Haus der Kulturen der Welt

The Imperial Complex, Resistance, and Remembering
Thinking Through the Eruptions and Thresholds of Memory in Turkey

Meltem Ahıska is a writer and professor of sociology at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. She has published broadly on the topics of Occidentalism, Orientalism, identity, social memory, gender, public space, and archives. She is also a contributor to Waiting for the Barbarians: A Tribute to Edward Said (Verso, 2008).

Meltem Ahıska

While issues of memory and memory studies gain emphasis, perhaps it is time to think about the politics of memory in terms of how to relate to past traumas without either fetishizing history or denying the burden of the traumatic past on the present. The words of Neville Alexander, a black South African revolutionary who spent years in prison with Nelson Mandela are illuminating in this respect: “The strategic-political and ultimately moral-historical question is how to move towards understanding without ever forgetting, but to remember without constantly rekindling the divisive passions of the past” (cited in Coombes 2003, p. 1). This essay aims to address the particular question of how present political struggles, such as the recent Gezi Resistance protests in Turkey, can open up and change the meaning of the reified past so as to “haul up the waters of hope for a future of dignity and equality” (Alexander, cited in Coombes 2003, p. 1). The events around the Gezi protests have been significant in pointing to the thresholds between remembering and forgetting in Turkey, which have been structured by the violence of modernization, and endorsed by the intertwined operations of Orientalism and Occidentalism. I will be elaborating on this intertwinement within the frame of what I call the imperial complex, which is a way of critically historicizing the entrenched power traps—the binaries of East and West, modernity and tradition.

We are witnessing the eruptions of mostly traumatic memories in Turkey during the last decade, particularly accelerated with the Gezi Resistance. I contend that memories have a political meaning not because they provide alternative linear narratives to counter the existing official histories, but because they can evoke past instances of life that bring back dreams and expectations oriented towards possibilities. Remembering is the bridging of differential temporalities not only of the past and the present, but also within the cleavages of the present time. Remembering is the awakening of the senses dulled by the life-draining flow of the violently regulated linear time of capital and power. Although memories can be disturbing because the past dreams have been either crushed or betrayed, they are nevertheless enhancing the potentials for transforming life in the present. But, how to work through memories, and politicize them? Dori Laub says, “there is so much destruction recounted, so much death, so much loss, so much hopelessness, that there has to be an abundance of holding and of emotional investment in the encounter, to keep alive the witnessing narration” (cited in Hirsch 1997, p. 34). Laub’s emphasis on “libidinal investment” is at the same time a sensual, ethical, and political attitude. But it is also an intellectual critical attitude that is attentive to complex, difficult, and contested stories, and against fixities and clichés. It involves the insistence on, and the consequent risk of, being “out of place” as Edward Said (2000) has shown us.

Thinking critically about Turkey one indeed has to fight against entrenched clichés. I would say that these clichés, being more than just rhetorical tools, are produced by a definite historical a priori that conditions the possibilities of knowledge, the “episteme” in Foucault’s definition (2002). The clichés are informed by an intertwined relationship of Orientalism and Occidentalism, materialized and rooted in history, politics, and everyday life, and delimit horizons of possible thinking. One of these is, of course, the widely known and accepted cliché about Turkey’s “modernization” that bridges East and West. Another cliché is about Turkey’s dedication to “modern democracy” despite its long and violent history of state atrocities and military coups as opposed to, for example, the so-called conservative political regimes in the Arab countries. Since the foundation of the Republic, Turkey has been presented as a model for the rest of the Middle East, which takes new and aggressive forms within the contemporary political conjuncture. We could also point to yet another cliché, not independent of the ones mentioned earlier; that Turkey has no memory.

