Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 8, 2015

Ahmet Tonak on the Turkish elections

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 4:14 pm

This morning I conducted an interview with Ahmet Tonak about the Turkish elections. Ahmet is an economist at Bilgi University in Istanbul and co-author with Anwar Shaikh of “Measuring the Wealth of Nations” as well as co-editor of “Turkey in Transition: New Perspectives”. He has also been a participant in the People’s Democratic Congress, out of which the People’s Democratic Party emerged. His analysis will be of great use to those trying to understand recent political developments in Turkey.

April 19, 2015

Israel, Armenians and genocide denial

Filed under: Armenians,genocide,Roma,Turkey — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

People like me who continue to read the NY Times print edition could not help but notice a full-page ad that appeared this week:

This is now the second ad that attacks the Obama administration for what amounts to genocide denial. In February, it was Susan Rice’s “refusal” to refer to a Rwandan genocide that was the subject of another NYT ad, once again sponsored by “Shmuley Boteach: America’s Rabbi” and “The World: Values Network” that amount to the same thing. The purpose of such ads is to smear the White House as being in league with Iran, which according to Zionist ideologues like Boteach is committed to murdering every last Israeli and—who knows—maybe every Jew in the world.

These ads cost $104,000 and Boteach has run plenty of them. You might ask yourself how a rabbi can come up with the dough. Here’s the answer. They are being paid for by Sheldon Adelson, the 8th richest man in the world who is worth $36.4 billion according to Fortune Magazine. Adelson has become rather infamous for lavishing huge sums of money on the most reactionary Republican Party politicians, including the bellicose miscreant Senator from Arkansas Tom Cotton who wrote an open letter to the Iranian leaders telling them that a treaty with the USA would be nullified after Obama left the White House. He has followed up with a statement that a bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a cakewalk.

The most recent ad is notable because it tries to position the Zionist establishment as arch-defenders of Armenians trying to make Turkey pay for the genocide that occurred exactly 100 years ago. Like Obama, the current president of Turkey is willing to admit that there were massacres of Armenians in 1915 but balks at calling it genocide.

The Pope made news recently for calling it exactly that. Not one to back way from challenges, President Erdogan counter-attacked by reminding the Holy Father that his church backed the Crusades and the Inquisition. (He didn’t mention it but I would have also referred to Pope Pius XII’s refusal to condemn Hitler’s murder of six million Jews.)

One might think based on the most recent ad that Israelis would have been staunch defenders of Armenian claims given their shared victimization. As it turns out, this was not the case at all. In 2007, Mark Arax, a LA Times reporter of Armenian descent (LA has a very large Armenian population) wrote an article that exposed Israel’s tilt toward Turkey over the 1915 genocide and that riled up the Israel lobby for simply quoting them. David Twersky of the American Jewish Congress admitted to him: “As Jews, we have a tremendous reverence for the moral imperatives of history. But then there is the aspect that no Muslim country is closer to Israel than Turkey. So we feel paralyzed by a set of conflicting emotions.” Others were not so conflicted:

Other Jewish leaders, believing the security needs of the U.S. and Israel trump distant history, are siding with Turkey.

“I don’t think a bill in Congress will help reconcile this issue. The resolution takes a position. It comes to a judgment,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn’t be the arbiter of that history,” he said. “And I don’t think the U.S. Congress should be the arbiter either.”

So egregious was Israel’s indifference to the Armenian genocide that one Israeli historian was moved to write the aptly titled “The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide” in 2000, a work that states:

But the State of Israel has consistently refrained from acknowledging the genocide of the Armenian People. Government representatives do not participate in the memorial assemblies held every year on April 24 by the Armenians to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The public debate in the State of Israel about the attitude toward the Armenian genocide has focused on four prominent media events: in 1978 the screening of a film about the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem was canceled, In 1982, the Israeli Government intervened in plans for an inter-national conference on the subject of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1989, the Israeli Government was apparently involved in preventing the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the American Congress in dedicating a memorial day in the American calendar. In 1990, the screening of an American television documentary film. “Journey to Armenia,” was canceled. In later years, a controversy also developed over teaching about the Armenian genocide, in general, in Israeli schools.

Leaving aside Israel’s realpolitik ties to Turkey, there’s another factor that weighed heavily in genocide denial, namely the refusal to accept the possibility that any other people except the Jews were so victimized in the 20th century. On a state visit to Turkey in 2001, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres put it this way: “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenia’s went through but not a genocide.”

