Monday, March 10, 2008

Photographs unravel Turkey's ethnic tapestry

March 10, 2008
International Herald Tribune, France
By Sabrina Tavernise Published:

SAMSUN, Turkey: They were suspected to be missionaries. Then fugitives. But when the motley band of Turkish intellectuals finally arrived in this Black Sea city last month, people seemed to understand that they really only wanted to tell stories.

The group - a Kurdish feminist, an Armenian writer, and an academic and a photographer, both Turkish - were presenting a book of photographs of people from Turkey.

The book counted 44 different ethnicities and sects across Turkey, and captured them in pictures dancing, eating, praying, laughing and playing music. If it sounds innocuous, it was not. Turkey, a country that has had four military coups in its 85-year history, has a very specific line on cultural diversity: Anyone who lives in Turkey is a Turk. Period.

Attila Durak, a New York trained photographer, compiled the book, traveling around Turkey for seven consecutive summers, living with families and taking their portraits.

His intent was to show that Turkey is a constantly changing kaleidoscope of different cultures, not a hard piece of marble monoculture as the Turkish state says, and that acknowledging those differences is an important step toward a healthier society.

People see themselves in the photographs, and they realize they are no different," said Durak, whose book, "Ebru: Reflections of Cultural Diversity in Turkey," was published in 2006. "Those Kurdish people have kids who play together like ours," he said, referring to viewers' reactions. "Look, they dance the same kind of wedding dance."

Ever since Turkey became a state in 1923, it has been scrubbing its citizens of identities other than Turkish. In some ways, that was necessary as a glue to hold the young country together. European powers were intent on carving up its territory, a patchwork of remains from the collapsed Ottoman Empire, and Muslim Turkishness was a unifying ideology.

But it forced families from different backgrounds, who spoke different languages, such as Armenian, Kurdish, Greek, Georgian, Macedonian, Bosnian, to hide their identities. Family histories, such as the crushing events of Turkey's genocide against Armenians in 1915, were never spoken of, and children grew up not knowing their own past or identity.

"Memories like that were whispered into ears behind closed doors," said Fethiye Cetin, a lawyer who learned only in her 20s that her grandmother was Armenian. "There was a big fear involved in this, so the community itself perpetuated the silence."

It is that locked past Durak and his colleagues seek to open. Their method is telling their own stories to audiences across Turkey as an accompaniment to exhibits of Durak's photographs to open a conversation about the past and chip away at stereotypes.

The academic, Ayse Gul Altinay, an anthropology professor from Sabanci University in Istanbul, is a kind of national psychiatrist, identifying the most painful points from the country's past and offering a way to think about them that is most direct route to healing.

She uses the Turkish art form, Ebru, the process of paper marbling that produces constantly changing interwoven patterns, as a metaphor for multiculturalism.

"We're not a mosaic, different from one another and fixed in glass," said Altinay, who earned her doctorate from Duke University. "Ebru is done on water. It is impossible to have clear lines or distinct borders."

In Samsun, a bustling city with a nationalist reputation, the fifth in Turkey to see the exhibition, the audience was small but interested. The Armenian writer, Takuhi Tovmasyan, talked about how she was gruffly banished from a piano recital hall after winning a competition, when teachers learned her last name, which is overtly Armenian.

"I hid this feeling for a long time," said Tovmasyan, who has published a book of family recipes and stories as way to open up a conversation about the past. "But when I saw these photographs, I decided I needed to talk about it."

The discussions have hit a nerve. At a presentation in Kars, an eastern Turkish city, a man in his 50s wearing a suit spoke through tears about discovering that his family had been Molokan, Russian Old Believers. It was the first time he was speaking publicly about it, he said. Others have apologized to Tovmasyan in emotional outpourings.

In Samsun, a young man in a white sweatshirt said, "I personally apologize for 'Get out,' on behalf of all my friends," eliciting applause. "It's really a terrible thing."

Durak's subjects look into his camera with a directness that is startling. A Jewish man sits in a chair in Istanbul. A gypsy in a flower print shirt plays the saxophone. A woman from the Black Sea stands in a doorway, her fingers touching her collarbone.

Each one is labeled for ethnicity and sect, a method of categorization that initially struck the local authorities in Samsun as something close to a seditious act.

"They said, 'we have to investigate, maybe they are wanted by the police,' " said Ozlem Yalcinkaya, an organizer from a student group, Community Volunteers Foundation, who arranged the exhibit. "I said, 'If they are fugitives, why would they be putting their names on the exhibition posters?' "

Another one of their questions went to the heart of what the group is trying to change. When it was revealed that Tovmasyan was Armenian, police officials were stumped.

"What do you mean Armenian," Yalcinkaya recalled an officer saying. "A Turkish citizen, or from Armenia?"

The answer was both - a Turkish citizen of Armenian descent - but because the Turkish state does not recognize mixed identities, the concept was foreign and baffling to the police.

In the end, the authorities relented, and the municipality even allowed use of its lecture hall.

"The genie is out of the bottle," Altinay said. "Too many people are interested in looking into who we are, who lived on this land before us," for the healing process to be stopped.

A young woman in the audience echoed that thought, as she apologized to Tovmasyan. For as gloomy as the past was, the future was more hopeful, she said, because young people are much more flexible and accepting than the older generations.

"In a few years time, a lot of people will be doing a lot of apologizing," she said.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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