Christopher Houston, Istanbul, City of the Fearless: Urban Activism, Coup D’État, and Memory in Turkey (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2020).

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

Christopher Houston (CH): The immediate genesis of this book began with a walk in Istanbul. Passing the walls of his old high school with a friend back in 2010, he stopped and said, “I remember a day in 1977 when the whole class protested in the quadrangle, in lines like soldiers, with our fists in the air.”

His comment laid a seed in me that slowly developed into a research project, a study of the experiences and memories of people active in political groups, parties, and fractions in the years before and after the violent military coup on 12 September 1980 (12 Eylul in the Turkish political vernacular).

Interestingly, nearly everyone who lived through 12 Eylul agreed that it marked the great dividing line between the present “globalized” city of Istanbul and what is now felt to be the foreign country of the past. For my interlocutors, the junta’s instituting of the Third Republic ushered in a new era in Turkish politics, a period characterized by the eclipse of previously dominant leftist movements and ideologies, and the emergence of an identity struggle between Islamists and secularists, as well as between pro-Kurdish movements and a bloody-minded state. All this in the context of a newly liberalized, consumer-oriented, and globalizing economy. And yet for various reasons, little research over the three decades since the coup has focused on Istanbul and on its activists in the critical years immediately before the military intervention.

So, one motivation for writing the book has been to refute the dominant discourse on the 1970s’ political movements and about their militants, which attributes responsibility for the military intervention to the collective anarchism, terrorism, and class separatism of activists themselves. Another aim has been to recover their own accounts of their complex and varied modes of activism, including their diverse practices, motivations, experiences, and intentions. This includes a re-discovery of the ethics of militants that have been simplified or ignored in orthodox political histories of Turkey.

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

CH: IstanbulCity of the Fearless provides readers with a social history of activism in the 1970s, responding to recent scholarly interest in inhabitants’ embodied sensory experiences of the city, in urban knowledge, and in spaces of trauma. More broadly, the book engages with a number of contemporary issues in Middle Eastern studies, on urbicide and urban terror, on the governability of cities, on city planning and political architecture, and on perception of the environment.

Although the book’s first concern is the experience of activism in Istanbul, another of its purposes is to comprehend the city’s spatial politics. By spatial politics I mean the generation and transformation of space by a range of social actors, including legal and illegal organizations, the state, the junta, corporations and real estate developers, private builders, urban designers, and ordinary residents. Spatial politics in urban Turkey has been well studied for earlier eras, although the focus has been more on the emerging structure of Istanbul—what we might call its morphology—and not on its inhabitants in relation to it.

By contrast, this book orients itself to a more phenomenological approach to spatial analysis of the city. At the crux of a phenomenological account of social life lies the matter of individual perception in any or all of its dimensions—corporeal, interactional, political, and collective. As people’s orientations to the world change—say by their living through a significant historical event such as the spatial convulsions wrought by mass urban militancy—so also do different properties of places, situations, emotions, and people, once at the margins of noticing, come into focus. A phenomenological perspective illuminates a number of key social processes germane to understanding Istanbul in those years: activism and its modification of place perception; militants’ frictional fashioning of the affordances of the urban environment; the power of inhabited places through their spatial furnishment by others; songs’, bodies’, places’, and things’ holding of militants’ memories; and the contemporary politics impinging upon the forgetting and remembering of 1970s’ activism.

IstanbulCity of the Fearless therefore is not only a social history but simultaneously an anthropological study of the recent past and of the present, investigating how each exert their force and influence into the future, becoming sources of novel spatial arrangements, new social divisions, and of inhabitants’ altered perceptions and memories of the city.

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

CH: I have been writing about Istanbul since I did my doctoral fieldwork there in 1995-1997. Some people may remember that the pro-Muslim Refah (Welfare) Party won elections for the Greater Istanbul Municipality in 1994, when Tayyip Erdogan became the new mayor of the city to launch his political career. I went to Istanbul to study what an anti-Kemalist political party in Turkey did when it gained political power.

However, in the course of the fieldwork a second topic emerged: relations between Kurds and the Refah Party, and more particularly the emerging tensions between Islamist Turks and religious Kurds around solutions to the Kurdish “question.” The book that came out of that fieldwork (Islam, Kurds, and the Turkish Nation State, 2001) was a study of activist Islamism and multiculturalism, examining the question of whether a (Turkish) Islamist social movement could also become a hospitable home for religious Muslims of minority ethnic groups, who had experienced their own added history of discrimination and oppression. Unfortunately, I had to conclude that it could not.

