For the average expat living in Turkey, it’s a tall order to understand the complexities of our adopted homeland. It’s very easy to live within our own comfort zone and, curiously sheltered by the language barrier, pay little attention to issues that don’t directly impinge on our own lives.
But when small, barefooted boys are thrusting packets of tissues through my car window as I pause momentarily at the traffic lights, or a crowd of Dickensian street urchins attempt to pick the pockets of my rucksack outside Sirkeci Station, it’s impossible not to wonder where they come from or what their story might be.
I know that there are many ways to begin addressing this deficit, from reading the news (through papers like Today’s Zaman if our Turkish is not completely fluent) to keeping a wide circle of Turkish friends. But another way to gain an insight into the complexities of the culture we have chosen to make our new lives in, which should appeal to anyone with an interest in literature, is to read novels; either those written by Turkish authors themselves, or by foreigners who have a good understanding of the country.
‘Against the Storm’ — Gaye Hiçyılmaz
“Against the Storm,” published in 1990, is Gaye Hiçyılmaz’s first novel and, although primarily aimed at a teenage audience, definitely deserves to be read by adults. The author was born in the UK, married a Turkish man, has spent many years living and working in Turkey and has a good understanding of issues relating to this country. This novel paints a particularly vivid and raw picture of the poverty experienced by the many families and in particular, their children, who migrate from their rural homeland in search of a better life in the cities.
“The storm” in the title represents the difficulties thrown at us by life — affecting the two main characters in different ways. “One bends lower and lower and though all its leaves are blown away and its branches are broken, it survives the storm. The other tree refuses to bend: it will stand up as straight as it was and pretend that there isn’t a storm. In the end it suddenly breaks: it splits in two, is uprooted and it dies.”
The story unfolds through the eyes of a young teenage boy named Mehmet as he struggles to come to terms with the move from his Anatolian village to Ankara. Mehmet’s entire extended family, as well as the large Kangal dog left in his care by a friend, makes the tortuously long journey with their belongings by lorry and bus. Once in Ankara, things go from bad to worse, as the family find themselves squatting in a half-built house owned by a relative and, to make matters worse, stuck working long hours for very little pay for the same relative. Mehmet finds some comfort by befriending a “gypsy” boy (also an outsider), who scrapes together a living by buying and selling second-hand clothing.
City versus country
Mehmet is especially aggrieved that the move is taking place at the start of his favorite season– spring. “All the fruit trees in the village were in bloom and in the evenings the blossom glowed. … The prettiest of all was the pink and white that nestled amongst the silvery gray of the apple trees.” Through the child’s eyes, his past life was idyllic. For the adults, the prospects of staying put were bleak — “Look at it,” moans Mehmet’s father as he gazes at the “copse of birch tree which no longer flourish because their land was drying up.” The reality of the move to unfamiliar city is a stark contrast, with its dusty roads, heavy traffic, congested housing and throngs of people.
Internal migration is the dominant theme in this novel and one that has had a major impact on all Turkish cities. Migrants make up a large percentage of every major city in Turkey. Most expats move here in response to a job offer — or for a “better life” enjoying the sun, sea, mountains or food. We are aware of the diversity of people living around us in the towns, but are often oblivious to their backgrounds and origins.
Inhabitants of Turkish villages have a long history of migration. For those still living in the countryside, it is common practice to drive their livestock up the mountainside in search of better pastures in the plateaus for the summer. But the move from rural to urban marked a new period. From the 1950s, with both the mechanization of farming techniques and the loans handed out to landowning farmers, large numbers of poorer farmers were forced to move in search of work to the three main cities — namely İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir. The population of these towns increased by nearly 50 percent during this period. Most of these people moved to the outskirts of the cities, often linking up with other members of their village, into shanty towns, as they are described in this book. In Ankara it was frequently the open park areas that were turned into dwelling areas for these migrants. The house that Mehmet’s family is squatting in has no windows, running water or electricity. He is amazed by the contrast of an elderly lady’s house, just one hours’ walk from his home, “with bathrooms and polished wooden floors and bedrooms where children slept all alone, except for hundreds of toys.”
Rural migration caused massive social problems as the incomers came into conflict with the established middle-class inhabitants, who resented the intrusion of these “country bumpkins” and rapidly found themselves becoming the “minority.” From 1980 onwards, rural migration accelerated due, in part, to rising inflation in food commodities, which hit the poorest farmers hardest, and also the prospect — or at least hope — of work in expanding import and export industries in cities. The results can be seen in the hardships experienced by Mehmet’s family: the hours spent queuing for water, sharing a bowl of soup for the evening meal, the lack of medical care for a sick baby niece, Mehmet himself being forced to give up his chance of going to school in order to find a job and the extreme poverty in which his Roma friend Hayri is living. Hayri, also a young teenage boy, is living by himself in a space between two houses waiting for his older brother to return from his military service. Even Mehmet, who is used to poverty, is horrified by the conditions that his friend lives in. “The dust and closeness of that small place stifled him. There it was again: the unexpectedness of life here in the shanty town. It crept up on you when your back was turned and when you least expected it, it startled you so much that you breathed in great mouthfuls of dirt and dust.”
In Turkey, the family still plays an important role in society, in a way not generally seen in Western cultures. But, as we see in Gaye’s novel, not everything in Turkish family life is rosy. There is huge antipathy toward Mehmet’s young uncle and wife, who had been living with them but soon after they arrived in Ankara, moved away from the family, causing considerable grief and aggravation. Mehmet’s grandparents, who in the village played a useful role, are now reduced to sitting in the house. On the first night Mehmet woke “several times to see the glowing end of his grandfather’s cigarette, as the old man sat by the window and smoked silently.” The ever-resourceful Mehmet joins the many young people we see working in the streets and succeeds in getting work outside the family-run business, helping a dolmuş driver. His dreams, though, remain firmly fixed on his former life back in the village.
So next time I am offered the chance to be weighed by a small child crouching at the side of the road, or the chance to buy several pens for a lira outside the bus station, I, for one, will feel more inclined to hand over my money. This book takes a powerful and hard-hitting look at the impact of migration on many Turkish families.
This article was originally posted on http://www.todayszaman.com/ and has been reposted with their kind permission