The Coup Diary: May you not live in interesting times

Ece Temelkuran

15 July, evening: “Turn on the TV! Right now!”

When people start calling each other to tell this in Turkey you can be a hundred percent sure that something horrible is happening. Yet, due to the more than dozen of massive terror attacks of last year our national threshold of shock is extended to ridiculous limits. Therefore bitter jokes about the TV footage of soldiers cutting the Bosporus Bridge are circulating on social media. Most of us are not taking the footage seriously until the jets start flying above our heads to break the windows. TV broadcasting cannot reach the speed of bombardment in the capital city. The President is on TV via Facetime saying that this really is a coup attempt and that all the citizens should go to city squares to stop it. Some do go to the squares even with their pajamas and some rush to the markets knowing from the previous 1980 military coup that there will be a curfew. Until morning the sala, special prayer after death, is called from minarets non-stop mingling with continuous sonic booms from jets. A night of war. Everybody tries to handle the situation in her own way; I immediately start writing every detail I see. One of my friends starts vomiting to not to stop for two days. Another friend says he wants to watch Star Wars right at that moment. So this is what war is like, total insanity. Parliament is bombed. The MPs trying to find the shelter and once they do they cannot find the key to it. When main course is tragedy in Turkish cuisine the comedy is always the side dish.

16 July: No more jets. One starts to be grateful for not having a bombardment after such a night. My thumb joint is swollen because of writing the same sentence to my editors and friends from several countries on the planet:

“I am alive. Things are confusing. No, it is not a staged act by the government but yes it can be used to strengthen the already unrivalled governing party. Fethullah Gülen Movement seems to be responsible for the coup attempt. Well, it is not a good time to explain who they are because it is extremely complicated. Oh yes, you will sure learn about them because it is a supra-national web. You will see what I mean soon.”

17 July: The concerns are voiced about a possible witch-hunt erasing any kind of opposition from the political sphere. Being an already very polarized country Turkey is extremely tense now. Those who hit the streets to stop the tanks are calling the others to account for not being on the streets. Now everybody has to prove that they are against the coup. President Erdoğan asked the entire nation to stay on the squares for a week but party followers dominate the crowd and the Islamic tone is significant. Obviously Prime Minister is aware of the growing tension between seculars and party followers so he shows a picture of a covered woman and an uncovered one driving together to the Taksim Square on the 15th of July. He says that this is the picture that brought tears to his eyes. He does this for several times. For the sake of national unity, the main opposition party leader is let to speak on state TV for the first time in years.

20 July: Until now everyday the “breaking news” logo appeared on TV channels at least in every fifteen minutes. Everybody is tired. Popular joke is “Lose it completely if you find a chance” because speed of things is unbearable for a sane mind. I am numb due to the interviews I gave, articles I wrote for international media. I notice that I am staring at the grapes growing in my garden and wondering if I will see them get ripe. The three kittens in my garden have been absent since the night. Stupid ideas cross my mind such as “Can a sonic boom kill a cat because of fear?” I guess human mind tries to protect itself with irrelevance. The news keeps revealing the footage from the night. It is becoming clearer that this is bigger than we thought on the night. The state is emergency is declared.

22 July: The mainstream international media is almost sure that this was a staged act and the massive arrests on Gülen followers from all walks of life don’t make it easy to convince them otherwise. How nonsense it is that the world media will have to learn about this extremely complicated movement in such an extraordinary time. Once the strongest ally of the government this Islamic sect has been infiltrating to all the institutions in Turkey. This is not easy to understand for Westerners. These are hard times for people like me who criticized both the government and the Gulen movement and paid for it. The government does not want to hear “We told you so” and international media suspects you are supporting the government when you tell how massive this movement is.

It is my birthday today and I am the same age with my father when the 1980 coup happened.

23 July: A prosecuted lieutenant colonel committed suicide in his prison cell with his bed sheet. I remember one businessman dying because of cancer when he was imprisoned under the class action Ergenekon. In each political turn in Turkish politics human tragedies are happening and they are so many that nobody remembers their names.

24 July: The main opposition party is holding a rally in support of democracy, extensive enough to include almost all the Leftist opposition. The mocking videos of Fethullah Gülen are circulating on social media. A bitter smile on my face. I think about thousands of people who went to prison or lost their jobs when the movement together with the government was dominating the judiciary, economy and media for years. There is a list of prosecution for Gulen affiliated journalists now. The times push everyone to be part of the vicious cycle of political revenge. Hard to keep your sense of justice.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (

26 July: Historic moment. A gigantic Atatürk poster is hung on the governing party headquarters. One thinks that the AKP, the most pragmatic political party of Turkish modern history is changing its ally from Islamists to secularists after beating them for a decade like there is no tomorrow. This is an excellent season for men for all seasons. The most popular columnist writes an elementary school level article praising Atatürk, heralding the a la mode ideological stand of these times.

These are the worst times for people like me. I mean the people who cannot change their views according to the shifting political grounds. I really think that I should stop talking but meanwhile I am embarrassed to not to write anything. I guess many people feel the same way. I am not sure about the translation of this expression in Turkish but we use it frequently for the last several years, “When the elephants fight it is the grass that gets crushed.”

I very much feel like the grass.

28 July: It seems the people like me just stand still while the political snipers hunting the Gulenists. Nobody is really moving much just not to be mistaken as a target. The entire military, education and administrative system of the country is changing on massive scale. Tens of thousands of arrests. So I know why the Chinese curse each other by saying “May you live in interesting times!” Erdoğan to meet Putin in few days and meanwhile NATO alliance is in question. It is ironic that even the anti-imperialists worry about this now. Well, interesting times it is.

29 July: Some of the arrested journalists are those who for years wrote that my alike and me should be imprisoned for being critical of Gulen movement or the government. Yet, it is far from being joyful to see that they are arrested. Questions about the accommodating thousands of arrested. A decade ago new gigantic prisons were built for secularists and now it is for alleged Gulenists.

1st August: Absurdity becomes international as I expected. A hospital in Somalia is closed down due to its ties to Gülen movement and because its main donor is Turkish government. The chief says, “We are shocked. Turkish government told us several times that we are doing a wonderful job here. How could this happen?” Good question. But in order to tell how this all happened we have to go back to Cold War days and start telling how Islamic movements all over the region were empowered against the danger of Communism. Unfortunate that once the world did nor listen because it was too busy with praising the Turkish Model- perfect marriage between moderate Islam and democracy, and today nobody has the time to talk about history.

And I wonder if there has ever been a version of history written by the crushed grass after the fight of the elephants.

Ece Temelkuran is one of Turkey’s best-known authors and political commentators. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the Pen for Peace award and the Turkish journalist of the year. She was previously a journalist, before her outspoken criticism of government repression led to her losing her job. Her previous books in English include Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide (2010) and the poetry collection Book of the Edge (2010). She has written for the Guardian, New Statesman and New Left Review.

Her new book Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy is out now from Zed Books.