the past two years. But researchers estimate youth unemployment is 40 per cent or higher, which has driven tens of thousands of the best and brightest to seek their fortune in the West.

This helps explain why Turkey topped the Nativism Index in the latest Ipsos survey, highlighting fierce resentment towards the four million refugees, and counting, that have been living in Turkey and snapping up unskilled jobs. But having a job is not much better: according to the International Trade Union Confederation, Turkey is for six years running among the world's 10 lowest-ranked countries for workers on various parameters, including basic rights and paid leave.

Need to blow off some steam? Bars in Turkey were closed for 16 months before reopening six weeks ago. Now they may face another shutdown as Covid-19 cases spike. Late night music is still banned across the country, which has seen a spate of artist suicides.

Turkey’s cultural life is so heavy these days that when the tourism ministry last week released a video promoting a gloriously vibrant Istanbul, Turkish social media users expressed confusion. “It’s so beautiful, I wonder what country this is,” said one. “Is this Turkey in a parallel universe without the AKP?” tweeted pop star Gaye Su Akyol.

In his 2011 autobiography, Istanbul, Turkish novelist and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote of "huzun", a Turkish word he used to explain the city’s melancholy. Its origin is the decline and fall of a great empire, the remnants of which are ubiquitous in the city and across Turkey. This deep spiritual loss occurs at a communal level, he argued: a black mood felt by millions.

In summer, one might think fresh air is the answer. But much of Turkey has faced a severe drought this year, resulting in those ferocious fires, dried up lakes and horrifying images of dead flamingoes. For several weeks this spring, the shorelines of Istanbul and the Marmara region were covered in sea slime. And now comes the news that the Asian tiger mosquito, a highly invasive species that can sting through clothing and carries diseases such as dengue, yellow fever and the West Nile virus, is thriving in Istanbul’s humidity.

Add it all up and Turkish citizens have the sneaking suspicion that their government is not up to the task, whatever that task may be. On Friday, just after Turkey’s Central Bank attached an image of precariously stacked Jenga blocks to a soon-deleted tweet about interest rates, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan conceded that Turkey had no fire-fighting planes of its own and had been forced – as when one runs out of sugar – to borrow from its neighbours.

“The country is not laughing anymore, unfortunately,” exiled Turkish journalist Can Dundar told me last year. “It’s a sad country now.”

Joy always seemed to be baked into the Turkish way of life. In October 1933, in a speech marking 10 years since his founding of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared: “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’!” In a country driven by nationalism, this proud assertion took root. In the early 1970s, the government added it to an oath for elementary and high school students to recite every morning.

Meant in part to distinguish people of Turkish background from minorities such as Kurds and Armenians, it was not only a nationalist exultation, but also an assertion of ethnic superiority. It was this element that drove the AKP, as part of its peace process with Kurdish militants, to move to put an end to the student oath in 2013.

The Turkish Education Association filed suit to block that move, but eight years later it failed. In March, Turkey’s Council of State removed the oath from students’ daily routine, drawing condemnation not only from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, but also from the AKP’s far-right partner, the Nationalist Movement Party.

Yet, it does seem fitting that the AKP – which seems to abhor good times, counters Ataturk’s western-leaning secularism with anti-western Islamism and may soon disenfranchise millions of Kurdish voters – is the party that took this joyful declaration out of the mouths of Turkish children, just as Turkey emerged as perhaps the least happy place on Earth.

Published: August 2nd 2021, 4:00 AM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National