“Zahra’s Paradise” and Rationalizing Suffering

During the past two terms, I have been completing my Co-op which is a program at my university where students work full time for a few terms to gain experience before they graduate. Naturally, I have missed going to lectures and learning from other students and my instructors. There is no end to my academic curiosity and I sometimes feel cut off from my life line because I am not taking any courses at the moment.

One thing that gets me through this tough time is my weekly meetings with my friend Sophie where she talks about the Middle East Studies courses she has been taking in the past year. I even check out their required readings sometimes to be able to feel included in the conversation and share my opinions as well. UBC’s History Department is offering a course on “The Middle East in Graphic Novels” which had piqued my interest as I am a huge fan of graphic novels. There are some amazing novels in their reading list which I have really enjoyed in the past. I like reading after all, much more than other things.

I went to the Vancouver Public Library the other day to pick up my books that have been on hold for some time now. As always, I took a look at the graphic novels section to see if there is anything interesting. Sitting on the shelf, I saw “Zahra’s Paradise”. I had heard my friends who are taking the history course on graphic novels speak about this book so I decided to check it out to have something intellectual to speak about whenever I meet Sophie next.

Here is the synopsis: “Set in the aftermath of Iran’s fraudulent elections of 2009, Zahra’s Paradise is the fictional story of the search for Mehdi, a young protestor who has vanished into an extrajudicial twilight zone. What’s keeping his memory from being obliterated is not the law. It is the grit and guts of his mother, who refuses to surrender her son to fate, and the tenacity of his brother, a blogger, who fuses tradition and technology to explore and explode the void in which Mehdi has vanished.” (Goodreads)

I got home, brewed some tea, and got under my blanket.

I had only read a few pages from the book as I felt a knot form in my throat because I realized that this story is very familiar.

My tea was going cold.

As I hit page 86, my tears were rolling down from my cheeks onto the page. I was crying together with the mother Zahra who was now searching for her son in a catalogue of faces in a morgue. Faces that were once lit up with life and hope now lying lifeless within those pages. The people in the panels say “When will politicians stop playing their dirty games? Our children have become their pawns.” 

Zahra’s Paradise, page 86

Zahra in this story, is a mother who does not stop searching for her son who disappears on the day of the protests. Her story intersects with other mothers who are also looking for their children.

Page 138
*Amir explains the power of chanting Allahu Akbar during the 2009 marches in Iran as “in addition to the feelings of strength in unity and solidarity, Allahu Akbar also came to convey a special irony. Repeated chants of “God is the greatest”, theoretically music to the ears of a theocratic regime, came to be understood as a reproach and a taunt by an ostensibly godly, yet illegitimate, regime.”

The Grieving Mothers in Zahra’s Paradise reminded me of Saturday Mothers in Turkey, which is a group that gathers every Saturday at noon since 1995 to ask the government about their missing relatives. The Saturday Mothers were inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina which is a group that also gathers for the same goal: asking about what happened to their loved ones.

Saturday Mothers holding the photos of their missing loved ones in front of the Galatasaray High school in Istanbul

Saturday Mothers ask about the forced disappearances committed by the Turkish state under the state of emergency between 1980s and 1990s. Forced disappearances in Turkey have been symbolized with White Renault Toros cars because the police and military force at the time were officially using this car model. Known as the “White Toros Kidnappings”, a lot of people (mostly in Kurdish areas) went missing because they were illegally detained by the government, tortured, and killed in most cases. Recently the Turkish government has been kidnapping members of the Gulen Movement using black vans in the same way. 

An important note: Hüseyin Galip Küçüközyiğit, a former legal advisor at the Prime Ministry who was dismissed from his position following the 2016 coup attempt, has been missing since 29 December 2020. If you would like to take action against his suspected forced disappearance, you can send an appeal letter to the Turkish Chief Public Prosecutor by following Amnesty International’s model letter.

