Christos Tsiolkas set his novel "The Slap" at a barbecue in suburban Melbourne. But a version of his story of patriarchal violence has been played out in the Turkish village of Soma, scene of the mining disaster last week that killed more than 300. The country is abuzz at suggestions that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister, followed a protester into a supermarket and slapped him. True or not, it is telling that not even Erdoğan's advocates find it implausible. There is a sense that, given his mercurial personality, such a thing could well have happened. In a video recorded on the same day, Erdoğan is heard warning: "If you boo this country's prime minister, you get a slap."
Taner Kuruca, the Soma man said to have been the victim, made a timid statement, sounding quite fearful. He explained that he was not a protester but someone who happened to be shopping.
"When his bodyguards started to push, the prime minister unfortunately did something involuntarily and slapped me because he was angry at the crowd."
Since then he has changed his story twice -- first saying it was a bodyguard, rather than Erdoğan, who hit him. Now he says it was Erdoğan, but he was too afraid to speak the truth.
Had this happened in another country, the entire government would be shaken to the core. Not in Turkey. As a nation, we are used to finding excuses for the slaps we are subject to from childhood. In the typical, patriarchal Turkish household, verbal and physical violence is not uncommon. Should children misbehave, fathers slap them. Should wives misbehave, they can expect the same.
On the same day in Soma, Yusuf Yerkel, a close aide to the prime minister, was filmed kicking a protester. Later Yerkel issued a statement saying he was sorry "for not being able to remain calm, despite all the provocations, insults and attacks I was subjected to." He has now reportedly gone on sick leave for injuries to his kicking leg.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, riot police were busy firing tear gas at young people protesting about the conditions that led to the miners' deaths, and at the government's response. At the Middle East Technical University, famous for its leftist spirit, plastic bullets were fired at about a thousand students who wanted to march on the ministry of energy after they had first been harangued by police chiefs. Grief is something one does passively, quietly. If you take to the streets, you get a slap from the state.
Western media found it mindboggling that Erdoğan mentioned accidents in 19th-century England at his press conference as evidence that mining has always come with risks. But to the ears of the common man in Turkey, this makes sense: life is unfair everywhere, and in the end it is all in Allah's hands.
Yet at the same time there is a very strong awareness in Turkey that this tragedy could have been avoided if the necessary precautions had been taken. Comparisons are also frequently made with the case of the Chilean miners. Social media is awash with photos that contrast how the rescue operation was handled in Chile and how the president was welcomed by miners there, and how Erdoğan was heckled in Soma.
"The slap" is part of our culture, and surfaces at the slightest provocation. Provocation is the key word, the golden excuse. The husband who beats his wife at home or stabs her on the street in front of their children bases his defense in court on the same argument: "She provoked me by dressing salaciously, your honor." The man arrested for creating mayhem in a restaurant repeats the line: "The other customer provoked me by stealing glances at my girlfriend, your honor." And now the adviser to the prime minister claims he was provoked by a protester who kicked his car and swore at him.
The state has all the power in Turkey. Citizens do not. We as a nation are used to being slapped by those in positions of higher authority. In family, in school, in the army, in the street, in the supermarket. . . the slap is everywhere. And as recent days have taught, Turkish masculinity is far too easily provoked.
This article also appears in the Guardian.