By Kaya Genç
In my childhood years the color green seemed extremely dangerous to me. I was afraid of it like I was afraid of coming across ghosts in empty houses. Green was, after all, the color of Sharia and as a cardigan-wearing citizen of a secular republic, I was passionately aware of the sinister connotations of this most terrifying of colors. Saudi Arabia had it on its flag, accompanied by a strange sword and an even stranger word in Arabic script. The colors of the private school I attended were green and yellow, meaning that while entering shopping malls with my green uniform, I was more than once stopped by security guards asking: “Are you in favor of Sharia law, my boy? Get rid of that uniform now!” At school, I was warned to beware of Arabs and never trust machine-gun-carrying-men-with-long-beards-waving-green-flags-on-the-streets. I knew that what was wrong with those imaginary men was not their beards or their machine guns but the green color of their flags.
So when Istanbul’s mayor started painting the city’s sidewalks green in 1995, I wasn’t surprised to see widespread panic in the city’s westernized neighborhoods. “The Sharia is coming!” people screamed on the streets, as if Martians or Godzilla itself had materialized in a nearby street and were approaching with their green steps, splashing their disgusting color onto whomever they came across on the road.
If I was a political pundit I would say that the future of Turkish politics may be divided between Islamists and environmentalists: a struggle between shades of green.
“It always starts with the sidewalks and then spreads to the insides of our houses,” my aunt whispered. She was ready to lock us up inside our house so as not to allow the color to penetrate our souls. “It happened in Tehran; now it will happen in Istanbul,” I was forewarned. On TV, news anchors voiced fears about the rise of so-called “green capitalists,” Anatolian industrialists who didn’t have connections to the ruling elite in Istanbul and who were identified with the color of both the American dollar and Islam. The heads of big companies, some of these men were educated in the US or sent their children there for school (people assumed that this was how they were acquainted with the ways of American capitalism), and they most definitely supported the painting of the sidewalks. As a result, leftist papers ran articles about Sharia-friendly green zones imposed on us by cowboys from Washington who worshipped the color in their spare time.
This was followed by calls for the depoliticization of urban spaces. Let’s white-wash the green sidewalks, columnists wrote. Who wanted to walk on green pavement anyway? Let’s give that damned color back to the bearded terrorists! Faced with extreme pressure from the ever-increasing coalition of green skeptics, Istanbul’s mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave in. The sidewalks were saved from the sinister color and were subsequently painted yellow. Now everyone seemed happy; the yellow sidewalks shone like the sun and people were glad to forget about green.
Almost twenty years after the Color Wars for Sidewalks ostensibly came to an end, a new political entity, Greens and the Left Party of the Future, has brought the color green back in a new way. The party appears to be a proper alternative to Erdogan’s government, which otherwise lacks an acceptable opposition in the political sphere (its opponents include racists, militarists, and xenophobes). Unlike their green-phobic, ultra-secularist forefathers, the new green creatures of Turkish politics are reclaiming their ill-treated color and making it represent the anti-nationalist, humanist rhetoric of people like Rabindranath Tagore. They are embracing a different interpretation of the left, one that is not built on cults of leadership or ideas of modernization and westernization. They are struggling to save the country’s environment from some of the horrific environmental effects of new development projects introduced by the government. Their efforts have so far been popular and influential. If I was a political pundit I would say that the future of Turkish politics may be divided between Islamists and environmentalists: a struggle between shades of green. But I am not a political pundit.
The increasingly obvious signs of green’s popularity can’t be ignored, though. Some embrace it as the color of the Ottoman flag. Others attribute their love for Greenpeace to it. Yes, green has never been quite so popular in this country. In a recent television interview the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan himself declared his love for it. “I love green,” he said, “I just can’t help it.” This sounded strange when considered alongside one of his previous announcements about never falling in love in his life. But since he voiced those words of love in an environmental context I decided it was a good thing.
What about other colors? Let me evaluate them one by one and enlighten you about the current state of Turkish culture.