Saturday Mothers have recently been put to trial in Turkey for “not dispersing in 2018 when they were asked to by the police”. I salute their honourable civil disobedience again as I write this blog post. As we can see from many examples of mothers asking for their loved ones, we know that love and perseverance for them is a character trait shared over borders, languages, and nationalities.

As I neared the end of Zahra’s Paradise, I was faced with the amazing depiction of a mourning mother. Zahra is saying: “Burn, my son, burn with rage, burn through this shroud of lies, burn, burn as only you can burn, burn with all your truth, burn with all your life, burn through this death…” surrounded by memories of her son Mehdi who was brutally tortured and murdered in the Kahrizak Prison. I felt myself burn as I read through this page.

Page 218

I found this book to be very impactful because of the style of its truth claim. The authors are telling us that you can look at facts and figures all you want to decide on what is the truth, but in the end, you need a human story to decide with your heart as much as you do with your mind. 

The choice is yours and where you stand when faced with oppression matters. To decide with the heart is sometimes more difficult than to decide with the mind. You will question yourself, your ideologies, and your beliefs to arrive at the conclusion that human suffering is universal and there are more ways of connecting through our grief rather than tearing each other apart through our differences.

This is also an important point for all of us who are studying any type of social sciences as we sometimes find ourselves rationalizing the pain and suffering of a group of people under the guise of analyzing the issue. Studying experiences as claims to truth should always be an integral part of our academic work when we are searching for the answers to our questions.

Another lesson I got for myself out of Zahra’s Paradise was to write, and to document more stories. Especially to write the silent resistance of people who do not have the ability to reach out.

Page 27

I acknowledge my privilege as I write this blog post from the safety of my home in Canada and I say: the people and their resistance will always turn out to be stronger than pathetic governments trying to play God.

Ending Note: Please share what you think about the effects of ‘rationalizing the pain of others for the sake of our academic arguments’ in the comments or through messaging me. Let’s get a conversation going about this.


My Books Broke My Heart

I was very hesitant to buy any books in my first year in Canada. I only got the essential ones for my classes. I would even say that I was very angry at any book that I had to buy. 

To be honest, I did not want to get hurt by my books. 

Let’s start from the very beginning. Building a library from scratch is special. A library has the ability to take you on a journey through all the phases you went through in life. You grow, and you learn some amazing things along the way. Let’s say that you have Hunger Games or Twilight in your library. They never let you forget that you were once a teenager. I did not have those series because my mom would not let me read them, we had a good collection of world literature instead. (Oh look, even the lack of books in your library is a story on its own.) Anyways, I had an amazing set of Agatha Christie books in my library. Most of it was handed down to me from my sister. Some of it, I bought myself over time. I remember getting scared reading those murder mysteries. “And Then There Were None” made me shiver in my bed at nights. I was really young then; I remember finishing books so fast that my parents would have to hand me whatever book there was at home to read. That is probably how I ended up getting obsessed with the genre of murder mystery at the age of 9.

Great parenting tip: make your children reserve at least one shelf in their cupboard for books. That is what my mom did, and I am forever thankful for that. I had a library before I knew how to read. I made my mom read to me before I went to sleep every night. Yes… every night. She tells me that she was so happy when I learned how to read because it meant that she could finally stop reading the same stories over and over again. All of the children’s books from my sister’s library got transferred over to mine. And as I kept getting more and more books, we started moving my clothes from that cupboard so that I could have more empty shelves.

I started high school and met with the amazing world of academic books. Couldn’t believe that so much knowledge existed in the world. My teachers were giving meaning to the world around me. We read about economy, sociology, history… And oh man, there was no end to how many books you could cultivate. 

But then, we had to move away from my childhood house to a smaller apartment because times were changing. 

It meant that I had to give some books away because we wouldn’t have much space in the new apartment. It’s okay, how bad could it be right? I ended up crying. The books had reminded me of all the good times we had at that home. Found my childhood books and remembered the times I spent with my mom trying to learn how to read. Found some of my old English books and remembered how I used to keep a notebook of all the new words I had learned. Found books that I have never read and just bought because I thought that it would look cool in my library. A lifetime just hidden inside my cupboard like that, how dare my books make me sad? I chose the ones I wanted to keep, and the rest were donated. 

