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The Gezi Martyrs and Visual Resistance in Turkey (Part 1)

“They Are Among Us”

Stenciled images of the five martyrs of Gezi, Urban Café, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, July 15, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Christiane Gruber


This is the first installment of a two-part essay. The second part will be published here on Mizan in two weeks.

Introduction

During summer 2013, Turkey witnessed the most serious challenge to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decade-long rule of the country to date. In Istanbul and other major cities throughout the country, demonstrators took to the streets en masse to voice a host of grievances against the prime minister and his ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP). The protests began with a peaceful sit-in to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park from demolition and commercial development. However, after police brutally cleared the green patch of peaceful environmentalists, a massive uprising was spawned.

Collectively known as the Gezi movement, popular demonstrations spread to more than seventy cities throughout Turkey. Encompassing a broad and rather eclectic swath of the country’s population, the resistance gave voice to a miscellany of individuals and opposition groups, including Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, feminists, members of the LGBT community, secularists, Marxists, anti-capitalist Muslims, environmentalists, university students, and everyday citizens from young children to disabled seniors. Although the uprisings have abated, their aftereffects continue to ripple across all spheres of Turkish life to the present day.1

As the weeks pressed on during summer 2013, streets and squares across Turkey filled with swarms of bodies demonstrating against AKP rule and police brutality. In Istanbul proper, Gezi Park served as the staging ground for a lively tented sit-in replete with a range of amenities—including a library, an art atelier, a stage for musical performances, and a veterinary clinic—reminiscent of other makeshift cities that arose during the global Occupy movement. In response to this formidable overtaking of public space, Turkish police forces resorted to excessive force to curb protests and clear Gezi Park of its occupants. Among their arsenal were mass-intervention vehicles outfitted with water cannon jets (or TOMAs),2 tear gas guns, sound bombs, plastic bullets, pepper spray, batons, guns, and much more. At times the police were indiscriminate in their use of violence, shooting thick blankets of pressurized water and gas into the crowds; at others, they purposefully targeted young males who stood and fought on the front lines of the protests. As a consequence, already during the early weeks of the Gezi demonstrations, clashes with police claimed the lives of five young demonstrators who were quickly dubbed the “Gezi Martyrs,” or Gezi şehitleri. Since summer 2013, several other young men have died and been claimed as martyrs by the resistance movement.

As state-sponsored violence cut short the lives of these young men-turned-martyrs, an important question arose: what are the symbolic framings and functions of these “martyrs” in a pluralistic consortium, the contours of which are largely shaped by a desire to preserve a secular, representative democracy in the face of increasing authoritarianism displayed by the ruling Sunni-Islamist AKP? In order to answer this question, this essay seeks to explore the Gezi movement’s many rhetorical tools and visual strategies that aimed to commemorate these deceased young men, exalt them as martyrs, and render them eternally present among the living multitudes of demonstrators who positioned themselves as collectively embodying a resistant body politic.

The evidence provided in this essay was gathered in Gezi Park and the Taksim area in Istanbul during summer 2013, and also includes a discussion of the mass demonstrations following the death of Berkin Elvan in March 2014. Emphasizing the notions of innocence, immortality, and omnipresence, Gezi’s visual and material output encompasses a range of discursive strategies and physical performances concerned with memorializing its martyrs. These strategies engaged with older Islamic religious beliefs and martyrial traditions that enabled the construction of a new mythic reality largely articulated within a secular register. In addition, these martyrs became the personification of the Gezi Resistance, in which aesthetic and political practices coalesced to form an “ethical regime of images.”3 Thus, these deceased males served as the focal points for the expression of personal emotions and public affects, while also contributing to the creation of Gezi’s largely secular rituals, in which the figure of the martyr served to provide, first and foremost, undeniable physical evidence for the loss of human life as a direct result of the breakdown of the rule of law.

Banners, Slogans, and Bodies

The early days of June 2013 claimed the lives of two Gezi martyrs. The first young man who was killed was Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, who perished when a taxi driver slammed into a crowd of protesters in an Istanbul neighborhood. The second youth to die was Abdullah Cömert, who lost his life one day later due to a head injury he sustained after a police officer shot him with a tear gas canister in a demonstration organized in the southeastern province of Hatay.4 From the Syrian border all the way to the heart of Istanbul, this double loss of life in quick succession prompted an outpouring of grief. It also provided a loud rallying cry for further protests and sit-ins.

CAPTIONS

(Top) Banner depicting Mehmet Ayvalıtaş and Abdullah Cömert, Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 10, 2013. (Center) Banner praising Abdullah Cömert as immortal and warning that those responsible for his death will be held to account, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 10, 2013. (Bottom) March in honor of Ethem Sarısülük, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, June 29, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber)

Within Taksim Square, banners produced by various political groups were paraded and hung; these banners featured photographic images of the deceased duo captioned with the exclamation that they remain “among us!” (aramızda).

On the one hand, the first-person plural (“us”) couches protesters as belonging together despite the heterogeneous makeup of the demonstrations. On the other, it also extends the two boys’ personhood beyond their corporeal mortality by insisting that they remain—if not physically then spiritually—among those taking to the streets, squares, and parks to voice their frustrations with the status quo. Without a doubt, the assertive speech act “They are among us!” encodes and quickens the photographic message,5 which in this case pictorially and linguistically reasserts the two deceased bodies’ transcendence of organic decay within the growing matrix of oppositional presence.

Beyond Taksim Square, other banners in honor of the martyrs were raised within Gezi Park during the first two weeks of June 2013. At this time, the small patch of green land was occupied by a variety of individuals and groups who set up booths, tents, and quarters to publicize their interests and platforms.

Early on, a large banderole was stretched across one of the park’s main walkways, declaring that Abdullah Cömert remains immortal (ölümsüz) and that those who killed him—that is, the police acting under Erdoğan’s direct orders, and hence Erdoğan himself—would be held accountable for his death.6

Although utilizing a religiously inflected language tied to the notion of immortality as found in articulations of martyrdom in Islam and other world religions,7 this banner also issued a legal caveat: namely, that those culpable for Cömert’s death must be held to account.

This verbal incrimination has as its ultimate goal the dispensing of justice and punishment. Within this Gezi courtroom, the park is thus reasserted as a locus of public opinion in which the deceased comprise the resistance movement’s immutable res publica.

Over and over again, Gezi’s martyrial rhetoric made clear and overt use of jurisprudential terminology. Such legal expressions allowed demonstrators to issue death-related grievances in order to insist on the restitution of the rule of law. In the process, members of various opposition groups created a more unified community based on the principle that every single individual must be counted and accounted for. This type of “consensus community” thus creates social bonds through the notions of equality, representation, and human rights, including the rights of victims and the deceased. 8 Furthermore, this type of social collective emerges via the articulation of shared affects, which are achieved through the distribution of sensible forms of communication such as visible and performing bodies, oral and written texts, and still and moving images. This sensible data in turn generates a sense of reality for participants in and spectators of political action, in which images help to “sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible.”9 Thus, this larger sensus communis combines the notions of justice and beauty, thereby crafting new ethico-aesthetic articulations of perceived reality.10

Besides the raising of banners in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, protesters also carried large-scale posters as they took to Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s main tourist drag and protest artery. A number of groups marched in honor of the deceased, including for Ethem Sarısülük, who died on June 14, 2013 from a gunshot wound to the head during violent clashes between protesters and police forces in Ankara’s Kızılay Square. Besides emphasizing Ethem’s imperishability, opposition groups marched “For Ethem, for justice” (Ethem için, adalet için), signaling that his killing was a crime demanding due process and legal rectification. In sloganeering rhymes, this immortal martyr was thus equated with the dual concepts of justice and equity.