The phrase that Turkey has no memory has been circulating in popular media for several years. However, it also makes its entrance to scholarly work, and scholars working on memory often feel the need to refer to this cliché. For example, Esra Özyürek, a well-known anthropologist studying issues of memory in Turkey, writes in the Introduction to her edited volume The Politics of Public Memory in Turkey that “the Turkish Republic was originally based on forgetting” (2007, p. 3). Özyürek connects this amnesia to nation-building, and how “the founders of the new regime decided that in order to build a new identity for the new nation, they first had to erase the Ottoman legacy” (2007, p. 3). The administered forgetting was imposed on everyday life and bodies through the reforms that erased “the multicultural heritage of Ottoman Empire and its emphasis on Islam” (2007, p. 3). Similarly most studies on Turkish modernity refer to this rupture with the Ottoman past as constitutive. However today, Özyürek says, “cultural practices are replete with memory, and people relentlessly struggle over how to represent and define the past” (2007, p. 3). Thereby, the former amnesia is contrasted with today’s “shared desire for more memory.”

“Remembering the past” has not only become popular recently in scholarship in Turkey but also as a subject in art exhibitions, films, books, newspaper articles, and television programs; a phenomenon not independent of the current explosion of memory narratives all around the world, as scholars of memory note. However, despite the general memorial turn, every cultural context has its own historical patterns of forgetting and ways of coming to terms with “social traumas.” Tanıl Bora defines the repression of the past in Turkey as “militant forgetting” (2009, p. 8). “The early republic has not only prohibited facing the traumas in which the elite or the groups of its own population were the agents or culprits, but also those that benefited them” (2009, p. 8). Bora here thinks of the Caucasian and Balkan migrations and the exchange of populations at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, as examples of “beneficiary” traumas, while the list of traumas associated with guilt and complicity are numerous, starting with the Armenian massacres and genocide and extending to the present day.

The word “militant” seems in this case highly explanatory since it signifies many aspects of the situation at once: the enormous and radical rupture with the past, the involvement of force in the prohibition of memories and in the fabrication of a national memory, and the impact of denial and repression on everyday life by way of building a certain habitus. Bora dwells on this last point by saying that we cannot describe the situation in Turkey simply as a refusal of heritage but we should think of its pervasiveness through the concept of habitus—a certain mode of daily conduct and habit reinforced mainly by economic and social gains. Governments also have relied on this kind of oblivion, and reproduced it as “normal” and desirable behavior, as exemplified in the words of Süleyman Demirel, one of the most persistent figures in Turkish politics: “The people are like fresh fruit, their lives are daily” (cited by Bora 2009, p. 8).

However “habitus” that rises on habitual memory and supposedly sustains the dialectics of forgetting/remembering (Connerton 1989) is afflicted with a paradox in this context. The militant forgetting in Turkey constructs a survivor habitus with the repressed memories of several traumas. “As Elias Canetti reminds us, the survivor is the one who, having stood in the path of death, knowing of many deaths and standing in the midst of the fallen, is still alive” (cited in Mbembe 2003, p. 36). “Survival” restructures forgetting with a particular investment in life sustained at the expense of the destruction of the Others. Then, the unsettling question: What does it mean to survive? remains unattended. Cathy Caruth (1996) relates the question to the death drive in psychoanalytic terms, which implies that the formation of history in this case bears the endless repetition of previous violence (1996, p. 63). In other words, the traumas do not disappear but continue to exert their effects either in states of denial or acting-out. It is not a coincidence, then, with the erasure of the past Kemalist ideals in the present political regime of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that appeals to Islamicized hegemony, that there is the eruption of traumatic memories. The memories pertaining to several tragic incidents, such as the massacres and the exile of the Armenians and the Syriacs living in Anatolia starting from the nineteenth century; the forced exchange of populations of “Greeks” and “Turks” in the 1920s; the ruthless tax levy against the Jews, Greeks, and Armenians in 1942; the violent massacres and displacements of the Alevi and Kurdish populations, for example, that occurred in Dersim in the mid-1930s, in Maraş in 1978, in Sıvas in 1993, during the war against the Kurdish in the 1990s; and many forms of political violence against oppositional groups and individuals independent of ethnicity and religion during the long history of the nation especially with the coup d’états in 1960, 1971, 1980, all of which are re-surfacing today. These traumatic memory narratives do not only evoke past atrocities but also have the impact of cracking the backbone of the official history, as it were, leading to fierce debates about some core issues regarding the nation, such as Turkishness, Kemalism, nationalism, the “deep state,” citizenship, national language, at various sites including the parliament.

