[This article is a continuation of a discussion surrounding the idea of cultural heritage and the ways it is mobilized and politicized. Read Part 1 here.]
Popularized over the last few decades, cultural heritage is a charged term often deployed as a preservation mechanism against time, destruction, displacement, and/or political violence, among other things. UNESCO has spearheaded such efforts and played a pivotal role in the systematization of a “heritage regime” since the second half of the twentieth century. In 1959, when the Aswan High Dam was developed in a way that would cover ancient Nubian archaeological sites in Egypt and Sudan in water, the Egyptian and Sudanese governments contacted UNESCO to ask help saving these sites. UNESCO mobilized fifty countries and collected about forty million dollars to help rescue these archaeological sites before they were swallowed by water. This campaign inspired UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention in 1972, instrumental in developing UNESCO’s World Heritage List—an inventory of national cultural property.
In this process, UNESCO not only registered tangible and intangible heritage in different nation-states, but also attributed them unambiguous national origins. In the event that some practices were geographically shared, different cultural property registries recorded them as separately national, rather than shared and exchanged. Meanwhile, not all forms of recognition brought safeguarding, as UNESCO’s protection of heritage came with serious shortcomings and limitations, especially in those sites disproportionately affected by political violence or facing attempts at erasure altogether.
Cultural heritage registry as national property also contributed to their co-optation and capitalization for tourism or generating national and cultural property for different material sites, goods, practices, or performances, including but not confined to culinary practices or music. From the World Economic Forum-sponsored country branding initiatives to advertising (and selling) patented national products or performances are reconfigured for consumption. In this context, UNESCO’s cultural heritage regime has also informed liberal humanist cultural policies. Liberal humanism promotes peaceful co-existence and solidarity via a shared essence of humanity, rather than a solidarity informed by social and environmental justice.
On the other hand, heritage existed as a category of practice for at least centuries. Humanists, beyond the modern liberal forms of cultural politics or even nationalism, have long traced their “origins” to ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt, among others, and anchored their civilizational identification via claiming direct heritage to these sites and histories. Simultaneously racializing heritage, this other form of humanism offers a historicist approach that mobilizes inheritance and heredity to identify cultural works and material sites. While these practices may not have named heritage explicitly, they have informed UNESCO’s post-World War II liberal humanist approaches that consider historicist humanist configurations of cultural heritage as a tool for identification, recognition, and a shared aspect of all humanity.
This combination of a liberal politics of recognition—relegating recognition to the fields of culture, simultaneously domesticating demands for justice—with advanced capitalist co-optation of cultural assets as part of a property regime, necessitates a thoughtful reconsideration of what engagements with heritage entail in the contemporary world context. What does it mean to rescue, preserve, and to render visible heritage beyond such configurations of the contemporary heritage regime? How do we address the importance of preservation in the face of political violence?
We are very fortunate to have the expertise of four distinguished scholars participating in our roundtable on heritage: Melissa Bilal, Zerrin Özlem Biner, Zozan Pehlivan, and Nazan Bedirhanoğlu, all of whom collectively shaped the roundtable.
As Zozan addressed in our conversation, language is an important component. What is the role of language—metaphorically and literally—in engaging heritage?
The language and terminology applied to identify what is included in heritage itself cause exclusions, centering a particular notion of value for global heritage. International organizations, including UNESCO, apply technocratic understanding of the globe, its environment, and human societies, thereby establishing a barrier through technical language that does not necessarily map onto regional and local conceptions of the public value of a given site for its closest inhabitants.
When extremist members of ISIS were marching to ancient city of Palmyra in the northeast of Damascus in early 2016, the world got nervous about the possible consequences and level of destruction of invaluable heritage sites. At the same time, however, millions of Syrians whose ancestors built Palmyra were starving, dying, or fleeing from the massive violence. As a site of world heritage, Palmyra, its environment, and the Syrians who build the city in that environment have an intertwined existence: one is not less important than the other.
Language is also implicated in conceptions of heritage in other ways. The destruction of the Kurdish environment in Turkey impacts the usage of the Kurdish language as well as the richness of the language associated with the environment. As more farmlands, pasturelands, and forests are either swallowed by dams, destroyed by mining companies, or are restricted by security forces, specific language associated with the particular geography, climate, and flora and fauna of that ecosystem begin to disappear from use. With the disappearance of words, the waning process of history and memory begins. In my own research on the environmental history of late Ottoman Kurdistan, comprising a large portion of today’s eastern and southeastern Turkey, I noticed that the Kurdish language is extremely rich in terminology associated with pastures, vegetation, and domesticated animals. There is almost a word for every age category of sheep or goats. Kurdish-speaking people, historically, were predominantly pastoralists, an economic form of subsistence that depends on herding. Turkey’s prohibition on accessing pastures means the destruction of an entire material culture, its knowledge, and the language associated with that socio-economic system.