Even as the identity of the police officer who shot Ethem Sarısülük was confirmed thanks to video footage and his ID number imprinted on his helmet, no arrest was made, no censure issued, no penalty imposed. To the contrary, the AKP government and police forces tightened their ranks to protect their own against the oppositional “others,” who in Erdoğan’s estimation were nothing but vandals, fringe elements, external agitators, and low-life marauders (çapulcu).11

The more overwhelming the state silence, the louder the popular cries for justice. Waves of protests grew larger and more litigious after each unprosecuted death, while anti-regime chants multiplied in response to the state’s inaction and divisive rhetoric. Among the most popular responsorial slogans were those equating the police to a private militia armed and owned by the AKP rather than a national force dedicated to protecting the Turkish populace.12 Among them, slogans such as “Ethem’in katili, AKP’nin polisi” (“Ethem’s murderer is the AKP’s police”) insisted upon making knowledge of the culprit’s identity public while also demoting police officers from custodians of the public good to mere mercenaries. Still other slogans bemoaned the loss of life and justice, exclaiming that “Ethem mezarda, katilleri dışarda” (“Ethem is in the grave, his killers are out”).13 In this intoned and uncanny juxtaposition, the deceased who is buried and detained within the earth is solemnized while his murderer is cursed as unjustly exonerated and allowed to roam free above it.

By July 10, 2013, the Gezi movement had lost its fourth martyr in Medeni Yıldırım, and then claimed its fifth in Ali Ismail Korkmaz. Korkmaz died of a brain hemorrhage after he was severely beaten by thugs—some of whom may have been plainclothes police officers—when he ran into an alley in order to escape a police tear gas attack in his hometown of Eskişehir.14 In this case as well, the assault was captured by a nearby hotel’s CCTV recording. However, the tape was deemed too faulty to provide clear and conclusive evidence of the attackers’ identities even though the hotel’s manager claimed to have handed the video over to the police in pristine condition. As in Ethem Sarısülük’s killing, protesters clamored angrily at what they saw as yet another police cover-up along with the government’s deliberate obfuscation and destruction of evidence.

On the evening of Korkmaz’s death, a march up Istiklal Avenue was organized in his name. As protesters made their way up to Taksim Square, they held posters and banners while uttering a number of slogans. Most repeated among these chants was the assertive exclamation “Katil devlet hesab verecek” (“The killer government will pay/will be held accountable”).15

While this particular slogan was new to the Gezi movement, it is an old left-wing chant that has been in use by Turkish opposition groups since at least the 1970s.16 As a general caveat, it accuses the government—regardless of its political and religious contours—of committing murder against its own citizens, whose survivors and legatees stubbornly pledge that they will hold the regime to account.

Another slogan—namely, “Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş” (“Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance”)—is much more specific since it was born in Taksim Square during the Gezi uprisings, which then proliferated throughout Turkey. As a tailor-made slogan emblematic of the nationwide spread of the resistance movement, this chant reasserts and warns of the opposition’s omnipresence. Besides Taksim’s juggernaut slogan, in marches and other ceremonies another query was often issued, asking: “Olü mü denir şimdi olara?” This rhetorical question translates literally as “Would they be called dead now?” However, more loyal to its defiant spirit would be the English rendition “How can/dare you call them dead?” Inspired by verses written in 1974 by the Turkish poet Edip Cansever (d. 1986),17 this lyrical query daringly rejects the inevitability of physical death, affirming instead the continued spiritual existence of the Gezi martyrs as it infuses and invigorates oppositional citizens comprising the body politic. The deceased are thus metaphorically made immortal through versified mottos energized by the physical locomotion and performance of living bodies pouring into public space.

A number of sit-ins also were staged in Galatasaray Square, located midway along Istiklal Avenue between Tünel and Taksim Squares. For example, in mid-August 2013, a 24-hour sit-in was organized by the Solidarity Association of Prisoners’ Families (Tutuklu ve Hükümlü Aileleri ile Dayanışma Derneği, or TAYAD). Relatives of detained and disappeared individuals joined Gezi protesters in front of Galatasaray high school to step up pressure on the government and make it answerable to lives lost or unaccounted for, both before and during the Gezi uprisings. Protesters took to the ground with banners and posters, and ritually offered red carnationsflowers symbolic of blood, loss, and mourning that are used in Turkish-Islamic burial traditions—to the photographic portraits of missing and dead individuals laid upon the ground.

Memorial at a 24-hour sit-in organized by the Solidarity Association of Prisoners' Families, Galatasaray Square, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, August 18, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Memorial at a 24-hour sit-in organized by the Solidarity Association of Prisoners’ Families, Galatasaray Square, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, August 18, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Among the mosaic work of displayed items was a large-scale yellow banner issuing the forceful request “We want our sons’ killers!” (“Evlatlarımızın katillerini istiyoruz!”), around which smaller placards denounced Erdoğan as a killer (“Katil Tayyip!”)

In an aesthetic move, these slogan-signs and photographic portraits were cobbled together into a form of street art while also serving as the urban cenotaphs of the Gezi martyrs, to whom demonstrating devotees made votive offerings of funerary flowers. In this and other scenarios, photographic images enabled the transformation of “the flat rhetoric of evidence into an emotionalized drama of experience.”18

 

Besides producing written material accusing the prime minister of murder and demanding that police officers be tried and punished, protesters also stood their ground and engaged in prolonged chanting while clapping their hands or lifting their fists in the time-worn gesture of rising up and rebelling against an incumbent power. Some of the chants they performed were led by a slogan leader, who recited the many names of the detained, disappeared, and deceased, to which the oppositional choir responded with the interjection “He lives on!” (“Yaşıyor!“), as occurred during a protest at Galatasaray Square in Istanbul on August 18, 2013.

Although reminiscent of the Arabic couplet-slogans that were chanted during the Egyptian uprisings,19 this vocal remonstrance inches closer to an antiphonal litany, in which a roster of names is recited by one voice and quickly meets with the crowd’s repeated life-affirming rejoinder.

These types of oral interactions generate a pulsed rhythm mimicking a heartbeat that in turn reverberates throughout public space as if a revived spirit infusing its chanting citizenry. Through such exertive signs and animated slogans carried and chanted by human actors, the Gezi martyrs symbolically gain an aural energy and physical presence among the living multitudes. In this dynamic ethico-aesthetic complex, the deceased achieve a kind of imperishability through a performed and corporeal sound-space that functions as an inventive way to confront the state through legal lingo and physical presence, thus sharpening the otherwise muddled lines of conflict.20

Insistent Ephemera

A handful of young men lost their lives during the early weeks of the Gezi uprisings. As a cohort of five, Ali Ismail Korkmaz, Ethem Sarısülük, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, and Medeni Yıldırım often appeared as a single unit in banners, posters, mural paintings, stencils, graffiti, and digital art. Besides their posthumous affiliation with one another through public memorial portraiture, in life these five Gezi martyrs were also connected as Alevis, revealing the extent to which police used especially indiscriminate force in neighborhoods largely populated by members of this minority Sufi-Shi’i faith that is not recognized as an official religion by the Turkish state.21 Their common minority religious background notwithstanding, the five Gezi martyrs came to epitomize the larger Gezi resistance movement, itself a markedly eclectic admixture of individuals ranging from anti-capitalist Muslims to the militantly secular “Warriors of Ataturk.”

