A pervasive sense of worry has set in following the suicide attack on Istanbul’s busy Ataturk airport this June. This month, a failed military coup was the latest unrest to descend on a country considered by the Western world to be one of the last stable democratic, secular nations in the Middle East. People anxiously step onto the metro, the ferry, the train. Their thoughts run constantly to friends and family, hoping they are safe.
“It is not fear,” author Burhan Sönmez said in an email after the suicide attack. “It is the feeling of despair for our future. What kind of a country are we turning into?” That is his latest novel’s central question. Istanbul Istanbul describes parallel cities: one below ground, where four prisoners languish in a tiny cell. Another above, where people are free.
Over ten days, each man takes a turn entertaining, just as each one takes a turn with the torturer. In this way they survive, for telling stories—funny ones, especially—is the only protection they have against the fists of an oppressive government. But as the stories go on, pain bleeds into both cities and the division between the two blurs. The underground suffering of the prisoners is mirrored above.
Sönmez, who grew up in Anatolia and is of Kurdish origin, suffered first-hand when police pulled him from a nonviolent demonstration in Istanbul in 1996, beat him, and left him to die. But the experience did not kill his love for the city, and since undergoing five years of rehabilitation in England with the assistance of the Freedom from Torture foundation, he has returned to live there full-time. After all, he says, nothing is impossible.
“A person can collect the truth of the whole universe in their soul and in their mind,” Sönmez told me at the end of April, when we met to discuss his latest novel during his trip to New York to speak at the PEN World Voices Festival. He is unassuming and kind-faced. He speaks calmly and gently. But do not be fooled. There is determination in his words, and fierce love, and an expansive idealism that will not be jailed. “In Istanbul Istanbul, four prisoners begin to talk about Istanbul, and a city of [millions of] people suddenly fits into a small cell. Then we begin, I begin, to think that, as human beings, we are capable of anything,” he said. “We can do anything on this planet, in this world, in this life.”
Istanbul Istanbul is Sönmez’s third novel, following North in 2009 and Sins & Innocents in 2011. Due to recent political unrest in Turkey, this interview had been updated since the original meeting took place.
—Whitney Curry Wimbish for Guernica
Guernica: How does the image of two Istanbuls reflect your thoughts about the city?
Burhan Sönmez: I wanted to describe the city as the unity of different layers. We live in a metropolis and it has a unity, but it’s also very much fragmented. The fragmentation is not only of streets, but of people’s suffering and their hopes and dreams about a better future. So when I decided to write a novel about Istanbul, I thought I should put the different faces of Istanbul into one book. I also put the characters in a cell, and it’s three stories underground, rather than on the surface. The characters have one Istanbul, the other one is above ground. One is in dark, one is in light. That kind of contradiction—those opposite sides—creates a great energy in Istanbul. Which way will the energy go?
Guernica: What do those divisions look like in everyday life?
Burhan Sönmez: Istanbul is divided by time, not space. The first Istanbul is the Istanbul of the past. A long time ago, during the empire, it was beautiful, it was the glorious time of our nation, people say. Then, when they talk about today, they complain about it: It’s very melancholic, it’s very stressful. We’ve lost our golden age in the past, and now we’re living in our dark era.
When people say that, they destroy everything in the city. All the buildings, the public spaces, the parks, just to build new tall skyscrapers. They destroy the beauty of the city, but they go home and sleep in their bed beneath a painting depicting the old Istanbul. They say, “Oh, it’s a lovely city, in that picture.” But then when they look outside, they see something else. So what kind of Istanbul do they believe in? People feel that the beauty of the city is something we used to have in the past or something we will have in the future. But we have that beauty today, too, in the mixture of past and future. We have to save it today and we have to enjoy it today.
Guernica: How does that mentality affect individuals living in Istanbul?
Burhan Sönmez: Most of the population lives in very poor conditions and doesn’t have a life apart from working and coming back home. We have to try to change this. We have to say, “Hey, look, this city is ours, OK.” If we don’t look after the city very well, we’re not looking after ourselves every well.
One of the characters in Istanbul Istanbul says that when he is in the cell, he is always thinking about pain, pain, pain, because he and the rest of the characters are being tortured. But what about the people outside? When people are not in a prison cell they believe they are free and happy. That’s not true. Because in Istanbul, the modern person wakes up at 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock in the morning, gets on the bus for two hours to get to work, works at least ten hours, sometimes twelve or fourteen, then comes back home, just to make some money to pay for rent and food. That’s not a human being’s life. That’s the life of a worm in the earth. That’s the life of an insect.
