Smuggling equipment

We contacted several camera stores in Turkey and did the math: it actually would be cheaper for us both to fly back to the U.S., buy our equipment there, and carry it in to Turkey. We also realized that we would need to have dozens of meetings with cameramen and potential interview subjects, which meant that we would need a phone and a computer, and that we’d have to move out of our island of Heybeliada, which was too remote to use as a base. I almost cried when packing.

We moved in with Dilek in Bostanci, and her doorman immediately disappeared. It turns out that he absconded with the money which he collected from the tenants to pay the utilities for the entire apartment building, and this had been going on for months. The day we arrived, the electric and gas companies terminated the services for the whole apartment complex, the doorman was gone, and everyone was dark and cold for three days until they could gather enough money together to pay the utility companies. I was also sick, and I was sleeping in Dilek’s freezing apartment.

When pow

Atatürk International Airport. Istanbul.
Image via Wikipedia

er came back on, we were rewarded with something delightful on TV at her house: a broadcast of the world weightlifting championships in Finland. (Turkish Radio and Television showed it, of course, because Turks rule in weightlifting and wrestling. Turks also hock loogies really well on the street, but as of yet, there are no international competitions in that sport.) Despite the event’s formidable list of corporate sponsors, the buzzers and lights in the contest kept breaking. Weightlifters doing the clean and jerk got confused when the light went on to signify a successful lift but not the buzzer, or vice-versa. The highlight came when this Italian guy named Feri, a huge bear of a man, lifted a 200-kilo weight over his head and neither the lights or the buzzer worked, so he just stood there for an eternity, his face turning every color of the rainbow, and finally he dropped the weight to the floor and gave the judges an extremely confused look. That confusion turned to anger, however, when the judges, in their wisdom, ruled it a “no-lift” because he dropped the weight behind his head instead of in front of his body. (After holding 200 kilos over your head for a full minute, I suppose you wouldn’t care how you let it go.) After some discussion, they allowed him to do it over, which was very helpful of them, but the guy’s muscles were so fried that on his second try a few seconds later, he couldn’t ever get the weight off the ground, let alone to chest level or over his head! So he was eliminated.

We flew to the states on December 8, ran around for a few days (we had a small 30th birthday gathering at my parents’ house and bought camera equipment at B&H in NYC), and flew back to Turkey on the 14th, with lots of equipment in tow. We arrived at Ataturk International Airport and found out that our tripod was being sent to Seoul, and then to Thailand. This turned out to be a good thing, because even without the tripod, we had far too much equipment to get past customs in Turkey: we had no filming permits. I was nervous, but Elif walked right up to the customs police and innocently said, “I live in America and came here with my husband to visit Turkey. We’re going to the south, and I have a camera – does it have to go through customs?” The policeman looked at our huge train of luggage (including our light kit, gels, power supplies, digital video tapes, etc.) and asked, “What kind of camera?” Elif mimed placing it on her shoulder and said, “You know, those things you carry on your shoulder like a camcorder.” They waved us through, and the tripod arrived two days later.

However, there were two immediate minor setbacks. The battery for the camera was defective, which meant that we had to get a new one and mail back the old one, which would cost some money and take some time. Also, Dilek bought a bad, bad batch of bottled water, containing trace amounts of an unwanted additive: fecal excrement. I puked for two days, and lab results from a stool sample which I was all too ready to give confirmed that I had amoebic dysentery.

I researched questions to ask our speakers, and Elif determined whom we wanted to get. We wanted writers, journalists, professors, activists, prisoners, torture victims, politicians, and soldiers. We wanted people to tell us what life was like during the coups and after; what the street violence was like; talk about human rights issues and what jail and torture were like; how trade unions and teachers were targeted; how tribunals were run; how the coups were carried out; how the army is organized and indoctrinated on Ataturk principles; how they purge their ranks; how they run an interim government and a national unity council; and, above all, why the coups happen and how they differ from each other and from those in other countries.

We hired an assistant and called many of Dilek’s friends, and friends of friends, and eventually started cold-calling people. Elif arranged meetings and tried not only to meet with people, but also to get them to give us other contacts to interview, as well as permission to use their photographs and film footage. Our secretary was a little shy about calling politicians and generals at first, but she loosened up. (She was not shy about calling Bulent Tanor, her former professor on whom she’d harbored a crush.)

