a Journey into Turkish History Through Music

Introduction

To understand modern Turkey, we need to take a look into the personality-forming events of its past. There is a saying we have in Turkish which goes; “Turkey does not let its youth be interested in anything other than herself”. There is always something happening that we have to pay attention towards. The trauma caused by this non-stop turmoil is best carried between generations through art so I decided to take on this project. The artists I write about in this series have sang about the lives of everyday people, politics, imprisonment, urban migration, national identity, exile, and many other topics which we will explore through this page.

We will touch upon the civil unrest of the 70s, the coup d’état of 1980, the Kurdish question in Turkey, and various other topics. The generational trauma carrying over through the years is best seen when we realize that many of these songs still remain relatable for young people in Turkey. The stories might be of the past but the pain is still shared in the present because we have been having the same issues over and over again. The healing and reconciliation never happened, we just kept opening more wounds on top of each other. Politics never stopped having a huge effect on the lives of what I would call the normal citizens of Turkey. The fight was always brought into their homes even when they were not looking for it.

In the 70s it was the fight between the right wing and the left wing groups. Young people killed each other on the streets everyday for their ideologies. In 1980, The Kemalist Turkish military put a stop to this fight by executing and arresting the “dissenters”. Military general Evren would say “we hung one from the left, and one from the right so it’s equal” in cold-blood about these executions. Artists did what they could do best, they wrote their songs and hid the pain of their generation in them. 

In the 90s, it was the fight between the Turkish government and the Kurds. Young people killed each other for what they believed to be the best for their own people. Bombs blew up in Western cities of Turkey in terrorist attacks. The Turkish deep state ran rampant. They tortured and killed Kurdish civilians in their homes in the East. Artists did what they could do best again, they wrote their songs and hid the pain of their generation in them. 

Nowadays, the issue of Turkey is a morally corrupt society without any compassion left in it. Where to even start with today’s Turkey? Government corruption, youth unemployment, economic crisis, innocent people rotting in jails, forced disappearances, femicide, domestic abuse, drug addiction, suicide, environmental degradation, animal abuse, terrorism… Artists still do what they can do best, they are writing their songs and hiding my generation’s pain in them.

Connecting to the stories of the past through music is an interesting experience. It makes one think “Wow I can’t believe that we are still making the same mistakes and living through the same events.”

Rather than making a political claim about the ideologies I will be writing about, I am simply taking you on a journey through the stories of my people. I hope to celebrate this art form as a vessel for memories and human emotion in general. The artists I write about might have made some questionable choices during their lifetimes, I will be focusing more on their art rather than them as people. I hope that you also enjoy these posts with an open heart and a sharp mind ready to discuss more.

This website is under construction right now because I am still working on adding more songs and stories.

Love, Ayse


“Süleyman is the Prime Minister All the Time” and the History of Coups in Turkey

Fikret Kızılok (1995)

We will start slow and go over some main events in this song. “Süleyman is the Prime Minister All the Time” tells the story of Turkey through prime minister Süleyman Demirel always being the PM throughout the years. Between economic crises and military coups Demirel remained the one constant in Turkish people’s lives. He became the PM in 1965 and he remained in that seat until 1993 (except for the times he was removed by the military interventions/coups). He later became the president of Turkey in 1993 which would last until 2000. 

  • Early 1960s

    Kızılok starts the song by setting the stage for the story. Fikret was a small child at the time. He couldn’t play outside with his friends as a kid because a coup could happen anytime (Referring to the 1960 coup in Turkey). He talks about the assassination of Kennedy (1963) and Beatles (1960s) as he also speaks about how Migros (a huge Swiss grocery store chain) had not opened its stores yet and that the economy was… well to translate it directly, the economy was shit.

    I was a small child
    I didn’t know the reason but
    We couldn’t go out on streets
    Because we thought that a coup had happened

    Kennedy had been assassinated
    Migros hadn’t opened yet
    Beatles wasn’t around
    The economy was shit

    “Suleyman Hep Basbakan” by Fikret Kizilok
  • Late 1960s

    Fikret, as all children in Turkey at the time grew up listening to the records of famous Turkish singers Müren and Ersoy. Müren who is a gay man, was “in the middle” as Kızılok puts it. And the diva of Turkish music Bülent Ersoy had not changed her gender at the time. He finishes this part by reminding the listeners that Süleyman is still the prime minister.

    Zeki Müren is ‘in the middle’
    Bülent Ersoy was a man
    The Vietnam War had already started
    Süleyman is always the prime minister
    The prime minister is always Süleyman

    “Suleyman Hep Basbakan” by Fikret Kizilok

    The Turkish society is made of contrasts and Turkey is a place where most older people tend to be homophobic and transphobic but at the end of the day our “diva of music” is a transgender woman named Bülent Ersoy and our grandparents are all Zeki Müren fans. The worst part is that they aren’t aware of this contrast existing within the very fabric of our society. Older generations being in denial about the identity of these artists is not helping against the homophobic and transphobic discourse within Turkish society.

    And to be honest, even these celebrities sometimes live a contrasted life. You would expect them to be the biggest supporters of individual freedoms but a picture is worth a thousand words: Here is a photo of Bülent Ersoy having dinner with the Erdogans the same day a Pride protest was violently broken up by the police in Istanbul. This is a good example of why we should not make assumptions about Turkish society using the Muslim vs secular dichotomy. The divide is much more nuanced than that. The effect of social class over religion cannot be denied and you will see many secular nationalists siding with Erdogan when it comes to oppressing minority groups.

