On Nevrooz and ‘NO!’

The market in Tarlabaşı, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Taksim Square, is teeming.

A friend, Cian, and I decide to hold an impromptu breakfast with a few others in the neighbourhood.

‘Is there any coffee in the house?’ I ask.

‘Does chai (tea) count?’ He replies.

‘You’ve lived here too long.’ We laugh.

A moment of brevity.

We take the dark, stone stairs five flights to the bottom. The light from outside filters in just enough to reveal a kitten sitting insolently in the doorway. Her eyes shine in the dark before she scurries in under a small hole beneath the porch stairs.

I coo, hoping to coax her out. No luck.

My friend digs into his pocket for the keys as we walk out into the street, and the pouring rain.

I’m checking my pockets to see if I’ve remembered my phone. A friend is supposed to call in need of directions.

I look up.

Cian’s eyes are fixed at the door. My eyes move quickly towards what he is gazing at. A lump in the throat, my heart jumps.

But my fears are soon allayed; the kitten has emerged again. She sits in the doorway, in between the darkness and the light. She looks up at Cian – defiant.

Cian smiles, he feels her spirit, it’s contagious.

We make our way up the steep, meandering street. A fruit seller calls his prices in song. The beauty of the sound gently falls on us, like the rain.

People look up from their exchanges with fleeting smiles, but the drone of a police car soon breaks the mood.

Cian and I continue to climb the street up towards Tarlabaşı Boulevard. The road bends up under an overpass. A banner calling ‘Hayır!’ (No!) signed by the Resident Association of Beyoğlu is affixed to the bridge. A flutter of light from the sun pierces through the clouds, falls across the banner, and nods to the universe.

A moment of hope.

Cian and I exchange some money when we finally reach the top of the street, only to come back down again.

My hand is clenched on my phone inside my coat pocket. I want a picture of the banner, its mere presence is political, with each letter straining under the fragile hopefulness of millions across this country.

Speaking to friends and comrades we agree that either vote – ‘evet’ (yes) or ‘hayır’ (no) will likely make for a similar outcome in Turkey’s constitutional referendum. Part of the aim of this referendum, like much of what Turkey’s AKP government is doing these days, is meant to further polarise society. Nonetheless, we agree it’s important to campaign for a ‘no’, and to continue to resist the brazen fascism of the AKP and Erdoğan. And, perhaps most importantly, to use the opportunity to build a strong, cross-ethnio-religious base, that might represent another Turkey, a democratic one.

A Turkey that does not yet exist, and may have never existed, especially for the Kurds and the Alawites–and they demand that peace will only come when and where there is justice.

A steep demand for a world at the mercy of so many forces intent on its destruction.

A few nights previous, after taking in our fill of Paddy’s Day in Istanbul (which was uncannily similar to Dublin city centre adorned with ‘foreigners’ in Viking crowns, guzzling green-dyed beer and singing (badly) to ‘whiskey in the jar’ for the thousandth time) we were stopped by a cop thinly veiled as a ‘drug dealer’.

The cop calls out, hoping to snare us in some shadowy deal. Cian clicks his tongue, a universal Middle East sound for ‘no’, but its (apparently) already too late–the drug dealer/cop has made up his mind about our intentions in Tarlabaşı.

As the police officer approaches us, he seems erratic, aggressive. I know the behavior, it reminds me of the kids in college who used to sell coke in the basement cafe of our university library, talking at us a mile a minute, combative, sparing with each word.

He begins to pat- down Cian, releasing each pocket of his jumper of its assorted contents: some change, a lighter, chapstick, some crumpled up receipts. The cop acts as if the items are baiting him, each presenting a further opportunity to intimidate us.

When he finally gets to Cian’s rolling tobacco, and insists on scrutinizing each strand, I lose my mind.

‘Why are you doing this?’ My voice is soft, but firm.

A challenge.

The words buzz in front of me like mosquitoes waiting to draw blood. I flinch, wishing I could simply roll the words back into my mouth as purposefully as they exited.

I’ve transgressed what is expected. I was supposed to stay silent, to keep my eyes pointed down, to play the role of the ‘submissive woman’. I’ve never been very good at surrendering to authority, a condition I suffer from innately, since birth, really. I fear I shan’t recover.

