Hidden Roots: An Examination of Cultural Identity in Turkey

By Fiona Lowenstein

Six months ago, Turkey began seriously questioning its self-identity. On May 28, protestors stormed Istanbul’s Gezi Park, demanding change from Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The demonstrators called for a variety of issues to be addressed, including freedom of the press, better environmental protections, and expanded rights for ethnic minorities. As the protests wore on, they gathered momentum and people from a diverse range of ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds joined in the marches. By August, the protests had become a celebration of diversity that caused many in Turkey to question the oft-accepted image of the country as ethnically and religiously homogenous.

The Gezi Park Protests posed important questions about Turkish identity, but many of these questions have yet to be answered. The protests shed light on a history of confusion about ethnic identity that is often forgotten, or not talked about. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, most Turkish citizens have been educated in a curriculum that emphasizes Turkish identity above all else. Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code outlaws “public denigration” of Turkey, Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions, which makes open dialogue about ethnicity very difficult. Because public debate about ethnicity in Turkey is limited and punishable by law, many Turks are brought up to believe that they live in a nation that is linguistically and ethnically homogenous. Yet, the CIA World Factbook estimates that ethnic Turks constitute only 70 to 75 percent of the Turkish population, with Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and other, smaller ethnic groups making up the sizeable remainder. Issues such as the Armenian Genocide, tension between Turks and Greeks, and the history of the Kurdish minority are among the many ethnic questions that remain unanswered and actively ignored by the Turkish government and much of the population today.

Turkish students’ consequent lack of familiarity about ethnic diversity surprised Lisa Di Carlo, an anthropologist from Brown University who studies identity politics in modern Turkey. Several years ago, Di Carlo offered a class on the anthropology of Turkey, and found that many visiting Turkish students signed up for it. On the first day, Di Carlo began with a discussion of Turkey that included the perspectives of the Turkish students in the class. When she asked the class how many indigenous languages are spoken in Turkey, she was floored to hear a Turkish student name Turkish and English as two of three languages spoken in Turkey. Di Carlo explained that there are thirty-six languages spoken in Turkey. “[Ethnicity] it was something that nobody talked about in public when I first started visiting Turkey,” DiCarlo explained. She first visited in Turkey in 1989. “No one pointed out that Turkey was an ethnically diverse country,” DiCarlo recounted. “It’s there in the reading if you want to read Ottoman or Turkish History in the U.S., but students in Turkey don’t have access to the same books. Many in Turkey are unaware of how ethnically diverse Turkey is.”

Photo Courtesy of Atila Durak
Photo Courtesy of Atila Durak

However, Turkish citizens are increasingly challenging their nation’s constructed homogenous ethnic identity. One such individual is photographer Attila Durak, whose photography exhibit, Ebru: Reflections of Cultural Diversity in Turkey, seeks to celebrate the nation’s diversity. The word “ebru” is usually used to describe a form of painting common in Turkey that is similar to marbling. In the art process known as “ebru,” colors are mixed on a piece of paper and then allowed to slide off, forming a mixture of their own. “Ebru is the search for a new language to make cultural diversity in Turkey visible and intelligible,” wrote Ayşe Gül Altınay, Professor of Anthropology at Sabancı University in Istanbul and editor of the book version of Ebru in the book’s forward.

Durak spent years taking the photographs found in Ebru, which depict Turkish nationals from all areas of the country. Durak said he selected “300 photographs from approximately 15,000 that I had taken during the five years of fieldwork.” Instead of listing the names of his subjects below their photos, Durak labeled each photo with an ethnicity, such as “Kurd,” “Sephardic Jew,” or “Christian Armenian.” “[Durak] used ethnomyths,” DiCarlo said. “Instead of saying these people are this, he asked people how they identify.”

With Ebru, Durak created an exhibit that combines his photographs with various scholars’ writing, music, and discussion panels. In his artist’s statement, he describes growing up in Gümüşhane, a city that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. By the time Gümüşhane was Durak’s home, it had become kind of ghost town; only ruined churches and abandoned shop fronts remained of its past Greek and Armenian inhabitants. “Aided by the boundless imaginations of childhood,” Durak remembered, “we played on the deserted streets, reveling in the ‘ghostly’ haunts left to us by a once vibrant community.” Ebru first opened in New York in 2007 and has since travelled around Turkey and Europe, before culminating in a final show in the Netherlands in April of 2013.

