This is a story of uncertainty, fear, being ostracized and persecution. The story that began seven years ago is still ruining thousands of lives. The story that has found its place in olive oil as a symbol.
The amygdala in human brain, the collection of cells responsible for giving meaning to strong emotions like fear and pleasure, automatically activates the fight-or-flight response when you are threatened and afraid. The amygdala, which is also known as lizard brain, generates fear to steer us away from danger in times of uncertainty, attention, change and struggle.
The fierce government crackdown on the opposition, particularly the Gülen Movement, began following the corruptions scandals in late 2013, leading to removal of four ministers from Erdoğan’s cabinet. The purges of dissidents did not happen at once of course but were extended over a long period of time. First, the members of the judiciary and the police officers who carried out the graft probes into the top politicians of the Turkish government were targeted and they were put in jails. With the attempted coup on 15th of July, tens of thousands of people were being summarily removed from their government jobs in droves.
The uncertainty awaiting people during this bizarre time was two-fold. Especially for those who happen to have slightest links with the Gülen Movement or involved in the Kurdish political movement. The association was so vaguely defined. Anyone who had ever had a banking account in the bank owned by the Gülen Movement, went to their colleges or prep schools, contributed to their charity campaigns was a Gülenist, thus a terrorist. In some extreme cases, having social relationship with people from the Movement was enough. These people could be labelled as terrorists at any time. The purge lists were being published at late nights at the official gazette. What can be worse and scarier than searching for your name in the middle of night. The scale of fear can better be understood by the collapse of the website of the official gazette on the ominous nights of the government decrees.
The fact that purges were happening in waves, once in a couple of months or sometimes even more frequently, was making the situation for the “potential victims” intolerable. This was the case also for myself and my colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The persecution to follow afterwards, some call it as social genocide, was a nightmare for us. You could be arrested, separated from your family, tortured, raped with batons, and even be killed in custody. Quoting Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, people suffer more often in imagination than in reality. Therefore, visualizing the worst-case scenarios in detail was aggravating our pain.
However, despite the scandalous visuals of tortured soldiers in custody in the first few days after the coup, most of my colleagues serving abroad still wanted to keep their hopes alive for the judicial process. After all, they were abroad during the coup. So, they returned to Turkey with clear conscience when they were summoned to the headquarter. Expect for a few suspicious men who forecasted what was about to happen to them if they ever return. Time proved them right.
In my own case, I continued to work as a diplomat at the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv until two years after the coup. As someone who had seen what happened to my colleagues in Turkey, we decided to not to return to Turkey in case I was suspended from my job. During my stay in Tel Aviv until September 2018, the waves of purges continued unabated. So, we packed some of our personal effects to be prepared to leave the country as soon as possible in such a scenario. Living in such conditions was really excruciating, yet bearable when thinking about what could happen after being dismissed. No wonder that my lizard brain was active and causing so much fear in that uncertainty.
On the other hand, at every wave, some of my friends were being dismissed. Some of them were later being arrested. So much pain. Knowing that my superiors were actively hunting and informing on their own colleagues whom they considered as Gülenists, even showing sympathy for the dismissed colleagues in their presence was not possible for me. While I was hiding my pain for the persecuted colleagues and friends before my superiors who were the ears and eyes, as well as the enablers of the Erdoğan’s regime, I had to continue working with them and act as if nothing unusual was happening.
My days in Tel Aviv ended without a bad “surprise”. Conversely, I passed the exam in third place and was promoted to First Secretary position in May 2018.Coupled with the decrease in the frequency of purges, I started to pay less attention to the possibility of being abruptly dismissed. Uncertainty became a norm for me. Not long after, I had to face the bitter reality. Upon my appointment to Ankara in September 2018, I started to work at the Center for Strategic Affairs of the Foreign Ministry. Because mostly those who were later to be suspended were being placed at this department, my fears relapsed.
This time, we were in Turkey. There was nothing to be prepared for. One cannot be prepared for being stuck in an elevator after all. The elevator for us was Turkey and there was no way escaping it. Therefore, we decided to have normal life as much as we could. We rented a nice apartment and bought a decent car. The apartment was furnished of course, as we did not want to invest in things that we might have to get rid of suddenly. That was in a way showing people that we are not expecting a “bad surprise”. This sounds strange but it was important not to send wrong signals to the volunteer spies of the regime.
You have heard many things so far, but olive oil. During our stay in Ankara, without knowing what could happen and when, we tried to settle. We bought kitchen utensils, carpets, sheets, cleaning supplies, food, etc. After a few mishaps, we managed to connect internet to our house. And then we had the best news of our lives. My wife was pregnant. Another reason to settle, eat healthy and act like a normal person (wherever that means), while also worrying about our future.
Therefore, we ordered 20 liters of genuine olive oil from Hatay. This was really a strange feeling, as a few months ago we were buying meat sufficient only for a short period of time in Tel Aviv. We were called by the person who sent us the olive oil. He told us that the can’s cap was loosened, and so much olive oil leaked in the trunk of his car. Later we saw that only one liter leaked. We were sorry for his car, but happy for having the olive oil.
The olive oil was top-notch quality. You could just drink it, as people say in Turkey. However, later we came to think that taking a pleasure in that was not something for us, especially at a time when dismissed judges or bureaucrats were selling olive oil in local bazaars to earn their lives. As if the leak into the trunk of the car was a sign.
A few weeks later, I was abruptly suspended. The news was broken by an ex-colleague, Sinan, with whom we worked for two years until late hours. He did not bother to give a reason for my suspension, let alone expressing his sympathy. He was the chair of the human resources department all the while when hundreds of diplomats were purged.
Anyhow, we had to leave everything behind, including the olive oil. Everything aside, it was the olive oil we were upset about. Just like all our belongings, we took the olive oil to a friend. A true friend who opened his doors when all others turned their faces. We left the olive oil as a gift when we left the country short after.
During our warm conversations, the olive oil was coming up and I was joking about my sadness. It was his wish that I write about the olive oil if I was ever to write my memoirs. That olive oil has now become a symbol of my fears and hopes in those difficult days. The days when you risk the lives of your family and unborn child for freedom.