Figure 1: Stencils of the five martyrs of Gezi under the word “LOVE” in red paint, Urban Café, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, July 15, 2013. Photograph by author.Stencils of the first five martyrs of the Gezi Resistance with the added inscription “There is no revolution without the spilling of blood,” Urban Café Beyoğlu, Istanbul, July 25, 2013. Photograph by author.

(Top) Stencils of the five martyrs of Gezi under the word “LOVE” in red paint, Urban Café, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, July 15, 2013. (Bottom) The same image, with the added inscription “There is no revolution without the spilling of blood,” Urban Café Beyoğlu, Istanbul, July 25, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Within this medley of social and political constituencies, images of the five martyrs did not go untouched. To the contrary, they provided arenas for resistant aesthetic behaviors as well as visual foci for ongoing ideological skirmishes.

As a case in point, the Galatasaray neighborhood includes a passageway that contains the popular Urban Café. There, a multitude of wall paintings and graffiti art are continuously added to, erased, and altered in a variety of ways. In this outdoor mural art corridor, depictions of Gandhi, Star Wars characters, and cartoon figures coalesce to form a crowded scene, to which stencils of the five martyrs were added during the summer of Gezi. At first their visages were simply tagged with their personal names under a large “LOVE” graffito in red paint. However, soon thereafter, a passer-by decided to caption the composition with his own revolutionary message warning that “There is no revolution without the spilling of blood” (“kan akmadan devrim olmaz“).

Undoubtedly this scripted addendum anchors and reinforces the visual message in order to “combat the terror of uncertain signs”22 and hence convey a more directed narrative. In this specific instance, the emblazoned faces of the martyrs are counteracted as signifiers empty of precise meaning and instead are semantically enclaved in order to dub the Gezi uprisings a true “revolution” or devrim.

Curtailing potentially endless semiosis,23 this christening of Gezi as a full-scale revolution posits that the loss of life comprises the sine qua non of radical social and political change, itself requiring nothing less than the spilling of blood. A position clearly not shared by all, the revolutionary zeal of the graffito was muffled through subsequent whitewashing, in all likelihood carried out by the Beyoğlu municipality’s cleaning crew.

During the Gezi demonstrations, police shot tear gas and plastic bullets, while oppositional groups figuratively “bombed” the walls of Istanbul and other cities with mass-produced visuals. Protesters sprayed and pasted many cheap and ephemeral images in the public domain. Despite their occasional removal by pro-AKP parties or their overpainting by cleaning crews, by and large such visuals accumulated in a visibly palimpsestic manner. Insistent and tenacious, these items offered a multilayered and materialistic biography for the physical and speech acts of contestation that unfolded in the streets over the course of several months.

Sticker praising the Gezi martyrs as immortal, Galatasaray, Istanbul, July 30, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Sticker praising the Gezi martyrs as immortal, Galatasaray, Istanbul, July 30, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Among the many visual and textual messages that could be found on the walls of central Istanbul were those that commemorated the young men who were killed during the early weeks of the demonstrations. Printed on adhesive paper, these stickers further cemented the corporate honorific title “Gezi martyrs” (Gezi Şehitleri) while also lauding the deceased as immortal (ölümsüz), as can be seen in an adhesive poster issued by the student organization known as “Progressive Youth” (İleri Gençlik Birliği).

Emblazoned with the silhouetted faces of (by then) six dead young men, the textual exclamation insists upon their continued afterlife through the item’s dogged adhesion to a hard surface. Much like price tags on consumer items offered for sale, it is hard to scrape it off and ignore the price paid.

In a similar manner, scrawled on the retaining walls within Gezi Park, a number of graffiti cannot be removed easily with an astringent cleaning agent or the lather of a wet sponge. Instead, insurgent writings on walls declaring that “the Martyrs of the Revolution are Immortal” (“Devrim Şehitleri Ölümsüzdür“) are subjected to government overpainting in gray pigment, in the process begetting heavily impastoed, ashen stratigraphies of conflict over public presence and hence representability, legitimacy, and authority. Such acts of iteration and cancellation visually capture the fluid equilibrium that typifies discursive relations between those who are in power and those who are not.

Besides adhesive signs and graffiti, stencils of individual martyrs were also inked on the walls and sidewalks throughout Istanbul. In some cases, the added captions did not just name the deceased, refer to him as a martyr, or exclaim his imperishability. For example, in the aftermath of the killing of Ethem Sarısülük, stencils were imprinted with the deceased’s face and the profession: “You are my brother, Ethem” (“Kardeşimsin Ethem“). This tender declaration establishes a fraternal bond between active spectators and vanished bodies, thereby precipitating metaphorical kinship ties among like-minded protesters. It also causes an uncanny co-presence of the living and the dead. Represented as everyone’s brothers, the Gezi martyrs allowed the voicing and coalescence of a larger fraternity of resisting bodies to gather in solidarity and, although not a unitary whole, to nevertheless strengthen a sense of social cohesion through the process of personal identification.

Catalyzing sentiments of belonging, many practices woven around the Gezi martyrs couched the deceased not just as siblings but even alter egos. Within demonstrations, for example, protesters chanted and held signs testifying that “We are all Ethem” (“Hepimiz Ethem’iz”), with each deceased’s name interchangeable depending on time and circumstance. Through such chants, signs, and bodies overtaking public space, the Gezi martyrs transformed into a larger genitive construct, possessed and enfleshed by their living brothers and avatars. Vanished yet not gone, today these dispersed and multiplied martyr-brothers continue to endure via the ongoing labor of the living resisters of Gezi, who have adopted a range of creative strategies to embody and sustain the deceased within their own selves.

(L) Stencil reading: “You are my brother, Ethem,” Beyoğlu, Istanbul, June 27, 2013; (R) Sign reading “We are all Ethem” carried in a march in honor of Ethem Sarısülük, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, June 29, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

(L) Stencil reading “You are my brother, Ethem,” Beyoğlu, Istanbul, June 27, 2013. (R) Sign reading “We are all Ethem” carried in a march in honor of Ethem Sarısülük, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, June 29, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

As Zeynep Gambetti notes in her study on Occupy Gezi as a form of biopolitics, this mass of lively bodies yields a “corporeal assemblage that acts as a living multiplicity.”24 This body politic comprised of clamorous human beings and the symbolically reanimated dead conjoin to set into motion a large corporate entity, a rebelling colossus of sorts. The power of these bodies stems from their ability to mutualize each other’s persistence,25 with the dead invigorating the spirit of the living and the living perpetuating the presence of the dead. In this reciprocally resistant colossus, the male martyr is not charisma incarnate or a casualty sacrificed on the path towards God. Rather, he functions as the fabric of immanent selfhood as well as a kindred spirit connecting an assortment of diverse individuals.

Just like slogans, murals, and signs, stickers of the Gezi martyrs were pasted ubiquitously onto the walls and streets of Istanbul during summer 2013. At times, these stickers functioned as symbolic cenotaphs alongside other visual and textual materials that coalesced into makeshift reliquaries along Istiklal Avenue. Demonstrators and passers-by paid tribute to these urban tombs by placing red carnations on the ground. Among them, the blue-and-white stickers glued to the cement pavement included photographic portraits of the martyrs who gazed back upon their onlookers. Besides the inclusion of the boys’ first and last names, the stickers issued the pointed question: “Who killed [so-and-so]?” (“[XXX] kim öldürdü?”) The query insists on holding the boys’ killers to account by asking the state, over and over again, for the identity of their murderers—an accusation of guilt that remains unanswered to the present day. Multiplied across these round adhesives, the query builds into a litany through dogged repetition, while through its oral intonation, protesters imagined themselves as sticky-back paper as well: that is, conjoined as one tenacious unit, obdurate in their unified presence, and resolute in their demands for accountability. Here then, stickers function as evocative object stand-ins for Gezi’s demonstrators insomuch as they, too, can circulate en masse and cling firmly to the ground.

