US Vice President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sat in white and gold upholstered chairs in the Presidential Palace in Ankara. It was August 24, 2016, over one month past the July 15th failed coup attempt in Turkey.
Biden began by thanking Erdoğan for his friendship and for Erdoğan’s condolences when Biden lost his son. He leaned across the gap between chairs, placed his hand atop Erdoğan’s, and said it was hard to fathom that the coup attacked the hotel where he and his family had been staying just 15 minutes after they had left.
“I can understand how you feel that the world didn’t respond in time,” Biden said. “That’s why I wanted to personally be here. Our support is absolute and it’s unwavering.”
That afternoon, coming home from the city center, I had run into Ahmet and his wife, Dilara, waiting for the service bus to bring us back to campus. Like me, he was a summer school teacher at a laboratory school in eastern Turkey. He was a Turkish literature teacher who taught there year-round, while I was just there for the summer to teach English literature and language. Though he had mostly kept to himself during school lunches, he was suddenly very friendly and excited to see me, introducing me to his wife as an American who knew Turkish. They invited me to coffee at their home that night.
“We like Americans,” he explained. “Life there is relaxed and problem-free compared to Turkey.”
Later that evening when Dilara opened the door to their apartment, I barely recognized her without headscarf and long formal jacket and skirt. She looked much younger, like a Turkish college student dressed in westernized clothing, in one of those tight-fitting T-shirts with English writing. This would be the first time I spent with a woman who covered herself, witnessing the unveiling from outside to inside the home.
“Carrie arrived,” she said into her phone as she opened the door, having already told her mother about me. She ushered me into the salon where Ahmet was sitting. We said hello, and then his phone rang. He apologized because his mother was also calling. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Turkish culture, it’s that mothers always come first, so I was soon alone in their salon. I sat on the same L-shaped white sofa found in all the teachers’ apartments including mine, watching Turkish news while I waited.
Biden had clearly prepared a polished introduction for this televised meeting, beginning with thankyous, references to their longstanding friendship, and acknowledgments of Erdoğan’s tribulations. But the tension was palpable. Biden attempted eye contact with Erdoğan, who instead faced the camera, stone-faced.
Turkey is divided between well-educated Turks who despise President Erdoğan’s efforts to turn their country away from its secular foundation, and the slim majority of 52% that voted him into power in 2014. Many of the former had secretly hoped a military coup would overthrow his current Islamist AKP party; however, when the coup occurred, these same people believed Erdoğan had staged it to show that citizens would rise up against the military to support democracy (and him). On the night of the coup, he used the speakers on mosque minarets, normally used for calls to prayer, to call people out into the streets to stand up for their Turkish democracy. He sent mass text messages to citizens with this same message. And it worked. That 52% and then some came out waving Turkish flags and attacked the tanks and soldiers, resulting in multiple deaths.
While his people were high on this burst of patriotism, Erdoğan began cleansing the military and judicial systems by arresting thousands of judges, teachers, and soldiers. My Turkish friends worried he was weakening the military and the system of checks and balances to pave the way for more autocratic rule.
I had visited the city center of our town the day after the coup. There were no soldiers and few policemen present, just 20-year-old men clogging the streets in dilapidated cars, shouting out car windows, pumped up on testosterone and adrenaline. I ran into two of my high school students who told me that even though they believed Erdoğan had staged the coup, they said the feeling that night, when citizens came out to stop it, was unbelievable. They couldn’t help but get caught up in it, like they were part of the French Revolution, one student said.
President Obama was one of the first world leaders to call Erdoğan and express his sympathy and support of the democratic process that had elected Erdoğan. Secretary of State John Kerry also made a televised statement of the United States’ support of Erdoğan’s dissolving the coup. However, these gestures had not been enough for the Turkish President. He had wanted an immediate visit from Obama to show US loyalty to its ally.
Turkey and the US have long been allies, their diplomatic friendship formally established in 1831 when Turkey was still the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s economic and political security have been closely tied to the west for decades. However, in recent years, their friendship has been strained by the US’s involvement in the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War. The Turkish government fears that the US’s military actions in the region will empower Turkish and Syrian Kurds, respectively the PKK and PYD, to claim their independence from Turkey and Middle Eastern countries.
Despite this tension, during President Obama’s tenure, Turkey’s partnership with the US deepened. In 2013, they established a $200 million fund to fight extremism. In 2015, they initiated a program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, and the US and NATO continue to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base in their efforts to stabilize the region.
