MESA Banner
Literature as Resistance: Social Unrest and Catastrophe

Session III-14, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • In his 2019 Washington Post article, “From Turkey’s bursting prisons, literature breaks out”, Kareem Fahim writes, “As surely as dissidents have been locked up throughout Turkey’s turbulent modern history, their words — poems, memoirs, fiction and even screenplays — have managed to break out.” But even before the government’s “frenetic” crackdown put thousands of people behind bars, setting off “a sullen publishing boom”, Maureen Freely had examined the prison imaginary in Turkish literature, likening Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak’s brushes with the Turkish law to the prison experiences of their left-wing predecessors, Nâzım Hikmet and Orhan Kemal. More recently, Freely wrote in the introduction to the English-language edition of Dawn (2019), a collection of short stories by Selahattin Demirtaş, an imprisoned human rights lawyer and the former co-chair of Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, that “running alongside Turkey’s grand tradition of writing resistance is a grand tradition of reading it.” Yet, Turkey’s Kurdish writers have far more often encountered censorship of their prison narratives due to their choice of language and content considered by prison authorities or publishers to be overly provocative. As a result, memoirs such as Mehmet Uzun’s Tu (1985) and Leyla Zana’s Writings from Prison (1999) were published outside of Turkey and only much later made available to a Turkish-language audience. In the last twenty years, however, as more Kurdish writers have successfully navigated Turkey’s fraught literary publishing industry, two of them have secured a mainstream domestic audience for their prison narratives: Burhan Sönmez, with İstanbul İstanbul (2015), and Kemal Varol, with Kara Sis (2021). In this paper, I examine these early and later works’ most salient narratological features as well as the varying socio-political contexts and publishing landscapes in which they were produced, distributed, and read. In articulating Sönmez and Varol’s “formula for success” and its implications, I employ multiple methodologies: close reading, qualitative analysis of reception discourse, and direct interviews with the authors and publishers. I conclude that Sönmez and Varol have been deemed more palatable by their (Turkish) publishers in part because they do not see themselves as writing for the (Kurdish) people, let alone the struggle. Their emphasis instead on the primacy of the imagination and the importance about the world as they themselves see it, unimpeded by ideology, should not be interpreted as regrettable assimilation into the dominant literary culture, but rather, as evidence of their measured embrace of post-capitalist individualism.
  • Conspiracy theories have long been analyzed as fixtures of Middle Eastern political and cultural discourse, saturating news sources and Internet memes alike and problematizing the borders between truth and fiction, propaganda and popular critique. An overlooked aspect of this paranoid epistemic genre, however, is its connections to actual imperial conspiracies that have unfolded in the region. In this paper, I investigate one aspect of that connection as a step towards a genealogy of conspiratorial culture in the colonial (especially British and American) and Arab public sphere. This paper contends with allegations of conspiracy or treachery levied against minorities or hyphenated identities in Egypt and Israel during the first half of the twentieth century. In the wake of rising nationalist sentiments and the exposure of colonial and anti-colonial plots, minorities in Egypt and Israel began to be seen as always potentially conspiratorial, a perception that continues to shape conspiracy culture in the Middle East to this day. The paper takes Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed, The Pessoptimist (1974) and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960) as its case-studies, drawing parallels to the clandestine operations that dominated the headlines of this period. In particular, I discuss the Lavon Affair of 1954 and postcolonial criticism of colonial Alexandria’s “cosmopolitanism” to highlight how imperial conspiracies by British agents, the Mossad, and underground Zionist groups contributed to a turn in popular Egyptian media rhetoric during the 50s and 60s against minority identities such as Coptic Christians, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, and ethnic foreigners (“mutamassirun”). I also argue that secret plots of this kind often take advantage of ideals such as “cosmopolitanism” to further Zionist or imperial ends, strengthening an existing perception of minority identities as inherently suspect and foreclosing a legitimately cosmopolitan future. Further, I illustrate how nascent nationalist ideologies, such as the Free Officers in Egypt, were eager to use the exposure of these conspiracies to frame minority identities, such that inhabiting an identity that was not coterminous with strict nationalist religious and ethnic criteria became increasingly fraught, and ultimately resulted in the expulsion of most Jews and foreigners by the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime after the Suez Crisis (1956). The boundaries between legitimate fears of colonial interference and xenophobic, sectarian, or antisemitic sloganeering grow increasingly blurry in this period, as legitimate geopolitical and epistemic concerns become (through nefarious intention or historical accident) mixed with scapegoating and discriminatory political action.
