Once Were Revolutionaries: Memory and activism—my father and fieldwork in Turkey

In 1995 I drove along Turkey’s green Black Sea coast with my dad, as far as the Georgian border. We had borrowed a friend’s Renault, driving on the right side of the road and changing gears with the wrong hand.

I remember the sweet smell of the state Caykur tea factory, intimate, like perfume in the air; and the shabby suitcase traders from the ‘East’ in towns along the way, selling Russian cameras, samovar teapots, and handicrafts in makeshift harbour bazaars; and Sumela monastery, too, near Trabzon, carved into the cliff face and my memory.

Eighty-eight years old today, with wonky legs and prostate cancer, my father is suffering memory loss. Loss of the meaning of things that happened last week, as well as of those that happened long ago. It distresses him. ‘I’m not the man I used to be’, he surmises, before forgetting that he is not the man he used to be.

He spends most of each day revising his memoirs. The versions have proliferated. Unable to remember how to save his day’s work, or on which document he was working, he is surprised when yesterday’s changes fail to appear in today’s opened file. Did he make any? I used to track them down, paste them into the master document. But that, too, is misplaced. I don’t fuss anymore. It is his sitting at the desk that he finds meaningful, I tell myself. One day, soon, he won’t be able to do that.

In Arhavi, a small town on the eastern Black Sea coast, a man took dad and me for a walk into the forest. We climbed up muddy trails that wound first through the tea fields. We sat in a hawk trap on a ridge that looked down the valley to the Black Sea’s glitter. Waiting behind sawn-off alder branches, we watched the hawk circle against the high mountains, beak pointing to the forest below, creeping inexorably closer. The small dove tied beside the net cried in distress. Whoosh! The platform buckled and shook, the dove’s blinker clinked on a log, a second hawk fled behind the ridge, decoy clenched in claws. A white feather drifted in the air above the boards in its updraft. No longer hearing the dove, the first hawk veered off course and lazed up the valley…

In 1994 I had arrived in Istanbul to do fieldwork for my PhD, to explore the consequences of the victory of the so-called Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party in council elections. What does an Islamic party in Republican Turkey do when it wins the Greater Istanbul Municipality?

Turkey has no federal political structure, so winning city hall brings great responsibilities and opportunities. In 1994 Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now President of the Republic, became Mayor of Turkey’s greatest city, marking the beginning of his brilliant career, as well as the birth of Turkey’s ‘Muslim’ bourgeoisie and its ‘green’ capital. Control of Istanbul’s marketing, its planning processes, its organising of tourism and conferences, its provisioning, its building, and its urban regeneration gave the Refah enormous new possibilities for business and finance, for rewarding its supporters with contracts and services, for establishing new companies dedicated to city servicing, and for setting up new enterprises oriented to transport and construction, cultural production, arts entrepreneurship and historical conservation.

There was some small hope, too, that against a history of military intervention and state paternalism, Refah might develop its own new practice of ‘democratic municipalism’.

On our travels we stopped to eat at a small town, Fatsa, in the Black Sea province of Ordu.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, in 1920 Fatsa had eight churches. All had been demolished after the expulsion of its Christians in the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923.

We ate fish cooked in a boat on the waterfront, and listened to the midday call to prayer.

Fieldwork caught me up in a whirlwind of Muslim activities in Istanbul. I attended workshops, cultural events, rallies, and conferences organised by religious groups. I went to tea-houses and peoples’ places, Ramazan tents and Koran-reciting competitions, youth picnics and iftar meals, secret religious services in basement buildings, and meetings in municipal offices. I collected debates in Muslim journals and newspapers: on modernity and Islam; on Turkish history; on Western colonialism in the Ottoman Empire; on gender and the Muslim family; on cultural imperialism. I joined a Koran study group with Trabzon migrants in the Bosphorus suburb in which I was living and played soccer on tennis-court sized carpeted fields with bearded men in long shorts.

A Kurdish family took pity on me, and told me about the situation back in their town in a south-eastern province, where an uncivil war was raging. The Ph.D. expanded to include the Islamic movement’s grappling with the Kurdish problem. Despite Refah’s claim that its commitment to Muslim brotherhood made it better able to solve the Kurdish issue, the pro-Muslim party appeared as violently assimilationist towards non-Turkish ethnic minorities as the Kemalists.

