By Elif Shafak
13 Nov 2019
Fatih is known as one of the most conservative districts of Istanbul. Last week some people in the area saw a note attached to the door of a flat: “Beware! There’s cyanide inside. Call the police. Don’t enter.” Whoever wrote the note had clearly wanted to protect the neighbours from a toxic substance. When the police arrived they found four bodies – two men, two women, aged between 48 and 60. The dead were all from the same family, the Yetişkins, who had been residents of the neighbourhood for decades. The siblings had, according to friends, also lived in unemployment and penury – the wages of one sister, a music teacher, used to keep creditors at bay. Unable to find jobs to cover the family’s growing debts, they’d been battling depression and anxiety.
“They were beautiful people. They did what they did because of poverty,” said a local shopkeeper who had known them for a long time. Hours after the bodies were taken to a mortuary, the electricity company cut off the power in the apartment due to months of unpaid bills.
The family’s apparent suicide generated a furious discussion across Turkey, and like almost everything else, became immediately politicised and saturated with conspiracy theories. The price of electricity has been raised 10 times in Turkey this year to an overall increase of 57%, while youth unemployment is running at 27%. Yet pro-government voices in the media and on social media batted away suggestions of any connection to poverty and unemployment, accusing liberals and democrats of manipulating public opinion and tarnishing Turkey’s reputation in the world. A columnist in the daily newspaper Sabah complained about a sinister campaign by opposition parties and BBC Turkish to connect the suicides to the state of the economy.
Fuat Oktay, Turkey’s vice-president, declared: “They said it was because of hunger – that’s not true. We do not have any information that the deaths were due to poverty.” Meanwhile the pro-government Islamist newspaper, Yeni Akit, argued that Richard Dawkins was the reason why the siblings had ended their lives. A copy of The God Delusion was found on a bookshelf in the flat. “An atheist book has dragged 4 people into suicide!” the headline read.
The next day a family in Antalya was found dead at home, suspected also of having taken an overdose. The children, who were nine and five years old, were found in the living room still holding hands. The father had been unemployed for a long time and left a note explaining the difficulties he had been going through. This time no one in the pro-government media blamed the books the family had been reading. Instead it was suggested that sales of cyanide should be banned for several months at least.
Since 2012 there has been a dramatic increase in suicide rates in Turkey, a country where suicide is, in general, regarded as “a sin”. In 2018, according to official statistics, 3,161 people ended their lives. The suicide rate is now at eight people a day, and dozens more attempt it. In 2016 Amir Hattab, a Syrian refugee who managed to escape the war and devastation with his three children, lifted a heavy manhole cover in an Istanbul side street and jumped into the city’s sewer system, thus ending his life. His suicide was recorded by security cameras nearby.
Suicide is always an immensely difficult and sensitive issue, and we never fully know why a person ends their own life. But in a country where there is no freedom of speech and no room for a sensible, nuanced debate on anything, the reaction to these cases has been ugly, to say the least. After the initial shock of the tragedy, what followed was extremely judgmental and politicised coverage in which the victims were accused, shamed and sentenced one last time. Stripped of any empathy or context the suicide was also regarded as a rebellion against God, and an act of defiance against the authorities and the existing order.
Those who write critically about the socioeconomic factors behind the dramatic rise in Turkey’s suicides are immediately accused of being “betrayers”, and of having a “hidden agenda”. There are now even suggestions that Turkey should enact punitive laws against academics and economists who make gloomy predictions about the Turkish economy.
Two Bloomberg reporters went on trial recently, charged with spreading “false information” and trying to sabotage the financial system with their articles. And 36 people have been taken to court for posting social media jokes about the plunge of the Turkish lira. In one of his poems Bertolt Brecht once asked: “What times are these / When to talk about trees is almost a crime / For in doing so we remain silent about so many horrors.”
Many of Turkey’s suicide victims are buried in the Cemetery of the Companionless in Kilyos, on the outskirts of Istanbul, a place I wrote about in my novel 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World. Many of the graves have no headstones, only numbers. The Yetişkin siblings were initially going to be buried there as well. Their friends lacked the legal authority to give them a proper burial, and relatives were reluctant. After extensive media coverage the relatives granted permission to the friends of the deceased, and the four siblings will not after all be interred anonymously in the Cemetery of the Companionless. They will have a tombstone.
When we think about recession, unemployment and poverty we primarily think of numbers. But every number represents a real human story. Times of financial crisis and political instability have a devastating impact on how people view not only the present but also their hopes of a better future. Yet there is something else that is as important yet rarely spoken about: the loss of dignity. Whenever and wherever democracy is shattered to pieces, and human rights, freedom of speech, diversity and pluralism are trampled on, self-worth is also taken away from people. But what happens to the fabric of a society when human dignity is destroyed after democracy has been destroyed?
• Elif Shafak is a novelist and political scientist
Original Headline: Family suicides in Turkey speak of a society that has lost hope
Source: The Guardian