This summary has to start with the color red, which connotes ideas of passionate nationalism. Many communists who proudly wore red garments in the past abandoned it and migrated to the green camp, deciding, I suppose, that protecting the environment seemed like an objective more easily obtainable than establishing Soviet-like political units in Anatolian villages.
“If you see someone wearing a garment with yellow, red, and green colors on it, do not talk to that person,” my dad once said. We were in his car, waiting at a traffic signal that had the exact same color combination. How can you ban a color or a color combination, while installing them on every street yourself?
Grey, the standard color of all the walls and floors in Turkish state schools and bureaucratic institutions, is very uncool. Saying I admire grey differs little from saying I admire the status quo and the state apparatus and all the boring things in life.
As for black, suffice it to say that it is seen as a very dangerous symbol. Why? Because satanists, Metallica fans, anarchists, and the new çapulcu crowd (‘looters’, according to the PM) dig it. During the last week of school last June, students were dressed in all black to express their support for activists in Gezi park, where environmentalists struggled against the cutting of trees. This choice of color has made things easy for the riot police. Nowadays whenever they see a group of black-wearing youth they sense that trouble is nigh and get their tear gas capsules ready.
Members of Turkey’s ultra-secularist, ultra-modernizing faction, meanwhile, are often called “white” Turks. They share a similar distaste for their opposite color, and not only because of the color’s association with the burqa. Black also represented ambiguous, irrational, anti-Enlightenment ideas (you can categorize black-loving Turks as the country’s Romantics.) Nevertheless, in the financial districts of Istanbul (in places like Levent and Gayrettepe, where it is easier to find a penguin than an individual not wearing a black suit), the color has a history of being extremely popular.
All this brings us to yellow and orange, colors long identified with the kinds of values strongly endorsed by the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson: things like free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and liberal markets. In the 1980s, yellow was associated with the country’s liberal party, whose logo featured a massive bee serving delicious honey to all the cells of Turkey, looking quite happy to be doing so. Today the ruling, Islamist-leaning AK Party uses a slightly darker, orangey yellow in its logo which features a light bulb surrounded by eight pointed rays going to all directions.
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My father is color blind. And yet, from an early age, he didn’t fail to warn me about dangerous color combinations that I should be wary of. “If you see someone wearing a garment with yellow, red, and green colors on it, do not talk to that person,” he once said. We were in his car, waiting at a traffic signal that had the exact same color combination he had warned me against. It was very strange, given that the Turkish state had installed tens of thousands of those signals to the farthest corners of the country. How can you ban a color or a color combination, while installing them on every street yourself?
A little research showed me that the combination represented the Kurdish identity, and was seen as an endorsement of Kurdish nationalism. In the politically paranoid days of the early 2000s, a salt and pepper shaker once got a Turkish kebab seller in trouble because of its resemblance to Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the armed Kurdish rebellion in Turkey. If that man could get arrested for a shaker then there was nothing more natural than being thrown into the adjacent cell for wearing the cause’s illegal colors. (After being taken into custody the poor kebab seller said that he had bought the shakers because “they resembled the cook.” People used to defend their right to wear green-red-yellow garments to amazed members of the Turkish police force by saying they were fans of Bob Marley, not Ocalan.)
Hearing about the sad news, people began to argue that the greyization of stairs was proof of Turkey’s “monochrome politics”. Meanwhile the mayor continued to insist on his love for rainbow colors. YOU MISUNDERSTOOD ME, I LOVE ALL COLORS OF THE RAINBOW, was his message.
