Ece Temelkuran

I was supposed to be writing about a refugee in Istanbul. Then she disappeared. Most of them do disappear now and then. Shortly thereafter, I had to disappear. Therefore, I am now the subject matter of this text, although I am not a refugee, but rather in self-imposed exile, or a seemingly self-imposed exile. Does the terminology matter if you constantly feel the heartache of that Syrian woman, talking to a journalist on the Turkish coast upon her arrival last summer, saying, ‘I wish I was dead so my pride would not be broken like this’?

Pride is the one basic need of an exile or a refugee that the victim must supply on her own. And there is no refugee centre or NGO that can help you with that. One finds out about this fact by learning that living is far more complicated than not dying.


Is there an honourable way of going through the reality of being obliged to leave your home? Or is the matter of pride only the luxury of those who can eloquently whine about it? What happens to those exiles who do not have fancy words as I do? They become numbers. Numbers are crossing the Mediterranean now. And by the way, some numbers are drowning in the sea. Look, here they are! Remaining numbers are making it to the shore. Finally surviving numbers are applying for ‘papers’. These numbers have to live now. They have to recover their names.

There is a page on the UNHCR web page called ‘Refugees Who Have Made a Difference’. There are only twenty profiles listed. So the thousands of others, all those names that have drowned in the ocean of numbers remain anonymous, even if they survived the journey. The ones today who succeed in crossing the Mediterranean are obliged to go on another difficult journey to become people.

I amazed by the fact that people do not obsess about the possibility of coming across a dead body on a Mediterranean beach while swimming on their summer holidays, of touching those refugees who “could not make a difference”.

I am not a number. I have my name printed on books in several languages. I have people asking me ‘What title do you prefer in front of your name? Author or author and journalist?’ But even I have become a memorized paragraph now: ‘who lost her job due to the political oppression and who had to leave Turkey’ etc. This little paragraph I am dragging along supposedly tells the most important thing about me, with the rest of me to be supplied on demand for detailed enthusiasts.


Times of oppression create the spectacular oppressor and then the spectacular victim. Now I am supposed to step into the shoes of this person called “the victim”. It is a full-time job, a non-stop act. Like a refugee waiting for piece of bread with a stupid ticket in her hands, I should be ready to perform my victimhood whenever the act is demanded on the intellectual stage. Now I am obliged to tell a story, but only that one particular, stupid story of my sufferings that I hold like a ticket for my passage to the civilized world. The role fits me so little that at some point in London, at a Front Line Club book event, when a woman from the audience holding her hands together with the graciousness of the Pope washing the feet of the poor asks me, ‘So what CAN WE do for you?” I answer, “I feel like a baby panda that you are trying to adopt via website!’

Nobody laughs.

The victim should be the victim but nothing else. Otherwise it is confusing for the audience. Be a number. Be a paragraph.

I remember this man from Somalia I met in a refugee camp on the Tunisian-Libyian border. It was right after Gaddafi had been killed and I was in the middle of the desert interviewing these people, all from Black Africa. I was asking the same questions over and over again, “How much water can you use daily?” ‘How much food are you getting?’ etc. And this man, smiling the most sarcastic smile I have ever seen in my life, asked me in perfect English, ‘So you don’t consider the possibility of me having a CV, do you?’ He was kind and mature enough to smile in a friendly way when he saw that I was mortified because of my shallowness. Now I imitate the same smile to audiences when they are confused by my silly jokes that exceed the cliché of the suffering exile.


I have started doing normal things that I never actually did before. The supermarket Billa in Zagreb is giving away tiny stickers. If you collect enough stickers you can buy a cooking pan for half price. I neither need the pan nor have the patience to collect stamps. On top of it I never had the decisiveness to pursue such ambitions, which actually need a lot of determination. But since I am pretending that these are not extraordinary times, I am doing the normal thing and buying the pan with the stickers, along with the middle-class entrance pass, ‘the supermarket loyalty card’. I am not only a victim now. I am a distinguished member of the Billa supermarket crowd. I keep the card in the see-through part of my wallet, covering my Turkish license. There you go, I am more normal than the most normal. I have a brand new, lighter form of identity now. I am a Billa person, not an exile.


My new identity is that I am now a citizen of ‘Screen-Nation’. This is a supra-nation with citizens of chaotic countries who are spread to Western countries. We look like new-generation Celtic warriors with our flickering blue faces glued to the screens of computers, TVs or our smart-phones. Our physical being in different countries but our unquenchable interest is in the news that comes from our country of origin.

The TV is telling news about Turkey. After hours of unblinking concentration I finally manage to tear my face from the screen and lean out from the window to smoke. From my belly down I am in the room, from my belly up in Zagreb. An absent-minded magician forgot to bring my pieces back together after cutting me in two.


