Lost Generation: Turkey’s urban youth and COVID-19
The Turkish government has encouraged citizens to avoid going outside, even asking them to declare their own state of emergency. Yet many do not have this luxury. A number of recent mini-series and documentaries released online paint a picture of everyday life in the parts of Istanbul where necessity continues to drive people—especially young people—onto the streets.
April 3 2020
Last week, a peculiar map of Istanbul began making the rounds on social media. Entitled “Who Stayed at Home Last Week,” the map showed the city’s districts split up by green, red, and yellow rectangles. The map’s creators used the data of 1 million cell phone users to analyze the movement of Istanbul’s residents between March 17 and 23. Marked in green were the districts where people mostly stayed in their houses, including Kadıköy, Ataşehir, Bakırköy, Florya, Etiler, and Şişli. Those who spent the most time outside were in districts like Pendik, Sultanbeyli, Esenyurt, and Bağcılar. The map, designed by two Turkish engineers based in the Silicon Valley, gave the green districts a thumbs-up and the red districts a thumbs-down with the warning note: “Please spend more time at home!”
Most of us now know that staying home is the safest way to prevent the spread of coronavirus. However, some essential context is missing from this map: the districts where people succeeded at staying home are wealthier. In contrast, those where people are out in the streets tend to be working class. This reality explains why moralistic calls to “stay at home” fall on deaf ears.
The Turkish government has encouraged citizens to avoid going outside, even asking them to declare their “own state of emergency.” Yet many do not have this luxury. A number of recent mini-series and documentaries released online paint a picture of everyday life in the parts of Istanbul where necessity continues to drive people—especially young people—onto the streets.
Hayaller Bizim İki Gözümis a new documentary series from the Turkish streaming platform BluTV. After the success of series like S1F1RB1R (about youth gangs in the city of Adana), its sister show Sokağın Çocukları (Children of the Streets), Pavyon and Ankara Havası (both portraying the underworld and nightlife of Turkey’s capital), Hayaller Bizim provides insight into the dreams and disappointments of working-class youth in the Bağcılar district of Istanbul as they struggle to survive amidst poverty and drugs.
The first episode of this six-part documentary focuses on a rapper known as Wormz living in Bağcılar, one the red “thumbs-down” districts on our map of Istanbul. This young man, a migrant from Central Anatolia, has dreams of making it big. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of other Bağcılar rappers who have used the difficulties and illegality of their home district as fuel for their music. Wormz draws on these experiences in his songs, one of which describes stealing pastries from a bakery and eating nothing but that for days on end. He and his friends make their music by finding beats online, though they dream of doing more professional recordings. Wormz also dreams of the day that he sees at least 1,000 liras in his bank account—up until now he has never had more than three figures to his name. While he loves hip-hop, he confesses that he only makes music out of necessity. If he had a steady job with a decent income, he wouldn’t bother being a rapper. As things stand, however, making music is the only way out of what he describes as a dead-end life.
Kayıp Nesil (Lost Generation) is another online program providing much-needed context regarding the experiences of young people. In the first episode of this online discussion series, host Hazal Çakmak (a prominent commentator on Turkish rap) speaks with Umur Dağlı, the head of media platform Artern. The two describe their motivation for starting a program centered on youth. In Turkey, they remark, people under 35 face intense insecurity and have few outlets for self-expression. In a context where social hierarchies are linked to age, their specific problems of young people are not taken seriously. Çakmak and Dağlı describe Kayıp Nesil as a forum by and for youth to discuss their struggles.
In the second episode, Çakmak interviews Fırat Çoban, a master’s student in Social Policy at Boğaziçi University, about youth unemployment. According to recent figures, 25.4% of people aged 15-24 are unemployed in Turkey. In 2019 the number of unemployed university graduates reached 1,340,000. The number of youths who neither work nor are studying is 6 million. Çakmak and Çoban describe those who not only have no job but have no hope of finding a job as a “lost generation.” Even prior to the coronavirus, experts highlighted the precarious position of Turkey’s youth and its emotional toll. Today the situation is even more dire.
This kind of data helps us better understand the situation of the young people in districts like Bağcılar, many of whom are technically unemployed but may work informally or illegally. This generation finds whatever limited opportunities and enjoyment they have in the streets, which is why so many cannot stay at home. Another factor is family. Many unmarried young people live with their families. Both literally and figuratively, they have no room of their own. The situation is particularly difficult for young women, who both have fewer opportunities for spending time freely outside and who face shocking rates of violence at home—rates that have only increased since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Even for those young people who do have jobs, today being employed also does not ensure safety or security. A third documentary series, BBC Türkçe’s “Workers in the Days of Coronavirus,” includes interviews with employees of shopping malls, restaurant workers, delivery drivers, construction workers, and taxi drivers. Their stories help explain why so many Istanbulites are caught between a rock and a hard place. At work they fear catching or spreading the virus; at home they will have no way to pay their bills. As a worker at a döner kebap shop expresses it in the documentary, “I’m just as worried about getting by as I am about the virus.”
For society’s most vulnerable—whether youth, women, or displaced people—neither working nor staying home (if one is fortunate enough to have one) is a solution. As long as the fear of getting by remains, the map will remain red.
Kenan Behzat Sharpe is an Istanbul-based journalist and academic. He completed his PhD in Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2019. He is a co-founder of Blind Field: A Journal of Critical Inquiry and an assistant editor at Commune Magazine. He has written about art, culture, and politics in Turkey, Greece, and beyond for Al-Monitor, Jacobin, and Verso. His academic publications center on the relationship between left-wing social movements, youth countercultures, and the arts. He is currently completing his first book manuscript, Rockers and Radicals in Anatolia: Turkish Psychedelic Rock and the World 1960s, which explores the music and political context of Tülay German, Cem Karaca, Moğollar, Selda Bağcan, Erkin Koray, and other Anadolu Rock figures.
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