It was not just the Armenians who got short shrift. Elie Wiesel, one of the worst apologists for Zionist brutality, was adamant that the Roma were not as elevated as the Jews. Serving as gatekeeper for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, Wiesel said that the Roma were not allowed. Writing for RADOC, a Roma website, Ian Hancock—one of the world’s foremost Roma scholars—described Wiesel’s intransigence:

In July, 1988, I was invited to present a paper entitled “Uniqueness of the victims” at the Remembering for the Future: Responses to the Holocaust conference at Oxford University. I was accompanied by a gentleman named Leland Robison who recently reminded me of a startling confrontation I had with Professor Wiesel at that event—though I’d scarcely forgotten it. It remains very clear in my mind to this day. Professor Wiesel, surrounded by cameras and journalists, was being interviewed on the university grounds. During a break between questioning, I approached him and said “Professor Wiesel, please don’t forget the Gypsies!” He turned aggressively towards me, glared, and barked “Mister Hancock! I have read what you have written! And I don’t like it! I don’t like it at all!!” and turned away.

It is probably not too hard to figure out why Israel has changed its mind about the Armenians. It has everything to do with the feud with Turkey’s AKP over its condemnations of the worst features of the occupation of the West Bank and its solidarity with Gaza, no matter how limited. Once Erdogan began to be seen as Israel’s enemy, the Armenians became Israel’s friends in a maneuver whose cynicism was obvious to all. Writing for Huffington Post in 2011, Harut Sassounian, the Armenian publisher of the California Courier, reported on how “Israel May Retaliate Against Turkey by Recognizing the Armenian Genocide”:

Finally, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Majalli Whbee angrily lashed back at the Prime Minister of Turkey. Several Turkish media outlets quoted Whbee as stating: “Erdogan says that genocide is taking place in Gaza. We [Israel] will then recognize the Armenian related events as genocide.” Whbee, a member of the Israeli Knesset and a close confidante of Prime Minister Olmert, issued the following warning to Turkey: “We, as Israel, hope that Prime Minister Erdogan’s statements will not damage our relations. But, if Turkey does not behave fairly, this will have its consequences.”

In a sense, it is baffling why Israel would not consider Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians as anything but a nation-building necessity that countries such as Turkey, the U.S. and Israel were forced to adopt in their infancy. Israeli historian Benny Morris defended the Nabka this way: “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.”

Morris has a point even if it is malevolent. When the Turkish army forced the Armenians to take a “long march” into Syria, was that any different than Andrew Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokees in the “trail of tears”? Was it really the responsibility of the Turks or the Americans to feed and provide water for a nationality that was inimical to its own economic well-being? After all, some Armenians had allied themselves with Russia, Turkey’s long-time enemy. Was this any different from FDR herding Japanese-Americans into concentration camps? Mind you, I don’t believe any of this bullshit myself; I am just trying to give you a sense of how sleazy bastards like Benny Morris think.

December 10, 2014

Winter Sleep

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

For regular readers of my film reviews, you are probably aware that I have referred to Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. After seeing “Winter Sleep” (Kış Uykusu) yesterday, I am ready to upgrade him to the greatest filmmaker today, the only one that can be compared to the masters I encountered in the early 60s: Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, et al. Unlike any film I have seen in recent years, “Winter Sleep” is as complex and as literary as the classics of a bygone era. In many ways, it is the Turkish equivalent of a Chekhov play with the added visual dimension of the mind-bending landscapes of Cappadocia, the ancient region in Anatolia where houses and temples were carved into the mountains.

Most of the action in “Winter Sleep” takes place in the Hotel Othello, one of the Cappadocian dwellings that grow out of a cliff like a mushroom from a tree. Since the film is a meditation on good and evil, the hotel is named appropriately. Aydin, its owner, is a member of the local village’s elite. He inherited the hotel from his father and a number of the rental properties that poor villagers struggle to afford. Despite the reputation of Turkey’s supposedly booming economy and the governing AKP’s charitable beneficence, it had a GINI coefficient in 2012 only 2 points more equitable than El Salvador’s.

In an early scene, Aydin (played by Haluk Bilginer, a veteran of 55 films) is in the front seat of his hotel’s SUV being driven back to the Othello from the nearby village by his driver/desk clerk Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), when out of nowhere a rock crashes into the car’s window nearly forcing it to veer off the road and into a serious accident. The assailant is a young boy who Hidayet pursues and finally captures.

They then take the captive youth back to his meager home, one of Haydin’s rental properties, where they meet his father and uncle and soon learn that the boy threw the rock because the family—5 people crowded into 3 small rooms—has just lost their television to the debt collectors Aydin’s lawyer sicced on them. For the rural poor, a television is one of the few pleasures that they can count on.