However, the accord most relevant to current events was signed in 1947- the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement. Offered by the US to democratic nations, per this agreement, the US is bound to support Turkey’s efforts to thwart coups and other uprisings, to aid Turkey in upholding its democratically elected government.
Therefore, when Erdoğan shifted blame for the coup to Fetullah Gülen, a self-exiled Islamic cleric residing in the US, it was this 1947 promise that rose to the surface of the countries’ friendship. For the next month, Erdoğan repeatedly called on the US to extradite Gülen, but Washington held its ground that he must first undergo a thorough judicial process reliant on Turkey providing evidence of his involvement in the coup.
Finally, over a month after the coup, Biden had arrived in Turkey to display US sympathy and support, despite the whole world’s skepticism of this so-called military coup, the details still unfolding. But diplomatic friendship means showing up at the right time with a perfectly constructed message, so as not to disturb the long complicated history behind you.
“That’s why President Obama asked me to personally come visit you in his honor,” Biden expressed, though the delay had clearly embittered Erdoğan.
Dilara made repeated trips to the kitchen. She brought out wafers, chocolate bars, the nuts I brought as a gift, and finally two ears of corn on the cob from her mother’s garden. First, we drank tea, and as the evening progressed, coffee.
Sometimes Ahmet would try to speak English, and when I asked in Turkish if he was talking about such-and-such, he laughed that I had to translate back to Turkish to understand his English.
Observing Dilara’s silence, Ahmet asked if she was bored, to which she responded no, she was just listening. When he left to smoke a cigarette on the balcony, she excitedly ushered me to the dining room table to show me something she had made – a miniature bouquet of roses made from decorative frosting, perched in a metal bicycle.
“Hobby,” she said in English, shyly shrugging. I expressed how beautiful it was.
New to his apartment, Ahmet explained that he had enough books in boxes to fill wall-to-wall bookshelves. We were pleased to discover his favorite author was Raymond Carver of Washington, my state of residence. Carver’s style, “dirty realism,” focuses on the sense of loss and isolation in the lives of ordinary working class people.
Ahmet and Dilara’s whole lives had taken place in the city where we taught- a small, conservative town in eastern Turkey- their families, their universities, and their careers. I asked Ahmet if this was his first teaching job, and he explained how prior, he had taught at a nearby university. He then confessed, in a tone insinuating teaching was second to writing, that he was a poet. I shared that I also wrote poetry, and we were both so pleased at this discovery. We discussed favorite poets, and when I said that not many Turkish poems have been translated into English, he proposed that we translate one poem of each other’s and try to publish them in literary magazines in our respective countries.
He went to find a copy of his book from the bookcase. He leafed through it to a poem titled, “Where are You, my God?” This was the one he wanted me to translate. He asked me what to write for the inscription, for he wanted it to be in English. I wrote it down for him, and he copied it onto the first page:
To Carrie Simpson
Enjoy these poems
Sincerely, Ahmet Sezgin
Ahmet sat back and smiled. “We are so glad we met you. We really like you,” he said.
“I salute you with my most heartfelt emotion,” Erdoğan began, addressing Biden yet staring at the camera. He then gave a long overview of the night of the coup. “I would like to extend my gratitude and commemorate the 241 martyrs that were a repercussion of this attempt.” I got the sense that this was recycled from many of his speeches delivered over the last month.
Then he shifted to the heart of the matter, the Golden Fleece he wanted from the US- Fetullah Gülen. “He needs to be extradited to Turkey as soon as possible. Right now we are amassing certain documents pertaining to the Gülenists’ involvement.” He ended by declaring that the US had a choice to make in whether it was going to uphold the democratic values Turkey was built upon, by handing over Gülen, or turn its back on a longtime ally.
Biden responded that more US lawyers than any other extradition case in American history were spending countless hours on this case, but that there was a judicial system put in place by the US Constitution that they had to abide by. In fact, President Obama did not have the power to extradite Gülen, or he would be impeached.
“That’s what we call separation of powers,” Biden explained. “We are bound by the law. This takes time. I wish Gülen wasn’t in our country, Mr. President.”
I translated for Ahmet the gist of what my vice president was saying. I felt proud I could do this, even if it was in Tarzan Turkish. We laughed about how tense the meeting was. I joked that I had better leave Turkey soon, but Ahmet suddenly became serious and said in his Tarzan English, “No, Turks and Americans friends. We are friends,” and waved his hand in dismissal of our televised leaders.
