Shortly before ten o’clock on April 10th, Turkey’s interior minister announced a two-day lockdown that would come into force at midnight. It would be imposed in 31 provinces with the aim of curtailing the spread of COVID-19. In Istanbul, the country’s biggest city, the announcement was met with panic. Crowds of people scrambled for groceries, showing little regard for social distancing. Fistfights broke out in bakeries; customers quarreled in department stores. City officials estimated that the ensuing chaos in the streets would cause a spike in COVID-19 infections. Two hours before the curfew was lifted at midnight on April 12th, the interior minister announced his resignation, admitting that it was a mistake to have hastily called a curfew that startled the nation.
For Hasan Kara, the curfew declaration and ensuing panic were reminders of Turkey’s last successful military coup. Nearly forty years earlier, just after 4 a.m. on September 12, 1980, the Turkish General Kenan Evren announced, “A curfew will come into force from 5 a.m. to quickly ensure safety of life and property.” Twenty-five years old at the time, Kara ran a flower shop in Istanbul and was preparing for bed when the radio began playing military marches. “Those who say they didn’t panic are lying,” he told me recently, “because that night traumatized us all.” Kara’s front door was just ten meters from his flower shop, but after hearing the news he feared stepping outside, so he spent the next 48 hours locked down at home. “If you ventured out, soldiers would lay you on the pavement. They could enter homes without warrants and take anything, or anyone they wanted. Relying on informants, they’d collect activists like packages.”
When the curfew was lifted two days later, the military declared martial law that didn’t end in Istanbul until 1985. During those five years, the junta blacklisted 1,683,000 citizens, arrested 650,000, tried 230,000 in courts, denied passports to 388,000, forced 30,000 to flee abroad, revoked the citizenship of 14,000, killed 171 under torture and executed fifty by hanging.
As COVID-19 has spread pitilessly across the globe, national traumas have resurfaced. In London, it’s been first- or secondhand memories of air raids or backyard bunkers dug during the Blitz; in Paris, recollections of Resistance fighters hiding out in basements as Hitler’s Wehrmacht goose-stepped down the Champs-Élysées. These memories of heroism and collective hardship, of defending the national good against ruthless invaders, offer some relief from the atmosphere of panic and fear that has spread with the contagion. The fears of Istanbulites are different—deeper, and in some respects darker. They are rooted in the repressive powers of their own state; mindsets formed during the 1980 curfew continue to menace the nation forty years on. At the end of The Plague, Albert Camus writes: “The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely … it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing … it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers.” Like Camus’s plague, the trauma of the political curfews remains with us. No wonder that, for a certain generation of Turks, the COVID-19 lockdowns can be seen as a screen for the country’s authoritarian politics. In Turkey, the coronavirus poses a double threat: along with the risk of contagion, there is also the danger that, in trying to control the epidemic, the country will fall victim to its own past.
For all the ways that the 1980 coup and ensuing martial law shaped an entire generation of Turks, the absence of research into personal recollections of that time is striking. In most cases, Turks dealt with the coup by willfully forgetting it. “No one wished to discuss it, even once the danger of arrest had receded,” writes the anthropologist Jenny White, who calls the reaction “mass amnesia.” The journalist Mehmet Ali Birand’s book 12 Eylül Saat: 04:00 remains the finest study of the coup, revealing, among other things, Jimmy Carter’s reaction to the takeover. While enjoying Fiddler on the Roof at the Kennedy Center, President Carter received a call from Edmund Muskie, stepped outside his box seat, thanked his secretary of state for the update on Turkey and tiptoed back inside. A flurry of similar anecdotes, captured from corridors of power, color Birand’s book, which laments the collapse of Turkey’s parliamentary democracy. But it, too, is marked by a willed forgetfulness: just forty of his study’s 320 pages consider the implications of September 12th within Turkey, and those render the coup entirely from the viewpoints of warring generals and politicians. Ordinary Turks, including millions of activists, are at best background silhouettes.
Istanbul, City of the Fearless by Christopher Houston, published in March by the University of California Press, breathes life into these figures. Houston, an anthropologist at Sydney’s Macquarie University, draws on dozens of interviews with activists to unearth many unsettling memories of the 1980 coup and curfew: citizens pushed into lines by shouting soldiers; doors smashed at night by SWAT teams; silent queues for bread formed at the crack of dawn; pigeons and cats taking over city squares. Istanbul’s roads on the morning of the coup, he writes, were “empty, glimmering and still.” Military vehicles had blocked main arteries. All flights were suspended. Cultural activities were banned. Schools and universities were closed. Most houses didn’t have phone lines, so the single news source was TRT, the junta’s mouthpiece.