Photo Courtesy of Atila Durak
Photo Courtesy of Atila Durak

By suggesting that Turkey openly celebrate its diversity, Ebru takes a stance against the silence blanketing ethnic issues there. Throughout Turkey, the bold nature and controversial content of the exhibit has evoked a wide variety of reactions.
When Durak’s exhibit came to Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, nationalists spread rumors that Durak was a spy, a Western puppet, and the recipient of funding from the Soros Foundation. Perched on Turkey’s Aegean coast, Izmir has long been afflicted by ethnic tensions between Greeks and Turks. During the Turkish War of Independence, the city shifted control between Turkey and Greece. In 1922, the Turkish army set the city ablaze to recapture it from Greek control, and over ten thousand Greeks and Armenians died. Despite the fact that much of the Greek population was forced to relocate, the city is still plagued with ethnic tensions.

When the exhibit stopped in Istanbul, a critic approached DiCarlo, who was on site studying the public’s engagement with the exhibition, and belligerently asked her where the photos of “real Turks” were. DiCarlo asked him if he meant ethnic Turks and he responded that he meant “ethnic, modern Turks.” DiCarlo pointed out photographs of ethnic Turks, but the critic remained offended by the lack of ethnic Turks. “[Ebru] is a real celebration, but depending on who you are you may take it as that, or you may take it as a threat.” Since Durak’s photographs portray people who are often hidden from the public realm, and whose roots are rarely celebrated, to some, Ebru presents a shocking and upsetting image of Turkey.

Photo Courtesy of Atila Durak.
Photo Courtesy of Atila Durak.

In her review of Ebru, Professor Altınay asks, “Is it possible to engage histories of violence without reinforcing blindness to the dynamics of interaction, dialogue, and exchange?” DiCarlo said some who saw the exhibit worried that Durak’s discussion of ethnicity would further divide people in Turkey. Leyla Levi (YC ’16), who travelled with DiCarlo this summer and hails from Istanbul herself, does not think that keeping discussions of ethnicity out of the public eye is the answer.

“It’s left a lot of people marginalized and voiceless,” Levi explained. She says that she was not explicitly aware of many of the issues surrounding ethnicity in Turkey until recently, but is now quite intrigued by the issue. Nevertheless, ethnicity played somewhat of a role in Leyla’s childhood. “I had this idea as a kid that I couldn’t be the president, because I was Jewish…like I thought that was the law.” Levi laughed. Because the cultural, religious, and ethnic minorities of Turkey are rarely discussed, it can sometimes seem that these groups are second-class citizens with fewer rights. Because Jewishness was never discussed in the public realm, Leyla assumed it was at odds with her status as a Turk, and thus would make her unable to run for office.

Ebru has literally given words to voiceless groups in Turkey by publicizing ethnic terms that have fallen out of public usage, as many in Turkey choose not to speak about their non-Turkish heritages. “You saw people standing up and crying during panel discussions as they explained that this was the first time they heard the word that described what their family was since they were kids,” DiCarlo remembered.

“I wanted to tell a different story than the ones that had already been told,” Durak wrote in his artist’s statement. “This story would be about the current colors of Turkey—together with the lost hues, and those that are being added.”

Photo Courtesy of Atila Durak.
Photo Courtesy of Atila Durak.

