Trained to Be Less Demanding and More Thankful

An environment dominated by less democracy and more authoritarianism generation after generation, and a constant deprivation of some of the most fundamental human rights—coupled with a collective memory of severe punishment in case of disagreement—eventually results in a mutation of the intellectual capabilities of a nation. It does not only make the majority into an unquestioning and sincere supporter of the system, but also shapes the minds of the opposing minority. You unknowingly become more content, less demanding, and ready to be happy with what you are given even if it is far from being something to be happy with. At the end, you find yourself successfully disciplined and trained, or rather domesticated, no matter how you perceive yourself as an adamant oppositionist.

This is what happens in Turkey and this is the situation where I found myself in connection with the film “Guz Sancisi” (Pain of Autumn, or the Painful Autumn, roughly in English). It’s a Turkish production about the reign of terror in Istanbul over the Greeks, Armenians, and Jews that lasted 48 hours in 1955 without any intervention by either the police or the army—one of the biggest and strongest in the world. The paradox was that, while watching the film, I was thankful to the filmmakers although I could see that, while disclosing some important facts, it did reproduce some Turkish stereotypes of non-Muslims and missed some very important points about the subject matter. This revealed a pathetic truth about myself—and about many others as well: For such a long time we were given so little that we were made ready to appreciate what does not deserve to be appreciated at all.

A breakthrough in Turkish cinema

We were all waiting for it, knowing that it would be the first time that the Turkish cinema audience would be acquainted with one of the most shameful pages of modern Turkish history—the Sept. 6-7, 1955 incidents in Istanbul. We all knew Tomris Giritlioglu, the director, from her film “Salkim Hanimin Taneleri” (Mrs. Salkim’s Diamonds) about the wealth tax that was imposed in Turkey in 1942. The tax, an example of racism in economy, targetted non-Muslim minorities who were required to pay high amounts in wealth tax in a very short time. Those who failed to pay within the permitted time were sent to labor camps. About 21 people died in such camps. This film was a first, too, and many in Turkey learned about this episode of the Turkification of the country’s economy through this film.

The September incidents, where mobs of thousands ransacked buildings belonging to non-Muslims, targeted mainly the Greeks of Istanbul, though expanded to cover Armenians and Jews as well. The riots were triggered by the news that Ataturk’s house in Saloniki had been bombed. It was a time of escalating animosity towards Greece, the Greek Cypriots, Greeks of Turkey, and the Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul over the Cyprus issue. Sometime around 6 in the evening on Sept. 6, 1955, tools of destruction were parcelled out from government trucks: pickaxes, shovels, battering rams, gasoline, and dynamite. Then, systematically, within minutes, there were three waves of brutal attacks over an area of about 40 square kilometres. First, all obstacles to entry (iron doors or barred gates of businesses, dwellings, churches, cemeteries, monasteries, and schools) were broken down. The second wave, moving rapidly down the streets, destroyed, looted, and pilfered. A third wave doused any! thing not already destroyed with kerosene. By 10, the city was burning. One could see the flames from miles away. There were incidents of forced circumcision, rape, and lynching. Thirty seven were recorded dead. The details can be found in the The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul, written by Speros Vryonis Jr. and published by in the U.S. This is the most comprehensive work published so far on this topic. Here the writer gives a list of persons murdered and where and how they were murdered.

Then came the military coup of 1960, and former government members were put to trial; 3 were hanged (including the prime minister) and others sentenced to imprisonment of varying terms. During these trials (known as the Yassiada Trials), it was revealed that the bombing of the Ataturk house was nothing but a plot organized by the Turkish secret service and put into practice by officials and semi-officials. In his book, Vryonis documents the direct role of the Demokrat Parti organization and government-controlled trade unions in organising the rioters that swept Istanbul.

What we saw on the screen

The film “Guz Sancisi” is a love story of a young Turkish nationalist, an academic at the Faculty of Law, and a young, childish Greek prostitute sold off to high-level bureaucrats by her own grandmother—who was presumably a prostitute herself in the past. It is also a story of the friendship between a nationalist and leftist on the background of the period’s political atmosphere—intensifying nationalist sentiments centered around the Cyprus issue.

