A squad of about half a dozen cats patrols a small, overgrown cemetery in central Istanbul.
“It’s a kind of magical place, right under our noses,” says Memo Kösemen, a local artist and graveyard habitué, surveying the small plot of land.
But something’s caught his eye and suddenly he’s crestfallen. He bends down and hoists a freshly smashed tombstone, trying to fit the pieces back together. An older woman’s face, split in half and incised with a spider web of cracks, gapes up at him. This is one of the special ones, Kösemen quickly realizes; one of them, the Dönme.
The shattered tombstone seems sadly symbolic of a small, secretive society founded during the Ottoman Empire but cruelly stigmatized with bombastic conspiracy theories and forced to assimilate into the subsequent Turkish republic or conceal their true identities.
Today, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP under its Turkish acronym, do not just control of the government; after defeating the recent attempted military coup, its leaders are feeling empowered. Their push to bring Sunni Islam ever closer into public life in Turkey has intensified, making many religious minorities, including descendants of the Dönme, feel ostracized.
As one of the few Dönme members still living in Turkey put it, “They’re trying to force everyone to become a type of Sunni Muslim.”