Short story by S.A. Dastan
I don’t know exactly when it started. Maybe it had been in us for decades and was waiting for the right time to be unveiled. Or, a new phenomenon just developed and burst out. What I do know is that things changed in the summer of 2016 – suddenly and irreversibly. It was like the instant rise of a flood that topples everything ahead of it or an avalanche that starts with a rolling snowball and then transforms each snowflake into a massively destructive whole.
I knew that there was some sort of strain among the people. But I didn’t know the strength and the intensity of it. One night, when I went to bed early, my wife woke me up with an anxious voice. “Honey, do you hear the noise coming from outside,” she said. I listened. It was like noise coming from a group of people. They were chatting with loud voices and I thought that there might be some argument. I peeked through the curtain to check it out. I saw a group of people at the crossroads about 50 meters away from our apartment. I calmed my wife, telling her that it might be a celebration. Although they did seem to be angry about something.
The following day was Sunday and we didn’t go outside. If we don’t have a plan to go outside, I spend Sundays fixing some house appliances, and I did so that day as well. My wife was busy cooking some special meal, the recipes for which she was learning via Instagram. As a family, we had little contact with social media. My wife was on Instagram, and nothing else. She did not watch TV, not even the quite popular Turkish soap operas. She was also completely unpolitical and didn’t really worry about what was happening in Turkey. I also didn’t have social media accounts and rarely watched TV. Indeed, I was once interested in Turkish politics but quit following it after seeing that it was merely “communication among the deaf”: Everybody was speaking but nobody was listening. I left my twitter account almost five years ago when it became a platform for bickering and also Facebook when grandmas started to join it. So, we spent entire days without knowing what was happening in Turkey. While I was waiting for dinner, I quickly zapped through the TV channels, not to watch but just to waste time. On every channel, I saw politicians and pundits speaking loudly, raging and humiliating other people, as if they were ready to punch them. I thought it was an ordinary day in Turkey.
The next day, when I went to my office – an animation studio in Karaköy, Istanbul – to work, I understood that things had greatly deteriorated and the hatred in society was now more visible. Posters were attached to walls, calling for “national unity against the enemies within us” and occasionally small groups of people with flags or some posters of the political parties. Life continued, but the polarization had now become a topic on the street. During the day, I checked the TV more than I usually did. I saw more news and more speeches from politicians. Both the images and the rhetoric were quite fierce. The term “polarizing” is not sufficient to describe the situation. I could easily hear calls to eradicate the enemies. The enemies, as they say, were within us and often worked as an extension of a foreign power. The foreign power, according to the pundits, varies: mainly the US or Israel, but sometimes, Germany, the UK or even China.
When I was commuting back home, I saw more people on the streets who were marching with slogans. The traffic was often interrupted by these groups. I arrived home with great concern and trepidation. My wife greeted me at the door:
- “What is happening, Ali?” she asked in fear.
- “I don’t know darling.”
- “I watched TV today and…” she said, but I interrupted.
- “You don’t watch TV, do you?”
- “But, today, this is different.”
- “Okay, please, don’t watch it. There is some sort of hatred in society. Everybody is angry for some reason,” I said and added: “As usual…”
- “As usual?” she asked, “I hope so…”
We didn’t turn on the TV and did not check our phones throughout the evening. And did not speak much. Before going to bed I checked my WhatsApp groups. I was a member of two groups: co-workers and university friends. People had left the group of university friends and just two remained: me and my friend Ahmet. I texted Ahmet and asked what was happening. He replied that he was not sure, but would let me know tomorrow.
We went to bed early. In the middle of the night we woke to the slogans of people outside. There may have been more than a hundred people and they were now marching in front of our home. As our apartment is on the first floor, their shadows were falling on our curtain if car lights hit them. They were chanting and carrying flags and posters and didn’t mind that it was late at night. I could see people in the apartment balconies expressing their support for the group. I remember their slogan “Death to the Traitors! Death to the Terrorists!” They were walking downtown, and I thought their group was becoming larger and larger as they marched.