Once stuck to walls and pavements, these cheap and ephemeral items commemorating the Gezi martyrs are susceptible to a host of interactions. Some viewers’ responses are respectful and devotional, while others display the marks of dissident and even antagonistic mindsets. Through their varied insertions and iconoclasms, stickers therefore provide barometers of discordant subjectivities as these are inscribed within the visual and material culture of the Turkish public sphere. Manipulations range from destructive to diversionary, the latter most evident in a sticker asking “who killed Abdullah Cömert?” (“Abdullah Cömert’i kim öldürdü?”)

An altered sticker reading “Who killed Abdullah Cömert?,” Galatasaray, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, July 15, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

An altered sticker reading “Who killed Abdullah Cömert?,” Galatasaray, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, July 15, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Here, an interlocutor did not leave the adhesive untouched. Instead, his graffito adds the two letters “si” before “kim,” thereby transforming the word kim into sikim, a coarse word meaning “my dick” in Turkish (= “My dick killed him”).

The sticker has received an unexpected answer to its question, in this case a sexualized, macho form of backtalk possibly scrawled on the wall by a young man who wished to deride the Gezi resistance, its efforts, and its martyrs. Like other expletives, this kind of mockery breaks with the structures of politeness, enunciates a taboo word in public, and harms the honor of certain individuals.26 In addition, as it casts aspersions on the deceased, it reveals not only an oppositional attitude but also, to borrow Erika Doss’s fitting expression, a growing “mourning sickness.”27

These chants, graffiti, and other ephemera insisting on the martyrs’ immortality and the state’s accountability highlight the many intersections between the realms of visuality and orality. Often, pictorial and textual materials gain further vitality through practices of physical embodiment and performance, yielding an imaginary community of brothers, both living and deceased. This oppositional collective also tends to imagine itself as righteous and ethical as well as acting under the banner of secular law, even when its symbolic lexicon is clearly indebted to and reiterative of religious praxis. Last but not least, while the martyrial visual culture of the Gezi resistance expanded thanks to its sympathizers, it also preserved the traces of the movement’s opponents and detractors. As a result, these “contentious performances”28 involving persons, images, and things encompass a wide spectrum of affective responses stretching from reverent celebration to crude malediction.

Part 2 of this essay will be published the week of June 12.

 

CHRISTIANE GRUBER is Associate Professor of Islamic Art in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research interests range from medieval Islamic art to contemporary visual culture. She has authored two books on Islamic texts and images of the Prophet Muḥammad’s ascension and edited several volumes on Islamic book arts, ascension texts and images, and visual and material culture.

 

  1. For an overview of the Gezi resistance movement, see Umut Özkırımlı (ed.), The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey: #occupygezi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and Anthony Alessandrini et al. (ed.), Resistance Everywhere: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey, JadMag 1.4 (Fall 2013).
  2. TOMA is the Turkish acronym of Toplumsal Olaylara Müdahale Aracı, or ‘Intervention Vehicle to Social Events.’ 
  3. On art and politics as creating an ethical community or “ethical regime of images,” see Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009), 26 and 28.
  4. Gianluca Mezzofiore, “Turkey Protests: First Dead is Named 20-Year-Old Mehmet Ayvalıtaş,” International Business Times, June 3, 2013; Suzan Fraser, “Abdullah Comert 2nd Turkish Protester Killed During Turkey Demonstrations,” The World Post, June 6, 2013.
  5. Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image,” in Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 39; and idem, “The Photographic Message,” in ibid., 25.
  6. This banner states that Abdullah Cömert is immortal and that [his death] will be accounted for. It was sponsored and erected by ÜADK, that is, Üniversite Akademik Danışmanlık Kurulu, or the University Academic Consultancy Board. University students and groups played key leadership roles during the occupation of Gezi Park during the first two weeks of June 2013.
  7. See Michael Cook, Martyrdom in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  8. Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, 115.
  9. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London and New York: Verso, 2009), 103.
  10. The expression sensus communis is taken from Immanuel Kant, Kant’s Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London: Macmillan and Co., 1914), 169-170.
  11. In response, the protesters adopted, diverted, and ridiculed their new “low-life” badge of honor through a wide range of creative expressions and humor arts. See Luke Harding, “Turkish Protesters Embrace Erdoğan Insult and Start ‘Capuling’ Craze,” The Guardian, June 10, 2013; and Christiane Gruber, “The Visual Emergence of the Occupy Gezi Movement, Part Two: Every Day I’m Capulling,” Jadaliyya, July 7, 2013, republished in Alessandrini et al. (ed.), Resistance Everywhere, 31-33.
  12. On the popular expression “AKP’nin polisi” (“The AKP’s Police”), see the entry in Ekşi Sözlük (https://eksisozluk.com/akpnin-polisi–4397032).
  13. On the slogans “Ethem’in katili, AKP’nin polisi” and “Ethem mezarda, katilleri dışarda,” see “Kadıköy’de binler Ethem için yürüyor: ‘Ethem’in katili AKP’nin polisi’,” Sol, June 25, 2012.
  14. “Ali Ismail Korkmaz, Gezi Resistance Protestor, Dies at 19,” Bianet English, July 10, 2013.
  15. On this slogan, see “Katil devlet hesab verecek,” in Ekşi Sözlük (https://eksisozluk.com/katil-devlet-hesap-verecek–1638783).
  16. In more recent years, this chant has been vocalized by demonstrators protesting the 2007 murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.
  17. Edip Cansever, “Olü mü Denir”; see http://epigraf.fisek.com.tr/?num=57. This left-wing poem praises deceased men whose bodies are forgotten even as their spirits fill the hearts and veins of the living. During the Gezi uprisings, this poem-slogan was inscribed on the makeshift graves of the Gezi martyrs as well as written on posters held aloft by the graduating seniors at Bosphorus University (see the photograph at http://fotogaleri.hurriyet.com.tr/galeridetay/70771/2/38/bogazici-universitesi-mezuniyet-toreninde-pankartlar-konustu).
  18. John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 12.
  19. Elliott Colla, “The Poetry of Revolt,” in The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old World Order?, ed. Bassam Haddad et al. (London: Pluto Press, 2012), 77-82.
  20. On slogans as sharpening lines of conflict, see Elliott Colla, “In Praise of Insult: Slogan Genres, Slogan Repertoires and Innovations,” in Review of Middle East Studies 47.1 (2013): 39-40.
  21. On the killing of these five Alevis, see Ahmet Saymadi, “Beş Alevi Yurttaşımız Öldürüldü,” Bianet, September 13, 2013; on the march against the killing of Alevis, which was called “Enough Already!” (“Yeter Artık!“), see “Aleviler alanlara çıkıyor,” Cumhuriyet, May 23, 2014.
  22. Barthes, “The Photographic Message,” 25.
  23. On endless semiosis, see Alex Potts, “Sign,” in Critical Terms for Art History, 2nd edition, ed. Robert Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 20-34.
  24. Zeynep Gambetti, “Occupy Gezi as Politics of the Body,” in Özkırımlı (ed.), The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey, 98.
  25. Gambetti, “Occupy Gezi as Politics of the Body,” 99.
  26. See Colla, “In Praise of Insult,” 44.
  27. Erika Doss, The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards A Theory of Temporary Memorials (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008), 41.
  28. Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

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The Gezi Martyrs and Visual Resistance in Turkey (Part 1)

“They Are Among Us”


Christiane Gruber


This is the first installment of a two-part essay. The second part will be published here on Mizan in two weeks.

