This post was submitted by Dr. Sumi Colligan, Professor of Anthropology and Faculty Service-Learning Co-Coordinator at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
On the road in Turkey again this past month, two Turkish friends, one an avowed leftist and one a yoga devotee, and I visited several World War I memorials on the Gallipoli Peninsula near Canakkale. At the entrance to one, we laughed about something inconsequential and were yelled at by a young man who was weaving his way through the tombstones with his wife and daughter. He admonished us, “Show some respect! Our ancestors died for us here!” His reaction precipitated a discussion between my friends regarding whether such claims to ancestry were legitimate as these deaths took place in the late Ottoman period before the formation of the Turkish Republic. While, admittedly, the line between empire and nation cannot be drawn so sharply (despite measures taken by Ataturk to erase the past and convince Turkish citizens of its fissure), what was perhaps striking was the desire by the other visitors to claim this past as a way of underscoring the obligation of sacrifice in the present; a sacrifice, for some (for my friends, for example), that signified the abrogation of hard-earned rights not willingly relinquished.
This fetishizing of martyrdom also deeply upset my friends because for them it invoked the constant broadcasting of the song “Olurum Turkiye’m” (“I die for you my Turkey”) for several weeks after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. My friends found this frightening as they were attending a small house warming party that particular night, holed up in a small apartment in a building with the only residents in that particular neighborhood who were largely not Justice and Development Party (AKP – ruling party led by President Erdogan) supporters. Afraid to go home, they huddled together all night with the lights out as they heard the banging and screaming of men below enjoining them to take to the streets to save Turkey’s purported democracy.
At the second memorial we stopped at, a rule book for proper conduct awaited us at the entrance. One rule my friends noted was a prohibition against propagandizing at the memorial site. This struck them as contradictory as the site was set up with tables for an iftar dinner to be sponsored by the AKP for local AKP-affiliated politicos and their families as a show of gratitude for their patronage. Nearby the tables, flags with the images of Ataturk and Erdogan blew side by side in the wind, as if to suggest an equivalence of leadership and the rebirth of the Republic under Erdogan’s guidance.
Later that evening we attended a free concert in a public park in Canakkale situated on a hill overlooking the Dardanelles Strait. The band, Ezginin Gunlugu, known largely for its songs of loss and love (sometimes with political undertones), began the concert with the lead singer intoning, “There is happiness in the world. For us, however, it has been sad and dark for quite some time. But we still believe in light and peace.” At the end of the concert, a municipality representative (the municipality being a Republican People’s Party (CHP) stronghold) thanked the band members for their “political sensibilities” and presented them with an award. The conferring of the award did not necessarily suggest that band members were CHP loyalists but instead evoked a broader desire for justice, presumably shared by the performers and many of the audience members alike.
In one day and in one place, reflecting the increased polarization of the country, the meanings and boundaries of community were defined and redefined, expressions of heroism and leadership were claimed and contested, and competing enactments of sacrifice and hope were performed. Dominant narratives and counter-narratives wrestled to assert themselves over the day’s experiences, leaving me restless over what the next day would bring and whose histories and which social actors would be erased, revised, celebrated, or mythologized.