This post was submitted by Dr. Sumi Colligan, Professor of Anthropology and Faculty Service-Learning Co-Coordinator at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
Turkey conjures up vignettes of war, not least of which is the tragic and possibly preventable attack on Ataturk Airport that took place on June 28th. On a visit this past month, I was struck by the many manifestations of war and the distressing impact they have on ordinary citizens. One morning a Kurdish woman with whom I was conversing cried as she told me about a mother in the Kurdish Southeast who had been shot and killed by Turkish forces in a public square, her children prohibited from retrieving her body for seven days. Over tea, a Kurdish man showed me a photo of a funeral taking place in a Kurdish community as the mourners endured a chemical shower from a TOMA (armored water cannon truck). The man told me that he considered this act fundamentally dehumanizing as burying the dead is a key characteristic of our species. The next day, I was waiting in the domestic area of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and a group of young men were throwing their friend up in the air, chanting “The bastards of Apo (Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK) cannot stop us.”
The following week, I went on a road trip of the Aegean coast with a Turkish and a Kurdish friend. As we were meandering on foot through a fishing village, a woman came running up to my Kurdish friend, a young man in his early thirties, and asked whether she could hug him. She explained that he looked exactly like her husband who had been deployed in the Southeast and had been killed in military service. He hugged her because she was quite obviously in pain. Later, though, we discussed the ironies of this encounter as she might have felt differently about approaching him thusly had she known he was Kurdish.
Backtrack to the previous week, when I stopped one evening in front of the Opera House in Kadikoy, a neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul, and talked to several representatives of a group called Baris Bloku (Peace Block) who stood collecting signatures to be submitted to the Turkish government. Their goal was to encourage the AKP (Justice and Development Party) and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) to resume peace negotiations, not simply out of concern for the plight of Kurdish civilians, but with a broader recognition that armed conflict causes loss and suffering that reverberate across an entire society. The Block was represented by people of diverse backgrounds, underscoring the multiple social positions from which this initiative was launched. While the fear of speaking out against government policy was palpable, so was the resolve of the Peace Block’s promoters to make their voices heard.
Fast forward a week, and I returned to Istanbul following the road trip to find Taksim Square completely roadblocked and swarming with police in anticipation of an “unauthorized” transgender parade that was scheduled that evening. City buses, used to deliver police to the city center, were marked “Out of Service” and a section of the square was cordoned off for municipality workers to enjoy an iftar dinner that same evening. As the time for the parade approached, I wandered down to Istiklal Street, a pedestrian walkway that terminates at the square, to witness every side street cut off by police, transgender individuals being harassed, and the pedestrian walkway lined with TOMAs. Not wanting to be caught long in the middle of the fray, I heard what had happened to this gathering, met with pepper spray and rubber bullets, in the ensuing days. Interestingly, a transgender person I spoke with subsequently considered this exaggerated response to be an expression of societal recognition as many types of activists in Turkey receive similar treatment.
As I look back upon these vignettes, enjoying an illusive sense of “safety,” I resist reducing what I heard and observed to a set of dichotomies – East vs. West, Kurds vs. Turks, secularism vs. Islam, left vs. right, or heteronormative vs. queer. Embracing any of these seeming oppositions would be conceding to Turkey’s President Erdogan the power tool that he sometimes adeptly, sometimes comically, and often dangerously wields, as he is inclined to foment and manipulate perceived global, national, and local faultlines to his own advantage. The crosscutting friendships, political and ethnic alliances, and intersectional identities of many I met suggest that while Erdogan has undeniably fostered a war with many fronts, he cannot yet claim the role of victor that he so unequivocally desires.