“Foreigners Can’t Understand Turkey—Not Even Turks Can”

What it’s like reporting people’s real feelings in one of the most divided nations on Earth.

In Anxy №1, Lorena Rios and photographer Emanuele Satolli travel through Turkey to examine what happens when a nation is driven by deep, unrelenting anger and animosity. The friction between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his opponents—liberals, journalists, Kurds—is one element at play in a dramatically polarized country. And with the fractures highlighted during Erdoğan’s controversial visit to the White House this week, we talked to Lorena about what she had learned from her work.

Anxy: Where did this idea come from?

Lorena Rios: All the people I met during the year and a half I spent in Turkey. My friends and acquaintances all embodied these fascinating contradictions. The country’s instability — from the attempted military coup of 2016 to terrorist attacks that rocked the country — only exacerbated these paradoxes. A friend once told me foreigners could never understand Turkey because not even Turks can understand it. This story is an attempt at debunking that theory.

Did you find anything interesting or unexpected during the reporting process?

I was surprised by how willing people were to talk to me, despite an environment of fear and mistrust towards the media, especially western media. My interpreter, a young, liberal Turkish man, was blown away by the interviews we conducted. Our work was an opportunity for him to talk to people with very different views from his own — and he found the different viewpoints extremely enlightening, as he would never talk to “these people” otherwise. People in Turkey are very skeptical of interacting with those they deem very different. But this dialogue could be the key to overcoming the country’s polarization.

Were there any particular moments during the interview process that stuck with you? Or changed your perspective on something?

The fact that all of my subjects had a very strong stance was very striking. When people are divided, understanding the reasons that drive them apart doesn’t necessarily bridge their differences. It can create a standoff. My interviews just reinforced the importance of conversation outside of the politics that dominate Istanbul these days.

How did the story come together?

I liked the idea of using mirrors as a way into society’s polarization, anger, and pain: liberal vs. conservative; right vs. wrong; hero vs. enemy; victim vs. perpetuator, and so forth. I believe all the characters in this story represent both ends of the spectrum.

How did this story influence or impact your life in Turkey, the way you saw the country’s struggles or people?

Reporting on this story meant a lot to me. This paradigm influenced my whole time in Turkey and my understanding of its people. I want to continue writing about these rifts, which sometimes seem like an irremediable conflict, and other times a fundamental aspect of the culture and heritage of Turkey.

I encourage everyone to take a look at Turkey outside of the well-established narratives that surround the young nation. Listen to what people have to say, and encourage them to talk to each other.

Read Lorena’s story “Them, Not Us” in the first issue of Anxy, a fresh magazine that examines our inner worlds. Issue №1 features Margaret Atwood, Ijeoma Oluo, Matt Eich and many more exploring our relationship with anger.

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