NEWTON: Precarious Hope

NEWTON: Precarious Hope

Ayşe Parla, Precarious Hope: Migration and the Limits of Belonging in Turkey (Stanford University Press, 2019).*

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ayşe Parla (AP): I would like to say pure intentionality and meticulous planning, but, as probably with most anthropological research, that would only be the less substantial and less interesting part of the story. The long trajectory that resulted in the book is one that combines chance, the political conjuncture, and love at first sight. Chance, because my very first encounter with my interlocutors was not at all deliberate.

Nearly two decades ago, I stepped inside the Bogaziçi Library in Istanbul looking for archival sources on a completely different subject for which I had received an exploratory research grant. Well, it turned out that proposal looked better on paper and was not yielding much to go on with. Meanwhile, I was riveted by the stories told by the exceptionally resourceful librarians, many of whom were migrant women from Bulgaria, as they helped me track down material—stories about crossing the Bulgarian-Turkish border for the first time in 1989, their nostalgia for aspects of communism and especially education, their sense of betrayal at the repression of the Turkish minority during the last years of Jivkov’s regime… My frustration with the dead ends of the project I had intended to pursue was soon overshadowed with admiration and awe for the sometimes quiet and sometimes sassy audacity of these women who were remaking the world for themselves and their families in a country that simultaneously welcomed them as our “Turkish kin” and marked them as different, as “the Bulgarian migrants.”

These encounters constitute the initial passion I would subsequently carry with me through to the last sentence of the book. But they are not actually part of the book. And this is where the political conjuncture comes in. As Turkey increasingly became a country of migration post 1990, I noticed that the migrations from Bulgaria and state policy towards Bulgaristanlı also changed shape. No longer were ethnically Turkish migrants from Bulgaria granted citizenship automatically; they instead relied on temporary amnesties for several years. So, I decided to embark on brand new fieldwork, which lasted for another five years, following the legalization quest of those migrants arriving from Bulgaria after 1990, with the goal of capturing that peculiar tension between continuing ethnic privilege and increasing economic and legal precarity.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AP: At its broadest, Precarious Hope explores the terms and limits of belonging in contemporary Turkey through the perspective of a migrant group who are ethnically privileged, but economically precarious. Even as they join the informal labor market in Turkey, their cultural and legal recognition as “soydaş,” which I translate as “racial kin,” gives the post-1990 Turkish migrants from Bulgaria a certain leverage when compared to other undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in Turkey hailing from Iran, Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union, sub-Saharan Africa, and most recently, of course, Syria. My ethnographic challenge was to ask what happens when we shift the lens away from the figure of the downtrodden migrant whose hope is often framed as “a hope against hope.” What slips through the cracks when the focus is only on crisis and desperation? The book demonstrates that the seemingly less eventful, more ordinary experiences reveal just as much about power, privilege, and entitlement. As Turkish and Muslim, the Bulgaristanlı migrants have historically been selected for inclusion as desirable subjects of the new nation-state, even as this has over time transformed into an exclusive inclusion. Yet their predicament provides an equally revealing window into Turkey’s citizenship regime. The book posits that in order to lay bare the full implications of differentiated citizenship practices in Turkey, and in particular, the religious and ethno-racial terms of belonging on which the Turkish nation-state continues to be predicated, we need to take to task not only the boundaries drawn to exclude and repress those who are deemed foreign, but also the borders opened on behalf of those who are deemed as (almost) the same.

