“There is something rotten in the state of Denmark” says Marcellus in the first act of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Living in Ankara, I can relate to that.
Gallup’s 2017 Global Emotions Report was recently released and I can see an interesting trend. Every year, fewer Turks answer the question “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” affirmatively. Last year, half of the respondents said they had smiled or laughed on the previous day. This year, it’s just 38 percent.
We could chalk this up to a seasonal issue, or something that has to do with methodology. But let’s take it seriously for a moment. What is happening? Why do the Turks smile less and less? What is wrong with us?
Part of it might be about our upbringing. “Don’t grin like a Chesire cat” is a Turkish idiom. In fact, the original Turkish version refers not to the cat in Alice in Wonderland but to a “baked head,” (pişmiş kelle) as in the baked head of a lamb, which is a delicacy in Turkish cuisine. When baked, the teeth of an animal show, making it look like it’s flashing an ugly grin. There is another idiom that roughly means “Be solemn, so they think you’re a mullah” (Ağır ol da molla desinler). That’s how we were reprimanded while praying in the mosque as children.
Yet this does not explain the downward trend in the Gallup poll. The cultural aspect, after all, has been with us for centuries, yet the downward trend is recent. The survey provides indices for “positive” and “negative” experiences, and the question about smiling is just one component of the positive experiences index. According to the poll, Turks have recently tended to have fewer positive and more negative experiences lately.
Turkey comes second after Yemen in the top 10 countries with the least positive experiences in 2016, while Iraq is third. In 2015, Turkey was second only to Syria. This year, Gallup could not do the survey in Syria due to the security situation there, but in previous years even Syria has been happier than Turkey. Even the notoriously grim Israelis report that 60 percent of them smiled the day before.
I would say it has something to do with this part of the world, but by those standards Turkey should be doing well. After all, we are still a middle-income country with relatively strong institutions.
But think about the last couple of years. 2015? That was the year when the Syrian crisis derailed the Kurdish reconciliation process. Turkish jets bombed Turkish towns. International and homegrown Salafi radicals committed numerous terror attacks inside Turkey. Turkey did not interfere in Syria, Syria interfered in Turkey. One hundred years after the Sykes-Picot agreement, border changes have once again become a major topic.
2016? That was the year when Turks realized just how frail our order was. Our own jets bombed parliament on a Friday night last July. We knew that the Gülenists had infiltrated the administrative system, but we never quite realized the extent of the problem. Then a state of emergency was declared and the never-ending purges accelerated. Because the purge won’t end, neither will the state of emergency. Why will they not end? Due to sheer incompetence, if you ask me.
Despite the magnitude of what has happened, most Turks are not directly affected. But we should not assume that their mental space is completely unaffected. Perhaps all of these things do build up emotional pressure.
So why do Turks smile less and feel angrier these days? I think it’s all about the increasingly feeling of insecurity. Everything solid melts into air. This is as true for secular Turks as it is for conservatives. Nothing stays sacred.
Perhaps Turkey is like a university student who reads critical thinkers and then angrily rips into his religion and national identity. The thing about those students, however, is that if they keep reading, they often rebuild – with some variation – the things that they once tore down.
And thus, Turkey’s “great normalization” continues.