By that point in 1980, curfews had already been part of Istanbul’s daily life. Two years earlier the government had declared martial law to tackle street violence; the generals, after arresting government MPs, took control of the curfews. Until their end in 1982, standing curfews morphed into a means of psychological warfare. The junta issued them systematically, following a military logic: from midnight to 5 a.m. (September 13, 1980 to March 31, 1981); from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. (April 1, 1981 to June 1, 1981); and from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. (June 2, 1981 to July 31, 1982).
Curfew, a 1984 novel by Adalet Ağaoğlu, a luminary of modern Turkish literature who died earlier today at the age of 91, is among a handful of fictional accounts of that years-long nocturnal confinement. Like Camus, who treated the plague as an allegory for Europe’s occupation by the Nazis, Ağaoğlu finds political symbolism in Turkey’s curfews. Set over three hours preceding a curfew on a humid evening in 1980, her novel interweaves stories of seven characters whose solitude and social and political disorientation are exacerbated by the curfews. We get descriptions of Istanbul’s “dark deserted streets,” and of the windows of closed pastry shops reflecting “the yellowy blue light reminiscent of the wartime blackout.” One heroine attempts to take her own life. But that freedom, too, has vanished: soldiers return her home at gunpoint. She later jumps off a train, the only public space Turks were allowed to inhabit during the lockdowns. One character observes how people don’t get in touch with each other anymore, having “quickly adapted to the curfew.” Sounds of gunfire punctuate another character’s stream of consciousness:
She looks at her wristwatch: It isn’t midnight yet. A long time until the start of curfew. But people retire early nowadays—Gaming tables behind every lighted window … What are we going to do? What will happen?—In the past, it was lovely. Even if we stayed out until three in the morning, I could go home by myself. It never occurred to me to feel afraid—And you can’t get toilet paper anywhere. Everyday, something disappears from the shops, only to come back again the next day at a higher price.
Soon curfews have a language of their own:
He marches down the Boulevard with the same long sprightly strides. There’s a new language to describe our nights. Being caught. Being late. Not making it. Over-nighting. Missing the deadline. Begging for pardon. My clock stopped. The car broke down. The bus was late… A new language which oscillates between running away and being arrested, between staying put and dashing for it. A horror film.
Gündüz Vassaf, a psychologist who wouldn’t be out of place as a character in Curfew, was 34 in 1980, and documented systematic torture in Turkish prisons during the coup. He leaked doctors’ reports of tortured inmates to Anne Burley, the director of the European Region of Amnesty International, and knew that intelligence officers had been surveilling him. Vassaf spent September 12th on Sedef, an island off the coast of Istanbul, with a friend. They woke early and went for a walk, unaware of the morning’s significance. On the shore they noticed a wooden boat approaching them. Vassaf’s lover, his next-door neighbor in Istanbul, was pulling the oars. She told them what had transpired a few hours earlier: a military vehicle, carrying detained activists and intellectuals, had stopped on their street, letting out an officer who knocked on the door of Vassaf’s flat. Receiving no answer, the vehicle went on its way.
“I was terrified, not only for me, but for the whole country,” Vassaf told me over the phone in April. “If they first came after intellectuals like me then this coup was perhaps modeled on 1965’s Indonesian mass-killings.” Like many other activists of his generation, Vassaf was well versed in anti-communist purges, having studied them in anxious anticipation of a Turkish version. He spent the next two days planning his escape. “My friend offered help: he knew people who could smuggle me to Greece.” Meanwhile the curfew changed the island’s power hierarchy. A policeman, Sedef’s sole authority figure, placed a warning sign next to the island’s sole phone booth: SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGES NOT ALLOWED. Fear of foreigners, foreign organizations and foreign ideologies defined post-coup days, Vassaf said. “Like Shostakovich, I’d keep my overnight bag ready by the door, anticipating a knock on the door at night.”
General Evren said he was “forced” to take possession of the administration “in order to reestablish the lost authority of the state,” and he named the events of September 12th “a white revolution.” As arrests and midnight curfews created a sense of helplessness, he made the nation beg for more drastic measures to ensure safety and stability. This made it harder to decide whether the junta caused or relieved insecurity and violence. To a remarkable degree, it did both.
That dynamic is at work again in Turkey. A week after April’s botched curfew, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the helm. A master at reading the public’s mood, he correctly identified the Turkish fears that COVID-19 curfews had triggered. Rejecting his interior minister’s resignation, he swiftly wove a narrative that, typical of his political career, would give him the best of both worlds. By showing that he alone could protect public health, Erdoğan would further centralize his authority.
Erdoğan grew up under curfews. Like millions of Turks of his generation, he abhorred the “national security state” symbolized by uniformed men issuing orders to civilians. But while living through curfews—he was 26 in 1980—he also grew familiar with authoritarianism’s allure. In fact, the attraction of Erdoğan’s brand of politics has been his unrivaled power: nobody in the history of modern Turkey, except the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, has wielded more than Erdoğan.
