The Turkish election results don’t look too bad: the AKP a hair under 50% and falling short of 330 seats. Tayyip Erdoğan can’t be too happy. If he’s unhappy, then I’m happy. While following the returns I was thinking of a good German film I saw recently, ‘When We Leave’ (en France: L’Étrangère), directed by the Berlin-based Austrian actress Feo Aladağ (in her directorial debut). The protagonist is a woman in her late 20s—played by Sibel Kekilli, the Turkish-German actress who had the lead role in Fatih Akin’s excellent 2004 pic Head-On)—from a conservative Turkish immigrant family in Berlin, who flees her abusive husband and his family—as traditional as hers and all living together in a soulless suburban Istanbul housing project—, and returns home unannounced with her six-year old son, to her parents, brothers, and sister. Her family, with whom she is close, is happy to see her but as the marriage had been arranged, and the family’s honor and reputation were thus at stake—with both the families in Turkey and the community in Berlin—, the parents tried to get her to return to her husband in Turkey, abusiveness or not. She refused, leading to the inevitable family drama and horrific denouement.
The subject of the film is honor killings, which have afflicted Turkish immigrant communities in Europe and shocked public opinion in several countries, notably Germany and Sweden (and have been one element in public opposition to Turkey’s admission to the EU). I went to the movie fearing that it would treat the subject in a crude, heavy-handed manner and make Muslims out to look like barbarians, but it was in fact well-done, sophisticated, and nuanced in its portrayal. My wife, who is part Algerian, recognized a number of cultural patterns in the family dynamics in the movie and said it rang true (though honor killings, which afflict cultures in western, central, and south Asia, are non-existent in the Maghreb, as in sub-Saharan Africa, so this is not a problem that affects all Muslim or tribal societies). The members of the family were imprisoned in their culture and its codes of honor, which they neither questioned nor tried to explain, despite their decades of residence in Germany (and where the children had lived all their lives). The father and sons/brothers understood the grave consequences of their behavior but acted out anyway, as if by primal instinct.
If honor crimes are a scourge in Turkish communities in Europe, they’re of course a bigger one in Turkey itself. It had been my understanding, or maybe assumption, that honor killings in Turkey occurred almost exclusively in the country’s Kurdish population—which is traditional and tribal/clan-based—and were for the most part absent among ethnic Turks. But I’ve read in journalistic sources that this is not entirely the case, that it involves Turks too; and in the movie the family hailed from a village in Kayseri province, which is ethnically Turkish.
A UNDP/UNFPA-funded academic study, The Dynamics of Honour Killings in Turkey, published in 2005, had some interesting data that clarified the issue. The study was carried out in four cities where honor killings had occurred in significant numbers: Istanbul, Adana, Şanlıurfa, and Batman. The last of these is overwhelmingly Kurdish, with Şanlıurfa being ethnically mixed (Kurds, Turks, Turkmens, Arabs). Istanbul and Adana are Turkish, of course, but have witnessed a major influx of Kurdish migrants over the past three decades, and the neighborhoods of the two cities where the study was carried out were in fact mainly comprised of recent rural migrants from eastern Anatolia, i.e. mostly Kurds. So it does look like honor killings in Turkey and in Turkish immigrant communities in Europe are indeed mainly a Kurdish phenomenon (and Sunni, not Alevi).
Not entirely related to this, but sort of, I should mention a fine Bosnian film I saw this winter, ‘On the Path’ (en France: Le Choix de Luna), which is set in contemporary Sarajevo and focuses on a happily married couple in their early 30s trying to have a child. Then the husband, who happens to be unemployed, runs into a long lost buddy from the civil war—they were fighters together, we understand—, who had become a Salafist and spent his time in a sort of Salafist commune in the mountains, where all the women wear the niqab. The husband, under the malefic influence of his buddy, drinks the Islamist Kool-Aid and becomes a Salafist in turn. His adoring wife, played by the sublime Croatian actress Zrinka Cvitešić, goes out to the commune, hangs with the women, tries to comprehend what has happened to her beloved husband, and strives to get him to see reason. She wants their life back. The film does not adequately help us understand the husband’s transformation—of why he suddenly became a devout Muslim, when religion was of little interest to him before—but is absorbing and well-done nonetheless, and rightly makes the Salafists look like a religious cult (Muslim Moonies, or Branch Davidians). And the beautiful Zrinka Cvitešić, who is in almost every scene, is a pleasure to look at…
UPDATE: Here’s an article on films by German directors of Turkish descent. ‘When We Leave’ is discussed. (January 4, 2012)