  • Originally written as a novel by Turkish journalist Can Dündar while being held in solitary confinement in Silivri Prison, #WeAreArrested documents Dündar’s story of imprisonment after publishing footage of the Turkish Intelligence Service smuggling weapons for the Islamist army in Syria. This paper examines how the theatrical performance and the reviews written for the stage adaptation of Can Dündar’s autobiographical novel #WeAreArrested (2019), co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Arcola Theater in London, produce, circulate, and shape human rights narratives about Turkey. Elaborating on the meaning-making process, this study combines discourse analysis and close reading of the performance and the theatrical reviews published about #WeAreArrested. By doing so, it seeks to refine the existing understanding of how the British theater and the media represent the political conflict, divide, and dissent in Turkey, and how the theater event, co-constructed by theater reviews in the public sphere shapes the human rights narratives about Turkey and functions as a (controversial) humanitarian intervention. I argue that the performance and the British theatrical reviews about #WeAreArrested function as a paratext (Gérard Genette [1997]) of Dündar’s story of political dissent, and as a source of public opinion and an interlocutor for the audience about Turkey’s government and the political divide. The reviews published in blogs, online theater websites, newspapers, and magazines co-construct Dündar’s narrative of exile and imprisonment by disclosing the real-life struggles of Dündar, offering political remarks with regard to the political landscape in Turkey. Similarly, both the performance and the critics publicize, document, and archive Dündar’s version of the real-life events, which serve as a counter-narrative against the accusations by the Turkish government that Dündar belongs to a terrorist organization. On one hand, this documentation and publicization of the theater event act as a humanitarian intervention since the British theater-makers and critics call attention to the Turkish government’s oppression of the journalists. On the other hand, it is problematic that the production and the critics’ commentaries originate from a Western standpoint and tend to remain Euro-centric. Finally, the analysis seeks to illuminate how beliefs about politics in Turkey are constructed and circulated in a co-creation of meaning from a Western standpoint, and the aesthetic, the discursive, and the political are intertwined in various ways.
  • While formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab Gulf countries may be new, the two locales have long been intertwined, both through metonymies of development, and through economies of migration. These entanglements first date to the migration of Palestinian teachers and laborers to the Gulf following the Balfour Declaration of 1917, accelerating through the 1930s and the tragedy of the 1948 Nakba. They have continued, however, in the ethos of expansion via administrative and technological transformation. These transformations are common to Zionist Israel as a settler colonialist state ‘making the desert bloom,’ and to the Gulf countries as petro-capitalist enclaves which through processes of state formation have also, in their own way, thoroughly transformed the lived experience of the desert. Considering Palestine/Israel and the Arab Gulf comparatively, this paper thematizes the neologism of “solastalgia,” first coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, as a point of entry into a kaleidoscopic view of ecological catastrophe and loss of home across sites of sociopolitical privilege and deprivation. Albrecht defines solastalgia as feelings of nostalgia and fear for a home that is slowly lost to irrevocable, anthropogenic climate change effects. However, while solastalgia frequently refers to loss of home through climate effects alone, this paper transposes the term to encompass the affective experience of loss of home through any factor related to the sources of climate change – that is, to irrevocable (and inherently anthropogenic) forms of petro-capitalist and settler-colonial development. In this way, the paper reads the slow yet violent destruction of the beloved landscape(s) of home and resulting solastalgia as an affective texture common to Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab Gulf writing. The feelings-of-body generated by the ongoing settler colonial project in the West Bank, as articulated in the memoiristic, non-fiction writing of Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadah, thus emerge as eerily familiar to those of legendary Miteb al-Hadhdhal in ‘Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet. However, given the general invisibility of such processes within sites of privilege, it argues that Israeli author Assaf Gavron’s Hydromania necessarily resorts to futuristic dystopia in order to craft similar feelings-of-body so as to render solastalgia imaginable for beneficiary groups in beneficiary societies. Together, these texts paint a picture of the human form facing unfolding ecological catastrophe as the ultimate, indeed defining late liberal affect.
  • This paper discusses the political writings, mostly in the form of poetry, of Palestinian intellectual Shafiq Habib. Habib is much less known in wide literary and cultural circles than many of his contemporaries, including such poets as the late Samih al-Qasim and Mahmoud Darwish, and authors such as the late Emile Habiby. Yet Habib himself views them as colleagues and friends, and likens his own literary and political contributions to theirs. He was the object of political and judicial persecution by the Israeli government, yet was eventually cleared of all charges and even awarded a governmental prize for his poetry. In this paper, we discuss his work within the context of Palestinian poetry and literature in general and evaluate his status among Palestinian intellectuals in light of the themes and style of his writings as well as his universalist, Communist world views espoused in his literary work. We argue that his poetry reflects important continuities in Palestinian culture. On the one hand, he locates himself within a poetic genealogy that begins in the medieval past, continues to the Palestinian Nahḍa, the communist literature of the 1950s, and the literature of resistance of the 1960s. At the same time, his poetry reflects the new contexts that came into being in Israel/Palestine during the late 1980s and the 1990s when the first Intifāḍa inspired new ideas about poetry, resistance and tradition and when Palestinian writers had to deal with new forms of oppression by the Israeli regime. We analyse the shifts in his poetry between different temporalities, forms, and genres, paying heed to two moments in his career: his struggle with Israeli censorship during the 1990s and his latest Diwan, Ma ʾamarra al-ʿinab ('How bitter the grapes are').