Nefes: Notes on Breath

“Not like a theft, not like a sudden assault—vast occupations do not take place like that, abruptly; they are the consequence of long-term work, as you know.

. . .

WAVE YOUR ARMS AND HANDS WHILE POINTING TO THE PINE TREE

FOR INSTANCE, POINTING TO THE PINE TREE

HUG IT

(LET THE PINE TREE BECOME YOUR VERY OWN LIFE).” —Sevim Burak, Ford Mach 1, 39, 49

  

In yet another tired neighborhood in Istanbul, exhausted by the construction of the Bosphorus Bridge in 1973, an old woman from Erenköy, in a Ford Mach 1, laments her vanishing life and her memories as they are embodied in a pine tree. Fragile, distraught, and chagrined, she projects the haunting fear that she endures in the face of her neighborhood’s brutal transformation onto an American racing car, a Ford Mach 1—a metallic memory-destroyer, a blood-thirsty “monster” with a “hacksaw-shaped tail,” a shady, creepy character stealthily overwhelming her. The way out of this possession, for the old woman, is to hug the remaining pine trees in her neighborhood—a last resort for survival, for breath.

Nefes is a Turkish word with Arabic and Syriac roots, which I crudely translate as “breath,” as title and metaphor for the framework of the Gezi Uprising. Nefes carries material pertinence, as respiratory capacity, as well as rich philosophical connotations, especially in creatively reflecting on the correlation between the political and politics. The task here is not to reiterate the post-colonial strategy of constructing local representations in new ways so as to convey the aura of authencity, or to reproduce the fantasy of the dissident as noble savage and of the uprising as an exotic repertoire of knowledge. I suggest to use nefes as both conceptual and ethnographic tool in order to reflect on a biologically, ecologically, sexually, and politically marked affective bond between theorizing, life, and action. Rather than relegating this respiratory force to the realm of transcendantal forms, to metaphoric representations that castrate materiality and affect, or to Schmittian exercises that seek to retrieve the political as the excess of an apparatus that produces the state and its enemy as a ghostly play of mirror images, I hold my breath and start with a pause.

A concept with many implications, nefes means to inhale oxygen into the lungs and to expel it; to inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen through the leaves; to control the outgoing air when producing sounds; to express; to have a rest by sitting against the wind; to momentarily and elusively endure difficulties; a time-span; and the longevity of conversations.[1] It is a respiratory life-force interrupted and intermittently stolen by commodification. Thus, breathing is not apolitical.

Against the background of decompression sickness, of a sinking into the abyss, on May 31, 2013, tens of thousands of people convulsively gasping for air rushed to the streets, to be met with water cannons, tear gas, chemicals, and plastic bullets. Read the graffiti: “This gas is good shit, mate!” Picture the public marches and peaceful sit-ins where tens of tousands, an unprecendeted mix of people, protested the war and its lords after the Lice Massacre that resulted in the murder of a young Kurdish man, shot dead from behind while protesting the contruction of an enormous military post in his village, a painfully common death in Southeastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan). Read the banner being waved during the protest in Istanbul the following day: “The Kurdish Issue for Beginners: Lice.” Follow the LGBTTQ communities chanting and dancing together with other Istanbulis in the city center, some say in an unprecedented number of forty thousand, during the Pride March that turned the streets into a festival zone. Chant the slogan: “Where are you, lover? I’m here, lover!” Imagine thousands of people, including atheists and non-practicing Muslims, following the call of the Anti-Capitalist Muslims (an important group within the resistance) and sitting down on the pavement to break the Ramadan fast and share food on the city center’s main avenue while facing armored water cannons and riot police. Consider the entwined history of desecration in the city center, which has left plundered Armenian, Greek, Jewish, and Levantine buildings with the ghoulish façades behind particle-board covers, and check out the graffiti: “Oppression started in 1453,” in reference to the invasion of Constantinople in the fifteenth century by the Ottomans. Think of the March of Neighbourhoods for Justice, where thousands of people from the shanty-towns, the elderly and children, seized the streets to protest their forced uprooting and shouted: “Shopping malls are yours, trees are ours!” Picture the neighborhood forums held in the many different public parks. Imagine the many temporary markets in those parks, where people exchanged food, clothing, books, music, and know-how, for free. Think of the compost heaps and small-scale fruit orchards in some of those parks. Oxygen is highly regarded! Laugh about the incessant humor on the streets and the digital media, talking back to oppression and mitigating its brutality. Think of the cats, dogs, and birds of the city retreating into some corner unknown to humans, waiting for the gas to disappear; of people digging graves in parks for the street animals killed by the harsh chemicals.

Reflecting on the public life of the uprising in Turkey requires an effort to grasp the political, against accounts that would constrain and locate it in correlations, which feed on statis and stability. The political emerges in the everyday life of the uprising, not as an excess of an imaginary futuristic revolution, nor as a negative and circular distruption of politics, nor as a structural failure, but as a moment of alarm, shock, concern, and creativity, and as a pause to catch one’s breath. I suggest to think with nefes, following Benjamin (1968, 255), who inspires us to let ourselves be moved by streams of consciousness and instances (1968: 255), and in conversation with Stengers’s “ecology of practices,” which refuses to privilege a transcendental (revolutionary and human-centered) perspective on the basis of which all other actions must be judged.[2] Nefes, as it reveals itself as an ordinary, material, unworldly, and collective force, may serve as a haunting reminder against a form of political praxis, a Ford Mach 1, which, in its relentless aggression, is responsible for plunder, displacement, massacre, and the erasure of memory. Tens of thousands became the tree that the old woman was hugging.

Notes

[1] See Uludağ (2002), Nişanyan (2009), and Cebecioğlu (2009).

[2] Benjamin (1968, 255); Stengers (2005).

References

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, 253–64, Harcourt, Brace, and World: New York, 1968.

Sevim Burak, Ford Mach 1, Yapı Kredi Yayınları: Istanbul, 2003.

Ethem Cebecioğlu, Tasavvuf Terimleri ve Deyimleri Sözlüğü, Ağaç Kitabevi Yayınları: Istanbul, 2009.

Sevan Nişanyan, Sözlerin Soyağacı: Çağdaş Türkçenin Etimolojik Sözlüğü, Alfa Yayin Grubu: Istanbul, 2009.

Isabelle Stengers, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” Cultural Studies Review 11, no. 1 (2005): 183–96.

Süleyman Uludağ, Tasavvuf Terimleri Sözlüğü, Kabalcı Yayınları: Istanbul, 2002.