A few people we talked to at first were wary that I was an American. Nothing on CNN television or on the websites of the American media mentioned it, but Iraq’s been saying on Turkish TV that America and Britain have been dropping more bombs. They’re showing footage of the now-decimated Iraqi village of Cumhuriyet; the word means “nation” in Turkish, and apparently this is how we celebrate other nation’s sovereignty. Our bombing of Iraq makes me a little embarrassed, like turning on the TV to find out that your aunt, who had been rumored to be a bit of a klepto, just got caught shoplifting – and you’re living close to the store-owner. In the end, though, the fact that our film is to be an American production is proving to be an asset rather than a liability in getting people’s trust to speak on film; Dilek’s connections and Elif’s charm are of much help as well. Many of the film’s interview subjects had never before spoken on film about their experiences, and all are saying that this is the first film ever that will have people from all extremes of the political spectrum together to speak on the same project. Our interview subjects now include Constitution authors and professors; coup leaders; economics and criminal law professors; former death-row inmates; former mayors of Istanbul and Konya, and a Minister of the Interior; a former President of the Bar; Generals and military personnel; historians; human rights attorneys; journalists; labor union leaders; and members of government tribunals. If half of these people will be candid on camera, this is going to be one heck of a film.

How we decided to film COUP

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.
Image via Wikipedia

Tonight’s nighttime festivites were much more animated than those of the morning. This time, instead of being organized by the city’s ruling religious party, the pro-Ataturk march was organized by the Kadikoy district on the Asian side of Istanbul. The Kadikoy mayorship is from the CHP (Ataturk-left) party, and their walk was promoted as “Let’s walk for the bright future of the Turkish Republic,” which meant, “Let’s walk for Ataturk’s thoughts and secularism.”

For no reason, I felt not merely entertained, but at home in a crowd of tens of thousands of people screaming “Turkey will STAY SECULAR!” We walked for several kilometers, and it was a big difference from last year; when we visited Elif’s parents, I remember when Elif and I got caught accidentally walking in the midst of a religious-fascist coalition protest march to make the middle schools start three years earlier so the children could get more Islamic (and less secular) education, with thousands of skullcapped men shouting “Allah is great!” This felt like a march on Washington – we were packed like sardines on Bagdat Caddesi, holding candles, waving flags, carrying framed Ataturk pictures, screaming “We will not go under Koranic Law!” and “Stand shoulder-to-shoulder against religious people!” and “Hooray for the Red and White!” and shouting to the people cheering us on from their balconies: “How’s the weather up there? Come down and join us!” Such a huge turnout. There were even fireworks.

I saw a very sad sight at the parade, however. A poor gypsy boy was sitting on the sidewalk, crying. All over the sidewalk was a broken bottle of shoeshine polish, glass and ink everywhere. It was a pathetic sight, this boy, already down on his luck, now deprived of his sole means of income. I asked Dilek what we should do for him, and she said, “Nothing. Last week I saw the exact same boy with the same broken bottle routine, and I gave him 500,000 lira.”


On the boat back to Heybeliada, my head was spinning from what people on the street were saying: they were telling us that they hoped the military would come to forcibly impose a new democracy on the country, one that would rid the country of all remaining traces of Islamic rule in the cities. I asked Elif, “Do you know how odd that sounds, wishing for the military to come impose a secular democracy on a people?”

Every 15 years, it seems as if Turkey has a coup. Last year, the army brought down the government simply by issuing a memorandum. Here’s how it happened, as far as I can make out:

In 1980, Turkey was leaning socialist, which America found displeasing. Economic incentives were offered to not fall as a Soviet domino, martial law was declared after internal violence, and finally in September 1980, there was a military coup, in which the army razed socialist communities in the north and imprisoned and murdered their leaders. Over the ensuing period, the Mafia strengthened immensely; at first, the government hired them to kill off Armenian terrorists who were bombing Turkish embassies worldwide until the Armenians got their own country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Years later, Tan?u Çiller came to power, an American-style Yale-educated technocrat who quite impressively amassed a $50 million personal fortune during her brief term. And for years, to pursue Turkey’s war against socialism, Islamic education and development had been tolerated, encouraged, and funded until economic reforms took hold. (How naïve outsiders can seem when they rue a country’s politics “turning fundamentalist,” as if it were the people’s own stupidity, fecklessness, or poor taste which allowed it to happen.) Because of this, and partly as a reaction to Çiller and the Mafia’s corruption, Erbakan’s Islamic Refah party came to power in a multiparty election with a mere 21% of the vote.