In an instant, however, my mind plays its own judge, jury and prosecutioner.

‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ It asks me.

‘Do you know of all here, you have the least to lose? This is Cian’s home, his neighborhood. What were you thinking?’

Shame.

Serif, a Turkish friend from Beşiktaş who is also with us, looks over at me, eyes wide. He is a lawyer and a Leftist. He spent the evening gushing about his new girlfriend and his plans to move to Europe to be with her (and escape, in his words, ‘the hell hole that is Turkey;’). Of all, my indignance could fall hardest on his future.

What is more, however, is that I know (amply) that there aren’t many ‘whys’ or ‘whats’ or ‘hows’ or any prudent questions fit for answers in Turkey these days.

Fascism is only really exceptional at the top. At the bottom it looks quite doltish, much like Hannah Arendt’s apt description of a ‘thought-defying banality of evil.’

Later, at a going-away party, I ask Serif a question I know I shouldn’t.

It’s a question I ask myself as well, but does appear to me as fabulously arrogant in light of the given circumstances in Turkey:

‘How do you accept that?’

I am somber, and I keep my eyes glued to his. I want him to know that the question is genuine, but also compassionate.

I am trying to empathise with something I know I cannot understand. Not like him anyway, and I want him to sense the difference.

He squints his eyes, and furrows his brow. On his face I read confusion.

In a soft voice I say, ‘I am talking about the over-reach of the police officer.’

My mouth stops there, but in my mind, I continue,

‘…and the casual ways in which we all have been calibrated by such realities that we begin to see these things as ordinary. And also, how familiar oppression feels that we bow to it not because we concede, but because its mundane.’

Serif takes a swig from a bottle of beer, contemplative. Then resolutely corrects me:

‘I don’t accept it, but what can I do?’

We both define ourselves as ‘activists’, so we have all the fancy, Left-wing answers. But none seem to square with the paradigm of Turkey, of fascism, of the seemingly intractable conflicts that have swollen this country with refugees and recession.

Serif is too polite to turn the question on me. Though, I wish he would. Not because I have a response, but because I don’t.

Because so-called ‘Western civilisation’, with its ‘bombing you to democracy,’ and its ‘worthy prices’ (paid in the blood) does not have an explanation, or solutions, or answers or ‘help’ — it’s all just the facade that keeps some at the top and others at the bottom.

We’ve commodified and exported the ideology of the ‘War on Terror’ to countries, like Serf’s, all to eager to buy their own petty versions to exact against their own endemic racist motifs.

American imperialism is not about patriotism and products. It’s about the colonisation of ideologies, about autocracies finding their own ‘9/11’s’ so that they too can fight a ‘war of terror’.

tarlabasi

‘Pardon,’ a paunchy man with a long, white beard and black thawb is trying to squeeze himself between me and a table of olives. I look at him for a few seconds before I understand, and clumsily move out of his way.

Suddenly, I hear Cian calling me from a nearby shop where he has found a good bargain on Syrian coffee.

People move in the street like a flowing river, and you have to sort of dive in, in order to move.

I find Cian’s voice and go ‘upstream’ towards the shop. I emerge from the street soaked in my own awkwardness, bumbling my bags and terrible excuse for Turkish.

I hear a man in the shop tell Cian that ‘it’s two days until Nevrooz – the Zoroastrian calendar’s ‘New Year’ and the Spring Equinox’. He nods in my direction as if to also let me in on the news.

I know Nevrooz, or Norooz as we say in Persian, well. It is also celebrated in Iran, where my family is from. However, fixed in this market full of Kurds forbidden to show any outward sign of their most important yearly holiday, the (painful) myopia of my privilege begins to materialise.

For me, sheltered in a culture where Norooz is the cornerstone of the year, I have never experienced it as anything but public and joyous: the making of the haft-sin, the excitement of chahar-shanbe soori, the amaranthine platters of food, and a fortune straight from the lips of Hafez himself.

And, though I’ve celebrated Nevrooz across the Middle East, I never recognised it as political, lest something that could be made illegal or forbidden.

