A Story of Hiding and Survival in Post-Coup Turkey
The story of a Turkish military officer, who goes into hiding in plain sight in Ankara, offers courage, creative thinking, and perseverance amid the frenzied haunt after the 2016 coup.
Once being cast by the authorities as the public enemies of the government and nation, there are few palatable options left to the unlucky people swept up in the frenzied manhunt following a botched coup in 2016: a) surrender to law enforcement with the dreadful prospect of torture in police custody, b) submission to a judiciary that never distributes/serves justice, c) a life-threatening endeavor for border-crossing through the river that demarcates Turkey and Greece, d) taking a chance through the Aegean Sea en route for the Greek islands with the ever-constant threat of boat capsizing, e) hiding in the most unlikely places with the abiding fear of sudden discovery by police or sellout by people/friends/family members. None of the options appear soothing for people terrorized by the post-coup purge and subsequent crackdown. Yet, they, having appeared on the receiving end of the government’s repression, went through an ordeal of sorts that resemble one or the other abominable prospect broached above.
The Street, written by exiled Turkish journalist Arzu Yildiz in Canada, portrays a military officer who chose a completely different path that bordered on the most unthinkable creativity and insane courage that defies the logic of mortal souls like us. The officer named Ahmet is just one of the thousands of rank-and-file officer corps who serve(d) in the second largest army of NATO. On the fateful night of July 15, Ahmet’s life plunges into an uncharted territory that upends his established course of life ever since then. Scheduled to be home on Friday night for a modest dinner with family members on the outskirts of Ankara, a phone call orders him to return his base. Getting suspicious of the unusual call while driving home, he decides to pass it. Once home, after a quick back and forth pondering with his bewildered wife, he makes up his decision: he would not go back to the base no matter what the order. While on the move, he learns through the radio that there is some sort of military insurrection going on in the streets. A coup attempt in the evening, at a time when people are still on the streets? An unheard thing incongruent with the Turkish military’s coup tradition and well-versed practices. The army he served was never foreign to (occasionally launching) coups that toppled many civilians governments in the past. But almost all of them took place early in the morning when everybody was home and in deep sleep. The military took the coup business very seriously. What was unfolding on July 15 night, Ahmet reasoned, had nothing to do with a usual coup previously instigated by the central command of the military.
“What would you do?” her frightened wife asks. “You did nothing wrong,” she intones. But it hardly matters as the police are on the way to arrest him. (The purge list had been prepared in advance well before the coup.) He pays an impromptu goodbye to his wife and already-slept children. He has only one thing in mind: Going to hide, not in some remote place in rural Anatolia, but in the middle of the city by pretending to be homeless. For the next one and a half years, he adopts Guven Park in downtown Ankara as his natural residence, growing a Robinson Crusoe-style beard, entirely in squalid conditions marked by filth and penury. He hides in plain sight, in front of the whole police and Ankara citizens who are later grown accustomed to his presence there.
Apart from some occasional checks, his filthy outlook and destitute life do not seem to police be worthy of any investigation or proper search. Without disclosing further spoiler about the plot and content, it suffices to say that the book’s page-turning pace and moving prose takes the reader into its grip. With the air of a noir and crime thriller, the book provides the first glimpse into the overlooked aspect of the post-coup terror that altered the lives of more than half a million people.
While learned people and observers mostly stay tuned with the immediate ramifications of the political changes taking place in Turkey after the president cemented his grip on the reins of power following the abortive attempt, the book’s central theme revolves around the personal tragedy of one individual. It is about Ahmet’s journey from being a respected military officer to a wanted fugitive in his own homeland, in the capital of Turkey where the headquarters of the military and all other security departments are located. The book never indulges in the larger currents of shifting political history, but rather strictly limits itself to an escape story, a hiding and survival account of a single human being. This humanist, non-political approach to an era through the prism of an individual also allows the writer to avoid the traps of political tribalism that nevertheless looms large over the literal, journalistic, and academic treatment of the post-coup Turkey where any misconception or misphrase would dissuade the readers from engaging the book.
The story of Ahmet conveys creative thinking and courage. It also conjures up a capital full of intrigue, witch-hunt, chaos, and debilitating purge that swept through every layer of government bureaucracy in the post-coup era. Yildiz’s book might be a novel but it contains the day-by-day detail of the post-coup Ankara through the first-hand experience of an outcast officer whose true story inspired the journalist in the first place. It is a personal documentary of the immediate aftermath of the coup through a character whose life story serves as a microcosm of a larger group of people ostracized and vilified by the government. It is a brilliant and authentic idea — the way how Ahmet chooses to evade the arrest by law enforcement by hiding at a public park in the middle of downtown Ankara for more than a year. His homelessness is more a result of a personal choice than a sudden demotion in his socio-economic status. Though the latter part is also true, it mostly serves his concealment in plain sight to avoid an imprisonment.
What animates Yildiz toward documenting the predicament of people haunted by the government is her own personal tragedy. Leaving one baby and a young kid behind, she crosses the Greek border in an illegal way after months of hiding in Ankara. If she stayed in Turkey, that would have doomed her freedom after a court sought 32-year imprisonment for her over charges of leaking classified state documents. However, she won an award in Europe for her investigative report about the government’s weapons shipment to warring sides in Syria. Obviously, her courage and opposition to the government’s authoritarian over-reach removed her from Erdogan’s good books, placing her on the wanted list. What lent the book its center of gravity is Yildiz’s own personal experience right after the 2016 coup, something that gave her vision, grasp, better handling of the theme she tackles. Both Arzu and Ahmet appear on different layers of the same ordeal; for this reason, they have more in common than a simple writer-content, reporter-source equation.
The Street, the account of the post-coup Turkey through the angle of a military officer and his personal odyssey, is worth reading. Given the sheer amount of tragedies and upended lives over the course of the past four years, it is certainly for sure that many more studies/books would follow Yildiz’s suit. Regardless of historical proximity to the pivotal event of 2016, it seems like ancient history as we lost our grasp of time and space amid overwhelming forces of forgetting engendered by the ever-moving cycle of politics. Arzu’s book serves as a poignant reminder of what we went through (only four years ago) and what we’ve endured since then. The politics of memory dissipates the demarcating border between disciplines that regulate the division of labor between journalism and history-writing. As a journalist, as a mother, and as an exiled humanist, Arzu’s attempt combines her journalistic instinct and duty with the sensitivity of a historian in a book written in elegant prose.