What Can I Do? —Gündüz Vassaf’s Call to Action in a Time of Rampant Pessimism, Part 2

by Humera Afridi

CrP_YsPVMAAo42rGündüz Vassaf's latest book, What Can I Do, arrived like manna this past summer, a panacea for our times, urging action as an antidote to pessimism. The book's publication in Turkey coincided with the heightened and volatile political climate in the country in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup attempt. Its message couldn't be more pertinent. Certainly, post-election America, traumatized and rattled by aftershocks, could do with just such a guide. The need for an English translation of What Can I Do? feels ever more critical.

On November 4, 2016, days before the US elections, writing from Ortigia, Sicily, Vassaf dispatched a prescient letter to editors of several international newspapers, stating with clarity what's exactly at stake in the US elections: “It's not just who the candidates are. America is too important for the world. And the world is too important to be left to America.” Here we find ourselves now, inhabiting an altered reality post-election, and Vassaf's disavowal of pessimism in favor of action resonates powerfully, offering a means of harnessing our ability to create the change we want to see.

The idea of freedom is a leitmotif in Gündüz Vassaf's work. Freedom is something he is conscious of in all aspects of life, both visible and unseen. It's a subject he delves into in an earlier book, Prisoners of Ourselves. Freedom is, too, a practice he embodies daily, certainly through his creativity, upholding the ideal of a life liberated from artificial and internalized constraints. The day we met, I noticed with surprised delight that he prefers to walk barefoot around the island where he resides in the summer, utterly at ease traversing the stony ground without shoes. Moments after introductions were exchanged, Vassaf suggested a swim, and a small group of us waded into the blue-green Sea of Marmara, as if we'd been friends forever. I marveled at my own readiness to discard formality in Vassaf's company, noting his talent for opening the way to an honest, satisfying experience of reality, stripped of convention and inhibition.

In Prisoners of Ourselves, Vassaf draws our awareness to an all too common tendency that afflicts humanity: “Completely free, unstructured situations bother us. Just like silence. Silence disturbs us. Being with the mad is the same. There are no previously agreed upon rules. Only that which is spontaneous…. We dare not take the steps to ultimate independence, to listen to the tune of our own drummer. When we do, we are usually called mad… Because we dare not be mad and yet still yearn for freedom, we have reduced madness to mean those very simple acts of behavior which do injustice to the infinite expressions of madness.”

I Skyped with Vassaf a few weeks ago, just as he was leaving for Sicily where he will spend the next few months immersed in writing and thinking, and in intimate dialogue with art. The last time he sojourned in Sicily, the author spent hours in communion with a Caravaggio painting in a church, taking his laptop and typing up his musings. In a similar vein, a little over a decade ago, Vassaf went to live in Mostar, a city in Southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose main attraction is the 500-year old arched bridge built by the Ottomans. Stari Most, the Old Bridge, became newsworthy when it was shelled and destroyed during the war, but was rebuilt five years later.

Enchanted by the bridge on his very first visit, Vassaf opened his notebook and jotted down a few sentences. Glancing up, he gazed out at the landscape and before he knew it, four or five hours had passed and he was still standing in the same spot. The next morning, he couldn't wait to return. Over the course of his stay, Vassaf stood sentry six to eight hours a day, on either end of the Old Bridge, writing his thoughts, observations and free associations, entering a deep isolation, inhabiting a mystical world and, indeed, becoming a veritable present-day bridge-keeper. However, unlike the mostaris, or bridge-keepers, of the 16th century who were spies, Vassaf was a witness—to the bridge, the city, its residents and visitors, but also to his own fantasies and his inner world.

“I became a character of what I was writing about. Some nights, I wondered if I heard footsteps. I'd wonder if someone would throw me over the bridge.”

The experience culminated in a book, Mostari—The Diary of a Watchman, published in 2005, the fruit of a liberating experiment.

Below is an excerpt of our recent conversation about What Can I Do?, the plague of pessimism, and the increasingly elusive art of love.

Humera Afridi: Gunduz, how would you say the world has changed in the time between your book Prisoners of Ourselves, published in 1987, and your most recent, What Can I Do?

Gunduz Vassaf: I think that since then, more and more people of conscience, especially the young people—Occupy Wall Street, Syriza in Greece, Gezi in Turkey, the movements in Spain and Brazil—are disillusioned with the state of the world, not just because of the lurking danger of global warming but because of all governments to solve anything. And more than that, no one expects them to solve anything anymore. No one takes them seriously anymore, which I think has liberated the youth. So now, we're not only questioning daily life, but questioning the order of things in the world as well. The social network that was established internationally, at first to compare lifestyles and tastes—in music, shoes—now has gone on to a new world consciousness. A global consciousness. To not just question the world order, but ask, what can I do to change things. That's a major change.

And how has your work changed in this time period?