Interestingly, during the years of my first fieldwork, one subject in particular kept emerging as significant in understanding the rise of Refah as a political party and of the Islamic social movement—the 1980 military coup, its violent reform of Turkish politics, and the continued influence of the junta’s 1982 constitution. I think, then, in my imagination I knew I wanted to do research (sometime) with the urban activists—leftist, rightist, Muslim, Kurdish—who had been involved in another great period of urban struggle for rights and political influence in Istanbul, in the 1970s. In brief, I felt that I understood something of Turkish history and politics from the mid-1990s onwards, but that I needed to fill in my knowledge of the decades before then to put them into perspective.

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

CH: I hope that the first readers of this book are my informants, that fearless generation of activists who have had to live for too long with the insinuation that they deserved their arrest and torture for being “anarchists” and “terrorists.” In interviewing them many reported that they were very interested in the perceptions of ex-revolutionaries in factions other than their own—a curiosity that was discouraged in the 1970s because of the intense rivalry and antagonisms between leftist groups. One of their concerns was whether this study would do justice to the variety of experiences of militants, given interviewees’ realization that they had only been familiar with very particular parts of Istanbul.

A second desired “category” of readers would be as many Turkish people as possible. If they are older, they lived through the events of those years. If they are younger, they will have heard their mothers, fathers, uncles etc. talk about living in Turkey under martial law. I hope that this book will cast light upon an event that afflicted millions of readers, and yet which has received little sustained scholarly attention.

My third ideal readers are activists, students, and scholars interested in anthropology, urban change, cultural geography, and social theory, given the book offers insights into the meaning and study of state violence, military rule, activism and spatial tactics, relations between political fractions and ideologies, and political memory/commemoration.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CH: At the moment I am working on two projects. The first is a reconsideration of the applicability of the term “secularism” to describe Turkey’s historical political system. Over the past three decades many once taken for granted assumptions about processes of secularism have been questioned and revised. One unifying feature of these reassessments is recognition of the plurality of social-historical contexts of secularism(s). Given this variety of “secular” political systems, the question becomes whether we should grant the same word—secularism—to all of them? In this new project I propose that we should not, and suggest the term anthropocracy to describe a particular non-theocratic project of political order, as exemplified by the Turkish Republic.

The second project involves the topic of self-alteration, and the questions that its study raises for the discipline of anthropology—methodological quandaries about how alteration of the self may be studied, to conceptions and debates about the self itself. Anthropologists have studied a rich panoply of cross-cultural modalities, methods, and mechanisms through which people, individually or communally, seek to alter or to re-vitalize themselves. Political activism, of course, is just one of them. In studying personal transformation, a number of profound issues and questions concerning the (im)possibility and (un)limited scope of self-alteration arises.


Excerpt from the book

Imagine a city characterized by the radicalization en masse of students, workers and professional associations. Imagine as a core aspect of struggle their inventive fabrication of a suite of urban spatial tactics, including militant confrontation over control and use of the city’s public spaces, shantytowns, educational institutions, and sites of production. Sounds and fury, fierceness and fearlessness. Picture a battle for resources, as well as for less quantifiable social goods: rights, authority, and senses of place. Consider one spatial outcome of this mobilization – a city tenuously segregated on left/right and on left/left divisions in nearly all arenas of public social interaction, from universities and high schools, to its coffee houses, factories, streets and suburbs. Even the police are fractured into political groups, with one or another of the factions dominant in neighborhood stations. Over time, escalating industrial action by trade unions, and increasing violence in the city’s edge suburbs change activists’ perceptions of urban place. Here is a city precariously balanced between rival political forces and poised between different possible futures, even as its inhabitants charge into urban confrontation and polarization.

Imagine a military insurrection. Total curfew. Flights in and out of the country suspended, a ban on theatre and cultural activities, schools and universities shut down. Removing books from library shelves that the new regime might find suspicious. ‘Wanted’ posters pasted at ferry terminals, civil police watching for suspicious responses. Whole suburbs targeted for ‘special treatment.’ Mass arrests and torture, random identity checks in public places, the sudden cutting of roads by police and the searching of buses, assaults on the houses of activists, summary executions. Martial law turning the city into another country. Imagine for hundreds of thousands of people fear of arrest seeping into consciousness, a fear of torture, and of telling under torture when they had a rendezvous or where they had last visited an organization house. Picture body habits changing overnight, in anticipation of future regulations of the junta. Shaving your head in order to stay at the university. ‘I didn’t go out much in those years,’ said one activist.

The city is Istanbul in the years 1974–1983. For militants, what is it like to dwell there? How do they transform its places and mood, and respond to others’ re-making of its affective atmospheres and spaces? What of the urban environment itself, synesthetically known by the “whole body sensing and moving”: how does it sound, feel like, smell, and appear? And what of the decades since then, forgetting and remembering it, your activism and its small part in the making of the city’s chaos? Snatch of a song, rhythm of a chanted slogan, anniversary of the death of a comrade, son, or friend. Each live on in the museum of the mind, in the pains of the body, in the affect exuded by objects and photos, and in the inter-subjective imagination of daughters and sons who listen to your stories.