I began to notice an emerging tension between Turkish and Kurdish Muslims.

A problem crystallised; what possibility Islamist multiculturalism?

Was my interest random? In his book The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945–1975,Mark Lopez describes my father as the most revolutionary public servant in Australian history. The reason? Working in the Immigration Department in the late 1960s, he slipped for the first time the word ‘multiculturalism’ into a speech he wrote for a Liberal Party minister, heralding a radical new policy direction.

Refah’s democratic municipalism had a longer history.

In the late 1970s, when social democratic parties or even mass leftist political factions won office in local elections in Istanbul and in Black Sea towns, the development of a ‘new municipal movement’ was central to their program. Councils across the region sought to institutionalise various radical social reforms. Despite dwindling budgets bestowed by a hostile central government, municipalities created alternative institutions that projected their political commitments and affiliations. The new infrastructures of council activism—bread factories, asphalt production, road-building, housing co-operatives, bulldozer-pooling—demonstrated the state-like capacity of radical political groups, responding to a movement of insurgent citizenship. The state’s elite watched on jealously.

On the last day of our trip we drove into Artvin, the small capital of the most eastern province of the Black Sea, close to the Georgian border, built on an apple-peel road winding around a hill above the river. In the open-air market a wooden cart sold music cassettes.

My dad bought a tape in an aqua box, Selected Works of Zulfu Livaneli No. 4, to listen to in the car. Driving back to Istanbul, I translated the words of its first song to him: ‘Hosgeldin Bebek’ (Welcome Child).

Welcome child,
It’s your turn to live.
Croup, whooping cough, smallpox, malaria,
Heart infarction, cancer: all are waiting for you,
Unemployment, hunger, and more
Welcome child,
It’s your turn to live.
Train smash, plane crash, work accident, earthquake,
Drought: all these are waiting for you,
And desperate, drunken, unrequited love too.
Welcome child,
It’s your turn to live.
Prison door … prison doors,
Police batons, all awaiting,
And socialism; socialism.
Welcome child,
It’s your turn to live.i [my translation]

The song transposed in sound a small poem by Nazim Hikmet, Turkey’s beloved communist poet, in which he envisioned the landmarks of a baby’s future life. Nazim knew what he was writing about. He died from heart disease in exile in Moscow after spending much of his adult life in Turkey’s prisons.

Yet in his poem Angina Pectoris he posits a different reason for his mortal illness—

If half my heart is here, doctor,
the other half is in China
with the army flowing
towards the Yellow River.
And every morning, doctor,
every morning at sunrise my heart
is shot in Greece.
And every night, doctor,
when the prisoners are asleep and the infirmary is deserted,
my heart stops at a run-down old house
in Istanbul.
And that, doctor, that is the reason
for this angina pectoris—
not nicotine, prison, or arteriosclerosis …ii

—his self-destructive heart’s empathy with suffering humanity.

While doing fieldwork I read Istanbul novelists with envious admiration.

Here were writers who described the smell of an Istanbul stairwell; the picture on a lolly-wrapper; the congratulations middle-class relatives exchanged upon news of a military coup; the ushers at the Odeon Cinema who sold single cigarettes to people to smoke while watching the film; golden feta cheese tins split open and hammered onto the frame of a house, metal overlapping like the scales of a blazing fish; Selimiye Cami-sketched placemats; election campaign circumcision ceremonies.

There were poets to admire too: writers who described do-it-yourself Istanbul shanty towns, people’s lives rising like buildings, every thought a thin red brick. Dreams and visions mixed with cement. Children multiplying like new floors and plastered with language. Emotions waiting beside unloaded furniture, grudges stagnating like mould in the basement. Fear running wires into half-finished rooms. Standing on the roof seeing, stretching away into the distance, the houses lit up by heroes.

Years later I heard a different, whispered story about Black Sea Fatsa, the town with the most notorious history of revolutionary municipalism in Turkey.

