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Turks Head To Polls With Concerns Over Poverty And Inequality

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 31/10/2015 Nick Robins-Early
ATHENA IMAGE © Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Turkish novelist and essayist Kaya Genc.

Turkish citizens will head to the polls on Sunday to vote in the nation's second election of 2015. The vote takes place just weeks after the worst terror attack in Turkey's history, when deadly bombings blamed on the Islamic State group killed at least 95 people at an opposition rally in October.

Along with the bombings, renewed fighting between Turkey's government and Kurdish PKK militants means that security concerns have taken center stage in the elections.

Yet Turkey is facing a host of other, crucial challenges, including an economy that has been flagging for years and tensions over poverty and inequality. While analysts and observers predict how the election will affect President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party's hold on the country, they may be missing the nuance of what the elections mean to the average Turk.

The WorldPost spoke with Istanbul-based novelist and essayist Kaya Genc to learn about his perspective on the upcoming vote. In a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera, "Poverty in Orhan Pamuk's Turkey," Genc argued that Sunday's snap election provides the perfect opportunity to discuss acute income inequality in Turkey -- and explained how literature plays a role in publicly addressing the country's social challenges. 

You write that that inequality has become a major challenge in Turkey. What difficulties does the country face in that regard? 

In the first decade of this century, Turkey witnessed an economic boom: This meant more opportunities and jobs for the poor. The boom did little to increase things like worker rights or the number of memberships to worker unions; on the contrary, the more job opportunities we had, the more open to exploitation the market had become.

Incomes of the poor increased, but in an unequal way. Mevlut, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk's latest novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, experiences this inequality acutely -- he rises in society economically, but people who came to Istanbul with him during the same years rise more quickly than he does, because they are more ambitious and care less about things like religion, personal ethics or public morals. So inequality is a byproduct of Turkey's economic boom and should be considered alongside the economic conditions in which it appeared.          

Is inequality a topic Turks frequently discuss, despite its absence from politicians' political platforms?

I think people here care about their economic situation more than anything else in the world. The problem is, they don't articulate this interest in economy in the public sphere. All we get from politicians is words on "the clash of life styles in Turkey" or promises like "destroying the backwardness of Turkish people." By this, politicians often mean a forced change in people's lifestyles. I think, in the final weeks of this election, we started hearing more about the economy, which is a positive sign; both Republican and Conservative parties made concrete, detailed economic promises. We will see whether they will be able to keep them if they win the elections.    

Inequality is a byproduct of Turkey's economic boom and should be considered alongside the economic conditions in which it appeared.

How are novelists in the country helping to shed light on this issue?

Latife Tekin had produced an aesthetically daring fictional world based on the lives of the poor in her Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills, which has an excellent English edition published by Marion Boyars. Tekin's style is very poetic and presents the world of the poor as something aesthetically fascinating, rather than as some horrid space one should escape from as soon as possible.

In Orhan Pamuk's A Strangeness in My Mind, the approach towards the lives of the urban poor is more realistic, and Pamuk can be said to have produced an almost Marxist analysis of the material conditions of the poor. His fiction sheds light on the business networks between the urban poor, which have long been invisible for Turkey's middle class fiction readers. The accustomed way of telling stories here had been through the perspective of upper-middle-class intellectuals, civil servants, those with public functions whose job it is to "save the poor from themselves," "enlighten" and "educate" them. We are currently seeing a reversal of this perspective, with new books written in the voice of the poor, where civil servants and the rich sections of the society are seen under a new and less-flattering light.

What’s one major thing the media misses in its coverage of Turkey’s politics and this election cycle?  

Turkish media is fascinated by the international media, and how they represent Turkey's reality in their television coverage or op-ed pages. It is very meta: The main concern here is whether Turkey is "represented truthfully" abroad. From fulfilling basic journalistic functions like fact-checking to more broader issues like editorial integrity, the standards of the press here is in a sad shape.

Columnists represent the poor as empty-headed people scratching their ugly bellies, suffering from malnutrition.

Turkish media is more concerned about how The Economist newspaper in London views the elections in Turkey and what an editor in her Manhattan office thinks about Turkey, than about what people in Turkey's poor neighborhoods may be feeling and thinking. This goes hand-in-hand with a demonization of Turkey's working classes. Columnists represent the poor as empty-headed people scratching their ugly bellies, suffering from malnutrition.

In the early years of the republic, the rural poor used to be represented as cockroaches, ignorant creatures that had to be reformed by the state apparatus by all means. Like "chavs" in British culture, about which Owen Jones wrote an excellent analysis, Turkey's working classes are looked down upon and seen as a problem that needs fixing in the future by enforcers of enlightenment and modernity.  

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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