As Cian and I make our way back through the market, searching for eggs, bread, tamar (dates), strawberries, a market that feels so crowded it could almost burst. Suddenly, its as if only one component really matters – and its missing: Nevrooz.

My eyes scour the streets, the stalls, the tarps, the walls, but there are no banners, no Kurdish coloured flags, no special foods or people requesting donations like on most holiday. There is no pulse, especially not the kind that fills a space just before a celebration.

Instead, people appear tense. The atmosphere is heavy, and greetings are punctuated with silence instead of laughter.

The image of ‘what could be’ hangs in the air, and for a moment I try to imagine it.

My mind, molded by catholic/shia conceptions of the meaningfulness of suffering, and how it can bring joy into full colour, seems remarkably difficult a concept when standing, literally, amongst a community that has experienced so much pain.

So, instead I think about how the act of making (or taking) meaning from suffering can be an act of resistance. An attempt to both ask and answer the question, ‘why’. Or to say plainly,  ‘I don’t accept this.’ To be critical even of the universe’s absolutism on life and death.

I breathe in the corpulent air of such a proposal, and I think of how it doesn’t simply defy Erdoğan, but (probably) God. And I remind myself that I left the house for coffee, which I haven’t had yet, and certainly will need if I am planning an afternoon of taking on the Creator.

I also know that I’ve come again to Turkey to be amongst the Kurdish freedom movement, who even after being denied and deprived those things that define ‘a community’: language, culture, ritual, rights – has imagined something meaningful from its suffering, and for more than just themselves.

It’s not perfect. And imperilled from within and without – but it is imaginative and more than that, its brave.

The ‘illegality’ of Nevrooz has put dozens of its organisers in prison, but it has not stopped it from going. It seems that by making it forbidden, the Turkish state has sanctioned it ever the more in the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people, and it is more visible than ever.

diyarbakir

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In 2017 the Political is Personal

‘A revolution in consciousness is an empty high without a revolution in the distribution of power.’ – Abbie Hoffman

I first came across the political whirlwind that was Abbie Hoffman whilst a new activist in university. I was studying for an honours degree in Middle East studies, and living in a eco-feminist, catholic worker commune in Camden, NJ. The forty-minute commute between Camden and West Philadelphia, where my university was located, brought me through some of the U.S.’s poorest neighborhoods. In fact, my own city of Camden had routinely made the list of ‘America’s most dangerous cities’ due to the high homicide rates relative to the size of population. The contrasts between my abstemious life at home in Camden, and the cloying wealth of the University of Pennsylvania was vast.

Though, even at the tender age of 19, contrasts of privilege and power had already seeded an avid political consciousness in me. Growing up as a minority in the U.S., I knew contrast. As a child of ‘mixed’ parentage – my mother an American of Irish descent, and my father an Azeri-Iranian and an immigrant – our family was codified within the racially ambiguous term ‘blended’. Yet, in my experience, the word blended fails to capture much of the reality, as our family was probably better characterised as immiscible, in other words, we did not ‘blend’.

Already strained by the burden of attempting to cope with normative gender roles that seemed to confirm Carol Hanisch’s observation that the ‘personal is political’, my parents’ marriage seemed to suffer particularly by the inverse of that famous slogan, ‘the political [was] personal.’ My parents divorced in 1986 when I was not yet three years of age. In November 1985, the Reagan administration began secretly and illegally selling arms to the Iranian government, just at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, as means of funding Right-wing paramilitaries (aka ‘the Contras’) in Nicaragua, who were under sanction by the U.S. congress. Whilst the Reagan administration made pronouncements condemning various governments’ ‘support for terrorism’ or ‘lack of democracy’ it was, if not instigating, fuelling wars from Latin America to the USSR to the Middle East.

