Ebru: Reflections on water, Ayşe Gül Altınay
Ebru is the search for a new language to make cultural diversity in Turkey visible and intelligible. Emerging from Attila Durak’s long journey of curiosity, passion, and hard work, its main reference is to an art form that offers infinite possibilities of reflecting on life through water. An ebru artist creates his or her drawing on water and then transfers this “floating” artwork onto paper. Being water-based, an ebru connotes fluidity, movement, connectedness, permeability, and contingency.* As such, it is a metaphor that offers a promising alternative to others, such as “mosaic” or “quilt,” when thinking through the new and old dilemmas of cultural politics at the turn of the century. How can one recognize cultural diversity without imprisoning cultures and identities into fixed, essentialized entities? Is it possible to engage histories of violence without reinforcing blindness to the dynamics of interaction, dialogue, and exchange? Can one mourn for loss and avoid creating a sense of nostalgic purity and innocence at the same time? What tools do we have for rethinking the past without silencing the present and the future? “Ebru” as a metaphor, which neither starts nor ends with this book, represents the search for alternatives to the limited perspectives of assimilation and multiculturalism alike.
* The actual technique of making ebru is more complex. Colors are normally mixed on a separate plate, but the design is given on water. Reference to such concepts as fluidity and permeability should not be read as literal descriptions of the ebru technique.
Cultural politics at the turn of the century
The last quarter of the 20th century was marked by two simultaneous, yet conflicting, developments. On the one hand, “culture” and “identity” came to define local, national, and international politics probably more than ever. On the other hand, assumptions about both of these concepts were vehemently argued and turned upside down in a number of political and academic debates. Three areas of criticism are particularly important for our discussion here: the critique of the essentialist assumptions behind nation and ethnicity, the anthropological concept of culture and identity, and the “mosaic” version of multiculturalism.
Nation and ethnicity. In 1882, Ernest Renan defined the nation as “the law of the century in which we are living.” The nation-state and the nation have indeed been the “law” in political imagination and organization for almost two centuries. With few exceptions, nations have been perceived as communities of identical (or almost identical) individuals who share the same history and culture. The notion of shared culture often meant a set of commonalities defined through language, religion, ethnicity, or “race.” Nation-states had two important tasks to accomplish. One was the need to write a historiography that reified the nation as an ancient (and hence everlasting) homogeneous entity that had unique qualities. This typically involved the identification of the nation with one “ethnicity,” which was in turn assumed to be “primordial,” uniform, and static. The other task was to turn the existing population within the borders of the new state into a homogeneous entity, where a standard national language (in some cases, multiple languages) would provide communication and harmonization.
This was no easy task. 70 years after the French revolution, French was a foreign language to half of its citizens, with a quarter of the population not speaking it at all (Weber 1976, 67-70). Similarly, in 1861, the percentage of Italian speakers in Italy was only about 2.5 percent (Eley and Suny 1996, 7). The great success of nationbuilding processes was that a century later, these “facts” would be unknown (even unthinkable) for the populations of most nation-states. Nation-state practices, such as compulsory national education and compulsory military service, would be crucial tools in their making. Nationalist historiographies that either erased or trivialized (cf. Trouillot 1995) cultural diversity were conveyed to students or recruits (both in “uniform”) in the standardized national language, giving them a sense of pride in a “glorious” history.
The paradigmatic shift in nationalism studies in the early 1980s gave us a new vocabulary to think about the process of nation building. Anthropologist Benedict Anderson (1983) defined nations as “imagined communities,” whose imagination was enabled by certain developments, such as print capitalism. Sociologist Ernest Gellner redefined the taken-for-granted relationship between nations and nationalisms when he stated that “nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist” (quoted in Anderson 1991, 6). Around the same time, historians (such as Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger) provided striking examples of how “national traditions,” rather than being ancient practices, were indeed “invented” as “traditional” practices in recent history. It is no longer possible to take for granted the antiquity and homogeneity of nations or ethnicities. Instead, scholars seek to understand how discourses of antiquity and homogeneity have been historically produced, in many cases quite successfully.
