The Politics of Grieving in Turkey

The Death of the Maden Family

The Aegean Sea is a graveyard. Like its Mediterranean counterpart, its waters are filled with human bodies that wash up on the shores of Turkey and Greece. You may remember Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian. Two winters ago, the image of his lifeless body lying on a Turkish beach haunted many of us. That year, he was one of the 3771 lives lost attempting to cross the sea to find refuge in Greece.

Late last year, the Aegean Sea took another set of lives. On a late November morning, the bodies of three children were found on the shore of the Greek island of Lesbos. First the decomposing body of a boy, 7 years old. Then his two sisters, 10 and 13. And later the parents, 37 and 40.

The bodies belonged to the Turkish Maden family. The father and mother were facing trial in Turkey for their membership in the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO), the conspirator behind the failed July 15 coup d’état in 2016.

Maden Family/ Flickr CC BY-SA 4.0

Before July 15, the father, Hüseyin, was a physics teacher and the mother, Nur, a kindergarten instructor. Both were followers of Fethullah Gülen’s hizmet movement, once the dearest ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party government. It is unclear whether the parents actively participated in the making of the Gülen-backed coup or supported it at any capacity. Both were accused of using ByLock, a secure smartphone messaging application, which the Turkish government considers evidence of being a Gulenist. They also likely participated in hizmet’s regular conversation circles and subscribed to hizmet’s now defunct Zaman newspaper. As I was to learn during my own fieldwork among members of the Turkish community in Strasbourg, these signifiers indicate that one is a Gulenist, and therefore a terrorist.

Following the coup attempt, first Hüseyin lost his job, and then Nur hers. They spent a year in hiding, residing under different addresses to escape midnight raids by the Turkish police. Afraid that jail awaited them, last year, the Maden family decided to leave the country.

The likelihood of getting their passports confiscated at the border pushed them into seeking alternative means of escape. They followed the same route as the Syrian refugees. According to the only outspoken account on this matter, first they were offered a pass on a boat for 10,000 Euros. Having insufficient funds, the father decided to take a smaller boat for 1,000 Euros instead. Hüseyin sent his last message to other family members in Turkey just five miles off the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos.

 The loss of five lives from the Maden family left behind obituaries. But not in the mainstream media. And not endorsed by government officials. Theirs were not markable or grieveable lives.

No one wants to see the dead body of a young infant. Yet, for Aylan Kurdi this was not the case. Politicians, in Turkey as elsewhere, fed on the image of Kurdi’s body. They promoted events to commemorate it, including an exhibit in Turkey where the Turkish president was portrayed lending an open hand to Kurdi lying by the shore.

The Maden family, however, did not receive the same kind of attention. Pro-government media considered their story a fabrication. When Greek accounts corroborated the tragedy at sea, portrayals of the Maden family accused the coup conspirators of ordering the family to flee, hence dumping the blame on the coup’s plotters. There was a short-lived attempt by the Turkish opposition party, the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), whose leader has been in jail since November 2016 under terrorism charges, to bring the story into the Parliament’s attention. Yet, the discussion was fast suppressed.

Aylan Kurdi’s perversely celebrated body mattered not only because he was a child (as were the children of Maden family), but also because of what his death represented: the critique of a morally abject state, namely, Syria. The bodies of Maden family, on the other hand, were not given the same attention. They represented lives perished under a morally righteous force—one, according to this discourse, that the Turkish state wields. Hence, in Kurdi’s death, it was humanity that drowned at the sea; in the case of the Maden family, it was measures necessary to protect (Turkish) national security that justified the death of a family of five. While the Turkish President shared his condolences, and stated that the Kurdi family should have rather stayed in Turkey, the same President remained silent on the death of the Maden family.

 Not all lives are made to matter. Not all loss is to mourn for. Not in Turkey. Not before. And certainly, not today.
In Precarious Life, Judith Butler writes about the kind of violence that unmournability inflicts on human life. She asks, “if someone is lost, and that person is not someone, then what and where is the loss, and how does mourning take place?” States do not provide obituaries to the lives that they take, Butler continues, because the recognition of a story behind a life lost is a means of making it noteworthy. “If a life is not grievable, it is not quite a life; it does not qualify as a life and is not worth a note. It is already the unburied, if not the unburiable.”

The loss of five lives from the Maden family left behind obituaries. But not in the mainstream media. And not endorsed by government officials. Theirs were not markable or grieveable lives.

Turkey, like all nation-states, has a long history of producing unmournable lives. For the most part, these have been Kurdish lives who have been forcefully displaced, resettled (and in case of resistance, disappeared) since the founding of the Republic. Starting late 1970s, many of them left Turkey for Western European nations and were granted asylum. For many years, the loss of Kurdish lives in death wells were not grieved. And today, the same systematically employed lack of sympathy persists. Alongside displaced Kurds, the state transforms hordes of displaced academics, public servants, husbands, mothers, daughters, and sons who seek ways out of the country’s ongoing witch-hunt into potentially ungrievable lives.

Following the failed coup, hundreds fled Turkey. And many others continue to be detained at the border. There is little sympathy today for Gulenists in Turkey, both from supporters and critics of the current government—and not only because they were considered the perpetrators of a coup d’etat. Many critics also find it hard to side with a clique that, up until a fear years back, were considered one of the closest allies of the Erdogan regime. Where were they, after all, when the same regime was jailing critical journalists?

But, can we let politics blind us to such extent that we can justify bodies washing up the Aegean shores?

The plight of the Maden family leaves us with a nauseating reality: Not all lives are made to matter. Not all loss is to mourn for. Not in Turkey. Not before. And certainly, not today.

Oguz Alyanak is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology and a McDonnell scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. His fieldwork in Strasbourg, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was on moral anxieties pertaining to Muslim Turkish men’s going out habits.

Feature image: Ann Wuyts/ Flickr CC BY 2.0

Cite as: Alyanak, Oguz. 2018. “The Politics of Grieving in Turkey.” Anthropology News website, January 18, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.735

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