By Kenan Behzat Sharpe
The “new Turkey” seems to have no space for women. Last Friday thousands of people gathered below Taksim Square in Istanbul to celebrate International Working Women’s Day. 2019 marked the 17th annual March 8th Feminist Night March. This year, however, police set up barricades to block the marchers. In response, the event’s organizing committee issued a defiant statement:
“This year we are facing an attempt to ban our Feminist Night March, which we have held with great enthusiasm and without interruption each 8th of March in Istanbul since 2003, that is for the past 16 years. Nothing ever stopped us before . . . We have no intention to back down from this feminist revolt or give up on our [march]. We know we are right. We know it is our right.”
When a human flood of determined yet jubilant marchers descended on the area despite the ban, riot police began attacking the participants with tear gas and rubber bullets. With other forms of protest and assembly already beleaguered in Turkey today, it appears that even the Feminist March will become a battle.
Something else happened in Turkey on March 8th. The musician Gaye Su Akyol released a music video for a song off her recent album İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir (Consistent Fantasy Is Reality). The single, which has the same title as this third full-length album by Akyol, has the signature sound listeners have come to expect from the from her: a mix of Turkish classical music, psychedelic and surf rock, grunge, and arabesk. Trippy synths, an electrified bağlama (a stringed Turkish folk instrument), and complex rhythms all swarm and coalesce under Akyol’s low, world-weary vibrato. The song’s chorus summarizes the philosophy of the song:
Consistent fantasy is reality.
Is there death or otherwise is this a dream?
Let my suffering be a partner to your suffering
Shake it, hey, life is rock ‘n’ roll.
Elsewhere she takes on the persona of a social outcast:
I could not fit, I was chased off from everywhere
We’re like the seagulls that suit the sea
Wherever the wind blows is where we go
The timing for the release of the “İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir” video was no accident. Its visuals and themes show that Akyol offered the clip in the spirit of March 8th. In her thigh-high pink leather boots, glittery blouse, and velvet cape Akyol looks like a cross between a Marvel superhero and a feminist jedi master. The catch is that she’s driving a minibüs, a form of semi-official public transportation in Turkey similar to the decorated matatus of Kenya. Minibuses travel along predetermined routes, but passengers can get on or off anywhere they like along the way—that is, anywhere the ‘captain’ agrees to stop. Sitting at the wheel like a small god, the typical minibus driver is famous for his (the job is exclusively for men) ability to multitask, often managing to steer the wheel, give passengers change for their fares, smoke a cigarette, and flick prayer beads all at once.
Akyol is not your mustachioed uncle’s minibus driver. She has the same macho bravado but instead of prayer beads she flicks a strand of purple pearls. It is not coins or bills that passengers pass up from the seats in the back but gems and crystals shimmering with an otherworldly glow. No soccer jersey decorates her van but rather lace frills, Star Trek VHSes, evil eye beads, and portraits of Zeki Müren, queer musical icon, and actor Müjde Ar, a symbol of the ‘liberated woman’ in ‘80s movies. The ubiquitous white letters usually announcing “In the name of God…” on the rear window instead declares “Consistent Fantasy is Reality.” Another decal surrealistically adapts lines from the song’s lyrics: “There Is Death and This Is a Dream.”
As for the passengers, where does Akyol transport the people who slowly fill her bus? Not to any neighborhood of Istanbul or Ankara but to an alternative dimension. Halfway through the video the vehicle starts shaking and moving backwards. A second later, the city street and the sea appear upside-down. Then the earth, surrounded by black space, can be spotted from the window before the motley crew of passengers touch down on some misty, moon-like celestial body. They get out and began dancing around Akyol as she solos on her black bağlama, swinging her cape about her. Stars shimmer above them all. The view is nice from outer-space.
In an interview with Hürriyet newspaper cultural correspondent Güliz Arslan entitled “Can there be a woman minibus driver? Yes, there can!” Akyol explains some of the thinking behind this song and her larger musical project. When asked how she thought of driving a minibus for the video she had this to say:
“There are things that don’t even occur to us to debate, most of them are learned stereotypes. Empty sentences like ‘Women are delicate, men don’t cry, women can’t do that job, men can’t succeed at this’… I dream of a world of people who don’t care about societal gender roles, who don’t give a damn about what neighbors will think, who dream and live whatever they feel, people who have become [real] individuals. And this is manifested in the video.”
For those familiar with Turkey, the shock of seeing not only a woman as a minibus driver but one who is represented as a “superhero persona … who doesn’t pay attention to the stares directed at her and continues on her way” is palpable. The masculine space of public transportation is one that people dislike, condemn, or at the most avoid—riding a minibus can even have a fatal outcome for women, as the heartbreaking murder of Özgecan Aslan revealed—but it is not easy to imagine the system transformed beyond mere band-aids. In this way, what Akyol performs in the video is a form of feminist utopianism. The gap between the everyday life she imagines could exist and the world we are forced to exist within reminds us of the infinite ways that the present doesn’t measure up.
From William Blake to Ursula K. Le Guin one function of utopian speculation is to wake us up to the poverty of our imaginations. The shock of encountering potential or even impossible futures in art makes it likewise possible to register once again the intolerability of what exists and what is imaginable. In this sense, Akyol’s outer-space aesthetic is not just a quirky gimmick. It contains the lineaments of a politics that combines both protest and psychedelic pondering.
The key to this philosophy is in the title of the song/album, as Akyol explains in her artist’s statement:
“Consistent Fantasy Is Reality” is . . . a revolutionary album which no capitalist or top-down imposed obligations can restrain or contaminate.