Introduction

During summer 2013, Turkey witnessed the most serious challenge to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decade-long rule of the country to date. In Istanbul and other major cities throughout the country, demonstrators took to the streets en masse to voice a host of grievances against the prime minister and his ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP). The protests began with a peaceful sit-in to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park from demolition and commercial development. However, after police brutally cleared the green patch of peaceful environmentalists, a massive uprising was spawned.

Collectively known as the Gezi movement, popular demonstrations spread to more than seventy cities throughout Turkey. Encompassing a broad and rather eclectic swath of the country’s population, the resistance gave voice to a miscellany of individuals and opposition groups, including Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, feminists, members of the LGBT community, secularists, Marxists, anti-capitalist Muslims, environmentalists, university students, and everyday citizens from young children to disabled seniors. Although the uprisings have abated, their aftereffects continue to ripple across all spheres of Turkish life to the present day.1

As the weeks pressed on during summer 2013, streets and squares across Turkey filled with swarms of bodies demonstrating against AKP rule and police brutality. In Istanbul proper, Gezi Park served as the staging ground for a lively tented sit-in replete with a range of amenities—including a library, an art atelier, a stage for musical performances, and a veterinary clinic—reminiscent of other makeshift cities that arose during the global Occupy movement. In response to this formidable overtaking of public space, Turkish police forces resorted to excessive force to curb protests and clear Gezi Park of its occupants. Among their arsenal were mass-intervention vehicles outfitted with water cannon jets (or TOMAs),2 tear gas guns, sound bombs, plastic bullets, pepper spray, batons, guns, and much more. At times the police were indiscriminate in their use of violence, shooting thick blankets of pressurized water and gas into the crowds; at others, they purposefully targeted young males who stood and fought on the front lines of the protests. As a consequence, already during the early weeks of the Gezi demonstrations, clashes with police claimed the lives of five young demonstrators who were quickly dubbed the “Gezi Martyrs,” or Gezi şehitleri. Since summer 2013, several other young men have died and been claimed as martyrs by the resistance movement.

As state-sponsored violence cut short the lives of these young men-turned-martyrs, an important question arose: what are the symbolic framings and functions of these “martyrs” in a pluralistic consortium, the contours of which are largely shaped by a desire to preserve a secular, representative democracy in the face of increasing authoritarianism displayed by the ruling Sunni-Islamist AKP? In order to answer this question, this essay seeks to explore the Gezi movement’s many rhetorical tools and visual strategies that aimed to commemorate these deceased young men, exalt them as martyrs, and render them eternally present among the living multitudes of demonstrators who positioned themselves as collectively embodying a resistant body politic.

The evidence provided in this essay was gathered in Gezi Park and the Taksim area in Istanbul during summer 2013, and also includes a discussion of the mass demonstrations following the death of Berkin Elvan in March 2014. Emphasizing the notions of innocence, immortality, and omnipresence, Gezi’s visual and material output encompasses a range of discursive strategies and physical performances concerned with memorializing its martyrs. These strategies engaged with older Islamic religious beliefs and martyrial traditions that enabled the construction of a new mythic reality largely articulated within a secular register. In addition, these martyrs became the personification of the Gezi Resistance, in which aesthetic and political practices coalesced to form an “ethical regime of images.”3 Thus, these deceased males served as the focal points for the expression of personal emotions and public affects, while also contributing to the creation of Gezi’s largely secular rituals, in which the figure of the martyr served to provide, first and foremost, undeniable physical evidence for the loss of human life as a direct result of the breakdown of the rule of law.

Banners, Slogans, and Bodies

The early days of June 2013 claimed the lives of two Gezi martyrs. The first young man who was killed was Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, who perished when a taxi driver slammed into a crowd of protesters in an Istanbul neighborhood. The second youth to die was Abdullah Cömert, who lost his life one day later due to a head injury he sustained after a police officer shot him with a tear gas canister in a demonstration organized in the southeastern province of Hatay.4 From the Syrian border all the way to the heart of Istanbul, this double loss of life in quick succession prompted an outpouring of grief. It also provided a loud rallying cry for further protests and sit-ins.

CAPTIONS

(Top) Banner depicting Mehmet Ayvalıtaş and Abdullah Cömert, Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 10, 2013. (Center) Banner praising Abdullah Cömert as immortal and warning that those responsible for his death will be held to account, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 10, 2013. (Bottom) March in honor of Ethem Sarısülük, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, June 29, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber)

Within Taksim Square, banners produced by various political groups were paraded and hung; these banners featured photographic images of the deceased duo captioned with the exclamation that they remain “among us!” (aramızda).

On the one hand, the first-person plural (“us”) couches protesters as belonging together despite the heterogeneous makeup of the demonstrations. On the other, it also extends the two boys’ personhood beyond their corporeal mortality by insisting that they remain—if not physically then spiritually—among those taking to the streets, squares, and parks to voice their frustrations with the status quo. Without a doubt, the assertive speech act “They are among us!” encodes and quickens the photographic message,5 which in this case pictorially and linguistically reasserts the two deceased bodies’ transcendence of organic decay within the growing matrix of oppositional presence.

Beyond Taksim Square, other banners in honor of the martyrs were raised within Gezi Park during the first two weeks of June 2013. At this time, the small patch of green land was occupied by a variety of individuals and groups who set up booths, tents, and quarters to publicize their interests and platforms.

Early on, a large banderole was stretched across one of the park’s main walkways, declaring that Abdullah Cömert remains immortal (ölümsüz) and that those who killed him—that is, the police acting under Erdoğan’s direct orders, and hence Erdoğan himself—would be held accountable for his death.6

Although utilizing a religiously inflected language tied to the notion of immortality as found in articulations of martyrdom in Islam and other world religions,7 this banner also issued a legal caveat: namely, that those culpable for Cömert’s death must be held to account.

This verbal incrimination has as its ultimate goal the dispensing of justice and punishment. Within this Gezi courtroom, the park is thus reasserted as a locus of public opinion in which the deceased comprise the resistance movement’s immutable res publica.

Over and over again, Gezi’s martyrial rhetoric made clear and overt use of jurisprudential terminology. Such legal expressions allowed demonstrators to issue death-related grievances in order to insist on the restitution of the rule of law. In the process, members of various opposition groups created a more unified community based on the principle that every single individual must be counted and accounted for. This type of “consensus community” thus creates social bonds through the notions of equality, representation, and human rights, including the rights of victims and the deceased. 8 Furthermore, this type of social collective emerges via the articulation of shared affects, which are achieved through the distribution of sensible forms of communication such as visible and performing bodies, oral and written texts, and still and moving images. This sensible data in turn generates a sense of reality for participants in and spectators of political action, in which images help to “sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible.”9 Thus, this larger sensus communis combines the notions of justice and beauty, thereby crafting new ethico-aesthetic articulations of perceived reality.10

Besides the raising of banners in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, protesters also carried large-scale posters as they took to Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s main tourist drag and protest artery. A number of groups marched in honor of the deceased, including for Ethem Sarısülük, who died on June 14, 2013 from a gunshot wound to the head during violent clashes between protesters and police forces in Ankara’s Kızılay Square. Besides emphasizing Ethem’s imperishability, opposition groups marched “For Ethem, for justice” (Ethem için, adalet için), signaling that his killing was a crime demanding due process and legal rectification. In sloganeering rhymes, this immortal martyr was thus equated with the dual concepts of justice and equity.

