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May 19 is a nation­al hol­i­day in Turkey. As a brief reminder, thanks to a law pro­mul­gat­ed on June 20 1938, this date has become the “Cel­e­bra­tion of Youth and Sports”. Its name was changed fol­low­ing the mil­i­tary coup on Sep­tem­ber 12 1980 to “Com­mem­o­ra­tion of Atatürk, cel­e­bra­tion of Youth and Sports”. It is cel­e­brat­ed as a com­mem­o­ra­tion of Mustafa Kemal’s land­ing in Sam­sun, on May 19 1919, this being con­sid­ered in offi­cial his­to­ri­og­ra­phy as the date on which began the Turk­ish war of inde­pen­dance.

Mustafa Kemal Pacha, named as inspec­tor of the troops of the 9th army on April 30 1919, charged with super­vis­ing the dis­so­lu­tion of the Ottoman army as imposed by the Sèvres Treaty, left Istan­bul for Sam­sun with his per­son­nel on board the steamship Bandır­ma. When he set foot in Sam­sun on May 19, Mustafa Kemal launched the Nation­al Turk­ish Move­ment, in con­tra­dic­tion with his orders, thus ini­ti­at­ing the move­ment that would lead to the Turk­ish war of inde­pen­dance and, final­ly, the procla­ma­tion of the Repub­lic of Turkey in 1923.

In those coro­na-free days, dur­ing the cel­e­bra­tions, youth sang the nation­al anthem, recit­ed poet­ry, marched and gave demon­stra­tions of sports, of folk­lore or of epic the­ater, more or less spec­tac­u­lar, depend­ing on the regimes that have suc­ceed­ed one anoth­er dur­ing the past fifty years. Offi­cial build­ings, homes and com­mer­cial build­ings are dec­o­rat­ed with the oh-so-sacred flag in Turkey…

But in this, the year 2020, an inci­dent occurred…

A threatening towel

In Kay­seri, a “stranger,” lat­er iden­ti­fied as Iran­ian, wish­ing to let a tow­el dry on his bal­cony, pro­voked indig­na­tion. An inci­dent which led of course to the series of usu­al pro­ce­dures: arrest, cus­tody, open­ing of an inquest crowned by sev­er­al offi­cial dec­la­ra­tions from the gov­er­nor of Kay­seri…

The hap­less fel­low was out of luck, his bath tow­el was print­ed with a British flag! It could not be any­thing oth­er than a “threat”. It could not just be a house­hold item set out to dry. For it was thus “exposed”, and par­tic­u­lar­ly on that date, on the very date that marks the begin­ning of the war of inde­pen­dence, now a nation­al epic sub­li­mat­ed with the cli­mac­tic image of Atatürk “throw­ing the British into the sea”, mean­ing “sent back to where they came from”… The man dry­ing his tow­el was then sus­pect­ed of provo­ca­tion, insult, even a snide attack on the sov­er­eign­ty of the Turk­ish State; more­over, as a “stranger”, he was prob­a­bly an inte­ri­or instru­ment of “exter­nal forces” so keen on “destroy­ing this oh-so envied country.”

Measures against the malevolent act!

As inform­ing on neigh­bors has been encour­aged for years, offi­cials, cit­i­zens and inter­nauts are “invit­ed” to con­stant­ly denounce via web ser­vices and spe­cial phone num­bers avail­able to this end. All it took was a phone call from the offend­ed cit­i­zens… Some videos show the man at the foot of his build­ing, being led off into cus­tody, while the neigh­bors cheer and applaud his arrest and the glo­ri­ous nation­al police…Phew, the coun­try is saved!

The office of the Kay­seri gov­er­nor then declares that “the nec­es­sary legal pro­ce­dures were under­tak­en fol­low­ing the man’s arrest.” He would be guilty of the offense of “insult­ing the Turk­ish Nation and the nation­al flag.” Any­one com­mit­ting this offence in Turkey is liable to incur a prison sen­tence of six months to three years.

There is noth­ing sur­pris­ing in the fact that a tow­el set out to dry in the sun could cause such prob­lems to its own­er in the Turkey irri­gat­ed by nation­al­ism down to its tini­est veins. A coun­try where Turci­ty has been inten­sive­ly cul­ti­vat­ed for cen­turies and where the peo­ples com­pos­ing the mosa­ic on these lands are locked into extreme polar­iza­tion between them­selves and in their own midst.

Orhan Kemal Cen­giz pub­lished the fol­low­ing arti­cle on P24. We offer its translation…

drapeau serviette turkey

The towel, Kurds and Democracy

Can a tow­el explain why democ­ra­cy nev­er arrives in this coun­try?

If it had a tongue, it would tell the tale.

If this tow­el in Kay­seri could speak, it would tell us “through­out the world, there exist tens of thou­sands, hun­dreds of thou­sands of tow­els like me, but none of them has wit­nessed what I have seen.”

The one speak­ing is the tow­el belong­ing to an Iran­ian who bare­ly saved his skin from a lynch­ing.

On this tow­el, the British flag is print­ed.

