Interview with Attila Durak

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Eastern Europe, Interviews

Attila Durak, photographer

For almost 100 years, the system here has been trying to create a nation, one nation that represses, that says we are one Turkey. For the Ottoman Empire, religion was the base; ethnicity was not important. When Italy was formed, only eight percent of Italian people spoke Italian. From that base population, they created Italy. It was the same story with France. So Turkey, too, tried to create a nation of Turks. They say we are a mosaic. That means different colors, but they’re not touching because there is cement in between. The Turkish culture is very old, going back 10,000 years. All this time there has been a mixing of cultures. So this metaphor is wrong. It doesn’t define the Anatolian land. A better metaphor is ebru. We invented this art, of colors swirling on paper. The fluidity of this metaphor better explains us. It is the metaphor with which we can start to talk.

The European Union helped a lot by pushing us to change some laws. Kurdish people now have the right to educate themselves in Kurdish. They are openly singing on stage. Ten years ago they couldn’t. In 2000, you could not find Kurdish CDs in the shop. In the southeast of Turkey, you couldn’t find people openly selling locally made CDs. You had to ask the guy, “Can I have some music?” and he would give it to you under the table. They were selling millions of CDs of a Kurdish rock star under the table. Now you can sell these CDs openly – but he’s only selling 10,000!

Turkey has to create its own ethnic politics. The system can’t be copied. We’ve been living here for 10,000 years. How can we copy the melting pot system from America, or the European system? Is ebru-ism a melting pot? Is it like the EU? I don’t even understand the EU. They are trying to come together but they hate each other.

On the Ebru Project

Ask any intellectual here, “How many ethnic groups are living in Turkey?” and they can’t list more than 12. Lots of photographers take photos of Anatolian people. But they never say who they are, just that they are beautiful people. But I photograph them and ask them who they are. I spend a week, maybe even 10 days with them. I sleep in their houses. I play with their kids. I go to their wedding ceremonies. Then I photograph them when they are very comfortable.

I started this project when I was 33. Until that age I had had many experiences in this land. When I was five years old, I threw a stone and broke a church window. No adult, not my mother or father, told me it was a bad thing to do. As I was growing up, I was thinking, why? If I had lied, they would have hit me. If I stole candy from a shop, they would have hit me. But not when I throw a stone at a church.

One of my friends, an Alevi poet, was in this hotel in Sivas. Once a year Alevis celebrate a festival. This time, in 1993, other groups attacked the hotel and burned it down. Thirty-six Alevi intellectuals died. We watched on TV like it was the weather channel telling us the day’s weather. I cried for 10 hours.

I have been doing this project 24/7 for seven years. I lost many things. I lost money. I lost social contacts. The only thing that motivated me was the idea that someone has to do it. Photography is a powerful media. I can convey some feelings through this media. Academics have been talking about this issue for years, talking to each other. Now after this exhibition, we are saying: this is our cultural richness. Don’t hide people because of their ethnic background.

I worked in New York City where I saved some money. I bought a mini-van. And I raised $700,000 for the project. The book is printed in Turkey, because people think you can’t make a beautiful book in Turkey. This is not my book. I found the best people: the best writers, the best printing house. We worked one year full time to do color separation in New York. That was $70,000 – the biggest cost for the project. The photographs show different ethnicities doing the same thing: dancing, reading religious texts, shooting guns at a wedding. There are similar gestures, like these open hands, here, of both Muslims and Christians.

Thirty per cent of the people who come to the exhibition literally can’t hold back their tears. I was shocked. I know it’s an important project, but I didn’t imagine that 30 per cent of the people would come and cry. One of my best friends, an American anthropologist at Brown University, Lisa Di Carlo, said, “I’m confused that people come and cry.” So we decided to evaluate the exhibition: interview the people and ask why they are crying. The exhibit will travel around to 10 cities in Turkey, beginning with Diyarbakir. She will go to each exhibit and interview people.

We also did a CD with 21 songs that explain ebru. There’s a song that starts in Hebrew, continues in Turkish, and so on. There are four languages in this one song. People think it is a Turkish song. But it is an Armenian song!

Even European people can’t imagine that Islam can have different way of life, that it’s not just people strapping bombs to their bodies and attacking. There is a land in the world that is Islamic, but people are living in it happily. If our government is clever, it can use this book as a model.

On Americanization

When I am here, I see only one thing connected to Americanization: the consumer products we are using. This is how my people experience Americanization. We are wearing the jeans and listening to the music. We are watching the TV and copying the TV. Americanization also means killing because of the Iraq War. So the people’s experience of Americanization is only the bad things. If you go to Anatolia and you say you are American, people will hug you. When you sit and talk, other issues come up. There’s the first Gulf War, when America promised money to Turkey. After that, Turkey had a big economic crisis. Maybe this is gossip, but they say America didn’t help us. According to them, Americanization has lost them money. People also worry that Americanization means that when McDonalds and Burger King come, the small kofte places won’t survive.

If you go to Diyarbakir, if you go to a small village in the mountains, an 80-year-old can tell you who the president of the United States is, who Condoleezza Rice is. Our voting participation rate is 90%. That is why we are a political country. People know everything. In America, on the other hand, a university student asked me how I could travel to do the Ebru project. I didn’t understand the question at first. He said, “It’s all desert, right? So you used a camel?” I told him I used a minibus.

I can’t say that America is ideal because the system created a melting pot. It respects my ethnicity but asks me to assimilate. I am changing when I am there. I’m melting when I’m there. It’s a great freedom to say that I am Turkish American. But after 10 years of saying that, there is no Turkishness left.

On the EU

Some Turks believe that the EU is playing us. They say, “How come they are welcoming us and bullshitting us at the same time?” One day, the EU says, “You can come,” and the next day they say “You can’t come.” So, Turks respond by saying, “Okay, let’s close the door.” Or they think if it like a soccer game: “We can beat them.” Their feelings are injured. Most intellectuals say that it doesn’t matter, that it’s just a game. They play their part, so we should play ours, and it will be fine. A third group says, this is not an economical issue, it’s a religious issue and they will never let us in. It has nothing to do with changing laws, the economy, the human rights situation. We are getting better and better on these issues, but nothing changes for them. This is a crusade.

On the ruling party

The Alevis usually vote for Social Democrats. But now they are changing to the AKP. It’s the first time they feel comfortable when they are praying. The Armenian people, normally leftists, also gave their vote to the AKP. Why? They say: “This is the only time we feel comfortable. This is the only time the government doesn’t bother us. They didn’t come to us and ask stupid questions every day. They let us have our Armenian educational system.” Three months ago, for the first time in 50 years, the Pope came to Turkey to visit the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, Bartholomeus. The Turkish government for the first time is giving respect to the Orthodox.

The AKP understands globalization very well. The heads of the party used to be so fundamentalist, they wanted to create an Islamic government. Now they are saying, “Believe us, we have changed.” And it’s true, they are fast learners. They are changing every day. This party is giving more options to the people. My uncle used to be a very aggressive Marxist. He voted for the AKP. They are looking at the West, the economy is doing well. I don’t think they will make all women cover themselves. In our Islam, women cover their heads but they also use make-up. It’s a new definition of an Islamic woman.

Honestly, I am saying this, but I’m not happy. I wanted the Social Democrats to do all this.

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