The two main bodies of literature the book addresses are the anthropology of hope and the anthropology of precarity. There is a renewed fascination with and enthusiastic reclamations of hope not just in anthropology and critical theory but also in progressive politics and activism. Recall, for example, Rebecca Solnit’s international bestseller, Hope in the Dark, where hope is equated with action, where hopeful action is assumed to be universally legible, and where the agents of that action somehow constitute a self-evident, uniform “we.” Not all recent engagements with hope in critical theory are driven by this simplistic logic, of course. Examples of extremely sophisticated engagements with hope include the cultivation of hope as a method for self-knowledge, as proposed by anthropologist Hirokazu Miyazaki, or of radical hope posited by philosopher Jonathan Lear as a way of surviving extreme situations of cultural loss. Both go beyond analyzing hope and elevate it to the status of a principle, a virtue, or a method. So, my book is both inspired by and in critical conversation with these perspectives on hope. Rather than hope as a principle that informs in a fundamental fashion our ways of knowing and understanding, I am more interested here, following Ghassan Hage, in the unequal distribution of the grounds for hope among groups who are differentially positioned vis-à-vis legal and cultural resources for inclusion. The concept of “entitled hope” I develop in the book is particularly indebted to feminist legal scholar Patricia Williams’s notion of “structured expectation” in which members of a certain group, class, or race can assume hope in their encounters with the law.

If entitlement is one side of the coin of hope, precarity is the other. The concept of “precarious hope,” in turn, aims to capture the uncertainty and insecurity that mark the experiences of Bulgaristanlı women as they cross the border, interact with officials in the formal and informal spaces of the law, fend off gendered harassment, try to register their children in school, or work in the domestic sector. In engaging with the literature on precarity, I sought to circumcise what has increasingly become an ever-expansive concept. I took care to distinguish precarity from vulnerability and, following Andrea Muehlebach on the affective aspects of precarity, historically situate Bulgaristanlı migrants’ current condition as part of a broader yearning for a return to a previously experienced, more secure status. Once again, then, I am interested in thinking through the tension between privilege and precarity, in how degrees of privilege factor into and play out within predicaments of precarity.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AP: My work for the past decade on gendered violence, transnational migration, precarious labor, dispossession and the governance of difference has been situated at the intersections of the politico-legal and the affective-moral realms in Turkey. The book is very much a continuation of that trajectory. On the other hand, it is really with this book that I began to think of hope as a key category of analysis, both in relation to the specific experience of migration and also in relation to the realm of politics and governance.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AP: Those with a scholarly interest in the anthropology of emotion, transnational migration, and variegated citizenship, as well as those with geographical interest in Eastern Europe, Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East are the obvious audience of this book.

However, I would like to think that the book might appeal to anyone thinking about what it feels like to leave behind a home, to yearn for a child left back at that home, to work late into the night ironing, even when work hours are officially over, when it turns out your employer needs a particular dress to wear the next day, to get your hopes up for a resident permit only to be disappointed after waiting in a queue for hours, to brave the streets late at night as a single woman, or to put up with uncertainty in the hope of a better life for loved ones.

The hope that permeates this book, therefore, is very much about perseverance and dignity under precarious conditions, something that enables people to “live sanely,” as Jarrett Zigon so concisely put it. And yet, there is also a darker side that I explore and one which does not allow mine to be an entirely redemptive narrative on hope. Given the structural constraints of non-egalitarian societies, hope can also become a scarce good that one keeps for oneself and shields from others. In this case, it dovetails with the logic of Turkey’s migration regime that selects, rewards, discriminates, and deports according to a rigid hierarchy of belonging, one that is based on ethnic and religious kinship. My ultimate wish therefore would be to communicate an equivocal approach to hope that captures its ambiguities: hope has the potential to enable or to disable, to inspire or to obscure, depending on the context, its object, and its justifications. Viewing hope as a moral stance is thus not incompatible, I suggest, with identifying ways in which practices of hope can become complicit in exclusionary acts.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AP: My current project, “Graveyards, Necropower and Present Absences,” turns to the post-genocide dispossession of Armenians in Turkey and the legalization and cultural normalization of dispossession. It tracks necropolitical policies of destruction and the confiscation of Armenian cemeteries as well as the care and preservation by the community of other remaining cemeteries. Attending to both the inadvertent durability and the quiet safeguarding of material remains, the project pursues, on the one hand, the continuities between past violence and present evasions, and on the other hand, the entanglements of silence, absence, and survival.


