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Acının Tatlısı - On Lessons in Black Humor

I have been thinking about what to write all week, since I arrived in Turkey in the midst of the election frenzy. It has been a trip of sharp contrasts, and they were made more sharp by my trajectory, and the intensity of this moment, on the verge of the most competitive elections since Erdogan came to power two decades ago. I have a couple hours until my flight from Sabiha Gökçen and the whole country is off to the polls today, May 14, 2023. At this moment no one knows what the outcome of the election will be yet. So in the spirit of writing, something now, I present you this unpolished glimpse into these jagged contrasts.

Election billboard highlighting locally-made drones in Ankara

I came to Turkey last week initially to attend an event in Ankara with the education agency

Studylon I have worked with for a couple years now. The event was full of finery: black tie dress code, Porsches parked around the venue, in a convention center on the outskirts of the city. There was a light show and open bar and live music with all the glittering women dancing in stilettos, including myself, which I haven't done since Azerbaijani weddings and am truly out of practice for the level of balance it requires to move around a room with four narrow inches of precarity. Ankara was covered in political propaganda: AKP posters of Erdogan displaying drones and trains papered the highway, back-to-back with Meral Akşener smiling at youthful workers, Kilicdaroğlu’s grin and the CHP’s “Haydi Kazanalım!” (let’s win) slogan, and aging male MHP candidates holding roses.

The next day I flew to Gaziantep. (A friend said, biliyorsun Ankara'nin en iyi tarafi Ankara'dan cıkış yoludur—you know the best side of Ankara is the road out of town—apologies to all my Angarali friends but on this occasion I agreed). Hüseyin, my former colleague and road-trip companion, met me on the other side. We saw each other and burst into laughter immediately. It had been 8 months, most recently of pure hell, since we had seen each other last. We hit the road for a stopover in Kilis with another friend for dinner. Ate the most delightful Kilis tava in a back garden, a warm evening under the trees, hot bread inflated and torn into immediately, findik lahmacun, fresh ayran. We talked, of course, about the earthquake.

Then we drove on to Hatay. Now, I will tell you that I knew we were going to Hatay, to Antakya. We were going to see our dear colleague Sümeyye and her sister, and we would stay in a container in the village that night. I had thought a lot about what it would be like to see Hatay, since the earthquake. I was prepared to feel again some of those emotions I felt in February: dread, sadness, despair. But I will tell you, it was much worse than I imagined.

We drove into Antakya on the highway, passing rows and rows of pre-fab containers and tents, brightly lit. And then the buildings, all the buildings crushed and partially broken. All the apartment buildings, everywhere we looked, those that were still standing (many of those which completely collapsed have been removed now), were black and empty, windows broken, walls broken. Entire neighborhoods. An entire city. At least 30,000 people were killed, just in Hatay, during the earthquake. Figures place the total in Turkey to 50,000 deaths though few believe this is accurate when the number of collapsed buildings are taken into account.

Main road in Antakya at night

We called Sümeyye and she told us to meet them at a cafe, next to the mall. At the mall? Huseyin asked. No, said Sümeyye, our mall was destroyed. Across from the mall. We came and parked next to what used to be the mall. The darkened neighborhood, composed of cracked and partially destroyed buildings, surrounded a well-lit, well-appointed cafe. It was full of people eating cakes and drinking tea and coffee. Outside of this bright oasis, if you looked through the open windows, was an apocalypse. But inside it felt clean and normal. Sümeyye looked exhausted. This was the first of many moments on my trip where I witnessed the bizarre contrast of humans trying to carve out some sense of normalcy from a disaster, of a scale which none of us had ever experienced before. To imagine that almost everyone you know and love all at the same time had their lives and homes turned upside down, if not lost entirely. To imagine that everywhere you look you see death and destruction. To not recognize the streets of your home any more. To compare what you see now to your memories of before. Hüseyin joked that I had come for "post-earthquake psychological support".

Broken buildings and tent camps in Antakya

Later that night, we sat around eating green plums outside a friend's container in a nearby village. The wind had picked up intensely, blowing dust across the valley. Sumeyye's organization, Chance to Change, uses one of the containers in the farmyard as a depo for donations, such as childrens' shoes, bicycles and baby food, to distribute to families in the tent camps. They have been involved in disaster relief and aid distribution since the start in Hatay and Northwest Syria.

Sümeyye and Hüseyin talked about the earthquake—sleeping on the street, searching for family members in the rubble, losing their homes. The conversation was framed by laughter. Humor, however black, was the only way to talk about these things anymore. They joked about how the wind was so strong one night it had picked up an entire container and it flew and crushed several people. “Can you believe it? Let's hope it doesn't happen to us tonight!” Surely, if we were not laughing we would be crying at the hopelessness of it all. Nothing has been resolved. The homes remain broken and uninhabitable, the family members buried, the aftermath still in limbo. Three months later and there is barely drinking water, and the scale of destruction is so vast and there are not enough tents and not enough containers. Nor is there any hope that people will have somewhere solid to live anytime soon.

At the time of the elections, political propaganda from all the parties was arrayed across the cities, including Hatay and Adiyaman which saw such terrible damage. Posters of Erdogan pasted over semi-demolished buildings with the tagline: The right man, the right time. The irony of holding an election while millions of people are trying to recover from the earthquakes is not lost on people in the Southeast, whether Kurdish or Syrian or Turkish. This election represents a window of hope for something to change in Turkey, one which has been wedged open by equally disastrous economic policies; consolidation of the executive branch and deepening social and religious conservatism; vindication of minorities; criminalization of politicians, activists, scholars and artists; and fraught international relations.

AKP election posters at the site of what used to be the central Mosque in Adiyaman city center

And most notably, the presence of this election is another harsh reminder of the injustices underlying this disaster: the construction companies which paid off the building inspectors to positively assess their stability, crumbling like a deck of cards and killing everyone inside them. The decades of negligence and clientelism between the AKP and the construction sector which rendered an unprecedented natural disaster a political one. AFAD’s politicized and unequal distribution of relief aid, the absence of the military in the immediate aftermath, the state relief organization Kizilay selling people tents it had been donated. The shutting down of Twitter for 12 hours after the earthquake, while people were using it to call for help and direct rescue efforts into the wreckage. The complete lack of preparedness, the shattering loss of faith in anything but regular people trying to help each other out.

All of this is to say, today is a very important day. The AKP came to power on the back of the 1999 Marmara Earthquake. Perhaps today, in 2023, there will be a real chance for something to change.

Flowers growing in the village outside Adiyaman, photo taken by my friend's nephew

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