What Do We Mean When We Say “Hepimiz”? Exploring Chants of Solidarity in Turkish Protest Movements

The October 10 bombings in Ankara brought me back to one of my first memories of learning Turkish. It was during my third semester of Turkish, when Hrant Dink was assassinated. It was then, in just a little less than nine years ago, that I learned how pain and loss were expressed in a language I was still very much fumbling over.

My teacher used the tragedy as a teaching opportunity. An Armenian born in Istanbul, he was profoundly affected by the assassination of an Armenian journalist and activist like Dink.  He realized that protest signs, simply written in declarative sentences, were a great way to understand the language as well as Turkish politics: as we translated signs, we discussed ultra-nationalism and minority rights in the country where Dink and he were born and raised.

We flicked through a Facebook newsfeed that would seem prehistoric by today’s standards and Turkish newspapers’ beloved photogalleries and saw a common statement that my very bad Turkish could comprehend: Hepimiz Ermeni’yiz — We are all Armenian.

 

Placards saying “We are all Armenian” and “We are all Hrant” in Turkish and transliterated Armenian, via wikipedia

That single word “hepimiz” belies a complex statement. It is a bit of a brute-force definition of solidarity that substituted sheer numbers for political subtlety. The “Hepimiz ____iz” construction is a way to create a community around a beleaguered individual. Once I saw it during the Hrant Dink protests I began to see it everywhere: in migrant mutual aid societies and in supporting an Ivorian soccer player against a Turk’s racist abuse (in the latter case, “Hepimiz Zokora’yiz,” one can see Zokora’s teammates turn the solidarity into an offensive).

This simple statement of solidarity is easy to romanticize, and indeed I did. Thousands marched and claimed that they were all Armenian, or African, or coal miners. But in Turkey Armenian lands are still confiscated, Africans still face racist attacks, and even after the Soma disaster the surviving coal miners are looking for answers. Protests in Turkey may be common, but have rarely turned into political statements — a disconnect attributed to cynicism by Ayça Alemdaroğlu, who points to a disinterest in state-level politics that may be diminishing. But until then, and through then, there will be more marches.

It is easy to march towards one’s favorite cafe in Kadıköy holding a placard. It is even easier to ascribe your own politics on these marchers from a comfortable distance across the Atlantic. It turns out that solidarity is a tool, not a solution.  It can bring people into the streets together, but not by itself create political change.

The bigger problem with “Hepimiz” is captured eloquently by the Twitter bio of Teju Cole: We who? Cole explains his problem with the “we” in geopolitical terms for Foreign Policy:

If “we” are keeping “our” interests safe by dropping bombs on “them,” it’s natural for me to say, “We who?” I don’t accept the basis on which this “we” has been determined. Is it a matter of your passport? Is it a coincidence? Is it about race? Is it about educational level or income?

Within Turkey, like within any other nation-state, the “we” is by-definition normative with a non-normative other — an implicit “they.” In 2007 it was “Hepimiz,” the Sunni Turkish citizens, who could claim to be symbolically Armenian. 100 years after the Armenian Genocide, there is still a visible Armenian culture in Turkey. In that century there has been state-sponsored violence against Alevi Muslims in Dersim, against Jews in Thrace and against Greeks in Istanbul. To name just a few. Those religious minority communities are all still visible, but Turkish politics still run through the state’s normative Turkish citizen.

Turgut Özal, center, was for many a model Turkish citizen as leader of Turkey in the 1980s. This is either despite or because of his decision to shed his family’s Kurdish roots for a Turkish identity.

 

It turns out that finding oneself in the “we” is difficult. On January 7, 2015, the world would tragically discover a competing phrase: Je Suis. The BBC credits one Joachim Roncin with coining the phrase after the Charlie Hebdo murders, and it’s easy to see the appeal to international audiences. After 12 people were killed at the magazine’s headquarters, over two million people marched in Paris under Roncin’s popular “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo.”

Marchers holding “Je Suis” signs in Nantes, France. Via Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images

The claim, “I am Charlie,” asks very little of its speaker. “I am” allows the speaker to simply declare their values and pin them to a cause. The individualism of the remark, ironically, allows it to spread like wildfire. I can be Charlie because I support a free press, you can be Charlie because you support satire, and a third (no doubt awful) person can be Charlie because they support deporting Muslims from France. The three of us can stand proud, without ever having to reconcile our differences or ensure that journalists are never killed in France or anywhere else.

This is no comparison of East vs. West, or of different and irreconcilable cultures. After the Charlie Hebdo murders, Turkey’s three largest cartoon publications – all inspired by the French satirical tradition – had a simple Je Suis Charlie on their covers. Soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Le Monde published an editorial entitled “We are all Americans.” Different political climates demand different political statements, unsurprisingly. While Hepimiz answers “we who?” with a claim to stand for the oppressed, Je Suis answers the same “we who?” with an Abbott-and-Costello-ish “Exactly.”

This may seem too light-hearted for discussing protests that occurred in the wake of political killings. However, Je Suis had a peculiar afterlife in the Turkish diaspora when a Berliner grocery store run by Ahmet Çalışkan was served with an eviction notice by his landlord. Çalışkan’s father named the store Bizim Bakkal, Turkish for “our grocer.” It initially served the Turkish-German community until the Kreuzberg neighborhood became hip and predominantly ethnically German. The German customers made up French-language signs in the spirit of the summer declaring “Je Suis Bizim Bakkal,” that they, Germans, were individuals aligned with Çalışkan’s neighborhood store.

This initially looked like German hipsters trying to claim their neighborhood from second-wave gentrification — a common Berlin scene. However, Bizim Bakkal’s story went a little bit differently. The Je Suis-aligned protesters made a website to publicize their plight and named it Bizim Kriez: a Turko-German phrase meaning “Our Neighborhood.” On it they posted a manifesto in German, Turkish, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. In the Turkish version, the phrase Hepimiz is used heavily, as in “We have all shaped this neighbourhood.”

Protesters holding a sign in German/Turkish/English pidgin that says “Togetherness instead of business”, via Gloria Biberger

Bizim Bakkal has been allowed to stay, and Bizim Kriez has become a sort of neighborhood newsletter. It seems to have worked out as a beautiful bit of local politics: the individualist attention-making term of Je Suis was used to bring together people in solidarity (Hepimiz) to align themselves behind Çalışkan. There was, nearly nine years after Hrant Dink’s death, something of a happy ending. Berlin may be far away from Istanbul – and a grocery store is orders of magnitude smaller potatoes than minority rights – but it was warming to see something like progress.

But well after the community success in Berlin a pair of bombings killed over 100 people at a peace rally in Ankara. A grocer’s rent seems small potatoes compared to what has been described as the worst terrorist attack in Turkey’s history. All I can think of now is not Hrant Dink and not Bizim Bakkal and not even someone in Turkey. Rather, I’m thinking of St. Louis-based writer Sarah Kendzior, describing how her city is trying to reform itself after tragedy:

Who is “we,” in a community torn apart by violence and distrust?

As of this writing, nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack. Nobody knows what will happen next — not even what form of protest the outrage will take. The targeted community, mostly left-wing groups, will likely lead more marches and more protests. The most popular Hepimiz on Twitter now is Hepimiz başı sağolsun — ”We all send our condolences.” How will Turkey heal itself after this tragedy? We do not know yet, but we are all watching.

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