We could not sleep for the rest of the night. In the morning, my wife asked me not to go to work. I objected and asked why I should worry. I was not a traitor and not a terrorist. Despite her insistence, I went to work. When I arrived at the office, I realized the transformation in people. They were behaving harshly and there was no minimum of politeness. Then I learned that one of our co-workers had been arrested by the police that morning on political charges. It was a shock for me as she was barely interested in politics, although I occasionally heard her voice dissent. Suddenly, two fuming co-workers hassled me, with one of them saying:
- “You are a friend of hers”
- “Yes,” I said, “We were all friends of hers.”
- “But you were closer to her than us.”
I was surprised by such bullying and intimidation but didn’t retreat:
- “She is a good person, I am sure there is something wrong, and she will be released.”
- “No” the same guy said, “She is a traitor and she can’t be released.”
Suddenly I remembered my wife at home and my promise not to get into trouble. I didn’t reply and tried to get back to my work. I finished that day under my co-workers’ surveillance and angry looks. When I was going back home, I realized that things had gotten out of control. I saw people beaten and shops looted. Signs of a cross were put on some doors and walls were rife with words of hate. Crowds were everywhere – chanting, burning flags and shouting angry slogans. When I returned home, my wife was crying, and she said she was concerned about our safety. “Everything will be fine,” I said. But when I checked my phone, I saw that I had been expelled from our WhatsApp group at work. Then I realized that it was them who reported my colleague to the police as a traitor. It would definitely be my turn next. I didn’t mention it to my wife, just calmed her again. But later in the evening my friend Ahmet called me.
- “Ali, there is an epidemic of hatred spreading from televisions and mobile phones,” he said. “Just stay away from them – especially Twitter – otherwise you will also be transformed.”
- “But what happened,” I asked.
- “I don’t know,” he said. “The time, the incubation period, they vary… Minutes or hours or days, but if you are overexposed to the TV or phone, you will be likely to join them. And if you become one of them, you will see anybody who is not transformed as an enemy or a traitor!”
- “Why do the police not intervene in this aggression?”
- “The police are on their side, my friend.”
- “But I have committed no crime!” I replied in shock.
- “If you are not infected, then you are a criminal,” he said.
We could not sleep that night as the noise in the city was much greater. Crowds passed through the street again, but this time in large numbers and with burning sticks in their hand. A greater fear was spreading throughout the city. In the early morning I saw police cars on our block: They had raided an apartment across the street. They took a handcuffed couple to their car and left. This event increased our fear.
I decided not to go to work that day. I was not only worried about myself but also my wife. We spent the entire day at home and were not sure if we should leave the city and go somewhere else. But we decided not to, as we hope that this epidemic would be overcome in some way. In the meantime, I got a promise from my wife not to check the media on her phone.
That evening I received a text from my friend Ahmed,
- “You may not reach me from this phone any longer. If necessary, find Orhan. And don’t forget, they breathe too quickly, their faces are pale, and they are more active at night.”
- “Where are you my friend?”
He didn’t tell me but said:
- “Don’t forget, there is no cure for this disease of extremity!”
This was the last text I got from him. It marked the last moment he was “last seen” on WhatsApp. Orhan was our friend at University, the three of us had been very good friends. I did not have contact information for Orhan, however.
That night was the most horrific. At some later hour, we suddenly recoiled as one of our windows was broken by a stone thrown from outside. We had already turned off our lights and double-locked the doors. Our windows were protected with iron bars. Nobody tried to enter our apartment, but we understood that we had also been blacklisted by them. At any time, we could be attacked.
Early in the morning we started to make a plan to escape somewhere else. My wife insisted that we go to her parents’ house in a town of Western Turkey. She called them. Her father’s voice was so loud that I heard it from her phone. She hung up and broke into tears.
- “They were transformed,” she said.
- “Don’t worry honey, I am sure they will recover in a few days. This is a passing event,” I replied and hugged her. Then I called my mother to check if we could stay with them. After our talk, my wife asked me with tearful eyes:
- “Are they available?”
- “She said that she would welcome us,” I replied. “But…”
- “But… what?” she asked angrily.
- “She said ‘say hello to your uncle’.”
- “But you don’t have an uncle.”
- “Yes, this was a codeword we agreed to years and years ago. If one of us is in trouble and can’t say it on the phone, we would use the phrase ‘say hello to your uncle’. Maybe my father has been transformed or she is just concerned that the police might be following us. In any case we can’t go there.”