It made my heart pound to see that the film clearly showed for the first time how the government-supported circles were directly involved in organising the riots, how the Turkish “deep-state,” as we call it here in Turkey, schemed for the assasination of oppositionists, and how the atrocities were far from being a spontaneous outburst of mass hysteria. The opening images, which showed how the doors of non-Muslim homes were marked with a cross in the dark of the night, brought tears to my eyes. And I was thankful that many people, greater in number than we could reach throughout our lives, will watch this film and see a glympse of the truth. I cried a lot and was deeply shaken by several episodes. It seemed enough to me to know that with this film, the Sept. 6-7 pogroms had become part of public knowledge and ceased to be a piece of knowledge known only by those who are familiar with the real, non-official history of Turkey.

So, I tended to deliberately supress my disappointment and resentment at various other aspects of the film. But then I faced the reality, realizing how my political and aesthetic values were successfully geared to adjust to the poor standards of the country.

Nothing to be happy about

Yes, the film reinforces the stereotypes of non-Muslims that are deeply rooted in the Turkish/Islamic mindset. In addition to the open humiliation of non-Muslim women in nationalist literature, even in the seemingly most neutral, most innocent works of literature, these cliches have prevailed. For example, if there is a love story between two persons of different religious backgrounds, it is always the woman who is a non-Muslim, an example of the typical nationalistic-sexist perception. The non-Muslim woman lacks a Muslim woman’s chastity, innocence, and trustworthiness; or, at best, she is in love with a Turkish/Muslim man! This is the only way she makes herself acceptable and forgivable by the Turkish audience. And here, in “Guz Sancisi,” the Greek woman is a prostitute, carrying a small cross on her bosom; as her dresses are always low-cut, the cross is always clearly visible at every sequence featuring our Greek heroine, reinforcing her Christian identity in the minds of the audience. Besides, her grandmother does the most detestable act in all traditional cultures, but particularly in the Turkish/Muslim culture (which is, of course, very hypocritical because they are the ones who wait in line to receive their services). In fact, because of this reason, when we see the mob break in and destroying her flat, it is impossible for the average Turkish viewer not to feel that the woman had finally gotten the punishment she had deserved for so long.

And the film has left out some very important facts about the incidents it claims to be truthfully reflecting. During the incidents there was bloodshed. There were people who were lynched, burned alive, and killed, and there were women who were raped, some killed afterwards. In the film, we see only aggression towards property but not towards human beings; the looters didn’t once touch the owners of the shops or the flats who were carefully spared of any physical damage or threat. This is a misrepresentation of what really happened and it is very, very important. It was not only vandalism, an instance of mere jelousy and greed which has a long history among the Muslim population in their relations with their Christian compatriots. It was also an attempt against life, regardless of whether or not it was the intention in the first place on the part of the plotters.

Additionally the audience gets the impression that the pogrom was limited to the Beyoglu district only, whereas it started in various sections of the city simultaneously covering an area of around 40 square kilometers, from Yesilkoy in the northwest to Nisantasi in the city center, from Istinye on the European side of the Bosphorus to Cengelkoy, on the Asian side.

It’s not “they” but “us”

The mob in the film seem like a handful of criminals mobilized by evil people—the only ones to put the blame on. However, the aggressors numbered around 100,000. The lawyer of then-Minister of Interior Fatin Rustu Zorlu had estimated during the Yassiada trials that the number of demonstrators were around 300,000; but Vryonis says the police records put the number at around 100,000—a figure he finds more reliable. Considering the population of Istanbul at that time, the number of aggressors was one tenth of the inhabitants of Istanbul (in other words, 1 million in today’s Istanbul of 10 million people). The majority of these looters were not blood-thirsty criminals but ordinary people from all sections of society. This is the reality. An important segment of the ordinary people in Istanbul shared this hatred. It was not only a couple of plotters or elements of the “deep-state” who were responsible. Without the people they are nothing, and only the people and the existence of popular support can give them the power to do what they want do. This is why every one of us is responsible for everything going on around us, because it is us who turn the wheels of this big machine. And even if we, as individuals, are powerless on our own to change things, we should at least accept the fact that we are indeed part of the whole no matter how we are opposed to it and humbly endure this tragic reality.

Going back to where I started, yes, our expectations, our criteria for appreciation are also influenced by the poor standards of Turkey, and we are made to be less demanding and more ready to concede. If we, who are the opponents of the system, are disciplined in this way, one can see how promising things in Turkey can be and align our expectations of this country accordingly.


Ayse Gunaysu

Ayse Gunaysu is a professional translator, human rights advocate, and feminist. She has been a member of the Committee Against Racism and Discrimination of the Human Rights Association of Turkey (Istanbul branch) since 1995, and is a columnist for Ozgur Gundem. Since 2008, she writes a column titled "Letters from Istanbul," for the Armenian Weekly.

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