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An Interview with Murat Altun, August 15, 2012

Months of field work in Northeastern Turkey, visits with local folklorists and historians, and unexpected coincidences have all led doctoral scholar Murat Altun, from the department of Anthropology, to investigate the Kalandar Winter Festival and its relation to the historical and contemporary conflicts in this region of Turkey. His classically anthropological inquiry investigates the origin of the festival, its current meaning for the people involved with it, and its connection to the relation between historical memory and politics.  Amir Hussain interviews Altun about his research as an IAS Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow.

Murat Altun, Dept. of Anthropology, “Kalandar Winter Festival: Xenophobia and the Politics of Memory in Northeastern Turkey”

In 2009, after the economic boom of the early 2000’s had increased tourism to Northeastern Turkey, a band of Greek Orthodox came to a Turkish village to celebrate the same festival as the Muslim Turks of the village had been celebrating. These visitors were even dressed in the similar traditional costumes and masks as the locals.

What is the origin of the festival? How did the Muslim Turks react to these visitors, and to debates of the festival’s origin? Why are Turkish festival organizers in the village members in the local branch of the xenophobic Far Right Extremist Party? What is, after all, the relationship between history and ritual?

These are all questions that Murat Altun, a doctoral scholar in the Department of Anthropology, is investigating in his classically anthropological study of the Kalandar Winter Festival, a new year’s festival where masked and costumed performers visit village households to act out a historical expulsion tale mired in chaos and terror.

A couple of summers and 4 months of field work in his field site in Northeastern Turkey, meetings with local folklorists and historians, and unexpected coincidences all led Altun to inquire about the relationship of the festival to the historical conflicts of this region of Turkey and into the ways the festival may be functioning as a sort of political choreography.

This part of Northeastern Turkey, located by the Black Sea, has been a region of political violence between local landlords and the central government—whether that government be the Ottoman Empire or the Turkish Republic,” Altun explains. “So the history here is simply a history of village attacks and mass expulsions. Before the late 19th century, those attacks were simply over land and sovereignty. But when nationalism rose, those attacks targeted first Armenians and then Greeks, eventually turning into an absolute civil war between Muslim Turks and Greek Orthodox.”

Altun believes that researching the origin of the festival while looking at the current meaning of the festival for the people involved in it will shed light on the connections between historical memory and contemporary politics of the region. His consideration of xenophobia as part of the newfolklore about the presence of Greeks, and not merely the festival as folklore, is an important development in his research.

“I argue that thinking about the past doesn’t have to be through historical analysis of a collection of archives or providing historical facts for everything. I see a strange tension between history and ritual, between a scholarly way of writing about the past and popular bodily practices – namely, folkloric rituals. So my question is: How do those two differ in their way of narrating the past? That is my initial point of interest. I also think that studying the ritual’s way of remembering and forgetting the past might help us to see how communities react to that past, and I propose that that might take the form of xenophobia.”

Working in the tradition of classical anthropology gives Altun the occasion to not draw strict divisions between anthropology and politics. While acknowledging the shortcomings and drawbacks of classical anthropology, Altun says he values the way classical anthropologists approached the study of societies as a study of all dimensions of society. Anthropologists Evans-Pritchard and Levi-Strauss inform his research, as do philosophies of Derrida and Agamben, the cultural criticism of Benjamin, and early works of Žižek.

Altun says the IAS Site & Incitement Symposium inspired him to think about how the presence of historical ruins in Turkey incites questions of religious and violent conflict in the region—inciting, as he says, a memory of the past that may otherwise remain buried. The interdisciplinary approach of his work—combining history, anthropology, and political philosophy in one inquiry—is a well-suited match for work done at the IAS. Altun adds, “Whatever I’m studying, I look through the present relationship of power and dominant ideology, and I always felt that is a concern of the faculty and grad students who have studied and worked at the Institute.”

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