The events of September 11th have dramatically focused our attention on the tragic consequences of a fundamentalist stance. Writer Gaye Hiçyilmaz explains how her experiences of the outlawing of dissent became a theme in her novels.
Two weeks after September 11th, one of my sons called from Washington again. None of his friends had been killed, but one had been on the ferry and seen the plane come over; another was starting work in the twin towers next month. We agreed that the world seemed too full of conversations like ours. He added that, well, if ever there was a time for my books to sell, sadly, it was now. I didn’t understand. I don’t write disaster books. ‘But all your books are about the dangers of fundamentalism,’ he said. I didn’t reply. We never talk about the books in the family, other than to joke about my failure to produce a best seller. ‘Well? Aren’t they?’ he persisted. I’d never thought about it like that, but when I did, I knew he was right.
Dissent as betrayal
My favourite protagonist is a kid who is a dissenter, one who interrupts the accepted flow with a tentative ‘But…?’ My villains are the loud mouths who shout them down and are unable to hear any words that are not copies of their own. They are the men and women without doubts, folks who never change their minds and who see dissent as a deeply personal betrayal. They are the bullies, with the critical powers of three year olds, who always believe what they’re told. They never scratch their heads and ask the sorts of questions which begin: ‘But what about…’ So yes, on reflection, the demons my gentle heroes and heroines must face are those who know they are right, even if they have to lie on the ground and scream it until they are purple in the face. They are as ubiquitous as measles and like that disease, their ravages are worst in those places where poverty has already worn people down. I learnt this when I lived on the edge of the shanty town outside Ankara, and my perception was not unique.
Even my then father-in-law agreed. No one had ever called him a ‘kind’ man and I never knew him do a kind thing. Cruelty was his habit and he kept it close to him like his pack of cigarettes. There were reasons, as there often are, but the upshot was that he’d constructed an unbreachable wall between himself and ordinary life. From his solitary position on its ramparts he scowled down on humanity before he blew another trail of smoke into the disappointing air. He did not care that the shadow of that wall fell dungeon dark on his family. His interest was to stay beyond their reach.
I was surprised, therefore, to hear him denounce the cruelty of the fundamentalists, and I’ve never forgotten what he said. It was one afternoon in the seventies. Erbakan and his right wing religious party were new players on the Turkish political scene. My ex-father-in-law was horrified. He recounted his own experiences as one of Ataturk’s first teachers in the revolutionary and recently independent Republic of Turkey. He’d been promoting literacy with the new, Latinized alphabet and his was the eager and unwanted face of change and reform. In small village communities he’d met vicious opposition from some clerics and now he feared that such men were regaining their control.
‘If you disagree with people like that, they won’t even kill you quickly,’ he’d growled, dropping down more ash. ‘They’d cut you up with a saw!’ In Turkish, those words rasp, and as he spoke I’d heard the sound of an old saw pushed to and fro through flesh.
He’d shrugged and I’d nodded.
For a moment, across the huge divide of our ages and genders, our different cultures and our mutual distrust, we two sceptics were united in our distrust of this flight from rational thought. We agreed about the dangers of not recognising dissent. In Ankara I watched our district decay as the fundamentalists moved in. He’d already seen the dried blood on the ground, so it was ironic and tragic that he never recognised that his own, terrorised family were also permanently infantilized by their inability to dissent from his views. Their fear was overwhelming. They never faced him or it; and I was a coward too. But, without realising it, I had uncovered the motif that has dominated the last ten years of my writing: the fatal consequences of fundamentalism and the endorsement of the value of dissent.
It wasn’t and isn’t an exclusively cultural thing. Turkey, with its patriarchal traditions, its backward looking reverence of past glories and its acceptance of poverty as the inevitable destiny of so many of its citizens, may have been especially vulnerable, but it’s not alone. I grew up in the south of England in prosperous, peaceful and very different times but this upbringing had also outlawed dissent. It was viewed as the worst thing we could do: a sort of matricide. We weren’t punished for being untidy or messing up our clothes, and they didn’t get particularly annoyed when we lost or broke stuff. The one, unforgivable crime of childhood was ‘contradiction’. It brought instant exile from the kingdom of the loved. There were related crimes, like showing off, or interrupting or answering back, but they weren’t as frightful as ‘bare-faced contradiction’, as it was usually called. Contradicting a grown-up was judged as treacherous and malicious. It was personalised, and those we loved experienced it as the ultimate betrayal, the stab in the back, the Judas kiss of the ungrateful child. ‘Don’t you ever contradict me again!’ was their response, in the angry, yet wounded tones of someone who has been deeply wronged. And: ‘Don’t answer back!’ was their pre-emptive defence, if one showed the fateful signs of doubting what they’d said.
I tried not to contradict, unless it was under my breath, but I was silenced as effectively as if my tongue had been cut out, or even sawn off. It seemed a high price to pay for correcting someone’s mistake, but I didn’t understand then that the issues were those of control and authority. Sometimes, I don’t think I understood much about anything until I became the silent observer of the customs and ways of another people in another land. It was anthropology by marriage, and the course was tough, but that’s where most of my characters come from.
They are kids who are braver than I was and I like them a lot. Contradicting is what the ‘good’ characters in my books do. The first, Mehmet, in Against the Storm, published in 1990, doesn’t exactly know how life should be, but he dares to say that it shouldn’t be the way it is. Selma in the The Frozen Waterfall, I see as a quiet, steady sort of girl, who will succeed, whereas Henry, in Watching the Watcher, prevaricates. In Coming Home the tragic consequences of a fundamentalist stance are most clear. Refik Bey, the nasty uncle, is a portrait of one of my neighbours. He’s a man I still regard with loathing and contempt. He’s a shouter and blusterer and like June in Girl in Red, he knows he’s right. Sometimes I feel disheartened because I’ve failed to stand up and protest, but at least I’ve given my protagonists the courage to contradict and interrupt. And some like Emilia, in my next book, Pictures from the Fire, are very resolute indeed.
Against the Storm (0 571 19496 6), The Frozen Waterfall (0 571 19495 8), Watching the Watcher (0 571 17274 1) and Coming Home (0 571 19367 6) are published by Faber at £4.99 each pbk.
Girl in Red is published by Dolphin (1 85881 490 1) and Pictures from the Fire (1 85881 896 6) is due in September 2002, at £4.99 each pbk.