Friday, August 20, 2010


Map of massacre locations and deportation and extermination centers - click here to enlarge.

Wishing to swat up on Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, the man around whose personality Turkey continues to build a cult, I bought a book about him while I was in Istanbul. Given that it is published by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, it is no surprise that this pamphlet – entitled Ataturk’s Legacy – is a hagiography. Nevertheless, I was struck by the economy of this description of Turkey’s participation in World War One:

The CUP committed many errors ... In 1915, the CUP government opened a front in the Caucasus against Russia late in the fall season. They hastily moved troops from the Palestine front to the Caucasus without proper provisions. Logistical support to the troops in the front was either too late in coming, or was consistently intercepted by Armenian militia who were in open revolt against the empire amidst war. The Ottoman General Staff, aiming to prevent these assaults, decided to relocate the Armenian population that resided along the only railroad available. What began as a military contingency turned out to be a tragedy, with reprisals or just for the sake of marauding conducted by local tribes against the Armenians, coupled with deaths due to starvation and disease. The other side of the tragedy was that close to 60,000 Turkish soldiers starved or froze to death in Sarikamis, north of Erzurum, in addition to numerous Turkish civilians killed by the Dashnak (a communist revolutionary party) Armenian militia.

The gist of this is that the CUP made a strategic error in the Caucasus which led to “reprisals” against Armenians, and which led to the murder of thousands of Turks – a peculiar way of describing the deliberate murder of up to a million and a half Armenians by the Turkish military. It is rather like describing the Holocaust as something which got a bit out of hand and caused distress to lots of German gentiles. Just what is it that makes Turkey so incapable of facing up to the Armenian genocide of 1915?

The story of the Ottoman Empire’s decline and eventual extinction in the bloodbath of the 1914-18 war is well-known. The Empire had been nibbled at by its rivals – mainly France and Russia – throughout the 19th century. In 1878, it lost its Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and Bulgaria to independence movement. Thirty years later, a group of young soldiers caught wind of British and Russian plans to carve up the old Byzantine lands of Rumelia and launched a coup against the Sultan. The coup of the Young Turks / CUP, whose main objective was to preserve and rebuild imperial power, won widespread support, but the CUP lacked a nucleus around which it could unite the ethnically and religiously disparate peoples of the Empire.

By 1912, the last Ottoman province in North Africa (Libya) was lost to Italy. Istanbul, Anatolia and the Arab lands as far as Suez were all that was left of the Empire. Yet even though the Empire was now 85% Muslim, when the predominantly Muslim state of Albania defected, ethnicity replaced religion as the core of the CUP’s ideology. Although Islam remained a useful rallying point, Turkishness was now what divided and ruled the Ottoman people.

In 1914, the Empire joined the war on the side of the Central Powers – an opportunity to regain much of the land it had lost to Russia in 1878. In the harsh winter of 1915, the Minister of War, Ismail Enver, led an ill-fated attack on the Russian border in the Caucasus from which few troops returned. The Armenian people were strategically important to both the Russian and Ottoman empires, split as they were across the borders of each. As Christians, they had been the subject of pogroms by Sultan Abdulhamid in the 1890s; as an Armenian nationalism emerged and thousands of Armenians enlisted into the Russian army, they became targeted by the CUP too. In March 1915, seeking a scapegoat for the Caucasian whitewash and fearing that the Armenians might defect wholesale to the Russians, the CUP passed a motion that the entire Armenian population in eastern Turkey be deported to Syria.

In fact, deportation was a cover for genocide. Enver’s brother-in-law – the governor of Van – ordered that all Armenian males over the age of 12 be exterminated. “By early June,” writes Perry Anderson in an authoritative piece on Kemal, “centrally directed and coordinated destruction of the Armenian population was in full swing. As the leading comparative authority on modern ethnic cleansing, Michael Mann writes, ‘the escalation from the first incidents to genocide occurred within three months, a much more rapid escalation than Hitler’s later attack on the Jews.’” Two thirds of the Armenian population – up to a million and half people – are thought to have died. The genocide was systematic, but its purpose arose not so much from any racial ideology (despite the CUP’s pragmatic nationalism) as from a need to remove the perceived Armenian treachery which might lead to the final dissolution of the Empire.

In the aftermath of World War One, and during the war of independence, Turkish nationalists placed a great deal of importance on the 1915 massacre. They believed it had saved the Empire, and Kemal’s hostility towards Enver arose not from a belief that he had gone too far, but because Enver had not done enough, allowing an Armenian Republic to be created and recognised by the Allies. Turkey was the only defeated power whose ruling powers were not overthrown by revolutionary forces, and a mixture of good intelligence, Soviet solidarity and Allied divisions meant that Turkey was able to emerge from the 1922 Treaty of Lausanne as an independent republic with internationally accepted borders. Meanwhile, the Armenian Revolutionary Party took it upon themselves to bring rough justice to the perpetrators of the genocide, searching them out from Germany to Tajikistan and killing them. The few survivors were offered positions in Kemal’s government.