Culture and identity. A similar shift has occurred in studies of culture and identity. Cultural anthropology, the discipline most closely associated with the study of culture, went through a period of self-critique in the 1980s, in the context of which the approach to cultures as coherent, timeless, and discrete was radically challenged (Abu-Lughod 1991, 147). Among anthropologists, there is widespread agreement today that culture is “not an object to be described, neither is it a unified corpus of symbols and meanings that can be definitively interpreted. Culture is contested, temporal, and emergent” (Clifford 1986, 19).
Cultural homogeneity, much like national homogeneity, is a myth produced and sustained by political, popular, and academic representations of culture. It is a dangerous myth for several reasons. First, it reinforces the notion of essential differences between the “self” and “others,” whether in the context of nationalist ideologies, racism, colonialism, or orientalism. Second, by treating cultures as homogeneous entities, this approach conceals power relations and differences within each cultural group. By extension, it contributes to the fetishization of culture as the main source of difference between human beings. It is as if people are different from one another only in cultural terms.
The 20th century was a century of extraordinary human creativity and unimaginable destruction. Wars between nation-states as well as internal wars have defined the lives of most human beings in the past century. Many wars, ethnocides, and genocides have been legitimized by appealing to essentialized notions of culture, nation, and identity. The homogenizing technologies to build and maintain nation-states have also resulted in more subtle forms of destruction, such as the elimination of certain languages, dialects, and local cultural practices.
If one response to these acts of physical and symbolic violence has been the development of a “politics of equal dignity,” another has been the “politics of difference” (Taylor 1994). The former is based on a universalistic understanding of individual rights and calls for difference-blindness, while the latter emphasizes the need to recognize uniqueness and difference in individual and group identities (Taylor 1994, 37-41). Earlier struggles for human rights appealed to the politics of equal dignity as their main basis. More recently, human rights claims have been complicated by the demand for “cultural rights,” empowered by the politics of difference.
Multiculturalism. The politics of multiculturalism has developed from what Charles Taylor calls the “politics of difference.” The widespread metaphor used for multiculturalism is the “mosaic,” where each color corresponds to an ethnic or cultural unit. It highlights the beauty and richness that comes out of the peaceful co-existence of different cultures. Each culture is treated as unique and of equal value to others. This is based on the much older principle of “cultural relativism.”
Cultural relativism, a concept adopted by cultural anthropologists earlier in the 20th century, has historically been an important response to the discriminatory practices of colonialism, racism, nationalism, and ethnocentrism. Recently, this principle has been applied to highlight the exclusionary practices of contemporary cultural politics and to promote policies that make classrooms, textbooks, parliaments, literature, the media, and work places more diverse. As anthropologist Renato Rosaldo suggests in the context of the changing face of universities in North America, “diversity… does more than arouse predictable discomfort and resistance. The moment classrooms become diverse, change begins” (Rosaldo 1993, xiii). Indeed, policies such as affirmative action and the addition of non-North Atlantic texts to school curricula have been significant steps toward the development of “equal dignity” among citizens identifying with different cultural “traditions.”
Yet, this “difference multiculturalism” (Turner 1993), which I will refer to as “mosaic multiculturalism,” has come under serious criticism not only by those wanting to preserve existing norms and practices, but also by those who aim to radically change them. Reinforcing a view of culture and identity that is essentializing and homogenizing, mosaic multiculturalism connotes cultural homogeneity, boundedness, and distinctness. The different “colors” of a mosaic are separated from one another with clear boundaries, with no possibility of interaction. The mosaic, with its hard surface, indicates a sense of unchanging “identity,” thus remaining oblivious to history. In other words, it embodies all the problems of the concept of essentialized “culture” as discussed. The critique of mosaic multiculturalism has motivated scholars to come up with alternative formulations. Anthropologist Terence Turner, among others, proposes “critical multiculturalism” as a more appropriate formulation that incorporates the critical insights of anthropology to concepts, such as culture, ethnicity, and identity. The aim here is to “use cultural diversity as a basis for challenging, revising, and relativizing basic notions and principles common to dominant and minority cultures alike, so as to construct a more vital, open, and democratic common culture” (Turner 1993, 413). Critical multiculturalism is based on Henry Louis Gates’ suggestion that multiculturalism should approach cultures as “porous, dynamic, and interactive, rather than the fixed property of particular ethnic groups” (quoted in Turner 1993, 419).
