Mark Rothko, the flag and Turkey's red future

The Turkish flag has started bringing two cultures of Turkey together, writes Kaya Genc

One of Mark Rothko's famous red prints on display in Munich. Johannes Simon / Getty Images
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The poster for Sunday's anti-coup rally in Istanbul's Yenikapi Square featured a young man wearing a bright red polo shirt. The man's right hand is raised up in the air, his five fingers outstretched in a gesture that says enough. He faces an army tank whose gun points ominously above him, in the direction of the viewer whose safety the protester protects. To my eyes the message that accompanies the image seemed anti-militarist, even a tad socialist: “The triumph belongs to democracy, and the squares belong to the people.”

The rally in Istanbul's Yenikapi Square will be remembered for the millions of people who attended it. Conservative, republican and nationalist party leaders stood side by side in Yenikapi, watching the surreal moments of the leader of Turkey's armed forces, who was kidnapped during the coup and was asked to sign a declaration supporting it at gunpoint, taking to the podium to apologise for the army's unruly behaviour.

This was the first time in Turkey's history when a chief of the general staff spoke to a civilian crowd to say he was against coups, rather than declaring he had just implemented one.

Meanwhile, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked about creating a new country. The idea is to reboot or relaunch Turkey: an old idea of a “new” Turkey.

The leader of the Republican People's Party Kemal Kilicdaroglu also used the phrase “New Turkey”, which was frequently used during the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk era.

“There is now a new Turkey after 15 July,” Mr Kilicdaroglu said. “If we can further this power, this culture of rapprochement, we will all be able to leave our children a great Turkey.”

The colour of this new era of rapprochement in Turkey's history is red – quite a change from yellow, the colour associated with Turkey's most successful conservative movements, Turgut Ozal's ANAP and Mr Erdogan's AKP.

Yellow – to me, a cold colour of self-interest and entrepreneurship – seems replaced by the passions associated with red: patriotism and a desire for independence. My mother, an artist, told me how the red colour of the Turkish flag is somewhere in between vermilion and cardinal. That colour is everywhere nowadays, from the newly designed Taksim Square (illuminated during the night by huge red lights) to the tens of thousands of posters placed in Istanbul's subway stations that read: “Hakimiyet Milletindir” (“The sovereignty belongs to the people”).

On Sunday afternoon, telecast images of flag-waving protesters reminded me, and my mother, of American painter Mark Rothko's famed paintings Red on Maroon and Four Darks in Red.

“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them,” Rothko famously said. A similar sentiment must have washed over those who watched images from Yenikapi Square. I can't remember witnessing a scene, or event, so strongly defined by a single colour.

The red colour in the Turkish flag is meant to symbolise the blood people had spilt while struggling to keep Turkey independent from invaders in the aftermath of the First World War. It is the war associations of that colour that will most likely herald things to come in Turkey in the upcoming months.

Turkish newspapers gave free flags to their readers as supplements to their Sunday editions. The following day, almost all of the newspapers came out with bright red front pages, ecstatic about the rally and what pundits have already started calling “the Yenikapı Consensus”.

Images of flag-waving men and women walking in the direction of rapidly firing tanks on bridges that had emerged on social media in the penultimate week of July seem set to define how the story of the failed coup will be told in the future.

It is not only colours, but also historical associations that are being used to tell the story.

The first was Nene Hatun, a Turkish woman born in Erzurum during the reign of Ottoman Empire. Turned into a folk heroine in 1877, after fighting against Russians in the Russo-Turkish War, Nene Hatun is known to have left her children at home before taking a hatchet to avenge the killing of her brother at the hands of Russian soldiers.

She was wounded, but eventually managed to scare off Russian soldiers with hundreds of Turks who fought alongside her.

The second concerns the so-called “Canakkale Spirit”, when Turkey was under siege by Allied Powers in the First World War. The threat of foreign interference was so stark that the effort to save the Canakkale Strait united people with different sensibilities – conservative, progressive, apolitical. The third association is with the Sultanahmet Square rallies in 1919 where Turkish novelist Halide Edip gave defiant speeches against Allied Power soldiers invading Istanbul.

On television, I have heard people speak about their desire to save the republic and preserve the will of the people – the same rallying of different sections of the society.

At the anti-coup rally, secular nationalists who wave flags of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk joined conservatives in Yenikapi Square. In Turkish, people describe such phenomena with the expression “ezber bozmak”, the act of changing people’s accepted beliefs on a given subject.

The Turkish flag, a symbol whose meaning was thought to be fixed, somehow started bringing two cultures of Turkey together, defamiliarizing people from their accepted beliefs.

It will be telling to watch how republican and conservatives – both passionate about their beliefs and ready to fight for them – will get on with each other in Turkey’s Rothko-esque new era.

Kaya Genc is an essayist and novelist in Istanbul