Poverty in Orhan Pamuk’s Turkey

The upcoming snap election offers the perfect opportunity to discuss inequality.

Rubbish in Istanbul
This year's upcoming snap elections on November 1 seem to offer the perfect opportunity to discuss poverty in Turkey, writes Genc [GETTY IMAGES]

In May, a Turkish miner who had survived last year’s explosion at the Soma coal mine that left 311 miners dead, gave an interview on TV to express his frustrations at joining the ranks of Turkey’s poor.

“My friends died while working in the mine,” he said. “And I will die of starvation.”

Since losing his job, the miner has lived off of unemployment benefits, which had been cut around the time of his interview. Without a job, he had little idea of how to survive in Turkey’s increasingly competitive economic climate. To become poor in Turkey is the beginning of a painful existence.

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Last week, Turkey’s Statistical Institute published statistics about the country’s poverty and income distribution for 2014 and the findings clarify many of Turkey’s underlying tensions. Fifteen percent of Turkey’s citizens earn below the poverty threshold. According to the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Turk-Is) in a report published last summer, the poverty threshold is $1,442 for a family of four. Fifteen percent of Turkish citizens are apparently unable to make that amount of money in a month.

For an in-depth look at the lives of Turkey's poor, a more nuanced perspective is needed.


News about the hunger threshold ($528 for a family of four, according to the union report) is less depressing. The figure has decreased from 1.35 percent in 2002 to 0.48 percent in 2009, before disappearing altogether after 2010.

Turkey is a middle-income country which has seen significant growth in the last decade: Its gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate reached 6.69 percent in 2009 and expanded by 1.30 percent in the second quarter of 2015.

But the latest economic statistics attest to another side of the same coin: In 2013, the number of poor people in Turkey was 11.137 million; this figure increased to 11.332 million in 2014. Another problem is Turkey’s history with income inequality. In terms of income inequality, the country is among the worst in the Organisation for Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD) member states.

Related: Turkey’s summer of mayhem

Turkey’s inequality problem is multifaceted: The wealthiest 20 percent’s share of Turkey’s total GDP in 2013 was 46.6 percent; this fell to 45.9 last year – a change of 0.7 percent. On the other hand, the poorest 20 percent’s share of the GDP increased by 0.1 percent up to 6.2.

In other words: people are moving out of hunger in Turkey while others are joining the ranks of the poor. There is an acute income inequality problem, but it often goes hand in hand with middle classes increasing their shares of the GDP.

The debate over poverty and inequality polarises the Turkish press. Some argue that the economy is healthy, while others say the country is in dire shape. In the hands of Turkish columnists, statistics about poverty are figures used to for political expediency. For an in-depth look at the lives of Turkey’s poor, a more nuanced perspective is needed.

In the past, the task of examining the lives of the poor has fallen on the shoulders of novelists – of great writers like Yasar Kemal. Kemal, who died at 92 earlier this year, was a great observer of the urban poor. Over the course of 70 years, and through more than 20 novels, he detailed the lives of villagers who had migrated from distant Anatolian cities to the heart of Istanbul. In books such as “The Birds Have Also Gone”, his observations meticulously examine how the elite of Istanbul reacted to cohabiting with workers who wore mud-covered shoes and spoke in what they considered to be an ugly version of Turkish. As Kemal understood, Turkish elites have viewed the urban poor as the cause of Turkey’s problems. Today, their ordeal is ignored; back then, they were antagonised.

For decades, Turkey’s poor were characterised as backwards, conservative, religious-minded people who represented the worst of the society. Last year, in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, I saw a fur-coated lady who, upon noticing a poor person on the street, leaned forward to ask why he was begging instead of looking for a job. The lack of empathy with the poor, in such cases, is immense.

In his new novel, “A Strangeness in my Mind”, Turkey’s greatest living novelist, Orhan Pamuk, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, explores inequality. His protagonist, Mevlut, a member of the rural poor, migrates to Istanbul where he struggles to make ends meet. The son of a yogurt seller, Mevlut resembles countless poor people who have migrated to the suburbs of Istanbul over the past five decades.

Spanning 50 years of Mevlut’s life, the novel offers a detailed picture of poverty in Turkey. We learn about the “hemsehri” system, whereby a poor migrant from a small village comes to Istanbul, starts working, and invites his fellow countryman to live in his neighbourhood and work in his workplace. Soon, people from his village dominate that field of work, and the migrant starts to exert influence in the mahalle (district) where he lives. 


This year’s upcoming snap elections on November 1seem to offer the perfect opportunity to discuss Turkey’s problems with poverty and inequality. But it is unlikely we will hear those words or the names of the unemployed coal miners. Politicians will instead debate such lofty concepts as nation, land and freedom“.

Kaya Genc is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His first novel, Macera, was published in 2008.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.