Insisting on Turkey

This text was published in Turkish on on June 9, 2023; translated into English by Efe Levent.

As a child, when I read about “those who were exiled” in history books, I didn’t understand why this was a punishment akin to a prison sentence. When I got old enough to read and understand Nazım Hikmet’s poetry, the coin finally dropped. We have a tradition of either imprisoning or exiling, if not killing, those who love this country very much. We have a murky past and present, full of people who held onto hope by daring to “stay free” in prison or chose a different type of captivity, far away from here, to avoid being a political hostage. 

I first heard the name Pınar Selek from Oktay, the second-hand bookseller across the street from my high school. When he learned that a documentary was being filmed about him, he told me his life story, of how he used to live on the streets and how he met Pınar while working as a scrap paper collector. Around that age, I realised that if I had to choose a role model whom I would aspire to transform myself into, that person had to be Pınar. With Pınar Selek’s story, an idea began to calcify in my mind. I did not want to abandon Turkey for as long as possible. 

This was the only way my vivid imagination could deal with the possibility of not returning from the place I would go to. Because exile is one of the three futures on the menu for those who are committed to staying true to their ideals, I realised that for some reason, this possibility frightened me more than death or incarceration. I was studying at a French high school and I was the only one in my school to not apply to any universities abroad. Of course, Turkey was a little different back in the 2000s when I was having all these apprehensions. Not everybody wanted to leave yet. At that age, I accepted that a principled stance of defending not only the mainstream values but also the rights of all minorities would have a heavy cost. I entered a rapid process of transformation. As a White Turk, I drifted away from the unblemished path established for me at the first fork, knowing fully well that there may be dangerous cliffs at the end. The stories I learned hadn’t just stoked the flames of my rebellion, I started to yearn for Turkey while in Turkey. I held tightly to this powerful idea that had to remain unsaid. Each time I voiced it, I was ridiculed by everyone for swimming against the current. With every passing day, the little anxiety in my mind transformed into the everyday lives of ordinary people. Today, most people I love are living in some other country. I am writing this essay to break the silence of the desire to stay, in a period when everyone is talking about leaving. 

I want to live with integrity in my country and die with dignity. Yes, after the election in which Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has failed to become the 13th president, one of my biggest dreams is to pursue my life within the most rudimentary boundaries. This is the plain, simple and hard truth that’s so difficult to digest. The day after the elections as I write these lines, my desire to live is the one thing I hold onto for my dear life.

There and Back Again

The week following the May 14th Presidential elections everyone was chanting “Go, let’s go, we are going, we have to go.” After the second round of the elections, it seemed a social agreement was signed to cement the notion. In the middle of all these conversations about why everyone wants to leave, I feel like playing Gidesim Gelmiyor (I Don’t Feel Like Leaving) by Reyhan Karaca all over the place and proclaim loudly my reasons for coming back and my insistence on staying.  

Since my childhood, the idea of living abroad was presented to me as the most ideal living conditions a person from Turkey could attain. As the years went on, I failed to be convinced by this argument, even though contemporary conjecture conspired to support it more and more. But by the end of the 2010s it became meaningless to support the idea of remaining put. The time to leave had come, even if just for one year. I have completed my graduate applications and got accepted by the program I coveted the most, which was known among us by the abbreviation “master genre” or by its proper name “Social Sciences- Gender with Social and Political Change: Transnational Perspectives,” a name difficult to pronounce but ornamenting my dreams. But because I didn’t have a sociology background I was told that I would be accepted not for one but for two years. I recalculated my budget fit for studying outside of Paris for one year. I was barely gonna make ends meet, but it was possible. I couldn’t reject this opportunity. 

As a person who was afraid of migrating, this program which studied migration, class, decolonization, social movements, Latin America, and the Middle East was a bit like rubbing salt on my wounds. During this period I strengthened my understanding of what privilege and intersectionality mean. Both the readings I have conducted and the sudden feeling of “losing the ground beneath my feet” have calcified these concepts for me. 

