Eray Çaylı

The Sivas Science and Culture Center: A Place that Benefits No One

Kemal Taylan Abatan spoke with Eray Çaylı about the idea of a memorialization initiative for the Madımak Massacre. The fourth Pir Sultan Abdal Festival was held in Sivas in 1993, and included conferences, discussions, speeches and a variety of religious rituals that brought together thousands of Alevis and many Alevi organizations. The main guest of the festivities was Aziz Nesin, who had published his Turkish translation of Slaman Rushdi’s Satanic Verses, which the Council of Ministers had banned. Following Nesin’s arrival in Sivas, on July 2, marauding groups of Islamists gathered in front of the Madımak Hotel, where guests invited to the festivities were staying. The government in Ankara was informed of the mob of tens of thousands of people calling for the killing of the people in the Madımak Hotel, yet it took no deterrent action. Ultimately, those in Sivas to attend the festivities and who were staying at the Madımak Hotel were massacred. Thirty-three people, including intellectuals, writers and artists, were killed when the Islamist mob set the hotel on fire. The subsequent trial saw most of the perpetrators go unpunished while the families of the victims never believed justice would be served. The Madımak Hotel—the site of the massacre—was expropriated in 2010 and some parts of the building were used for the newly established Sivas Science and Culture Center. Below, Erday Çaylı speaks about the establishment of the center and what it means for efforts for remembrance of the Madımak Massacre.

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Participants of the fourth Pir Sultan Abdal Festival who lost their lives.

Why is it important to remember and memorialize grave human rights abuses?

The answer to that is hidden in the human part of the phrase human rights abuses. Violence perpetrated or supported by those with political and economic power has long been legitimized by the question of who the human in question is and who that human is not. This concerns the practices of remembrance and memorialization in two respects: in terms of the view of the topic and view of the subject. Firstly, those who can be made the topic of remembrance, or memorialization, are (re)humanized in the public eye. Thus, it’s possible to recognize them as victims of human rights abuses. Secondly, the practices of remembrance and memorialization can be mediators in this process of re-humanization to the extent that they can be implemented by victims of the violation and/or their socio-political heirs. In other words, the importance of remembrance and memorialization is related to the questions of what is memorialized and who is doing the memorialization.

How did the idea to undertake work for the memorialization of the Madımak Massacre in Sivas come about? Who was involved?

The idea was actually first expressed just a week after the massacre at a press conference in Istanbul, by a group of participants that included representatives of professional organizations, trade unions, and left-leaning political parties. Just five or six weeks before the massacre in Sivas, there had been great repercussions in Turkey when the house of a Turkish-origin family was set on fire in Solingen, Germany. It led to widespread public comparisons between Germany and Turkey, particularly concerning the connotations of Germany’s experiences in remembrance of the Holocaust, having dedicated a museum to it. Later, in the early 2000s, Alevi organizations in Europe and the Alevi Federation Germany (AGD) in particular began to take more initiative for the remembrance of the Sivas Massacre. Considering that it was yet another example of the oppression and violence that has targeted Alevis for the entirety of the history of the Republic of Turkey that prompted many members of the Alevi community to move to Europe in the first place, it was natural for them to take such initiative. The demand for the Madımak Hotel to be turned into a museum became synonymous with commemorations at the time. The hotel had been put up for sale and the AGD’s idea to buy it in order to convert it into a museum was evaluated by those connected to the federation. But there was the idea that doing so could lead to the exoneration of the state tradition that was responsible for the massacre. They said it was a requirement of the responsibility of the authorities that the current representatives of the state take action to expropriate the hotel and turn it into a museum, so the idea was abandoned. This was one of the five demands representatives of the Alevi community formally communicated to the state at the meetings called the “Alevi workshops” held in the late 2000s. In addition to the Ulucanlar and Diyarbakır prisons, the Madımak Hotel became one of the three places on the government agenda to be transformed into museums in the process of the state’s so-called openings. Renovations that began quietly in early 2011, following the closure and relocation of the commercial businesses in the building in 2010, sparked rumors that the building was being converted into a museum. When the renovations finished, though, it turned out that the hotel had been turned into an institution called the Sivas Special Provincial Administration Science and Culture Center. Although the institution’s name has no trace of memorialization, half of the ground floor is dedicated as a Remembrance Corner for the express purpose of memorialization and it can be visited free of charge during the normal working hours of the institution in the building.


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How would you describe the impact—political, social, and personal—that you expect the Sivas Science and Culture Center remembrance process to create? To put it another way, whom do you think it addresses and who wants to be addressed?

To start with the second question, on paper, the Sivas Special Provincial Administration Science and Culture Center addresses everyone. Its doors are open to all. That being said, it seems its purpose is to mediate the updating of the profile of what has long been regarded as a good citizen. This is the profile of a citizen who perceives every calamity in Turkey as being the work of so-called external forces or foreign powers—although the exact social segment that corresponds to that which is external or foreign in question can constantly change—and because of this is united in the view that the murderers are pawns in the games of these outside forces or powers and so doesn’t make a distinction between them and those who are murdered, thus accepting that everyone is some type of victim, that the public sphere is the domain of the state, and accuses those who draw attention to the inequality of destroying national unity and integrity, and moreover sees no harm in transferring all their representative social and political power to the state. This is how it’s been for a long time. Now, though, the update to this profile is that we don’t cover up violent events—including those that involve the authorities—we open them up to discussion, respect everyone’s opinions, open up the places where these events took place and also listen to criticism from visitors on an individual basis. This is what I’ve observed in my work on spaces. There’s actually quite a bit of tolerance for criticism, reactions, and other opinions to the extent that they remain at the individual level. This, of course, is a position that legitimizes similar spaces. But when it comes to those who want to express and, moreover, implement a perspective on such events and places socially, collectively, and through the organization, that’s where the attitude changes. Yet we see that the topic—the space—still isn’t completely successful in addressing or creating this profile of the current version of a good citizen. Situations frequently arise that question and spur interrogation of the profile that the space tries to create and/or address, particularly at events of collective remembrance such as those held on anniversaries. Moreover, we see that the space—this science and culture center—emerged as a place that can’t hold any use for anyone as it strives to implement the understanding of the state, that it stands at an equal distance to everybody, which has long been the presumption of official discourse and practice. For example, during my work in Sivas, I observed that there were many dissatisfied with the execution of the space, even among the Great Unity Party (BBP) sympathizers. Therefore, the political, social, and personal impact the space creates can be encapsulated as the success of the demand calling on the state to turn the Madımak Hotel into a museum, which has been at the center of the campaign since its first years, and nothing of its name makes it a museum. This is to such the extent that the demand has forced the current representatives of the state to flesh out their attitudes and comments on the massacre, and to do so in the place known today as the Sivas Science and Culture Center.

How would you evaluate the conditions in Turkey for remembrance and memorialization? What have been and currently are the difficulties you’ve encountered and what has facilitated the process?

Although this is a very broad question, I can answer it briefly, at least in the context of state-sponsored/sanctioned violence. The main issue ahead is to develop a tradition of remembrance that can both speak to the universal and take the specific features of the context as a starting point. Well-known and highly problematic models for memorials like those in Germany still define the horizons of remembrance projects of even progressive circles. Among those with slightly more diverse references, models from Latin America can gain prominence. Still, those that deal with remembrance solely on the question of what tend to overlook the importance of whom. Focusing on the what falls short of developing a radically critical perspective on democratization that appears to have been achieved when a human rights abuse can be memorialized upon meeting the necessary conditions. But new violations can soon arise—and often do simultaneously—thus the cycle continues unbroken. In my opinion, though, what needs to be done is to evaluate the field of remembrance as a field of social organization and collective subjectivation based on the uniqueness of the context in which it occurs. This way, possible future violations can be prevented, because it’s not the given models that don’t allow human rights abuses to occur but organized and subjectivized societies and collectives. Since organization and subjectivation involve both pragmatism and symbolism, I think that high symbolic actions such as those of remembrance are particularly essential here. So, returning to the question, I think what is difficult and what is easy are the same. While it may seem like a shortcoming that the given models continue to largely determine our horizons, it also indicates that the field of remembrance remains a very amenable, open space for original organizing and subjectivation activities.

How would you evaluate the relationship between the search for justice and the efforts for remembrance and memorialization? Could such efforts play a role in the processes needed to ensure justice? If so, can you expand on that a bit?

If I continue with my previous answer, I see remembrance as a field that makes it possible to undertake symbolic and systemic processes together. I don’t think there’s a need to elaborate on the symbolic quality, since it’s more obvious. The systemic nature of memorialization—which as we see can be overlooked vis-a-vis its symbolic nature—is such that, just as in conventional processes of seeking justice—e.g., the courts—memorialization is a field that includes initiatives, correspondence, interviews, and negotiations, and so, therefore, requires significant organization. In this sense, memorialization isn’t only a parallel process in support of the search for justice from the outside but also a field that contains many elements that can feed this search methodically and overlap with it, which is why I think more studies on seeking conventional justice and memorialization should be conducted side by side.

Looking at examples from Turkey and from further afield, how are our collective memory and memorialization efforts considered today? What do you think about the future of the field?

An important track in the future of memorialization and remembrance today is the ability to tackle issues that seem unrelated but have a common underlying cause. As a more concrete example, the correlations that can be made between an issue such as climate change and events in which human rights abuses occur more visibly, such as the Sivas Massacre, are currently getting increasingly more attention in memorialization studies. The correlation between these seemingly unrelated issues is that what lies behind them is the violent histories that organically connect the projects of capitalism, the concept of the nation-state, and colonialism. This is why I think that communities that have been subjected to human rights abuses and that have organized against them have much to say, many actions they can develop, and many experiences they can share on a subject like climate change. I think correlations like these will play an increasingly central role in memorialization and remembrance initiatives.

Thursday, June 2, 2022