‘Not everyone should have one, but 2017 was my annus horribilis.’ Pınar Öğünç reflects on Turkey, political change, and Sansevierias.
It was alive and there. How was this possible, I thought when I first opened the door? I never exactly knew why I liked it – being nobody’s favourite might be one of the reasons. I had adopted it from the streets. There was something that made you feel respect for it; a kind of spiky beauty seemed to spring from its dark green dignity. No motley flowers to delude anyone, only long, chest high stiff leaves that feel like leather, like the skin of a living thing rather than a plant. I learned that they are called Sansevieria: otherwise known as snake plants, or, in Turkish, ’sword plant’, a term I dislike.
I had turned the key to open the door of my flat eleven months after I had left it. First, the scent of having waited too long splashed my face. Then I saw my Sansevieria. It had somehow been forgotten in a corner while the rest of the plants were under the protection of a kindly neighbour. Though it had been deprived of water, fresh air and any kind of contact with the rest of the planet for almost a year, it had resisted dying. The Sansevieria knew the truth about itself.
The things we see most tend to turn invisible after a while. Is that painting really good above that armchair, what is an acceptable height for a pile of books next to the sofa – we only have the first days of moving into a new house, the first moments when a change occurs, to see things clearly, and then the changes start fading away. You just don’t see them any longer. That long time away from home had given me a sharp look unique to strangers; while I remembered the stories of how this anthill, my flat filled with things, was created over the years, how that beautiful pillow, those funny magnets and little stones from different countries kilometres away found themselves in my living room. I also saw everything as if for the first time: with a lost-and-found fresh perception that was only to last for a few minutes.
If this were a novel, the writer might have preferred an epiphany to occur right here; but in reality, it took some more time to realise how I had changed in the four seasons I had been away, while my Sansevieria survived with the water stored up in its roots and was content with the light that leaked in from the curtains.
I spent almost a year in three different countries. For six months of that year I stayed in London, thanks to the warm welcome of English PEN. But I had better start this story in 2015, when things began to change.
We always knew that Turkey was never a heaven for democracy. Each of us was the grand-grandchild of people who were exiled, imprisoned or killed because of their ethnic or religious identities – unless they were one of the perpetrators of these crimes. The history of Turkey is built with bricks made of tragedies that haven’t been confronted yet. I was a student in the ’90s, the darkest and bloodiest era of ‘the Kurdish issue’. Perhaps the most viable lesson I learned at university came from a professor who was supposed to teach us the constitutional history of Turkey, but instead did something he shouldn’t have done at all: he told us about what the Kurds had been going through, told us about real appeals to the European Court of Human Rights at a time when silence was compulsory. He had seen these appeals because he used to be a government lawyer at the ECHR for a period until one day he resigned, filled with disgust at what he had witnessed. Generally, it was a hard time for Kurdish classmates, who clearly realised that there was nothing they could learn about politics from sterile books. They decided they’d rather be the politics, and left school.
We were not strangers to where we lived and what Turkey was like, and maybe knowing all this provided us with a better perspective on what happened at the Gezi Park protests in 2013. Millions of people came out into the streets demanding a more democratic, secular government; though opinions differed in the politically heterogeneous crowd, and although it was not everybody’s priority, there was generally a will to confront the past and build something new: a more equal society. The government today, almost six years later, is still in search of the organiser and the financier of the protest, is still sentencing people in the courts. They would have preferred it to have been planned by a single person.
The results of the election in June 2015 were a turning point. The AKP lost full power, dependent on a coalition. The opposition achieved a sort of victory, possibly in connection to the tide of the Gezi protests. But with political hocus-pocus that election result was simply done away with. The government not only toppled the table that was set for peace with the Kurds, they shattered it into pieces with axes, sending politicians once part of that process to prison, demolishing everything that had been gained.
The bombings began in several spots just before the following election. Hundreds of people were torn to pieces. We lost our friends. By that time the ugly corridors of the courtrooms had begun to be our meeting places; now there were funerals where we met to embrace each other. There were times when I found myself crying at the side of graves of young people I didn’t know. I went into their rooms to write their stories, their pyjamas were still on the bed, I saw the last books they had read.
As a journalist, my recorder had always been full of stories of human right violations but suddenly, with no exception, there were only tragedies to listen to.
The academics who had signed a petition for peace; the journalists who had only done their jobs to report on reality; lawyers, doctors, all kinds of opponents were under threat. Thousands of people lost their jobs and social rights, and were sentenced to a ‘civil death’. In a country where a record number of more than 120 journalists are in prison, there was no reason I couldn’t become one of them; there still is not.
Not everyone should have one, but 2017 was my annus horribilis. On top of everything else, I was tested with several personal issues, as if life wanted me to deal with everything – death, health, love, hate, freedom, struggle, hope and despair – at once. The animal that lived inside me, desperate to survive, accompanied me as for some time we wandered around streets we didn’t know, sat down under the shades of trees of London to take a deep long breath. We wrote letters to the colleagues in prison, and we sent them although we felt a bit guilty because of the foreign stamp on the envelope.
My first short story collection was published at the beginning of 2015. Since then, caught up in the swamp in which I had found myself, I hadn’t written a single sentence and what was more, had stopped seeing the meaning in it. In the distance, away from home, I found a reason, a possibility to bring it back before I returned home. Being able to write stories again was my revenge for what was taken from our lives. I, like many people here, know that the history of humanity is built with such bricks. We discovered our Sansevierias inside: being spiky made our leaves darker, longer and tougher.
Pınar Öğünç is a journalist and writer based in Istanbul. She has worked as a reporter, editor, and columnist for several national newspapers and magazines in Turkey since 1997 and was a guest lecturer in journalism for three years. She has published four books—three non-fiction and one short-story collection—and contributed to many others, and she has written scripts for short films. She spent six months in London with English PEN’s Writers at Risk Programme to work on her new short stories and her first children’s book, which will be published in 2019. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @pinarbihter.