Ismail, the boy’s father, is in no position to pay the back rent, let alone the broken window. We will eventually learn that he is an ex-convict who cannot find work. As Aydin and Hidayet are setting down the terms for repairing the broken window, Ismail smashes his fist into his own window and barks at the two men: Now, we are even.

Despite and perhaps because of Aydin’s efforts to remain calm and affect a lofty and patient attitude, Ismail reaches the boiling point and tries to physically attack his landlord and driver until the uncle, a man called Hamdi hodja (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), separates them. Hamdi is everything that Ismail is not, a perpetually smiling and subservient sort used to bowing before the wealthy and the powerful. A few days after the confrontation, he brings his nephew to the hotel to beg forgiveness and have him kiss Aydin’s right hand, a ritual act in Turkey’s Anatolian hinterlands. Sick from pneumonia, the boy collapses in the act.

Aydin lives in an aesthetic cocoon as remote from Ismail’s world as the ex-convict is from his. He spends his days in his study writing articles for the local newspaper on the need to “improve” the local village spiritually and ethically. His writings are laced with platitudes and betray a Pecksniffian sense of his own superiority.

There are two women in Aydin’s life, both very much tuned in to his arrogance and sterility. One is his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), just a few years younger than him, and the other is his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) who is about half his age and lives in her own quarters at the hotel. In the earliest scenes between Aydin and them, there are signs of friction but barely anticipate the dramatically explosive scenes in which the two confront him over his failings as a human being that are implicitly connected to his class status. Although not a political director/screenwriter in the narrow sense, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is about as clear as one can be on such matters without descending into propaganda.

In much the same way as Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, this is a tale about the futility of the lives of the rich and the poor alike. In its monomaniacal determination to preserve its class status, the Aydins of the world are impoverishing themselves spiritually and ethically.

“Winter Sleep” won the prestigious Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York on December 19th. Running at over three hours, it is a throwback to the epic films of the 1960s, especially those Marxist films that depicted the same sort of class divisions such as Bertolucci’s “1900”. Among all the films being made today, it is a testament that the Grand Tradition is still alive, even if the terrain has shifted eastward. Ceylan is a gifted dramatist and cinematographer with a unique vision of the crisis we face today in a world that is divided between Aydins and Ismails. Despite its narrow focus on a small group of people, it is a story that reflects the greater drama involving billions today. It is a masterpiece in my opinion, a word I do not use lightly.

May 15, 2014

Aide to Erdogan kicks protester

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 1:46 pm

afcd292c-5f84-4034-8173-df986d612f35-460x276A protester is kicked by Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, as Special Forces police officers detain him during a protest against Erdogan’s visit to Soma, Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

March 7, 2014

From Both Sides of the Aegean

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Greece,Turkey — louisproyect @ 12:52 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition March 7-9, 2014

Maria Iliou’s “From Both Sides of the Aegean”

In the Wake of the Ottoman Empire


It would be hard to imagine a documentary making more of an impact on the mind, the heart and the eye than Maria Iliou’s “From Both Sides of the Aegean: Expulsion and Exchange of Populations, Turkey-Greece: 1922-1924” that opens at the Quad in New York on March 21.

When I ran into Ms. Iliou before a press screening at the Quad on Tuesday, she described her new film as a follow-up to “Smyrna: the Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City”, a film that I reviewed for CounterPunch almost a year ago.  The first paragraph of that review referred to my personal connection to the terrible tragedy of September 1922:

In my one and only visit to Izmir to meet my wife’s relatives, we walked along the quay to see some of the picturesque city’s landmarks including the statue of Mustafa Kemal that looked toward the sea. My wife’s cousin Ceyda, the daughter of a General assigned to NATO and a rock-ribbed Kemalist, paused in front of the statue to inform me that this was where their war of independence was won. The quay, from which the city’s Greek population was literally driven into the sea, is as important a symbol of that country’s birth in the early 1920s as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is to an American.

As in the first film, Iliou draws upon a treasure trove of historical photos and film footage, interviews with academic specialists in Greek and Turkish history, and reminiscences of the children and grandchildren who were driven from their homeland both through naked terror and through “legal” decisions made at the top by cynical politicians. Given the pain—both physical and emotional—visited on the Greeks and the Turks, the distinction between illegal and legal becomes moot.

While the film would be of particular interest to someone like myself, it has a universal message for those who cannot but be aware of the toxic after-effects of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims fought to defend statehood claims like vultures fighting over dead meat.

full article

February 22, 2014

Kurdish and Turkish films of note

Filed under: feminism,Film,Kurd,Turkey — louisproyect @ 11:26 am

Over the past several days I’ve looked at two Kurdish and two Turkish narrative films that would be of particular interest to my readers. The Kurdish films were filmed on location in Kurdistan, the new state taking shape in northern Iraq and the Turkish films in the remote Black Sea and Anatolian regions that are far from urbane Istanbul. Moreover, despite the intensity of the Turkish-Kurd conflict, the four films depict societies that despite their deep contradictions, especially involving the oppression of women against the backdrop of communal solidarity, are very much alike. Leaving aside their topical relevance, they are all examples of art film in the best sense of the term.