The book Prisoners of Ourselves was about me questioning my existence, my everyday behavior, focusing on whether I lived in a totalitarian society, a democratic society, a religious community, questioning the importance of speech in my life, those things I tried to do in that book. Now, it's more than that. Now, it's in order to establish a more liberated environment for ourselves, we have to deal with the environment. The environment being the climate, the people who cause climate change, the economics, politics, everything else. The new generation—and this wasn't happening then—are forming what I call the new Silk Roads. The Silk Road on the internet. In the beginning, they were just meeting each other socially, leaving their religion and flags behind, just getting to know each other. Now, it's becoming a movement, questioning the world, ways of doing things together, setting up new economies. They're building sharing economies—for example Airbnb—rather than owning economies. They're getting together to change society from within, create new institutions. The new book is an evolution of a thought process since Prisoners of Ourselves.

There was another book in between these two?

Yes, there was Judging History, Judging Us, which is about the way historians have dealt with human history and what they've focused on. If you go to any good library—the Widener at Harvard or the University of Cambridge's library—it's unbelievable the disproportionate number of books on war and the number of books on peace. In any bookstore or library—one to ten, one to a hundred. We talk about peace, we yearn for peace, but we write about war. When we read history, we seem to think humankind is almost always in a state of war, that we are prone to war, that we can't avoid war, which then makes us defeatist and pessimistic. But actually most societies have been at peace rather than at war. In Japan, for instance, there was a 400-year period where there was no war. Europe, which is the bloodiest continent in history, and which has started world wars, they've been more time at peace than at war. And that, I think, is coming to the fore of the new generations—they're beginning to realize that peace is not an unusual state. We've come a long way since the Cold War when the word peace was a dirty word in the US. They called them peaceniks.

In Prisoners of Ourselves, I recall, you point out that there is no field study of peace in psychology.

Thank you for quoting that. Psychologists, for instance, have not made the slightest attempt to see what makes peace work—the dynamics of peace in society. Whereas social scientists have asked thousands of questions about why wars start, why wars continue, they've never analyzed societies at peace, always at war, and what they think has caused war, never ever having found the cause. They're still writing books about what was the cause of WWI… No one writes a book about what makes societies at peace work, which is what I'm pointing out in this book. But for the first time in our history, our attitude towards war has changed. People want to be in a state of peace.

But what about current wars, like the war waging in Syria? People want peace, but it's so tangled up. How do you create peace in that situation?

When the image of the other is so strong, when the image of the other is not even a human being, but a barbarian, then one cannot think of peace, except to eradicate them. But eventually all wars end in peace. At the moment the West is waging a very big war in the Middle East and cannot even think of making peace with ISIS. ISIS, peace? Sit down with them? They'll chop off my head! That's the image. Even the idea of mentioning peace is an anathema, or sitting in a room and saying what do you want, what do I want. Look at Saudi Arabia—cutting off arms, their women not allowed to drive, etc.—same as ISIS. But Saudi Arabia is not the other. ISIS is the other, so you can't make peace with ISIS.

I wrote a letter when the war with ISIS was just breaking out, saying the pope says this is a fragmented third world war. It's serious business. It's not just a local war. This war is unwinnable. As in all wars, there'll be peace at the end. Let's not wait for one of those so-called honorable peaces, like Kissinger and Nixon waited for another 8 years to make an honorable peace with Vietnam and in the meantime, a couple of million people were killed. I invited the Secretary General of the UN in a bipartisan capacity to call for a peace conference. It's a very simple, innocent call. But none of the newspapers published this letter. And still, nobody is talking about peace.

Look at the Palestinians and Israelis. The Palestinians were ‘terrorists,' nobody would speak with them, nobody would sit down with them. Now at least they sit down and speak to each other, they make deals, trying to achieve something.

What do you think enabled that shift?

Wars eventually, like forest fires, die out. They became tired. They could see their society would proceed better without the war. The US is not war tired yet. Can you imagine the Republicans and the Democrats asking for a peace conference in the Middle East? They'd be sent to the loony bin. It's too early. The US is not war tired yet with ISIS, just the opposite. They're following it like a spectator sport almost.

Isn't that also because it's offshore, happening at a distance?

In Turkey, it's happening close to Turkey, but Turkey is not war tired. Just the opposite. They want to make heroes of their soldiers. They want to show these exciting films with planes bombing cities, without seeing the dead of course. And people feel big and strong: “We're killing people. We're winning peace.” It takes time for society to become war tired. You have to see body bags.

But there's a palpable state of fear now, isn't there?

At least from my childhood on, the country's been in a state of fear. What the western press picks up, if it's a government close to them, then it's not the state of fear that's talked about, but the progress, the modernization, tourism, Turkish food. If the regime is not very friendly, or if they can't get what they want from the regime, then we get the negative press that business is not good, tourism is collapsing, education is horrible, the courts are corrupt… But the courts have always been corrupt, the regimes have always been a source of fear for us, with the different military coups. There's a saying, democracy is a street car—you can get on it and then when it's fulfilled its function, you get off it and you continue on to your destination. At one point they thought Islam had to be reined in. And then they thought there could be friendly Islam. And then saw that religion was dangerous. As was the case with the Taliban. When religion is brought to use for political ends, it always backfires. And it's backfiring again in Turkey.

