Fieldwork in Contested Places
Arriving in Cyprus in 2010, I was already perplexed by the idea of doing research on a hypersensitive political issue in a highly contested land; let alone the fact that I was a citizen of Turkey, whose presence in the island has been defined by many as an occupying force. Notwithstanding, on a theoretical and methodological level, I was determined to take a value-neutral stance, avoid getting involved in the politics of the field, and keeping a respectful distance with my informants, for the sake of objectivity. My research was focused on religious spaces shared by Orthodox Christian and Muslim communities, which have become common cultural heritage of the island. Although I was more interested in people’s memories and the forgotten or altered dimension of stories of the places, and thus mostly in the “past in the present,” I was an anthropologist working with people, whose expectations in exchange for their generous knowledge and insight were real, and an anthropologist working in a field where, as elsewhere, the issues of power were not absent.
In the last year of my field research, in 2012, a Greek Cypriot interviewee requested my help in communicating with the relevant institutions and individuals regarding the restoration of the almost-ruined small church in his former village. He was born in a village near Morphou (Güzelyurt) in Northern Cyprus but was displaced and moved to Southern Cyprus after Turkey’s military intervention in 1974. The normative category of cultural heritage assumes the uncontested character of tangible and intangible heritages as traces of history and symbols of culture. This notion inspired me to take well-intentioned steps towards protecting this small, apparently neutral, religious site. In an age when cultural heritage is increasingly promoted as being of universal value, and the destruction of cultural heritage is criminalized as cultural genocide by the international community, this seemed pretty straightforward and unproblematic. However, I soon realized that the issue at hand was not as simple as it appeared since both current and former local communities asserted claims over the place. Even such an apparently objective attempt to restore a historical place is a highly politically charged action in Cyprus.
I was in touch with a variety of committees, experts, bureaucrats and politicians dealing with cultural heritage issues, an extremely touchy, controversial and troublesome enterprise on the island. There have been hundreds of neglected, ruined, destroyed religious and historical sites; and only limited funds exist for restoring and protecting them. It is obvious that the choice of what to preserve and how to re-present it to the public can actively facilitate and normalize certain ways of seeing the land and the histories attached to it, while impeding and marginalizing others. Labeling material artifacts “cultural heritage” does not easily remove them from emotional and symbolic meaning for people, and these artifacts take on powerful roles for struggles over cultural identity and political power.
Embedding myself into the personal and local accounts of place memories, I recognized that as in many other places, religious sites are powerful symbolic realms around which people (re)shape their identities, memories and cultural belonging. They are also places where local communities and their cultural practices encounter political discourses, state interventions and appropriations, and are where contests over political power manifest themselves. Also, irrespective of how politically neutral they might appear to be, the process of cultural heritization, and other ways of dealing with the material remains (such as appropriating them as museums) are dynamic and deeply political processes in which certain places are incorporated into the nationalist rhetoric and self-imagining, as normative and substantive components, and others are degraded, excluded. The periodizations of history, based on the national imaginations and implied by specific commemorations, determine the “preferred true” identity of the sites, which in turn sets out to whom the site and the surrounding territory belongs to.
My contention is not only related to preserving the cultural heritage of all communities to promote amicable relations in the current controversial political atmosphere, but also emphasizing the importance of paying attention to the needs and concerns of current local inhabitants. Also, contest over places does not necessarily mean only the claim over territory, but more essentially over the meaning of the places. Cultural heritage and the official meanings imposed on them actively influence the structuring of local identities, practices, memories, utilization and perception of the territory. Any decision on the process of cultural heritization or other place-related policies will inevitably affect or limit access to the place for some—not necessarily physically, even more likely, mentally and morally.
In this specific case, for some Greek Cypriots, restoring the local church is like retrieving their presence in the lost land; whereas current Turkish inhabitants of the village seem to perceive the repair of the church as a threat. One elderly Turkish Cypriot man said to me when I asked his thoughts: “Why would we repair it? Are they coming back?” The church is not a local heritage for Turkish Cypriots per se, in this case, but its invisibility as a ruined place is still critical. For many other examples in Cyprus, both communities have claim over the heritage, and heritage, as we define it, may often imply negation of the claims of one group or another even if it is not intended. Circumstances and timeliness definitely matter. I should note that the mentioned village is located in the territory, where the Annan plan of United Nations (2004) had envisioned returning to the Greek side, and this has clearly affected my informant’s sensitivity to the issue.
Could anthropologists isolate themselves from such local political processes, and where should/might/can they stand in the face of the divergent viewpoints of two communities, which both have claims to rights over the land? Most of the time, we can hardly avoid intervening in local affairs, since we establish intimate relations with our research subjects. This specific case was far too complicated for a foreign, young researcher to have any impact on the process; nevertheless, it may serve as an avenue to think over anthropologists’ roles in engaging with the local communities to address problems of place and locality, to provide ethically responsible regimes of support, and a critical assessment of knowledge production. Anthropologists’ perspectives on local and wider processes would provide to policy makers and cultural heritage experts a more nuanced and critical understanding of the local needs and constraints, which are not irrelevant to the issue of cultural heritage. Anthropologists should be wary in framing their own political agenda without prioritizing any ethnographic accounts, and by being aware of the potential implications of their stance, while engaging with the local communities, especially in their place-based political struggles.
I will end this small piece with the most impressive and dramatic words I have heard during my research, which are more expressive than anything else to explain the power of places for people. A displaced 70-year old Greek Cypriot interviewee, who refused to visit his village after the opening of the checkpoints in 2003, despite his deep longing for it for 40 years, said to me: “What if I go to my village and see that everything in my mind turned only into a dream? Then I would die of the disappearing beauty of my memories, like a moth attracted to fire.” He passed away only six months after our interview, without visiting his former village.
Rabia Harmanşah is a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. She did her fieldwork in Cyprus between 2010 and 2012 with the support of Wenner-Gren Foundation, and she is currently working on her dissertation “Social Forgetting in a Post-conflict Landscape: The Case of Cyprus.”