Ninety years later, the denial of the 1915 genocide and the continued existence of statues and streets celebrating its executioners (“as if in Germany” writes Anderson, “squares, streets and kindergarten were called after Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann, without anyone raising an eyebrow”) is an obstacle to Turkey’s biggest prize: EU membership. The similarities between 1915 and the Final Solution are striking – both conducted in wartime by people working in secret who knew their activities were criminal, and who worked systematically under the guide of deportation – so why is the latter multilaterally and internationally abhorred and commemorated, while the former is disputed and largely neglected? Why is it that, even today, the Turkish government “do not seem to blanch at the term ‘massacre’ but are besides themselves when the G-word is mentioned?

Partly, because Turkish writers and historians are hounded for asking difficult questions; partly because foreign historians are denied access to key primary sources; partly because the West, well aware of Turkey’s strategic importance in the Cold War and the War on Terror, is loathe to offend its partner (Madeleine Albright’s dismissal of Nancy Pelosi’s resolution to discuss the genocide in 2007 is a case in point).

But partly because of differences between the two genocides: differences in their causes, and in what they reaped. Whereas the Nazis were ideologically driven (the Jews presented no strategic threat to the Reich; indeed, the exterminations distracted it from its war effort), the CUP’s genocide was a necessary strategy in maintaining the Empire. The Armenians, proportionally more significant than the Jews in Germany, were scapegoated because of their position on the border of a rival Empire – and, as we have seen above, their extermination was a major factor in the Turkish victories of the 1920s. As Perry Anderson says, “one genocide was the dementia of an order that has disappeared. The other was a founding moment of a state that has endured.”

The legacies of these genocides provide a clue to how they are seen today. “One has become the object of official and popular remembrance, on a monumental scale,” writes Anderson. “The other is a whisper in the corner, that no diplomat in the Union abides.” Both have as their inheritance a state, each a key ally to the West. “Israel, a pivotal ally in the Middle East, requires recognition of the Judeocide, and has secured massive reparations for it. Turkey, a vital ally in the Near East, denies that genocide of the Armenians ever occurred, and insists no mention ever be made of it.” While it is practically unlikely that any admission would lead to a redrawing of Turkish borders, or even compensation to the Armenians, strategically if Turkey were to concede that one and a half million Armenians were systematically killed in 1915, what then of other massacres – of the Greeks in Istanbul in 1955, of Cypriots in 1974, of Kurds throughout modern Turkish history – which have consolidated the unity of the Turkish nation? It might also be added, pace Edith Durham, that “no connection is made between the genocide of the Armenians and Muslim civilian losses: the millions of Muslims expelled from the Balkans and the Russian Empire through the long 19th century remain part of Europe’s own forgotten past.” No clearer illustration can be found of the ideology of “human rights,” recognition of which is claimed to be universal, but which in reality depends on shady geopolitics.

Monday, August 16, 2010


After twenty five and a half hours of watching the baroque twists, enigmatic deadends and garrulous detective work in the Twin Peaks TV series, Twin Peaks – Fire walk with me’s two and a half hours of muted horror are numbing and shocking – but, unlike its more playful forerunner, it offers some kind of deliverance.

FWWM brings to life, so to speak, Laura Palmer, who we have previously seen through homecoming queen portraits, picnics rendered on video, and the figure in the Red Room who appears to Special Agent Dale Cooper and guides him towards her killer. In the TV show, she is only knowable through her relationships with other people – friends, cops, sexual partners, pillars of society, who examine her, unearthing her secrets or trying to keep them hidden.

As Bobby cries out at Laura’s funeral, everybody knew that Laura was in trouble. The disconnect between Laura’s life and the way she is portrayed is palpable, but it is easier for the town to maintain a facade, pouring sweet sentiments onto her memory and endlessly repeating the mantra of how beautiful she was. The answer to the question of who killed Laura Palmer is immersed beneath a fug of words. The truth eludes even the meticulous Cooper until he is liberated from the restrictions of words and clues and abandons himself to dreams and visions.

Although, as the series progresses, Cooper moves away from clue-solving to a more intuitive search for the evil in the woods, the question of BOB – his origins, the extent of his control over Leland, his movement between the lodges and the immediate world – remains unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable). After the stunning scene in the Roadhouse – where Cooper and the Log Lady receive a visit from the Giant and, under the spell of Julee Cruise, the town becomes immersed in a wave of grief – and the death of Leland, the show becomes more wacky and more straightforwardly rational.

Ironically, the removal of his FBI badge coincides with Cooper’s dwindling capacity to cross the thresholds into other worlds. The plot descends into a largely tedious Oedipal battle with Windom Earle, once a father-figure to Cooper and now bent on psychopathic revenge. Chess-games, maps and keys lead him towards the Black Lodge; but without the divinations of Laura, the Log Lady and BOB (all of whom barely appear in the second half of the second series), Cooper is forced to surrender his soul and succumb to possession.

