By Ozge Samanci
I grew up in Turkey, in the cities of Izmir and Istanbul. I share stories from my life during that time in my new graphic memoir, Dare to Disappoint. I found it was impossible to tell a story that takes place in Turkey without touching upon the clash of women and men, west and east, poor and rich, believer and non-believer, Turks and other ethnicities.
It is more challenging to live as a woman in undeveloped or developing countries and in lower socioeconomic classes. Turkey is a developing country. I was relatively lucky: until age fourteen I lived in Izmir, one of the most westernized cities of Turkey. Izmir benefited from the liberating effect of the Aegean Sea. Since it was a beach city, women were able to wear shorts, tank tops, and stay on the streets late at night. In my childhood, I spent entire summers in my swimming suit, climbed on mulberry trees, then jumped into the sea to wash the smashed mulberries from my face and hands. In terms of lifestyle, I had a lot more freedom than average women growing up in Turkey. That said, there were still challenges.
While walking down the streets, even today, we deal with the disturbing gaze of entitled men who unapologetically stare at women in Izmir, Istanbul, or any of Turkey’s big cities. Many men stalk women and verbally or physically harass them. I have memories of physically fighting with men or yelling at them on the streets. When I and other women would raise our voices at harassing men, most of the time none of the passersby wanted to get involved. Occasionally a few other women backed us up and we left the scene with a sense of having bonded. But the general understanding of harassment in Turkey has always been the same: if someone lusted over a woman then it was the woman’s fault. That woman did something alluring and deserved it.
We learned ways of being invisible to protect ourselves. We dressed very conservatively (no short skirts, high heels, make up, fancy hair etc.), did not walk alone, ignored the words of the harassing guys, and did not recognize them by answering. There is a cost to avoiding the problem: we transformed into what the system wants woman to be. Invisible.
In Dare to Disappoint, my initial intention was not to tell about these forms of oppression. But as I told anecdotes from my life, the oppression of women just naturally came into every part of my narration, from the streets to the education system.
In addition to gender, ethnicity and religion are also sources of discrimination and hatred in Turkey. Turkey evolved from Ottoman Empire. Historically, Muslims ruled Ottoman Empire but the population of Ottoman Empire was a mixture of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Christian Greeks, Assyrians, and Jews. Unfortunately, today, many people show impatience or hatred towards non-Turkish ethnicities and religions other than Sunni-Islam. Since the collapse of Ottoman Empire, there has been an ongoing war between Turks and Kurds. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thinks being Armenian is shameful. He said, “Some called me a Georgian. Others called me even, excuse me, an Armenian in a shameful way. I am a Turk!”
If the president of Turkey thinks being Armenian is something to be ashamed of, it is not hard to imagine the violent mind of the ordinary citizen who defines him- or herself as a superior Turk. The entire religion system of Turkey serves the majority, Sunni-Islam. Alevi Muslim members of society are perceived as threats to the religion of Islam. They are accused of distorting the religion.
In Dare to Disappoint I tell stories about Turkish-Kurdish conflict, the planted hostility towards Greeks in school, and the polarization between Western and conservative Muslim values.
In Izmir, we can see the Greek islands with the naked eye. There are blue mountains on the horizon, and that is Greece. Even though we lived very close to Greece, I was in my late thirties before I had my first Greek friends. The two cultures did not mingle at all. When I visited Athens in 2013, I was blown away by its similarities to Izmir. The climate, food, architecture, life style, sense of humor, and people’s gestures in Athens were so much like of those in Izmir, yet Turks and Greeks perceived each other as enemies. When I went to the island of Mytilene in Greece, this time, there were the blue mountains of Izmir at the horizon. Turkey looked exactly like Greece from afar.
I believe, the fear of “other” is the fear of self. People who are unsure of themselves will always feel threatened when they interact with the “other.” The other has the power of reminding us of who we are and who we are not. One message in my book is this: whoever we are, if we are secure and content, getting to know the “other” will expand our horizons. We can then discover that there are blue mountains on both sides.
Ozge Samanci is an artist and an associate professor. She was born in Izmir, Turkey, and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. Her most recent book is the graphic novel memoir Dare to Disappoint. ordinarycomics.com
Dare to Disappoint is available for purchase.