A couple of weeks ago as I entered my morning English class at the private university where I teach in Istanbul, I found the fifth floor room bathed in a beautiful shade of rosy red. I stopped in the doorway, surprised and delighted by the effect, wondering how it had come about.
“Flag,” said one of the late-teen students, a little more awake than his slouching bleary-eyed classmates, pointing to one of the windows. After putting my books on the desk, I looked out and discovered that a gigantic crimson Turkish flag with its white star and crescent moon was hanging down from the top of the building, covering many of the classroom windows several floors down.
“Pretty,” I said. “It’s like we’re in a womb! Is it for some special Turkish Public Holiday?” (The Turks have quite a lot, and we usually get the day off — which is nice!)
“No,” said the student. “Haven’t you noticed many flags everywhere recently?”
Come to think of it I had. Huge ones like this covering the fronts of banks and offices; smaller ones hanging from apartment balconies, spread over the back windows of buses and taxis, peddlers strolling the streets with armfuls of fluttering red flags on sticks for sale. And in the top corner of most TV channels there’d been a mini replica.
“It is answer to burning of flag. Did not you read in newspaper?” asked the student.
I confessed my ignorance. He enlightened me.
It turned out that Turkish feelings had been outraged by an incident which happened in the town of Mersin in the south of Turkey on 21st March.
That’s the day when 35 million Kurds, the largest people in the world without a state of their own, celebrate with singing, dancing and fire ceremonies, their New Year Spring festival, Newroz, which dates back to 612 BC. Kurdish legends say that Newroz celebrates the successful revolt led by a blacksmith, Kawa, who overthrew the tyrant Zuhak and freed his people. Over the years the festival has come to represent the struggle of the Kurds for freedom from the various enemies which subdue them.
Celebrating Newroz was illegal in Turkey until 1995, and recently a ban on the language was lifted, so things seem to be improving; but many Kurds still chafe at the bit, and during the Newroz fetivities in Mersin this year a group of teenage Kurdish boys was arrested by a plain clothes policeman for attempting to burn a Turkish flag in front of TV news cameras.
Setting fire to the Turkish flag is a criminal act, with a prison penalty of up to three months.
In retaliation to the incident, an indignant outpouring of patriotic fervor in support of the flag swept the country, with rallies and protests, and an announcement by Prime Minister Erdogan that the flag is a sacred symbol for Turks.
The general staff of the Turkish Armed Forces issued a statement of condemnation: “Such a treatment of the flag of a nation… in its own land by its own so-called citizens is inexplicable and unacceptable. This is treasonous behavior,” adding: “We advise those who would attempt to test the Turkish Armed Forces’ love for the motherland and its flag to look into the pages of history.”
Turks still take their symbol of salutation very seriously. You can be fined or jailed for wearing a Turkish flag-printed T shirt, to sit on one, insult it, tear it, or throw it to the ground. (And there was me thinking of using one for a bedspread!)
On Monday morning in every schoolyard throughout the country, students stand in line and sing the national anthem as the flag shunts up the pole, and on Friday afternoon they do the same as it’s slowly jerked down, reverentially folded and stored away for next week.
To me, it seems a kind of brainwashing, not dissimilar to the memorized malarkey that the kids in America have to go through, hands on hearts pledging allegiance to their flag — Old Gory’.
I’m glad to be a modern Brit in this respect, with no childhood recollection of ever having saluted the red white and blue’, although I still remember having to stand automatically for the national anthem played before and after films at the cinema:
“God save the Queen
And Her Fascist regime”
Oops! I forgot the words.
But one night when youngish, at the beginning of a film, as the anthem began, my evil influence said “I’m not standing.” So I said: “I won’t either then.”
And we sat throughout the anthem, my heart beating wildly at the revolt, my ears burning, listening to the disapproving clucks from our righteously erect fellow citizens around us.
Now, thirty years later, thank god, most sane English people wouldn’t dream of standing up for their national anthem, bowing to royalty, or saluting the rag. There’s progress for you.
We Western iconoclasts are now allowed to burn our flags left right and centre without retribution — and I witnessed Turks burning the American flag several times at demonstrations against the war in Iraq – but burning your own in some places is a definite no-no that could lose you your freedom — or even your life.
Talking of Iraq, after the initial debacle, while watching on TV what arose from the chaos, my heart leapt excitedly to see several groups of citizens marching behind black banners. At first I thought they were Anarchists finally getting their act together and making their presence felt, but unfortunately I later learned that the black flag is not only an anarchist symbol, but also claimed by another fanatic Muslim faction.
Flags. Who needs ’em? Limp or fluttering pieces of colored cloth that people solemnly stick out their arms for; shed tears for, (anthems aid lachrymosity) and give their lives for? They bring out the worst in people, turning them into nationalistic xenophobic zombies.
The flag is a drag. But woe-betide you if, when called in wartime, you respond with recoil and quote the words of e.e. cummings’ big glad Olaf —
“I will not kiss your fucking flag.”
Read the poem and find out why.
MICHAEL DICKINSON is a writer and artist who works as an English teacher in Istanbul, Turkey. He designed the cover art for two CounterPunch books, Serpents in the Garden and Dime’s Worth of Difference, as well as Grand Theft Pentagon, forthcoming from Common Courage Press. He can be contacted through his website of collage pictures at http://CARNIVAL_OF_CHAOS.TRIPOD.COM