Between the lion’s roar and the nightingale’s song

August 30, 2020

Kaya Genç examines Modern Turkey from an artistic lens, chronicling extraordinary lives in extraordinary times


he year 2016 was a debilitating one for Turkey. Riddled with a rise in terror attacks, an attempt at a contrived coup against President Erdogan and the subsequent silencing of anti-state rhetoric involving the arrest and exile of many Turkish journalists and academics; author and essayist Kaya Genç found it a “moral responsibility” to stay back and dissect Turkey’s post-coup politics.

In his latest book, Kaya Genç examines modern Turkey from an artistic lens by chronicling extraordinary lives in extraordinary times, in order to define and declutter his own position as a ‘Young Turk’, and the retribution that comes with it.

The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey, a non-fiction work, offers a mixture of memoir, anecdotes and autobiography. He takes up the challenge of deconstructing modern Turkey by seeking out stories of a range of Turks living in various parts of the world; separated by geography but united by their love for the homeland.

The book is deliciously paced. Kaya Genç artfully narrates Turkey’s dramatic recent history by lucidly transporting the reader to the mesmerizing views of a glorious Istanbul, a cruise of the Bosphorus, the idyllic landscape of Rize and Trabzon, the once perilous port of Dover, all the way up to concrete jungles of Hong Kong. It is a poetic, imagistic and atmospheric work. Genç pays a bloated homage to the works of French surrealist Stéphane Mallarmé, as if the events of 2016 and 2017 took place only to end up as a book.

The title moulds the very crux of the narrative. His choice of categorizing the Turkish populace into two camps -- the lion, representing the military, power and strength; and the nightingale, representing romance, literature and art – avoids the Durkheimian cliché of the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane.’ Genç stresses that portraying the two camps as mutually exclusive is, at best, reductive. He alludes to the Ottoman era where the sultan found harmony in the lion’s roar and the nightingale’s song. The sultan assumed his role as an emperor, yet remained vulnerable to his artistic side. Suleiman the Magnificent, for example, was a prolific poet who also resorted to crafting jewellery as a form of meditation. The lion and the nightingale cannot exist without each other. A fusion, says Genç is foundational to promoting a healthy discourse in any democratic dispensation.

There is an abundance of interesting characters in the book. Their stories allude to Turkey’s current situation and point to an unstable political future. 2017 was marked by a constant; an impending referendum that would decide the fate of Turkish democracy. It could be a parliamentary democracy or a presidential one. The anecdotes reflect the collective consciousness of Turks, dominated by fear and apprehension about the country’s future. Sociality finds itself struggling to adjust to the miasma of media restrictions, a declining appreciation of the arts and the frightening prospect of surviving in Turkey as a law-abiding citizen.

Particularly fascinating is Razva Kavakçi Kan; the only clearly distinguishable ‘lion’ in the narrative. Her rise to popularity is credited to her defiance of the status quo as she walks into Turkish parliament with a headscarf. Despite the resistance she faces, she fearlessly walks up to the speakers’ platform and is supported by fellow Justice and Development Party parliamentarians. To be sure, she is the sister of Merve Kavakçı, who years ago was denied entry and booed out of parliament for wearing a headscarf as it threatened Turkey’s secular order. Kan’s defiance is testimony to the recent shift in power dynamics. Another captivating anecdote is that of octogenarian, Necmettin Aykan, a former bookshop owner, who was a pivotal experiment of the Turkish education system in the 1930s.

At a subconscious level, Genç offers a modern mutation of ‘the personal is political’ that transcends the confines of feminist discourse. He sheds light on intersectionality in the Turkish context, including Kurdish marginalization and the community’s relocation to bleaker parts of Turkey such as Kaçkar mountains, which Genç visits with Ataman, who hails from a renowned landlord family under the Ottomans and his friend Murat, a poet. The residents of the area receive the three Young Turks with scepticism.

The sacralisation of womanhood is another embedded theme, describing how Turkey’s unique patriarchy is constructed. Binevs, a Kurdish maid who divorces an abusive husband after having six children against her wishes, is deemed doubly an outsider for being a divorcee as well as a Kurd. However, the Binevs story is not an aberration. There is a large number of women like her and men like her husband.

Kaya Genç is also meticulous in his analysis of global order and proposes that Erdogan’s Turkey is a part of a global malaise with Trump’s America and Modi’s India. He records surge in nationalism and how pervasive populist politics has become. This is why this book is excellent reading material for students of political science and those in the political scene.

A gifted storyteller, Kaya Genç thinks like a sociologist, researches like a historian and writes like a novelist. He presents The Lion and the Nightingale as a mindful meditation on the perils of a people lost in a farrago of fundamentalism and freedom. It may end up being his magnum opus.

The Lion and the Nightingale

A Journey Through Modern Turkey

Author: Kaya Genç

Pages: 208

Price: Not mentioned

Publisher: I.B. Tauris

(October 17, 2019)

The reviewer is a member of the team that organizes the Lahore Literary Festival

Between the lion’s roar and the nightingale’s song