Durak’s statement begs the question of when these hues first began to disappear. Turkey was famously the heart of one of history’s most diverse and tolerant empires for over six hundred years. How did the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire give way to the narrower image of Turkish national identity that exists today? After World War I, the Ottoman Empire had collapsed, and various leaders were vying for power in the region that is modern-day Turkey. In 1923, Mustafa Kemal, more commonly known to the West as Atatürk, emerged from this group and founded the Turkish Republic, thus guiding Turkey’s transformation from a large, diverse empire into a smaller, highly nationalistic state. It was at this time that the word “Turk” became integral to national rhetoric in Turkey. In Turkey, students recite a pledge of allegiance that ends with a line first spoken by Atatürk in 1933. The sentence translates to, “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk.’” Atatürk’s Turk was modernized, Westernized, and secular, and an attempt to bridge the cultural gaps between the people living in the new nation-state through conflating all identities in one. While this historical ideal continues to be glorified today, religion has recently become a more important part of Turkey’s identity, and thus the archetypical Turk has recently taken on a Muslim persona. Levi explained that the Turkish ideal her parents knew is quite different from the Turkish ideal she has observed. While Leyla’s parents grew up with images of Atatürk’s secular Turk, Leyla’s image of a Turk is influenced by recent religious influences. Despite these changes, Atatürk himself remains an emblem of what it means to be a Turk. His image, often painted, can be seen in almost every establishment in Turkey – his piercing blue eyes a reminder of Turkey’s ties to the West.

The idea of a nationalist Turkish identity was born alongside with the state of Turkey in 1923, and like the Republic, was a creation of Atatürk and his followers. According to DiCarlo, “during the Ottoman Empire ‘Turk’ was pretty much coterminous with ‘farmer’ or ‘peasant.’” After the founding of the Turkish Republic, the word “Turk” was used both to refer to citizens of this new state, and also as an ethnic marker that spurred a kind of nationalism, similar to the many European nationalist movements that emerged at the end of the war. Levi described how “[The word “Turk”] was sort of meant to be the glue that would hold people in the newly founded republic together, even though the [founders of] the republic knew that these people were really different. I think it was…a strategic move.” The word Turk has since taken on an ethnic connotation. “There is no distinction between ‘Turkish’ as a citizen marker and ‘Turkish’ as an ethnic marker,” Levi explained. “When you say ‘[Turk],’ do you mean a person who lives in Turkey or do you mean a Sunni [person of] Central Asian [origin]?”

In recent years, some non-ethnic Turks have taken to using the term “Turkiyeli.” “The only way I can translate it is to say ‘Turkey-ish,’” DiCarlo said. According to Levi, “Turkiyeli is like a more politically correct way of saying ‘I’m from Turkey.’” DiCarlo and Levi emphasized that this term both clarifies ethnic distinctions and allows for admissions of ethnic differences amongst the population.

Yet the ambiguous term “Turk” remains integral to displays of national identity in Turkey, leaving little space for those who may not identify with the word or the image it connotes. In high school, Levi stopped singing the national anthem in the weekly school ceremonies, because she felt that the words didn’t represent her. She thinks of herself as Turkiyeli, rather than a Turk. “Refusing to sing the anthem was my way of showing myself, and no one else, that I didn’t have to personally perpetuate the systems that contributed to what I saw as being the problem” Levi explained. “I simply don’t want to actively contribute to nationalistic propaganda.” While Levi’s family is of Jewish origin, she says she is wary of taking on this cultural marker.

A lot has changed since DiCarlo first visited Turkey, however. Durak’s Ebru has given a voice to people and words that had not been spoken about for years. In late September, Prime Minister Erdoğan announced that students would no longer be required to recite the pledge Levi refused to recite in high school. While this may be indicative of Erdoğan’s desire to eradicate Turkey’s secular past, it also means that for the time being, students like Levi will no longer have to recite words they feel don’t represent them. Levi said that “No 10-year-old, regardless of his or her ethnic marker, should have to say ‘I bestow my existence to the Turkish existence.’”

“You can’t turn back once society has started to have open discussions on identity,” DiCarlo said about Turkey. “Turkey’s on that path now. So I really think it’s just a matter of time.” Turkey is in a transitional period, unlikely to remain as it is now or was several years ago. What lies in Turkey’s future is unclear, sometimes worrisome and sometimes exciting. In 1933, while addressing a crowd about post-war alliances, Atatürk said, “We must delve into our roots and reconstruct what history has divided.” Perhaps soon, Turks and Turkiyeli’s will follow this advice and embrace the diverse ethnic landscape that makes up their nation, thus uncovering, for good, Turkey’s hidden roots.

Fiona Lowenstein ’16 is a History major in Saybrook College. She can be reached at fiona.lowenstein@yale.edu. Ebru will be visiting Yale next fall.