Turkish writers address the aesthetic and political questions raised by the catastrophe: is art appropriate in the midst of suffering – or even possible? Did some think the patriarch would protect them? Will lessons be learned for Istanbul, likely site of the next apocalypse?
In the April issue of Varlik, contributors attempt to come to terms with the loss, confusion and grief caused by the February 6 earthquakes. More than 50,000 people died in Turkey and at least 7,000 in Syria; millions more were left homeless.
While many Turks believe the response to the disaster from their government and state-run relief agencies was inadequate, some questioned whether it was ethical to lay blame as people were still being pulled from the rubble. Art historian Emre Zeytinoğlu notes that the devastation has also raised other painful questions, including whether art can be created in times of disaster. In an essay ranging from Adorno’s musings on poetry after Auschwitz to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s reference to 9/11 as the greatest work of art of all time, Zeytinoğlu says the question has no answer.
Philosopher Zeynep Direk is also looking for answers – specifically why some Turks were surprised to see the failure of a state that since 2018 has been run like a presidential system. The problem, she suggests, is obedience to a patriarch. “Did they think this man could protect their wives and children like a father figure? Did they think they were his children? Was that illusion shattered when people trapped under earthquake rubble were left alone for crucial hours?
Drawing on their work examining memories of the attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016, Muharrem Ersin Kuşdil and Merve Çavuşoğlu discuss how society remembers traumatic events. Collective memories are shaped by the actions and needs of many protest groups, they point out, particularly “victims and authors’.
The ground gave way
Poet Ersun Çıplak recounts his experience of earthquakes and their aftermath in the southern city of Adana. Shaken at 4:17am, it was like “being in a washing machine”. It was that kind of noise. The ground under my feet gave and stretched. He later fled his house again with his daughter in his arms as an aftershock reverberated on the ground and “I saw the house opposite going up and down and leaning towards us”.
As news of the death of friends and colleagues arrives, Çıplak is unable to find solace in the poetry snippets he encounters on social media. He remembers Nazim Hikmet, who days after the 1939 Erzincan earthquake produced a poem (“Black News”) to mark the event. The speed of Hikmet’s response is baffling, writes Çıplak. “If we were to list only the names of the deceased, if possible, it would go beyond the pages naming the cast of Iliad characters. Frankly, those who lived through this tragedy may only need one thing: first to shut up, then howl in anger.
Istanbul is a megalopolis living in the shadow of a future earthquake. Selçuk Orhan follows the rampant construction and development that transformed his hometown during his lifetime. Living in Istanbul means accepting a life full of uncertainties, he says. “Today we experienced an apocalypse; worse still, it is said that we are on the eve of other apocalypses.
Commentary by Steve Bryant