There was a lot I had to experience for the first time. I had to undertake all the house chores, pay rent, make a living, carry out my entire life in a language that’s not my native tongue, understand and conduct bureaucratic procedures I am unfamiliar with, not being able to return home without paperwork that takes months even though I had money. Through all this, I had to make up for my shortcomings and show solidarity to Turkish nationals whose situations were much worse. I tried working a few times, but having to spend inordinate amounts of labor with very little financial compensation obstructed my already intense educational program. My mental and physical health began to deteriorate. I lacked the funds, so I drank less frequently but because of my psychological state, I began to get perilously drunk with increasing frequency. I was often enraged and quiet. I was constantly falling asleep. A loneliness I had never felt before began to swallow me. I tried and failed, so I gave up trying. I mustered barely enough strength to submit my thesis and graduate. My last six months were spent counting the days until it was all over. Putting myself together after my return took longer than the time I spent there. 

Of course, I miss buying discount mozzarella at 25 cents, excellent wine at affordable prices, and fresh croissants from the bakery, etc. But these don’t compare to my tears of joy upon finding dill in the “Turkish neighborhood” or the exuberance  I felt upon settling for Greek Feta in the absence of the variety I am accustomed to from home. 

Besides, contrary to expectations, I almost never felt comfortable walking in the streets of France. I had to put up with catcalls, stalkers, and street harassment every time I returned home. I learned the hard way that your academic competency in a language or having a flawless accent are not enough for self-defence in that language. For the first time in my life, I had to stay quiet in the face of harassment over and over. One day I got punched by a homeless person with an unarticulated rage. When my voice got hoarse during an illness, I went to the pharmacy to buy cough drops, and the pharmacist tried to flog some overpriced honey because I did not have a doctor’s prescription. I got into countless quandaries because I was unable to withdraw money outside of business hours. I was mocked on occasion for my incompetence by French people, who did not know that information and provisions that were readily available to them were out of reach for foreigners. I had to wait in line on my feet multiple times for four to five hours for very simple procedures. I witnessed first-hand that as a privileged immigrant with legal status, I had to endure problems that locals didn’t even know existed. 

Many people in France I crossed paths with in this period could not establish a relationship with Turkey like they used to, couldn’t find things that belonged to them there, and wanted to draw a new roadmap. I understood, supported, and admired them. On the other hand, I tried to experience something I did not want, and returned home having confirmed that it is not for me. Upon my return, I had to put up with teasing remarks about how I failed to make a home for myself in France, a reality that’s alternative to my word. Sometimes I was told “Don’t worry, you can always try again” without even considering my wishes. Sometimes it was assumed that I returned not because I wanted to but because my partner was here. The ones who never raised a question or made a judgement were friends who had already experienced migration. Even though there had been some improvements in their living conditions, they knew the cold face of the troubles involved better than anyone. And in the last five years, people wanted to leave Turkey so badly that every time the matter came to the difficulties of migration they felt irritated and tried to shut us up. About three months after leaving Turkey, I had the opportunity to meet the “You don’t live here, you are in Europe, don’t voice an opinion on this” rebuttal. It hurt all the more when subjects that we could have surmounted over two glasses of raki if I were in Turkey had inflated beyond proportion due to the distance.

This reflex to shut down is a lot like parents who try to gloss over their child’s depression by saying “You should be grateful, you have everything.” Not being able to talk does not solve the problem, what’s more, it drives migrants into loneliness. As the people of a nation with so many emigrants, we need to talk about the fact that not everyone who leaves will find happiness, and that there are thousands of migrants ready to come back as soon as conditions improve only slightly. We need to talk about this right now so that people who have lost all hope of coming back do not drown under the misguided perception that leaving solves all problems, and that people who can’t leave even though they want to do not have to consider this as the result of their inadequacy.  

