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The singularities of post-peace Turkey

Notes from an exhibition that never was

In February 2016,"Post-Peace" an Istanbul art exhibition due to take place on the city's Istiklal Caddesi, was cancelled due to "the delicate situation in Turkey". Just weeks later the busy street was the victim of a suicide attack.The following is novelist and commentator Ece Temelkuran's prose contribution to the exhibition

“… I’m a strange new kind of inbetween thing aren’t I

not at home with the dead nor with the living.”

Antigonick, Sophokles. Translation: Anne Carson

There is a big, black eagle that stands in the center of the place they call the “Bazaar” or “Market”.

You may have not seen this eagle and this market if you came to Istanbul as a tourist. The market in Beşiktaş is a normal place for normal people. If you are not able to read the space in Turkish, the market is gibberish. If you know the alphabet of the country’s history, then the market becomes a text – like texts from Middle Ages or a letter from prison, where there are too many words and a shortage of paper.

The bazaar, at any given time or in any given country, is a space of uninterrupted peace. The bazaar has been a pause even during the fiercest wars in the history of inhumanity.

This Beşiktaş bazaar with its black eagle statue is different though.

It remains a safe haven for dissidents, a symbol of resistance especially after Gezi uprising. “Çarşı” (literally “the marketplace”) is the name of the Beşiktaş football club fan group that pioneered the Gezi uprising in the most carnivalesque manner. A national brand when it comes to political humour, they were also famed for street fights with the police during the summer of 2013.

When the Çarşı were summoned to the court and accused of “plotting a coup against the government”, their spokesman told the judge, “If we had the power to plot a coup we could at least have plotted to win the league this year.”

Beşiktaş are famous for losing even when all odds are in their favour, leading to an entire literature of humour on losing among supporters.

The Çarşı uses the Anarchy “A” symbol. That is why you can see the A of Anarchy even in the grocery shops’ names in the Bazaar. The black eagle you see in the centre of the Bazaar is their symbol, always ready to take dissidents under its wings.

Never enough Antigones to bury the dead

That is why now a dozen of high-school kids, photos of younger kids in their hands are standing under the eagle statue. The photos are of children kids killed in “there-is-no-war-in-this-country-there-are-terrorists” war in the Kurdish part of the country, aged between four and 12. The ones holding the photos are alive, not killed; breathing, I guess. No voice though; no chanting, no slogans, only breathing. Maybe they are “new kind of in-between things”.

One of the kids is holding two photos.

Never enough people alive to hold the dead ones.

Never enough Antigones to bury the dead.

Or maybe the contrary: Never enough Antigones to hold the dead bodies straight for the other ones too see.

You see what “a strange new kind of in-between thing” this is?

They are just standing there with the photos. The kids are too young to know: Blindness is a choice that cannot be reversed. Seeing is about power.

They are too young to know that the winning side of the war can also kill vision. The war is not about killing the body – it is about concealing the dead, and sometimes the living. That is why the kids feel invisible at the moment, and too obvious at the same time.

They are too young to know: Power is about altering the meaning. Power can make you see things or even tell you that killing a six-year-old child can make you more secure and so more happy. Power is a strange matter. Darker than the black statue-matter of the eagle.

This is now what is happening:

A middle-age woman turns, in disgust, to her friend who is also intimidated, almost fearful:

“They are defending the terrorists. Why are there no police here?!”

“Somebody should call the police! Right away!”

The young man, shop owner, talks to a young woman, a passer-by pausing to look at the kids 

“They never carry the martyrs’ pictures. They never care about our soldiers, do they?”

The girl responds with such resentment that even the shop owner is stunned: “Never! Sons of bitches!”

Apparently in resentment they find something common and lovely: they smile at each other flirtatiously.

Teenage thugs whisper the dirtiest curses while passing by. One of them, looking at the protesters, spits on the ground, a sign of disgust.

A young man, as soon as he catches sight of the kids, reaches for his Iphone and immerses himself in the screen, walking faster not to look at the scene again.

