On Feb. 9, Turkey’s president announced that the country would be starting a 10-year space program. “The primary and most important mission of the program,” he said, “is to make the first contact with the Moon in our republic’s centennial year .”
At a moment when students are being beaten and arrested, poverty is on the rise, and the lives of women and LGBTIQ+ people are under threat, many treated this announcement of Turkey’s priorities with incredulity. It seemed to be yet another example of changing the public conversation to distract from the real issues. Experts pointed out that Turkey’s has long been interested in missiles and military satellites, or that such a project will give plenty of opportunities for profitable public procurements. This is all true, but the rest of us greeted the news with jokes.
The news in Turkey is often so absurd and moves so head-spinningly fast that one of the only ways to cope is through humor. And so, the news of Turkey’s space program immediately became fuel for the meme engine that powers our weary hearts. On social media, some made fun of the idea of “local and national” rockets by sharing videos of the minarets of Hagia Sophia blasting off. And some made references to the 1973 Star Trek rip-off Turist Ömer Uzay Yolunda or the unemployed astronaut in the 2018 film Butterflies.
Others responded to the news with songs. The most obvious candidate was Ezhel and Murda’s 2019 mega-hit “Aya.” In the song, the two rappers imply that going to the moon is like orgasmic pleasure: “She said, ‘Take me to the moon, moo-oon, moo-oon, moo-oo-woooh!’” This shows just how many songs use space as a metaphor for romance. The examples are endless, from Sezen Aksu and her lover looking down on the world from the stars to Mustafa Sandal’s heart that resembles the moon. For an earth-bound humanity, the objects of space have often given rise to amorous thoughts. Perhaps the most famous international example is Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”
The thought of a national space program also reminded many of the music of Gaye Su Akyol. Yet this experimental rocker has a rather more complex vision of life in the galaxy. On Twitter, Akyol was repeatedly tagged with one-liners about the references to space in her lyrics her on-stage astronaut/rocket woman/space sorcerer costumes. In response, she wrote: “While the Boğaziçi students are unable to use their right to organize and protest, people are dying of hunger, let’s say ‘space and stuff,’ change the agenda, be funny and sympathetic. Don’t tag me for no reason: my version of space is something different.”
Besides the costumes, it is Akyol’s song “Develerle Yaşıyorum” that has most cemented her association with outer-space. In a repeated line that becomes a powerful sing-along in live concerts, she intones: “Either space will be reached, or space will be reached!” Like it or not, the lyrics suggest, the impossible will be achieved. Like Akyol’s concept that “consistent fantasy is reality,” her vision of space is a short-hand for alternative ways of being. It is no accident that her politically powerful music video for “İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir,” which imagines a Turkey beyond patriarchy and social polarization, ends with a mini-bus ride to an alien planet. Akyol’s interest in space once again proves cultural critic Fredric Jameson’s theory that science fiction is where utopian thinking happens in our thoroughly dystopian, capitalist present.
And so while Ezhel and Murda’s “Aya” and the music of Gaye Su Akyol were only used for some quick laughs, pondering their vision of space versus the official reveals some interesting things about our ability to imagine a different kind of world.
“Aya,” as I mentioned, is a song about sex, which doesn’t mean that it’s not political. The music video features a beautiful woman lying on a carpet in a dark living room. As she leafs through a NASA book, the antique black-and-white TV plays footage of the 1969 moon landing. It is as if the music video is winking at the audience, saying “Yes, we know that comparing sex to the moon is an outdated and cheesy fantasy, but here it is anyway.”
One does not necessarily expect historical self-awareness in a pop song, but it appears to be of short supply in more official corners of Turkish society. The government’s references to “the global space race” and “putting a Turk on the moon” sounds identical to how these issues were discussed more than 50 years ago. During the Cold War, landing on the moon was a sign of geopolitical power and human ingenuity in the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is unclear what global political benefit, let alone scientific value, will be gained by a moon landing in the 2020s, besides showing that some people’s concept of overcoming the impossible is outdated. Similarly, the idea of manufacturing a national automobile or airplane cannot but sound hopelessly 20th century. Such moves are designed to instill pride at Turkey’s level of advancement, but for anyone with a better sense of the historical moment we’re actually living through, it is proof of backwardness.
As for Akyol, the problem is not utopian imaginings—we need these to get out of the predicament we’re in, both as a country and as a planet. The problem is that we’re not utopian enough. When Akyol sings “Either space will be reached, or space will be reached!” she is not literally talking about going to outer-space, for this was achieved long ago. She is also not talking about turning space travel into an opportunity to ramp up missile proliferation in the region, nor hearing the Islamic call to prayer from space (as a top state employee with the Diyanet recently called for). And she is certainly not subscribing to a worldview in which “maybe even ladies” can be astronauts.
Going to the moon with this mentality world would probably just transform it into another Yassıada, the Turkish island in the Sea of Marmara that was slathered from one side to the other in concrete and renamed “Democracy and Freedom Island.” For the utopian imagination, space stands in for what we cannot ever fully know. To embrace this unknowing teaches us to approach our world without the burden of common sense and established patterns of thought.
Finally, the call for a Turk on the moon by 2023 inevitably brings to mind other imaginative visions of what the Republic of Turkey will look like on its centenary. There have been many speculative approaches to this question, but the most relevant is Barış Manço’s 1975 concept-album titled 2023. What’s remarkable about this album is not only the futuristic synthesizers, powerful compositions, or electric guitars, but the fact that most of the songs on this album, supposedly describing the Republic’s 100th year, are instrumental—they have no lyrics. Perhaps, the album suggests, if the empty chatter subsides we can actually begin imagining what a different kind of Republic would look and feel like.