In the end we decided to live in a cheap hotel away from Istanbul and stay there for a while. The city centers are more dangerous to live in. We stocked up on some food and started the journey later in the day. As we left the apartment, we realized that there was not much time: Our door also had a cross on it.
Since we were afraid of being stopped by the police, we chose to travel on rarely used village roads. At the end of the day, we found a hotel where we planned to stay for a while. I lay down on the bed and fell asleep after days of insomnia. But it was not a restful sleep, interrupted and wracked by nightmares. At some point, I opened my eyes and saw my wife. She was sitting on a chair next to the bed. It was dark, but there was light on her face. It was the pale light of her mobile phone. She seemed so beautiful with the light making only her face visible in the middle of the darkness.
When I woke up in the morning, I realized that she had not slept at all. She had moved the chair to the window and was looking outside. I told her to go to the lobby to see if anything is available for breakfast. But when I tried to open the door, I realized that it was locked. Then we came eye to eye.
- “You have nowhere to escape,” she said furiously.
- “Darling?” I replied in a daze. But she repeated:
- “You have nowhere to escape.”
At that moment, I realized that she was infected by the virus of extremity, probably through the phone at night. But I could not accept this.
- “You know me honey, I am not a bad person.”
- “You are our nation’s enemy and a criminal,” she replied. “You asked me to not check social media to hide the truth.”
As I was trying to convince her, there was a knock at the door. It was the police. I immediately put two bed stands in front of the door to block the entry of the police. However, my wife started to remove them. Then we had a scuffle in the room, with the police trying to get inside. I managed to put her in the bathroom and lock it. The room was on the first floor, but it was not low enough to jump from the window. As we did in our high school dormitory, I tied together two bed covers and attached the end of one of them to the leg of the bed. As I scrambled down the façade this way, I heard my wife break the window of the bathroom door and scream, “You, traitor!”
I escaped from there in my car. I drove the village roads again to not get caught by the police. After staying in the car for a day and night, I remembered a place to hide. It was the cottage of Orhan’s family, not used and abandoned years ago. It was in a deserted and safe place, a rural area of Nevşehir, Cappadocia. This was also where Ahmet, Orhan and I went occasionally. I arrived at the cottage after 8 hours of driving. When I arrived there, I saw a car waiting outside. I had no doubt that it was Orhan’s car. Indeed, Orhan appeared at the gate and greeted me.
- “I was expecting you or Ahmet,” he said.
He had rearranged the inside of the cottage and it was in better condition than I remembered. I explained what I had experienced from the very beginning. When I finished the story, he asked:
- “Can you believe that everybody in the street is wrong and you are right?”
- “Everybody in the street thinks that I am a criminal,” I replied. “But I am not.”
- “People just want you to think like them…to behave like them.”
- “They have gone crazy, my friend, full of hatred… The ultimate degree of polarization. I saw people stabbing oranges to protest the Netherlands and burning one-dollar banknotes to protest America. Yesterday two Koreans were beaten as they were thought to be Chinese. And the perpetrators defended themselves by saying that all slant-eyes are Chinese to them. I don’t want to be one of them, Orhan!”
- “Turks are unique Ali. We have a lot of enemies and under such conditions each person in society is required to respect the authority. Tolerance and harmony are sham terms, devised to dilute our national resistance to the external powers.”
While he was trying to convince me to change my mind, I heard a motor outside. Then I saw the reflection of a police car’s flashing lights on the window. I had no power to escape or resist. As the police were coming inside, I recalled the promise we had made each other years ago:
- “Friend, do you remember we once agreed not to allow each other to be dragged into any sort of extremism, like racism or fundamentalism. This is the time to remember that promise, I believe.”
- “Yes,” he replied, “I remember that day very well. But we forgot to add exceptions for extraordinary situations. This is different, Ali. Our nation is passing through an ordeal. We both have the chance to serve our government and nation. I did it, and you can also do it.”
My effort was useless. The police arrested me and took me into custody.
While I was entering the cell, I thought that everything has changed so quickly. It was just a week. I lost my family, my wife and friends. I was a respected person in my country now charged with being a terrorist.
The room was dark and there was somebody else in it. It was Ahmet! We hugged each other as if we had not met in years. I was happy to find him in the cell, but sad to see that he was also arrested. With this emotional dilemma in mind, I had the feeling that the cell could be safer than living in a polarized society which is completely engulfed by hatred and extremity.