Above is a photo of my grandfather, Ferda Güley, the handsome fella in the light suit, together with İsmet İnönü, Atatürk’s successor as 2nd President of the Turkish Republic.
Grandpa gave 24 years of service to Turkish democracy both as minister of transport, maritime affairs and communication, and as a member of parliament for the CHP, the major social-democratic party in Turkey. In all the years I knew him as the loving and charming, yet highly demanding, principled man that he was, I never saw him lose his political idealism, love for beauty, and respect for truth.
This man, when inspired by a particularly interesting topic at the dinner table, would spontaneously cite – of course by heart – a whole page from one of Goethe’s books, or a poem out of his own published collection of poetry. Although he, of course, had his faults like every other person, he was also kind, strong, and a natural leader. He was one of those people in whose presence one feels both challenged and safe: their high expectations sharpen and push you, but ultimately make you a better version of yourself; their competence and strength assure you that whatever happens, when you are with them, nothing bad can ever happen to you.
My grandfather, whom I have used the polite pronoun with when addressing him all my life – “Sie” instead of “du”, “vous” instead of “tu”, for lack of an English equivalent – was to equal parts soft and hard, kind and severe. He was a firm believer in democracy, transparency, and hard work. When declaring all of his assets before entering his duties as minister of transport, maritime affairs and communication, he wrote every single thing he owned or owed on a single piece of paper, carefully typed up on a typewriter, and dutifully handed it to the public. In one line, he declared: “I owe about 25.000 Turkish lira due to my election campaign, which I am paying off in monthly installments with my salary as member of parliament.” Here is a photo of the report.
The first thing I remember him asking me was what I thought I could contribute, as a Turkish migrant living in Germany, to both the societies of Turkey and Germany. We were having dinner at home, ten or so grown-ups sitting around the dinner table, some of whom were quite serious and important states-people themselves, and I was 12 years old. The last thing I remember him asking of me was that I never stop being so curious.
The last time I saw granddad before he died was in 2007. I was 21 years old and visited my grandparents on my own after a sailing trip I had gone to, sailing the Turkish Aegean Seas. We drank a Raki together, the Turkish national alcoholic drink, on the balcony of his beloved summer residence in the South-West of Turkey. I remember that little apartment right by the sea so well, given that my cousins and I basically grew up there together in the summers, doing all sorts of naughty things for the first time there, and concealing it from our parents like all teenagers do. Here is a photo of my beloved cousin Deniz and me, both about 13 or 14 years old, in said summer apartment, kissing our grandfather.
But back to the last time I saw him, in 2007, when I was 21 years old: Granddad had reached the proud age of 92, was visibly weakened, yet still sharp enough to compliment my grandmother for looking fabulous that day. After a delicious dinner and perhaps one more glass of Raki, on that balcony by the Mediterranean Sea, he brought up a poem that he had written many, many years ago. With equal parts melancholy and cheekiness he cited:
“It is a thin and delicate thing, this thing called life.
Who would know this better than you, little daisy?”
When I look back at these days, read my grandfather’s books, or come across a photograph of him, not only do I wish he was still alive to guide me through the adventures of adulthood, but I wish he were there to serve as an example of good statesmanship, and to join and guide our fight for democracy, equality, and freedom.
Where are statesmen and women like that nowadays? A look at Turkey today shows that everything my grandfather worked so hard to achieve and dedicated his life to is in ruins, because it got into the hands of an intellectually unqualified despot whose vision is blurred by the fantasy and pursuit of power. A look at the US shows, shockingly, a similarly grim image of what kind of leaders are voted into power today: a man who probably does not read books, does not know what modesty even means, refuses to share his tax returns and be transparent with his constituency, and lies with every chance presented to him.
Extraordinary people come and go, and they leave a positive mark on whichever spot in history they manage to touch. It fills me with sadness and frustration to see these positive marks washed away one by one, by people entirely unworthy of the trust and power handed to them. Democracy is a thin and delicate business. If we do not protect it, it is sure to be as short as a daisy’s life.