Unwilling to challenge the undemocratic, often surreptitious policies that have characterised U.S. foreign policy since Reconstruction, the media turned its gaze towards those who were largely its victims. In the case of Iran, the media became obsessed with curating Islam as cultish, and fixated on perfunctory depictions of Iranian women, clad in billowing, black chadors, (invariably) shouting: Marg barg Amerika! (death to America) at any opportunity.

iranian_revolution_in_shahyad_square

These depictions were not simply the fantasies of doltish, American journalists. They were, rather, the consequence of economic, political, and social contexts, and intended to conjure specific kinds of reactions and affirm particular world views. In these ‘stories’, Iranian women were all the same. They did not have subjectivity, they did not ‘act’, and their reactionary politics was driven by ideology and false-consciousness. Of course these are the very discursive maneuvers that have, since the Enlightenment, helped to formalise Islam as a counterpoint to the West with the issue of women’s rights as the cornerstone. Today, the paradigm that the ‘West’ and the ‘Islamic world’ are caught in an intractable conflict continues to set the tone of debates – and worse, policies – with disastrous effect.

In recent history, one consequences of the harm of maintaining this spurious characterisation is the War on Terror, and the invasion into Afghanistan, that successfully mobilised mainstream feminist groups, like the Feminist Majority, to support it under the guise of ‘protecting the rights of women and girls.’ The so-called ‘mission of hope in Afghanistan’ – as described by Laura Bush with little recognition of the deeply colonial frame such a description provokes – included several partners from post-colonial states, including Ireland. Through its ‘peace partnership’ with NATO, Irish troops maintained a modest presence in Afghanistan from 2002 – 2014.

These political realities are the contrasts and complexities of the world I was born into, and the one in which we are all bound to dwell. They are maintained by structures of injustice, disparities of wealth and power, and animate the spatial landscapes that also determine our epistemic view. This is why it is important to notice, for instance, why certain postcodes have well-funded schools and well-connected services, and others struggle to maintain a modicum of these rights. It is also important to notice that issues of inequality such as those Hanisch’s essay articulate, were not merely ‘personal’ without political consequence, but deeply political and connected to material structures of discrimination that narrate those structures as ‘natural’.

Further, where Second Wave feminism championed Hanisch’s slogan through a myriad of campaigns like reproductive rights and equal pay for equal work, Third Wave conceptions brought the slogan into the reverse: the political was personal. The difference between the two is subtle yet critical as a means to disturb some of the ways in which certain streams of feminism have colonised what it means to be a ‘feminist’ and what feminist collective action looks like.

The difference is also important in terms of framing; our strategies of resistance to hetero-patriarchy (centrally) need to be constitutive of a larger political imagination. An imagination that both asks and attempts to answer the question: what kind of society do we want to live in?

When I began integrating the idea that the ‘political was personal, ‘several questions arose. The first went back to my childhood and my parents marriage and eventual divorce. 1979 was the year my father and mother met and fell in love, and was also the year that the romance between the U.S. and Iran went afoul. As my parents made attempts to salvage their relationship in the early 1980s, the political backdrop created new challenges that put considerable stress on them that became too much to bear. Reagan’s decision to fund the Contras in Nicaragua through weapons sales to Iran (facilitated by Israel) assisted in prolonging a brutal war between Iran and Iraq that killed nearly half a million people over eight years. The war also displaced millions, with a fortune few, like my family, able to migrate away from Iran (and Iraq) and settle in places like the U.S. and Europe.palestine, feminism
However, though it is possible to travel away from war, it’s futile to believe you can be ‘free from war’. For my family, there was a constant tension over fears that any single day could deliver news of a relative’s death, a beloved city bombed, or the further consolidation of authoritarian power in Iran. It was a political personalism never intended by Hanisch, but just as ostensible.

Like my parents’ ill-fated attempts to save their marriage, the U.S. and Iran never regained their ‘special relationship’, and as a result, I’ve never been able to visit Iran. Nevertheless, I was always defined by it, not least because of my name, but also as a result of the particularities of my experience – those contrasts – that have come to define and determine my life. Like those whose identity and self-definition has led them to distinguish themselves outside the binaries of sex and gender, I’ve refused the homogenising spaces meant to govern the performative aspects of one’s ethnic (or racial) identity. Similar to how I moved from my early activist days seeing patriarchy as the supremacy of men over women–instead of the creation of gender as an exercise of power—so too have my thoughts on feminism at the intersection of race evolved.

I no longer seek to strictly define feminist or feminism under a single, over-arching notion of equality or choice as determined by Western neo-liberalism. Nor do I condone the idea of ‘cultural relativism,’ as what we define as culture is neither fixed nor free from structures of injustice that shape it positively and negatively.