Life was good, I was cultivating more books as I go. I would use my pocket money to order books online. I gave away some old ones to make space for newer ones. I just loved the feeling of having a library of my own because it told my story. The story of someone who cherished learning. I spent a long time writing my story, which books I had would affect who I would become. 

But then, my parents had to move abroad because times were changing.

I would stay behind in Istanbul. But this meant that I had to say goodbye to most of my books because I did not have a home anymore. This time, it only hurt a little bit. In the end, if I could part with my parents, then why would some books matter? Some tears were shed, the unclarity of our situation got us all stressed. I said bye. They got on a plane.

I took the limited number of books to the dormitory I was going to stay in. I had stopped buying books at that point because I knew that I wanted to go to UBC. A year after my parents left, my university applications were done, I got my passport ready, got my Canadian visa approved… 

I was going to Canada knowing that I would not return to Turkey because times were changing.

I gave my books to my best friend at the time and told him to either donate or keep them. I didn’t care about my books at all this time. If I was able to part with the most amazing person I knew, then why would some books matter? Some tears were shed, we didn’t think much of the unclarity of the situation. I said bye. I got on a plane.

My parents and I came to Canada. I was extremely stubborn to not buy any books here because it reminded me of my library staying behind all the times I had to move. It reminded me of a home that I did not have. Reminded me of friends that I could not reach. My books made me angry. Like everything in my life, they were too heavy to carry around with me.

I am realizing now that it was my feelings that were too heavy to carry around, the books did not have a fault. I had decided that I was not going to have a library anymore. Like everything I have cultivated in my life, the books would always have to stay behind in case I had to leave again. 

A library means that you belong to a place. And I did not belong.

I was very hesitant to buy any books in my first year in Canada. I only got the essential ones for my classes. I would even say that I was very angry at any book that I had to buy.

To be honest, I did not want to get hurt by my books.

Over the past few years I have made some amazing friends and they made Vancouver home for me. Without realizing, I started frequenting book shops more. A voice called to me when there was a great bargain happening. It said: build a library, do it.

October 2020, Vancouver

This year, I realized that I open up more shelves to stock books in my small nano studio each month. I am not sure what affected this decision, but I have an idea. I am sure all of us who have moved at least once in their life knows how heavy books are, you simply can’t travel with them. I am reminded of this fact every single time my very good friend Rahma moves around (she moves a lot, don’t even get me started.)

It is funny but I think that what made me interested in a library again was seeing Rahma carry all her books with her when she travels to Dubai or Ottawa. Whenever she decides to travel, I sit with her and we choose which books she should carry. I try to stop her at five books maximum, she doesn’t have a limit. (And I am pretty sure she puts more than what we agreed for into her suitcase whenever I leave her place)

This made me realize that the weight that I could not carry around was not my books. Rahma carries them around everywhere right? The heavy weight was all the anger and sadness I had to carry every time myself or someone else got on a plane and left things behind. At the end of it all, my books leaving my life meant that the people I loved were leaving my life. My books didn’t hurt me. I just put too much meaning into them. Now that there is some healing happening 4 years after losing my homeland, I am building a library again. If I have to leave it all behind, oh well, that’s life.

And yeah, I’m not giving up.

Note: I honestly had no idea where it would go when I started writing this blog post. But eh, everything in life is political right? As always, shoot me a message if you have any issues regarding the content. Cheers.


My Existence was Gifted to the Turkish Nation

In Turkey, when you start first grade you learn a few important things; reading, writing, and the student oath. One morning a teacher comes up to you and gives the exciting news: “In a few days you will be making the whole school repeat after yourself as you read the oath during the morning assembly.” What is the oath one may ask. Don’t worry, we will get to that.

I remember being very excited for this opportunity. After all, it was the moment which I would gain prestige among my peers as a first grader. It had to be perfect, all eyes were going to be on me. I felt like my success with this task was going to determine my future life. Just to remind everyone, I was at the age of 7. I went home and started memorizing:

I am a Turk

I am honest

I am hardworking…

Some background information: Turkey is a multi-ethnic country, not everyone is a Turk. The morning assembly happens every weekday before classes start. Which means that I have been on that assembly saying the same oath approximately 1512 times in my lifetime. I am used to how it goes. You walk up to the stage in front of 700 students and continue:

…My principle is to protect the younger 

to respect the elder, 

to love my homeland and my nation more than myself. 

My ideal is to rise, to progress…

The day I was supposed to read the oath came, I could not contain my excitement. I was walking up to the stage when one of the teachers stopped me. “You can’t go up the stage wearing the phys ed uniform, where is your skirt?” I had PE that day, how could I know that this would happen? They didn’t let me on the stage. I remember crying of rage that day because some other kid got to read the oath. I had lost my chance at proving myself. She said:

…O Great Atatürk ! 

On the path that you have paved, 

I swear to walk incessantly toward the aims that you have set…

Time passed, I probably forgot about all that. I was in 6th grade this time. As always, we read the student oath every morning repeating after the lucky student who got to be on the stage that day. I remember clearly. Someone came near me and whispered the sweet temptation into my ear: “I am not saying some parts of the student oath because I don’t want to. I just move my mouth. Do you agree with what we say every morning?” I thought about his question all day and also decided not to say some parts the next time. There is a certain excitement in defiance even when you don’t fully grasp what you are doing. Is it even considered resistance if you have not yet built the critical thinking skills to understand that the student oath is cultural genocide? I am not sure.

The next morning I am moving my mouth without making a sound. For some parts, I feel brave and don’t move my mouth at all. My heart is beating because I am afraid someone will realize and call me out. 700 children shout beside me:

…My existence shall be a gift to the Turkish existence. 

How happy is the one who says “I am a Turk!”.

The student on the stage ends the oath by saying: “Have a nice day of classes my friends.” 

We reply: “Thank you!”

Students start walking towards classes in army formation because that is exactly how all kids should start their day -with a healthy dose of militarization.

I am proud of my decision as I prepare to go into the school. The PE teacher shouts ‘Ayse walk to the side!’.

Let me explain one thing here. One’s struggle with authority starts at an early age in Turkey. The first enemy is the school administration because they do their best to kill all kinds of individuality. Wearing accessories or colourful shoes with school uniforms is not allowed. Letting your hair down is also a big no. They make sure to check every student each morning before we enter the school building. But there I am, thinking that my uniform is in great condition. I don’t know what is happening nor why I was pulled to the side. This has never happened before.

The PE teacher comes next to me and says: “You weren’t saying the student oath” 

My voice trembles as I mutter “what?”. How did he even see?

“I will write a discipline report if this happens one more time.”

Let me tell you right here. I loved keeping a good relationship with the administration and the teachers in elementary school. They knew my parents, that is a good enough reason to be proper. I was also highly afraid of being punished. I did not say a word against the PE teacher and probably continued saying the oath afterwards. Sadly, this is not a story of my bravery. 

Also to reclaim myself as I am writing this, I can proudly say that I lost the trait of respecting authority once I got to jump the fence at high school to skip classes (I definitely was not hyperventilating at the thought of getting caught). I think I realized that schools put some of the rules to teach you how to question and defy them. It is a learning moment.

So where is this long story about the student oath going towards? 

I just wanted to share my experience with the oath as an ethnically Turkish person. I am leaving it to you to think about the effects of this oath on for example the Kurdish population of Turkey. 

I am thinking how much it must have hurt them to see their presence erased as they were forced to repeat every morning “I am Turkish”. 

Did those children even realize what was happening right in front of our eyes? Or were they just as excited as Turkish students to be on the stage?

Why were our 7 year old existences gifted to the Turkish nation? 

Did the nation state have to remind us every morning that we were their property?

