From an academic, fired by a decree related to the state of emergency in Turkey, a reflection more profoundly relevant than it may seem at first glance.

Funda Cantek published December 8 on Gazete Duvar.

So, what do you do now?

In my youth, when I could no longer control my cerebral hyperactivity – a genetic inheritance – I would recite all the poems I knew by heart, one after the other. Later, I read the memoirs of a political personality long held in isolation and persecuted by being deprived of books, pencils and paper, and learned that he had done the same at that time. Controlling cerebral activity is not so easy!

One of the poems I would recite was by Edouard Galeano. These lines are from that poem: “To live, standing upright/is this small victory / staying alive / being joyous despite the goodbyes and the assassinations… / In the end, we are used to pain / and joy demands more courage than sadness does”

*Taken from “Patas arriba: La escuela del mundo al revés” (With no access to the book, this is an English translation done from a French translation taken from a Turkish one… If anyone has the original, we are takers…)

Living as we do in the era of goodbyes and assassinations, when remaining upright is truly a victory, these lines by Galeano take over my brain even more often now…

Yes, from one generation to the next, we are experiencing a persecution  lasting not only for a period but over an era, and  repeating after a few breaks. First, my eldest sister, a student, whom we would wait for, trembling on the balcony when darkness fell early on winter nights, not knowing if she would manage to make it home safely; the fact she was removed from her school due to fascist oppression and, upon returning from the university, making her way to exams in a military vehicle, for reasons of security. The seventies. Then, my father, a victim of the September 12 exile, the reasons for which I couldn’t understand as a child. But the trauma lay heavily on me. The eighties. Growing up, and becoming aware not only of what is happening around the family circle, but of the responsibility of sharing the worries of an entire people…

You know what has happened to us since last September because of our signing the declaration “We will not be party to this crime“, after productive years spent in solidarity and resistance at Ankara University where I was almost a refugee following my dismissal from Gazi University, where I worked for years while struggling against moral harassment and symbolic violence.

Housewife or household waste?

As with many other decrees, the one affecting us was announced close to midnight. The timing is meaningful. They await midnight to protect themselves from reactions and spur-of-the-moment protests, and to limit the massive spread of information. When a friend called to break the news of my “liquidation”, my 12 year old son jumped out of bed. Despite my efforts to hide the content of the phone calls that continued into the early morning, when he re-awoke from fitful sleep his first question was “Mom, are you a housewife now?” He looked disappointed. He was trying not to sadden me while taking stock of the debacle in which we live. Being a housewife is not a status we despise in our home. We cannot despise the status of housewife, neither from an ethical nor from a political point of view. Our son was raised in this culture. But for a child that age, the fact that a mother constantly working, with no clear notion of what is a work period and what is not, who reads, who writes, and who suddenly finds herself without work was something that would leave her disoriented and dismayed. In total idleness. Later, I understood this was his main concern. Perhaps also, with childish selfishness, the fact that the family’s revenue was thus cut by half…

With time, when he saw that his unemployed mother was not idle, that she pursued her work outside the institutional channels, he relaxed somewhat. But a different question arose, the one we encounter willy-nilly during the entire period of schooling. Instead of targeting the children’s increase in knowledge, it is the question of the mother’s occupation, following on that of the father at the forefront: “What kind of work do your parents do?” At first our son replied “teacher”. When he realized that the chances of his mother returning to work were diminishing, he started to answer “housewife.” But realizing that this did not match up to his mother’s work schedules, nor to her mocking personality, to those who asked, he started replying “household waste” . Household waste. In what first appears as a despising put-down, I found heartening black humor in his efforts to lighten the trauma.   My son had learned to overcome it, at least partially, by calling on humor. Just like his mother, he was convinced that living, staying alive, is a small victory. He was saying “this doesn’t even hurt a bit“.

Heroine or traitor?

While events unfolded in this way at home, matters were different outside. As our names appeared on the lists of those who were purged because of their involvement in the attempted coup d’état, we had to convince even those closest to us that we had been fired for signing (a petition) in support of peace. In the current political climate, signing for peace could determine whether we were considered heroes or traitors. Surprisingly, those who considered us heroes outnumbered the others. What’s more, people of various leanings all shared this opinion.