Turkey’s Diaspora

The belief that the highest achievement for a person from Turkey is to move to the West has strengthened tremendously due to the changes the country has gone through in the last twenty years. A procedure of manufacturing consent has integrated itself into the dynamics of exile in Turkey. Everyone who is successful, qualified and open-minded is expected to leave the country of their own accord. The idea that everyone who leaves does so because they want it a lot has been engraved into our minds, perhaps purposefully. Not desiring to leave Turkey if you have the means to do so is being coded as a form of dullwittedness. 

Being abroad has a psychology of its own. You constantly find yourself clinging on to things that remind you of home. From arts and culture to eating habits, you find yourself facing a parody of your own existence in Turkey.  My home routine was built upon things like menemen mixture, tarhana, and watching reruns of Dadı, Tatlı Hayat or Okan Bayülgen’s shows from before 2010. At some point, the end of the tunnel reached all the way to watching Serdar Ortaç’la Hep Beraber. My housemate at the time was addicted to Büyük Ev Ablukada. Another close friend was moaning poğaça after every all-nighter. I turned into one of those aunties who brings mezzes to picnics and gets upset at those who don’t like it and none of this was under my control.

When abroad, people you never get together with in Turkey become a part of your life with the difficulties they are going through. The boundaries between the desire for solidarity and a sense of comradery that doesn’t necessarily prioritise solving problems begin to dissolve. Those who are slightly better off share their houses, financial resources, and friends circle with those who are undergoing difficulties. Everything that happens in Turkey affects your life over there. At moments of tremendous crises endemic to your country like the February 6th earthquake, you find yourself in the middle of a whole other experience of alienation. Some troubles can only be shared with your compatriots. The troubles of those with whom you wish to share your own troubles start to become your own troubles. In the end, this is what solidarity looks like. But migration in itself is difficult and abrasive. You find yourself listening to heavy stories of trauma, and stumbling in the middle of realities that make your own seem trivial. 

There is a very large diaspora from Turkey in this day and age. It is time to discard the idea that leaving is undiluted success, remaining is a sign of weakness. There are hundreds of thousands of qualified people who chose to stay or have to stay for a variety of reasons. After every political fiasco, those with the least impactful contribution to the various struggles feel the need to declare “I can leave anyway,” while the idea of emigrating takes root as an apolitical reflex. There is an attitude which prevents those who have heeded the individualistic call to “run, save yourself” from voicing the difficulties they faced.The same attitude also prevents those who remained from hoping for change in Turkey. This attitude erases the tenacity of those who remain and the difficulties encountered by those who leave. Even worse, it makes everyone forget that not everyone will have the means to leave. Those who don’t speak a foreign language, those who don’t have access to a diploma from a well-known university, those who are poor, those whose visas are rejected without a plausible reason, and those who can only practice their profession in Turkey are faced with reactions that place us in the “opposing side.”

Whereas the conditions have changed enormously in the last few years. Not everyone who wants to leave gets to leave, nor does everyone who wants to stay gets to stay. Not being able to lay claim to Turkey makes life difficult for those who leave as well as those who stay. We have, to a great extent, lost our authority to decide on our mobility. The upcoming period is going to be particularly different for the queer community. We are at a juncture at which emigration will increase without a solution. This is why I believe Velvele’s “Talking about Migration” dossier, of which my own essay is a part of, contributes to making a crucial need visible. Through this essay, I too am disposing of a weight I had to carry alone due to lack of an environment to debate this issue. As queer people who had to leave their homes and homelands, we have to listen to each other, understand, bring together our grief, and share our solitude. I hope this essay and other pieces, interviews, and narratives will provide the building blocks to lay the groundwork for a debate we really need. 

Sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung with funds of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of the Federal Republic of Germany. The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of Velvele and does not necessarily reflect the position of RLS”.


  • Hazan Özturan

    Bisexual, feminist and autistic activist. Co-founder of Merhaba! Spektrum and Özgür Eller Autism Initiative. Also editor, writer and film critic. Galatasaray University and Paris Cité University Alumni.

  • Efe Levent

    Former anthropologist and founder of Mangal Media, a platform for writers and artists in the periphery.