Conferences : The Stakes at Issue with Turkey`s Application for Membership of the European Union : Nazan Ustundag

Salih AKIN (FR)

Section PRESSE
LE MONDE-19/10/04 (FR)
LIBERATION-20/10/04 (FR)

The Stakes at Issue with Turkey`s Application for Membership of the European Union

01 October 2004
Organized by : Kurdish Institute of Paris

Workshop on (Post)Conflict and Remaking of Place and Space: Economies, Institutions and Networks.

The Construction of Witnessing Voices and the Representation of Violence and Loss

Nazan Üstündag
Department of Sociology
Bogaziçi University - Istanbul, Turkey

During the period between 1993 and 1999 when the armed conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK was at its peak , 3438 rural settlements in the Southeastern region of Turkey have been evacuated by the Turkish army forces as part of a policy aiming to undermine the popular support and logistic help that PKK was attaining from Kurdish people . It is estimated that 4 to 4.5 million Kurdish people were forced to flee their homeland and resettle in urban areas such as Diyarbakir, Izmir, Mersin, Adana and Istanbul as a result of evacuation polices. It is also widely documented that the forcibly displaced migrants not only lost home but also have been victim to several forms of violations during the evacuation including killings, torture, beatings and harassment. Moreover, after they migrated, the police, arrests, and accusations did not stop, and coupled with unemployment, poverty and the discrimination and at times animosity they faced from local populations, their sense of victimization and oppression has deepened . While forcibly displaced Kurdish people have been receiving some attention and recognition in public since 1999 due to the cease-fire following Abdullah Öcalan’s arrest, the possibility to return seems to be grim for most of these people .

Drawing on Lacan’s analysis of Antigone, Veena Das who has worked extensively with displaced populations in India, argues that exposure to violence forces one to occupy the limit “at which the self separates into that which can be destroyed and that which must endure” (1997, p. 207). When Antigone explains why she defied the law in the face of the death of her brother, she talks about the uniqueness and the irreplacebility of her brother. According to Lacan, at the limit where she faces her own death, and yet, simultaneously speaks for the non-substitutability of her brother, Antigone is producing a certain kind of truth about power and the law of the state which functions by erasing uniqueness, and about relationships that remain unaccounted for in the operation of the law. Needless to say, what makes Antigone a heroic and tragic figure imprinted in the western imaginary, is the fact that she is about to die. Her words are heard for the last time and hence, cannot be ignored and must be reflected upon. For many people, however, the limit that Antigone is talking from, must be constructed, occupied and endured in the everyday. Hence, Das asks “How does one bear witness to the criminality of societal rule, which consigns the uniqueness of being to eternal forgetfulness, not through an act of dramatic transgression but through a descent into everyday life? How does one not simply articulate loss through a dramatic gesture of defiance but learn to inhabit the world, or inhabit it again, in a gesture of mourning?” (p. 208).

The poisonous knowledge which is produced by witnessing violence and which reminds one of the criminality of societal law haunts the displaced Kurdish migrants in their every-day. In the hostile urban environment, selves and the community must be refashioned and restored, and survival of the family must be re-arranged despite the fact that now the constitutive violence on which all law depends has been learned and cannot be forgotten. Narratives of the past, the life in the village and community, as well as detailed accounts of its destruction are the primary means through which displaced Kurdish people attribute meaning to their loss, re-inhabit the world and remake their selves. These narratives not only help them “sustain a sense of agency in the face of disempowering circumstances” (Jackson 2002, p. 15), but also re-situate them in a web of relationships. It is the process in which the construction and the exchange of these narratives in the every day enable displaced Kurdish people to re-occupy the present, which is a space of injury and loss, that I want to explore in this paper. I argue that there is a gap that exists between the way in which different discourses (including Kurdish and Turkish) represent Kurdish migrants and the ways in which Kurdish migrants inhabit the space of loss in the every-day through a negotiation with these discourses and in relation to other urban institutions, inhabitants and other migrants. As long as this gap is not filled with new discourses and new politics, I remain pessimistic on the possibility of overcoming the tension that defines the relationship between the Turkish communities and the Kurdish communities in the urban space. I also suggest that the trope of witnessing and the everyday mechanism of diagnosis build the key for starting such a project. While the trope of witnessing calls for the production of an intersubjective knowledge that re-signifies dominant symbols such as the state and the urban in Turkey, diagnostic means uses this knowledge to remake the every-day and restore injured relationships. However before, a few more words are needed to clear the theoretical and political space in which I am talking.

The Kurdish Presence in the Urban

Although displacement and forced migration of “suspect populations” is a common practice around the world, the status of Kurdish people in Turkey is different from many of these cases since the displaced population cannot be categorized as refugees, or political asylums. The status of Kurdish migrants resembles refugees since they have left their homes violently and unwillingly, since they form a distinctive ethnic group, and they speak a different language than the one spoken in the host-city. Moreover, the dynamics that produced their displacement are still partially at place and no formal mechanisms are created by the state to make amendments to their situation. As with refugees, they are de-skilled in the urban environment, the cultural forms and practices they have taken for granted are interrupted, and they live under severe circumstances economically.

On the other hand, different from refugees they continue to reside in the country where they have been at least legally granted their citizenship rights. In that sense, although the everyday contexts within which their lives unfold have gone through enormous transformations, not much has changed in terms of their legal status. This fact, while on the one hand, making them more equipped to deal with their recent conditions (in terms of finding temporary jobs and temporary homes, or being entitled to educational and health services), also make it difficult for them to be recognized in the urban space as a distinctive group with specific demands and injuries. On the contrary, what is most hurtful to them, as many of them express it, is the fact that they are considered by authorities, NGO’s and academicians alike as composing the third wave of migration in Turkey, and are distinguished from former migrants only in terms of their higher levels of poverty and “ignorance” of urban ways . Once they enter the urban realm, they become part of a larger narrative of development and world capitalism where the specific violations they endured and the main problems that caused their “migration” become hidden and go unregistered.

When displaced populations are studied, it is usually their conditions, problems and the ways in which their immediate survival is secured what gains most attention. Usually, the terminology within which they are discussed makes use of marginality and exclusion. Put in closed camps, enclaves, or if formally recognized, then in gated neighborhoods, their strategies of survival and cultural reproduction are severely undermined. As Bauman (2004) argues they increasingly occupy the status of “waste” in the countries where they migrated. The Kurdish migrants, on the other hand, are much more dynamic and visible in the urban spheres where they currently reside and have an increasingly important role in shaping urban politics, representation and culture. However, in my opinion, academicians and Kurdish and Turkish politicians alike still not properly address the significance of their role.

Forcibly displaced Kurdish people form currently the most important popular basis for Kurdish politics and also are increasingly becoming an important sign of the urban in Turkish national imaginary. For the Kurdish Movement the mere fact that millions of civilian people have been made homeless, injured and violated testifies the injustice of the Turkish state and unmasks its disregard for basic Human Rights – a fact that is often used by Kurdish groups engaged in national and international lobbying activities and negotiations. While in the conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish state, injured and violated bodies as signs of state violence have been abundant, forced migration has made it clear that even the ordinary and the innocent were not exempt from the “law” of the state. On the other hand, the migrants have also played a major role in transforming the Kurdish movement from a regional affair to a matter of urban and national space. The visibility of Kurds in the urban as political activists and as subjects of basic entitlements destabilized the sovereign identity of state institutions and that of the “proper” urban dwellers including former migrants. Even when addressed as usual, that is as subjects of modern social policy affected by migration and poverty, the Kurdish population has transformed the terms within which policy has been constituted in Turkey, for example, by introducing the long taboo term “trauma” in the vocabulary of Social Services and NGO’s. While NGOs and state institutions still call in former discourses of “underdevelopment” and “backwardness” to establish new strategies of governance in the districts where the Kurdish populations increase, the sign of the forcibly displaced Kurdish migrant remains an excess standing not only for him or herself but also for the long forgotten Armenian genocide, as well as for all villagers who had to move away from their homeland due to economic difficulties and modernizing imaginaries, and forces many to face the guilt they feel for the violent history of Turkey to whose making and suppression they have also contributed. The Kurdish visibility in the urban, in other words, is only with difficulty contained through the discourses of underdevelopment or regional threat through which ethnicity and rural-urban distinction in Turkey has always and only been talked about . In the context of Turkey then, the question that Das formulates must be reposed in terms of not only “how the witnessing subject learns to inhabit the world, or inhabit it again, in a gesture of mourning”, but also in terms of how the witnessing subject re-makes the world she inhabits and transforms it through this gesture.

The difficulty that one faces when answering this question is the fact that the displaced Kurdish population does not compose a homogenous group that can easily be named and described. On the contrary, it is very difficult to assess the problems they face, the strategies of survival they develop, their changing identities, their desires, or their new forms of belonging/not belonging in a coherent fashion. Nor would it be fair to suggest that they composed a homogenous group even before their displacement. Most importantly, their relationship to the Kurdish guerilla in specific and to the Kurdish resistance movement in general show enormous diversity which also affect the tropes through which they narrate their past and present experiences. While those who were closely tight to the movement in terms of ideology and in terms of informal links live their displacement as a “sacrifice” for the movement and an epitome of the injustices imposed by a nationalist state, those who had a more ambiguous relationship with the movement talk about their past as well as their present in terms of an individualized daily struggle against being erased from life and history which they consider to be the lot of all the poor and the less powerful regardless of place, history and nationality. For these people, neither the home village, nor the city is a place of belonging since, as one of them declared “it is and will be always so. Each time I put a brick to make a home, there will always be somebody to destroy it. ”

The links that Kurdish migrants have with the movement also changed differently after the arrival to the urban, depending on the discrimination and the police pressure they faced, as well as the help they received from their kinsmen and from other Kurds. While some became more militant and more politically active, others stayed away from the Kurdish community altogether due to the fear of further exclusion and marginalization in the urban space, as well as the “betrayals” they encountered from relatives. Moreover, the places of arrival after having been displaced play an important role in the ways the past and present experiences are interpreted and remedies are sought. For example, those who moved to the city centers of their villages and hence remained in the Kurdish region, still desire to return back and “the recovery of the past” forms the imagination around which their political and social activities are centered, those who moved to big cities such as Izmir or Istanbul have formed more closer links with the urban structure and are partially inclined to seek remedies in the sphere of urban management.

The analysis that follows is based on my research in a district in Istanbul where the displaced population has less hope and relatively less desire for return and, is more inclined to be part of the urban community. Although many of them expressed their desire to return back at first, as we spent more time together, they also declared that life in the city gives one more opportunities and more freedom in certain ways, specifically in gender relations. Moreover, most of the people I talked to had already established close links with urban organizations and had become dependent to urban services, although often through relations established within the Kurdish community. They had different degrees of political and ideological closeness to the Kurdish movement and different kinds of problems with it. Nevertheless, all of them shared a sense of belonging to a violated community and a basic commitment to a certain kind of ethnic politics.

During my “formal” fieldwork I collected life-story narratives from 15 displaced Kurdish women. By telling their stories from a position of witnessing, Kurdish women constituted me as a fellow-witness. Witnessing, in other words, became the trope through which we communicated and established our relationship. I was introduced to them as a Turk with a “but” following immediately, explaining my willingness to listen. Despite all the differences that structured our relationship, sharing the act of witnessing through the ear and the eye reconstituted the community we belonged to for them as well as me. The act of witnessing the suffering of the “other” produces an urgency to act. I contend that it is in the production of a “witnessing voice” and in the sense of urgency it gives rise to that new discourses and new forms of relations are established that needs to be addressed, talked about and represented by both the Kurdish movement and the state if they want a stable peace as they claim to be the case in their public announcements. I also believe that this will not only help to live together after violence, but also can form a basis for re-writing modern Turkish history to include loss and for re-signifying urban space as one of injury and accordingly, for finally developing a language that will account for long hidden chapters of the experience of modernity in Turkey.

The Construction of the Witnessing Voice and Gendered Subjectivities

“Since our village is a big village with 200 houses, a security station is established in it. It was the middle of June in 1993. Since it was very hot in the summer, my father and brothers were on the roof. Suddenly there was an explosion. At first we couldn’t understand what was happening. People were running forth and back. We were looking out from the window. Somebody on the street told us to go inside. The soldiers were shooting towards the village. We didn’t know where my father was. My mother heard that somebody yelling that my uncle was shot. I suppose my father must have gone to look for him. Till the morning we stayed under the bed. The shooting continued. In the morning the soldiers brought us all in the village yard. It was there that my mother saw my father’s corpse. They told us to leave the village. They burnt everything down and shouted we helped the terrorists. We heard later that some of the men in the village have buried the dead secretly after we were forced to leave. “

This husband of mine who doesn’t speak anymore was arrested and tortured several times. I don’t know what the charges were. There is always something. Soon after his last arrest, the soldiers came to the village. They brought us all together in the village yard. They asked whether we would finally agree to become guards. We said no. So they burnt down all our houses and forced us to leave. We went from village to village, from one kinsmen’s house to the other. No one took us for more than a couple of days. We came here. Look at the barren walls, the barren rooms. There is nothing. We have nothing. We are nothing. And my husband can’t speak, nor work, nor go out. Possibly, because of torture.

The narratives in which Kurdish women and men depict the violence they were exposed to are not the immediate and unmediated products of violence. On the contrary, as a number of scholars have argued the immediate product of violence is loss of narrative and language (Jackson 2002, Scarry 1985). Once the everyday is shattered by unexpected violence, most people find it difficult to talk about their experience and to re-link themselves to the world temporally and spatially with the means of narrative. How speech is regained and the format within which experience will be communicated depends very much on institutions and communities that lay a claim on the memories and identities of violated people. In the recent context of Turkey, it is the parties and institutions created by Kurdish activists who lay a claim on the memories and identities of the displaced Kurdish people.

In the district where I did my field work it is primarily HADEP (now DEHAP) , the political party of Kurds that was the primary space where differently situated women and men come together socialize, as well as the space where Kurdish identity become politicized. HADEP had a local branch where I conducted my fieldwork and what it mainly does is organizing local meetings where cultural activities such as dancing, music and singing play a crucial role.

Another important function of HADEP was the mobilization of Kurdish residents in the district to participate in political mass-meetings such as Newroz and the Labor Day on May 1st . HADEP also provided a network for migrants through which they could access homes to rent and jobs. In other words, besides politicizing the Kurdish identity and providing the means to imagine a Kurdish community, HADEP also at times assumed the role of an association based on origin of place widespread in migrant neighborhoods and provided the displaced migrant with a network facilitating the settlement in the city. Hence, starting with the initial point of entry to the city and surely even before that, HADEP played a key role in the lives of Kurdish women and had enormous influence in shaping the narratives of Kurdish people’s past. Besides HADEP, another organization that played a key role in the lives of displaced Kurdish migrants is GOCDER the association of Kurdish migrants that aims to help displaced Kurds and that lobbies in the international arena for the recognition of forced mass displacement as well as for the return of migrants to their home. For both DEHAP (HADEP) and GOÇDER, the figure of displaced and wronged Kurdish woman as witness to ethic violence is crucial. The displaced Kurdish women are sites of memory of state violence, of loss and of domination for both DEHAP (HADEP) and GOCDER. It is through intense documentation, extensive collecting of testimonies of displacement, arrangement of international meetings and cultural events that DEHAP (HADEP) and GÖÇDER organize the narratives of different Kurdish women into a single narrative of suffering.

Telling stories of trauma, as Michael Jackson (2002) has pointed out, is difficult not because of the shattering effect it has on a person’s sense of time and place, but, also because it involves and economy of emotion and compassion that many would not want to play a role in creating. Men for example are less willing to talk about their suffering since it would harm their authority and create a wounded subjectivity open to intervention and compassion. In the case of Kurdish migrants this creates a gendered division of labor. Men’s narratives are more likely to evolve around the political activities they engaged, whereas women’s narratives are about the violations that the community endured. Rather than talking about their own life only and their injuries, they narrate the injuries that the significant others (often male) have suffered (see also Ross 2001).

The structure and content of how memories of displacement are narrated individually within these meetings and documents is very similar and their strength comes from their repetition over and over again in different contexts. Women attend every meeting and tell their narratives almost without any changes. Even in political or academic meetings where discourses of “objectivity” and “formalism” dominate, women create opportunities to talk about what they “witnessed” changing the terms within which the public-ness of the meeting is constructed. Moreover, the performance of retelling the memory of violence is also similar including where they lament and where they make general statements. The retelling and repetition of the story of violence in the same format, however, does not make it less authentic for the story teller, nor for the audience. Indeed, it is the repetition that gives these performances a political meaning. Repetition makes different stories of women into a single voice of the Kurdish feminine .

Telling narratives of violence in the voice of witnessing, help to remake themselves as political agents and as social beings. This form of political agency inhabits body and place as a site of loss, and re-signifies both of them as spaces on which moments of injustice are recorded and inscribed. In these narrative performances, modern history, the law of the sovereign state as well as the dominant significations of the rural-urban divide are put in question form an ethnic position. I also believe that this new agency points to the opening of a third space in the Turkish urban from which one doesn’t necessarily speak as the sovereign or as the victim in order to tell one’s story as has been conventionally mandated. Moreover, although such selves are produced within the Kurdish community and with the means that are developed and made available in the Kurdish nationalist practice and discourses, they are also gendered, and accordingly, become sites from which gendered relations are problematized and criticism to the movement articulated. However, I won’t be able to elaborate this last point in this paper.

Accounting Violence

We were farmers. We lived well and had hope. It was our home. But in 1995 due to terrorism they burnt down our villages. And believe me when I say it was for nothing that they did so. Even if you would put me in front of the President I will say the same thing. We weren’t guilty. Believe me. We weren’t guilty. Our village was near the center. We had never seen a terrorist. It was for nothing. Why? Because they want to make that region disappear. The soldiers came and burnt it down. Some soldiers were compassionate and let a few families take out something to wear. Some left without anything. Our cat remained in the house and was burnt as well. The state doesn’t do such things. But I am telling you. Believe me the state did this to us. We came here. We only suffered. My sons are high school graduates. But, when they say they are from the region, people close their doors on them. We are the citizens of Turkey. The state shouldn’t discriminate against us. What else can I tell to you? What other story can I possibly tell? My husband died of sorrow soon after we came here.

Well, I can tell you that I was happy in the village. We had everything. My sons went to school. We had money. We had green pastures and a beautiful land. Everything grew there. It was beautiful. I had friends and a good husband. I don’t know if you know how farming is done. But we had all the equipment to do it. Specifically, in the last years things had improved considerably. We had electricity and water. We didn’t hurt anyone. We lived peacefully. We had no reason to leave the village if it weren’t for the state. What they did has no reason.

You know village life. Its not like you have everything. But it is definitely better than this. The snow in winter. The green in spring. It is your home. Your homeland. What can be better than your homeland? You have your own home made beds. Home made food. Real vegetables and fruit. The water is for free. Beautiful mountains. We lost everything. We could take nothing when they burnt down the villages. Everything was destructed. The houses, the animals. It has been four or five years. I still wake up thinking I am there. Then I remember. I am in this place.

In the narratives of violence women and men tell, the home village is constructed as a peaceful and happy place. Its pastures, the fields and water and the nature of the village, the social relations within it, as well as specific cultural practices such as, food making, farming, and forms of socializing are described in detail. In his analysis of the narratives of Partition, Chakrabarty (2002) argues that while History explains moments of violence in a coherent fashion, showing it as an effect of events that preceded it, people memorize violence as unexpected and irrational. They highlight the violent event as an unexplainable occurrence disturbing the peace lived in paradise. What Chakrabarty observes in the narratives of Partition also applies to the life- stories that displaced Kurdish people tell. Often, in their memories conflict is written out from the life in their homeland until the state arrives. The peaceful life in the village is gradually disturbed by the army forces, through the creation of an army post, frequent visits to the village, as well as the embargo they impose on the villagers by controlling what they buy and bring into the village . Nevertheless, the invasion of the village by the soldiers and its burning down always occurs unexpectedly. Not only the act itself, but the way it is done, bringing people together in the village yard before the houses are burnt, or not letting them take anything out of the house and letting the animals be killed, are all rendered irrationally cruel and unexplainable in these narratives. The scenes of violence are depicted in the form of recollecting the objective facts, such as what was said or where different things happened in a strictly chronological fashion . Its distance from the past defines the present within these narratives. The present is merely a space of remembering and has only value in terms of the traces it bears from the past.

Chakrabarty argues that this type of narrative depicting a golden past that is irrationally and unexpectedly disrupted by violence is an important building block of contemporary Hindu Bengali nationalism. He believes that by writing out conflict from the past, the past is rendered devoid from any form of difference and otherness. These sorts of narratives end up producing “ressentiment communities” that imagine and desire also a future with no place for difference. In the case of the narratives at hand for example, one could argue that although the state was always present in the village in the form of schools, health stations and elections, the narratives situate the temporality of the arrival of the state and the encounter with ethnic difference embodied in the soldiers, in the acts of violence and irrationality. One could then argue, that the narratives of displacement that Kurdish people tell are also formative of ethnic nationalism.

While this might partially be true, as I explained above, as one attends to the every day context within which they are told, that is (different from Hindu Bengali population) the urban context where the sovereign identity still remains that of the Turkish state and people, one can detect other conclusions from the ones Chakrabarty draws. It is the act of performing these stories in a socially and historically constituted time and space and the effect of these performances in that time and space rather than the content of them what should be paid attention. Once the process in which the poisonous knowledge produced in the aftermath of violence is engrained in the every day is made visible, one can start re-thinking the new formations in urban space and politics upon the arrival of forcibly displaced Kurdish migrants.

The State

First of all, the narratives produce an important knowledge on the sovereign identity of the state. State in these narratives is not that which grants rights and security, but that which suspends them and decides on whom and what kind of life to kill and to destroy and on whom and what kind of life to let live and to reproduce itself . In a country where after each disastrous event people ask “where is the state?” and where “the problem” against “order” has always been constructed to be the absence of the state and the excess of traditions and outside threats, the experience and the narratives of forced migrants constitute a poisonous knowledge that no one wants to hear. Moreover, the narratives not only make the law of the state accountable for injustices but also the societal rule in the urban:

Since we came here no one gives us a home to rent. They say you have too many children. They say we don’t want Kurds.

This and that. We are all renters in this earth. They don’t know that simple fact. I go to the doctor. He insults me. As a result I chose to give birth to my child at home. You already have pain. Why should you be more troubled by insults? I go to my children’s school. The teacher doesn’t want to talk to me. Why? Because I don’t have money. You are nothing without money. In the village it is also difficult if you don’t have money. But, still you are something.

One day I took my child to play in the park. This guy called from the window. Go away, bitch, he said. I said: Be ashamed of your age. Don’t talk in those words with a woman. He said: What if I do? Nothing, what can I do? Nothing. Get in trouble again? Have my husband beaten? No. I just had to leave.

They say we are ignorant. Going to school is education? Ignorance is something else. Ignorance is not respecting human rights. Not respecting women’s rights. Oh yes, I don’t know how to read and write. But thank God, I am not ignorant as most people are here. Yes, we live like in the village. Did we want to come here? No. They say you are exiled. Thank God, I am not exiled. Did I do something to deserve exile? Did I run away? Did I commit a crime? No, I am not an exile. I am Kurdish. I was forced to migrate.

Questioning both the sovereign identity of the state and the sovereign identity of those who invest in the state, including house owners, school teachers, local bureaucrats and mayors, the poisonous knowledge of Kurdish migrants operate as a counter point in the urban sphere. According to their narrative, it is not “lawlessness” per se, but the categories through which decisions on what deserves law and what deserves exceptional means are made, that constitute the problem. Needless to say, in the everyday, this knowledge does not operate as absolute but is negotiated and shared strategically.

Zeynep, a local Turkish woman who had assumed the role of friend, guide and teacher during my fieldwork and who accompanied me in these interviews found it often difficult to become part of the process of witnessing, since different from me taking the position of witnessing for her, meant reconsidering her own sense of marginality and the ways she spoke about it which she had constructed based on living at the urban margins as a woman. After each interview she would tell me that she doesn’t believe what was said. Would it be possible for her not to know if all these really happened? Wasn’t it the lot of all the poor to be oppressed? Would more law not solve everything? Ashamed of her doubts on the narratives, she would then ask me, “and yet, what should the state do now? Just like us, they have to learn to live in the urban environment and forget what happened.” Nevertheless, Zeynep has later on become a key person in bringing the register we talked to from the prophetic to the everyday, and in finding practical solutions to the problems of several of the Kurdish women we talked to even after I left the so-called field site.

It was not only Zeynep who was gone through a transformation through witnessing. Other neighbors, Kurdish women declared, helped them immensely and understood their “difference:”

My neighbors. I like them. They help me. They take me to see the local governor to get my poverty papers. They take my children to the hospital. They find jobs for me. They know my situation. They know why I am here and why I don’t have anything, how others treat me.

Also, in my observations in the local government offices, forced migration was a frequently raised topic. Many people who came there to ask for poverty papers that entitled them to free health care and to monetary assistance two times a year were forcible displaced Kurdish women. They often lacked the papers that could prove their former residence since their former residence simply ceased to exist. The local officials would explain to me: “How can they have any papers? They just left without anything. So, we have to arrange things as if they have them. That’s how they can get their poverty papers. Not that it will solve anything. They just want to go back.” In other words, the state officials were aware of what happened and translated their local knowledge to the homogenizing categories developed by the state, at times by drawing on illegal means such as “arranging papers.” In the light of these experiences, my first point is that in talking about new urban politics and space in Turkey and in representing the presence of Kurdish people in the urban, it is these moments where the poisonous knowledge testifies the sovereign identity of the state and is negotiated and made part of the operations in the every day while solving problems, that must be paid attention.

The Urban as A Space of Loss

Secondly, these narratives put the celebrated trope of urbanization in the Turkish imaginary through which national and modern subjects are created into question. In my dissertation thesis based on life-history interviews with 50 migrant women and several government officials I have argued that in Turkey migration and urban belonging has been the primary means through which national and modern subjects are created. By constructing time as a move forward where the ultimate goal is the ownership of a house in the city, women became the subjects of developmentalist temporality and believe themselves to have carved a place in the world historical stage we call modernity. These women speak in a confident and coherent voice when talking about their life and render their sufferings to have remained in the past. They talk about their home village in terms of lack and absences, dependence and oppression. As opposed to many migration narratives all over the world, home is not something they want to return, nor do they talk about it in a tone of “longing,” except in terms of its natural beauties. They are happy to have established sovereign houses where they become the “interior minister .” I have also argued that although they are still currently troubled with all sorts of unhappiness, they lack a language to articulate those since in their narratives the position they created for themselves as the sovereign and successful individual who is the actor of modernity does not allow for them to speak about disappointment and suffer anymore, but only about lack in the past. Women, who could not reach the status of homeowner on the other hand, talked about their life as a sign of deprivation, wound and an unfulfilled longing . Nevertheless, in their narratives as well, the village is not a happy place. Rather, it is a kind of a foundational story on which their narratives of dependence, victimization and suffering can be based. In the narratives of Kurdish women who were forced to migrate, on the other hand, while the village is a source of happiness and a paradise, it is the city that is a space of suffering and loss.

Instead of talking of the village in terms of lack and absence, or in terms of authenticity, the village is reintroduced to the urban imaginary as a dynamic and living space where distinctive communities reproduce themselves. Nor is the urban characterized as a space of individualized lack. Rather, it is where the loss of a certain way of life is felt and inhabited. Numerous scholars in Turkey have numerous times argued that migrant communities in Turkey usually form communities that are at once moral and interest-based. For example, migrant associations based on origin of village operate as spaces where information is exchanged, jobs and houses found and political benefits distributed. Although also based on a place of origin that is in a certain sense “lost,” in these organizations and networks, the place of origin is used as a reference point for a network that will enable one’s integration to the city and also make one feel as belonging to a distinctive moral community. The defining feature of the communities founded upon a sense of loss, on the other hand, is the act of mourning which sometimes can even become anachronistic. However, the space of loss and mourning can also be productive and give rise to a new political agency. This political agency, according to Butler brings “bodies to the foreground, it is registered as a certain motion of bodies, as if telling is supplanted by moving, and moving, which has no direction and is motivated by no causality, becomes its own kind of display (p. 470).”

Dancing the Halay and participating in NEWROZ and May 1st defines the visibility of the Kurdish migrants as a community where I did my fieldwork. All these activities of re-signify the urban as a space of loss that is unable to contain, and narrate spatially what is lost. While the state, the media and other urban dwellers define the communal visibility in these events as militancy or as“uncivilized”, one could argue these are performances in which the new political agent formed by “loss” challenges the sovereign identity of the state and that of the urban space. The second point I would like to make then is, that in talking about urban politics today, the loss that forced migration involves and the political agency created through forms of collective mourning must be named and addressed. The difference of “village narratives” told by Kurdish migrants compared to all other migrants suggest that migration today does not only produce national and “modernized” subjects but also ethnic, political and “anachronistic” subjects in the urban space. Through their performative agencies, they refuse to move in the progressive time of modernity but spatialize history through their collective agency in the sense of transforming it “into a kind of catastrophe, a fall from which there is no redemption, the dissolution of temporality itself” (Butler, p. 469).

A Third Space for the Migrated Subject

Thirdly, many Kurdish women and men refuse to talk from a sovereign or a dependent position in these narratives. It is not a desire to become middle class or to own a house that is articulated in these narratives although in my so-called “field site”, narratives seem to have meaning only if they are told in these terms. Nor, is theirs talk of victimization, although all strategies of urban managements in my so-called field-site call for talking from the position of the victim.

One of the interviews I conducted was with a Kurdish woman who had lost her husband during the evacuations, had five children two of them with birth defects, and was living under severe poverty. I attended the interview with Zeynep and Hacer. Hacer is a politically active Kurdish woman. She had not come to Istanbul due to forced migration but as a result of her own choice. When she heard my research she became enthusiastic and felt herself “responsible” for finding “the most oppressed Kurdish woman” in the region since she believed that her narrative would explain me the most. We had visited several homes until we had come to interview Ayse. Hacer insisted Ayse to tell the story of her husband’s death and the evacuation. On the other hand, Zeynep wished Ayse to talk to me about the difficulties of living in the neighborhood as a woman in poverty. Ayse didn’t take either of the positions offered to her and instead led one of her daughters to tell the story of the evacuation. As soon as her daughter finished the story, Ayse started a Kurdish lament. Afterwards, she told that if I were a Kurdish person than I wouldn’t help crying during the lament and demanded that I make my Kurdish friends listen to it. The tape recorder of the researcher would be the means to somatically engage with other Kurds and to belong in the space of loss.

I would later learn that her daughter who told the story had entered a song contest arranged by one of the national television channels. She had participated in the contest with a song of Grup YORUM, a music group that was arrested several times for charges of provocation and of threatening the unity of the nation. Both Ayse and her daughter choose to occupy a third space, a space of marginality and are engaged in relations with the sovereign through a position of difference rather than one of dependence and lack. Technology in this case is used to realize this engagement and to imagine other ways of being than the ones offered to the marginalized.

Such an act of occupying the space of violence from a position of difference instead of victimization only, and re-signifying the place and the context within which one talks as a space of loss is not only something one encounters in the so-called field experience. On the contrary, it is something that is also performed in the modern institutions of the national state:

Before they evacuated the village, they have taken me in several times. I was put in front of the court so many times. Each time they told me you are ignorant. You are a villager. They gave an image as if I am doing what I am doing without any consciousness. I always refused it. I am not ignorant but yes, I am a peasant. I am proud of being peasant. My village is beautiful. It is where I come from and what I love. They said “you are ignorant, you are a peasant, you don’t understand anything. Why did you fall in their trap?” I said I didn’t fall in any tarp. I didn’t hurt anyone. Ask my relatives and my neighbors. If I hurt anyone, then, I am ignorant. No, it was you, who hurt us. I refuse to recognize you as you refuse to recognize me.

Although following Chakrabarty’s analysis one could argue that the narratives of the Kurdish migrants form the basis for an ethnic politics, I am arguing that their performances also make visible and re-name the urban and the rural in new ways. Their words mark the process of urbanization and modernization as a process of loss. Refusing to talk in the tropes of success and failure, sovereign or victim, and occupying witnessing subject positions that record the formative violence of law and the injustice and the irrationality of the sovereign, they open up a space where marginality is signified as oppression rather than lack. Their visibility in the urban space and institutions call for a recognition of difference that should not anymore be categorized in terms of ignorance, “backwardness” or poverty as narratives of developmentalism and modernization do on the one hand, and in terms of suspicious or safe citizens as discourses of security and sovereignty do, on the other hand.


In 2001 when I began to study forced migration, the first thing I did was to visit GÖÇ-DER (The Social and Cultural Association of Migrants) which kept extended records of forced migration and collected testimonies of the evacuations. Preparing for an international meeting GÖÇ-DER had sent one of its workers to photograph the evacuated villages. Upon his arrival, all of us together looked at the photographs he had taken. The villages were nowhere to be seen. Instead, he had taken tens and tens of pictures of the mountains. It was a time when the figure of the guerilla in the mountains promising a prophetic future dominated the Kurdish nationalist imaginary. Now, it is the figure of the violated Kurdish woman migrant who started to dominate it. The Kurdish woman migrant is embodied in the everyday, exchanging her stories in the urban space. Her re-occupation of the space of violence promises a diagnostic future if her call for fellow witnesses is taken seriously. We have to yet learn the ways in which we can face and live with loss.


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