Instead, I have found the work of artists, activists and scholars committed to ending patriarchy and building a society of inclusivity to be most instructive and most able to actively maintain a space of diversity.

Sometimes diversity will be dialectical and emancipatory, exemplifying an almost seamless congruence of the widest array of thoughts and identities. At other times, diversity will be the (mundane beauty of) work necessary to hold opposites in tension.

For feminists of our time (or womanists or gender justice activists – widely defined) there is an urgent need to re-examine and re-claim the political project of feminism from its co-optation into capitalism, Eurocentrism and heteronormativity. How we do that (in other words our strategies for resistance) is as important as the results. I think our strategy begins with what many have described as ‘de-colonising feminism’. This process has largely given way to the post-Third wave feminist paradigms that have sought to expand beyond the limiting dichotomies of Western epistemology. These epistemes attempt to simplify and bifurcate what are the very rich and complex diversities into one thing and its opposing twin: East/West, Modern/Backward, Us/Other, Mother country/Colony, Civilised/Uncivilised, White/Black.

This vision of the world is dangerous in the way in which it has defined most of the colonised world outside of the realm of ‘civilisation’,  and assumes there is a normative, natural hierarchy in which the world is organised. Those at the top of this hierarchy, mainly the U.S. and Europe, are thus able to colonise all visions of what it means to be modern and civilised – and that everything that is not ‘Western’ is therefore the uncivilised, traditional, and backwards.

In fact, Edward Said, post-colonialism’s most well-known scholar, argued that there has been a sustained pattern of misrepresentation of the Islamic world for the specific purpose of justifying Western hegemony. Chandra Mohanty expanded on Said’s research by relating how one of the central tropes of Western colonial literature in the 20th century is the depiction of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ in need of ‘saving’.  This trope racialises women of the ‘Islamic world’ on the basis of their racial /ethnic identities in many of the same ways patriarchy attempts to subordinate women identified and non-binary people on the basis of their gender identities.

For feminists interested in de-colonising their feminism, Angela Davis’ Women, Culture and Politics is instructive. In the book Davis describes  a trip she made to Egypt in the late 1980s where she came face to face with the complexities of her location as subaltern woman of the global North in relation to her fellow subaltern women of the global South. In this relation, Davis’ identity, even as an African American woman of colour, was privileged vis-a-vis many of her fellow Egyptian female identified counterparts.  This encounter prompted Davis to write about the necessity of never taking identity or relations of power for granted, and of the imperative to always interrogate one’s own power in connection to shifting relationships.

Davis’ reflexsive approach shouldn’t be seen as something that is simply ‘morally good’, but as a feminist praxis that centres the subjectivity of her fellow feminist activists over her own assumptions. In so doing she actively made space for the voices of her fellow feminist activists from less privileged positions of power  than her own to be heard. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement describes this approach as ‘leaning out’ to allow others to ‘lean in’. What’s more, Davis uses her subaltern identity to progress the reach of her feminist solidarity by offering her own platform as a space to bring in others even more marginalised than herself.

Her example asks the important question to all feminists: how do we cultivate a radical anti-capitalist / anti-systemic politics, which is constitutive of, but goes beyond, the confines of identity politics?

One way I’ve chosen to struggle with that question publicly is to start a blog called Steal this Hijab (StH). My blog was created for me to both demonstrate that the Islamic world has a rich, diverse and long-reaching history of gender justice movements, but also as a way of discussing and debating de-colonial feminisms. StH’s names was ‘stolen’ from a work of a similar title, Steal this Book by Abbie Hoffman, an American anti-war activist (in)famous for his theatrical approach to political engagement. As the passage at the outset of this essay relates, Hoffman knew that raising the consciousness of people would only be an initial step; one that would inevitably remain elitist and ineffectual without being tied to acts of political dissent. Hoffman called this ‘critical resistance’ and offered that it could be achieved whilst maintain imagination and a sense of humour.

Finally, the capacity for feminists to aspire towards changing the societies in which we live is not separate from the political and cultural regimes within which our lives are intertwined. By understanding the complex dynamics of our identities and their contexts we can transform the dominant narratives that frame our personal and political lives and make genuine solidarity possible.