Istanbul, City of the Fearless is a study of urban activism in those years, ruptured by the 1980 military coup d’état that brought a decade-long, fragmented social struggle to a bloody close and instituted nearly three years of martial law. Military dogma has it that the coup’s precipitating cause was the ‘terrorist’ actions of urban militants and the anarchical state of the city. In response the junta’s new dispensation instituted in the authoritarian 1982 Constitution was designed to prevent their recrudescence in the politics of the present ever after. The third military intervention in Turkey’s Republican history, 12 Eylül led to the replacement of the liberal 1961 Constitution by one demonstrably less democratic. Loyalty to the ideology of Atatürk was declared the sole guiding principle of Turkish State and society, with no protection afforded “to thoughts or opinions contrary to … the nationalism, principles, reforms and modernism of Atatürk” (Preamble to the Constitution of the Turkish Republic). Civil society associations and political parties alike had to show allegiance to these defining characteristics or face prosecution by the Constitutional Court.

Today the institutions of military tutelage remain in place, from the National Security Council to the Higher Education Council, despite the pressure for constitutional change that has partially characterized Turkish politics over the last decade and a half. As much as in the bodies and memories of a generation, 12 Eylül endures in such political instruments, conditioning contemporary Turkish social life, reason enough to learn more about the period that gave it birth. Its ongoing influence in politics means that this book is simultaneously an anthropological study of the recent past and of the present, of how two significant urban events – the spatial activism of revolutionary movements in the 1970s and the 1980 coup d’état – not only transformed Istanbul in those years but exerted their force and influence into the future, becoming sources of novel spatial arrangements, new social divisions, and of inhabitants’ altered perceptions and memories of the city.

In the years immediately before the 1980 military coup Istanbul was experienced as a city in crisis, described by activists as ‘electric’, ‘chaotic’, or ‘strained.’ For Ertuğrul it was “tense, like a family used to violence and waiting for it to happen.” Others remembered its sounds as raucous and threatening. Activists’ perception of the partisan, fragmented and unstable qualities of the city reflects a period in which their own actions inflicted a radical contingency upon its spatial organization and order of places. Conventions of engagement, movement and relationship, partially fostered by material arrangements, were replaced by an uncertainty about the ‘spatial economy’ of places. For Istanbul’s strongly ideological activists, the stress of the city meant sense and sensibility became acutely attuned to the semiotics of different political fractions, to the behavior of groups of people and to political signs encoded in the urban environment. A rapidly accumulating (and changing) spatial knowledge about when to move around the city, where not to go, how to sit in the coffeehouse, and who to avoid became a potentially life and death practice of urban living. Recognizing the political alignment of others as communicated through their bodies was critical. Paying attention to the acoustic cues resounding in public space – say to the singing of certain songs on the ferry by a group of people – might save oneself a beating.

Activists’ embodied sensory experience of the city, their changing urban knowledge and emerging sense of place were intimately related to political practices of organizing, mobilizing and agitating. Perceptions of Istanbul derived from activists’ purposive attitude to the city, oriented by the ‘task’ of revolution. Walls were noticed for the possibilities they afforded posters and graffiti, reverberant streets for the cascading of sonic amplification. Squares assessed for the concatenating choreography of gestures and slogans, the time between train stations for the shaping of a ‘shock’ speech. Yet because activists were dispersed amongst rival groups, the affordances furnished by the urban environment were sometimes formally divided up between groups and sometimes fought over, adding affective registers of amity and enmity to their experiences of the city. Differences between leftist groups concerning Turkey’s situation spilled over into conflict between fractions, contributing to militants’ feelings of living in an intensely stressed and merciless city.

In brief, in the second half of the 1970s the activists of the socialist fractions and the cadres of the ultra-nationalists together sought both to control and to re-make the city, in the process changing radically the experiences and practices of place-making for their own members and for the rest of its inhabitants. Their combat in, with and over the city, their taking possession of its public spaces and institutions through occupying force, and their attempted creation of politically autonomous zones of self-governance in the city’s deprived shanty-towns were significant strategies in their appropriation, occupation and transformation of space. The description and analysis of activists’ experiences connect to other matters that I discuss in this book. These include the city’s political geography and its key sites of conflict and mobilization; violence as both spatial practice and generator of urban space; militants’ perceptions of political fractions and of political ideologies; the junta’s post-coup strategies for urban pacification; contrasts in the socio-material structure and spatial organization of Istanbul before and after the coup; and the significance of activist practices and the coup for understanding the neoliberal ‘globalization’ of Istanbul in the decades after. [pp. 1-4].