It was the spring of 1984. My first year at college. Born and raised in a humble town by the Aegean sea, I was amazed by the intensity of life in Istanbul. Thinking back, I realize now that I was kind of shell-shocked by the immense variety of images, sounds, and smells this rapidly changing city provides on a daily basis.
Life was confusing for everybody in those days. It was a period of transition, a time of change. The military rule was over, but its effects were still felt everywhere in the country. The 1980 coup had brought a regime of horror. The military had arrested thousands of people who were then tortured, with hundreds killed or went missing. It was a difficult period. But it was over. Or so we were told. In the year 1983, when the parliamentary elections were held and the neoliberal Özal government came to power, newspapers announced that democracy had returned to the country. But from what I saw in Istanbul, democracy seemed to be taking its time.
The year I went to college, there were portraits of Kenan Evren (the leader of the military coup who was later elected president) hanging everywhere: in state offices, shop windows, even apartment entrances. There were still hundreds of missing people. Their mothers had started gathering in squares chanting slogans. Expelled academics had returned to the campus with long and tired faces. Nobody asked where they had spent the last couple of years. Everybody knew. Those who had managed to keep their positions in academia had carefully avoided talking politics in class. A certain style of mustache was deemed ideological and was banned on campus. There was a new dress code to ensure “appropriate clothing” of the state officials. In fact, there were regulations for almost everything. It seemed that the military had taken a step back but still kept an eye on Turkish democracy – like an overbearing father letting his daughter go on her first date. Reluctantly. Very reluctantly.
Of course, later we would find out that worse was to come. The military was going to be replaced by its even more evil twin: The capital holders and warlords guarded by an army of specially trained police forces would take over the country in the 90’s. But it was 1984 and none of this had happened yet. The only signs of the country’s changing economy were observed in the appearance of imported whiskey and cigarettes on the shelves – an outcome of the lifting of the ban on foreign trade. Turkey was entering a new era, a new form of capitalism, but very little of this was known to me. I would sit around and smell the faint scent of freedom in the air.
In 1984, in the girls’ dormitory on the university campus, I remember lying down in my bunk bed, and thinking about the infinite possible ways my life could go. When I look back now, I feel that somehow my fate was linked to that of my country. After long years of suppression (my teenage years spent in the hands of my protective parents seemed no different from living under a military regime), I had finally landed on freedom—and I was at a loss about what to do with it.
The upper bunk belonged to a girl from the Political Science Department. She was friends with the coolest people on campus, and while I was always distracted and given to flights of fancy, she seemed as focused as a clear summer day. She was also a member of the Students’ Cooperative – the most popular campus hangout for leftists at the time. The Cooperative was a mysterious place. Nobody knew what it was they did exactly. Their only activity seemed to be the monthly book club meetings, where they talked about the works of some socialist thinkers. One day, this girl from the upper bunk asked me whether I would like to join her for one of those meetings. I guess she was tired of watching me lie in my bed all day. She said it was going to be “fun.” I was not particularly keen on reading theory (I was an ardent reader but my taste was for fiction). What is more, the somber atmosphere of the Cooperative did not really correspond to my idea of fun. But there was this boy (dark wavy hair, thick mustache, piercing green eyes)… and before I know, I found myself asking: “What book is on for this month?” “Something on Latin America,” she said. She did not know who the author was, but the book itself was supposed to be really good. “Everybody is talking about it,” she added. Still toying with the idea of meeting the boy with the thick mustache, “Yes,” I said, “I will be there.”
The book turned out to be Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America.” It was translated into Turkish and printed in 1983. On the book's cover was a detail from Diego Rivera’s famous mural “History of Mexico” depicting the early years of what is called “The Age of Discovery” with conquistadores enslaving the natives of the continent. Even then I could sense the artist’s contempt for the triumvirate of “Banker, Army, Church” which dominates the whole picture.
“Open Veins” was a revelation. No wonder everybody was talking about it! I was expecting to be drowned in yet another boring piece of theory. But this book was different. Galeano’s story-telling skills had turned Latin America’s history of cruelty and violence into a gripping narrative. I shed tears for the natives of Haiti who committed suicide in groups upon realizing their grim fate. I could not stop thinking of how they had poisoned their own children rather than have them suffer at the hands of their white oppressors. I was horrified to find out that the unsuspecting natives of the continent had fallen prey to the epidemic diseases brought by the Europeans, and that the small pox alone had killed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. I could not believe my eyes when I read that half of the population of America died from contamination after their first contact with white men.
I grasped the scope of colonialism when I found out about how many Bolivian miners had to die with rotten lungs so that the Europeans may consume cheap tin. Galeano, with his skilled language and vivid depictions, took my hand and led me through the graveyard in Catavi, “where blind people solicit pennies to pray for the dead, a forest of white crosses stands over small graves scattered among the dark headstones of adults.” I learned in terror that “of every two children born in the mining camps, one dies soon after opening its eyes.” The other one is bound to become a miner when he grows up, and “before he is thirty-five,” Galeano says, “he will have no lungs.”
At times, I was entertained by the way Galeano tells the stories of the European conquerors trying to adjust to their new lives in America, particularly the ones that talk about how they failed to handle their newly acquired wealth. I still remember the episode of the two señoras that engage in a contest to show off their income from the mines in Potosi. In a lively fashion, Galeano tells the reader how they used to end their lavish fiestas by throwing their silver service and golden vessels from their balconies to be picked up by lucky passersby. I also appreciated the author’s subtle humor, as in the case of a former Jesuit church, turned into a movie theatre in the 70’s, which advertises its forthcoming attraction as “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
In Galeano I found a great story-teller. Thirty years after my first encounter with “Open Veins,” I am still of the same opinion. However, the book does not owe its value only to the author’s narrative skills. To me what is more important even today is that “Open Veins” made me see the world under a different light. Not only did I get an insight into the mechanism of global capitalism and imperialism, I started suspecting that our veins in Turkey might be “open” as well.
I began to understand that our new liberal government is actually a continuation of the previous system. I got a glimpse of the fact that the ideological discourse of the military intervention, which rested on the establishment of law and order in the country, served the internationalization of capital. The military dictatorship acted as a facilitator to implement neoliberal policies in Turkey, which would initiate privatization and enable multinational companies to get hold of the resources of the country. It would also mean the silencing of the workers’ and socialist movements as well as the rise of a more conservative and religious society.
Lying in my bunk bed reading “Open Veins,” I felt for the first time that things might not get better in Turkey—that the apparent winds of freedom may in fact be poisonous. And indeed, they had already started smelling of corruption.
I still admire Galeano for that valuable insight. Though it would have felt better if he were proved to be wrong.
As for the book club, I never went to the meeting. Because the boy with the thick mustache started dating the girl in the upper bunk the very same week I bought “Open Veins.”