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The Formation of Kurdishness in Turkey: Political Violence, Fear, and Pain

0 Comments 🕔21.Jul 2016

Reading this important book is a sobering experience. Published in 2014, it was hopeful that the hesitant reconciliation process between the AK Party government and Kurdish citizens, underway at the time of its writing, would signal a positive development in the resolution of the Kurdish question. Little more than a year later, after the government’s declaration of curfew zones in seventeen districts of seven Kurdish cities, the book’s exploration and analysis of the long and shocking history of state violence toward Kurds and associated Kurdish suffering, now spanning more than three generations, is, sadly, much more relevant. The latest factsheet from the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (December 26, 2015) describes how the curfews have violated fundamental rights such as the right to life and the right to health, resulting in the deaths of 124 civilians. Indeed, some form of state of exception or security zone has been in force in the Kurdish provinces for nearly all of the Republic’s history, a legal condition that has facilitated the continued violation of human rights.

Given this long and brutal history of more or less constant martial law, Ramazan Aras’s twenty months of research in the Kurdish regions of Turkey in 2007 and 2008 is extremely valuable. Fieldwork in the region has too often been discouraged or made impossible. Aras draws on a range of sources to make his argument, including interviews, life-story narratives, guerrilla diaries, court transcripts, reports from human rights associations, informal conversations, group discussions, newspaper articles, laments and songs of grief, and his own memory of events growing up in Turkey’s southeast region. The result is an important ethnographic account of the gendered experiences of political violence, fear, and pain in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. The book aims to explore the subjective and collective experiences of these phenomena as constitutive components in the “making of worlds.” Noting that his work seeks to contribute to the anthropology of violence and of emotions, Aras reveals how political violence both damages the everyday lives of individuals and reshapes the body of the community, its identities and its memories.

Aras organizes his material into two broad and related issues: political violence and the state deployment of fear as a mechanism in the process of surveillance and state control; and Kurdish people and their subjection to pain, torture, and incarceration, as well as their construction of repertoires of stories of violence and suffering. Here, religion and nationalism operate in the narratives of survivors to diminish the traumatic effects of this violence. The book’s first two chapters trace out a by now depressingly well-known account of the violence and assimilationist policies of the modern Turkish nation-state against Kurds in the 1920s and 1930s–ethnic discrimination, assimilation, forced displacements, executions, killings, and imprisonment. For me, three points stand out in Aras’s history: First is his brief but interesting discussion of the legitimacy of the counter-violence of the colonized or oppressed, against the violence of the regime. Aras claims that Fanon’s work has been a guiding principle for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and other leftist movements. Second is the importance he places on the circulation of traumatic testimonials of the survivors of Kurdish rebellions in the Republic’s foundational years, presented as an influential genealogy and counter-narrative of contemporary Kurdish struggle and suffering. I would have liked to know more about how these elite narratives of exile became generalized as formations of Kurdishness. Third, and rather more negatively, is his failure to put the 1920s and 1930s deportations and re-settlement programs of Kurdish families in the broader context of earlier displacements of other groups from the region, most significantly of course in the massive deportations and killings of Armenians during World War I.

The book’s more ethnographically substantial three central chapters focus on the years after the 1980 military coup, when the intense armed conflict between the state and the PKK shattered the Kurdish region. Aras reveals how both the counter-terror of the PKK and the counter-insurgency policies of the state caused extensive physical and psychological damage to the Kurdish community. Nevertheless, armed conflict led to the politicization of people, widespread ethnic self-consciousness, the spread of nationalism, and the transformation of gender relations in Kurdistan. Based on the faltering life stories and traumatized narratives of local Kurdish people, the chapters progress through an awful range of experiences–sexual violations and humiliation, disappearances and murders of family members by unknown assailants, surveillance and fear of spies, and unspeakable torture and incarceration in detention centers – all of which have generated intense social and emotional suffering. These stories of fear and of the solitary and shared experiences of pain have characterized the Kurdish world(s), becoming historical and embedded aspects of contemporary Kurdishness.

In sum, I recommend Aras’s book to anyone who seeks to comprehend the experiences, perceptions, and suffering of Kurdish people caused by the systematic practice of state terror in Turkey. Nevertheless, I do have several reservations about it. For one, it is distractingly concerned with referencing a large number of broader theoretical fields, as well as with what other writers have noted about apparently similar phenomena in a vast range of places around the world. For me, the insertion of the empirical realities of Kurdish lives into historical or theoretical debates in wider literature works in a reverse–incorrect–manner. The ethnographic findings are always hedged around with ways that other scholars in other places have examined similar topics, rather than these digressions emerging as illuminating contrasts or similarities in the explanation of the ethnographic insights. The two sections on music (on women’s laments, and on the songs of Kurdish bards, or dengbej) are a case in point: after 15 pages of conceptual and cross-cultural contextualization, Aras concludes his “argument” by discussing his interview with one (mourner) performer. There is no description or analysis of any actual performance. Indeed, the book’s discussion of music is completely “unmusical”–how do performers’ skills in manipulating the makam (mode) facilitate affect and grieving in mourners, vital in their coming to terms with loss and death?

This “imbalance” between ethnographic and theoretical material leads to another insufficiency in the work, although my point here is less a criticism than a recommendation. The subject matter of the study–a phenomenological description of Kurdish anguish and trauma–cries out for an alternative form of dissemination, alongside its scholarly representation in writing. Perhaps Aras might consider construction of an interactive webpage, or a CD with performances of the oral poetry, or some type of visual anthropology, minimally photography but perhaps film or auditory recording. After all, if anthropology is to convince anyone beyond an academic audience of the tragedy of the world it describes and interprets, it should itself become more performative.


Reviewed by Christopher Houston, Macquarie University

The Formation of Kurdishness in Turkey: Political Violence, Fear, and Pain
by Ramazan Aras
Hardcover / 226 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9780415824187


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