Turkish Publisher Can Öz: The Rebellion of an Apolitical Man

By Maximilian Popp

For years, Can Öz followed his father's advice to steer clear of politics. But the turmoil in Turkey has pushed the leading publisher off the sidelines and into the fray, where he is becoming a key voice of a movement still taking shape.

On May 31, Turkish publisher Can Öz met with two trusted associates: the chief editor at his publishing house and the marketing manager. He wanted to tell them about a decision he had made.

Just a short walk away, on Istanbul's Taksim Square, people had been protesting for days against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Öz couldn't sleep. He was in the streets with other demonstrators when the police brought in water cannons, sprayed tear gas and beat citizens.

Nevertheless, he was euphoric. "I've been silent for a long time," he said. "That's over now." People in Turkey were protesting and demanding their rights. Öz told his colleagues that he was going to make a statement that afternoon, but they were worried. "Don't do it!" they warned, fearing that the government could exact revenge and shut down the publishing house.

Can Öz is a friend of mine. I have known him since I studied in Istanbul. He is 32, only a few years older than me, but he has been the head of Can Yayinlari, an important literary publishing house, for the last six years. He publishes works by the likes of Umberto Eco, Daniel Kehlmann and Jane Austen in Turkish translation.

In conversations with friends, he had long criticized the policies of the Erdogan government, but he had never voiced his concerns publicly out of concern for his family and his company. The Erdogan administration has had critical intellectuals and journalists arrested. Öz had stopped talking on the telephone, fearing that his conversations would be wiretapped. In recent years, he seemed increasingly distraught, eventually becoming bitter and resigned.

Breaking the Silence

The upheaval in Turkey changed all of that. Öz initially took the side of the demonstrators on Twitter, writing that they had every right to protest. Later, in an op-ed article published in the British newspaper The Guardian on June 11, he explained why he was no longer willing to put up with Erdogan's despotism: "I am not afraid to lose my business, my wealth, or even my freedom by being jailed and sentenced; but I can not bear to live a dishonourable life any more." (sic)

Öz is wearing a polo shirt and rimless glasses, and has a three-day beard. He went to school in Boston, and he speaks English and French. Prime Minister Erdogan calls demonstrators like Öz "terrorists."

A live stream from Taksim Square is running on two computers in his apartment in a historic building in the Beyoglu neighborhood of Istanbul. Since he spoke out publicly about the revolt, he has received hate emails and threats, but also messages of support. He keeps gas masks and construction helmets in a closet. Friends knock on his door, their eyes tearing and their shirts soaked with perspiration. Öz gives them water and tries to calm them down.

Many of the demonstrators are Öz's age or younger. Most are taking part in protests for the first time. Their parents experienced the unrest of the 1960s and 1980s, when Kurds and communists revolted and radical groups fought each other in the streets. The military intervened, overthrew the government in 1980 and had people executed. It wasn't until two decades later that Erdogan and his conservative Muslim supporters were able to break the power of the generals.

Öz's parents also experienced the coup. His mother, Samiye, grew up in an upper-class Istanbul family. Her ancestors include a foreign minister and the founder of the Galatasaray football club. As a young woman in the 1970s, she went to Ankara, where she met Erdal Öz, a writer from Anatolia. Can's father was critical of the military regime in his writings, quoting Marx, Lenin and Sartre. In 1971, he was sent to prison, where he was tortured and mistreated. A flyer from that period still hangs on the wall in Öz's office today. His father said nothing to his family about his treatment in prison until a few years before his death in 2006. He advised his son to steer clear of politics.

Polarization and Protests

Memories of the chaos and brutality of the political conflict have been burned into Turkey's collective memory. The generation of those born after 1980 was considered apolitical. "We grew up with the sense that politics was dangerous. We believed that we couldn't change anything, anyway, and that it was best to stay out of politics altogether," says Öz. "Occupy Gezi changed that."

As he walks the short distance from his apartment to his office on a side street in Beyoglu, Öz encounters police officers in riot gear and people wearing gas masks. Helicopters circle above the city, and the smell of tear gas hangs in the air. He is meeting his mother. She owns half of the publishing house, while Can and his sister each own a quarter. Samiye Öz wants to talk to her son about the uprising. She took in two dozen demonstrators at her apartment on the previous evening.

Occupy Gezi is the birth of a new Turkish protest culture, says Öz. "It's not the same thing you experienced in the '70s, mother," he says, because hostile groups aren't fighting each other in this case. Instead, a young civil society is finding its voice. Fans of the Beikta football club demonstrated alongside transsexuals and anti-capitalist Muslims, says Öz. "It's as if I were living in a dream."

Journalist and film director Can Dündar is part of this group. He is familiar with the conflicts of past and present. A few years ago, Dündar directed "Mustafa," a much-noticed film about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish nation, in which he portrays Atatürk as a drinker and waverer. As a result of the film, Dündar made new enemies among the Kemalists, who are devotees of Atatürk.

The dividing line in Turkish politics and society is often described as the antagonism between the secular-military elite, the Kemalists, and up-and-coming conservative Muslims. For decades, a secular class oppressed the pious in Turkey. Erdogan himself, who first became prime minister in 2003, invokes the differences in his speeches. We, the "true" Turks, he says, are the oppressed, while they, the generals and Kemalists, are the oppressors. Although Erdogan established democracy, he long ago appropriated the dirty methods of his predecessors.