Even as the identity of the police officer who shot Ethem Sarısülük was confirmed thanks to video footage and his ID number imprinted on his helmet, no arrest was made, no censure issued, no penalty imposed. To the contrary, the AKP government and police forces tightened their ranks to protect their own against the oppositional “others,” who in Erdoğan’s estimation were nothing but vandals, fringe elements, external agitators, and low-life marauders (çapulcu).11

The more overwhelming the state silence, the louder the popular cries for justice. Waves of protests grew larger and more litigious after each unprosecuted death, while anti-regime chants multiplied in response to the state’s inaction and divisive rhetoric. Among the most popular responsorial slogans were those equating the police to a private militia armed and owned by the AKP rather than a national force dedicated to protecting the Turkish populace.12 Among them, slogans such as “Ethem’in katili, AKP’nin polisi” (“Ethem’s murderer is the AKP’s police”) insisted upon making knowledge of the culprit’s identity public while also demoting police officers from custodians of the public good to mere mercenaries. Still other slogans bemoaned the loss of life and justice, exclaiming that “Ethem mezarda, katilleri dışarda” (“Ethem is in the grave, his killers are out”).13 In this intoned and uncanny juxtaposition, the deceased who is buried and detained within the earth is solemnized while his murderer is cursed as unjustly exonerated and allowed to roam free above it.

By July 10, 2013, the Gezi movement had lost its fourth martyr in Medeni Yıldırım, and then claimed its fifth in Ali Ismail Korkmaz. Korkmaz died of a brain hemorrhage after he was severely beaten by thugs—some of whom may have been plainclothes police officers—when he ran into an alley in order to escape a police tear gas attack in his hometown of Eskişehir.14 In this case as well, the assault was captured by a nearby hotel’s CCTV recording. However, the tape was deemed too faulty to provide clear and conclusive evidence of the attackers’ identities even though the hotel’s manager claimed to have handed the video over to the police in pristine condition. As in Ethem Sarısülük’s killing, protesters clamored angrily at what they saw as yet another police cover-up along with the government’s deliberate obfuscation and destruction of evidence.

On the evening of Korkmaz’s death, a march up Istiklal Avenue was organized in his name. As protesters made their way up to Taksim Square, they held posters and banners while uttering a number of slogans. Most repeated among these chants was the assertive exclamation “Katil devlet hesab verecek” (“The killer government will pay/will be held accountable”).15

While this particular slogan was new to the Gezi movement, it is an old left-wing chant that has been in use by Turkish opposition groups since at least the 1970s.16 As a general caveat, it accuses the government—regardless of its political and religious contours—of committing murder against its own citizens, whose survivors and legatees stubbornly pledge that they will hold the regime to account.

Another slogan—namely, “Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş” (“Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance”)—is much more specific since it was born in Taksim Square during the Gezi uprisings, which then proliferated throughout Turkey. As a tailor-made slogan emblematic of the nationwide spread of the resistance movement, this chant reasserts and warns of the opposition’s omnipresence. Besides Taksim’s juggernaut slogan, in marches and other ceremonies another query was often issued, asking: “Olü mü denir şimdi olara?” This rhetorical question translates literally as “Would they be called dead now?” However, more loyal to its defiant spirit would be the English rendition “How can/dare you call them dead?” Inspired by verses written in 1974 by the Turkish poet Edip Cansever (d. 1986),17 this lyrical query daringly rejects the inevitability of physical death, affirming instead the continued spiritual existence of the Gezi martyrs as it infuses and invigorates oppositional citizens comprising the body politic. The deceased are thus metaphorically made immortal through versified mottos energized by the physical locomotion and performance of living bodies pouring into public space.

A number of sit-ins also were staged in Galatasaray Square, located midway along Istiklal Avenue between Tünel and Taksim Squares. For example, in mid-August 2013, a 24-hour sit-in was organized by the Solidarity Association of Prisoners’ Families (Tutuklu ve Hükümlü Aileleri ile Dayanışma Derneği, or TAYAD). Relatives of detained and disappeared individuals joined Gezi protesters in front of Galatasaray high school to step up pressure on the government and make it answerable to lives lost or unaccounted for, both before and during the Gezi uprisings. Protesters took to the ground with banners and posters, and ritually offered red carnationsflowers symbolic of blood, loss, and mourning that are used in Turkish-Islamic burial traditions—to the photographic portraits of missing and dead individuals laid upon the ground.

Memorial at a 24-hour sit-in organized by the Solidarity Association of Prisoners' Families, Galatasaray Square, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, August 18, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Memorial at a 24-hour sit-in organized by the Solidarity Association of Prisoners’ Families, Galatasaray Square, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, August 18, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Among the mosaic work of displayed items was a large-scale yellow banner issuing the forceful request “We want our sons’ killers!” (“Evlatlarımızın katillerini istiyoruz!”), around which smaller placards denounced Erdoğan as a killer (“Katil Tayyip!”)

In an aesthetic move, these slogan-signs and photographic portraits were cobbled together into a form of street art while also serving as the urban cenotaphs of the Gezi martyrs, to whom demonstrating devotees made votive offerings of funerary flowers. In this and other scenarios, photographic images enabled the transformation of “the flat rhetoric of evidence into an emotionalized drama of experience.”18

 

Besides producing written material accusing the prime minister of murder and demanding that police officers be tried and punished, protesters also stood their ground and engaged in prolonged chanting while clapping their hands or lifting their fists in the time-worn gesture of rising up and rebelling against an incumbent power. Some of the chants they performed were led by a slogan leader, who recited the many names of the detained, disappeared, and deceased, to which the oppositional choir responded with the interjection “He lives on!” (“Yaşıyor!“), as occurred during a protest at Galatasaray Square in Istanbul on August 18, 2013.

Although reminiscent of the Arabic couplet-slogans that were chanted during the Egyptian uprisings,19 this vocal remonstrance inches closer to an antiphonal litany, in which a roster of names is recited by one voice and quickly meets with the crowd’s repeated life-affirming rejoinder.

These types of oral interactions generate a pulsed rhythm mimicking a heartbeat that in turn reverberates throughout public space as if a revived spirit infusing its chanting citizenry. Through such exertive signs and animated slogans carried and chanted by human actors, the Gezi martyrs symbolically gain an aural energy and physical presence among the living multitudes. In this dynamic ethico-aesthetic complex, the deceased achieve a kind of imperishability through a performed and corporeal sound-space that functions as an inventive way to confront the state through legal lingo and physical presence, thus sharpening the otherwise muddled lines of conflict.20

Insistent Ephemera

A handful of young men lost their lives during the early weeks of the Gezi uprisings. As a cohort of five, Ali Ismail Korkmaz, Ethem Sarısülük, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, and Medeni Yıldırım often appeared as a single unit in banners, posters, mural paintings, stencils, graffiti, and digital art. Besides their posthumous affiliation with one another through public memorial portraiture, in life these five Gezi martyrs were also connected as Alevis, revealing the extent to which police used especially indiscriminate force in neighborhoods largely populated by members of this minority Sufi-Shi’i faith that is not recognized as an official religion by the Turkish state.21 Their common minority religious background notwithstanding, the five Gezi martyrs came to epitomize the larger Gezi resistance movement, itself a markedly eclectic admixture of individuals ranging from anti-capitalist Muslims to the militantly secular “Warriors of Ataturk.”

Figure 1: Stencils of the five martyrs of Gezi under the word “LOVE” in red paint, Urban Café, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, July 15, 2013. Photograph by author.Stencils of the first five martyrs of the Gezi Resistance with the added inscription “There is no revolution without the spilling of blood,” Urban Café Beyoğlu, Istanbul, July 25, 2013. Photograph by author.