Ahmet said he did not pledge allegiance to any political party in Turkey. He said he was a socialist, then corrected himself: “I am a humanist.” He asked me many questions about my life and teaching job in Seattle. I said that he’d like Seattle very much, that it was a literary, intellectual city with a lot of theatre and writers. He was impressed that Seattle had socialist leanings; he had never heard of the independent party or Bernie Sanders. He wanted to know what kind of degree one needed to teach at my college. He told me he once began the green card process but forfeited due to its complications. I joked that I could give him a “friendship card” so he could come work in the US. He laughed and then asked seriously if a work reference from me might help him obtain a work visa. I explained it was unlikely, that I was just an ordinary person without that kind of power. We both nodded and agreed solemnly that it was very difficult for an ordinary Turk to move to the US.
Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist preacher, exiled himself to Pennsylvania in 1999. Sharing similar ideologies, he had been a longtime ally of President Erdoğan until 2013, when the president accused him of choreographing corruption investigations implicating his senior ministers and son. Erdoğan then deemed Gülen a terrorist and his followers the Gülenist Terror Organisation (FETÖ). Three years later, Erdoğan was convinced Gülen, and the US by default for protecting him, were behind the July 15th coup.
“We have zero interest in protecting a terrorist,” Biden emphatically explained. “What possible motive do we have? We are bound by our constitution.”
Erdoğan listened to the translation through his earpiece. At the word, “constitution,” he emitted an audible sigh.
Biden continued, “As of yesterday afternoon, there has been no evidence of Gülen’s involvement in the coup,” insinuating the inadequate nature of the “evidence” the Turkish government had provided thus far. “We need actual, justifiable evidence, not just, ‘This is a bad guy.’”
When Biden finished speaking, he leaned across the divide to shake Erdoğan’s hand and say something into his ear. After he sat back, he leaned in again to shake his hand one more time and say something else. Erdoğan nodded his head quickly so Biden would retreat from this awkward interpersonal moment. It was clear nothing had been resolved for Erdoğan; Biden had not delivered what he wanted.
After their talk was over, we watched as the news channel played a montage of Erdoğan’s speeches since the coup. The message over and over was that the US had a choice to make – were they Turkey’s ally or enemy?
Suddenly, the three of us burst out laughing, aware of the irony of what we were watching during my first visit to their home, their having invited me because they “like Americans.” As the evening progressed, the disparity between our burgeoning friendship and the strained relationship of our leaders grew. Erdoğan and Biden’s interaction was strained by the complicated responsibilities of being allies through thick and thin, trust and distrust, while in Ahmet’s apartment, the three of us enjoyed an organically unfolding friendship, discovering our similarities and enjoying each other’s company.
Often we form opinions about a country’s citizens based on the behaviors of its leaders, when in actuality there is a grand canyon between a government and its citizens. People all over the world want similar things: health for our families, jobs that make us happy and pay well, freedom to enjoy our lives without fear of punishment, and trust in our government that our needs will be taken care of. Ahmet, Dilara and I were connecting on these basic tenets of humanity while our leaders strategically danced around arbitrary lines of loyalties.
After more coffee and conversation, we ended our evening with the promise to try our hands at translating each other’s poetry, and that my leaving in a week was not the end of our knowing one another.
I am back in the US now. It’s winter. The mornings are very cold and the trees have lost their fall leaves. I left Ahmet with a poem I wrote several autumns ago while living in Ankara, Turkey. The first half aims to capture the early excitement of the season:
The trees whisper, and Autumn awakens my heart,
her ice fingers wrapping around my breaths…
The first bite may rip through warm down feathers,
but my skin will explode in ten thousand joys. The wind blows.
I feel invigorated by the Pacific Northwest climate after enduring a hot dry summer in Turkey, but I also am having a hard time staying warm these days.
At the end of the summer, I was able to return to my country whose government is relatively trustworthy and transparent. Even plagued by the misogyny, racism, and autocratic leanings of our new president, in comparison, the US feels safe, predictable. I have freedom of speech and protest, and the possibility to effect change through grassroots activism. My Turkish friends could not return to such a place.
Five days after the coup, Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency, and has since extended it two times. A state of emergency allows him to bypass the Constitutional Court’s long process of overseeing the passage of laws. In the US, as much as President Trump would like to rule by decree, we have many more checks and balances. A state government can sue the federal government if an executive order is deemed unconstitutional, and no executive order can reverse a law passed by Congress. However, in Turkey, the president’s cabinet can simply draft a decree, and with his approval, it will go to Parliament for a quick vote, to be passed within 30 days. Under this loosened judicial process, Erdoğan’s government has continued to arrest and detain any individual suspected of being a Gülenist, and to pass laws towards a presidential system based on Islamic values.
