The feelings of a Turk (or a Greek): Mustafa, or the emotional and the political

by Christos Zografos*

An unexpected meeting during a fieldtrip forges connections across the border, stirs historical memories, and stimulates reflections about dispossession, mobilisation and the relevance of the emotional in political ecology.

It’s a June midday, and the sun is burning hot on my head. We have come to the small village of Yeniköy, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Istanbul, to speak to locals who oppose the new, third Istanbul airport project, which will be built right next to their village, and which will spread out upon land they have used for nearly three generations. As reported before in the ENTITLE blog, once built, this would be the largest airport in the world; but its construction requires the conversion of land, 80% of which is forested, including rare wetlands, important drinking water tributaries and ponds that will be either destroyed or filled up with waste.

It takes me time to realise that the sound I hear from the middle-aged, grey-haired man standing amidst a group of ENTITLE project colleagues (who intensely look at me, expecting some sort of a more active reaction from my side) is a “Welcome” in broken Greek. While I hesitantly start replying in Greek and my colleagues explain that Mustafa lives in Yeniköy and opposes the airport, he suddenly opens his arms and grabs me in a deep, asphyxiating but warm embrace. I have no option but to react by embracing him back as strong as I can.

Mustafa and I. Photo by Melissa García Lamarca.
Mustafa and I. Photo by Melissa García Lamarca.

Mustafa explains (in a broken but easy to understand Greek) that his family moved to Yeniköy in 1924, with the population exchange agreed in the Treaty of Lausanne that marked the end of the bloody 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war. It was the last attempt at territorial expansion of the modern Greek state, the “Asia Minor catastrophe”, as it is commonly called in Greece. I remember how my grandfather, who had served in the Greek army at the time, used to tell us stories about the war. He had to run for his life during the very last act of the conflict, the “fall of Smyrna” – today’s Izmir on the western coast of Turkey.

Mustafa tells me how his grandparents came from a village in the north of Greece, where their ancestors had lived for generations. They learned their Turkish only after they were installed in this little village of Turkish Thrace next to the Black Sea, which used to be inhabited mostly by an ethnically Greek population. Mustafa is very emotional about his roots and stays connected to them in several ways, such as by teaching Greek words to other people in Yeniköy.

Greek soldiers retreating in 1922. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Greek soldiers retreating in 1922. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Mustafa is frustrated with the land expropriations for the airport: his grandparents lost their land in Greece and now he and the rest of the village – that is, their descendants – have to lose their land again. But he also feels dispossessed on a different plane. The airport project will take away land full of memories from his childhood. He shows me the magnificent 200-year-old tree under whose shade he and his classmates played and rested during school excursions. The tree will be chopped down because it sits right on the border of the future airport’s terrain. Just as his grandparents three generations ago, on the other side of the border, he is now discriminated: his feelings about a land wrapped in memories are side-lined to make way for a “bigger”, national project.

Christos 3.jpg
Centennial tree outside Yeniköy. Photo by Christos Zografos.

He is also frustrated at the reaction of the authorities: “The Mayor[i] says we shouldn’t speak, because we come from the other side of the border”. On the bus back to Istanbul, I struggle for a while to find out what this reminds me of. After a while, I realise: it reminds me of “The Foreigner”, a song by the semi-cult, 90s Greek band “Winter Swimmers”[ii]. It speaks of an – obviously – Greek Muslim, or “Turk”, as colloquially called in Greece, who laments over his wife having left him and her work as a tobacco collector in a village somewhere in Greek Thrace, to go to Salonica with another man. The Turk is frustrated: people in the village tell their wedding-age daughter that her mother is a whore. He decides to go to Salonica and convince his wife to return. His trip is to no avail. At the sight of his wife’s gorgeous new boyfriend he fails miserably to even get to talk to her. Post-event, he blames his luck: “Even those knavish policemen are on his side / Because I’m a foreigner and poor / And he is Greek and master”.

The gendered undertones of the song aside, it’s intriguing how the experience of discrimination makes a fool of the boundaries of space and time: Mustafa, his grandparents, and the song’s Turk all share an emotional loss and then have to face an authority (be it Greek or Turkish), which sanctions that loss by making them feel irrelevant for society’s broader projects. This reminds me of what Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou say about dispossession[iii], be it of property, land, citizenship or voice: that beyond losing material belongings, dispossession is about losing a belonging to the world. Precisely, my experience working with farmers facing land expropriation in rural Spain is that one of the things most difficult for them to come to terms with, is the feeling of failing their ancestors by being unable to keep the land those ancestors had shed blood and sweat toiling for.

But just as those farmers, Mustafa doesn’t give up: those same emotional connections that are hurt also animate him to resist and be politically active. “We must do something… what would our grandparents say?”. Perhaps unsurprisingly so: as Julie Nelson explains, action is more premised on motivation than reason, and emotions, imagination, narrative, socialization, and bodily activity are crucial for energising motivation. Emotions stand in the way of capital accumulation and are also relevant for understanding mobilisation and environmental conflict. Perhaps it is time for political ecology to delve a little bit deeper into the study of the emotional in the political[iv].

[i] Although Mustafa agreed, I am not sure if the correct translation for the word he used in Turkish is “mayor” or some upper civil servant in a decision-making position, to whom opponents to the airport project protested at some point.

[ii] Χειμερινοι Κολυμβητες. ‘O Ξένος’ (1991) [Summer Swimmers. ‘The Foreigner’].

[iii] Obviously, one should not assume that the Turk’s wife mentioned in the song is to be seen as property, which he previously possessed and then lost. However, he can be seen as someone whose feelings of loss are ignored by a discriminative authority.

[iv] For some attempts at doing this see: Singh, N. M. (2013). The affective labor of growing forests and the becoming of environmental subjects: Rethinking environmentality in Odisha, India. Geoforum47, 189-198. And: Sultana, F. (2011). Suffering for water, suffering from water: emotional geographies of resource access, control and conflict. Geoforum42(2), 163-172.

*Christos Zografos is a researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science & Technology (ICTA) of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain, and a Visiting Lecturer at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. He is a co-ordinator for the ENTITLE project.

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