AYA – Gunduz Vassaf talks about modern Turkey via story of cats

Gunduz Vassaf talks about modern Turkey via story of catsTurkish author and psychologist Gunduz Vassaf holds up a mirror to the values of modern-day humankind through a story of cats in his new book, andldquoIstanbuland#39da Kediandrdquo (Cats in Istanbul).In the book, published in October by YapI Kredi Publications (YKY), Vassaf offers a satirical look at the world we live in today from the eyes of cats, which form a major part of Istanbuland#39s numerous landmarks.

The book, currently only available in Turkish, is billed by publisher YKY as a andldquopoem-novelandrdquo about the transformation of not only cats in Istanbul but also an entire city under future andldquocrazy projects.andrdquo The book offers a comprehensive look at what has been changed by the human race in centuries past.

In a recent interview with Sundayand#39s Zaman, Vassaf spoke about a range of topics, from his new book and his first cat to authoritarianism and the sense of belonging.In your book, you donand#39t just talk about cats but about a lot of different areas of life.

Only cats can write about cats in the true sense, and they donand#39t seem to be willing to do so. Cats, dogs, owls arenand#39t preoccupied with themselves as much as the human race is obsessed with its own kind.

Itand#39s the humans that try to find sense in everything or speak in metaphors.Cats have been living on the streets of Istanbul for centuries now but in the 21st century thereand#39s a huge industry focused on them Is this indicative of another transformation?In a way, we have started inflicting our class-based social structure on our cats as well.

I have a cat in my house, itand#39s a house cat but it also goes out onto the street. Thereand#39s a huge door that opens out to the garden and the cat is sitting happily on my legs.

On the other side of the door, the weather is cold, itand#39s dark, thereand#39s another cat waiting, but I donand#39t bring it inside. A relative of mine had to eventually sell his house to look after his cats.

So if you want to create a society without class division and take every single cat you see on the street into your house, thatand#39s impossible. Because urban cats are not hunters anymore, you have to feed them Some of them can find barely enough food to survive if they hang around.

A street cat lives for approximately two-and-a-half or three years, whereas a house cat lives for 15 years. Cats are now subject to the same inequality, mercilessness and negligence in a society with class divide.

When cities turned into unsafe places, weand#39ve started living behind locked doors and cats are [subject to] these conditions.And yet we donand#39t feel content with just having cats in our houses.

Our cats are now made to adjust to our allergies or our couches.Weand#39ve created GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and now weand#39re complaining about them Perhaps they will kill us all perhaps they will lead to a massive famine.

We have managed to split the atom and now weand#39re thinking perhaps weand#39re the ones that will bring this world to an end. Our race brings catastrophe to the world with every single thing we do.

We started realizing 40 years ago how much harm weand#39re doing to Earth. People in villages were already aware though.

If we as the human race can survive this age, we can learn to live in harmony with nature.Why did you choose cats as the protagonists for your book?I googled andldquounduz Vassaf+Kediandrdquo and came across an article I published in Radikal [daily].

The cat was the most suitable animal to the mise-en-scene I had in mind.Kids want to adopt cats and most of the time parents say andldquoFine.

andrdquo We sometimes use animals as [a way to teach our kids about] responsibility. I was allowed to adopt a cat in a similar way, but it rather proved my irresponsibility: Our neighbor back then was Perihan ambel, who was doing cancer research.

She had given me two lab mice as a gift. I was around seven or eight years old.

So we had both a cat and two mice at home. The cat was chasing the mice, but I liked the mice too, so in order to rescue them, I decided to place them over the toilet tank in the bathroom, but when I forgot to feed them, they died.

So when you give a kid an animal as a responsibility, thereand#39s a chance youand#39re turning this kid into a [potential] murderer This was the first cat of our house. And I donand#39t call them andldquomyandrdquo cats anymore.

Istanbul is a city famous for its cats. There are cats in every neighborhood.

Istanbul has always been a city of cats throughout history. The first domesticated cats are said to have appeared in this region.

Since then, every city in this region has had cats. With modernization, cats and dogs living on the streets started being killed because we were afraid of diseases, but in Istanbul, Cairo and elsewhere in Asia, there are still cats on the streets.

These cities havenand#39t in a way been able to andldquomodernizeandrdquo like European cities. Weand#39re still preserving this culture we didnand#39t kill cats on the streets of Istanbul the way they did in Paris.

If they tried such a thing in Turkey Iand#39m sure a lot of people would protest.What makes cats more valuable than Istanbuland#39s forests, parks or old houses?Iand#39m sure you know about the story of dogs on Sivriada In 1910, there were so many dogs and cats on the streets of Istanbul packs of stray dogs were roaming the streets.

But by that time in the streets of London, or say Stockholm, there was no such thing. So to andldquoWesternizeandrdquo Istanbul, they [municipal authorities] collected all stray dogs on the streets of the city and abandoned them on Sivriada The dogs starved to death and started eating each other And so, Western newspapers again published stories about andldquoBarbarian Turks.

andrdquo So it all depends on what you understand from andldquomodernization.andrdquoTurkeyand#39s modernization process went hand in hand with believing in God, all along.

Thatand#39s why cats have managed to survive on our streets. But in Berlin, in Paris, the process wasnand#39t this way.

