Global dictionary of political insanity

Ece Temelkuran

Ten years ago, it was impossible to translate Turkey for the foreign audience. It wasn’t because we, the English speaking Turks, didn’t have the sufficient vocabulary but it was because what we went through politically simply did not make sense to the Western audience. However today, a remainer in Britain, a Trump critic in the U.S. and any Western European who suffers the maddening tricks of right-wing populism can guess the framework that Turkey’s excruciating story took place.

I might have some stories to tell, a few truths to reveal and maybe one or two secrets to share. But then for whom do I write for when writing in a language other than my own? How much of the truth do I have to compromise when simplifying a story in order to tell it to a foreign audience? Unless foreigners are going to truly share the burden of knowing the truth, do they have to understand? When some nations are written off as lost, is there really such a thing as a connected humanity left on the planet? And if my country is now treated as one of those crazy countries where anything can happen, is it still worth trying to write in this language of strangers?

These are only a few of many questions that have kept circling in my mind since I started writing in English three years ago. (“Why?” is a long story that I prefer not to tell because it makes me look like a victim, so I don’t go there.) And now, since the Turkish army started operating on Syrian soil and Turkey is on the front page of every newspaper in the world, and as the interview requests from international media fill my inbox, the same paralyzing questions are there to dismantle my ability to tell a meaningful story. One feels like giving the same answer to all the inquiries for interviews about the current situation: “It is far too complicated.” Kurds, Turks, Syria, Turkey, nationalism, the hesitant opposition in Turkey… These are all too bloody complex for the English-speaking audience. Most of the time, I think, even if I know all the words in English, the vocabulary of the language does not suffice to detangle the madness of our story. Or so I thought until recently.

“The dictionary is based on the hypothesis—obviously an unproven one—that languages are made up of equivalent synonyms,” said Borges once. As soon as one starts wandering within another language, one learns quickly that writing in a foreign language is not only about using different words, but also operating on another planet with a completely different reference system, a different memory and a different way of making sense of the world. Then you understand that what you need to study is not actually the new vocabulary, but the ways of this new planet. It is an endless job that gradually transforms you into a half-formed stranger. Joseph Conrad, who actually was a Polish sea captain; Nabokov, who wrote in English and then took on the impossible burden of translating his work into his mother tongue of Russian; or Beckett, who found English “too cluttered” and instead wrote in French, would know very well what I am talking about. I can imagine all of them feeling like idiots when a too-complicated joke is cracked in a bar or being completely mortified when an infant copies their non-native pronunciation.

Like I was many times, they must have been utterly puzzled even though they are “masters of the language.” More importantly, even if you study the foreigners’ world of references to tell them the story, they do not have a clue about the reference system of your land. So it is almost always a losing game to tell your story to strangers. Or until now it was.

Ten years ago, it was impossible to translate Turkey for a foreign audience. It wasn’t because we English-speaking Turks didn’t have the vocabulary; it was because what we went through politically simply did not make sense to the Western audience. “What do you mean by ‘parallel state’?” “What is ‘deep state’?” “Well, since there was a fair election, why do you complain about democracy deteriorating?” Questions like this that required answers that were too long and complicated dissolved the story and made it impossible to explain what really was happening in Turkey. However, today, a Remainer in Britain, a Trump critic in the US and any Western European who suffers from the maddening tricks of right-wing populism can guess the framework in which Turkey’s excruciating story took place. That is why whenever I am giving a speech in the US or in European countries, I start by saying, “Take Trump, multiply his political skills by 100 and imagine having him for 17 years.” Still a bit beyond imagination, maybe, but at least this gives a bit of a sense of what we have been through. It seems to me that, at this point in world history, our political dictionaries are finally becoming equivalents of one other like they have never been before. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we all now know what political and moral insanity looks like. I am hoping that it is finally easier for the Europeans, Britain included, and the Americans to understand that Turkey did not end up in this situation because it has always been a crazy country, and that Italy, for instance, does not have Salvini due to a certain Mediterranean wind that drives people mad. It gets easier to talk about Turkey when the “mother of parliaments” is losing its manners thanks to Boris Johnson, and when Americans know how it feels when conventional institutions all fail to protect democracy. Now we have a global dictionary of political insanity.

Given these not-so-joyful circumstances, I have to confess that I have a dream: that people of the world will come together through their global dictionary of political insanity to share the inexplicable burdens of living with right-wing populism, and find a global solution to this global problem. I have a practical jumping-off point: Since all the right-wing populist leaders are acting like buddies—tweeting at each other, by-passing every international institution, making late-night calls to one another decide world politics, and so on—why don’t we, the people of the world, connect as well?

Last February, while giving a talk at Frontline Club in London about rising right-wing populism, a proud Brexiteer in the audience raised his hand and said, “You can know Turkey, but you cannot know Great Britain.” He naturally emphasized the word great. I answered by saying, “I don’t have to know Britain—that is your job. But then let me tell you this. Be prepared, you might have Boris Johnson as your prime minister.” A sarcastic giggle circulated through the room. And several months later there it was: Boris Johnson, the PM. I didn’t smirk or say, “I told you so.” I rather felt like saying, “Welcome to my world. We are finally beginning to speak the same language with the same vocabulary of insanity. So let’s use our shared political dictionary and talk now.” And I do say it again. Let’s talk.