Neighborhood Politics

On October 29, ninety-four years after the founding of the secular Republic of Turkey, a solemn Turkish-American man named Feray Gökçek stands before thirty people in his backyard on Middletown Avenue, across the Quinnipiac River from Fair Haven. A two-and-a-half-ton, thirteen-foot-tall bronze statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, looms over him. “What we are doing here today,” Gökçek says in Turkish, “is contributing to world peace and protecting democracy and secularism.” Barely a smile crosses his lips. It is raining, and from a stereo on his screened porch the Turkish national anthem plays, followed by the American anthem. The listeners stand observant, arms at their sides.

Gökçek grew up in a city in Turkey on the Black Sea, but left in 1991 to escape political violence. He says he was a freedom fighter. He erected the statue of Atatürk on May 19, 2016, the one hundred and thirty-sixth anniversary of Atatürk’s birth. He is a member of the Atatürk Union of USA, a private organization made up of about one hundred fifty people around the East Coast who support Atatürk, secularism, democracy, and freedom. The entire Union helped pay for the statue. It was originally supposed to go up in New Jersey in another member’s yard, but they didn’t own the land. Gökçek volunteered his. Bronze Atatürk’s face is tilted up in a fierce, mysterious smile. His right hand clutches his suit jacket. At his feet, Gökçek refills vases of red and white carnations every week.
Gökçek plans to rename a tiny street near his house “Atatürk Street.” He has collected over three hundred signatures to petition the city. “From Dunkin’ Donuts,” he explains, “from Walmart, the oil change, the hotel, downtown, Lowe’s, Aldi, the barber shop.” He points out that a street in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, is called John F. Kennedy Caddesi (“avenue” in Turkish), in recognition of JFK’s support for strong Turkey-U.S. relations. John F. Kennedy Caddesi is a major boulevard. Scarboro Street is a 250-foot dead-end that runs alongside Gökçek’s yard.

He calls his yard “Atapark.” Turkish and American flags of all sizes fly side by side. He refers to a hut in the yard as “Ankara,” and to his house as “Çankaya,” the Turkish equivalent of the White House, which Atatürk built in 1921. President Erdoğan replaced it with a palace called the Presidential Complex in 2014. “He fuck it up,” Gökçek says. “Sorry – my language. He is an asshole. He is an asshole.”

There are three signs on Gökçek’s fence: a list of all the cities in Turkey, the words “Adalet – Justice” in red against a white background, and a laminated, blown-up biography page about Atatürk from BBC History. Behind the page, Gökçek has painted “HAYIR”—“No,” in Turkish—in response to Erdoğan’s 2017 referendum to strengthen his presidential powers, which he narrowly won. Gökçek supports the CHP, also called the Republican People’s Party — Turkey’s secular, leftist opposition party. The party of Atatürk. Erdoğan leads the AKP, also called the Justice and Development Party — the Islamic conservative party. Under Erdoğan, Turkey’s government has become increasingly religious and authoritarian. In just three years, between 2006 and 2009, he constructed nine thousand Ottoman-style mosques in Turkey. Thousands of Turks have been arrested for denouncing his presidency. Some have begun to call him “Sultan Erdoğan.”

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Across the street from Atapark, a Turkish government-funded mosque has been under construction for at least two years. The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs—the religious chapter of the Turkish government, founded in 1924 under Atatürk—funds an American organization called the Diyanet Center of America. With this funding, the center has helped pay for Turkish mosques in other cities around the US including Louisville, Charlotte, Portland, and Queens. The Turkish Diyanet gave the New Haven congregation white minarets and a white dome with glaucous tops and crescent peaks. They were shipped across the ocean from Turkey in over a hundred pieces and reassembled on Middletown Avenue. But the staggering eighty-one-foot tall minarets apparently violated city zoning law, and construction was halted. City officials and the congregation’s president, Haydar Elevli, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

When I visit the mosque on a Friday morning before prayers, it is full of congregants even though it’s still under construction. Elevli’s wife shows me the carpeted prayer rooms, the bathrooms and the ablution rooms where worshippers may wash their feet, the empty tiled dining room that will be full of dishes and tables and hungry congregants when construction is completed. Upstairs are open, well-lit classrooms where children learn how to speak Turkish and how to cook, how to read the Quran and how to pray. In one, the children have written their names on rounded blue rectangles pasted to the wall below a peaked border of tiny Turkish flags. A red balloon printed with the flag’s white crescent and star hangs in the middle of the room like a chandelier.

On the third floor, right below the dome, all is ragged and metal. It looks like we’re standing inside a malformed egg. Elevli explains how busy her husband is, waking up at four every morning, running his restaurant in Wallingford, mediating between the Turkish government and the city about the mosque’s construction, not always returning home at night. “All for Allah,” she tells me, “all for Allah.” She explains that she too works for Allah.

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“My community,” Gökçek says, “is the secular people. Not the religious people.” I ask him if he erected his statue and collected his signatures to protest the mosque. “No,” he says, “Not to protest.” Only to affirm secular Turkey. Only to send a message overseas to Erdoğan. Though he did tell the New Haven Independent that the congregants have “religion brain,” which, he said, is “worse than drugs.” And that he imagined them “screaming every day” at his statue. He did tell me that “religion [is] more dangerous than cocaine, heroine.” I ask Elevli how her community feels about Mr. Gökçek and his yard. “I don’t like talking about him,” she says.

The sun glints off Bronze Atatürk and the mosque’s golden crescents. The worshippers arrive to pray and Gökçek refills his vases of red and white carnations.

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