I don’t usually write such stuff. These are private issues. But I guess this once they should be on the record. Why? I’ll explain.
It was 8am I guess, maybe earlier. I’m sleeping. The phone starts to ring, a woman is crying her heart out on the line:
“I’m reading your article on his grave. Today is Yaman’s death anniversary.”
I fell silent.
Now she’s laughing at my astonishment while crying meanwhile:
“I’m Meral Okay.”
It was 2002. They were about to declare war to Iraq, in Parliament they were working on the bill to do so. They have appointed me with Mehmet Ali Alabora as speakpersons for the anti-war movement. We are running around like headless chickens. We are at Aegean University today, ODTU the next, even organizing musicians at a Roman district in Ankara the other evening. I now remember gathering with thousands on the streets at nights:
“We shall not kill, we shall not be killed! We shan’t be nobody’s soldiers”
I was back from Argentina. I’m troubled, really troubled due to a love affair. Most probably I must have written an article on love in between the Argentine demos and Iraqi war. I don’t now remember which. I don’t know how she found my number but on the phone Meral Okay was crying reading that article in tremors. That’s how we got acquainted. Love, back then, was “able to jump over everything” as she said in a love letter she wrote to her husband Yaman. Maybe just because love was able to jump high, the war was able to jump over Turkey in those days.
Same year. Sezen Aksu in a series of gigs. She is singing in Armenian, Greek, Kurdish, with kids on stage. She’s rocking the country. Military brass going berserk, people (!) on their heels. The first concert was in Izmir, the second planned for Istanbul. But Sezen is reluctant. She calls me, getting my number from Meral after one of my aricles; she liked it. She invites me to the gig. For some reason I have hypertension back then. The gig is great. At the end as Meral was taking me to the backstage, as I said “Meral, I think I’m not feeling well, I think my BP is high,” I fainted and rolled into the room. When I came back, Sezen is taking my BP on my right arm, on my left arm Cemil İpekçi is counting my heartbeat. Next to them, Mehmet Ali Birand, Zeynep Oral and Güler Sabancı. No mortal should be tested with such an absurdity.
Next morning, again at the wee hours-it’s the habit of this crew to call early, as I understand- a familiar voice on the phone:
“I asked around. You should eat carob for high blood pressure. Do you want me to send some?”
As I pause:
“It’s Sezen calling!”
We have laughed our heads off on the phone and I told Meral afterwards “don’t do this to me, I wake up, Sezen taking my BP, I go to sleep you call me and cry! Don’t shock me that a way!”
Meral had a laughter that shakes all her body, coming from her depths. She laughed with all her face…
Those were the good days.. Considering today… Then something started to happen in Turkey, slowly. A furtive hatred sneaked out of all feelings. Irony became prevalent in all rhetoric. Ghosts instead of soldiers started to pursue people who said “we should tell different stuff.” The Byzantine intelligentsia was changing its direction squeaking like a galleon. As Meral wrote in her letter about Yaman: “everyone living the description of every man for his own!” It’s as if the rains of those days-as we look at it today- brought the mud we see today. We will understand the period in the future. As it is obvious that it is dangerous to understand the state of the affairs nowadays.
It was 2005. At a cafe in Beyoglu a man with a broken Turkish approached. With a shirt, proper pants and huge self-esteem. Who would have thought that this gentleman would give me the character of a journalist in his next movie, “International?” Sırrı, making me a “movie actress” and giving the role of a prostitute to Meral, told the story of a period. Now I look at Meral’s biography which is obviously prepared in haste. It reads “she mirrored her own experience during the days of junta after 9/12/1980 in the movie International” in all copy-and-paste biographies in all web sites. Ten years from the life of a woman who was once a business rep for Turkish Workers Pary, who was in opposition in every interview she gave, ten years of her life in which she lived her love and rebellion with the people in just such a sentence… Whatever.
Then came the lawsuits. Then changed Turkey further. They have tied up the stones, my dear, tied up the stones tight.** That’s why when she was in trouble with her lungs, she ended up moving her house. Just because in her TV show, “The Sultan’s Harem” Suleiman The Magnificent kissed her wife, just because their “sacred” is tainted, they have punished her with living under police protection as she went through her cancer treatment. May our religion stay pure, amen! They have tied up the stones, my dear, they have silenced the rest. TV screens are reserved only for those who preach to the choir. Ones who fell in love without a kiss, who win without a fight, who excommunicate without being a priest wrote the new rules.
“Look at me! Promise me! You will speak up. You won’t keep silent” said she. In an early morning call, in February, in one of those days when we had a snowstorm:
“You’re coming here right away!”
My book “For the Record” was just published as was the attacks on my name started. She have called when I was fired, but now she decided a more close contact was obligatory.
I went in. She has the remote in her hands, two clowns on Tv analyzing something on the tune of “what a great democracy we have in Turkey.” Meral cursing. I said:
“-Do you want to make yourself more sick?”
“-No, no! It’s good for me, the cursing. Tell me, what’s up?”
I said “they are driving mr nuts.” She says “Look, I got this cancer out of my courtesy. I shut up all the time. Then came the cancer. Look at me! Promise me…” Then she told me about the junta years. A little about her late husband. Death threats. Threats with or without frocks… “Something happened to this country. Nobody loves no one any more.”
Then she was gone…
My country batters on one’s nobility the most. Neither hope, nor will, but one’s nobility in grief. Like predator birds which pinch one’s flesh on and on. The Internet sites that helped cause her cancer while she was alive showed their oily grins as soon as she was deceased. A cart full of pus. These stuff were immoral once. But as Meral said, “something have happened to this country.”
When I first met her, we were demonstrating in hundred thousands in Ankara. We chanted “no to war!” Papers were full of anti-war columns. Those who didn’t were reproached. Now what I see is there are not many to be found to reproach. Now what I see is, Meral’s cancer, the one that became fatal due to her polite silence towards the reproachable, was about this country. The day we bid farewell to Meral is a day when we talk about a war with Syria as a possibility. The streets are free of demonstrations. People who used to walk them are walking prison yards. Meral already wrote in her letter in case you’d ask “why there is no love?”
“There’s no channel for love left anymore. We don’t share common ground. We have no agora no more. Everybody to his own.
This is both physical and spiritual. It makes people to look for security even in love. Everybody is after his own success story. Maybe because we shared the dream of a more fair, more just, more clean a world, we knew how fulfilling it is to stand side by side with others.
Now, nobody cares about those ideals. We didn’t get poorer only in economical terms. We became poor also in taking care of each other’s wounds in an emotional level. Now there is this modern concept they call empathy. We are the children of a world which was made of empathy and internalized it all the way through.”
I don’t usually write such stuff. These are private issues. But that cancer had everything to do with this country. As much as this love is.
May my grief be your light Meral.
Translation from Turkish and footnotes by Efe Moral
*Meral Okay was a Turkish screenwriter, actress, journalist, lyrics author and producer. Born in 1959 in Ankara, she was the wife of late Yaman Okay of theater fame. In addition to her political and journalistic work, she was renown for her collaboration with Sezen Aksu on her popular songs and stage performances. She produced some of the most prevalent TV shows in Turkish history.
**Tying up stones is a Turkish idiom. “They have tied up all the stones and let all the dogs free” meaning a place is without law and asking for justice is impossible.