FWWM brings out what has been repressed throughout the TV series: the story of a woman whose father abuses her, but who is released from her trauma by gaining access to spaces beyond ordinary life. Where Laura is a mere cipher in the TV series, in FWWM we are exposed to the brutal violence to which Laura is subjected. Martha P. Nochimson notes that films rarely invite us to identify with characters who are violated by incest; since identifying with the (usually female) victim is unpalatable for (especially male) viewers, most films lead us to identify with a figure – a doctor or detective – who uses clear, scientific thinking to rid the world of chaos and lead the victims to safety and “wholeness”. Twin Peaks, with its alliance of FBI agents, Project Blue Book operatives and mystics, merges rational control with submissions to the unconscious – but after Special Agent Chet Desmond is transported to the lodges after searching for a ring under a trailer, it is clear that conventional detectives do not belong in FWWM. Words are dispensed with, in favour of visions, images, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score, which moves from a Kind of Blue modality to the apocalyptic melody of Cherubini’s Requiem in C Minor.

The “eye of duck scene” – Lynch’s phrase for the scene which, while not necessarily important to the plot, nevertheless marks a transition point for the direction of the narrative – occurs straight after Desmond’s disappearance. Realising that today is February 16th and the time 10.10am, Cooper warns the bellowing Gordon Cole that something is about to happen, something he has seen in a dream. As he has foreseen, the AWOL Agent Philip Jeffries – played by David Bowie – has entered the building. He sees Cooper, a flicker of recognition passing over his face, before stammering an explanation of what he has seen above the convenience store.

The scene is baffling, but invigorating too. We have seen something which the detectives cannot. What we see and hear does not make sense, but it suggests an opening to another world which transcends rational sense. Like the dream sequences in Twin Peaks and FWWM, Jeffries’ recollection rewires our thoughts so that while we are in it, we get the impression of a larger order beyond the stifling world of Laura Palmer. It is, as Nochimson says, “reality as the subconscious might represent it” – muted, muffled and dark, but revealing immanent, uncaused noise and movement.

Like his great hero Bacon, Lynch lets his medium paint the unconscious. As Bacon refers to painting as something which happens to him, so Lynch asserts that when he is directing, ninety percent of the time he doesn’t know what he is doing. As Bacon introduces movement onto the canvas by painting slow and fast areas, so in the convenience store there are slow areas (the garmonbozia sitting on the formica table) and fast areas (the woodsman, the jumping man behind the mask, the mouth charged with electricity, Jeffries’ endless scream). And as Bacon throws handfuls of paint at a canvas, or inscribes involuntary marks into the paint, so Lynch obscures the sound of this scene, so that the mutterings of Jeffries and the declarations in the convenience store overlay each other. It may be down to pure chance (Bacon says that "very often I think probably what makes one artist seem better than another is that his critical sense is more acute. It may not be that he is more gifted in any way but just that he has a better critical sense"), but this scene is an epiphany, and it tells us why Cooper is wrong to tell Laura not to take the ring in her dream, and why taking the ring eventually enables Laura to cross the threshold into another world.

In the TV series, Cooper’s attempts to reach the black lodge were thwarted by his inadequate recourse to thoughts beyond language; likewise, as FWWM progresses, Laura gradually becomes at one with the unconscious world beyond her humiliated circumstances. A key scene is the one in the pink room (a dark doppelganger scene to the TV scene in the Roadhouse, when the Giant appears) , where the doe-eyed Donna has tracked Laura down and is herself being abused by a punter. Even at her most exploited, a beam of light wakes Laura from her stupefied nightmare and she rescues Donna. This is Lynch at his best, introducing salvation at the point of deepest corruption (conversely in the next scene, a tender scene between Laura and Donna is interrupted by Leland’s vision of his daughter and Ronette in their underwear).

When Laura eventually finds her angel - a real one this time, unlike the confection on the picture in her bedroom (rather like the idyllic picture of the child which John Merrick treasures in The Elephant Man) - she is watched by Cooper at his least detective-like. What has happened makes a mockery of his Bureau investigations early in the first TV series, and sets up his journey towards the lodges.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Tuesday, August 03, 2010


The London Corporation has announced that, after 134 years, it will no longer renew the licenses of porters who work at Billingsgate Fish Market. They claim it is because the role is archaic and unnecessary; the porters think they will replaced by lower-paid workers who will have to endure poor conditions.

Ken Livingstone gave his support to a porters' strike today. He said: "The value of this site is now enormous, and it is going to be much easier to get an act of parliament through that closes or moves the market without a well-organised workforce who know their rights to deal with." Inevitably, the Corporation's announcement has created tension between the traders (who are salaried) and the independent traders, who profit from the market.

Monday, August 02, 2010