One of the things I am learning is that arrogance is the best remedy for broken pride. If they break your pride you put lots of arrogance balm on it and in the end you become a different person, a person you might have hated at home. I already know how one can mistake her wounds for her organs and unknowingly use the wounds as if they are healthy organs of her body. This is a different version of that. I’ve added an organ to myself, a clumsy prosthetic piece of arrogance. I am doing this in reaction because arrogance is the one thing they don’t let you have if you are an exile. You are obliged to be more humble than you have ever been because you need help. So I am claiming the forbidden and being arrogant nonetheless. It makes everybody angry, even the most tender souls who are trying to help you. It would have made me angry, too, but this is me, trying to find a way of existence different than any other exile who has ever wandered on this planet. I say, ‘I prefer not to’ and explore a Bartleby-style exile, as if there is such a thing. It makes them angry and sooner or later they tell you that. Then I am happy because anger is the one and only emotion that can save you from falling into the pigeonhole of ‘victim’ in their eyes. And I know this is as stupid as the supermarket stickers. But then I am trying to find a different way, probably like millions of others have. I claim a better defeat.


I have always been compassionately furious with Walter Benjamin. “You fool, how could you be so late to leave? Being the genius how could you, I mean how could you not see it coming?” I am not asking the question anymore. Because here I am now, out of the country. Not too late, on the contrary, clever enough to even be too early. However you still poison yourself. Not with the same poison that Benjamin used to commit suicide on the Spanish border maybe, but with a variety of different ones. Invisible poisons they are.

Lately Stefan Zweig, who committed suicide in 1942, is getting on my nerves. Why didn’t you just grit your teeth and bear it for three more years, until it would have been all over? But then I know; in order to survive exile you cut a piece from your heart. Your heart is a new sculpture, now longing for the rock that it came out of. Leaving home is an irreversible act. Even when your home calls you back with loving arms, your heart is now missing the piece able to hear her voice. Her voice only incites a phantom ache of the missing part so that you know your heart is no longer whole.

I now understand how and why a person can commit suicide. I am not the type though. But just in case, I am taking my Vitamin Bs. They are the new anti-depressants and available without prescription, therefore convenient for the exile.


The articles I write for international media, every single one of them, appear with the picture of the Turkish president Erdogan. All of a sudden we are a duo, like Goliath and David or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. His face is becoming the face of my country and my name an inseparable piece of his face on newspaper pages. I find this funny somehow. Not for me but for him. Though I am pretty sure he is not laughing when he reads what I write.


I am also pretty sure all the intellectuals of the world might soon become refugees if the global political insanity keeps overrunning the planet at this speed. I am listening to Meryl Streep’s speech during the Hollywood Foreign Press Awards. She cries when she tells about the crudeness and the cruelty of Trump. All the people in the world who are capable of feeling the concern are touched. I am as well. And the next day Trump’s response is that Streep is ‘overrated’. When our eyes are still wet because of Streep’s speech the vulgar response catches us off guard. This is a moment symbolic of the current problem in the world. We are losing hold of the fundamental agreement that if you speak the language of the human, the human in front you will by default respond in human language. So how can you escape such a collision of values? Where do you take refuge when the entire world decides to become a bully? Who is an exile when all countries become lands of vulgarity? Soon we will all be Syrian.


A few years ago, when I again had to be out of the country, I had to ask myself ‘What is a country?’ My answer was that the country is a table and the abstract land that which surrounds that table. The country is a moment. It is the moment when you joke without calculating and your friends at the table laugh without need of further explanation about the references of the joke. When one says she misses the country, one misses that moment at that very table, rather than the vast land around it or the eternity that surrounds that very moment.

Now my jokes are nervous because I am creeping around the endless plateau of English. It is a sneaky language. It deceives you with the illusion of knowing it, and then at that very moment when you feel confident and relax, it trips you up and pokes you with the tip of its sword to remind you that you are a commoner who will not be accepted in the Court, ever. The members of my table are already scattered in different countries anyway. In different countries, in different lines at supermarket counters, they are on their own thinking whether to say yes or no to the person at the counter who asks every time ‘Would you like to have the supermarket card?’

The people who once sat at my table were artists, musicians, writers and actors, who in different countries are now trying to figure out the practicalities of a new country, while deciding whether to make a spectacle out of their victimhood through art. Every one of us now has a new table of her or his own in a different land. My table is a small black one that I bought at Ikea. And just like Thor Heyerdahl once built Kon-Tiki, I built it myself. Heyerdahl and his five friends were trying to prove that people from South America might once have sailed with balsawood rafts to Polynesia to form colonies. With my Kon-Tiki now, as the sole crew on board, I am trying to explore the possibility of crossing these waters of victimhood with my pride intact. If I can, that will prove that people once travelled through interesting times and built colonies on the radiant side of the history.


If I were a story these days of my life could have been the best part. But I am person. How unfortunate.