When he put out on the bal­cony, the man was tak­en into cus­tody, fol­low­ing com­plaints from the neigh­bors.

Because of this tow­el, the Gov­ern­ship of Kay­seri made sev­er­al dec­la­ra­tions.

He was lib­er­at­ed once it was estab­lished that he had no ulte­ri­or motive.

What kind of ulte­ri­or motive could he have had?

Sup­pos­ing that he did; and that in hang­ing a British flag on his bal­cony, the man was protest­ing in his way, or attempt­ing to express some­thing!

Why should the peo­ple of a coun­try be offend­ed to that extent at the sight of the flag from anoth­er coun­try?

How can a tow­el that looks like a flag gen­er­ate such pas­sions?

Why, see­ing a tow­el that resem­bles the flag of anoth­er coun­try, should peo­ple feel threat­ened?

Indi­vid­u­als who, at the slight­est crit­i­cism of their iden­ti­ty are reduced to ash­es and whose defence mech­a­nisms are trig­gered at the slight­est chal­lenge are con­sid­ered to be “neu­rot­ic”.

When these reac­tions occur at the nation­al lev­el, what name should we give it?

If, as with a neu­rot­ic indi­vid­ual, the pride of a Nation was imme­di­ate­ly bro­ken and always felt threat­ened, would this not indi­cate there is a prob­lem con­cern­ing nation­al iden­ti­ty?

If you ask me, this lit­tle tow­el, like “the moral of the sto­ry”, tells the tale of the huge prob­lems with which this coun­try is strug­gling.

We writhe under the hands of a sick nation­al­ism.

A nation­al­ism such that the slight­est chal­lenge is expe­ri­enced as a threat, the slight­est dif­fer­ence is unac­cept­able; seren­i­ty only returns if every­one is the same, as if pro­duced by a sin­gle mold.

A nation­al­ism such that, if you throw it into the stream, the water stops run­ning and those throw­ing it at you can do what­ev­er they want.

Just as with “reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism”, once this “nation­al­ism” is intro­duced into the cir­cuit, a veil comes over the eyes. Hid­ing behind it, any­thing goes.

When you throw all that into the mid­dle, those who say they have gath­ered for noble objec­tives such as democ­ra­cy, the Law col­laps­es.

Mer­al Akşen­er1founds a “coun­try table“2but puts the HDP3 in front of the door.

When nation­al­ist argu­ments are raised con­cern­ing Syr­ia, the CHP4stays silent.

When nation­al­ist argu­ments are raised, you can rush to arrest Kur­dish deputies.

Only yes­ter­day, the HDP’s head­quar­ters in Ankara were raid­ed again, its Pres­i­dent grabbed by the col­lar and the sleeve, and tak­en away. How many raids, how many cus­todies?

How many City halls with HDP may­ors were seized and the may­ors replaced by State-assigned admin­is­tra­tors?

An oppo­si­tion that can­not face all this, an oppo­si­tion that can­not crit­i­cize these anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices for fear of being treat­ed of “seces­sion­ist”; how can it pos­si­bly bring democ­ra­cy to this coun­try?

To those who are offend­ed by the tow­el in Kay­seri, to those who attack a tourist wear­ing a scarf print­ed with the word “Kur­dis­tan”; to those who attempt to lynch a doc­u­men­tary film crew because they have put a flag of Byzan­tium on the fortress­es, to those who want to crack the skull of peo­ple sim­ply because they are speak­ing in Kur­dish, includ­ing those who, because they think the Kurds will be crushed, are will­ing to look the oth­er way when this coun­try’s army car­ries out oper­a­tions with Jihadists, going so far as to ignore injus­tices when they are done to Kurds, from nation­al­ists to sov­er­eignists, all have drunk more or less of this elixir that obscures the con­science.

When such is the sit­u­a­tion, those who hold those elixirs in their hands, do not even feel the need to make an effort in order to pro­long their pow­er.

Let’s give those over there a bit of the big­otery elixir, let’s make those oth­ers shut up…

Let’s give a bit of nation­al­ist elixir over here, let’s silence those oth­er ones…

And when the crises become deep­er, let’s announce the re-open­ing of Saint Sophia [as a mosque] and serve up a fine mix­ture of both potions at once.

The tow­el with an impres­sion of the British flag per­fect­ly illus­trates the stran­gle­hold in which we are caught.

It is the mate­ri­al­iza­tion of the potion offered to the crowds on which big­otery has­n’t worked, so that they will renounce democ­ra­cy and the rule of Law…

Orhan Kemal Cengiz

Illus­tra­tion: A British tow­el sim­i­lar to the one that caused “indig­na­tion”

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges –
*A word to English-speaking readers: in all instances where the original text is in Turkish or Kurdish, the English version is derived from French translations. Inevitably, some shift in meaning occurs with each translation. Hopefully, the intent of the original is preserved in all cases. While an ideal situation would call for a direct translation from the original, access to information remains our main objective in this exercise and, we hope, makes more sense than would a translation provided by AI…
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Le petit mag­a­zine qui ne se laisse pas caress­er dans le sens du poil.