(Top) Stencils of the five martyrs of Gezi under the word “LOVE” in red paint, Urban Café, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, July 15, 2013. (Bottom) The same image, with the added inscription “There is no revolution without the spilling of blood,” Urban Café Beyoğlu, Istanbul, July 25, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Within this medley of social and political constituencies, images of the five martyrs did not go untouched. To the contrary, they provided arenas for resistant aesthetic behaviors as well as visual foci for ongoing ideological skirmishes.

As a case in point, the Galatasaray neighborhood includes a passageway that contains the popular Urban Café. There, a multitude of wall paintings and graffiti art are continuously added to, erased, and altered in a variety of ways. In this outdoor mural art corridor, depictions of Gandhi, Star Wars characters, and cartoon figures coalesce to form a crowded scene, to which stencils of the five martyrs were added during the summer of Gezi. At first their visages were simply tagged with their personal names under a large “LOVE” graffito in red paint. However, soon thereafter, a passer-by decided to caption the composition with his own revolutionary message warning that “There is no revolution without the spilling of blood” (“kan akmadan devrim olmaz“).

Undoubtedly this scripted addendum anchors and reinforces the visual message in order to “combat the terror of uncertain signs”22 and hence convey a more directed narrative. In this specific instance, the emblazoned faces of the martyrs are counteracted as signifiers empty of precise meaning and instead are semantically enclaved in order to dub the Gezi uprisings a true “revolution” or devrim.

Curtailing potentially endless semiosis,23 this christening of Gezi as a full-scale revolution posits that the loss of life comprises the sine qua non of radical social and political change, itself requiring nothing less than the spilling of blood. A position clearly not shared by all, the revolutionary zeal of the graffito was muffled through subsequent whitewashing, in all likelihood carried out by the Beyoğlu municipality’s cleaning crew.

During the Gezi demonstrations, police shot tear gas and plastic bullets, while oppositional groups figuratively “bombed” the walls of Istanbul and other cities with mass-produced visuals. Protesters sprayed and pasted many cheap and ephemeral images in the public domain. Despite their occasional removal by pro-AKP parties or their overpainting by cleaning crews, by and large such visuals accumulated in a visibly palimpsestic manner. Insistent and tenacious, these items offered a multilayered and materialistic biography for the physical and speech acts of contestation that unfolded in the streets over the course of several months.

Sticker praising the Gezi martyrs as immortal, Galatasaray, Istanbul, July 30, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Sticker praising the Gezi martyrs as immortal, Galatasaray, Istanbul, July 30, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Among the many visual and textual messages that could be found on the walls of central Istanbul were those that commemorated the young men who were killed during the early weeks of the demonstrations. Printed on adhesive paper, these stickers further cemented the corporate honorific title “Gezi martyrs” (Gezi Şehitleri) while also lauding the deceased as immortal (ölümsüz), as can be seen in an adhesive poster issued by the student organization known as “Progressive Youth” (İleri Gençlik Birliği).

Emblazoned with the silhouetted faces of (by then) six dead young men, the textual exclamation insists upon their continued afterlife through the item’s dogged adhesion to a hard surface. Much like price tags on consumer items offered for sale, it is hard to scrape it off and ignore the price paid.

In a similar manner, scrawled on the retaining walls within Gezi Park, a number of graffiti cannot be removed easily with an astringent cleaning agent or the lather of a wet sponge. Instead, insurgent writings on walls declaring that “the Martyrs of the Revolution are Immortal” (“Devrim Şehitleri Ölümsüzdür“) are subjected to government overpainting in gray pigment, in the process begetting heavily impastoed, ashen stratigraphies of conflict over public presence and hence representability, legitimacy, and authority. Such acts of iteration and cancellation visually capture the fluid equilibrium that typifies discursive relations between those who are in power and those who are not.

Besides adhesive signs and graffiti, stencils of individual martyrs were also inked on the walls and sidewalks throughout Istanbul. In some cases, the added captions did not just name the deceased, refer to him as a martyr, or exclaim his imperishability. For example, in the aftermath of the killing of Ethem Sarısülük, stencils were imprinted with the deceased’s face and the profession: “You are my brother, Ethem” (“Kardeşimsin Ethem“). This tender declaration establishes a fraternal bond between active spectators and vanished bodies, thereby precipitating metaphorical kinship ties among like-minded protesters. It also causes an uncanny co-presence of the living and the dead. Represented as everyone’s brothers, the Gezi martyrs allowed the voicing and coalescence of a larger fraternity of resisting bodies to gather in solidarity and, although not a unitary whole, to nevertheless strengthen a sense of social cohesion through the process of personal identification.

Catalyzing sentiments of belonging, many practices woven around the Gezi martyrs couched the deceased not just as siblings but even alter egos. Within demonstrations, for example, protesters chanted and held signs testifying that “We are all Ethem” (“Hepimiz Ethem’iz”), with each deceased’s name interchangeable depending on time and circumstance. Through such chants, signs, and bodies overtaking public space, the Gezi martyrs transformed into a larger genitive construct, possessed and enfleshed by their living brothers and avatars. Vanished yet not gone, today these dispersed and multiplied martyr-brothers continue to endure via the ongoing labor of the living resisters of Gezi, who have adopted a range of creative strategies to embody and sustain the deceased within their own selves.

(L) Stencil reading: “You are my brother, Ethem,” Beyoğlu, Istanbul, June 27, 2013; (R) Sign reading “We are all Ethem” carried in a march in honor of Ethem Sarısülük, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, June 29, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

(L) Stencil reading “You are my brother, Ethem,” Beyoğlu, Istanbul, June 27, 2013. (R) Sign reading “We are all Ethem” carried in a march in honor of Ethem Sarısülük, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, June 29, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

As Zeynep Gambetti notes in her study on Occupy Gezi as a form of biopolitics, this mass of lively bodies yields a “corporeal assemblage that acts as a living multiplicity.”24 This body politic comprised of clamorous human beings and the symbolically reanimated dead conjoin to set into motion a large corporate entity, a rebelling colossus of sorts. The power of these bodies stems from their ability to mutualize each other’s persistence,25 with the dead invigorating the spirit of the living and the living perpetuating the presence of the dead. In this reciprocally resistant colossus, the male martyr is not charisma incarnate or a casualty sacrificed on the path towards God. Rather, he functions as the fabric of immanent selfhood as well as a kindred spirit connecting an assortment of diverse individuals.

Just like slogans, murals, and signs, stickers of the Gezi martyrs were pasted ubiquitously onto the walls and streets of Istanbul during summer 2013. At times, these stickers functioned as symbolic cenotaphs alongside other visual and textual materials that coalesced into makeshift reliquaries along Istiklal Avenue. Demonstrators and passers-by paid tribute to these urban tombs by placing red carnations on the ground. Among them, the blue-and-white stickers glued to the cement pavement included photographic portraits of the martyrs who gazed back upon their onlookers. Besides the inclusion of the boys’ first and last names, the stickers issued the pointed question: “Who killed [so-and-so]?” (“[XXX] kim öldürdü?”) The query insists on holding the boys’ killers to account by asking the state, over and over again, for the identity of their murderers—an accusation of guilt that remains unanswered to the present day. Multiplied across these round adhesives, the query builds into a litany through dogged repetition, while through its oral intonation, protesters imagined themselves as sticky-back paper as well: that is, conjoined as one tenacious unit, obdurate in their unified presence, and resolute in their demands for accountability. Here then, stickers function as evocative object stand-ins for Gezi’s demonstrators insomuch as they, too, can circulate en masse and cling firmly to the ground.

