An Anthropology of Afrin—An Impossibility?

Searching for solidarity in the anthropological community.

How does one find the space to write or think—let alone breath—in such an environment?
Şehitler ölmez vatan bölünmez. The martyrs do not die, the homeland cannot be divided.

This is the chant for the fallen soldiers in Turkey. It is often accompanied by angry tekbirs (God is great). Thousands of soccer fans in stadiums around Turkey uttered it last weekend. What happens when you find for yourself no space in the kind of solidarity that such a performance establishes? Where do you situate yourself when solidarity is a violent act?

Pictures of soldiers, the dead, and the martyrs pop up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Mehmetçik, Mehmet the soldier, is in Syria to protect Turkish sovereignty, the disclaimer for one picture reads. It depicts the fallen Mehmetçik’s home—a run-down adobe house with a Turkish flag hanging on it to indicate that this house once hosted the body of a martyr. Comments under the photo extend prayers and masculine bravado: “I am ready to be the next martyr!” Comments typed in the comfort of the commentators’ well-heated, well-furnished rooms.

Another post has a video of a young man, with his bağlama (long-necked lute) singing a song in front of two Turkish flags. Ölürüm Türkiyem. I die for you, Turkey, the song repeats at the end of each stanza.

Then there are pictures posted by the Mehmetçik themselves. One of them displays the feet of a soldier. It is covered with blood and blisters. “Take a good look,” the heading reads, “these are the feet of a Master Sergeant who could not take off his boots for 10 days during the land operation.” What kind of solidarity is created through the bloody, swollen, blistered feet of the Master Sergeant? What kind of attention does it demand from me?

And in yet another photograph, three soldiers pose for the camera to ask social media users for their prayers. “Selamin Aleykum, my Turkey. Good day to you all and wishing a week without martyrs.” Were Turkey to not go to war in Syria, would this soldier be demanding martyrless weeks?

An insatiable appetite for death

What does anthropology look like when you are not allowed to think, write, or even breathe? That is, what does an anthropology of Afrin look like?
Since the late 1970s, the Turkish state has killed over 50,000 Kurds. Many of them do not count as casualties for the Turkish state, and many Turks consider them terrorists. Turkey lost thousands of Turkish citizens, soldier and civilian alike, too. As a child growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I remember months in which not a single day would pass without funerals for the soldiers and civilians who had been killed; months in which news started with casualty counts, and ended with fresh ones wired from the field. The numbers no longer mean anything. No lesson has been learned. The appetite for death is as insatiable now as it was 30 years ago.

This appetite is political. It gets evoked in response to crises—like the one the Turkish state has been experiencing since President Erdogan and the AKP government came close to losing control first in the Gezi Park protests of 2013, and then in the coup attempt of 2016. In response, through extra-judiciary means issued under the now permanent state of emergency, the Turkish state has unleashed its power to detain, torture, and kill. Today, the Kurds, and any party supporting the Kurds, face the Turkish state’s growing appetite for death.

But how does one find the space to write or think—let alone breath—in such an environment?

I am reminded of a piece I assigned for the week I called “Anthropological Soul-Searching” in the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course I taught last semester. The piece, published in 1967—during the decade of civil protests for free speech, civil rights, and against war—is called “Anthropology and Imperialism.” Its author, Kathleen Gough, tells us in the very first footnote that she and her husband had left the United States to live and teach in Canada “in response to nationalist and military policies” of the US. I always thought of her move to Canada as a search for that very space to breathe that I seek for myself these days.

Writing is a luxury in Turkey today. Writing critically has long been a particularly challenging task. With the advent of the Operation Olive Branch, the term given to Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, it is now a near-impossibility. When the operation started, the Turkish prime minister presented representatives from media outlets with a 15-point declaration. But “declaration” does not do justice to the power of this memorandum. Its 15 points include warnings such as “Remind your audience that this operation is to eliminate terrorists and to protect civilians”; “Be attentive to anti-Turkey propaganda in the foreign press”; “Remind your audience that this is not just a war wages against YPG, but also ISIS”; “Be vigilant of news broadcast by foreign news agencies”; “Do not cover Kurdish insurgent groups’ or political movements’ critical statements or demonstrations against the operation, do not report incidents that could morally support them”; and, perhaps the most disconcerting of all, “Be meticulous in broadcasting news on potential martyrs.” In other words, write this war in a way that glorifies our quest. And our dead. Our martyrs.

Isn’t that how every war is written? From the perpetrator’s side?

Turkey’s war in Syria is being justified on the grounds of a right to self-protection and sovereignty: Like nationalists in Israel, who justify their invasion of Palestine. Like nationalists in the US, who justify their invasions of many countries of the Middle East. When the Turkish president was criticized for Turkey’s occupation of Afrin, he pointed to Israel and the US, and asked: What do you do in these lands?

If writing is a luxury in Turkey today, do we have any guarantees that soon thinking, and eventually, breathing will not also be luxuries? What does anthropology look like when you are not allowed to think, write, or even breathe? That is, what does an anthropology of Afrin look like? Or does anthropology simply cease to exist in such moments? Does silence pervade?

I wonder if it is even an anthropologist’s responsibility to think or write about Afrin. Or am I, as I was told in a roundtable discussion at the 2017 AAA Annual Meeting, looking for answers in the wrong profession and discipline?

I feel the weight of an angry nation each time I turn on the news. Each time violence and death breathe through posts on social media. It leaves me wondering whether the anthropological community is the place to look for solidarity. Sadly, our silence speaks to me many words. And none are encouraging.

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: Lakisan97/ Wikimedia, Public Domain

Cite as: Alyanak, Oguz. 2018. “An Anthropology of Afrin—An Impossibility?” Anthropology News website, March 6, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.786

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