We have to change this view of the city and our view of life. We are not in prison so we are free and happy? No. We’re in a different kind of prison in this life. We have to confront it, and we have to liberate the city and ourselves, as well.
Guernica: How do you propose people do this?
Burhan Sönmez: That’s the question. The whole novel is about this. At the beginning, it seems to be a political novel, but that’s just an impression, because the characters don’t talk about politics at all. All their conversations are about Istanbul, how to save it, how to appreciate it, and how to recreate it in a better way. To have a beautiful city, and to appreciate it in a better way, is maybe to have a better life in big cities today. It’s a type of utopian idea of a metropolis. We would like to have a great future, so we need to think about the urban philosophy, the urban problems, and the construction of the city. That’s the new politics, maybe.
At the beginning, it seems to be a political novel, but that’s just an impression, because the characters don’t talk about politics at all. All their conversations are about Istanbul, how to save it, how to appreciate it, and how to recreate it in a better way.
Guernica: The novel also avoids discussing the torture characters endure constantly. Why?
Burhan Sönmez: In this book, the physical torture might have stopped us seeing the other torture of this life. There are so many different kinds of pain and suffering. We have to face them, we have to see them, rather than just focusing on one kind of political torture. So I opened the door by mentioning torture, but later on I just talk about pain and suffering in this life, and the hope that we carry despite all those sufferings. Because without any hope you cannot talk about suffering. If you talk about suffering without hope it’s enjoying our euthanization. I tried to avoid euthanization enjoyment.
Even though they are being tortured continuously and on the borderline of death, the characters always try to find a way to laugh by telling funny stories to each other. We can resist any kind of evil in this world by laughing or telling a funny story. It protects us against evil and death.
Laughter is something we have against oppression and oppressive people. Dictators hate people who laugh at them. It’s easy for them to destroy people who resist them. But if you create jokes against them, write funny poems or articles against them, then they feel helpless and desperate. They can’t do anything. In my book, laughter is the main way of protecting your soul against defeat from torture.
Guernica: It’s similar to your approach to interviews when asked about the abuse you suffered by police. You do not describe it in detail.
Burhan Sönmez: I’ve written some short stories about my personal experience, but it’s not something you can use everywhere. Every novel, every work of fiction, needs its own food. In this book, if I fed it too much torture, I would have missed my main point. And also, the way I wrote it is a nice and enjoyable way to write stories, to pretend to say something when you’re really saying something else. “Hey guys, come, I’ll take you a football match.” They all come – and you suddenly take them to watch theater play on the stage instead. In Istanbul Istanbul, I pretend to talk about torture and politics, but I don’t actually. Instead I talk about hope and hopelessness, darkness and light, good and evil, love and separation.
Guernica: How is Turkish society affected by the extreme divisions?
Burhan Sönmez: Society is divided not only culturally but also politically. You’re either conservative or progressive. Islamist or secular. Right wing or left wing. This kind of division can be seen in any society, but in Turkey, the problem is that we are losing any kind of connection between groups and any kind of desire to understand one another. The groups hate each other and they are demolishing all bridges between themselves. So society is divided strictly. When you go from one part of the community to another, it’s like you’re moving from one century to another. People look at each other in a strange way, as if looking at someone from another planet, rather than trying to understand and open space for them.
That’s important in democracy. Democracy is to have different ideas, even extreme ones. In democracy there is space for all of them and bridges to connect them. In Turkey we are losing those bridges, and everyone is trying to destroy spaces for the opposite side. When we look at this, Istanbul is like different courtyards divided by big, thick walls.
There are different effects on people. Some are like a defeated warrior: they accept the defeat, go to work, go back home, watch TV silently. That is like a prison. You can have a life sentence in prison and it’s the same in cities.
In the past we had divisions, but mostly they were class divisions. Rich people and poor people, urban people and country people. But now it’s mostly political and cultural division. “Culture” is a new phenomenon, I believe. Culture is the new religion. People treat you based upon your culture. You are pushed to describe yourself by your culture: Kurdish or Turkish? Left wing or right wing? Progressive or conservative? Westerner or Easterner? European or Asian? So we have a label ready for you. We have to consider culture respectfully, but on the other hand, it’s dangerous. When we begin talking about cultures, we begin forgetting about individuals. Every individual is unique. Mankind has common feelings and ideas, but we might have some other connections, too. For example, I might be very close to someone in New York in some way. Because of the music I like or how I like to watch soccer games, or because I like to read Russian classics.