Let’s face it, the academic’s pride and ego exist among us. They are hard to disguise. Yet, almost none of us took on the title of hero. We said “Everyone would have done the same thing.” While people die, while others languish in jail, what is the importance of a signature we penned while sitting in our chairs” said others.   We thought “You cannot dissociate the academic from the worker. We are all subjected to injustice.” But we also had colleagues who enjoyed playing the leftist militant and who repeated left and right in front of the students that we had become heroes because of this signature. When Erkan İbiş, then director of Ankara University, opened an investigation against us following which we were fired, those same ones did not lift a finger, or claimed that they, of all people, had been the most combative.

Let’s ignore those who said “that’ll teach them!” They don’t even deserve a mention. I want to pay homage to those of our colleagues who offered their unwavering support and who, after our departure, looked the other way when walking past our offices (so as not to see our absence) and who said that being inside the walls (of the university) weighed more on them than being outside, as well as to a number of other people of diverse opinions; I salute all those in other professional branches who were also evicted simply for being in opposition, and now return to our topic.

Although months have gone by, almost a full year since my firing, I still find myself facing this question that becomes more and more pressing. “So, what do you do now?” Sometimes, a former student asks, sometimes a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, a family friend, a neighbor. But most of the time, the question comes from a demotivated former colleague I encounter, and who asks how I am doing while not necessarily approving what we did.

In the intonation, there is embarassment tinged with pity. Should he/she ask or not? I don’t know if I can convey this truly when I say…with an intonation such as “Oh, so sorry, but you should have kept quiet, you see what happened to you?”  or “Eh, after such a prestigious and well paid job, you must be like a fish out of water?” The misty eyes that go with the question picture you like an image out of Küçük Emrah [a famous singer given to pathos]. But if truth be told, they are the pitiful ones with their raised eyebrows and furtive glances. It’s quite disgusting, in fact.

To such a question, you feel like answering, “What do you expect of me, that I beg in the courtyard at the mosques following Friday prayers?” In reply to this apparently compassionate question, they actually mean to suggest the noise made by the fall of an “important professor, assistant” imagined “setting the amphitheater quaking by a look or the sound of his voice“, or the pride of a doctoral student who had just managed to get a job in “research“. This will serve to make them grateful for their position, or to sadden them. Either way, it will do them good.

Do you know what we do now? As would any dignified person, most of us manage to earn our keep despite the obstacles, with the help of organizations that support us and our close ones. And even if we have not found work related to our professions, and earn our bread at the sweat of our brow, we spend the rest of our time on our university tasks. Those of our friends who, for a number of reasons, have not found any work yet, are helped by other friends and relatives who still have jobs. Also, we learn to get by on little. And this is an important experience that allows distancing from the centre of the consumerist culture.

So, what do you do now? Will you continue to behave as if nothing had happened, and play the three monkeys so as not to lose your chair?

It so happens that the ballpoint I grabbed to make notes before writing this text was a gift from Ankara University to commemorate some meeting or dinner. When I clicked the push button, the ballpoint shattered. I found this image so meaningful. Of course losing one’s work is hard to stomach, the fact that so many years of work can be sacrificed to the ambitions of incompetent leaders. But institutional prerogatives are not guaranteed for anyone. Moreover, once you are freed from their tutelage and constraints, you feel as if a dependency had ended.

Furthermore, universities are not places where one can gambol at whim or through ambition for promotion, behave in ways damaging the lives of others. In Turkey’s short history, there have been many examples of this. There is always a boomerang effect. We know this, we try to keep our spirits up and to win small victories, as Galeano says.

When we were removed from our universities, our students are the ones who experienced the greatest collapse. Traditional academic rules are authoritarian and hierarchical. We had built friendly relationships with our students, that went beyond the hierarchical cliches, based on mutual learning and solidarity. This is also why we were personæ non gratæ for those in power. Besides the learning, our students also lost, to a certain extent, those close relationships and this transformational potential.

On a poster prepared by a group of Ankara University’s women students to bid us goodbye, there was a very sensible verse by Forough [Farrokhzad contemporary Iranian poet]. It could provided the answer, in the present tense, to the question “So what do you do now” : “I plant my hands in the garden. And I know, I know, I know I will turn green.”

Funda Cantek
Born and raised in Ankara. She worked in the media sector while studying at Ankara University’s Faculty of Communications. She became an academic following her studies. She worked at Gazi University from 1994 to 2010, then at Ankara University, from 2010 until her firing by decree n° 686 in February 2017. She was Director of the Department of Women Studies where she taught. Her work focused on urban sociology, urban history, social gender, the history of the press. She has published five books and numerous press and research articles. She loves discovering towns, walking in the streets, taking pictures, digging through archives, reading. She is the mother of Tuna.

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