In terms of its philosophy, lyrics, music and motto, this album is the dream of pure freedom, of showing the courage to be yourself, of looking at the culture I was born into without alienation, a “dreaming practice” propounded into a country and world that is increasingly turning inward and becoming a conservatized prison…
Akyol aims to draw on local musical traditions without falling into the chauvinistic localism that characterizes Turkish politics today:
With this album I pursued new sounds in the deep waters of this geography, dug up the manifestation of my experiences, all the music, the people, the pain, the dreams and countries I have heard and was touched by, followed the footsteps of a personal archeology and tried to add my lost territories to these. . .
From here she takes stock of the global situation:
We are masses moving within a huge chaos. We are the disaster seeds of a cultural collapse which infiltrates the human mind and inhibits dreams. In an age when we are forced to forget dreaming, as societies we become weak signals of the barren mind. We are descendants of unqualified herds that follow grunts. We are the miserable, standardized, un-rebellious and unfounded robots of the new world. . .
This album is in search of the great crisis of existence, the assorted peculiarities that you are subjected to when you refuse to get used to and are alienated by things such as war, or death, a sudden separation forever from a loved one, dreams for instance, the nature of species, what we look for in this weird planet, what we are not able to find, what we call real and what we turn down as dreams.
Dreams keep you awake and it is time to wake up!
The philosophy expressed here is admittedly vague and perhaps will smack of pseudo-spiritual New Age quackery to some. Yet these ideas shouldn’t be too hastily dismissed, for Akyol has some hoary predecessors in her quest for a radical politics of the imagination.
For example, in her poem “Rant” Diane di Prima articulates a ‘60s New Left take on the 19th-century Romantic critique. What she says about imagination has strong parallels with what Akyol calls “dreaming practice”:
w/out imagination there is no memory
w/out imagination there is no sensation
w/out imagination there is no will, desire
history is a living weapon in yr hand
& you have imagined it, it is thus that you
“find out for yourself”
history is the dream of what can be, it is
the relation between things in a continuum
what you find out for yourself is what you select
out of an infinite sea of possibility
no one can inhabit yr world
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST
ALL OTHER WARS ARE SUBSUMED IN IT
There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides
There is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher
you do it in the consciousness of making
or not making yr world
you have a poetics: you step into the world
like a suit of readymade clothes
or you etch in light
your firmament spills into the shape of your room
the shape of the poem, of yr body, of yr loves
A woman’s life / a man’s life is an allegory
Here, Di Prima draws on Blake, who denounced industrial capitalism and colonization: “Art Degraded Imagination Denied War Governed the Nations.” War, he thought, stems from an attenuated ability to imagine. Di Prima develops this into the argument that we are always imagining, everyone has a “poetics,” but we are not always conscious of it. This is what Akyol calls “consistent fantasy:” the ability to fight the forces that deaden the imagination of what could be. In defiance of this deadening, we must learn to dream even while awake. The reality we live in is someone else’s consistent fantasy; the point is to live our own.
In another section of her artist’s statement, Akyol describes more concretely what role imagination might play in Turkey today:
As a woman born and raised in Turkey, who makes her own music, who created a playground outside the masculine system by founding her own record company, who participates in every stage of this work from creation to production in a masculine dominated geography and an ever conservatized world, I think it is necessary to make these stories of “consistent dreaming” visible and I hope to inspire other women and people who are producing and claiming their own dreams. In this sense this is an extremely feminist, revolutionary and idealist album. . . .
In a difficult country like Turkey, bordering the Middle East, Europe and Russia, in an atmosphere that is increasingly conservative and in a world that contributes to this darkness with its own chaos and power struggles, I believe that we need to create a counter reality in order to challenge organized evil and the horrible reality it creates, and the strongest option here is “consistent dreaming”.
Both in the production side of her music and in its content, Akyol imagines dreaming as a political practice. Unlike a superficially similar figure like the musician Grimes, who has seen no contradiction between her feminist spaceship aesthetic and defending the union-busting philosophy of Elon Musk, Akyol is committed to a radical vision of equality. Specifically, her video imagines a way out of the current polarization and violence of Turkish society. Of the people who are traveling on her minibus to space, all are visibly from different social strata. There are workers, women wearing the headscarf, a gay man, a woman with dyed hair and a beanie, a man with a religious skull-cap, hipsters, a trans woman, and–thrown in for good measure–a group of strange black-shrouded monks from space. This message of togetherness may be simplistic. It certainly does not put forward practical strategies for thinking about what forms feminist, anti-capitalist struggle will have to take in today’s terrain—but that is not the point.
In a situation where women are being progressively pushed of public space and, in the case of last week’s March 8th protests in Istanbul, physically attacked for assembling, we need all of the fresh transfusions of imagination that we can get. Akyol doesn’t provide any solutions, and it would be unrealistic to expect blueprints from a cultural producer like her. What İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattır does is provide the soundtrack for our collective fantasy–which, like other art forms in our absurd world, must sometimes be surreal in order to be realistic:
Pursued with consistency, [a] surrealist narrative structure can be the vanguard of a new artistic language, attitude, and even a current. We can actually change the things we think we can’t change. When I say this people ask, “Is it up to you to save the country?” Yeah, man, maybe I will save the country, or maybe my friends will. Sometimes all it takes for people to be enlightened or [even just] to take a breath of air is just a song.
When our friends gathered in Istanbul and beyond on March 8th, enjoyed themselves in defiance of the ban, and made declarations like “We will not abandon the night, the streets, or the squares: feminist rebellion!” they were also creating that song.