Nowadays it’s a big issue in Europe because you are forced to describe yourself by your culture, and you begin to forget about yourself, your identity. You’re supposed to act in certain ways. You’re limited. When you try to go outside the lines to go into some other garden, then you’re blamed and stoned because it’s like blasphemy. When we talk about culture, we have to see those two sides to it. When we ignore it, it’s dangerous. When we talk about it too much, it’s also dangerous. We have to have a moderate balance.
Someone might say about a person, “Oh, they are a ‘Westerner.” But who are Westerners? Greek, Bulgarian, German, English, Scandinavian, Spanish, American, Latin. All different nations, all different people. Different individuals live in the West. There’s no such thing as “West” just as there’s no such things as “East.” What is “East?” Turkey, Iran, China, India, Japan. They are all different. They are all unique. Maybe divisions like that are easy for people to accept, because then you don’t have to make an effort to understand people or appreciate each of them. You just give them a general name: “black people” and “white people.” “Tall people” and “short people.” “Man” and “woman.” But we have to forget about all those terms. Every individual is unique in herself or himself.
In democracy there is space for all of them and bridges to connect them. In Turkey we are losing those bridges, and everyone is trying to destroy spaces for the opposite side.
Guernica: Is it reasonable to view Turkey as a model secular nation, as some of its neighbors do, given these extreme divisions and attitudes?
Burhan Sönmez: The government of Turkey that’s been in power for about fourteen years now is the first openly Islamist government. And they would like to change the formation of the republic towards Islam and have a new constitution without mention of secularism. But, at least nominally, Turkey is a secular country. The new government is changing this. They are pushing and reorganizing society into a more religious and more intolerant place. On the other hand, they are very much in capitalistic progression. They love building so many new things, tall buildings, new motorways. Religion and money—they are moving forward together.
So it’s a bit questionable whether Turkey is a model country or not, since our government is supporting ISIS in Syria, since there are legislations that are not in line with democratic rules. I believe Turkey is on a very important, very dangerous borderline at the moment. So many journalists are now in prison. So many academics have been imprisoned or expelled from their university posts just because they signed a letter calling for peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue. They are all declared enemies of the state by the president. Just because they published a letter saying, “stop killing each other and begin talking for a peaceful resolution.”
That kind of intolerance from the government towards the rest of society—especially people in favor of freedom of speech, human rights, and more democracy for everyone—is a very important issue in Turkey at this time. The situation of Kurds, the situation of nature… they are destroying nature with dams and motorways that I do not believe are necessary for the public, just for companies and the Islamist bourgeoisie.
Guernica: How should the people of Tunisia and Egypt view Turkey after the revolutions in their nations?
Burhan Sönmez: I believe Tunisia and Egypt should look to Turkey and see what not to do. Turkey seems to be a secular and democratic country but it is only a show. We are losing the effectiveness of democratic institutions like parliament and judiciary. They now are turning into tools for the benefit of a president-ordering system. A democratic government is possible only on a comprehensive democratic base surrounded by the participatory action of ordinary people.
I believe Tunisia and Egypt should look to Turkey and see what not to do. Turkey seems to be a secular and democratic country but it is only a show.
Guernica:What should people know about the conflict in Syria?
Burhan Sönmez: The Syrian war was started and fueled by three countries in the region, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey. They acted for the sake of political and economic dominance and in favor of Sunni Islam against the Alawite influence in the government of Syria. We have recently heard the Chilcot Report in the UK that stated that the war in Iraq was unlawful and unnecessary. Should we wait another ten years to hear a report on Syria? Regional and international powers get the benefit of the conflict while millions of ordinary people are displaced. Syrian people have right to fight for democracy and freedom in their country but they don’t need the penetration of foreign elements, fundamentalist ideologies and violence.
Guernica: What’s your impression of how the rest of the world views Turkey?
Burhan Sönmez: In the display window, the world leaders criticize the Turkish government and Turkey. But behind the curtain, they have very good relations. They love each other, because they all benefit together.
Guernica: Who sees Turkey clearly?
Burhan Sönmez: The independent people. We are our own nation in this world—a nation of writers, journalists, artists, moviemakers, and academics. We act together. If there is a problem, we act to correct it.