The eruptions of memory are both perplexing and enabling. They are perplexing because one cannot easily find a way to deal with these disturbing fragments of memory in the chaotic atmosphere in which they erupt, often leading to backlashes. The question of how to remember all of these and in what order leads to a certain bewilderment. Mithat Sancar finds Turkey dissimilar to many other countries that he has studied in terms of confronting the past. He argues that while in other countries, one big event, whether military dictatorship, civil war, genocide, or massacre, holds a central position; in Turkey, events similar to all of these have come one after the other, and have been intertwined. Each event belongs to different part of a long history, some in the more distant, others in the near past. So, there is a layering of “social traumas” shielded by a thick and hard crust, the breaking of which could be very painful and traumatic in itself (Sancar 2007, p. 259). Many intellectuals accept the debilitating power of the past in Turkey yet emphasize the need or the duty to remember. However, as I have observed in several meetings of scholars, experts, and activists on issues of memory in which I have participated, a frustrating question always arises at the end with regard to what should be prioritized to remember among the several past and present “social traumas” in Turkish history.

I would argue that this frustration is structured by the episteme of a linear notion of time, epitomized in the concept “progress.” The particular conception of time expressed in Orientalist perception has labeled the non-West as stagnant and defined it in opposition to time and change. The non-Westerners, very much in response to this stigmatization, have effusively, yet with a deep resentment, endorsed the discourse of progress as a rapid and linear movement in time. We can locate this hegemonic response in Turkey within the imperial complex. Historically the moment of rupture that the foundation of the Turkish Republic signifies is ambivalent: it is both failure and victory. It is the moment when the Ottoman imperial ambitions were defeated by Western imperialist ideals yet also the moment when Turkish sovereignty, albeit dictated by the standards of Western normativity, is re-instated after a liberation war. Thus, feelings of superiority and inferiority are embodied in the same moment, which is foreclosed in Turkish history. The foreclosure here means the dismissal of the full symbolic meaning of the traumatic rupture. While upholding the victorious moment with all its implications of modernity and development as a fetish and a frozen truth, simultaneously the loss of the imperial power, with all its implications of vengeance and nostalgic yearning is evoked in different registers. Consequently history is, on the one hand, condensed to a timeless, flat and mostly invented official history. On the other hand, it is deprived of its experiential content by the violent push into the future, named as progress and development. In Turkey, the motto of the “modernizers” has been the urgent need to catch up with the level of Western civilization, or in other words, to be contemporary, engendering an accelerated urge to move ahead. This urge seductively fuels a power regime that has violently repressed the past and displaced the meaning of the present producing a political climate of survivors in complicity with the violence of modernization.

The positioning of social memory in this context only in terms of the need to confront the past, or in other words, in terms of individuals’ cognition and recognition so that the traumas are overcome, entails a certain paralysis of the political subject. This is due to the fact that the assumed national-subject of remembrance is caught in the trap of Orientalism/Occidentalism. It is a trap because, first, the different times of the traumas and their entangled affects are reduced to a flat national time with reference to “development” vis-à-vis the binaries of East and West, tradition and modernity, within which it is impossible to understand not only what is lost but also how the loss continues to generate its uncanny effects on the survivors. In this respect, it is impossible to recognize how the national-subject has already been traumatically constructed as a survivor in relation to the destruction of Others in the past. Secondly, when issues of memory are relativized and ordered mostly with the concern of re-writing national history, both the subject of remembrance and the remembered are deprived of their historical personhood, and turned into abstracted and anonymous categories labeled by the official national ideology, such as the “Armenian” or the “Kurdish” question, without recognizing their emergence and entanglement in a wider historical realm.