Opening yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York are two films by Jano Rosebiani, Kurdistan’s leading director. I use the term Kurdistan to indicate a people rather than an existing state although conditions are ripening in the Middle East that will make that a reality before long, both in Iraq and Syria.

Set in Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, “One Candle, Two Candles” is a comedy about a very serious topic: a young woman named Viyan (Kurdish for desire) is about to become the third wife of a local “headman” who is old enough to be her grandfather. As a car dealer, Haji Hemmo is about as close to a big businessman as you will see in Kurduva, the fictional name for Akre, a particularly beautiful town in Kurdistan where the film was shot. It is a jewel of the liberated territory that has extracted itself from the ongoing sectarian bloodbaths to its south.

In fact the bucolic charm of this town is a poignant reminder of what Iraq could have become if a combination of war and ethnic/religious sectarianism had not torn it apart. In a part of the world where state powers have become synonymous with brutality and economic greed, it is interesting to see how a historically stateless people can lead the way.

At the beginning of the film, Botan, a young, handsome and carefree artist from Zakho, the town that director Rosebiani grew up in, is sketching Viyan and her two companions while he charms them with allusions to ancient Kurdish history. He compares them to beautiful Nefertiti, the Hittite queen of Egypt who came from Zakho. Although the ancient history of the Kurds is not easily documented, there is no question that they originated in the territory occupied by the Hittite kingdoms.

The film is structured around the rivalry between Botan and Haji Hemmo over Viyan as they each line up supporters. Viyan’s father has a vested interest in seeing her married to Hemmo since the dowry includes a car from his lot. The town menfolk live in fear of Kitan, a middle-aged woman who is nicknamed the “ball-buster” since she squeezed the life out of her husband’s family jewels on account of his abusive treatment. Although the Kurds have moved a long way towards achieving peace within their borders, the household remains a battlefield with women under siege. As Engels once said, within the family the husband is the bourgeois and the wife the proletariat.

When Kitan walks through town, men practically duck into an alley to avoid her punishing grip. In one of the film’s many slapstick moments, she spots Viyan’s father on a virgin spin in his new car. She then commandeers the car and forces him to a stop; the town’s avenging proto-feminist in pursuit of another deserving prey. If Norman Mailer considered feminists to be ball-breakers, Kitan would be his worst nightmare. It is too bad a Kitan never got her hands on him.

At times the film will remind you of magical realism. Viyan climbs a tree in a wedding dress to avoid Hemmo’s all-too-persistent advances, a scene that will remind you of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. But it probably makes more sense to see it in terms of a thousand-year old folk tale that Kurds might have told each other around campfires long before there was the novel, movies, television or the Internet.

“Chaplin of the Mountains” is listed as a documentary on the Quad Cinema website but it actually a narrative film. Perhaps the fact that its action consists mostly of some young film students making a documentary in Kurdistan leads to this confusion.

At a hotel in Erbil, a beautiful young Kurdish woman named Nazé, who grew up in France, strikes up a conversation with a group of young filmmakers who have come to Kurdistan to visit small towns and villages in order to document the reaction that people have to their screening of Charlie Chaplin films. Considering the Chaplinesque moments in “One Candle, Two Candles”, one can easily imagine them having the same outlook as director Rosebiani when he was a film student himself.

When Nazé’s flight back to Paris is cancelled, she decides to join the film crew on their tour and accepts their generous offer to help her find her mother’s village that was destroyed during one of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks.

As they wend their way through the countryside, the results are not quite what they expected. Although the children are amused by Chaplin’s antics, some of the elders question the value of comedy to a people trying to build a new nation. Even worse, when they use a temple wall as a screen for a Chaplin one-reeler, they come close to being charged with sacrilege.

As a classic road movie, “Chaplain of the Mountains” is more a series of vignettes than a conventionally plotted drama. To this viewer, what makes it most memorable is the portrait of ordinary Kurdish people shot on location in a remote but beautiful region. They are the real stars. Most of all, you will be mesmerized by a series of performances by Kurdish folk musicians and dancers who are celebrating the continuation of an ancient civilization against all odds.