Many Turks are tired of the polarization, especially because they themselves have no place in such an environment. Öz, for example, would never vote for Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). But it was generals, the self-proclaimed heirs of Atatürk, who had his father arrested and tortured. Most young Turks are in a similar position. The Gezi demonstrators are opposed to Erdogan, but they also boo every opposition politician who tries to hijack their rallies.

A Self-Created Problem

A young, urban middle class is taking to the streets in Istanbul, Ankara and many other Turkish cities. They buy their clothes at Zara, and they fly to London on discount airlines for vacations. They are well-educated and non-ideological. Most of all, there are many of them. Istanbul alone has a population of 13 million.

Erdogan partly created the Gezi Generation himself. Many of the demonstrators who are now protesting him study at the universities that the government developed, or work in companies that cropped up during the economic boom of recent years. Öz also profits from the fact that, today, more Turks have money to buy books than a decade ago.

Erdogan wanted this progress, but he refuses to accept Turkish citizens' growing need for autonomy. And in contrast to past generations, today's demonstrators are not interested in imposing a particular worldview. On the contrary, they want people to be free to express their own worldviews. Öz believes that one of the reasons the resistance movement became united in the fight for Gezi Park, which was slated to be razed and developed, is that trees cannot be co-opted.

Mood Becomes More Agressive

It is Sunday, June 16, three weeks after the beginning of the revolt. Thousands of citizens are once again taking to the streets. The police have sealed off Taksim Square in Istanbul. Demonstrators try to reach the square through side streets. The security forces are shooting tear gas canisters, and people are stumbling, half-blind, through the alleys. When a man falls down on the street, police start to beat him.

Öz watches Erdogan's speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters in Istanbul on TV at home, together with his girlfriend, the actress Selma Ergeç. "Istanbul, are we united?" Erdogan asks.

Ergeç grew up in Germany. Her father is Turkish, her mother German. She lived in Oxford for a while, and she moved to Istanbul 10 years ago. She plays one of the lead roles in "Muhteem Yüzyil" ("Magnificent Century"), a historical television series based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent that is broadcast in more than 45 countries every week. Despite its popularity, the government threatened to ban the program because Erdogan felt that the sultan was being portrayed as frivolous.

Ergeç says that the mood in the country is becoming more aggressive with every speech Erdogan gives. When the protests began in Taksim Square, she also took to the streets. But now she has become more careful, fearing that she, as a celebrity, could become the target of attacks. One of her fellow actors has taken a particularly strong stance against Erdogan. He has received so many death threats that he hasn't left his house in days.

The current events are the first severe test in Öz's life. In 2005, he had just returned to Istanbul from Boston, where he was studying sociology, when his father developed lung cancer. Erdal Öz was a brilliant publisher, and his authors held him in high esteem. He had founded the publishing house in Istanbul in the 1980s, after the end of the military coup, and had discovered many young, talented writers over the next two decades. He was also the publisher of books by Orhan Pamuk, who would later win the Nobel Prize in literature. But he was only moderately interested in the financial side of the business, and he had only made spoken contracts with many of his authors.

When Can Öz took over his father's job, he introduced structure to the company. Suddenly it had an accounting department, and Öz even hired a management consultant to provide him with weekly reports. Öz traveled to book fairs abroad and strengthened relationships with publishers, such as Suhrkamp in Germany and Penguin in Great Britain.

Öz says he is prepared for the government to take action against him. He has seen what has happened to fellow publishers, such as Aydin Dogan, the powerful owner of the daily newspaper Hürriyet, which is critical of the government. Dogan was almost ruined by a tax dispute in 2009.

"They destroy your credibility," says Öz. "They spread lies in their newspapers and on their TV stations, claiming that you are a crook or an alcoholic. Then they take aim at your company. They impose bizarre fines, and they call upon customers to boycott your company."

Öz says that he is willing to pay this price. He has an emergency fund set up in case business starts to plunge. In the worst case, he says, he might also go to prison.

A Movement Lacking Direction

On the evening of June 18, several hundred demonstrators gather in Cihangir Park, near Taksim Square. Now that Gezi Park has been cleared, citizens meet regularly for "open forums" in various places in Istanbul. They sit together, discuss issues and get to know each other.

The forum has already begun when Öz arrives at the park. The key question at the moment is how the revolt should progress. Very few demonstrators can imagine supporting one of the established parties, but establishing a new party is difficult. Who would pay for it? And what would be its agenda, other than rejecting Erdogan? A young woman proposes that the activists start by becoming exclusively involved in local projects, such as preserving historic buildings.

Öz believes that it's too early to define the movement's direction. "I have learned," he says, "that we are not condemned to silent obedience." People will probably be writing books and making films about the Gezi revolt soon, he adds.

The democratization of Turkey, Öz says, has only just begun.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. my little bro is playing the hero he never was!
senemozz 10/22/2014
my father Erdal Oz was a politically engaged person. As her elder daughter I have never heard him implying anything about staying away from politics. That is a big lie my little bro is using for years to cover his nonpolitical attitude. It is hard to follow the foot steps of a father like ours.. Especially after fooling him with a fake university diploma to gain his trust... Lets see what my little bro would do after declaring his political stance: ""We grew up with the sense that politics was dangerous. We believed that we couldn't change anything, anyway, and that it was best to stay out of politics altogether," if they grew like this it has nothing to to with my father.. What a shame !!!!!!!!
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