Perfume: The Story of an Authoritarian Politician
TUĞBA TANYERİ ERDEMİRThey say smell is our strongest sense, that olfactory nerves are closely related to where we store memories in our brains. Thus, the sense of smell has the potent ability to invoke memories, those that we cherish as well as those that we dread. I think the one smell that I will most vividly remember from the last few years in Ankara will be the distinctive, pungent smell of tear gas. In my memory, it is entangled with feelings of frustration, fear and both physical and emotional pain. I know how it feels: stinging eyes, suffering in each breath you take, pangs in the stomach, tingling nostrils. Those are the responses of the body. The physical pain goes away eventually, but the deep feeling of injustice stays. And it comes back each time I see protesters get tear-gassed by the police, on TV, newspapers or social media.
The use of teargas by the Turkish police has become rampant in the last few years. It seems as if any opposition voiced against the deeds of the ruling Justice and Development Party government deserves to be punished by tear gas and water cannons. Just about any protest faced brutal police intervention: protests for peace, women’s rights, and free education as well as protests against conservative education reform, abortion restrictions, and demolition of a historical movie-theater have all been attacked. Common to all is the fact that these were peaceful voices raised against the current illiberal and authoritarian policies, but the government’s response has been brutal. Many citizens were hospitalized not only from asthma and other respiratory problems but also from injuries caused by a direct hit by tear gas canisters. A teacher from Hopa on the Black Sea Coast died two years ago due to a heart-attack triggered by teargas. A teenager in Istanbul was hospitalized and remained in critical condition for days after a canister cracked her skull.
The most recent and ongoing example is the events that have been unfolding in the Taksim area in Istanbul, where a peaceful group of protesters decided to stay overnight in the Gezi Park, to prevent the cutting down of trees to make way for a shopping mall. They woke up at 5 a.m. to the dreadful smell of teargas. Tear gas is a strange substance. Even if you are not there at the hub of things, you can feel its effects as a bystander. Say, for instance, you were out shopping with your toddler in a stroller around Şişli on May Day, you and your child could have easily been swallowed by the teargas cloud spreading from the police attack on May Day parades to Taksim. Or you could be a tourist staying in one of the posh hotels overlooking the Gezi Park, and your room could fill with the stench of teargas aimed at protestors hugging trees in the park.
What many people find perplexing is the fact that despite these numerous documented incidents of state brutality targeting citizens, support for the prime minister does not seem to have undergone a significant decrease. But there is a smell attached to such political success. In the midst of the current events, I find myself pondering the novel by Patrick Süskind, Perfume: the Story of a Murderer. The protagonist of Süskind’s tale was born with an unusual defect, that he did not have a body-odor of his own, but did have a perfect sense of smell. He starts a quest to find the perfect scent, an essence for himself. In order to do this, he murders and catches the essences of 25 virgin girls, combined into perfume. Just a single drop of that perfume makes him so desirable and irresistible that he is pardoned for his crimes, and even the father of one of the victims wants to embrace him. The essence of Süskind’s narrative seems to catch the spirit of authoritarian politics. It might take a lot of innocent blood, but if you can create the perfect essence, you may, at least for a while, seem invincible.
Dr. Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, Center for Science and Society, Middle East Technical University, Ankara.