Zerrin Özlem Biner:
Historically, language has been one of the sites and means of dispossession of identity in Turkey under the Republican regime. Anthropologists have shown the complexities and paradoxes of Kurdish heritage production as it takes place at the intersection of neoliberal cultural policies and repressive forms of governance. For example, especially in early 2000, the national media portrayed Mardin as a remote and mystical city of the “Turkish Orient” with a unique cultural heritage, a kind of Babylon that tolerated multireligious and multilingual communities. Yet throughout my research particularly in the city of Mardin, the locals did not refer to their languages as part of heritage talk. I encountered many Arabic-speaking Mardinities who hesitated to admit that their mother tongue was Arabic. They did not connect the language to an overall sense of their heritage. Syriac locals in the old city of Mardin—who were also predominantly Arabic speakers—did not refer to Turoyo (a spoken dialect of Aramaic) as the main component of their heritage, although this situation was different for Syriacs living in the towns and villages of Midyat and diaspora. They appropriated, promoted, and transmitted it as heritage.
One can also argue that heritage is a metaphorical language shared among local communities, the state, and international actors, which establishes its own domain, obscuring relationships with social, economic and other political realms of life.. In Mardin, heritage has often been used by the owners of stone houses to situate themselves within the politics of the present, allowing them to claim connection to the built environment and signify their status as “cultured” and ”civilized” people, their houses serving as official evidence of their cultural and economic capital. As part of everyday conversation, heritage talk has been an overriding discourse that conceals narratives about past conflicts and present contradictions of life in Mardin.
When we think of the rate at which languages have become extinct in the last century, the inclusion of endangered languages in the protection of intangible cultural heritage looks like a step forward. However, this brings us back to the question of what is worth preserving and who decides. In Turkey, genocide and assimilation were the main reasons for endangering the minority languages.
What we are dealing with here is the denial of the very existence of languages when they belong to existing minorities, because governments believe that these languages (and their native speakers) pose a threat to their national unity. Even though we have seen an upsurge of protection due to the persistence of speakers, the survival of languages without institutional mechanisms is a difficult task. The dilemma is as follows: global protection mechanisms through heritage preservation are only available to groups that are not considered a threat to the system. Even the more general concept of intangible cultural heritage adheres to the protection of depoliticized cultural rights and does not include self-determination and land rights. As a result, living languages remain a contentious issue and can only survive through the efforts of communities without global or government support.
Another dimension to this discussion is the language in which heritage is created. Heritage policy has its own concepts. One the one hand, before the commercialization of intangible cultural heritage, the creation of a national folklore and archeology was already an integral part of the nation and state building process in the first half of the existence of the Turkish Republic. The language associated with folklore and state-authorized discourses on cultural heritage masked the systematic methods of annihilation of local cultures and people through genocide and assimilation. On the other hand, commodification of the cultural heritage within the framework of the European Union, UNESCO, and WIPO is accompanied by a stakeholder language of multiculturalism. Despite all its subtleties, this more recent trend similarly contributes to the broader process of appropriation of local cultures.
One way of answering this question is obviously to talk about the Armenian language and the intellectual heritage in Armenian. Both my work on Ottoman Armenian feminist literature and on the history of Armenian music ethnography reveal the formative absence of these essential parts of Turkey’s scholarly and activist heritage from the (ultra or liberal) national narrative. Another matter related to language is that although the Turkish state’s systematic policies managed to kill the possibility for the Armenian language to live its natural course, it still perseveres in the everyday and ritual contexts, and survives as a potential source of revival. I would like to conclude the question of language by thinking about silence, that is, either lacking the language to express the enormity of pain or being deprived of the freedom to put it into words, both powerfully communicated during my ethnographic research: generations of Armenians in Turkey did not transmit their parents’ stories only by hearing them speak but also by listening to tears and silences.
How can we rethink heritage, the title that Melissa proposed for our roundtable, given the contemporary dynamics? Drawing from your own work, can you tell us how you think we should approach the notion of heritage?
Heritage is a constructed notion, we know that. However, what is crucial here is to see how this construction is appropriated to institute heritage regimes: to divide, destroy, and dominate or to resist, protect, and build communities. That is to say, to rethink heritage means asking what kind of memory work that invented past does today. Here I am already moving away from the commercialization of heritage by the suppression of a violent past and its traumas, as we see in many touristic sites in Turkey. I am also leaving aside the neoliberal multiculturalist industry that relies on the consumption of music and food without asking essential questions about the people. As global scholarship has been celebrating and pointing to the potentially problematic nature of ongoing heritage repatriation projects, it is time to talk about how museums in Turkey have been displaying artefacts, tombstones, relics, and other survivor objects formerly belonging to local Armenian communities (most of the time with misinformation about their origins) or in rare cases (when the card reads “Armenian”) treating them as endangered remnants of a multicultural past.
