“A true patriot of his country and Europe.”This is how I was described during the speech of the new European Ambassador at the award ceremony at the European solidarity center in Gdansk, Poland. My book, Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy (Turcja: Obłęd i Melancholia), was why I was there. It is partly a personal account of the rising authoritarianism that has downgraded people like me to being second-class citizens in our own countries. That is why those words were so meaningful to me: a balm only familiar to those who have felt that warm sting of copper wire through their chest when described as traitors in their own country.
The European Solidarity Centre is in the old docks where an electrician called Lech Wałęsa became a Nobel peace prize-winning political leader (before going on to become Polish president). Wałęsa changed his country from being an iron curtain nation to a land of freedom – before the neoliberal system took over. The permanent exhibition – it is probably the best political history museum in Europe – tells the long story of this dramatic historical shift where you can reminisce about how a revolution started, and ended in a rather unfortunate way.
The terrace of the six-storey museum looks over the docks where the Solidarity movement began in 1980, the same year my country – Turkey – was going through the cruellest military coup. I know the name of this city from my childhood. When there was a civil war at home and the leftists were de facto running some cities, the conservative Turkish press was publicising Poland’s 40-day strike on daily basis. A warning to Turks that socialism was a horrible thing. It is a wicked twist of history that both countries are now, more or less, experiencing the same fate: being run by rightwing populists.
Perhaps that is why my book became popular in Poland. It’s certainly why I am receiving an award. The book tells the story of how we messed up. It hints at how European countries witnessing the rise of a rightwing populist tide will eventually be swept along despite the strength of their democracies.
Those running the European Solidarity Centre, those who are protecting the entire story of the Polish revolution – not the version romanticised and advertised by Polish rightwing politicians – might know that feeling too. They are the persona non grata of the populist government in Poland. The director of the museum, Jacek Kołtan, told me that government supporters call the museum the Homosexuals’ Solidarity Centre. And once again, I think, remembering is an act of resistance.
Memory is not the total sum of past events and what we collectively remember is determined by the dominant narrative during our lifetimes, put into circulation by those who rule. It’s far more complicated than “winners write the history”. The rulers cannot rewrite it as they please unless the ones who remember the entire story fall silent. That is why truthful storytellers are met with merciless treatment as terrorists even though they never fire a bullet. Fake news, the Homosexuals’ Solidarity Centre – these slurs serve the same purpose.
The building looks like a rusty old ship, as if disfigured after it washed ashore, in the same way that the Solidarity movement did. When you are done with the fascinating permanent exhibition, as you go to the terrace someone who knows the whole story and their way around Gdańsk can show you a little building further off. It is the former Workplace Health and Safety Centre, where all the workers once gathered to make decisions about their strike. The trade unionists of today still gather there to have passionate yet desperate conversations about the current political situation. I’m sure they reminisce about the days when they thought that the revolution would belong to them – after all, they started it. After decades of sweeping privatisation and widening gaps between the social classes, they may well have forgotten how it felt when the educated middle class and the working class come together in solidarity.
Some still believe in solidarity in Poland, says Magda, the presenter of the award, “but with a small ‘s’”. The one with a capital S has been contaminated by the two parties that came out of the movement in the 80s and transformed into today’s political establishment.
Just like Turkey, Poland is desperately trying to remember its entire story and is now suffering from the paralysing narrative of the rightwing populist movement. These are not isolated cases; it is a global movement that operates by targeting the people who are capable of critical thinking to create a society where nobody can think or remember any more.
Those Poles – who are as stunned as any of the other peoples of Europe who experience the first wave of rightwing populism – ask the same question that is often put to me: “Is there hope?” I say once again: “What if there is no hope? There is you and me. There is the solidarity that reminds us of the joy of being complete human beings.” What I refer to is solidarity with a small “s”, obviously. That is all that is left.