Tag Archives: image

Çuval Olayı – the “hood event” revisited

Today someone purported to be a US soldier was harassed in Istanbul by members of the Turkey Youth Union (Türkiye Genç Birliği – TGB), a nationalist youth group. The group members put a sack over the head of the suspected soldier in what appears to be both a revenge for the 2003 çuval olyaı (hood event, described below) and for more generalized anger at US policies in the region. TGB members published video of their action as seen below.

This is not the first time the TGB has taken such action. I include below a brief analysis of the çuval olyaı and some of its significance for US/Turkish relations. This is an excerpt from a larger paper dealing with the US image in Turkey over the last 20 years.

Carney, Josh. 2014. “Of babies and burlap bags: key moments and the making of the US image in Turkey.” In K. Kanat, A.S. Tekelioğlu, K. Üstün eds. Change and adaptation in Turkish foreign policy. SETA Foundation, Washington DC, pp. 85-120.

Çuval Olayı

The çuval olayı or “hood event” refers to the detention of eleven Turkish Special Forces troops in Sulemaniye, Iraq on July 4, 2003. The soldiers, who had burlap bags placed over their heads during the arrest, were taken to Baghdad and released two days later, after intense diplomatic negotiations. The events that led up to the çuval olayı are disputed, at least publicly, with the US alleging that the soldiers were part of a plot to assassinate the governor of Kirkuk, and the Turkish government and military denying this. Neither government has apologized and the event is widely regarded as one of the worst moments in the history of US-Turkey relations.[1]

A photo that has come to represent the event depicts eleven people in the back of a military truck. Nine of them have bags over their heads and their hands tied behind their backs. The other two are uniformed soldiers with weapons. The image of the çuval olayı is, however, far greater than this photo. It is a complex including, to use Mitchell’s terms, at the very least verbal and mental images in addition to the graphic.

Metzel AP photo July 2003

The Turkish press and the Wikileaks cables from the US Embassy are two sources that give some sense of the immediate effects of the event. There are literally hundreds of press articles and columns on the event and it is the direct topic of at least nine embassy cables, though it also figures prominently in many of the embassy press reports released by Wikileaks. Because I am more interested in the long-term circulation of the image, I simply summarize some of the main points from these early sources.

The reaction in the Turkish press was universal outrage at the US but, depending on the press source, the relatively new Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AK Party) administration was also often criticized and accused of being soft or incompetent. Some Turkish papers made reference to the 1964 crisis in Cyprus and Lyndon Johnson’s letter of threat to remove NATO support should Turkey intervene, suggesting that this was the worst breach in bilateral relations since that time. Others highlighted the role that Kurdish forces may have played in the event, noting that the raids were certainly aimed at increasing Kurdish power relative to the area’s Turkmen minority. After a few days, some of the papers also began to ask what the Turkish forces were doing in Iraq, out of uniform and with explosives in their base. Overall, however, the tone of the articles was universally hostile to the US.

Embassy cables reveal that the State Department staff in Ankara were immediately aware of the potential damage this event could cause, but they do not seem to have had either the speedy access required to speak to US military officials in Iraq or the authority to diffuse the crisis. The cables indicate that AK Party officials felt the event could have been orchestrated by the military to prompt a crisis of confidence,[2] a theory that may be partially supported by the speed with which the event made its way into the Turkish press. Somewhat in contradiction to this claim, however, AK Party officials also pointed to a “silver lining” of the event, suggesting that it would probably weaken the military politically.[3]

