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Zerrin Özlem Biner, States of Dispossession: Violence and Precarious Coexistence in Southeast Turkey

Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, p. 264.
Su Erol
p. 278-280
Référence(s) :

Zerrin Özlem Biner, States of Dispossession: Violence and Precarious Coexistence in Southeast Turkey, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, p. 264.

Texte intégral

1Biner’s book addresses several tragic aspects of the military conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish Armed Forces during the post-emergency period following the failure of the peace process. The position of Syriacs in this fragile period and their complex relations with the Kurdish tribes are also discussed throughout the study.

2Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork, the author deconstructs the concept of dispossession exercised by the multiple forms and actors of state power operating on the margins of the contemporary Turkish state. The time interval through which she speaks is what she called the period of “violent peace”, corresponding to the years 2001-2015 when the intensive military conflict was suspended between the two sides.

3The city that Biner focuses on is Mardin, where the culture of historical coexistence between Syriacs, Armenians, Arabs and Kurds is based on a fragile equilibrium of interwoven socio-economic interests. The particularity of her work comes from the excellent grasp of the personal stories of dispossession belonging to people from these different ethnic and religious backgrounds living in a region affected by unfinished cycles of violence. Biner delicately and wisely shows that each member of these groups deals with the violent effects of the post-emergency period in different ways depending on their economic or social aspirations. The term “dispossession” that she uses is not unidimensional. It is an amalgamation of several modern concepts such as militarism, neoliberalism, multiculturalism, and the traditional tribal order that characterises the region’s inter-ethnic relations of domination. Her lecture is an invitation to understand dispossession or being dispossessed as an organic fact that exists by reproducing forms of presence via structural, political, and everyday violence. What we learned from the ethnographic study is that these forms of dispossession take different shapes: appropriation of property, occupation, treasure hunting, heritage making, and debt creation, tackled meticulously in each chapter.

4The daily violence created by dispossession is not solely embodied in the material ruination of the city caused by a long-lasting military conflict. The ruination also has emotional and political aspects. Based on an understanding of the ethnography of human and non-human relationships, Biner asserts that the ordinary is not limited to the concrete relationships between human beings. In the context of Mardin, the stone houses confiscated from the Armenians, the land occupied by pro-state Kurdish tribes, the monastery considered a sacred heritage by the Syriacs, the spiritual beings called jinn who are seen as mediators between the dead and the living, past and present, all are inherent to the domain of politics (p. 23-27).

5In the first chapter, the author deals with the gradual process of destruction and dispossession of material heritage in Mardin whose starting point dates back to the 1915 massacre and its aftermath when the properties of the Armenian community were destroyed and they were dispossessed by legal orders enacted by the Ottoman authorities. The regime of the new republic, founded on a principle of Turkishness, and Sunni Islam, also used the practices of confiscating and liquidating the properties of non-Muslim citizens in order to create capital accumulation for the newly flourishing Turkish bourgeoisie. During the Justice and Development Party (AKP) period of the 2000s, the region witnessed a vicious consequence of militarism entangled with neoliberalism namely accumulation through dispossession. The center-right Islamist government reinvented a tradition of multiculturalism from the Ottoman Turkish past, an ideology based on the principle of “tolerance of difference” to justify and legitimize neoliberal and cultural policies, which Biner called “neoliberal multiculturalism” borrowing the term from Charles Hale (p. 39-40).The spatial transformation of the city was driven by the growth of construction economies such as shopping malls, cafes, and boutique hotels in the name of the city’s “bright economic future”, which resulted in the loss of its native and original characteristics. The Historical Transformation Project founded by UNESCO became the main preoccupation of the state to return to the imagined authentic form of the Old City in order to attain international recognition and capital. During this period, a business for all economy is adopted by the local people regardless of their ethnicity, and cases of sudden enrichment have highly increased among Mardinites. This is what the author has defined as “Cementing the past with the Future”, a chapter in which she interrogates the gap between the memory of the old stone and the state’s ambition for economic growth marked by a capital-oriented pragmatism.

