By Aimilia Voulvouni
Friday evening, July 15, Turkey: Tanks on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, the Boshporus Bridge was blocked by military vehicles, TRT (the Turkish National Television) was invaded by military troops and was transmitting the message written by the usurpers, read by one of the newscasters in hostage, the Turkish National Assembly was bombed, F16s were flying really low, windows were crushing, people scared, the Prime minister issues a statement about an attempted coup, the President tweets, goes on TV through facetime and informs people that there is a coup attempt and calls for people to take the squares, Müezzins call for believers to pray (ezan) for their Democracy, for Turkey, people on the streets, on the Bosphorus Bridge, in front of the tanks, people shot by soldiers, police and military clashes. The coup is failing, the President arrives in Istanbul and is welcomed by thousands of people in Ataturk Airport.
The next evening people take the streets again, they celebrate, they pray. Public and private buildings are decorated with huge Turkish flags and huge banners of Ataturk and/or Erdogan. New gatherings (Demokrasi mitingiler, nöbet) are organized, by the ruling party, the major opposition party and the leftist pro-Kurdish party. In the meantime, law ranking soldiers and other military officials are being arrested and detained. Thousands of dismissals of judges, school teachers, university professors, civil servants of the wider public administration. Leaves of absence of all public servants are revoked, deans are asked to step down of their administrative duties. The following days private schools as well as universities and civil society organizations are shut down. There have been reports about Alevi Muslims being attacked in Istanbul, Ankara and Malatya.
Six days after the attempt I was travelling from Ataturk Airport and the praying room (mescit) of the international departures terminal was so crowded that many of the praying people had to say their prayers outside the designated area. Customs control was jammed as thousands were leaving the country.
In a piece she was asked to write on last week’s attempted coup, a friend of mine mentioned that in his initial statement the Prime minister, mentioned that a kalkışma (attempt) was under way which was something that puzzled her. She was not sure what the Prime minister meant. Was it a coup? she wondered, was it a kind of mutiny (isyan)? She was not sure but she tried to make sense (Usta-Lazaris 2016). Ever since July 15 the public life of Turkey is dominated by certain words, the vocabulary of the coup: Darbe (Coup d’ etat), FETÖ (Fetullah Terrorist Organisation), OHAL (State of Emergency), idam (capital punishment), hain (treason), Demokrasi (Democracy), meydan (square), nöbet (guard). How do these terms make sense for a Turk? Surely, a more detailed analysis of Turkish society is in order, to explain the complexity and the various meanings that these terms hold in different settings within Turkey. However, in this text I neither discuss the official definition of these terms nor analyze the media discussions that attempt to normalize them. I only refer to random encounters in which ordinary citizens try to make those terms their ‘property’ and move on from there by celebrating, praying, waving their flags or by discussing with their friends at a coffee place about what the future of their country might be and re-define their relationship with the state. In other words, I am referring to what Michael Herzfeld (2004) calls ‘social poetics’ and not just as an intellectual process but also as action. Because ‘poetics means action’; celebrate, pray, fetishize the state is action. Even discuss about it, is action as language and action cannot be seen separately.
“We already know what coup d’ etat is in this country. We ‘ve suffered enough. I might not support Erdogan but I want to demonstrate that no coup can be better than any, even a bad one, elected government” is one common narrative.
“You said guard (nöbet). We’re on duty!” posted someone of facebook with pictures from sites where Democracy Celebrations were held.
“If the coup was successful we would be 100% finished. Now we still have 10% of chance to get by” mentioned one of my friends a couple of days after the attempt.
“OHAL!! We’re not going to be able to go out at night! Martial Law will be apllied!” commented a friend while we were listening the President’s speech after the National Security Council meeting in which “state of emergency” has been decided.
“Those FETÖ people, have penetrated all civil sector. From the military to the judiciary system, from police to education” said another friend.
“We’ve come so far. We cannot go back to capital punishment era. The parliament will not allow it. You need to change the Constitution for that and there’s not enough votes to do it” commented a colleague.
“Treason should be tried according to the existing laws. This is how Democracies are governed, by the rule of law” a demonstrator shouted.
A banner held by one of the demonstrators in the Democracy Meeting organized by the main opposition party read: “We neither want a coup d’ etat nor dictatorship. We want democracy”
“Yes, we’ll go to the square. As we did in 2013. The answer is more democracy!” posted another Facebook friend, informing us where she would be that afternoon.
These are some of the hundreds of narratives I came across the days after the coup, while discussing with friends, colleagues, while visiting my Facebook timeline. It is still too early to say who is taking this stance and who is taking another one. People are still in shock, they don’t know how to react, what to think but they are trying to make sense of what is going on in Turkey and of their own actions. They try to make sense of why the coup attempt made them go to the squares, why they want or they don’t want the capital punishment to be re-enacted, why they support the government, or why they neither support the government nor the coup and while doing that they use the vocabulary of the coup in a very distinct way, in a way that helps them justify their own thoughts and actions.
History in the making
If there was ever a time in modern Turkish history for which analysis on “grand theory” level seems somehow monolithic, this is it. I am not just referring to the most recent political developments in the country, namely the attempted coup d’ etat of July 15 but to ‘events’ occurred during the last three years, that will undoubtedly leave their lasting mark in the country’s historical course during the 21st century. “This is history in the making” wrote a friend, as was the Gezi uprising in summer 2013, the constitutional reforms of the same year, the first election of the Turkish President of the Republic by direct vote in 2014, the national elections of June 2015 and the subsequent snap elections in November of the same year, amidst suicide attacks claimed by ISIS and finally the attempted coup of last week.
In such dense political times, when almost everything seems and feels fluid, with no certainties, no black and white, with the polarities of the past rendered obsolete both in theory and in everyday nuances, an anthropologist can only do what is trained to do best: be in the field and report the scenes and the narratives always within the cultural context, that these unfold.
Any attempt for anthropological interpretation of the political must focus almost exclusively on ‘living social actors’ who try to make sense, who try to give meaning on the symbols that accompany any event of such magnitude such as an attempted coup; In this case, as a ‘living social actor’ him/her self, an ethnographer of Turkey is called to make sense of the ‘social poetics’ of the post 15th of July, everyday life.
The ‘political’ in Turkey has always been very present even in seemingly non-political domains (if there are any) (Voulvouli 2009) to venture a separate analysis between people and politics. Politics, the state and ‘it’s faces’ (Navaro-Yashin 2002) are everywhere. Not only in state functions, but in non-state encounters. Not only in bureaucratic establishments but also in non-bureaucratic structures. What’s more its symbols are appropriated in everyday life and its ‘rhetoric’ is being adopted, altered and given new meanings.
My friends here in Turkey, say that you cannot be considered a real Turk unless you experience a coup d’ etat. ‘Coup d’ etat’ is a French expression meaning ‘Stroke of State’. A ‘coup’ (even a failed one) is exactly that, a blow, a hit, like a punch in the face. It affects not just the state apparatus but every possible expression of public and private life. I guess it’s time to apply for citizenship.
Herzfeld, M. 2004 Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation State. London: Routledge
Navaro-Yashin, Y. 2002 Faces of the State: Secularism and Public life in Turkey. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Usta-Lazaris, N. 2016 A personal account of the coup d’ etat. http://www.athensvoice.gr/article/city-news-voices/θεμα/μια-προσωπική-μαρτυρία-από-το-πραξικόπημα
Voulvouli, A. 2009 From Environmentalism to Transenvironmentalism: The Ethnography of an Urban Protest in Modern Istanbul. Oxford: Peter Lang Publications
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