The protests that started in the last days of May 2013, now referred to as the Gezi Resistance, was a great intervention to this impasse. The protests started with a seemingly simple aim: the protestors were against the cutting down of trees and the illegal confiscation of a public park in Taksim, at the heart of Istanbul. The trees were being cut down for the resurrection of an Ottoman military barrack, now to be transformed into a hotel and a shopping mall. The protest against the project mobilized many young and politically inexperienced people who demanded democratic participation in decisions concerning the use of urban public space; and the resistance soon spread to other parts of Turkey with differing political agendas. The increasing police violence, with disproportionately-used pepper gas, chemical water, and rubber bullets against the protestors, was brutal, causing severe injuries and deaths. The highly heterogeneous protest movement has nevertheless led to the establishing of public forums and a radical questioning of the role of the prime minister, the city governors, the private companies, the legal structure, the police, and the media in sustaining the power regime that goes against the democratic demands of the public, by embracing the slogan: “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance.”

The project of rebuilding the military barrack as a touristic enterprise in place of the Gezi Park had a double-fold meaning: restoring “tradition” to compensate the feelings of inferiority and resentment that Orientalism has historically generated, and to sanctify “Turkish modernity” in relation to the “West.” The ambivalent meanings were mobilized to justify the so-called urban redevelopment in line with the profit-oriented, neo-liberal policies of the present regime. It is symptomatic in this respect that the Prime Minister of Turkey mocked the political concerns of Gezi protestors by pointing to Europe as a model: “It is common practice in the EU that you uproot the trees if necessary, and then transplant them in another place [….] The environmental technologies are highly developed now” (September 3, 2013, Radikal). In a very similar manner, President Abdullah Gül attempted to domesticate the Gezi events. He said: “Don’t be afraid of Gezi [….] Our country, which has been cited before with reference to extrajudicial executions, torture, and severe human right problems, is now coming to the fore with environmental concerns and demands similar to the ones in Washington, London, or New York, that is, in the developed democracies” (September 24, 2013, Radikal), thus evoking the tropes of both Orientalism and Occidentalism.

As opposed to the closure of history in the above accounts, the Gezi Resistance has opened up a new political imaginary with a new conception of time and space. Akin to what Edward Said says with regard to “late space” (2007), the particular place of Taksim has been re-discovered and recaptured. Instead of imagining the present as coming after the past and making itself intelligible by way of referring to the past through Orientalist and Occidentalist codes, the movement blasted the givenness of space and the continuum of history.

Thus, the Gezi Resistance did not only challenge the present regime of power; it evoked a performative questioning of how power regimes have legitimized themselves within Orientalism/Occidentalism, with corresponding ambivalent feelings of inferiority and superiority. I contend that the Gezi Resistance constitutes a special moment through which the Turkish past gains a new meaning and political visibility. By blasting the continuum of time structured by the violent state practices and the capitalist “modernization” of Turkey since the nineteenth century, the Gezi Resistance has brought different fragments of the past and of national space into the time and place of now, that is into a new contemporaneity. In other words, the repressed histories of the nation were brought into a dialog in the present within a particular place—Taksim Square—that is normally praised to represent the heart of public life, commerce, and tourism. As Yael Navaro-Yashin argues, Taksim Square has become the “emblematic site in urban public consciousness for the enactment, production, and regeneration of the political” after the foundation of the Turkish Republic (2002, p. 1). The encounter has radically questioned the established survival habitus and its subject as an idealized citizen, revealing the different moments of loss in the building of the nation, such as the destruction of an Armenian cemetery in the area including a monument built in 1919 to commemorate the Armenian Genocide.