In 1979 activists of the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist socialist faction Dev Yol (Revolutionary Path) won council elections there. The candidate elected to municipality chairmanship (mayor) was local tailor Fikri Sönmez. Upon a landslide victory, Dev Yol activists organised and elected district-specific people’s parliament and health committees, including ballots for their leaders. According to an unpublished Masters thesis written by Kerem Morgül,iii there were even people from the religious MSP (National Salvation Party) in the district committees. The committees brought suggestions and petitions to the local municipal parliament, and were legally empowered to solve local problems, including family issues, land disputes, blood feuds and pre-marriage abductions.

More material problem-solving was exercised too, including completion of the town’s unfinished sewerage system and major repairs of its streets (its ‘End to Mud’ campaign). The council established a People’s Culture Festival. The festival brought writers and artists from Istanbul to meet local people and to join in activities such as the Fatsa Youth Theatre, Children’s Chorus, a poem reciting competition, and political-intellectual debates.

Back in Istanbul after our Black Sea jaunt, I organised a tea-party at my flat so my dad could meet some of my friends. ‘Don’t shake the hands of their partners’, I told him.

He thrust his hand out politely at the first woman who walked up the stairs.

In the months immediately following the brutal 1980 military coup, leftist local governments and districts were targeted for ‘special treatment’ by the junta. Mayors were arrested and disqualified from office, elected municipal assemblies were dissolved, activists were rounded up and imprisoned. Council authority was placed in the hands of soldier administrators. In Istanbul the first act of General Abdullah Tırtıl was to announce that Istanbul’s simit bread sellers would wear uniforms as part of their work.

The social experiment in Fatsa, too, was terminated. On 11 July 1980, in a dry run for the 12 September coup, the military, gendarmerie and commandos, supported by tanks, helicopters and two torpedo boats, invaded Fatsa. Of the town’s population of 10,000 people, 3000 were taken into custody. Torture was widespread, including of mayor Fikri Sönmez. He died in prison of neglect and heart disease in 1985, as Nazim Hikmet foretold.

Junta leader General Kenan Evren explained why the actions were necessary. According to him, in government offices in Fatsa

they hung calendars, and on the pages of the calendar, on the large monthly pages of the calendar, there are pictures of the anarchists killed in that region. Underneath the photos there are poems dedicated to them. And on the pages’ right-hand side there are Nazım Hikmet poems. All of this, in government offices, hung on the walls of that town’s government offices!iv

Like the absent churches, in Fatsa we saw no monument to mayor tailor Fikri.

I ask dad what he remembers about our Black Sea trip. He sends me [a version of] his memoirs. Everything’s in there, he says.

He hasn’t written much, except about a ‘valley from hell’. He calls it Turkey’s ‘dreadful Stoke-on-Trent’, and notes that the ‘potteries belched forth pungent coal smoke and the very effort to breathe had you choking’.

I had forgotten. ‘I’m the one with dementia’, he said. How did you know about Stoke-on-Trent? I ask him. ‘I don’t recall’, he replies.v

Once were revolutionaries.

Fatsa; my dad.

Their glories have faded, leaving behind a feather, drifting…

Don’t grieve, my heart.

Dad, don’t be sad. You learned what you forget. You noticed what you learned. And like Stoke-on-Trent-on-the-Black Sea, you forgot only what you first gave meaning to, memories now fled like a hawk.

i Listen to the song here.

ii I have taken the English translation from here.

iii Kerem Morgül, ‘A History of the Social Struggles in Fatsa 1960-1980’, Istanbul: Bogazici University, 2007.

iv K. Evren, Seçme Konuşmalar (12 Eylül 1980–6 Kasım 1989) [Selected Speeches], Istanbul: Doğan Kitapcılık, 2000.

v Karl Marx famously used Stoke-on-Trent in Das Kapital to illustrate the appalling health of pottery workers under capitalist industrialisation in England.

About the author

Christopher Houston

Christopher Houston is Professor of Anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney. He has carried out extensive fieldwork in Turkey on Islamic social movements, nationalism, urban processes in Istanbul, and on the Kurdish issue. His most recent book is Theocracy, Secularism, and Islam in Turkey. Anthropocratic Republic (2021, Palgrave Macmillan).

More articles by Christopher Houston

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #12

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