If critical multiculturalism is not to remain an academic endeavor, it needs to engage the popular discourses on multiculturalism. How can the gap between the growing scholarly critique of difference multiculturalism and the greater-than-ever popularity of the metaphor of the “mosaic” as representing cultural diversity be overcome? How can we translate contemporary thinking in the social sciences and the humanities on concepts such as nation, ethnicity, culture, and identity into everyday politics and practice? And most critically, how can we do this without falling back on assimilationist and conservative politics that aim to preserve the existing hegemonies of dominant “cultures”?
Ebru, as a visual/textual journey and as a metaphor, aims to contribute to these efforts. Its focus is on cultural diversity in Turkey, but its relevance and vision is much broader. Echoing the insistence on the “cyborgness” of all identities (Haraway 1991), and the “creoleness” of all cultures (Pieterse 1995, Çağlar 1997), we are suggesting that perhaps cultural diversity everywhere is “ebruesque.”
“Who am I?”
This is the provocative title of anthropologist Leyla Neyzi’s (2004) book and the focus of most contemporary political debates in Turkey. As Ebru was being compiled in 2005, Turkey was going through a dynamic process of democratization through major legal reform accompanied by heated debate on a number of issues that had to do with the definition of the (national) self and its “others.” If one force behind these developments was the accession requirements of the European Union, another was the political and academic critique of the status quo that had accumulated over the years.
The military intervention of 1980, the rewriting of the constitution by the military regime in 1982, and the internal war between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the state security forces in the 1990s significantly militarized Turkish political discourse and practice. Characterized by polarization, antagonism, “win or lose” logic, the normalization of violence, and ethnic nationalisms (both Turkish and Kurdish), this militarized political space left little room for voices of democratization and pluralism to articulate themselves. Still, the same period witnessed a proliferation of political organizing against militarization, nationalism, and discrimination of all sorts. Feminist movements, human rights activism, gay and lesbian organizations, conscientious objectors, nonviolence training groups, and peace initiatives challenged the existing political discourse and proposed a new language to approach difference in the context of a democratic polity.
After the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan (PKK’s leader) in 1999, the decline of ethnicized violence, and the positive developments in the EU accession process, the political system is in the process of normalization, civilianization, and democratization. This has many implications for cultural politics at various levels. Formerly “threatening” Kurdish singers can now hold concerts in stadiums; music and cultural production in minority languages have become widespread; the President has started issuing statements celebrating the Christmas and Hanukkah of Turkey’s citizens along with Muslim religious holidays; the Assyrians were able to hold their “traditional” spring festival on April 1st for the first time in Republican history in 2005; and it is now possible to establish institutions that promote “Roma culture” or “Kurdish culture.”
Another significant development in 2005 was the organization of the high-profile conference, “Ottoman Armenians during the Demise of the Empire: Responsible Scholarship and Issues of Democracy,” co-hosted by Boğaziçi, İstanbul Bilgi, and Sabancı universities and attended by Turkey’s leading scholars from 15 universities. It was the first time that in Turkey the deportation and massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman state in 1915 was discussed within a scholarly framework, which was mainly critical of the official discourse of denial and trivialization.
These are all important developments. Yet, 2005 was also marked by nationalist mob action in the streets, several controversial trials whereby prominent writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Hrant Dink were accused of “insulting Turkishness,” the declaration by the Minister of Justice that the scholars participating in the Ottoman Armenians conference were “stabbing the nation on its back,” and allegations of the military being engaged in extrajudicial violence against civilians in the eastern province of Hakkari.
No single event captures the ironical developments of the past two years more than the publication of a groundbreaking human rights report by the Prime Ministry’s Advisory Council on Human Rights (ACHR); the subsequent use of the arguments in this report by the Prime Minister himself; and the court case opened against two of the people responsible for this report, Professor İbrahim Kaboğlu and Professor Baskın Oran. This report was significant in that it signaled a challenge to the hegemonic discourse on national identity and a move toward what has been called “constitutional citizenship.” It replaced the term “Turk” with the term Türkiyeli (of/from Turkey), articulating a difference between ethnic sub-identities (alt-kimlik) such as Turk, Kurd, Laz, or Jew, and the supra-identity (üst-kimlik) of being a citizen of Turkey. As the public prosecutor was preparing his indictment about those responsible for this report, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was using its terminology to refer to ethnic difference and citizenship in Turkey: “As Turks, Kurds, Laz, Circassians and others, we are all one and together under the supra-identity of citizens of the Republic of Turkey. We will respect sub-identities, which means that the Turks will say they are Turks, the Kurds will say they are Kurds, the Laz will say they are Laz, and we will have to respect these [statements]” (Hürriyet, November 21, 2005).
