Earlier this week, writer Adalet Ağaoğlu died at the age of 91. Ağaoğlu spent nearly 65 years of her life producing plays, stories, novels, and novellas. These works expanded the horizons of Turkish literature and offered commentary on Turkish politics and society that remain deeply relevant today.
Ağaoğlu is best known for her “Narrow Times” trilogy. The narrative of the first book, Lying Down to Die (1973), is crammed into one hour and twenty minutes that the protagonist Aysel spends in a hotel room. Through this character’s reflections and recollections on her life as a woman and educator, we receive a scathing picture of the contradictions of life in the mid-twentieth-century Turkish Republic.
The other two books in the trilogy, A Wedding Night (1979) and No (1989) center on the relationship between classes, the connections between Turkish capitalism and the military, and state violence. Ağaoğlu’s generation lived through the three military interventions of 1960, 1971, and 1980. These traumatic historical events created intense repression, particularly against the ascendant left-wing movements of the period.
“Narrow Times” (Dar Zamanlar) is a powerful way of describing the pressures and traumas of Ağaoğlu’s generation. In an interview with Cansu Çamlıbel, Ağaoğlu once described the republic as a “narrow” or “tight” shirt on Turkish society. In the 1970s, she was one of the first writers to attempt to rip this shirt off. She described her early novels as “laying the Republic out on the surgical table.” She took on certain taboos about Turkey’s approach to westernization and modernization, particularly with regards to how it affected individual lives.
Though Ağaoğlu long rejected the label of being a “female writer” (why is it that men write literature but women write something called women’s literature?), her works are filled with insights on the specific pressures that the Republic placed on its first and second generation of women. She disliked being made into a symbol, as if her success as a writer only existed to prove how benevolent the state had been towards its female citizens. Her novels showed that the price of women being accepted in public life was giving up their sexuality and even awareness of their own bodies.
To tell these stories, Ağaoğlu sought out new literary forms. For her, the language of the classic realist novel was too constricting. In works like Summer’s End (1980), she combined past, present, and future and elements of letters, memoirs, and dream narratives to reveal the internal life of a woman living on the Mediterranean coast whose son had been killed in the political violence of the 1970s.
This approach would come to be known as “postmodern,” though Ağaoğlu always stood aloof from labels of all kinds—whether political or literary. She supported various left-wing movements, from the Labor Party of Turkey (TİP) to the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) but refrained from becoming a card-carrying member of either.
Despite being a fierce defender of left-wing causes, in her life Ağaoğlu made some political moves that led to fierce criticism. In 2010, for example, she supported the constitutional referendum proposed by then-Prime Minister Erdoğan. The referendum asked citizens to vote for or against amendments to the constitution created by the regime of the 1980 military coup. Like Ağaoğlu, some liberal intellectuals and public figures who had lived through this period of violence argued for a position of “Yes, but it is not enough.” In response, they were lambasted by people on the left who were more suspicious of the AKP’s motives and saw the referendum as cover for the government’s further consolidation political power in its own hands. Ağaoğlu herself quickly became disillusioned, losing her hope in the government’s language of change and reform.
Ağaoğlu’s generation grew up in a different set of “narrow times” than we live in today and the lessons gleaned from these two periods do not always translate easily. Yet her work remains powerful in showing what does remain the same, particularly the political obsession with a single “great man” to rule the nation. Ağaoğlu’s search for a way out of the narrow constraints, whether political or personal, of her own historical moment remains both inspirational and instructive.
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If you have watched Turkish TV anytime within the past two months, you have definitely seen ads for the series Kırmızı Oda. The series focuses on a therapist and her patients. Since the pandemic began, levels of anxiety and depression are steadily increasing in Turkey. At a time like this, it is admirable to want to show the public that therapy is always a possibility.
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When you look at the history of Greece and Turkey in the 20th century, what you find is this shared history of war, dictatorship, and repression. While politicians and civil society leaders focus on friendship or diplomacy, it is the artists who have most successfully given us a vision of what something more like solidarity would look like.
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One good way to gauge how the feminist movement has transformed commonsense perceptions of gender in Turkey is to look at the entertainment industry. Recent statements by Turkish celebrities show an increasing willingness to speak out on issues long raised by feminist activists.
These days, whoever I speak to has been watching MasterChef Turkey. At a time when COVID-19 is raging in the streets and the price of basic foodstuffs continues to surge, the cooking reality show provides a much-needed distraction.
The massive outpouring of support for U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris by American celebrities brings to mind the difficult position of Turkish artists who dare wade into politics. One cannot forget the harsh reaction from the ruling AKP to Turkish celebrities who expressed support to Istanbul Mayor İmamoğlu last year.
Amid rising homophobia and social inequality in Turkey, the latest film from director Ümit Ünal is a timely reflection on how love unites people and society rips them apart.
Zoomers in Turkey do not listen to a single genre of music. Indeed, the divisions between rap fans and rock fans, for example, may not be as stark as it was in the early 2000s, but there are K-pop aficionados, metal heads, devotees of trap, followers of arabesk rap, and other subcultures.
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On July 21, Turkey was shook by the brutal murder of 27-year-old university student Pınar Gültekin by a man named Cemal Metin Avcı. many of Turkey’s influential cultural figures, from musicians to models, weighed in on Gültekin’s murder and the larger epidemic of femicides.
Earlier this week, the Turkish management of the clothing chain LC Waikiki banned LGBTQI+ symbols on their products and displays—or even anything that might be confused as an LGBTQI+ symbol. LC Waikiki’s memo comes as hate speech against LGBTQI+ people surges across Turkey. As LGBTQI+ issues grow more visible, the reaction is ever more vehement.
If anything, perhaps this continual updating of folk music in Turkey does prove its timelessness. This does not mean that these songs are without history, but that however much the world changes, we will always have need for songs that express the meaning of love, infatuation, mortality, and loneliness in the simplest terms possible.
Given the LGBTI+ community’s history of seeking spaces of freedom amidst the ever-tightening grip of individual and organized hate, this year’s Pride Istanbul theme is “Where am I?” The online talks, workshops, and discussions center on issues like migration, isolation, and safety.
Just because 'Naked' moves beyond certain stereotypes does not necessarily make it “Turkey’s boldest woman’s story”. If including nudity or sex scenes was a barometer of political progressiveness, then the Turkish porno craze of the 1970s or the dirty programs watched through satellite TV in the 1990s would be perfect models of feminism.
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Though some of the correspondences are superficial, the coincidence of the protests in the U.S. erupting just as people here are commemorating Gezi has lead to some soul searching about the similarities and differences in state violence and racism in both countries.
In Turkey today, 2.7 million people use online dating apps like Tinder, OKcupid, and Bumble. Both of the promises and the pitfalls of online dating have become more extreme as the coronavirus affects how people approach physical and emotional intimacy. A number of recent documentaries shed light on people’s experiences searching for sex, love, and/or entertainment on these platforms.
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The teen drama Aşk 101 (Love 101), Netflix’s latest Turkish-language offering, is full of clichés but is not without a certain charm. Yet the intense controversy that preceded the show’s release on April 24 had little to do with the story.
One positive outcome, if we can call it that, of the pandemic is that many of us have begun learning new skills. Bread has become the classic example. Yet certain habits are more difficult to satisfy at home. For many friends I know, drinking rakı at a meyhane is one of those experiences that they have missed the most.
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For the past five or six years, venues owned or run by holding companies, corporations, and other massive commercial interests are increasingly the only places where music fans can see their favorite bands. One might say music fans are damned with them and damned without them.
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