Excerpt from the book

Precariousness may not always be named as dependence on the will and whim of a more powerful other, especially when it occurs under the guise of benevolence. Vasfiye migrated at the age of fifty-five from the southern Kırdjali region of Bulgaria after working as a crane operator during communism. She told me that her daughter, who was in her early twenties, used to work in a small textile shop. She worked kaçak (clandestinely), Vasfiye said, and told me the following incident:

The atelier was very close to where she lived. Someone must have reported them, because there was a raid. Everything about my daughter screams that she is not a local, from how she dresses to how she moves around. But the police, they were honest folks, and they turned out to be people with humanity. “Do you have an ID?” they asked her. She lied and said yes. They asked where, and she told them at home. “Call home,” one of them said, “and have someone bring it while we wait here.” She was terrified, but then the boss intervened. He said to my daughter, “Come on, go home, my girl, and come back here right away with your ID.” And the police, they allowed her to leave. The moment she left, they said to the owner, “Look, of course we know she does not have ID.” They could easily have detained her, or they could have accompanied her home if they’d really wanted to check. The police then told the owner, “At least tell her to get a residence permit, and then let her work. Now if there is another raid, we will be placed in a difficult position for having looked away.”

In Humanitarian Reason (2011a) Didier Fassin insists on full recognition of the paradox that underlies the politics of compassion, which he argues has been given short shrift by philosophers who stress its egalitarian aspect. This egalitarian aspect of sympathy for the other, which results in the motivation to provide them with assistance, is often foregrounded at the expense of the hierarchical aspect of humanitarianism: the exercise of compassion in public space flows unidirectionally from a position of power toward a position of precarity. In bestowing upon the officer the virtue of someone “with humanity,” Vasfiye personalizes or moralizes what Fassin calls a “strictly sociological” situation. This is a situation in which the hierarchical relationship between the officer and the undocumented migrant annuls the possibility of reciprocity and obscures the structural violence that occasions the precarious predicament in the first place. When confronted with those who are at the edges of legality, the police have room to act in ways that are “full of humanity,” as Vasfiye described it, or in ways that are gratefully perceived as such by those who are made to feel that precarious escape is their best chance. Looking the other way approximates the humanitarian gesture. “This tension between inequality and solidarity, between a relation of domination and a relation of assistance, is constitutive of all humanitarian government,” writes Fassin (2011a, 3).

Just like the police officer whom Vasfiye imbued “with humanity,” another police officer obliged Atiye and me by looking the other way when we went to the Mecidiyeköy police station to inquire about the June 2009 amnesty. Atiye, who came from a village near Razgrad, Bulgaria, was in her late fifties and had been engaging in circular migration for five years, working on and off as a nanny. Because she had family in Bulgaria, including a newborn granddaughter that she doted on, she considered her work in Turkey temporary and took extreme care not to lapse into illegal status. But this became very hard after the regulation allowing only ninety days of stay for every three months went into effect.

Atiye had found a way despite the new regulation. Since 2007, she had been alternating with a co-villager. Each took a three-month turn to work for the same employer, who had agreed to the arrangement. On that day, we had gone to the police station to inquire whether Atiye, who was still within her ninety-day visa bracket, could take advantage of the amnesty to gain an extra three months of residency. I made the inquiries while Atiye stood without speaking, preserving her usual calm, graceful demeanor, which I had not ever seen shaken, not even while waiting in the most hectic of queues or in the midst of boisterous interactions with others. The police officer asked me, “Is she at the university, like you, hocam?” I was caught off guard, perhaps by his amicable manner, since I was used to being waved off by officials, especially on such crowded days. “No,” I replied, regretting it the moment it came out of my mouth. He said matter-of-factly, “But you know, it is forbidden.” “I know,” I said, extremely uneasy, dreading the consequences of my foolish admission. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “So unfair that these folks do not get a work permit easily. If she were from the Philippines, she would probably have gotten it by now. So hard, their situation. There, they are persecuted because they are Turkish. Here, they are treated as Bulgarians. An old uncle [honorific for an older man couched in kinship terms] came here once. I told him, ‘Sit down. Tell me.’ He sat and cried and cried. All the things they had to endure just because they are Turkish, spoke Turkish, and they prayed according to Islamic precepts.”

