The past few weeks in Turkey have been an absurdist’s lesson in how to create a tin pot state. Citizens have watched, appalled, as a problematic but working republic comes under ever-tighter, ever more blatant governmental control. Recently, this control extended to a hastily-passed Parliamentary bill to limit internet freedom under the guise of ensuring privacy. War-weary protesters took to the streets once again, only to be denounced by the Prime Minister as “the porn lobby” and blasted with water cannons. The resulting tableau: police firing water and tear gas into uptown restaurants as the Prime Minister jokes with President Putin at the Sochi games, the lira plummets and foreign investors turn tail while thousands of Syrian refugees pour in across the border.
For those who live here, Turkey’s topsy-turvy world is mentally and emotionally exhausting to process. Every day brings news more dramatic than yesterday’s, and we are no longer to surprised to hear of deportations, arrests, grotesque corruption details, media blocks – even parliamentary fisticuffs.
Yet I cannot help but appreciate the absurdity of it all; it is the only way to keep cheerful, and to keep a sense of proportion. My Turkish friends are visibly depressed, some are seriously contemplating emigration, others are protesting furiously on the streets, but there is a modicum of solace in treating the whole thing as a surreal invention along the lines of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, or perhaps Aristophanes’ “Cloud Cuckoo Land”. Paradoxically, to make sense of Turkey today we are obliged to treat it as a work of fiction.
Firmly in centre stage is the Red Queen/Sultan, bellowing “ALL ways are MY ways!” as he personally orders the deportation of foreign journalists for tweeting anti-government news stories. “Twitter? A bed of lies!” he thunders to his 4 million Twitter followers, as he orders his friends to buy up newspapers. In the capital, Ankara, 6,000 young government pawns are trained in the delicate art of trolling anti-government posts on social media.
“What’s that?” demands the Red Sultan. “Someone’s leaked my phone conversations? The ones where I order the owner of a popular news channel to cut an opposition member’s speech mid-broadcast, and arrange the purchase of major newspapers? Off with their heads!!”
The Mad Hatter’s tea party committee obediently announces that all newspapers and TV stations are now banned from mentioning these conversations. A bill is passed in Parliament, allowing authorities to shut down any webpage with “inappropriate content” within four hours, and to keep track of internet users’ personal details. YouTube is nonetheless full of the taped conversations, which disappear and reappear again within minutes like a game of Hunt the Jabberwock.
The Red Sultan is majestically sanguine: “Turkey’s internet is freer than any EU country’s internet. We are making it safe. And more free.”
There are murmurs of dissent on the chessboard, and some white pawns dare to arrange themselves in clumps of two or three to voice their querulous reproach. “Stop the pawn lobby!” roars the Red Sultan, and strikes them off the board. White knights and bishops bravely square up to their red counterparts in Parliament, and are drop-kicked in the head by a rogue red rook. One is struck by a flying iPad, and another, who looks like he might be doing rather well, has his assets frozen and debts broadcast to the world as he is shunted off his square. Meanwhile, a mystic caterpillar-cleric sits on a far-off leaf across the Atlantic, puffing thoughtfully and addressing his millions of supporters in dense language shrouded in smoke…
This is Turkey. It defies both logic and the law. It is an absurd and tragic place. One particular phrase comes back to me: “Even if we tried, we couldn’t ruin the economy – it’s that strong.” Magnificently assured, the Red Sultan’s new economy minister could come to regret these words… And then the whole crazy world will come crashing down like a shattered looking-glass.