Lion and the Nightingale

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A Nightingale in the Lion’s Den

I first met Kaya Genç at his home in Istanbul. It was 2017, and I lived a short walk away, up and down a few steep, sloping streets in the city’s historic core of Beyoglu. The district is a collision course of ideologies, where family grocers and underground factories compete with vegan restaurants and vintage clothiers. It snakes through a swathe of art galleries and antiques dealers before leading to a cross section of two alleyways, Altıpatlar and Çubukçu, which translate to six-shooter and pipe-maker, respectively. Under the nostalgic spell of meters-long Ottoman smokers and the 19th-century weapon-of-choice, the young journalist grinned, approaching mid-career prestige as arguably the most important Turkish writer writing in English still living in Turkey.

Around the corner, The Museum of Innocence received guests into a world of fictive artifacts based on Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name. Before becoming a political exile, the Nobel laureate would stroll under the shadow of Armenian tenements to schmooze with curators exhibiting contemporary installations on bare concrete floors, well-lit for teasing out the latest theories in conceptualism. It’s a milieu that Genç captures with verve in his second nonfiction book, The Lion and the Nightingale, which begins and ends on New Year’s Eve, encompassing the bittersweet political and cultural dramas that ensued and changed history in the year 2017 in the Turkish Republic.

Genç poured coffee, and raised his phone to snap a photo of me. He was making a record of every visitor. I was an admiring fellow writer, the younger; a year into my life in Istanbul, far-flung from my Anglo-American world. We wrote for the same arts section of a Turkish daily newspaper’s English-language edition. His criticism displayed a signature deftness and plain professionalism that lent itself to descriptive prose and the creative interpretation of his subjects. His style was spare, and incisive. He introduced his first-person voice with surprising freshness. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won reelection in 2018, Genç finished his New York Times op-ed with a tone of apathy, weary of his nation’s affinities for military coups and single-party rule.

I asked him what his aspirations were, as a writer who had published a novel in Turkish, and reams of journalism in two languages, leading to his 2016 book of reportage about the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, titled Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey. He pointed to a tome by Masha Gessen, one of many stacked and shelved along with magazines of every variety, most including his contributions to the book reviews, from New York, Los Angeles, London, as well as The Nation, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker to name a few. He wanted his nonfiction to read like fiction. If that is the litmus test, The Lion and the Nightingale earns its keep.

The book opens tragically, with an intimate account of the Reina Nightclub massacre. Genç has a talent for writing about Turkey to Western taste, providing the usual fare of terror and oppression. Yet, he accommodates multiple perspectives while remaining convincingly independent, at times proudly and transparently leftist. His is the writing of a Turkish journalist committed to freedom of speech and assembly in a country where those rights are endangered. It is a boon for readers to have that delivered to them directly in English, from the source. In his humanist approach to bias, Genç stands with the artists that he portrays so personally in The Lion and the Nightingale. Journalism, Genç defends, is an art. And he has proven its merit as literature.

Artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, generally liberals, are symbolized as nightingales by Genç, who sees Turkey’s sociocultural fabric as riven by their confrontation with representatives of militarism, industry and politics. On the right, populist strongmen and conservative demagogues assume his metaphor of lions. That dualism is fixed and encircled by multifarious external forces both malign and freeing, such as Turkey’s vulnerability to international terrorism and the compulsion to fight for individual, free expression as a people divided by ethno-religious majoritarianism, mass incarceration, and multigenerational diaspora.

But, as is typical to nations traditionally allied to the global East, liberalism has had a wholly different narrative in Turkey’s political history than that of Western democracies. Briefly, the Republic of Turkey was born out of a nationalist, secular dictatorship, a totalitarian liberalization led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Lion and the Nightingale is an apt reflection on a mirror-like opposition to Western historical convention. The book’s focal point revolves around the rise of Erdoğan and his unprecedented consolidation of presidential power following the 2017 constitutional referendum. In response, nightingales changed their tune, migrated, or fell silent.

“In the eyes of liberal Turks, Erdoğan’s term in office began promisingly,” he wrote, giving ample background to the counterintuitive progression of Erdoğan’s ascent. “Here was a politician critical of Kemalism. He questioned the nationalistic foundations of the Turkish state. He appeared to criticize its patriarchal national identity. This was music to Nightingales’ ears. For a long while, many artists openly or discreetly supported the governing party. Through their art, they interrogated many aspects of the Turkish identity that it undermined. An awkward period ensued. The Turkish art world’s provocative iconoclasts were saying the same things as Turkey’s conservatives.”

But as he later comments, “Their overlapping agenda with the Lions was too good to be true.” The Lion and the Nightingale is also a work of meta-nonfiction. Genç takes the reader on the adventure of his research, explaining how and why he chose to interview certain people, barbers and housemaids as well as cultural and political elites. He empathizes with workers and their struggle to process their disempowerment. He approaches people especially skeptical and unused to voicing broad, societal concerns, and paints a number of intimate psychological portraits. “There is a strong element of fear of the state among Turks,” he wrote.

Adhering to principles of New Journalism, Genç reports in a way similar to Gay Talese, who confidently inked the thoughts of his sources. The reader rides shotgun with Abdulkadir Masharipov before and after his nightmarish shooting in the first hours of 2017. On his way to gunning down 39 people at Reina Nightclub, Genç profiles the terrorist’s exchange with the cab driver in staggering detail. “He felt awkward when the passenger asked if he could use his mobile,” he wrote. “The passenger was talking to someone he called hodja; the driver thought he was getting spiritual advice from an authority.” Reporting the thoughts and feelings of key witnesses makes for a stiff cocktail of literary journalism and crime drama.