When my friends and I took a road trip through northeastern Turkey at the end of the summer, the gendarme stopped us many times to check our IDs. They were less interested in our American passports, and more in our Turkish friend’s ID, for whom a phone call was always made to ensure he was not wanted for investigation.
When we arrived back in town from our trip, we learned that one of our fellow teachers had been let go after working there for seven years. Though the director said he could not discuss with her the reasons, we knew it was because she had taught at a Gülen school five years prior. In Turkey, there is a witch-hunt, and no one is safe from her past.
According to Human Rights Watch, “100,000 civil servants including teachers, judges and prosecutors” have been arrested without due process in the past six months. The Turkish Ministry of Justice reports only 41,000 arrests. My Turkish friends can only dream of a transparent government.
There was even news of American teachers at Turkish universities being detained for writing dissident remarks on Facebook. I carefully censored my communication on social media while there. The Monday morning after the coup, I asked my 10th graders to write in their journals about their feelings. Normally a talkative bunch, they watched me with wide eyes after they had written their thoughts. When asked if anyone wanted to share, one boy said he could not because he wrote “bad political ideas,” and, in fact, could he tear up this page and throw it away, because there could be spies outside our window. I looked outside at the vast rolling steppe of Anatolia, and said, “Yes, of course you can throw it away.” In Turkey, fear has silenced even young people.
I have begun translating Ahmet’s poem. Not yet embellished with rhyme or rhythm, my first draft is raw:
Where are you, my god, for I have lost my tracks?
Who has lost me?
I want some more pain, my god.
My suffering is not enough.
I watch the news carefully. So much has been left unresolved. My Turkish friends still have many questions. Who orchestrated the coup? When will this witch-hunt end? And what state will the country be in then?
Many more violent acts have ensued since the summer. On December 20th, an off-duty policeman assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey. On New Years Eve, 39 people were killed in a posh Istanbul nightclub, for which ISIS claimed responsibility. On January 5th, Kurdish militants detonated a car bomb outside the Izmir courthouse. Turkey is entrenched in conflict.
My Turkish friends now expect a new violent act to occur each week. Yet, despite this undercurrent of deep worry, they continue to go about their daily lives. They gather for Sunday morning picnics, take walks and practice yoga together, travel on holidays to visit family, even teach literature on the Monday morning after a failed coup. For what can one do with so many questions unanswered, but go on and do what one knows how to do? And pray that what may come will not take away one’s enjoyment of life?
Help, my god, where are my thoughts?
And where is truth?
Come, someone, and tell us who left us this orphan?
Who left us like orphans?
That night, while Biden and Erdoğan struggled to appear as friends before the camera, Ahmet, Dilara, and I were tucked away in a small teacher’s apartment in a Turkish city few Americans had heard of, enjoying a burgeoning friendship. As palpable as our leaders’ tension was our new connection. You could sink your teeth into the warmth in Ahmet’s home that night, from our discovery of shared values, interests, humanity. That evening was one among many this summer, salient in its stark contrast to what was happening in the political sphere.
I sent Ahmet my translation of his poem soon after I returned to the US. He wrote that he was working on a novel and would begin translating my poem soon.
At 6,000 feet elevation, autumn progressed quickly and soon resembled winter in eastern Turkey. The high steppe winds blow fiercely, the nights are cold, and the snow has crept down the mountains to surround the school in deep drifts. In his apartment, thousands of miles from mine, I like to imagine Ahmet keeping warm by working on the translation of my poem. The latter part addresses the shift in autumn as winter approaches:
A heart’s affections mask and unmask until even Heaven
shrugs and steps down to the andante of old thoughts chanting
upon endless grey pavement. This weather will ruin me
unless I swim skyward, and place Heaven back on her shrine.
But I haven’t heard from Ahmet since early fall, and I doubt he’s working on my poem. In Turkey, Heaven has yet to be placed back on her shrine. I imagine the news plays in his home every night, and that he walks in and out to smoke cigarettes on the balcony, worrying about the fate of his country. We’re no longer with each other to translate what our leaders are saying. I watch the news from its limited perspectives here. I, too, worry about Turkey, the US, international relations. But I find warmth in the night we drank coffee and our friendship transcended our leaders’.
To protect the privacy of certain individuals, the names and identifying details have been changed.
Caroline Simpson’s nonfiction has appeared in Northwest Community College Initiative (online), The English Journal (print), and New Jersey Reporter (print). She teaches English at Edmonds Community College, Lynnwood, WA. Before moving to Seattle, she taught English Literature at high schools in Turkey and in Spain.