I would like to finish by saying that I am sorry that I repeated this oath 1512 times in my lifetime, I did not know any better. I have a complicated relationship with my nationality, I am not sure if I want to dedicate my entire existence to it.

As always, if my friends who grew up in Turkey have a different experience about this topic, you are welcome to comment under this post. I accept that there might be differences between cities or even schools. But also consider if you were too young to understand what was going on around you instead of quickly refuting my claim. The oath might not have had a huge effect on you therefore the memories might not be as sharp in your mind as it is in mine.

A note on the history of the Student Oath: It was implemented in 1933 and was abolished in 2013, since then it has been reinstated in 2018. The person who wrote the student oath in 1933, Dr. Resit Galip also implemented the Turkish adhan (Muslim call to prayer). And yes, I do not have any respect for either of these reforms.


Remembering Sarajevo

On the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre, I want to write about the country which has affected my soul deeply and tell some of their stories from the perspective of memory and remembrance through monuments. Bosnia has a special place in my heart as the land of the most courageous and beautiful souls I have met.

Visit the virtual museum on the Srebrenica Massacre to learn more:

I got to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina twice, once in 2009 and the other time in 2016. I got to see in between my visits how the persevering Bosnian people rebuilt their land after the horrible war took place between 1992-1995. The first time I went to Sarajevo, the city was pretty much still healing itself. The ruins of what once were the homes of Bosnian Muslims were a usual sight while travelling in the city. Many houses had bullets inside their walls left there because they had not gotten to renovate the buildings yet. The second time I went, most houses were repaired with the exception of a few. I learned that they chose to leave some buildings and monuments as it is to tell the story of war and pain. 

Disclaimer: I will be writing about a sensitive topic therefore please reach out to me if I made a comment which is not correct in your own lived experience. 

I was thinking how one might choose which monuments tell this story in the best way. After all, keeping memories of genocide and destruction within one’s city can have a traumatising effect on the people living there. It is a courageous decision to renovate or leave a building as it is when the stories behind them are that painful. This was not something I ever thought about before I visited Sarajevo. In this post, I will be writing about the two buildings which have a special place in my heart after my visits. I present to you the National Library and Tunel Spasa in Sarajevo and how they aid our understanding of memory preservation.

The National Library is a beautiful building in the middle of Downtown Sarajevo. There are some photos under this post of the National Library both in 2009 and 2016. The library is restored for next generations to benefit. It was newly opened when I went there in 2016, it took a long time to restore, as I remember that they had started the restoration process back when I was there in 2009 as a kid. The message that the National Library gives is clear, we are restoring this building because we look towards a better future for our youth. A library best symbolizes education, learning, and leaving valuable information to the next generations. This library even though it is renovated, still reminds us that remembering what happened is important. 

The sign on the door of the library says: “On this place Serbian criminals on the night of 25th – 26th August 1992, set on fire National and University’s Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over 2 millions of books, periodicals and documents vanished in the flame. DO NOT FORGET, REMEMBER AND WARN!” 

Another important site in Sarajevo that stuck with me was Tunel Spasa which translates to The Tunnel of Hope. This tunnel was dug by Bosnian forces because the city was cut off from resources such as food and humanitarian aid. Dug 800 metres deep, it was wide enough for a person to pass. It is said that during the war 1000 people passed through it to go in and out of the city. President Alija Izetbegovic also got to visit the people in Sarajevo through this tunnel during the war. Tunel Spasa kept Sarajevo alive until the NATO intervention. 

I would highly suggest reading the whole story of this amazing monument of hope and perseverance:

The tunnel is now a museum, they haven’t restored most of the tunnel because it shows the hardship of a city under siege and how the world watched them die without intervening in the situation. (The UN technically intervened in the Bosnian War but the mission was a huge failure) The house by the tunnel is a museum which has stayed the same since the war. The entrance of the tunnel is also open for visitors to see how narrow the tunnel was. “Leaving it as it is” has helped the Bosnian people to convey the memory of war to other generations in Tunel Spasa. I wasn’t even born when the war was happening in Bosnia but when I went there both as a child and a teenager, I got to see the pain. I am thankful that the tunnel was kept as it is even though it might remind people of painful memories. 