Genç delivered a premeditated shock to the system by opening The Lion and the Nightingale with a sobering account of brutality in the heart of Istanbul. Four chapters chronicle each season set to despair, hope, dissent, and silence, in that order. Cingöz, a married man from a conservative neighborhood in Istanbul, has a nightmare and pens an arabesque poem on his morning commute: “I take refuge inside the smoke of my cigarette.” Genç charts the mental and emotional landscape of his people with visual acumen, to reflect the thoughts of the working class and professional artists that he followed and documented, down to their everyday activities, from the Anatolian countryside to the offices of Hong Kong.

With ample tact, reporting on the private lives of citizens is an ethical balancing act that, when effective, clarifies into the roots and ramifications of widespread social ills. It is particularly strategic when writing about the political atmosphere of a country like Turkey, where people are censored and criminalized for expressing themselves freely in public forums. “There was a gap between people’s views and their articulation in public,” wrote Genç. “In an Istanbul coffeehouse I thought how these two issues, the gap between private and public views, and our ability to cut ourselves off from reality, reflected my conflicted view of the state.”

Orhan Pamuk described the private-public gap in personal opinion most memorably for Genç in his 2014 novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, as “evidence of the power of the state.” Frequently, he compares Turkey’s stifling political climate with its complex relationship to American foreign policy, and the old European appetite for Orientalist prejudice. “This belief in our freedom to choose a future for Turkey is a very American way of thinking,” he wrote. As a student, Genç cultivated his unique stance within the domestic political spectrum as an internationalist intellectual. He grew up after Turkey’s first democratically elected politician, Adnan Menderes, fell to a military coup in 1960, entangled in U.S. withdrawal and intervention.

“I sensed people silently considered Turkey as a laboratory that could teach them about the future of the United States more than the history of my country,” he wrote. “I found this frustrating. Treating foreign cultures as testing grounds for their own was quintessential Orientalism.” Leftists Turks label advocates of progressive American values, liboş, or “sissy.” Since the media purge following 2016’s failed coup, foreign journalists increasingly claimed local coverage of Turkey in the international press. “I knew I could face the same prospect. Exile. Friends around me moved to London, Amsterdam, Berlin and other European capitals.”

As a self-proclaimed nightingale, Genç has been surprised by his reception at home, where, for example, after the publication of his first nonfiction book, Under the Shadow, about popular resistance against the current government during the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, the state-owned television station TRT World invited him to interview. He has a sense of humor remembering how mainstream Turkish newspapers reviewed his book positively. At the same time their columnists were rallying for the unjust detainment of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who spent more than two years in Europe’s largest maximum-security jail, located just outside Istanbul, for allegedly funding millions of protestors in 2013. (Kavala was acquitted in February only to be rearrested on equally spurious charges linking him to the 2016 failed coup.) Writing in English is a major part of Genc’s self-preservation. The vendetta against Kavala, Genç reported in his new book, is ideological warfare, waged by the lions incriminating nightingales, i.e. the culture sector, as the opposition.

In his recent essay for The Point, published in May, “How to Lose a Language,” adapted from the book How to Lose a Country by exiled Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran, he reflected: “Absence of critical and scholarly attention, of financial reward and global reach, and lack of interest from peers all played a part in my decision to write in English. I have no regrets.” His English has a clear, distanced perceptivity underscored by his cultural and linguistic objectivity. The Lion and the Nightingale, however, enters deeply into the work of fellow Turkish journalists who write in Turkish, with special empathy for their struggles, personalities, and careers on the other side of a distinctly opaque language barrier.

One endearing nightingale is named Murat Çelikkan, whose quarter-century service to journalism culminated in his incarceration in the wake of the July 2016 failed coup. Working for a mainstream Turkish newspaper, he became a guest editor at Ozgur Gundem, a daily read mostly by Kurdish people. Genç realized he had walked past the paper’s offices at least twice a day for the last five years when he saw a video of the raid that shut the paper down. Çelikkan could often be seen in the bohemian neighborhood, red in the face and roaring with laughter behind his mischievous smile. But by September of 2016, he was learning Kurdish in a cell with four other inmates. It wasn’t the first time he suffered jail time, nor the second.

“In Cihangir, journalists were saddened by the news of his conviction. At a goodbye party, many broke down in tears. If such a senior editor could be put behind bars, what were the chances of young journalists who covered human rights issues,” Genç wrote about Çelikkan. He also depicts a young journalist named Ömer Şan. When San wrote his first poem in his hometown of Rize, along the Black Sea, a far cry from progressive circles in Istanbul, he shared stomping grounds with Ahmet Erdoğan, the father of the Turkish president. The region, Genç explained, is vital to understanding “New Turkey.”

Şan covered environmental protests, bolstering a tradition that inspired 3.5 million people to join the Gezi movement. “I found Şan’s story interesting not only because he spent his life attending May Days, like me, but also because he was a reporter. He had devoted his life to documenting injustices and stories that define life in Turkey,” Genç wrote in solidarity. “Despite censorship and state pressure, Şan remained a muckraker.” It is a stretch to imagine a nightingale raking the muck of concrete-heavy oppression. But when a country becomes a den of lions, a song, the night, and wings are saving graces. Or, as Genç wrote of his visit to the reclusive, prestigious artist Evlent Kutluğ Ataman, “He seemed victorious to be living in a massive house in the middle of nowhere.”

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