Humans, as you note in Prisoners of Ourselves, adapt to regime changes, but what is the reality on the ground in Turkey since July 15?

Maybe half a million people have lost their jobs. Multiply that by the number of people in their family… Three quarters of the armed forces have lost their jobs. We really don't know how many people because the press is controlled, of course. Our universities too, many people have been fired from their teaching posts. Also in primary secondary schools. It's still for many people a nightmare from which they'll wake up tomorrow morning, and things will be back to normal, because things have been happening too quickly. It's impossible to understand why they've happened the way they've happened. Everybody's afraid of each other. On the streets there's a state of shock and nightmare that things can't continue the way they are. But they certainly haven't settled down yet because the government is in fear as well, as they don't know whom to trust. They can't even trust themselves. And not trusting anybody they try to control everything. And the more you try to control something, the more uncontrollable things become—so it's a nightmare! But the thing about nightmares is that they end, so this has to end too. The dust has to settle. But, at the moment, the country's at war so it's more difficult for things to settle.

What can people really do in the midst of this nightmare?

The simplest thing is not to be a source of pessimism which we all often do. We complain for really selfish reasons to prove to each other how much we care about the world. I suffered because all these bad things happened. And you, Humera, you suffered because all these bad things happen. We must be good people because we're agreed in our suffering! But this leads to a selfish complaining just to show that we have a conscience that cares, through guilt or sincerity. This complaining leads to pessimism and pessimism is contagious. It makes it much easier for those who put the world in this state to continue to wield power because when you're a pessimist you say you can't do anything. The defeatism give strength to the present situation, makes it more possible for the things we complain about to exist.

So, what can I do? Unless you ask the question—what can I do?— don't complain. Even be a hedonist, it's much better than complaining. Sing a song, give some positive energy! That's at the personal level.

But if we want to change society, a bridge has to be built between the youth and the adults. My call to the youth is to build those bridges, not just to go out and demonstrate and collect signatures for petitions, but try to get your parents involved in projects. Start with the people closest to you, create a grassroots change. If you only get together with likeminded people, you don't change the world. Just the opposite.

In terms of world politics—what can I do? Obviously, the US is the superpower and whenever it rains in Washington, people put up their umbrellas all over the world. And when other countries get together they complain about the US. But what's particularly unique to the US is that anything that's to be questioned in that country comes from within. And you can't really say that about any other country. As long as there's this access to information in the US, people in that country can be exposed to more information in order to make a change in that country. Things change there faster than the rest of the world. Look at LGBTQ and gay rights. It starts with the US. So there's a potential to be tapped. It's always been said, America is too important to be left to the Americans and the world is too important to be left to America. The world has to tap into the potential of the US for change rather than protesting what the US does to the rest of the world.

In Prisoners of Ourselves, you write that it's important to live intensely. You say, “Creation is a desperate act undertaken by those who live intensely, who rarely share in love with others… We don't create in our everyday relationships. We have not been able to create in communion with each other.” Can you say a little more about what this means today?

The greatest art is to learn from each other. A relationship is an art. You have to feel it, you have to support it, give time to it. You have to have empathy, you have to be critical of your art, of yourself, of the other. And we give so very little time to that. When I was young, and you fell in love, you'd say, I'll build bridges for you, I'll take you to the moon. Now, it's what can you do for me? It's not a relationship. It's a business partnership. It's a partnership of ambition, to achieve your goal, one of which is to have a companion. Whereas if it's love, it's not a partnership, it's a process, an ongoing process that changes shape, color, vision. It's a wave that you're riding. It's not, I found my partner, I fell in love. The second you do that, you kill love.

Tomorrow, you're going to Sicily. What are you looking forward to there?

What I love about Sicily is that when two friends pass each other in the street, they sincerely talk. If they're going to an appointment that means with each person they meet, the appointment is delayed by five or ten minutes. So, in Italy if people don't abide by their appointments, it means not that they're not in time for their appointments, but that they're in time with their friends!

How do you identify yourself? Do you say you are a Turkish writer? Does identity circumscribe freedom?

I never say it! The subtitle of my book is: I Have No Country. I have No Religion. I have No Gender. If someone asks, I usually state the city I'm living at the time. Once somebody asked why I lived in Istanbul. I realized I hadn't asked myself that question. It seemed as if I'd chosen it, but in fact it's because of my parents. So, I said, I hope it's not out of habit!

In terms of allegiance to movements and organizations, I don't belong to any organizations that give me an identity. I'm free of all identities. I feel the same about my gender. I'm always trying to discover the female in myself. I really don't have an other, so to speak. I don't compare. I try to become a part of all. And that gives me freedom. Because if you have an other, it blocks you. It puts you in shackles. When you say who you are, it's limiting; it limits your freedom.