As the scholarship on nations and nation-states makes clear, all nation-state formations are simultaneously histories of violence. Homogenization and standardization come at high human cost. In Turkey, starting with the final years of the Ottoman Empire, which coincided with the Balkan Wars and the First World War, the transition from a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural empire to a “Turkish” nation-state was a very painful one. For some communities, such as the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, it meant massive destruction to such an extent that Armenian life in Anatolia became virtually extinct. In the meantime, the massacre and exodus of Muslims from the Balkan lands into Anatolia created new tensions in the shrinking Ottoman lands. After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the Turkish and Greek nationalist policies of homogenization led to an agreement that involved a major “population exchange” between the two countries. Besides displacing close to two million people, this “exchange” de-Christianized Anatolia, and de-Islamized Greece.
During the early years of the Republic, which coincided with the rise of fascism in Western Europe, non-Muslims faced discrimination through such acts as restricting state employment to “(Muslim) Turks,” organizing campaigns to make everyone (particularly non-Muslims) speak Turkish in public places, encouraging mob action against Jews in the Thrace Region (resulting in their displacement in 1934), and the controversial “wealth tax” of 1942 aimed at transferring wealth from non-Muslims to Muslims (see Aktar 2000, Yıldız 2001). Beginning in the 1950s, the increasing discrimination and violence against Turkish Cypriots (by the Greek Cypriots) were used as justifications to put even more pressure on the Greek citizens of Turkey and other non-Muslims. The events of September 6th and 7th in 1955 are very dark pages in the history of democratic pluralism in Turkey (see Güven 2005). So are the court decisions of the 1970s which define non-Muslim citizens as “foreigners,” and take away the rights of “minority foundations” to obtain property (Oran 2004).
Until recently, these somber pages were indeed relegated to the shadows in the absence of academic research and public debate. Today, we are experiencing a proliferation of critical work. Besides the discriminatory policies directed toward non-Muslims, scholars also seek to understand the assimilation of all Muslim groups under “Turkishness” and Sunni Islam, paying special attention to the suppression of “Kurdishness,” and the various policies of displacement and violence experienced by the Kurds (Kirişçi and Winrow 1997, Yeğen 1999). The main focus throughout this growing literature is the “state.” It is possible to say that deconstruction of official ideology and state practices from the early Republican period until today constitutes the largest chunk of critical scholarship in the past decade. Yet, state violence is not the only form of violence. Many other forms of physical and symbolic violence are experienced and perpetuated in the context of everyday life and intimate relationships. For an Alevi Muslim or a Sabetayist Jew, daily life is based upon a fractured reality and its ensuing secrecy. For women, gays, lesbians, and transsexuals “home” is far from being a safe haven. Recent scholarship and activism have also begun to raise awareness of the connections between these different forms of discrimination and violence (Bora and Üstün 2005).
These are all promising developments in the name of academic freedom and democratization at large. Yet significantly missing from this picture are attempts to understand and make intelligible the equally important histories of peaceful co-existence, interaction, dialogue, and exchange. While deconstructing discourses and practices of power, how can we re-construct alternative frameworks for democratic pluralism in general, and cultural diversity in particular, without falling prey to the homogenizing and essentializing tendencies of nationalism and mosaic multiculturalism? The controversial report of the Prime Ministry’s Advisory Council on Human Rights (ACHR) is an important contribution toward the creation of a new political vocabulary that addresses this question; yet it is hardly sufficient. There is an urgent need for creative processes and frameworks that will make diversity more intelligible, more visible, and more viable for a democratic and peaceful future.