During his time as prime minister, from 2003 to 2014, Erdoğan outmaneuvered unelected generals and bureaucrats, the unacknowledged rulers of Turkey before him, and most of his election pledges—to bring the military under civilian control and dismantle Turkey’s old militarist order—have borne fruit. Not even General Evren escaped Erdoğan’s purge. He was sentenced to life in prison, in 2014, 34 years after announcing his coup. Demoted to the rank of a private, he died within a year of his sentencing. Younger generals evaporated from public conversations in the following years until a band of officers instigated an uprising in 2016. Their attempted coup became a turning point in Erdoğan’s political career. At 12:45 a.m., on July 16, 2016, soldiers forced a news anchor to read an ultimatum on state television: “Martial law has been declared in Turkey. Until a new announcement, curfews will be in place. It’s essential for citizens to comply with them, for their own safety.” Parents who remembered September 12, 1980 urged their children to stock up on bread, pasta and water. In the ensuing panic Turks queued around ATMs and supermarkets, just as they would on the eve of the first COVID-19 curfew. Yet in the course of that night, Erdoğan’s challenge was to convince the nation to violate the curfew and fill city squares. Thousands followed his lead, attacking tanks, raiding military barracks and crushing the coup in just a few hours.
Once celebrations over the foiled coup ended, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency. He talked, even more insistently than before, in the language of patriots and enemies, calling intellectuals “traitors,” relieving elected mayors from duty and replacing them with loyal placeholders. Borrowing liberally from Evren’s playbook, he contrasted order with chaos, and asked Turks to accept the temporary inconvenience of his assault on their liberties. The state of emergency, he claimed, was a necessary measure to ensure security and safety in the country. In the ensuing four years, he was extremely reluctant to relinquish those temporary powers.
It is unfortunate and worrisome that patterns of autocracy have resurfaced under a different guise in the recent history of Turkey: tactics used to curtail freedoms in 2020 are eerily similar to the ones used in 1980. But there is still, I hope, room for optimism. Last year, Istanbulites responded to Erdoğan’s misuse of power by electing an opposition mayor. And their panic on April 10, 2020 was an understandable, healthy reaction to a hasty but necessary curfew. Over the next six weekends Turks showed little resistance to lockdowns. At the same time, the coup attempt in 2016 is a reminder that Turks can break curfews if they aren’t convinced of their legitimacy. When Erdoğan used the state’s immense powers to annul the results of Istanbul’s mayoral elections in 2019, his candidate of choice suffered an even greater defeat in the second round. This suggests that Istanbulites’ reaction to state-sanctioned control measures has been informed by history, rather than blind obedience to a strongman.
What the COVID-19 period has revealed about Turkey, the government as well as the people, then, is a conflicted state of mind. While people’s reaction to the new curfews was colored by the memory of the old one, there was a “willed forgetfulness” about the harshest aspects of old curfews—the torture sessions, the forced disappearances, the sheer terror of the state. Turks adopted a belief, however hypothetical, that a state once so violent could now be benevolent. At the same time, it was the involuntary resurfacing of these willfully forgotten horrors that led people to the streets when a new generation of revengeful officers once again set out to “quickly ensure safety” of their life and property.
Government power grabs during times of crisis is a fear by no means exclusive to Turkey. In COVID-19’s wake, we’ve seen democracy dismantled further in China, Hungary and India, where autocrats have closed parliaments, greatly increased digital surveillance of their citizens and, like Erdoğan, ruled by decree. This has raised fears about a disproportionate response to the pandemic. For curfew skeptics, things like declaring a state of emergency or deploying the language of a war on COVID-19 run the risk of reducing citizens to survival machines and potential infection sources; some fear that these new draconian emergency powers, from contact tracing to quarantines, may become permanent tools long after the end of the crisis.
But the Turkish experience reminds us of a different, vital detail. While these “unprecedented” lockdowns reactivate a familiar kind of historical trauma, their reception may play a more significant role in their implementation. Alarmed crowds may refuse to stay home—as Turks did during the 2016 coup—and choose to fight oppression, if the curfews have an autocratic rationale. At the same time, they can refuse to listen to those urging a hasty “liberation” of daily life by breaking reasonable curfews, and follow the advice of experts instead. And then there is what’s happened with Black Lives Matter: not that long ago, the position in many places was still extreme caution about COVID-19; now numerous activists, in the face of two kinds of existential threat, feel it is the right thing to do to be out in the street protesting institutional racism, despite the risk. The decisions people make in this period as individual agents and as a collective may overlap or differ; to a large extent it is a matter of personal choice. Perhaps we are overemphasizing the role the state plays in the COVID-19 crisis: in Turkey, at least, most people did the right thing in extraordinary situations that demanded entirely different responses: in one instance, taking shelter at home for public good, and in another, taking to the streets to defend democracy. If the next few months do indeed reveal increased governmental thirst for surveillance around the world, they may more lastingly show how masses can reclaim their agency not by refusing all state-initiated lockdowns but only those that, without good scientific reason, curtail their freedoms.
Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.