Rethinking heritage necessitates considering how the heritage regime is used to otherize people and inflict physical or symbolic violence on them or used as a direct weapon of war, as we are painfully witnessing in Nagorno Karabakh/Artsakh today. Finally, drawing from my work on the history of Armenian feminism, I can also say that rethinking heritage necessitates problematizing what qualifies as “heritage.” For example, if as advocates of gender justice (and in general social justice) in Turkey, our heritage is also a monument of conflict, suppression, and denial, then we need to work through it in order to learn from it. Considering political movements as heritage brings this much-needed dynamic perspective to the otherwise static and conservative understanding of tradition or heritage. It allows us to see that there is a feminist (or labor rights, self-determination, and peace activism) tradition in Turkey because we inherited it from earlier generations and also because the struggle continues and constantly changes. Therefore, rethinking feminist heritage itself is an essential part of today’s feminist movement and it demands a serious examination of the fatal interruption in the past caused by the genocide that destroyed and discredited the knowledge, networks, and structures created by Armenians.
Cultural heritage, a Western colonial institution as a universal category, fit well with Turkey's nationalist folklore and archeological policies that began in the early years of the Republic in the 1920s. With the global trends of commercialization and propertization of cultural heritage, especially after the 2000s, Turkey kept pace with the international framework as long as cultural heritage preservation did not interfere with official narratives. Cultural heritage that can be associated with Anatolia's distant past, such as ancient civilizations that cannot necessarily be linked to recent contentious ethnic and religious politics, is zealously protected and marketed as a government staple in the international arena.
Critical heritage studies offer insightful questions about the decolonization of cultural heritage. I believe that collective efforts to reimagine heritage based on social justice and equity would necessarily involve two steps: rescuing heritage from the state and the market, and incorporating justice-oriented memory studies into heritage. Given the problematic infrastructure of global heritage politics and its framework that enables nationalist and capitalist articulations, cultural heritage should be decoupled from ownership mechanisms of any kind. Different levels of property claims, whether by individuals, groups, or states, inevitably involve the exploitation of tangible and intangible culture. Rejecting the property framework is a difficult task given that the current global trend to convert the intangible cultural heritage into intellectual property is strong. However, resisting this property-oriented perspective is foundational because propertization in the name of giving credit and a fair share to the stakeholders opens an irreversible venue of dispossession. We should also be wary of claims to protect the heritage in the name of humanity because a common value or asset belonging to the humanity could as well render heritage open to further exploitation by the powerful.
In practice, these suggestions to reimagine heritage might not have immediate results. At this point, at least for the tangible and intangible heritage in Turkey, I would suggest the promotion of counter-cultural heritage sites and alternative heritage discourses as a practical initiative to cope with the overwhelming institutional networks of official heritage-making.
Zerrin Özlem Biner:
Heritage should be studied as a political project in order to explore the legal, political, historical and spiritual contexts that shape people’s relationship with what is referred to as “heritage,” whether it is a built environment, natural landscape, language, music, or oral history. In my work, I approach the notion of heritage as a project of “ruination” to explore people’s changing relationship to their built environment, the state, and ethnic and religious others. Importantly, I use heritage to rethink the tie between property and subjectivity and reveal the historical, political, and ethical processes visible in the making of this tie. Heritage should remove designated sites from the realm of nostalgia and in a broader frame of care and protection within the imaginary geography of nation-states. Heritage should be studied to shed light on the persistent histories and forms of dispossession.
As Melissa has pointed out, in the case of Turkey, heritage is not only dynamic and contains changes but also has been weaponized to dismantle the “others” that have been identified as a danger to the “indivisible unity of the state and nation” (devletin ve milletin bölünmez bütünlüğü). To prevent the occurrence of so-called danger, the Turkish state has been wielding contemporary heritage regimes across the country. The indicators of such policies are varied; sometimes it is noticeable in a short description of a museum object, sometimes they are noticeable in renamed towns, villages, rivers, or creeks.
What would it mean to fully conceptualize the environment as a meaningful component of definitions and discussions of heritage? How could non-human actors be incorporated into understandings of global heritage? How would legislation and techniques for preservation need to change if value were placed on these forms? An inclusive approach to conceptions of heritage would recognize human-environment interactions as bound up in individual and communal identities through language, culture, belief systems, and intellectual and material culture. Viewing environmental components as integral within heritage conversations would have an impact on understandings of sustainable economic forms, artistic production, and the global human relationship to the environment and climate. Such an awareness would allow us to understand the complexity and intertwined relationships between the environment and human beings that has been excluded by contemporary heritage regimes.