Once stuck to walls and pavements, these cheap and ephemeral items commemorating the Gezi martyrs are susceptible to a host of interactions. Some viewers’ responses are respectful and devotional, while others display the marks of dissident and even antagonistic mindsets. Through their varied insertions and iconoclasms, stickers therefore provide barometers of discordant subjectivities as these are inscribed within the visual and material culture of the Turkish public sphere. Manipulations range from destructive to diversionary, the latter most evident in a sticker asking “who killed Abdullah Cömert?” (“Abdullah Cömert’i kim öldürdü?”)

An altered sticker reading “Who killed Abdullah Cömert?,” Galatasaray, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, July 15, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

An altered sticker reading “Who killed Abdullah Cömert?,” Galatasaray, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, July 15, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Here, an interlocutor did not leave the adhesive untouched. Instead, his graffito adds the two letters “si” before “kim,” thereby transforming the word kim into sikim, a coarse word meaning “my dick” in Turkish (= “My dick killed him”).

The sticker has received an unexpected answer to its question, in this case a sexualized, macho form of backtalk possibly scrawled on the wall by a young man who wished to deride the Gezi resistance, its efforts, and its martyrs. Like other expletives, this kind of mockery breaks with the structures of politeness, enunciates a taboo word in public, and harms the honor of certain individuals.26 In addition, as it casts aspersions on the deceased, it reveals not only an oppositional attitude but also, to borrow Erika Doss’s fitting expression, a growing “mourning sickness.”27

These chants, graffiti, and other ephemera insisting on the martyrs’ immortality and the state’s accountability highlight the many intersections between the realms of visuality and orality. Often, pictorial and textual materials gain further vitality through practices of physical embodiment and performance, yielding an imaginary community of brothers, both living and deceased. This oppositional collective also tends to imagine itself as righteous and ethical as well as acting under the banner of secular law, even when its symbolic lexicon is clearly indebted to and reiterative of religious praxis. Last but not least, while the martyrial visual culture of the Gezi resistance expanded thanks to its sympathizers, it also preserved the traces of the movement’s opponents and detractors. As a result, these “contentious performances”28 involving persons, images, and things encompass a wide spectrum of affective responses stretching from reverent celebration to crude malediction.

Part 2 of this essay will be published the week of June 12.

 

CHRISTIANE GRUBER is Associate Professor of Islamic Art in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research interests range from medieval Islamic art to contemporary visual culture. She has authored two books on Islamic texts and images of the Prophet Muḥammad’s ascension and edited several volumes on Islamic book arts, ascension texts and images, and visual and material culture.

 

  1. For an overview of the Gezi resistance movement, see Umut Özkırımlı (ed.), The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey: #occupygezi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and Anthony Alessandrini et al. (ed.), Resistance Everywhere: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey, JadMag 1.4 (Fall 2013).
  2. TOMA is the Turkish acronym of Toplumsal Olaylara Müdahale Aracı, or ‘Intervention Vehicle to Social Events.’ 
  3. On art and politics as creating an ethical community or “ethical regime of images,” see Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009), 26 and 28.
  4. Gianluca Mezzofiore, “Turkey Protests: First Dead is Named 20-Year-Old Mehmet Ayvalıtaş,” International Business Times, June 3, 2013; Suzan Fraser, “Abdullah Comert 2nd Turkish Protester Killed During Turkey Demonstrations,” The World Post, June 6, 2013.
  5. Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image,” in Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 39; and idem, “The Photographic Message,” in ibid., 25.
  6. This banner states that Abdullah Cömert is immortal and that [his death] will be accounted for. It was sponsored and erected by ÜADK, that is, Üniversite Akademik Danışmanlık Kurulu, or the University Academic Consultancy Board. University students and groups played key leadership roles during the occupation of Gezi Park during the first two weeks of June 2013.
  7. See Michael Cook, Martyrdom in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  8. Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, 115.
  9. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London and New York: Verso, 2009), 103.
  10. The expression sensus communis is taken from Immanuel Kant, Kant’s Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London: Macmillan and Co., 1914), 169-170.
  11. In response, the protesters adopted, diverted, and ridiculed their new “low-life” badge of honor through a wide range of creative expressions and humor arts. See Luke Harding, “Turkish Protesters Embrace Erdoğan Insult and Start ‘Capuling’ Craze,” The Guardian, June 10, 2013; and Christiane Gruber, “The Visual Emergence of the Occupy Gezi Movement, Part Two: Every Day I’m Capulling,” Jadaliyya, July 7, 2013, republished in Alessandrini et al. (ed.), Resistance Everywhere, 31-33.
  12. On the popular expression “AKP’nin polisi” (“The AKP’s Police”), see the entry in Ekşi Sözlük (https://eksisozluk.com/akpnin-polisi–4397032).
  13. On the slogans “Ethem’in katili, AKP’nin polisi” and “Ethem mezarda, katilleri dışarda,” see “Kadıköy’de binler Ethem için yürüyor: ‘Ethem’in katili AKP’nin polisi’,” Sol, June 25, 2012.
  14. “Ali Ismail Korkmaz, Gezi Resistance Protestor, Dies at 19,” Bianet English, July 10, 2013.
  15. On this slogan, see “Katil devlet hesab verecek,” in Ekşi Sözlük (https://eksisozluk.com/katil-devlet-hesap-verecek–1638783).
  16. In more recent years, this chant has been vocalized by demonstrators protesting the 2007 murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.
  17. Edip Cansever, “Olü mü Denir”; see http://epigraf.fisek.com.tr/?num=57. This left-wing poem praises deceased men whose bodies are forgotten even as their spirits fill the hearts and veins of the living. During the Gezi uprisings, this poem-slogan was inscribed on the makeshift graves of the Gezi martyrs as well as written on posters held aloft by the graduating seniors at Bosphorus University (see the photograph at http://fotogaleri.hurriyet.com.tr/galeridetay/70771/2/38/bogazici-universitesi-mezuniyet-toreninde-pankartlar-konustu).
  18. John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 12.
  19. Elliott Colla, “The Poetry of Revolt,” in The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old World Order?, ed. Bassam Haddad et al. (London: Pluto Press, 2012), 77-82.
  20. On slogans as sharpening lines of conflict, see Elliott Colla, “In Praise of Insult: Slogan Genres, Slogan Repertoires and Innovations,” in Review of Middle East Studies 47.1 (2013): 39-40.
  21. On the killing of these five Alevis, see Ahmet Saymadi, “Beş Alevi Yurttaşımız Öldürüldü,” Bianet, September 13, 2013; on the march against the killing of Alevis, which was called “Enough Already!” (“Yeter Artık!“), see “Aleviler alanlara çıkıyor,” Cumhuriyet, May 23, 2014.
  22. Barthes, “The Photographic Message,” 25.
  23. On endless semiosis, see Alex Potts, “Sign,” in Critical Terms for Art History, 2nd edition, ed. Robert Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 20-34.
  24. Zeynep Gambetti, “Occupy Gezi as Politics of the Body,” in Özkırımlı (ed.), The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey, 98.
  25. Gambetti, “Occupy Gezi as Politics of the Body,” 99.
  26. See Colla, “In Praise of Insult,” 44.
  27. Erika Doss, The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards A Theory of Temporary Memorials (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008), 41.
  28. Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

The Gezi Martyrs and Visual Resistance in Turkey (Part 1)

“They Are Among Us”

The Gezi Martyrs and Visual Resistance in Turkey (Part 1)

“They Are Among Us”