Elif Shafak reflects on Ankara, Turkey

Ankara Turkey
Ataturk’s mausoleum in a nationalistic city. Rengim Mutevellioglu / Getty Images

“The best thing about Ankara is returning to Istanbul.” Harsh as it may sound, that expression, attributed in one form or another to prominent Turkish poet Yahya Kemal, resonates with many Turkish artists and writers. It also suggests the discrepancy, if not the conflict, between the country’s two major urban settlements. Turkey’s contemporary history, including its transition from the multiethnic Ottoman Empire to a modern, secularist nation-state, is, in its core, a tale of two cities.

Ankara was proclaimed the capital in 1923, the same year the Republic was born. It was Atatürk’s first choice as the center of the new nation not because it was more developed and civilized, but precisely because it was a small, sleepy town in the heart of Anatolia and could therefore be created from scratch. Between 1919 and 1927 Turkey’s founder did not once visit Istanbul, the kernel of the Ottoman Empire. Right from the beginning Ankara was planned in sharp contrast to the capital it replaced. Istanbul was cosmopolitan; Ankara would be monocultural. Istanbul was empire; Ankara, nation-state. Istanbul was the past; Ankara, the future.

In truth, Ankara is an ancient settlement that goes back to the Bronze Age under the Hittites. It was a hub of civilization for the Hittites, Phrygians, Lydians, and Galatians, a Celtic race to whom we owe the name Ancyra. But the city had few Ottoman-Islamic elements and was, in the eyes of the Turkish Republican elite, a tabula rasa, a clean slate to write upon the story of the new state.

There is nothing as helpful as a close inspection of street names to understand how Ankara came into being. The biggest thoroughfare that cuts across the urban area is called Atatürk Boulevard, and the initial town center is Nation Square, in the midst of which there is a Victory Monument. One of the central parks is called Confidence Park. There are avenues dedicated to world leaders, placards in Turkified spelling—Simon Bolivar, Can Kennedi, De Gol—and one Ankarans can never pronounce, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The city being designed to mirror the accomplishments of the Republic, it has a Hat Reform Street, Language Reform Street, and Civil Code Street. Nation-states around the world have used similar symbols of patriotism, but I don’t think there are too many cities where you can come across an Authoritarian Street.

My first encounter with Ankara was as a toddler. I was born in France and came to Turkey with my mother after my parents’ marriage collapsed. Now a divorcée, my mother had neither a job nor a degree. As she went back to the university she had dropped out of years ago, my grandmother took care of me. She lived in an olive green house in a traditional Muslim neighborhood: red clay roof tiles, gardens with cherry trees, and smells of fried eggplant wafting from kitchens. It was here where I listened to my first stories.

Grandma was a healer. People with skin diseases, chronic fatigue, and depression asked her help. If in the mood, she read coffee grounds. I would peek into the porcelain cup over her shoulder and each time would be disappointed to glimpse nothing but stains in different shades of brown. Inside the house it was all stories and superstitions—rose thorns, evil-eye beads, amber rosaries. Outside it was bombs, gunshots, and demonstrations. Mid-1970s Ankara was a grim place. At times the air was so polluted you had to wear a mask, there were long queues for basic necessities, and political strife had become so common, our favorite game as children was “communists versus fascists.” Still there was room for magic. Going to Youth Park on a weekend for a ride on the roller coaster or eating ice cream at the city’s foremost recreation area was a special treat. I adored the two mascots of the city, the Ankara goat that produces the soft wool Angora and the Ankara cat, famous for its long, silky fur and blue eyes.

When I was 9 years old, I woke up one morning to national anthems blaring from the radio and tanks in the streets. The Army had seized power. Shortly afterward, my then-diplomat mother and I went to Madrid.

My second proper encounter with Ankara would be years later as a college student. Both my undergraduate and graduate education were at the Middle East Technical University, famous for its liberal, leftist, radical students. And it was throughout those years that I discovered the many layers of Ankara, which remain hidden at first glance. Turkey’s capital might be a planned city of ministries, foreign embassies, highways, and Army headquarters, but where there is top-down planning, there is also bottom-up creativity and criticism. No wonder Ankara has a lively youth scene, robust feminist movement, the best rock bars, rich literary and cultural events—and a humor blacker than the smog that once canopied its skies.