These two official gestures of looking the other way—the first in the actual scene of breach of the law and the second in my confession of a breach—present a further twist to the lack of reciprocity identified by Fassin in the logic of compassion at work in humanitarian attention. Compassion is triggered not because one’s universal humanity is exposed in all its vulnerability, but because the subject in question exhibits the right traits of Turkishness and Islam. Compassion in this instance is based not on shared humanity, but on ethnic and religious kinship. Atiye becomes the object of compassion because she belongs to a group who “spoke Turkish, and they prayed according to Islamic precepts.” The already hierarchical nature of the humanitarian gesture is thus further delimited in the Turkish legal and policing context by the circumscription of the object of empathy to ethnic and religious kin.

As a technical designation, the term af, amnesty, refers to exemption from the rule. But in colloquial usage, amnesty also means, as it does in English, forgiveness, mercy, and pardon. In fact, the most immediate connotation of the Turkish word is pardon and forgiveness. Waiting for a technical exemption is thus evoked in language as waiting for one’s forgiveness by the state. “I have been clandestine for nine years now,” Asaniye Hanım, with whom Atiye and I had struck up a conversation while at the Mediciköy police station, declared. Then she added, with unmistakable aplomb, “I have not once paid fines for overstay. I simply wait for my amnesty. We know anyhow that there will be an amnesty at some point.” My amnesty, Asaniye had said, just like Şefika, who had shrugged off the disappointment of her absence from the list of nine hundred by reassuring herself that “we will get our amnesty in June.” Among other Bulgaristanlı women, too, the proprietary deployment of the term as my amnesty was a recurrent figure of speech.

On the one hand, reclaiming the amnesty that instrumentalizes migrants and their votes is a means to use the system right back. The migrants were aware that the state grants them amnesty in exchange for political mobilization. But there were different interpretations of the government’s strategic act. Some were outraged: “They are playing with us.” Others were pragmatically indifferent: “So what? If it will give me temporary regularization, I will take it.” Yet others were commiserative: “Well, it is natural for the state to want the Turkish party in Bulgaria to be strong.” Notwithstanding the different opinions they hold toward the amnesties, migrants had come to rely on and expect these exceptions as a convenient fix, even if temporary.

On the other hand, while savviness and strategic disaffection were at work in taking advantage of these state-sponsored amnesties, there is also a way in which the appropriation of the amnesty as my amnesty or our amnesty engaged in the interpellation work of the state. I never heard Bulgaristanlı migrants express guilt for lapsing into undocumented status. In that, they were immune to the criminalizing discourse of the state as it apportions legality and illegality. Nonetheless, the discursive circulation and enactment of these technical exemptions as pardons result in a certain subjectivization whereby waiting for one’s amnesty restored the image of the state as the benevolent grantor of forgiveness. Though the Bulgaristanlı migrants had no illusions about the purity of the government’s motives, they partially submitted to an acceptance of legality that was bestowed upon them in the form of a pardon.

But it is not only the ethnographer who should presume to discern the ideological stakes around this legal term. The hierarchical nature of the humanity that may be exercised by the official at the border, the police station, or the workplace was not lost on many of my interlocutors. A group of us waiting in line to inquire whether Bahriye Hanım’s sister, who was within the time bracket of her current residence permit when the new amnesty was issued, could still benefit from the extra three months that it offered. During our heated discussion of various technicalities, Bahriye Hanım interjected, visibly exasperated, “Tell me this. We keep saying ‘amnesty this,’ ‘amnesty that.’ Why is this even called an amnesty/af? Isn’t it something . . .” She paused, searching for the right words. “Isn’t this something we should simply be demanding?”


*Stanford University Press provides a 20% discount for the listeners of the Keyman Podcast if you purchase the book directly from their website. Follow this link and enter the Promo Code PARLA20 at the checkout to purchase the book with a 20% discount.

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