6The second and third chapters explore how the inhabitants deal with the ruined buildings, the material remnants of past atrocities. Here, the author shows that heritage has always been related to the political economy of everyday life. Each group has a different perception regarding material heritage. Within the multicultural picture, Armenians who left the city decades earlier see the stone houses as objects of loss and pain while notable local Arabs and Syriacs view them as objects of cultural and economic capital. The emphasis is on the act of digging as an ongoing form of ruination, a component of the plunder economy entangled with foundational violence. For the local people in search of treasure, digging up the old houses left by the Armenians is seen as a desire for sudden wealth, and became an ordinary practice of daily life. To problematize this everyday act, the author invites us to see through the approach of affective materiality as the ruined environment “moves senses and sensibilities and evokes knowledge that connects the invisible and visible, the surface and the subterranean, as well as humans and nonhuman beings” (p. 86).

7In Mardin, the act of digging includes a non-human spirit called the jinn which is a part of ancient Mesopotamian folklore but also exists also in the Arab East and in Islamic belief. The jinn (plural) live in dark and damp places such as basements, cemeteries, street corners and baths. They can appear in different forms, humans or half animals, and half-humans (p. 84-85). In the context of Mardin, they are seen as agents associated with treasure hunting practices and as custodians of treasure left by former dwellers on behalf of their owners. Biner describes the emergence of a bizarre political economy of treasure connecting several different local actors such as diggers, house or land owners, illicit traders, and spiritual people such as sheikhs and hodjas who can decode the signs and symbols needed to find the treasure. Since they are considered mediators between the living and the dead, the present and the absent, there are cases when Muslim diggers encounter the jinn that do not allow the treasure to be removed from the houses confiscated from the Armenians. In these cases, jinn reestablish another sense of justice for the other absent person(s) who cannot speak for themselves. In other words, they play the role of founding an everyday ethic related to the rules of possession and ownership (p. 100).

8The situation of Syriacs in this turmoil is depicted in the fourth chapter through the individual story of Isa (means Jesus in Turkish) who is sent back to his village occupied by Kurdish guards working for the government. What marks his story is his refusal to reproduce the historical protector-protected established between notable Kurdish tribes and Syriacs, which is based on exploitative power and traditional submission to the will of Aghas and his insistence on having the right to plant/harvest his land. Through the author’s words, we witness Isa’s constant request to obtain his full citizenship rights without seeking the protection of Kurdish Aghas.

9This chapter follows another issue where the political and legal battle over the repossession of the land surrounding the Mor Gabriel Monastery, and the political tension between the Kurds and Syriacs are problematized. One of the main ideas is that, in this battle, the power of a Kurdish tribe closely linked to the AKP has been decisive. The latter has the power to inflict both symbolic and physical violence, to define the boundaries between “just” and “unjust”, and to establish order (p. 136).

10The final chapter shows how the Turkish state uses restorative justice mechanisms with the implementation of the Compensation Law that claims to recover property and death/health damages caused by terror to the people of the region. This law is an excellent example of the experience of violence that has been reduced to the calculation of property. The Turkish state has effectively operated as if it were an insurance company, generating new forms and domains of debt- management and creating its internal mechanisms of investment in death. The monopoly of the state was hereby justified through a relationship of indebtedness. Referring to the work of Marxist theorists such as David Harvey, Maurizio Lazzarato and David Graeber; Biner argues that legal practices reproduce the logic of the neoliberal state, which accumulates capital through dispossession, hence political domination and economic exploitation became interrelated (p. 168-169). The book also contains valuable reflections about precarious life in a place of continuous violence, quoting thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler (p. 20-22). In the state of exception, everyday practices reestablish the law through violence, it is here that margins are constituted, and localized forms of sovereigns enact their power. The distressed and dispossessed remain anyway in the grey zone where the distinction between the legal and illegal blurs and disappears and reappears constantly.

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Su Erol, « Zerrin Özlem Biner, States of Dispossession: Violence and Precarious Coexistence in Southeast Turkey », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 200 | 2022, 278-280.

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Su Erol, « Zerrin Özlem Biner, States of Dispossession: Violence and Precarious Coexistence in Southeast Turkey », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], 200 | octobre-décembre 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 01 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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