Nowadays it is unlikely that you’ll get arrested for using that particular color combination, although I strongly advise you not to use it near military facilities. And yet, sympathy for a broader coalition of colors, a kind of Rainbow Solidarity, can get you into trouble. Two months ago, on my way home from a coffee shop, I was surprised to see street stairs between Findikli and Cihangir painted with rainbow colors. There are 145 of those stairs in total and seeing the colors together on them in a public space was an exciting experience. While alone those colors had represented certain ideas to me, brought together they now pointed to something new. I walked towards the steps and as I was inspecting them in a rather Sherlockian pose, I came across a friend who owns a gallery. As a member of Istanbul’s art world she didn’t seem that shocked about this burst of creativity in a public space. Together we watched a bride and groom who were having their pictures taken by their head-scarved relatives. I asked my friend whether she had any idea who painted the stairs. We suspected that it was Istanbul’s energetic LGBT community that was behind the act.
The next morning, on my way to the coffee shop, I saw that the stairs had been turned to grey as if by magic. Gone was the curious combination of the Islamist-cum-environmentalist green, liberal yellow/orange, the nationalistic red and the yet-unclaimed blue. The grey of status quo and bureaucracy had emerged triumphant from the Color Wars 2.0.
But was this really the job of a magician? It turned out that it wasn’t. Ahmet Misbah Demircan, the grey-haired mayor of the Beyoğlu municipality, had ordered the stairs to be painted grey. On Twitter he announced his love for rainbow colors but said he could not allow people to paint wherever they like. The public space had to be neutral. He then decided to put the matter to a popular vote.
Meanwhile, the media had found the man responsible for painting the stairs to rainbow colors. A sixty-four-year-old forest engineer had hired two painters and paid around a thousand dollars for the paint job. He said he just wanted to make other people smile. Like the PM, the man seemed like he just couldn’t help loving colors. And we couldn’t help loving him.
Hearing about the sad news, people began to argue that the greyization of stairs was proof of Turkey’s “monochrome politics”. Meanwhile the mayor continued to insist on his love for rainbow colors. YOU MISUNDERSTOOD ME, I LOVE ALL COLORS OF THE RAINBOW, was his message. Perhaps he had realized that organizing a vote would take time and money so he sent his men, again in the wee hours of the day, to paint the stairs back into rainbow colors. When I passed by them the next morning, the rainbow had returned.
I took my magnifying glass with me and visited the site of rainbow stairs in order to attempt a closer inspection. I quickly realized that there was something strange about the new rainbow colors. They seemed a little, well, grey. I learned that numerous other people were not satisfied with the tone of the new colors as well. The original rainbow colors were bright and strong; those imposed by the municipality were dull by comparison. Now it was the turn of the supporters of brighter rainbow colors to do something. They invited people on Facebook and Twitter to come and paint the stairs a third time. Meanwhile, the color craze spread to other parts of the country. In distant Anatolian cities people were painting their stairs with rainbow colors and there seemed to be no exit from the wonderland of this color-obsessed country.
A few days later, though, the stairs adjacent to the offices of Agos, a weekly Armenian newspaper, were painted claret and blue by fans of the Trabzonspor soccer team. Some argued that this particular color combination carried a sinister undertone. The reason they gave was simple: Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor of the newspaper Agos, had been assassinated in 2007, meters away from those stairs, by a seventeen-year-old youth named Ogün Samast, a native of Trabzon. The white cap he wore while he shot Dink in the back later turned into a symbol of anti-Armenian feeling and the expression “white-capped fascist” became commonplace. So people from the Armenian community argued, understandably, that the claret and blue stairs near Agos’s offices were offensive; those were the colors of Trabzon’s football club and someone needed to repaint them so as to remove the symbolism from the stairs.
Later in the day, left-wing residents of Trabzon visited the stairs and organized a press conference. They also demanded a change in colors and said Trabzon’s people were united in their opposition to fascism as well as the dastardly use of their colors.
The next day, lo and behold, people woke up to see that the stairs were painted with rainbow colors.
And so the struggle continues…
Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books blog, Salon, Sight & Sound, The Millions, the White Review, Index on Censorship, among others. L’Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in 2008. Kaya has a PhD in English literature. He is the Los Angeles Review of Books’s Istanbul correspondent and is currently working on his second novel. He blogs at www.kayagenc.net and tweets at @kayagenc