Memory politics : Circassians of Uzunyayla, Turkey, by Eiji Miyazawa

Circassians in Uzunyayla
Circassian Dance ©Eiji Miyazawa | Facebook

Thesis (Ph.D.)
School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) (2004).

This thesis explores social memories among Circassians in Turkey. It is based on eighteen months’ field research in the Uzunyayla plateau, Pınarbaşı district of Kayseri province, central Turkey. The Circassians (Çerkez) settled there are the descendants of refugees who fled from the Russian invasion of the Caucasus in the mid nineteenth century. “Memory” here is used in a broad sense to include the experiences and expressions of historical consciousness in everyday interactions, as well as articulated historical narratives. By interweaving them, the present work aims to analyse the political process involved in the production of knowledge about history and society.

In efforts to reproduce a community in their new homeland, Circassians emphasise their history and collective identity. The local elites from noble (worq) families dominate such conservative, essentialist discourses, stressing their status superiority over ex-slave families. They recognise historical significance and identify the driving forces of their history by reference to specific social themes, such as the opposition between the two status groups. They monopolies history as a resource by excluding ex-slaves from the production of authoritative knowledge. Here, memory politics, consisting of space construction, control over interpersonal exchanges, and hierarchized personhood, plays a crucial role. In that process, ex-slaves become muted, made passively to embody a “feudal” past.

By contrast, in Karakuyu, an affluent village also known as “Slave Village”, male comrades produce social relations different from elite representations by committing themselves to alcohol drinking. These actors – of various family backgrounds – thus assert the legitimacy of their relationship with the national past. Older villagers’ memory narratives about an outstanding exslave man demonstrate how disassembling and reassembling physical objects such as sheep stable can help to reconstruct the past; the past thus evoked is composed of the memories symbolised in these mnemonic devices, and produces understandings of history that are empowering for them. The poor, though, often fail to benefit from overall improvements in living conditions, and are thus prevented from having their say within the wider community.

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Photos by ©Eiji Miyazawa | Facebook

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