Fathers and sons

 

During these recent months in Turkey, fatherhood has played a huge
symbolic value in shaping people’s attitudes 

 

Vangelis Kechriotis

 

I come from Greece, a country where there is a powerful bond between mothers and sons.  But I live in Turkey, where the bond is often stronger between fathers and sons. Turkey’s rigid patriarchal structure and treatment of women, which goes as far as domestic violence and even “honour killings”, are among the reasons for this cultural phenomenon. Aside from the violence meted out against women, another vulnerable section of the population is the young.

In Istanbul on 12 March, a funeral for a 15-year-old boy was attended by hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life and from across the political spectrum. Only die-hard supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who saw the funeral as part of a protest movement against their popular leader, were absent. One of the largest funerals ever in Turkey, the magnitude of the procession was a massive demonstration of solidarity and respect for life and youth rarely seen before in this country.

The boy, Berkin Elvan, was hit in the head by a teargas canister fired by a policeman at 7:00 a.m. as he was walking to the bakery to buy bread for his family. The incident occurred on 16 June 2013 in the aftermath of a police crackdown against protesters in Gezi Park, the Istanbul green space that had become the centre of Turkey’s biggest anti-government protest in decades when the government attempted to raze it in order to build a shopping mall.

Berkin spent the next nine months in a coma before passing away last week. His mother took nine months to bring him into this world. Both his parents spent nine months watching his slow death.

His grieving father, Sami Elvan, appeared on television that evening to demand the government find and punish his son’s killer, who has still not been identified, let alone prosecuted. Though many funeral-goers were members of various political groups, Sami Elvan also insisted that his son not be made a political symbol.

More heartbreak was soon to follow. Burak Can Karamanoğlu, a 22-year-old Erdoğan supporter, was shot in the head the night of Berkin’s funeral in a clash with far-left militants. The grief-stricken father, Halil Karamanoğlu, said he not only mourned his own child, but Berkin too. “Berkin was my son too, for me there is no difference,” newspapers cited him as saying[1].

Erdoğan himself was far less sympathetic. Two days after the funeral, he questioned Berkin’s innocence, telling party faithful at a rally that the boy carried iron marbles and a slingshot in his pocket and was associated with a “terrorist” group, prompting the crowd to boo Berkin’s grieving family[2].

When a journalist asked Sami Elvan how he saw his future, he said: “I have been orphaned from my son. My son should now be going to school. I should be giving him his pocket money every day. I am going to leave a shoebox in front of my door. Every morning I will leave Berkin’s pocket money there, for those who are in need to pick up.”[3]

During a police investigation on 17 Dec., millions of dollars and euros were found in shoeboxes. Since then, the AKP has been ferociously campaigning in municipal elections against the backdrop of an unprecedented corruption scandal. Three ministers’ sons were detained in December and released a few weeks ago; Erdoğan’s son Bilal has not even been taken into custody as the warrant against him was never implemented. Since then, the government has launched a campaign against the religious leader Fetullah Gülen and his Hizmet movement, accusing them of orchestrating the investigations and leaking wiretapped telephone conversations to the media as a campaign to politically discredit the government. Meanwhile, Erdoğan has said that his political opponents who are without children are simply unable to understand the importance of family or the special bond between father and son. On the other hand, he cannot use this argument against Mustafa Sarigül, the CHP candidate for the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul and a potential future leader of the same party, who has taken care so that his son is nominated a candidate for the municipal council at Şişli where he has been a mayor himself so far.

What we do not fully comprehend is the huge symbolic value that fatherhood has played in shaping people’s attitudes in recent months. The current political drama coincided last month with a controversial episode of a hugely popular TV series about Süleyman the Magnificent, the 16th century sultan who was the Ottoman Empire’s longest-ruling sovereign. The episode included a scene depicting the execution of his son, which sparked outrage. Many viewers unaware of the history of Süleyman’s rule were appalled that the venerated leader could have taken his beloved son’s life. One viewer even filed a lawsuit against the long-dead sultan, demanding he be stripped of his title. The fact that it was common for sultans to murder their sons if they challenged their authority was lost on modern viewers[4].

Father figures are very important in Turkish society. The founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal, took the honorary title Atatürk, or “Father of the Turks”. The early 20th century leader had no biological children, either. As a critical election looms, it’s not just ballots Turks are casting. One wonders what kind of fatherhood the Turkish people will endorse. One that holds vigil for a son’s life for nine months, one that murders his son fearing treason or one that uses political power in order to protect his son against corruption charges?

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  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 11 (03.2014)