A lynch mob atmosphere is building, searching for a “courageous” voice for itself. The high-school kids are aware of the gathering anger. One looks to the others to find refuge and courage, slightly lowering the photo. Then embarrassment and pride take over. He raises the photo back to his chest, straightening his spine. It is obvious that every one of them is counting the seconds for the time they promised themselves they would stand.

Finally, police arrive, a battalion, more than 70 cops. Without any warning they attack the kids. The photos are scattered, torn then carefully collected again to be crushed by the police.

The young shopkeeper, as a patriotic act, collects the pieces that escaped the cops’ attention. The kids are now in the police bus. Only now does the crowd finds the guts to speak aloud. The middle age woman shouts at the bus:

“We want to live in peace. Let go of us!”

One girl turns her back to the bus and takes a selfie.

The Bazaar returns its routine, secure and safe. Peace prevails in the market. Peace… as you like it.

“We want peace… in the market!”

Bells of peace are tolling for the “Market”. After the first day of the invasion of Iraq the stock market was rocketing sky high, and to mark the “merry peace in the market” that morning a US general rang the opening bell at Wall Street. While people were bombarded in some other part of the planet, peace in the market was celebrated and televised, real time. All over the globe countless journalists, columnists and academics, just like the crowd in Beşiktaş Bazaar had guts to raise their voice:

“We want peace… in the market!”

Peace is a dark matter.

We are now at peace, in this very exhibition, on Istiklal Caddesi, another peaceful market full of shops and peaceful shopping people. Is it right to situate art here in the market, in peace?

But Istiklal Caddesi is also a space of politics. Not only did the Gezi Park uprising start on this very spot, but the street has been the scene for parades and demonstrations for the last few years. So where does art stand on this street? Is it the peacefulness of the market or the noise of political demands? Or are we “a new kind of in-between thing, not at home with the dead nor out with the living”? These seem rational questions.

A few months ago, while the dead Syrian children refugees were washing ashore on Aegean coasts, an Italian company, put adverts for their new product on Amazon. The title was “refugee kid fashion”. They were selling carnival World War 2 refugee costumes, designed for boys and girls. The ad was removed due to the reaction of customers.

I think maybe Anne Carson is right in her short story “1+1” when she says:

“Words like ‘rationale’ become, well, laughable. Rationales have to do with composite things – migrants, swimmers, the selfish, the damned, the plural – but existence and sense belong to singularity.”

What is rational in the age of “there-is-no-war-but-millions-of-casualties”? Does sense and therefore art belong to singularity? Does art belong to the only peaceful space, the market?

Art – as we know it – is inevitable.

Art –we assume- is inexhaustible.

As they sing in Cabaret:

“no use permitting some prophet of doom

to wipe every smile away,

life's a cabaret old chum

so come to the cabaret!"

Then here we are singular, market-situated and constantly in-between, in the post-peace era where bombs are exploding and babies dying around the space of art.

The “prophet of doom is wiping every smile” and we are like Antigone in Brecht’s version, carrying our doors on our backs, for singular passages end up in several singularities but never a collective.

Indecisive, hesitant singulars we are, never sure if we have to bury our dead brothers or put their photos out there for them to live forever.

Yet again singularS can!

Antigone is singular; she is an inbetween, strange new kind of thing, yes, but more than anything singular. But singular can. Yes, singularS can. The inbetween new kind of things can.

As they did in several squares in the world, they can bring the power on their knees. More importantly though, as Antigone did once, they can remind the shameless of shame.

The singular can identify the tragedy; therefore the tragedy comes into being.

As Antigone dies, the offspring of the shameless power, the prince dies too. The evil becomes mortal, unable to reproduce itself, whereas “the new kind of in-between thing” transmits.

Another day, yet the same place. Another bunch of high school kids, carrying the photos of killed children. These are different dead children. The high school kids stand there again. Very singular, very much in between, but they stand there. Almost as if saying “There is war!”… in singular.

The story goes on. Of course.


Ece Temelkuran is one of the Turkey’s best known novelists and political commentators. She has also who been published in The Guardian, New Statesman, New Left Review, Le Monde Diplomatique, Frankfurter Rundschau, Der Spiegel and Berliner Zeitung. She was previously a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Her novels have been published in several languages. She divides her time between Istanbul and Zagreb