I would suggest that we take these moments in the Gezi Resistance as thresholds in their intricate relationship to the imperial complex. Thresholds can be viewed as border zones that are materialized by power-struggles and “memory wars,”

Play Video

Images presented by Meltem Ahıska.

yet where processes of remembering and forgetting are intermingled in a particular form, and here one can find the traces of multifarious memories that are mostly destroyed and cast to oblivion yet still living with the ghostly dreams and affects entangled with these fragments (Gordon, 2008). The threshold is not simply a borderline though; it is an indeterminate space open to contradictory movements. The thresholds revealed by the Gezi Resistance allow us to do a genealogy of the Turkish nation, destabilizing its “origins” and relating it to differential formations of temporalities and spatialities within the imperial complex. This point could resonate with the more general concerns of how to think beyond the national histories in social and cultural theorizing (Stoler and McGranahan 2007).

Parts of this essay are based on a paper Meltem Ahıska presented at the workshop “Aferim Yavrum! Little Gestures of Cooperation: Dialogue Forum” (Istanbul 2010), curated by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, and which appeared in an accompanying booklet published under the same name (2010). The author would like to thank Banu Karaca in particular for her valuable comments on the present text.


Books and articles

Bora, T. (2009) Geçmişle Hesaplaşma: Müşküller ve Yordamlar “Söyledim ve Vicdanımı Kurtardım” dan Ötesi? (Coming to Terms with the Past: Problems and Procedures, Beyond that, “I spoke out and relieved my Conscience”) Birikim (248), 7–17.[Online]. Available from: <> [Accessed January 29, 2014].

Caruth, C. (1996) Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Connerton, P. (1989) How Societies Remember. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Coombes, A. E. (2003) History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Foucault, M. (2002) The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge Classics.

Gordon, A. F. (2008) Ghostly Matters, Foreword by Janice Radway. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hirsch, M. (1997) Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Mbembe, A. (2003) Necropolitics, tr. L. Meintjes. Public Culture, 15(1), 11–40.

Navaro-Yashin, Y. (2002) Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Özyürek, E. (2007) Introduction: The Politics of Public Memory in Turkey. In: E. Özyürek, ed. The Politics of Public Memory in Turkey. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Said, E. W. (2000) Out of Place: A Memoir. London and New York: Vintage Books.

Said, E. W. (2007) On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. London: Vintage Books.

Sancar, M. (2007) Geçmişle Hesaplaşma: Unutma Kültüründen Hatırlama Kültürüne. Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları.

Stoler, A. L. and McGranahan, C. (2007) Introduction: Refiguring Imperial Terrains. In: A. L. Stoler, C. McGranahan and P. C. Perdue (eds.), Imperial Formations. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School for Advanced Research Press.

Video (images)

Anonymous, known as “Azirlazarus,” Whirling Sufi protester wearing gas mask in Gezi Park (2013), photograph. © Creative Commons. Available from: < File:Whirling_Sufi_Protester_wearing_gas_mask_in_Gezi_Park.jpg> [Accessed March 18, 2014].

Anonymous, known as “Diren Gezi Parkı,” Decorated Gumussuyu bus stop, Taksim (2013), photograph. Available from: <> [Accessed March 18, 2014].

Anonymous, known as “Gezi Parkı Duvar Yazıları,” There is a beautiful world behind (2013), photograph. Available from: <> [Accessed April 17, 2014].

Anonymous, Wounded brought to Dolmabahce Mosque (2013), photograph. Available from: <> [Accessed March 18, 2013].

Breloer, G., Turkey Protests Ramadan (2013), photograph. © AP Photo / Gero Breloer. Available from: <> [Accessed March 18, 2014].

Perrier, G., Surp Hagop Armenian Cemetery (1551–1939) / “You took our cemetery, you cannot take our park” (2013), photograph. © Guillaume Perrier. In: L. Marchand and G. Perrier (2013) La Turquie et le Fantôme Arménien. Arles Cedex: Actes Sud.