Ebru: an invitation
Turkey is experiencing the painful, yet very creative process of transformation from a plural to a pluralist polity and society. There are many dilemmas and a heavy historical burden to address in the process (Öncü). This book does not provide all the answers to these dilemmas, but it signals a search. As Attila Durak’s essay aptly suggests, it is the story of a journey, or rather multiple journeys. It is the shared sentiment of Durak and the contributors to this project that Ebru provides a promising lens that can open up and deepen our discussion of cultural politics at this critical juncture. It is in this spirit that we have come together to present an “ebru” of our own: a colorful flow of photographs and texts, of different languages and styles, of widely diverse life stories and worldviews that converge at the desire to ask, to learn, and to change.
Durak’s photographs provide new visual references for the debate on Turkishness and “Türkiyeli-ness.” At first sight, many viewers will be tempted to perceive these photographs as portraying “minorities” in Turkey. This has already been the case. “This does not represent Turkey,” some have exclaimed with disappointment. Others have found it utterly unthinkable that some of the photographs were even shot in Turkey. What these reactions reveal are the very assumptions that this book is set out to unsettle.
Ebru is not a project about minorities. It is instead an attempt at questioning the very concepts of “minority” and “majority,” as well as challenging widespread assumptions of cultural homogeneity particularly in connection to the “majority.” First and foremost, Ebru seeks to inspire curiosity about all identifications. As Terzioğlu remarks in his imaginative essay, the main challenge is to get past the blinding and distancing aerial vision. What would we see if we were able to move beyond our multi-layered fears and anxieties and looked into the eyes of each other, just like the people in these photographs who look directly at us through Attila’s lens? Would this help us challenge the dominant “game of watching and being watched” (Erzan) and understand “our own multiple histories, our own particular present” (Neyzi)? Would it bring us closer to saying, “this is me” (and empathize with others who do the same) and “come on, all together!” at the same time (Öney)?
Vision is shaped by what is already in our heads and in our hearts. If we take the critical insights of contemporary scholarship seriously, we would have to conclude that neither the claims of nationalist homogeneity nor the assumptions of mosaic multiculturalism are appropriate representations of human diversity. “Ebru” as a visual metaphor that emphasizes fluidity, movement, connectedness, permeability, and contingency is much more promising. “In the short run ethnic identities may appear quite natural and self-evident to those bearing and those observing them, but for those who choose to distance themselves and look at the longer-term movement of history, such identities ebb and flow and solidify for but a moment in time. Pagans become Christians; Christians Muslims; Armenians and Albanians become Turks; Sunni and Sufi, Turk and Kurd meld often indistinguishably into each other in the same person” (Duben). An ebru, with its creative combination of water and paper, inspires the possibility of conceptualizing historical flow and “passing solidity” at the same time. The photographs herein speak to this possibility as they hint at the depths of historical, cultural, and inter-subjective flow, while also marking passing solidity.
This passing solidity is different from the existing categories of de-historicized, homogenized “cultures.” As Fethiye Çetin’s and Nebahat Akkoç’s compelling essays suggest, “identity crisis” is more likely to be experienced in the face of homogenizing identity politics, rather than the pluralist visions that take movement and interaction seriously. Musa Dağdeviren makes the same argument for food. For some of the writers in this volume, “flow” and changing forms of identification are crucial aspects of their lives. They refuse to be trapped into fixed and neat boxes constructed through identity politics. Sezen Aksu longs for an “ebru” in which colors can freely flow around and leave beautiful traces as they move. fieyhmus Diken locates these movements in the beautiful traces of deq (the art of adorning the body with tattoos as practiced by the Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians of eastern Anatolia), while Zeynep Türkyılmaz poetically articulates the movement of the cranes symbolized in Alevi rituals.
The photographs and texts in this book seek to bring together two other challenging insights. While emphasizing the need to provide a positive vision for the present and the future (Alaton), they also oppose the tendency to simply “forget” unpleasant histories and level all differences. Even the short historical overview in the previous section should have made clear that not all differences are equal. Akif Kurtuluş and Ruflen Çakır are aware that their differences as Hemşinli and Laz are not formed through everyday experiences of discrimination, while Takuhi Tovmasyan’s and Elif Şafak’s stories reveal the centrality of such discrimination for those who carry non-Turkish names. Similarly, Herkül Millas recites a story of everyday forms of discrimination and violence, but one that ends with hopeful dialogue (although Millas openly entertains the possibility of an alternative tragic ending).