  • 1971

    A big economic crisis hit Turkey in 1969 therefore people had to “tighten their belts” which is a Turkish idiom meaning to start being frugal, even having to endure hunger because of bad economic circumstances. In these dire circumstances, Fikret is about to finish middle school but the military intervention of 1971 happens. Oh and Süleyman? Well he is still the prime minister.

    I was about to finish middle school
    When another coup happened!
    Süleyman is always the prime minister
    The prime minister is always Süleyman

    “Suleyman Hep Basbakan” by Fikret Kizilok

    During the late 1960s there was a lot of instability in Turkey due to political violence and the economic recessions. Students’ movements were formed by both left-wing and right-wing groups which would counter each other on the streets. The left carried out bombing attacks, robberies, kidnappings, and assassinations. By the end of 1968, Islamist and Turkish nationalist groups had started matching the violence from the left-wing groups. At this point, Suleyman Demirel’s centre-right party Justice Party could not form a parliamentary majority therefore the legislative process was at a halt. So by 1971, there was chaos both on the streets and within the government. The universities could not go on with lectures because of the increased violence between youth factions, the factories were on strike due to economic circumstances, and the National Order Party was speaking up against Ataturk and Kemalism openly. The Turkish Armed Forces as the protector of “democracy” and Kemalist ideals intervened in the situation. After the March 1971 intervention; youth organizations were banned, their meetings prohibited, and their publications announced as illegal. The political dissenters were detained and tortured by the military resulting in many deaths of students, young academics, writers, and unionists.

    The song continues going into the 80s and 90s while reminding us that Süleyman is the Prime Minister through it all.. At this point, I want to jump into some new songs and introduce a genre that is very close to my heart: Anatolia Rock.

“Parka” and an Introduction to Anatolia Rock

Cem Karaca (1977)

In 1968, widespread protests against the military and government were happening all around the world. These protests were triggered by the Civil Rights Movement and the rhetoric against the Vietnam War in the United States. This wave of counterculture translated into a different struggle in each country. People protested against oppressive governments, lack of free speech, and a lack of civil freedoms all over the world. In Europe, the movement was mostly run by student unions. The ‘68 Movement showed up in Turkey as an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist student movement.

Anatolian Rock was born out of this counterculture movement against hegemonic elements of the society. Music artists started off by copying the english rock music songs and creating covers of famous songs. English words were getting incorporated into Turkish rock songs by the late 60s.

Cem Karaca, who leaned towards political leftism (socialism) in the late 60s argued that rock music should bring forth the stories of the Turkish people rather than recreating Western music. He composed traditional folk poetry in the form of rock music to stay true to the Turkish ‘self’.

  • 1972

    Karaca wrote and sang “Parka” in 1976. The song tells the story of a student getting shot in his parka coat during the civil unrest of the 70s. Also known as the “communists’ coat” at the time, the green parka became a popular symbol of the Turkish left because of Deniz Gezmiş. Gezmiş was a student leader who spearheaded the anti-imperialist leftist ‘68 movement in Turkey. Trained in a guerilla camp in Jordan by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Gezmis committed violent disruptions in universities against American academics, kidnapped US personnel in key positions, and  led bank robberies in Turkey. After the Coup D’Etat of 1971, Gezmiş and his two close friends were put on trial for “overthrowing the Constitutional Order” and executed. 

    On the walls of Turkish courts is a quote “Adalet mülkün temelidir” which translates to “Justice is the basis of the state”. There is an argument regarding who came up with this phrase. Some historians suggest that it belongs to Umar ibn-Khattab, close companion of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the second caliph of Islam. Some will argue that it belongs to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey. Either way, it is said that when Gezmiş was on trial he smiles to himself and the judge asks him: “What are you laughing at?”. To this question, Gezmiş replies “It says justice on the wall behind you, I am laughing at that”. This phrase has since then became popular in Turkish discourse and it is used whenever the rule of law is questioned.

    I personally do not have much of a connection to either side of this “fight”. I despise the idea of hurting others for ideologies as much as I despise state terrorism/violence. Your reading of Deniz Gezmiş will depend on what you think of a government’s responsibilities. I also would like to add that “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”. And with that, I am leaving Gezmiş’s final words before his execution here and jumping to the story of Karaca’s Parka.

    “Long live a fully independent Turkey. Long live the great ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Long live the Turkish and Kurdish peoples’ fight for independence. Damned be imperialism. Long live the workers and the villagers.”

    — Last words of Deniz Gezmiş

    One morning the parka left home on his shoulders
    It was a dirty-green colored and old parka
    Its upper pocket was raveled out, the parka was used
    One morning the parka left on his shoulders

    They found him laying down, shot in his parka
    Four traitor bullets had touched him, the parka in holes
    The father is a lathe master, his eyes full of crusts
    The grandfather has left his leg in Sakarya (Battle of Sakarya, 1921)
    The mother is in tears, she had all hope in him

    His young brother is going to university this year
    There is no money for a coat, he will need a parka too
    The mother is in tears, she will mend the holes

    “Parka” by Cem Karaca

    It is told by Karaca’s wife Ilkim Karaca that one day as Cem was reading the newspaper, he saw the news of a student shot on the streets. He gets emotional over the photo of the young man laying there lifeless in his parka and writes this song. For me, “Parka” tells the story of a generation of wasted potential because these educated men ended up shooting each other on the streets for what they believed to be “the best for their country”. I leave it to my readers to decide if ideological fights are actually ‘worth it’ or not. Or if it is even justified to fight for ideologies. As Karaca tells in this song, the family is in poverty so the mother has to mend the parka that his son died in so the younger child can use it. The younger child will wear the same coat when he starts university and maybe end up dead just like his brother. This song depicts the vicious cycle Turkish youth found themselves in at the time.

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