A post-mortem on love and Valentine’s Day in Turkey

A post-mortem on love and Valentine’s Day in Turkey

Nazlan Ertan - nazlanertan@gmail.com
A post-mortem on love and Valentine’s Day in Turkey Call me the useful idiot of the consumer society, but once, just once a year, I wanted to see politics take a backseat to love. On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, a date frowned upon by intellectuals, anti-consumerists and forty-something single girls, I wanted to put on red lipstick and underwear and be on the receiving end of a traditionally romantic day that is filled with tasteful gifts and outings such as art galleries, vineyards, Cole Porter concerts, candle-lit dinners and conversation that did not include words like “post-truth society” “violence against women” and “referendum.”

Where on earth did I think I was living? 

My intention to organize a romantic Valentine’s Day was first boycotted by liberal intellectuals: “That is sooooo American,” said a friend who looked at me as if I was dimwitted. “Surely, you know that Valentine’s Day is a consumerist trap. Why even bother celebrating this kitsch?”

There was a time in Turkey when we loved to make fun of the consumerism of Feb. 14. In the good old 2000s, Turkish businesses, from tripe-soup restaurants to pharmacies, all put up the traditional red heart symbol on their shop windows, ready to believe that Saint Valentine would somehow bring profits to them. After several years, they realized that no one was likely to buy an aspirin for their lovers or take them to a tripe soup dinner. Down came the signs! Nowadays, even traditional retailers look at Valentine’s Day as “low-scale trade activity” compared to major trade dates, such as religious holidays (family dinners mean lots of business for markets) or Mother’s Day (huuuge gift-giving).

Another friend, a style guru, pursed her lips in disapproval: “I do not mind the odd Valentine’s Gift,” she said.

“After all, a girl has to be glamourous. The problem is that what is on offer on Feb. 14 is so tacky.” As Gülse Birsel said in Hürriyet and the Hürriyet Daily News, “Why would a girl who is old enough to have a boyfriend want a fluffy Teddy Bear?” 

Anti-consumerists and status-shoppers unite – you have nothing to lose but fluffy bears!

My women’s-rights-conscious friends, for their part, were not keen on Valentine’s Day either. “It reminds me of abuse against women,” said a friend who had participated on Feb. 14, 2015, in Eve Ensler’s campaign, “One Billion Rising” where women gathered en masse to dance in public to create awareness to end violence against women and girls. This was the year when Özgecan Arslan, a 20-year-old student, was killed by a minibus driver who tried to rape her. The irony was that a Turkish member of parliament who had participated in the One Billion Rising Campaign on the same date as Özgecan’s mutilated body was found was accused of “dancing in joy when Turkey was mourning for Özgecan.”

High on the list of Valentine’s Day critics were, of course, the clergy. Various fatwa sites, with varying tones ranging from condemnation to damnation, told the pious that the day would be better ignored. The general line is that you are free to give gifts to your spouse, but the day should not be used as an excuse to encourage illicit relations between people who are not married. In February 2015, right before Valentine’s Day, the magazine of the Religious Affairs Directorate published an article in which it asked engaged people not to hold hands or flirt – which rather defies the spirit of Saint Valentine, not to mention love in general.

I turned to the youth – after all, one needs to be a romantic at 18 – and eagerly read through the annual survey of Beykoz University on how the Turkish youth look at love. The university has been carrying out the survey since 2006 and the survey asks young people, among other things, to name their favorite love poem. Until this year, the top poem has always been Atilla İlhan’s “I’m Bound to You” – one of the best-known poems in Turkish. This year, however, the young people surveyed have chosen another, more political poem by Ahmet Arif – a poem written by a man in jail to his beloved. “Through my longing for you I have worn out fetters/ Being able to tell about you/ To good guys and heroes/Your absence is another word for hell/ I’m cold, don’t close your eyes.” 

My hopes were momentarily raised when I saw the cover of Penguen, the satirical magazine, where a man was offering an engagement ring to a woman. Then I read the dialogue: “-Will you marry me? -No. -Then I’ll denounce you to the authorities [for being part of the “no” campaign].”

When we Turks sing along to Cole Porter’s “I’ve got you under my skin,” we are talking of politics, not love. Every day. All the time.