Ali Duran Topuz
Subsistence on a sole onion
Onions are a symbol of poverty. Not only because they are eaten by the poor, but because it is a food item that defines the boundaries of poverty. The Turkish aphorism “living on bread and onions” illustrates the poorest standard of living.
“My Lord bestowed two eyes so that we would see,” goes the popular folk song. Though onions represent poverty, there are still those who refuse to see this. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Deputy Chairman Numan Kurtulus speaks: “We’re talking about TOGGs, these people still say ‘but [the price of] onions.’ We’re talking about TCG Anadolu, these people still say ‘but garlic.’”*
I will get back to Kurtulus’s words, but I ask for a little patience as we talk more on onions. Onions are not only symbols of poverty. They also represent personal dignity. Another ubiquitous saying goes, “I’d rather survive on bread and onions than owe you anything.”
Based on this notion of “dignity,” the ruling government seeks to dismiss the objections and protests arising from the extent of poverty manifested in the prices of onions. They say, “I’d rather eat bread and onions than see Kilicdaroglu elected.” This is yet another phrase that arises from the cunning principle of “let’s turn [a fact] on its head and repeat it, there is bound to be someone who believes it.” This has been the government’s trick for the past 21 years. Speaking of things that have gotten old: pumpkin seeds are now 150 Turkish Liras (TL), butternut squashes are 40 TL per kilogram, and field pumpkins are 25 TL per kilogram. In a market recently, they were priced at over 10 TL each.
In short, someone should give the government the bad news: Long gone are the days that we could live on bread and onions for the sake of preserving our dignity. In the 21 years of their hold on power, we have fallen below the poverty threshold. There is also the hunger threshold, of course, which is the condition of not being able to buy a single onion; and that is the state we find ourselves in presently, as a kilogram of that staple item costs about 30 TL. That is to say, we are beyond the point of “The hero finds himself needy for a sole onion,” as it is wide segments of society, and not an isolated individual, that struggle to access onions. “I do not know: Shall I weep or shall I not?” **
Onions make people cry. First as they are peeled, then as they become hard to obtain, and lastly when one sees people who have become so destitute that they cannot afford the item. The government is frantically trying to prevent this situation from gaining visibility by using its media channels to spread propaganda; on the other hand, state representatives talk of TOGG vehicles to distract from the conversation and to belittle the significance of this debate.
What is the end result of this attempt? Kurtulmus himself tells us: The prices of the “local and national” — as they call it — automobile known as the TOGG were released on March 15. The cheapest model costs 953 thousand TL, the most expensive costs 1 million 215 thousand. In sum, what they are saying is, “We have no business with people who can’t afford an onion. Neither do we care if you can find one. We work only with people who are indifferent to the prices of onions. We are not seeking to make ourselves heard by the hungry and the poor. We are talking to the rich and the wealthy, to ‘the ones making a living off the backs of other people.’”***
Kurtulmus does not only appeal to the wealthy. He also trusts the systems that create and protect that wealth: the TCG Anadolu is the “world’s first UCAV.” What is a UCAV, you ask? It is an “Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle.”
It is not only their vehicles that are unmanned; it is also their politics. The singular meaning underlying Kurtulmus’s saying is the glorification of militarism, which is the fundamental preference of this government. Militarism is not only exalted as a tool of oppression to maintain power domestically, but it is also revered to wage wars both domestically and abroad. You know how people ask, “Where on earth did all these Syrians and Afghans come from?” Well, the answer lies here and is well-known by all: Wars in neighboring and distant countries cause the displacement of people; had the government not declared war on Syria, there would not have been so many Syrian refugees.
The gist of the matter is as follows: Numan Kurtulus has declared the spirit of this election: “Ours is a militant and oppressive government allied with the people who can afford to buy a TOGG. We are not concerned with people who cry about onions or garlic because poverty is not something we fear. We have every opportunity in our hands to stop their protests. And for the people who aren’t impressed by our TOGGs, we have both manned and unmanned aircraft abound [which might have some appeal].
Considering that we have placed a national icon of ours, Mahzuni Serif, at the foundation of this piece, we might as well end with more of his lines. The great master wrote an apt response to Kurtulmus and his ilk years prior which also succinctly represents the state we find ourselves in as the elections approach:
“Having waited so steadily, I have finally become a flood, oh saints
I do not know; shall I roar or shall I not?”
* TOGG is a Turkish car manufacturer that makes luxury electric cars. The TCG Anadolu is an amphibious warship and aircraft carrier belonging to the Turkish Navy. Kurtulus is referring to citizens who are more concerned about the rising prices of staples such as onions and garlic.
** These song lyrics (“My Lord bestowed two eyes so that we would see / The hero finds himself depending on a sole onion / I do not know: Shall I weep or shall I not”) are part of the same folk song “Bilmem Aglasam Mi” by renown folk musician Mahzuni Serif.
*** This (“The ones making a living off the backs of other people”) is another line in the same Mahzuni Serif folk song.