The Refah party shut down the casinos, which were overrun by Mafia and where there often were gunfights. Tourism (especially from Britain and Israel) plummeted, and the economy worsened. Erbakan moved too quickly, encouraged even more Islamic education, and started to take the country too close to Islamic law for the army’s comfort. This finally caused the army, last year, to threaten another coup and even a treason trial of Erbakan – after which (given the fact that in 1960, Prime Minister Menderes was executed by the military after being on the wrong end of such a treason trial), the Prime Minister hastily stepped down. The current national government is transitional, and elections are slated for February of next year.

Since last year’s “coup by memorandum,” the country remains divided. All over Turkey last month, I saw Istanbullians, Anatolians, Armenians, Kurds, and Arabs with very different lifestyles and visions of what the future of Turkey should be. And much of the east seemed occupied. Dilek’s office has a huge array of Ataturk photos – not as callow hero-worship, but, rather, as a symbol for modernism and all that it entails (secular law and freedoms, a modern constitution, women’s rights, democracy, etc.). In many places here, hanging the country’s own flag is a political statement wrought with meaning, saying not just “country,” but “I support modern Turkey,” which is to say “all people who want an exclusively religious country on my land should drop dead.” Last night, in the religious Fatih section of Istanbul, every home and store with a Turkish flag hanging on it had their windows broken.

Meanwhile, a significant percentage of Turks would welcome love to live a country with no alcohol, no work on Fridays, and a fixed ancient document of law interpreted by religious heads instead of judges and legislators. Which is why Istanbul’s official daytime celebration of the anniversary of the public was subdued, with Mayor Tayyip Erdogan making gesticulations of benediction like an Imam. Ankara’s mayor is in hot water for ripping down posters promoting the 75th Anniversary celebrations. Ararat’s mayor (oops – the TV just reports as I write this: “Ex-Mayor-Under-Arrest”) joined in on the fun, appearing on TV calling Ataturk a drunk who was a traitor of Islam, and said that since Jews fought for their own land (terrorism implied) couldn’t religious Turks, well…

But the question is: With the country so divided, for whom would this forcibly-imposed secular democracy be forcibly imposed? And what would another one now bring?

Elif told me stories about how, as a child in 1980, she hid under a desk when they shot up her classroom during the violence leading up to that September’s coup, and how happy her family was when the military intervention began. I found it fascinating. I wanted to learn more about what it means for a country to take anti-democratic measures in an attempt to preserve a democratic system. I wanted to understand the effect of the military’s involvement in the political process. And the idea of a military-patrolled democracy seemed so crazy that it would be the great subject for a documentary film.

Could we make a movie about it together? Could we? I asked Elif with nervous excitement on a boat on the Marmara Sea, just as I did on a boat on the Bosphorus when we decided to get engaged three years ago. And like before, her answer was yes.

At the 75th Anniversary military parade

ANKARA, TURKEY - JULY 16:  In this handout ima...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

All week, the whole country’s been gearing up for October 29th, the 75th Anniversary of the Turkish Republic. On the navy base on our island Heybeliada, they’ve been doing drills and practicing their drums – rat-a-tat! How exciting! Soldiers marching and shouting “Country before everything!”

We went to Aksaray for the morning parade. It was scheduled for 10AM and started promptly at noon. Walking there, I found my English to be more helpful here than my Turkish. (This is often the case here. Once, when we were riding on a train to see Elif’s father, Elif had told me that that the ride would be crowded and miserable, but instead it was surprisingly nice – because we had accidentally boarded the private, first-class train. The conductor came over, angrily telling us our tickets were no good, and I asked Elif, innocently, in English, “What’s the problem, what’s happening?” And the conductor suddenly turned to me and smiled and apologized all over, saying welcome to Turkey, you are our guests here, you don’t have to pay anything.) Now, walking to the parade this morning, as we got close to the bandstand, we were all going to be stopped and frisked for bombs, and I asked Elif, in English, why the man was going to check our bags, and the soldier let us all through without searching us.