Ten years ago, almost to the date, I wrote an article about the Kurds for Swans, an online magazine. Given that the USA had just invaded Iraq, I tended to bend the stick in the direction of backing the Sunni resistance, which meant referring to the Kurds as “pawns”. I would not write the article in the same way today. I would refer you to the article if for no other reason that it will stimulate you into learning more about a people with a unique history. At the time I wrote:

The Kurds are ethnically related to the ancient Medes, but only came into their own with the rise of Islamic power. A Kurd by the name Salah-ud-Din reconquered Jerusalem from Richard the Lionhearted in the 12th century. Better known as Saladin, he established the Ayyubid dynasty which ruled over much of the Middle East until the rise of the Ottomans.

Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World had an enormous impact on commerce in the Middle East, which would no longer serve as a lucrative link between Europe and East Asia. Among the casualties were Kurdish merchants and toll-collectors.

In addition to being economically marginalized, the Kurds were isolated geographically as well. Preferring to dwell in the mountains or rocky hills, they subsisted on sheep-herding and small-scale farming. In the strict Marxist sense, class formation of modern capitalist society never took place until late in the 20th century.

Perhaps the amity that now characterizes Kurdistan today is an expression of the belated development of class relations. That is a topic worthy of further investigation.

“Watchtower” is a 2012 Turkish film directed by Pelin Esmer that is now available from Film Movement, a Netflix for the cognoscenti. This is probably at least the third film I have reviewed from their inventory and continue to be impressed by their curatorial finesse. “Watchtower” is a hauntingly beautiful film that is Turkish art film at its very best.

Essentially a two-character film, it depicts a middle-aged man and a young woman drawn together through pure happenstance in the Western Black Sea region, a ruggedly beautiful area. Nihat, the man, has just taken a job as a fire spotter on a mountaintop watchtower. Seher, the young woman, has taken a job with a small bus company headquartered in the tiny village at the foot of the mountain where Nihat stands watch. When she is not serving as a hostess on the bus, she is doing odd jobs around the restaurant that serves the bus passengers during a rest stop.

Seher’s parents have no idea why she should have dropped out of college and taken a dead-end job in such an isolated place. She can only reveal to her mother that she has become pregnant and is due to give birth shortly. Being unmarried and pregnant is tough enough for a Turkish woman from a traditional Anatolian family but in her case there is the added complication of her having been raped by her uncle. The bus stop is a way for her to get the birth of the baby out of the way and allow her to return to a normal life.

After finally giving birth, she leaves the newborn at the gate in front of the bus stop in the same fashion as poor women leaving their baby on the doorstep of a police precinct or hospital in New York, if they are at least humane enough not to leave it in a garbage can as happens from time to time.

Seher does not realize that Nihat has spotted her from inside the restaurant. In response to a tragic loss he has just suffered, he brings mother and child with him into the watchtower as they embark on a complicated relationship. He tries to persuade her to take a more loving relationship to the child despite her frequent attempts to be free of the responsibilities of motherhood, all the more understandable given the circumstances of how it came to pass.

The cinematography of “Watchtower” is stunning, with constant long shots of the Turkish forests and mountains. And even more effectively, there is an inspired use of sound. Dispensing with a film score, the action is highlighted by the sound of automobile tires on the roads beneath the mountains and the rustling of the leaves in the forest, creating a forlorn mood that is the perfect accompaniment to the unfolding human drama.

Female director Pelin Esmer majored in sociology at an Istanbul university before launching a career in film. “Watchtower” is a work imbued with a humanism that is very rarely seen in American films, either Hollywood or indie. It reminded me of a Chekhov short story as if a Turk had written it. Although the film is definitely an art film, it is also a deeply touching story that reminds you of what was lost when young filmmakers discovered irony. A must-see.

I discovered “Bliss” trawling through Netflix trying to find a movie that is geared to those with more than an IQ of 25. It is a 2007 film directed by Abdullah Oğuz that like “The Watchtower” and “One Candle, Two Candles” deals with the oppression of women in Turkish and Kurdish society. If you are not a Netflix subscriber, you can also watch it on Youtube. Part one is above.

When the film opens, we meet Meryem, a 17-year-old woman who has been violated in some fashion in a rural village in Anatolia, the eastern part of Turkey that is hobbled by “traditional values”. Despite the fact that Meryem is the victim, she is deemed unclean and must kill herself as expiation for her sins. While I have doubts that such a punishment is at all prevalent in Turkey, there are reports of such barbaric treatment of women elsewhere in Muslim society. In 2008 a 13-year-old had been gang-raped in Somalia. Instead of punishing the rapists, she was stoned to death by a mob.

Just before Meryem is forced to hang herself in a makeshift cell, soldiers enter the town since it has become notorious for imposing its own vigilante version of Islam, disregarding—for example—the Koranic stricture against suicide.

In order to expedite the punishment, the town elder, a creep named Ali Riza who is cut from the same cloth as Haji Hemmo, orders his son Cemal to take Meryem to Istanbul where he will take her life. Since Cemal has just returned from serving as a commando in the Turkish military against Kurdish rebels, he presumably can be trusted to carry out another act of brutality.

In Istanbul, he takes Meryem to a bridge and orders her at gunpoint to jump. She asks only one favor, if he would allow her to make a blindfold out of her scarf. Just before she jumps, Cemal decides that her life is more important than a village’s rigid codes and pulls her back from the edge. It also helps that the two have become infatuated with each other on the way to Istanbul. Love conquers all.

From that moment on, the couple are fair game for Ali Reza who dispatches a couple of goons to track them down in order to carry out the punishment. Just one step ahead of the hit squad, Cemal and Maryem are fortunate enough to run into Irfan, a professor who is on an extended leave from the academy and the shallowness of urban life in Istanbul. He invites them to work on his yacht as first mate and cook as he sails from island to island in the Sea of Marmara, an inland body of water that is one of Turkey’s most beautiful natural assets.

Irfan develops a paternal affection for the couple, understanding that they are fugitives—not so much from the law but from those who would wish them harm. Essentially, a three-character drama, the relationships between the three intensifies throughout the film as the village hit men close in on them.

“Bliss” is based on a novel by Zülfü Livaneli, a 68 year old Turk who is also a composer, singer, and politician. In 1997 he performed before a crowd of a half-million people in Ankara, to give you some sense of his popularity.

Wikipedia reports:

During his political career in Ankara, Livaneli presented a legislative proposal for amending Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. The amendment proposed that the concept of “Turkishness” should be replaced with that of the “Turkish nation” which would put an emphasis on the concept of “nation” which, as formulated by the Republic, unites under its umbrella people of different origins. With this amendment, there would no more be a stress on the notion of Turkish race.

It is in the hands of people like Zülfü Livaneli and Jano Rosebiani to lead the transformation of the Middle East and North Africa. As I have stated on previous occasions, it is the artist—and particularly the filmmaker—who is functioning as the real vanguard of social change. The four films under review here will give you a sense of the yearnings of a people to finally make the land that was the birthplace of civilization its crowning glory once again.

January 13, 2014

Turkish break dancing

Filed under: dance,Turkey — louisproyect @ 1:23 pm

December 28, 2013

Ahmet Tonak on the AKP-Gulenist confrontation

Filed under: Islam,Turkey — louisproyect @ 12:10 am

Last night I interviewed Ahmet Tonak, a Marxist economist and long-time activist, about the current political crisis in Turkey that pitted the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against the Gulenist movement led by Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who lives in the United States.

The interview was structured in part as a commentary on points made by Berkeley sociologist Cihan Tugal in an article titled “Towards the End of a Dream? The Erdogan-Gulen Fallout and Islamic Liberalism’s Descent” that appeared in Jadaliyya on December 22nd. Ahmet agreed with some points in the article and disagreed with others.

In addition, Ahmet touched upon the status of the Kurdish struggle that is now facing challenges in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. He concluded with an assessment of the opportunities facing the left in a period when both Islamism and Kemalism in Turkey are on the defensive.

On a technical note, apologies for the poor lighting. Next month I am buying proper lamps for the next time I shoot indoors after dark.

June 14, 2013

Taksim Square in context

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 4:52 pm

This article is divided into two parts. The first is an attempt to understand the historical origins of the ruling party, and particularly its capacity for repression. The second is a video interview with Marxist economist E. Ahmet Tonak, who has been both a scholar and committed activist for four decades. He comments more directly on the Taksim Square protests.

To unravel all the contradictions that led to the explosive confrontation between protestors and cops in Taksim Square this week would probably require us to go back to the origins of the Turkish republic in 1921.

But it is also possible to begin with a traumatic event that is in the memory of most Turks living today, namely the coup of 1980 that was a response to mounting challenges to the status quo by an earlier generation of activists. Kemalism was based on an import-substitution model adopted by many semi-peripheral nations aspiring to break into the top tier of capitalist powers. Among them was Argentina, another country led by a modernizing nationalist—Juan Peron.

In the 1970s Turkey entered into a stormy period marked by the failure of that import-substitution model not that different from Argentina’s of the same time. It revolved around balance of payments difficulties growing out of increasing imports, foreign debt, IMF directives and all the other ills associated with the Washington Consensus. When a powerful left and trade unions stood up to the government, the army stepped in and crushed the mass movement.

The army made a decision early on to exempt Islamic institutions from state terror. In doing so, it was following the model of the Shah of Iran who had developed a partnership with the Imams after Mossadegh was overthrown. Despite some disagreements between the Shah and the clergy over issues such as mosque ownership of land, they formed an uneasy alliance against the left. The same scenario developed in Turkey.

Once the left and the trade union movement were crushed, it provided an opportunity for a fraction of the capitalist class to utilize the opening it provided to take a different approach than that of the Kemalist bourgeoisie that was wedded to state control and monopolies. Hailing from Anatolia and much more religiously observant than the heavy-drinking and heavy-partying Kemalists (I have seen them in action in visits to Izmir), they were able to take advantage of a unorganized workforce and new trading opportunities in the West. These “Anatolian Tigers” were based mainly in the textile business and sought a business climate not that much different than the traditional textile business of the American South until it relocated to East Asia and elsewhere. Using its Islamic bona fides and a willingness to dispense charity in the form of food banks, clinics and free religious schools, the Islamist bourgeoisie began to exercise political power capable of challenging the old guard.

This excerpt from an excellent PBS documentary on the Anatolian Tigers will give you an idea of this rising bourgeoisie’s relationship to its observant workforce:

The first modern Islamist party was formed in 1983. Called the Welfare Party, it was led by Necmettin Erbakan who served as Prime Minister in 1996 to 1997 until ousted by the army. As is typical of the unprincipled character of Islamist parties in Turkey, Erkaban forged a coalition with the Correct Path Party, a rightist Kemalist formation that blended secularism with free-market orthodoxy.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) was formed as a split from the Welfare Party in 2001 by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the former mayor of Istanbul, and Abdullah Gül, who had a PhD in economics and worked in banking. The new party cleverly soft-pedaled the Islamist ideology and stressed its democratic credentials. To many Turks, including the liberal and social democratic intelligentsia, the new party was a breath of fresh air. It promised to break the stranglehold of the Turkish army on politics, to resolve the conflict with the Kurds, and move Turkey closer to the European model if not make it a member of the European Union.

I have vivid recollections of my Turkish language professor at Columbia University telling his class that he intended to vote for Erdoğan in 2007. He was a typical liberal intellectual who had bitter memories of performing military service under bullying Kemalist officers. Against that experience, he saw the AKP as beneficent dispensers of free medical care who would rein in the bullies.

Some Turks remained distrustful. Over 300,000 people demonstrated in Istanbul against the AKP campaign, fearing that it would bring an end to secularism and the unique character of modern Turkey. Among them was my wife’s closest friend, a woman who was as likely to appear in a scarf in public as I was. My in-laws in Turkey were all rock-ribbed Kemalists, including my wife’s parents who moved out of Üsküdar because religious folks from Anatolia were swamping it. It was getting harder and harder to find a restaurant that served alcohol.

Such inconveniences aside, the real shortcomings of the AKP were exactly the same as those of the system it replaced. In January 2007 Hrat Dink, a Turkish-Armenian who advocated reconciliation between the two peoples and human rights in general, was gunned down by an ultraright nationalist. Despite many warnings about the threat to Dink, the cops sat on their hands. When Ramazan Akyürek, the head of intelligence at the time, received word about a plot to kill Dink, he did nothing. Public outrage led to his transfer to a less sensitive position but in early 2012 he got a promotion to a top post in Ankara. So much for AKP concern about human rights.

This is not to speak of the crackdown on journalists and personalities who have only the slightest connection to the Kemalist power elite. In 2010 Turkey was roiled by government charges that a conspiracy named Ergenekon had been uncovered. Supposedly the discredited officer corps of the Kemalist party was plotting a coup. But typical of the wide net spread by the prosecutors was the arrest of a famous transvestite named Sisi, who happened to be doing a documentary called ‘The Women of the Republic”, on the role models of Kemalism in country’s early period.

Sisi was not the only “trannie” to get on the wrong side of the Islamist authorities. In 2008 Bülent Ersoy, a transsexual performer of Ottoman classical music, was a judge on the Turkish version of “American Idol” when she spoke out against the Turkish invasion of Northern Iraq directed against the Kurds—stating that if she was a mother, she would not allow her son to fight. After being charged with the crime of “turning Turks against compulsory military service”, she was found not guilty.

Anticipating Erdoğan’s smear of Taksim Square protestors as being in league with terrorists, he attacked planned trade union May Day demonstrations as being instruments of Ergenekon subversion.

Until very recently Turkey was held up as the “good Muslim” country that could serve as a model for countries that were associated with the Arab Spring, particularly Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood hoped to adopt the same mixture of neoliberal economics and ham-fisted repression that had made Turkey such a “success”. With its 5 percent annual growth rate, its “moderate” commitment to Islamic values, its supposed tolerance for dissent, and most importantly its willingness to support imperialist objectives in the Middle East, it was the West’s poster boy even if it strayed from the consensus by sponsoring flotillas to Gaza.

All that is left in smoldering ruins today, at least for that sector of public opinion that is not likely to be interviewed on “Meet the Press”. Erdoğan is a first-rate bully cut from the same cloth as Mubarak. Given a sufficient amount of “provocation”, he could easily be seen as willing to drown protests in blood.

With respect to the Arab Spring, or what is left of it, Turkey’s relationship to the ongoing events deserves some deeper scrutiny especially in light of Syria rapidly turning into a confrontation allegedly involving super-powers. In his latest article that appeared in the July-August 2012 New Left Review (“Democratic Janissaries?”), Berkeley sociologist Cihan Tuğal takes a close look at Turkey’s involvement with the massive changes taking place in the Middle East.

In the very first uprising that took place in Tunisia, Turkey remained silent. When Egypt followed fast on the heels of Tunisia, Erdoğan advised Mubarak to keep a step ahead of the “exploiters” and “dirty circles” that had dark scenarios in mind for Egypt—not a very encouraging take on matters for someone facing what might amount to a “Turkish Spring” before long.

Ankara was also silent when protests erupted in Bahrain, even when demonstrators were gassed and shot. On March 20, just after Saudi tanks advanced on the mostly Shi’a masses, Erdoğan announced that Turkey and Saudi Arabia “provide an important contribution to regional peace and stability, and exhibit a model cooperation”. Tuğal writes:

Indeed, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu moved to consolidate Turkish relations with Saudi Arabia as the Arab Spring wore on, serving to strengthen the sectarianization—Sunni versus Shia and Alawi—of the region. Ankara was prudently silent about the uprising in Yemen, too, where Saudi and American interests might have been endangered had demands for jobs, living standards and democratization been satisfied. As repression took its toll, the divisions within the ruling tribal elite took on greater salience, eventually pitching tribe against tribe, rather than activists against the dictatorship. Tribal brokerage ultimately led to the removal of President Saleh without any major change in the state apparatus, which was still fit for purpose as far as the Saudis and the Obama Administration were concerned.

Given Turkey’s ostensibly aggressive stance against Bashar al-Assad, it is worth taking a close look at the relationship between the two countries—once again through the lens of Cihan Tuğal.

He points out that a free-market trade agreement between Turkey and Arab states that resembled those found in the West like NAFTA was partially responsible for the revolt against Baathist rule. “Here, the very free-market policies that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had been promoting through the regional Economic and Trade Association had helped to worsen the plight of youth in the run-down agricultural towns, from Daraa in the south to Homs, Hama and Idlib, that would be the centre of the revolt, while a tiny elite had grown spectacularly rich.”

From early on, there were signs that the AKP leadership was willing to sell out the revolution. Tuğal notes:

In early March 2012, Gül was favouring the ‘Yemeni road’ for Syria: Assad should appoint one of his aides, as Saleh had done, and step to one side, leaving the governing structures intact; the notoriously divided Syrian opposition was not yet ready to rule the country. The following week he warned against military intervention, calling for a ‘political solution’ and an expanded ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting in Ankara that would include Russia, thereby ruling out a military option.

Events seem to be catching up with Gül’s Metternichan calculations. The AKP took a gamble on backing the Syrian rebels, expecting perhaps a rapid victory through a combination of their fighting spirit and the willingness of Sunni-ruled states to supply arms sufficient enough to break the back of the Syrian army. However, American intervention was successful in preventing the revolutionaries from obtaining the weapons they needed to take down aircraft or stop a tank in its tracks. With its massive armaments, its support from Russia and Iran, and finally its genocidal appetite for the deaths of combatants and noncombatants alike, the Baathist regime appears capable of staying in power for the foreseeable future.

That being the case, it is no wonder that the AKP—always ready to make a fast buck—is seeing its way to make some war profits at the expense of its hollow Islamist values.


Turkish company supplies diesel to Syria

By Humeyra Pamuk | Reuters – Mon, Jun 3, 2013

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has become an unlikely new source of vital diesel for the Syrian government, according to shipping documents and sources.

Private Turkish oil company Aves, from the Mediterranean port city of Mersin, has loaded seven cargoes of ultra low sulphur diesel in April destined for Syria’s state-controlled port of Banias.

Turkey is not subject to EU sanctions against Syria, however, the trade is a potential embarrassment for Ankara – one of Damascus’ most outspoken critics.

The Turkish foreign ministry declined to comment on the specific matter but reiterated its position on Assad regime.


June 5, 2013

Expropriating the expropriators

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

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