Furthermore, human differences cannot be construed as being primarily “cultural” or “ethnic”. The photographs and essays that make up Ebru also hint at other categories of difference, such as gender, class, religion, sect, education, ability (which marginalizes those with disabilities), and the rural-urban divide. Other differences, such as sexual orientation, require a much deeper look.
Sometimes silence speaks the loudest about historical and personal tragedies. fiafak’s protagonist Ebru becomes more and more silent as she discovers the acceptable “self” and its “others” through schooling. Ara Güler’s moving story is testimony to the most human aspects of human relationships, while at the same time narrating unspeakable loss through silence. Nowhere in the story is it directly mentioned that Ara Güler’s father was the only survivor of the massacres of 1915 in his family, the result of pure chance. If Dacat Güler had not been in İstanbul for his studies when his family and fellow Armenian villagers were sent on the death march of 1915, Ara Güler, Turkey’s world-famous photographer, who celebrated his 77th birthday and received the Presidential Arts and Culture Award in 2005, would not have been born.
In June 2005, Takuhi Tovmasyan, whose reflections on “ebru” you will read in the coming pages, was a guest at my weekly radio program on gender politics and women’s stories on Açık Radyo (Open Radio). Hülya Gülbahar and Amy Spangler (my co-hosts) and I were struck by the beauty and depth of her recent cookbook-memoir Sofranız Şen Olsun (May Your Table Be Jolly) and were hoping to engage in conversations on cooking, writing, and, in her words, the “bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and spicy moments” of our history, accompanied by her favorite music.
When I asked Takuhi about the music of her choice, her immediate answer was Kardeş Türküler (Songs of Fraternity). That was exactly what I had in mind for this program! I happily picked up various albums of Kardeş Türküler and quickly marked the few Armenian songs I knew. When I showed Takuhi my list, it was quite obvious that something was troubling her. As we talked about the songs, I realized that she herself would have picked other songs—one in Greek, one in Turkish, another in Kurdish, and only one Armenian song from my list. As we listened to her favorite songs from Kardeş Türküler and oscillated between laughing and crying on air, I could not stop thinking about my embarrassing attempt at locking her up in an “Armenian” ethnic drawer.
I had fallen into this trap despite years of critical engagement with the politics of multiculturalism. Also despite Takuhi Tovmasyan’s skillful positioning of herself in her highly unconventional cookbook-memoir: “I do not know to what extent these dishes are Armenian, to what extent Greek, to what extent Turkish, to what extent Albanian, to what extent Circassian, to what extent Patriyot, to what extent Gypsy. But there is one thing I know and it is that I have learned these recipes from my Akabi and Takuhi yaya, in other words, from my grandmothers” (Tovmasyan). Takuhi Tovmasyan had carefully resisted the temptation of filling in the slot of the missing “Armenian Cookbook” in the growing culinary market. As Murat Belge eloquently argues, “when considering the matter of ‘freedom for identities,’ we necessarily must address the issue of ‘freedom from identities’ as well.”
The photographs and stories that make up Ebru, like the colors in an ebru painting, move through water in different rhythms and rhymes, intertwining curiosity and humility, care and respect. To borrow some of the insights of the contributors to this volume: Ebru is an invitation to open up our minds and hearts to the humbling fluidity, the enduring vitality and strength, and the courageous sincerity in these photographs and stories. *
As Ebru was going into press, we were shaken up by a terrible loss. Hrant Dink, one of the most courageous, most sincere, and most resourceful bearers of this invitation in Turkey was brutally taken away from us. No words would be enough to express the deep lines that Hrant has left on this book and on Turkey's ebru. Ebru's invitation was Hrant's invitation. Sireli ye¤payris Hrant, we already miss you terribly!
* I would like to thank Hakan Altınay, Tansel Demirel, Attila Durak, Nur Emirgil, Müge Gürsoy Sökmen, Yektan Türkyılmaz, Ayşe Parla and Zeynep Türkyılmaz for their valuable contributions to this introduction.