Turkish security, however much in earnest, is not perfect. Today, the TV reports that a guy just hijacked a plane headed to Ankara from Adana. The plane left at 7:30 and was supposed to land in Ankara at 8:30, but somehow he snuck a hand grenade and a gun on the plane (perhaps he spoke English at the airport?) The plane landed at 9:30 and they told him he was in Sofya, Bulgaria, and he demanded to be taken to Lausanne. But the wily Turks tricked him – they didn’t land in Sofya at all, but actually in Ankara, after having shut off all of the lights at the Ataturk airport and ordering the village mosques not to broadcast evening prayers. Then, after seven hours of negotiations, they brought in some Turks without moustaches to talk with him as if they were Bulgarians. By 3 AM, negotiations were breaking down, and they managed quietly to open a rear exit of the plane while the hijacker was in the cockpit. One at a time, they replaced rear-seating passengers with plainclothes sharpshooters, and before sun-up, when he would have discovered he was in Ankara and not Bulgaria, they blew his head off. I watched much of this unfold live, except for the finale. My favorite part was when the Turkish news station we’re watching got the cell phone number of one of the plane’s passengers from a family member, and the reporters talked with him live on TV while the hijacker was in the cockpit. The passenger was whispering into the phone what was going on, and the conversation ended quite abruptly when the passenger said, “He’s looking at me, I have to go, don’t ever call this phone number again!”

But back to this morning’s parade. There were a respectable number of tanks, planes, and helicopters, but not much in the way of folkloric dancers or cultural marchers – strangely subdued for a country’s – demisesquicentennial? The reason was obvious when the parade’s organizer, Istanbul’s mayor Erdogan, passed by us on his float, touching his hands to his head and heart repeatedly in a religious love-bestowing gesture – our current mayor clearly has no interest in promoting celebrations of modern Turkey’s democratic standing, Kemalist principles, etc. The festivities were enlivened considerably when an insane old guy waving the Turkish flag started walking with the tanks. Wherever he passed, the crowd would let out a huge cheer. If anyone else in the crowd would have stepped into the street, they’d have been shot, but this old guy – who would stop him?

On the way back from the morning parade, on a bridge, I saw lots of people crowded around a Jandarme looking to the ground. I went there, asking what was up, and Elif said “They’re just looking at the Jandarme’s gun.” But I saw something different: there, in the corner, was a crying 6-year-old boy, who had gotten separated from his mother. Dilek had the clearest head of all – she suggested they take the boy to the police station before something would happen to him. One woman had a different idea, however, and grabbed the boy’s arm and said she would bring him to the cops. The soldier was fine with that, as were the villagers present, but we would have none of it – who was this woman? What did she want with the boy? We summoned the police, and they came, and everyone was smiling, how cute, a lost boy, and the mystery woman again said she’d bring the child into the station downtown, and the cops were fine with that and seemed happy to be free to go off and do other things. We were screaming to the cops to take the boy in yourselves, and the cops said, OK, we will take him, but the woman started walking away with the boy, and Elif and the woman are playing tug-of-war with the boy’s arm, and in the argument I saw the woman push Dilek hard in the chest. So, with a crowd of people, two cops, and a soldier present, I instantly did exactly what I was required to do in a situation when someone pushes my mother-in-law in the chest: I stood up to my full five-foot-six-inches, pointed my finger in the woman’s face, and shouted in a loud, deep voice: “Hey!” And the two men behind me did exactly what they were required to do in the situation: they grabbed my arms. Now nobody thought it would come to blows, but the cops were now forced to lift the boy up in the air and carry him themselves off to the police station.

One thing bothered me all day: after this crazy woman had tried to abduct a boy and then pushed Elif’s mother in the chest, why did Dilek, a tough cookie, did not do anything, thus forcing me to intervene? Elif gave me the answer: Dilek had shoved the woman first, naturally.