Monday, March 23, 2020

Christopher Houston's "Istanbul, City of the Fearless"

Christopher Houston is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney. He is the author of Kurdistan: Crafting of National Selves and Islam, Kurds and the Turkish Nation-State.

Houston applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Istanbul, City of the Fearless: Urban Activism, Coup d'Etat, and Memory in Turkey, and reported the following:
Page 99 in Istanbul, City of the Fearless comes near the end of a chapter describing the rich and interlocking repertoire of leftist and rightist activists' protest tactics in Istanbul in the late 1970s. The chapter is titled 'Inscription, Sound, and Violence', and it explores political groups' graffiti, posters, slogans, songs, guerilla speeches, the occupying of space, and the violent breaking of other groups' occupying of those places. One sobering aspect of these activities was that conflict over the affordances of the city sometimes led to violence unto death, and the chapter concludes by exploring certain perceptions of death and dying expressed by the revolutionary movements in obituaries and family statements.

The page 99 'test' works exceptionally well for Istanbul, City of the Fearless. However there is a poignancy to its relevance. On it readers will find examples of the death notices written by comrades for slain activists and published in factions' newspapers and journals. In one obituary the text reads: 'While fighting militantly and sacrificially against the oligarchy, our heroic brother KEMAL KARACA was treacherously and deceitfully struck down. Let your memory lead our struggle, let your life be our honor! Once again, in your execution: we saw ‘treason and fire.’ Once again, a thousand times again, we condemn provocation.' In the obituaries we see how the city is constituted as a political crucible for for a struggle against fascism and imperialism, and the revolutionary cause as demanding sacrifice.

Page 99's concern to describe the meaning and description of violence and death as given by political actors themselves is illustrative of the book in another way. Istanbul, City of the Fearless is a phenomenological exploration of activism, a study whose first concern is the perception and experience of urban activists in the city. The book describes and analyzes phenomena such as the built environment, militant bodies, movement around the city, places, moods, ethics, violence, ideologies and factions as perceived and remembered by participants. Thus page 99 reveals in miniature what it was like for militants to dwell in Istanbul in the years 1974-1983, years ruptured by the 1980 military coup that brought a terrible new meaning to urban phenomena.
Learn more about Istanbul, City of the Fearless at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue