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Madımak, Episodic Images, and Popular Memory

Göze Orhon*

There are two images that are stuck in our minds. Perhaps one is more dominant. Behçet Aysan, Uğur Kaynar, and Metin Altıok are sitting on the stairs. Behçet Aysan holds a fire extinguisher in his hand. There is a delicate sense of embarrassment on his face, as if all this fire, filth, and deaths were somehow his fault. Of course, it’s not like that. There is a thin sense of worry, even indifference, on his face, perhaps even exhaustion. Right behind him is Uğur Kaynar, looking at them as if asking his “older brothers” what they should do. He is also anxious. Next to him is Metin Altıok. He is wearing a crisp suit as if standing against all this brutality, primitiveness. He holds something like a brush in his hand. A contrast to his suit. They must have tried to extinguish the fire with whatever they could find. He, severely injured, managed to escape from the Madımak Hotel. It had been a week since he lost his friends, and he died in intensive care. In my adolescent mind, I learned on that day, which happened to be my birthday, a feeling of “bittersweet joy” that I would encounter frequently in songs and novels later on.

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In 1993, in a city that I felt resembled the Central Anatolian town where I lived with only its name, I couldn’t quite comprehend what was happening as I watched the burning of a hotel on television. I am a child of a middle-class, depoliticized, sometimes white, provincial family. I hadn’t even heard the word “Alevi”; the blame is not on me. Then the television shuts off. In the following two years, I became a leftist. I learned what happened in Madımak, who Alevi people were, and I read “The Basic Principles of Philosophy,” of course. It was possible for me to react to the news of Aziz Nesin’s death, remembering Sivas, by thinking to myself, “He died out of anguish.”

The other image is a video recording[1]. The crowd coming out of the mosque has shattered the windows of the Madımak Hotel. A young man climbs to the first floor of the hotel. Two men, whom we don’t see in the video, are talking. It is understood that the decision to burn the hotel was made long ago. They speak of the man climbing the hotel as if he were a hero – maybe even a child. “He will be a rag so that he burns well,” says one of them in the Central Anatolian dialect. He will be a rag so that he burns well, catches fire immediately. It’s unimaginable. I didn’t see the face of the person saying this, but that voice is very familiar. The minibus driver who spewed disgusting words that I never heard throughout my teenage years in my hometown. The shopkeeper who kisses the mayor’s hand. The car mechanic who never says anything less than “my mother, my sister, my aunt” but never forgets to insert an obscenity in between. Am I generalizing? Yes, I apologize. It is the privilege of those who grew up in the rural areas of Central Anatolia. Whether you call it a narrow sociological analysis or an elitist gaze that humiliates the conservative people, those people exist. Today, I will not say anything about their relationship with the state of the country. They were the ones searching for rags, those who chased after the eleven-year-old kid cursing at him because he was chewing gum in Ramadan when I was eleven.

These are called episodic images. They are mostly associated with a social event, representing and sometimes even summoning memories, often memorized. I think these two images are the episodic images of the Madımak massacre. The ones that come to mind for everyone, the captions, the explanations that we immediately know unintentionally, memorized, and sometimes just looked at. At first glance, we think that memory is simply a reflection of the past. A kind of mirror. We look at photos to remember how we were in the past. We think that what our family or childhood friends tell us about our shared past is simply the trace of the past. But now it has become clear that what we call the past is also partly fiction. It is reconstructed with every action in the present moment. Therefore, it turns into different narratives in every present moment. Let’s also remember what trauma is. In its simplest definition, it refers to severe, burning, disruptive events that cannot be integrated into the sequence of memory.

In my opinion, these two episodic images have also undergone significant transformations. There is nothing different about them. Again, two poets and a troubadour waiting for death on the stairs. Two men contemplating how to burn the hotel (!), believing that the fire ignited by a human is the hellfire that Allah bestows upon infidels. Unlike many others, I believe that our current time has an aspect that touches trauma, a thread that tries to unravel it from the tangled mess it has become, and to integrate it into the structure of remembering, as I mentioned earlier. Of course, right next to this unraveling stands a huge gap: confrontation and immediate recognition. The recognition of the wound, the pain, the sharpness that pierces memory, the recognition of violence. This has not happened. It doesn’t seem likely to happen for a long time. But I believe that the unraveling, the integration of the Madımak massacre into the structure of remembering, is a positive thing. Of course, that sequence of memory is now loaded with fresh pain. The burden of the past few years is endless, with October 10th, Sur, Lice, Cemile’s body kept in the refrigerator, the anguish on Berkin Elvan’s mother’s face… The burden of pain from the past few years has come and settled in the heart of popular memory. It would have been better if it didn’t. However, this burden, including the unimaginable fire of Madımak, has now taken its place in the center of popular memory. The context of this fire is more evident than ever today. The then Minister of Justice, Şevket Kazan, the Welfare Party that won the elections in 28 provinces in the 1994 local elections, a party that emerged initially with liberal motives and has now become the subject of known totalitarianism, the faces of dead children that even the most “indifferent” people cannot ignore, the bombs exploding in the middle of cities, ISIS, the camouflage worn in refugee camps[2], the terrorist cell houses in Gaziantep… Sivas Massacre found its place in history amidst the flowing time, for a while.

The struggle waged over the past, also known as the struggle of memory, is certainly possible with individuals. But who can deny the transformative power of historical flow despite its weight? Those two episodic images are no longer just images of a past event, a “isolated incident” as the state would call it. They have become a milestone. An engagement with the vile historicity that is now being re-realized. We have more reasons than ever to be pessimistic. But now, within that historicity, there is a sign that has never been as clear as before. Like the pain in our body, which sometimes hurts a completely different part of our body when we receive a blow in one place. In short, ladies and gentlemen, popular memory has become frighteningly politicized. The traumatic moment has found a place in memory. It may not be anything more than a delicate wish for a long time, but we shouldn’t refrain from saying it. We will confront it.

“This article was published on July 4th, 2016, in Birikim Magazine and was translated from Turkish.”

*Göze Orhon works in the Faculty of Communication at Hacettepe University where she has been a faculty member since 2006. She completed her PhD at the Department of Sociology of the University of Essex. Her research interests lie in the areas of the sociology of memory and oral history. 

Books: The Weight of the Past: Memory and Turkey’s 12 September Coup

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFdN9wJ8DXc

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tA0zJ9u3ZrU&sns=fb

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