Shadows of the 1980 Coup and the Syrian War: Resisting in Antakya

“Here the resistance is unlike Istanbul,” said Ercan, a young Arab Alevi man from Antakya, a town in South Turkey that has experienced the repercussions of the civil war in Syria at close range. “New agendas emerged from the Istanbul Gezi Park protests, and new frameworks have developed through the direct democracy forums ever since. . . . Here, it’s not like that. Here the resistance expresses itself through the Alevi–Sunni difference, in sectarian terms. We say, ‘Let’s discuss other things,’ but it’s almost impossible.”

We were walking in the Armutlu neighbourhood, the focal point of the Antakya protests that predated the Gezi Park resistance in Istanbul, as well as being accelerated by it. Onur pointed at the Military Complex (Askeriye) separating this Arab Alevi neighborhood from a Sunni inhabitation area. He explained that the Military Complex had been built right after the 1980 military coup. He said the objective was to separate the Alevi and Sunni residential parts of the town and to control them better hence. He added that Armutlu was isolated and specifically targeted by the state during the 1980 military coup. Two people were killed in Armutlu in that period, and anxiety has seeped into the area ever since. “Every child who has grown up in this neighborhood has heard stories of the terror spread here after the coup,” said Ercan. “Everyone knows of someone in their family who was arrested in that period, for being involved in left-wing activities. It’s that feeling, the memory of the oppression after 1980 that brings the young people onto the streets now. The imprint of the period after the coup is carved throughout this neighborhood.”

As we walked past the low-built cement structures that composed the Armutlu neighborhood, we deciphered the graffiti on the walls. “Some of this predates the Gezi protests,” explained Ercan while pointing at writing that read, “No to imperialist war with Syria” and “Women don’t want war.” The Arab Alevi residents of Armutlu positioned themselves against the Turkish government’s pro-rebel stance in the Syrian civil war, as they worried about their minoritized position as an Alevi minority vis-à-vis a Sunni majority in Turkey. Another wall writing further along read, “We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers,” illustrating, in Ercan’s interpretation, the Arab Alevis’ sympathies for Ataturk and the secularism he introduced to Turkey. Numerous writings targeted Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and were drawn in the period following the Gezi protests. One such graffiti read, “Tayyip take your mother and go!” flippantly turning topsy-turvy a remark made by Erdogan to a farmer in Mersin to “Take your Mother and go!” after the farmer pressed him about what would happen to them.

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Photo by Emrah Gokdemir.

But most of the graffiti addressed the killing of Abdullah Comert and Ali Ismail Korkmaz, two young men from Antakya who took part in the anti-government protests in the period precipitated by Gezi Park in Istanbul. Posters pasted on gray, unpainted cement structures read, “The Account of Abdullah Comert will be asked.” In every corner, young people had sprayed the inscription “Ali Ismail Korkmaz is immortal.” The street where Abdullah was killed, hit on his head by a tear gas capsule thrown by police during the Armutlu protests that followed Gezi Park, was renamed after him. And an impromptu memorial was created by Armutlu residents in the street corner where Abdullah fell with his framed photos and posters (as well as those of Ali Ismail), pots of mersin plants used at grave sites, and a bowl of oil used to light candles for the deceased who had been turned into martyrs. A banner reading “We haven’t forgotten; we will never forget” hung over the memorial, as did a poster reading “Ataturk, we are in your path,” inscribing the meaning of the deaths in the symbolic-political iconographic world of Arab Alevis of Antakya. Three women sat on the sidewalk beside the Abdullah memorial. Ercan explained that neighbourhood residents did not leave this memorial alone. “There is someone waiting at the memorial twenty-four hours of the day,” he explained.

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Photo by Emrah Gokdemir.

Further along into the neighborhood, Ercan showed me Abdullah Comert’s family home, noting that his parents had been visited far and wide after his killing. A twenty-five-kilometer human chain, formed of people holding hands, had been created on a weekend following Abdullah’s death between Samandag and Antakya, where a red carnation was passed from hand to hand to be given to Abdullah’s mother in the end. Abdullah’s mum, too, had been turned into an icon for the community, and his death (as well as that of Ali Ismail) reminded the Arab Alevis’ of their marginalization and feelings of threat and insecurity, recalling the period after 1980, and reignited. Ercan said that fear and anxiety had spread through the Armutlu neighborhood again, as well as throughout Antakya. “Can you believe it?” he said. “Abdullah was killed in this narrow street by the police! And we thought our streets were safe; we thought the police’s tear gas tanks [TOMAs] could not enter them. We told ourselves we would run into buildings if the area was taken over by police. But right in this corner Abdullah was killed. Now everyone is really worried. It’s as if we are re-living the period after the 1980 coup.”

Chalk writing on a pink wall read, “This is Armutlu; there is no exit from here,” written as a threat to police who might try to enter it. While the protests in Antakya made references to Gezi Park, using some of the terms and symbols spread out from Istanbul, here the resistance took other sedimentations of history on board: the war in Syria and the Turkish government’s positionality, the long history of the marginalization of Turkey’s Alevis, the imprint of the 1980 coup on the left-wing community, and complex social relations with Sunnis. Every corner of streets leading into Armutlu were blocked off with barricades created by the residents, barriers made of cast-off pieces of metal, wooden planks, and even old refrigerators and washing machines. One graffiti reads, “No pasaran!”

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Photo Emrah Gokdemir.