Today, Turkeyand#39s Muslim population has Protestant rituals though. Thereand#39s a feeling of guilt.

They want absolute fairness. But in Anatolian culture thereand#39s no such thing.

There, the one whoand#39s hungrier eats more. Fairness is a concept we borrowed from the Protestant culture.

You also write about changes in daily life via objects. What kind of changes do you notice?While I was teaching at BoIazii University I conducted a survey among seniors and first-year students who enrolled in the school right after the Sept.

12, 1980 coup. The question was, andldquoMe or others?andrdquo First-year students, whom we can call andldquothe [Turgut] zal generation,andrdquo had chosen andldquome,andrdquo but seniors had said andldquous.

andrdquoThe Sept. 12 coup had a huge impact on Turkey.

Our mentality shifted from andldquousandrdquo to andldquome,andrdquo but that wasnand#39t a andldquomeandrdquo in the true sense it later transformed into a passive andldquome.andrdquo It wasnand#39t censorship that made this country silent, it was the silence of that passive andldquomeandrdquo — until one day when it erupted in the Gezi Park protests.

Did it lack talent or knowledge?I guess there was more than just one fact involved. It was also about the way parents raised their kids [after the Sept.

12 coup]. They didnand#39t want their children to experience things that happened to them They became more protective parents.

Martial law lasted a really long time teachers werenand#39t able to recommend any books to their students there was absolute silence.I believe this country fell into silence due to fear It was a post-ideological world.

Instead, new senses of belonging were created: women, homosexuals, ecological activists, etc. For the sake of a more fair society, things that made us what we were have been divided into smaller segments.

Faint voices were created, and those voices started competing against each other Each group found another right to aocate. andhellip So, regarding [social] structure, it became an example of andldquodivide and rule.

andrdquo The voice that said andldquowe want to live in such and such a worldandrdquo trailed off.Isnand#39t it problematic for a society to exist in a structure where the father tells his kids what to do and what not to do?Germany was that kind of society during the Third Reich, the Soviets during Stalin, Spain during Franco, etc.

andhellip A powerful leader creates a weak, inactive society. A father figure emerges and society starts thinking, andldquoWhat would happen to us without him?andrdquo whatever the society in question may be — whether itand#39s Germany, China, or Turkey.

When we have a strong, powerful leader, that leader becomes our andldquofather,andrdquo even if he uses violence against us.Britain and the US have found a solution in limiting the time [for a leader to stay in power] by eight years, so that [a powerful political leader] doesnand#39t turn into an authoritative figure.

Thatcher was removed from her post by her own party when she was at the height of her powers. Churchill couldnand#39t become prime minister [after World War II], although he was a wartime hero.

Europeans donand#39t want powerful leaders anymore because theyand#39ve suffered a lot under powerful leaders. Especially in societies where the legislature is not independent, such as Russia or Turkey, we still have leaders who exercise long terms of power And this creates inactive societies.

It wouldnand#39t have been this way if were more like cats.And in the meantime, every different segment of society voices its own opposition due to its past suffering.

Both Islamic [movements] and the leftists in Turkey have developed habits of creating a sense of belonging via their respective past suffering. Turkey is a society of nomads.

Weand#39ve never heard our parents cry, although they were all immigrants and had all come from different parts [of the former Ottoman territories], having left behind numerous pains. And there was no literature about it.

No books were written, no films were made about them They founded a new society with the excitement of creating a new republic.We discovered the sense of belonging with modernism and started crying over [our suffering].

Turkey has started exaggerating its sufferings. Look at what happened in Jordan, in Egypt, Syria, Greece, [and] Italy.

Thousands of people died in the Greek Civil War Leftists suffered enormously in Italy. [In comparison] the Turkish left survived [the same period] markedly easily, yet they still talk about the troubles of March 12 [1971] or Sept.

12.Islam [in Turkey] has done the same thing.

Itand#39s as though they suffered as much as Muslims suffered under Soviet rule. andhellip Right now Turkey is passing through an era of andldquosenses of belonging from so much suffering.

andrdquoDo you think talking about suffering lessens the impact of traumas?It gives you a feeling of having done something. Youand#39ve made your trauma heard.

You havenand#39t remained silent. This gives you a certain peace of mind.

You have more self esteem You say to yourself, andldquoI went out to the streets for this.andrdquo And this gives you another sense of belonging.

But the ego is not that simple. For one to truly become an individual it requires that that person be able to say things that may not necessarily be easily accepted by others, by other members of the group that person feels part of.

This way weand#39re freed from neighborhood pressure.Istanbuland#39s residents are fighting against massive urban transformation projects these days.

Where do cats fall in this fight for survival?Weand#39re on our way to becoming Europeans. Consider a 10-story apartment block in a housing estate, complete with a tennis court and security at the gate.

The security guards will not feed the cats on the street. If the gates are left open so the cats can get inside, residents of the estate will start complaining.

Housing estates kill the neighborhoods, and this means weand#39re gradually getting farther from democracy.The less you speak with your neighbor, the less you go to a local coffeehouse the less you chat with the local storeowners the more detached you become from everyday politics.

You chat about politics with your local grocer, but at the supermarket, when there are 10 people waiting in line behind you, you canand#39t chat with the cashier You just thank the cashier with a fake smile. As it is, fake smiles are common in modern cities.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman