Patronizing Patterns

Hall of Mirrors at the City Museum in St. Louis, MO (Photo: Flickr/David Abercrombie)

It seems we have two scenarios in making sense of life—at least there is the constant imposition of them. For some, “we are going through strange times” implying that there is an element of unexpectedness in whatever we go through. It’s strange for them because all other possibilities indeed once had a greater appeal of reality, but they have proven otherwise. An utterly boring response to the one-day fair suddenly emerging at the center of the suburban town. For some others, “history is repeating itself again” so that whatever has happened should have happened. The expectation of the personal catastrophe and/or the political conflict (often these two come up at the same time) are made into things inevitable. It’s life in a mirror hall where the reality is a sum of reflections of an original event replicated in different shapes, ratios and magnitudes. It’s perhaps being too much of a smarty-pants (as it comes with the pride and the authority of locating the present moment in relation to past events). I cannot help but wonder about why we are so obsessed with this particular binary of recognizing patterns. Can I kindly protest – without necessarily giving a name to what I put forward instead?

Time is primarily a unit of human life (among many other things).  Historical events are either reproduced and transmitted from generation to generation or we live through them by our direct involvement to events (of course sometimes both). Earthquake, genocide, plague — how did you come to know about them? Experience is a complicated domain of knowledge, because we pretend to make sense of what we go through in light of what we think our predecessors went through. An amalgam within an amalgam, a collage within a collage – of things, voices, and images. I cannot help but wonder about the particular ways through which history is weaponized to read not only the present time, but also other people’s faces. At this disturbingly unwinding moment of a long-frozen-and-forgotten-conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan with the shameful involvement of my native Turkey, I am calling out to pause what has been in effect, and revitalize what has been long paused. I reveal what I think in the reverse order.

I came to understand the temporal aspect of political conflict at a relatively young age, as a brand new graduate student conducting research. Only a couple hundred meters away from the infamous and disgraceful separation wall, somewhere between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I remember talking to Israeli peace activists. As one of them uttered, their point was very clear: “peace now no matter what.” But, I could not help myself and asked, “How does that happen?” The response I received was simple and it echoes in many of the peace building initiatives around the world. “It does not matter.” If I gather correctly, asking for peace often involves an uncritical engagement with how power is conserved or consolidated. In fact, that was a moment of personal revelation for me, as I finally came to recognize that there was indeed an Israeli-Palestinian conflict (instead of what I formerly believed as the Israeli occupation). Something that did not exist for me suddenly gained reality, simply because I finally witnessed (the making of) total and permanent control in a misleading temporary appearance.

Conflict is randomized violence. It becomes something that does not surprise you anymore. It becomes a part of everyday life to the extent that you do not talk about it unless you’re being asked to comment on it. It is a given. The less you talk about it, the more it becomes integral to a personal historiography that takes history as events repeated. As if time thickens. An invasion, however, sounded more real-time where people experienced it by way of getting surprised about it and most importantly talking about it. In the end, believing and talking should constitute the two non-mutually exclusive components of a life experience. Conflict and invasion are lived through the ways we accept violence as part of our personal history. I sense that the latter becomes an offshoot in history, something that goes terribly wrong. In stark comparison, the former is accepted to be in place with history because of the patterns of humanity.

We can also rethink the remaining terminology of violence (and oppression) in relation to how we experience and make sense of time. I make a partial list that includes occupation, colonialism, and blockade. If you connect the dots to make a triangle between the West Bank, Cyprus and Karabakh, I spent most of my life at the very center of it. This is why I am particularly interested in the ways people invest in normality – that is to have a vision about the future and prepare for it by way of taking action in the present time. Imagine yourself decorating your house in the middle of chaos, and remember that everyday homing practices have been recorded in different conflict and post-catastrophe zones all through history. This is not only a coping mechanism, denial or a self-defense at a psychological level, but also a way of making sense of now through imagination and tactical thinking. When I recall my first days in Jerusalem and Yerevan as a researcher from a former imperial power with a particular middle-class background and inevitably colonizing eyes, I was very surprised to see that people kept on building homes and institutions, harvesting crops, having fun and doing art. It was a world of too many elephants in the room, but people still found a way of making space in those contexts where displaced people (Palestinians and Armenians fled the Naqba in 1948 and the Genocide in 1915, respectively) not-so-surprisingly ended up in places where they would not be able to move freely anymore. In both contexts, the post-colonial and the post-socialist redistribution of power led to the simultaneous ambiguity regarding the past, the present and the future of borders, and the construction of physically and discursively durable structures limiting people coming and going in an otherwise temporary/unsettled political map. 

My aim is very clear: I am trying to make sense of the temporal dimensions of violence that make us not only name it, but also live through it. Let’s go back to the two options that we have: the fair versus the mirror hall inside the fair. When I construe history as the former, a shockingly complicated and messy bundle of unexpected events, this is the domain of not only the unexpected and the sudden, but also of permanent chaos. In this sense, when the fair departs for another town, we won’t be sure if it will ever come back to us in our lifetimes. When I apply this definition to historical events with direct or indirect human involvement, it comes to the surface that it whitewashes issues concerning rights, ethics and responsibility (just think about the 1945 atomic bombs or election of Trump) and limits our perspective in identifying both the background and the future impact. However, and before I take even longer explaining how I construe the temporal link between violence and peace, I find that the second imposed way of reading history is somehow more dangerous as its currency is the constant reproduction of an enemy without a voice and history. I am often made as one (and I will explain how).

***

I sense that we missed more than one opportunity to effectively work on peacebuilding in the southern Caucasus in the past 30 years. I do not think we worked less than we actually could, however we missed the point that politicians knew exactly too well how to utilize the patronizing patterns of reading history while we strived to deconstruct them. So our attempts were futile from the very beginning. Over the six weeks the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan re-escalated to the point of war, I observed how ‘Turkishness’ was both informed by and drew back on a timeless and ahistorical imagery of an enemy in Armenia while the term was pragmatically put into circulation to stress the categorical unity of Turkey with Azerbaijan. If ultranationalist agendas unshockingly share more in common than critical approaches in deciphering our presumed ontological differences as people, I want to relocate (and perhaps redefine) my very own Turkishness to communicate with Armenians (in Armenia, Turkey and elsewhere) that they are not alone in their fight against re-fashioned colonialisms – under one condition. I want my ‘voice’ back, critical but still Turkish, ashamed about the crimes done in my name in the past and at present.

I conducted significant parts of my PhD fieldwork in Armenia. I took part in various civil society initiatives, including non-academic research and art projects. I was selected as a Hrant Dink Fellow, named after the assassinated editor-in-chief of Agos—one of the most influential Istanbul-based Armenian newspapers. I also conducted research on behalf of the National Academy of Armenia. I have recently been awarded a prestigious EU grant to research the dual-citizenship practices between Armenia and Turkey. Over the past decade, I have been directly involved in a breathtaking exchange of people and intellectuals in a context where the infamous closed border otherwise attempted to prevent our movement and meeting each other. However, I also witness now that some of my old friends, former colleagues and travel companions are easily dragged into the language of essentialism. As the saying goes, “does it really take one to know one?” I am rather suspicious of it.

It is at this particular moment of escalating hate speech that I find it important to reflect on how I realized that I could acknowledge my Turkishness in order to specifically take responsibility for the brutal nation building and demographic engineering projects of my country, which genocided, expelled, discriminated and oppressed. Because of this historical baggage, in various corners of Armenia, educated people never wanted to believe that I identified as 100 percent Turkish. I was repeatedly told that no “pure Turk” could accept the 1915 Genocide (the way I cannot identify as a “pure Turk” is perhaps a subject matter of a different article). If you were Turkish, you needed to be a Genocide-denialist. In this understanding, victims hailed from victims, and denialists hailed from perpetrators. And the more I received such responses, the more I was convinced about both the substance and the need for stressing my so-called identity – and my strategy to pursue triggering discussions on nationalism(s) in Turkey and Armenia.

Social media is now full of personal and professional analyses whether delivered by a person or a bot. When I have a look at them, I see that all news breaking is reduced to old news. I now hear and see it everywhere on Armenian social media: “Turks are being Turks.” I understand the entire historical background, the obvious impunity and injustice for the crimes committed, and the subsequent anger behind this sentiment. However, I also wonder what kind of good such a sentiment does in making us feel further isolated and disconnected and what kind of a politically charged practical purpose it serves. This is not an invitation for belated diversity talk or political correctness. It is a call to reconstruct what has been monopolized by populist agendas on each and every side of Armenia’s border.

I do care about – and direct much of my attention to – approaching Armenians who have been trapped into essentialism. This is because I know that they have been shocked to once again witness the silence of the international community – although I also expect some will aptly find it strange and unacceptable that I have not addressed Turkish nationalists who enjoy a great deal of their consolidated power. It seems to me over-iteration of Turkishness, in particular homogenizing, criminalizing and otherizing frameworks only add another layer over a layer of insularity in Armenia. As a dear friend once uttered, “Armenia is an island of mountains surrounded by enemies.” In such a world, I do not have any existence, because it has already been identified on my behalf and especially by a particular definition of history.

If a Platonic device has been at our disposal in making sense of ignorance, or those antagonisms deeply rooted in what things in themselves are and their sum of incarnations as experiences and affects, I simply believe history-as-a-repetition-of-events, epitomized in the mirror hall within the travelling carnival, leaves no room for life.

Dr. Salim Aykut Ozturk

Dr. Salim Aykut Ozturk

S. Aykut Ozturk is a political and visual anthropologist with a recent PhD from UCL Anthropology Department. He has extensive research experience in various displacement contexts around the world, including Jerusalem, London and Istanbul. He is currently working on his first book on Armenian undocumented migrants en route to Turkey, entitled "Islands of Unity and Roads of Dispersion."
Dr. Salim Aykut Ozturk

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