I remember asking myself: 

“Is forgetting the pain easier rather than keeping memories alive?” 

“Should we try to forget pain or keep it as a part of our personality?” 

I still do not know the answer.

The decision to restore the library is a nice way of looking at the future as bright. The decision to leave the tunnel as it is, is a way of preserving the past and learning from it. Sarajevo is an incredible city to visit because it is a great synthesis of the past and the present. There is a lot to learn from the people, the monuments, and their stories.


an Extraordinary Eid Prayer in Cologne

Eid is a time to be with our loved ones. Being away from most of my relatives here in Canada, a beautiful story of community and religious coexistence I saw on Twitter has caught my attention. Some background information; in the 60s, Germany requested immigrant workers from countries such as Italy, Turkey, Spain, and Greece because they lacked the labor force to keep their factories working. Due to this reason, a huge population of Turkish workers immigrated to Germany for better pay. Most of them left their families behind, thinking that they would go back to them in a few years after they save some money. When these immigrants first arrived in Germany, they tried their best to keep their religiosity and national identity intact. This is the story of how they got to pray in the Cologne Cathedral in the winter of 1965 and celebrated Eid al-Fitr together as the immigrant community away from their loved ones. 

(Story and photos taken and translated from @diaspora_turk on Twitter –

In the beginning of 1965, the Turkish workers in Germany were in a rush to find a large covered area for the Eid prayer. As they were thinking, the historical Dom Cathedral (Cologne Cathedral) which they walk past everyday crossed their minds. They decide that ‘the cathedral is large enough and technically it is a place of worship’. A committee is created by Turkish workers to undertake this task. This committee starts reaching out to people in charge of the Cologne Cathedral which is an important religious center for Catholic Christians. Their request somehow reaches Cardinal Frings Denkmal. Many arguments ensue within the Cathedral administration due to the remarkable nature of this request. Even the Turkish workers in Cologne can’t decide if this is a good idea.

Cologne Cathedral

Surprisingly, the cathedral administration gives permission for the Eid prayer to happen in the Cathedral on the 3rd of February in 1965. Now the Turkish Committee has another difficult task; they need to let the 15,000 Turks in Köln (Cologne) know that the Eid prayer will happen in 2 weeks at the Cologne Cathedral. Yusuf Topcu and Ibrahim Toparslan write the announcements by hand on 60 fliers which they hang on the walls of dorms and factories that are densely populated by Turkish migrants. They hop on their bikes and go around Cologne in a few days to distribute this announcement. 

For the attention of my dear honorable siblings, 

On the 3rd of February we will congregate in the Dom Church* for the Eid prayer at the end of the blessed month of Ramadan. Please bring your prayer mats and some newspaper with you. We ask you to act befittingly to our honorable religion Islam and our nation without committing any excess behavior. We also request that you let your communities know of this plan. 

Coordination Committee:
Hikmet Uygun, Yusuf Topcu, and Ibrahim Toparslan

The long-awaited day arrives, it is a beautiful Wednesday morning in Cologne. The Turkish workers all get groomed and wear their best suits for the Eid prayer. As they arrive to the cathedral, they cover the sculptures inside with the newspaper they brought. Approximately 700 worshippers gather inside the Dom Cathedral that day. Other than the worshippers, there are many Germans and journalists around watching this historical moment. The prayer ends, everyone exchanges greetings, candy is given out.

In a few days, Kölnische Rundschau publishes this news on their front page: “it was a historical day” as the headline. Die Zeit writes: “Adhan (Muslim call to prayer) in Dom Cathedral, where we once sent off the crusaders.” and they continue: “Turkish workers congregated for their Eid prayer inside the Dom Cathedral and left some money in our donation boxes before they left.”

*Turkish name for the Cologne Cathedral