Such contradictory explanations illustrate three points worthy of immediate remark: first, the emergent nature of the meaning such an event would take on. Like most developing news stories of national importance, the çuval olayı was the subject of ardent speculation on all sides. Its significance was, in a sense, up for grabs. The second point relates to the internal Turkish context in which the event began to circulate: the tension between elected governments and the military that characterized Turkey from at least the 1960 coup up to and beyond the time of the çuval olayı. This tension might be likened to competing strains of a bacterial culture being grown in a petri dish. In the Wikileaks cables, we see US officials aware of these various strains and trying to make some sense of them. Beyond this internal context is a third point of note: the external context of US-Turkey relations at the time of the event. The US invasion of Iraq was immensely unpopular in Turkey, with upwards of 90% of the population having grave misgivings about both the war and President Bush.[4] To continue the metaphor of the culture, the already present animosity towards the US would be the agar—the nutrient mixture on which the various strains are allowed to grow. Without this medium, the story, which quickly began to take shape around concrete images of the US, might have died, but in the gel of the merely four-month-old invasion of Iraq it flourished.[5]

The photograph noted previously continues to circulate as the most prominent image of the çuval olayı, both in the occasional newspaper accounts that come out with follow-ups on the story, and in the chat rooms and blogs of the Internet, where it is the most common image returned in a search for “çuval olayı.” The provenance of this image is a story in itself, but I wish to first discuss its socio-mythical significance. Given the sacred importance of the strength and dignity of the soldier in Turkish society,[6] the photo captures a moment that is very much in keeping with Kaja Silverman’s notion of historical trauma as an event that “manages to interrupt or even deconstitute what a society assumes to be its master narratives.”[7] For Meek, who builds on this definition, images themselves may provide an avenue for dealing with collective trauma: “rather than providing an authentic link with the past, images of violence and catastrophe often function as “screen savers” for group identity: they both memorialize suffering and deflect its emotional impact.”[8] Sontag makes a related point in her discussion of the relationship between photographs and memory by arguing “the problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering.”[9]

A 2010 post from a nationalist internet forum thread describing the raid is of interest in light of the above observations: “there was no resistance. They surrendered. They were made to lie on the ground. Their hands were tied behind their backs. And bags were put over their heads… I can’t forget that day. I can’t forget those photos. Turkish soldiers being in that state is hidden away like a ghoul in the most obscure corners of my memory.”[10] The description here reads like a description of certain kinds of trauma,[11] and the link between photos and memory here appears to be profound, in some sense supporting Sontag’s claim about people remembering “only” the photographs. Yet the detail of being made to lie on the ground is not shown in the photograph, and the phrase, “I can’t forget that day,” makes this sound almost like an eyewitness account. It may be, then, that the memory of the photograph is supplemented by oral and written accounts of the raid—some of which did come out in the days, months, and years after the event.

Of particular interest in this passage, though, is the image that accompanies it. Just under the words “I can’t forget those photos,” is a picture of the Suleymaniye raid, but it is not the photo that circulated in the press: rather, it is a still shot from the 2006 action film Valley of the Wolves Iraq[12] (hereafter designated simply as Iraq). The film, which details the exploits of a Turkish special operations agent who goes to Iraq to get revenge for the çuval olayı, was both the most expensive and the most successful Turkish film in history when it came out. Although the plot is fictional, it is a pastiche of seven different news events related to the US occupation of Iraq that circulated in the Turkish press between 2003 and 2005.[13]

Figure 5 - Guncelmeydan cuval image and text

Guncelmeydan çuval image and text

Whether or not the person writing this passage was aware that the image he or she had posted and, reportedly, would never forget, was from the film or not calls forth a question about the circulation of images and what constitutes trauma. This question becomes even more interesting when considering the provenance of the more common image of the çuval olayı.

That photo, taken by Mikhail Metzel for AP, first appeared in Turkey’s flagship paper Hürriyet on July 12, 2003. Its caption reads: “The day before yesterday American soldiers in Baghdad arrested those who were selling alcohol near the Dide river despite a prohibition, filling up trucks with the sellers as pictured. As with the Turkish soldiers in the Suleymaniye raid, bags were placed over the sellers’ heads and their hands were cuffed behind their backs.”[14] Though the original caption is entirely in line with the AP archive information for the photo, which was taken on July 10th, six days after the çuval olayı, subsequent uses of the photo, especially on the internet, would soon elide the “resemblance” noted here in favor of an indexical interpretation in the Peirceian sense. Now, when the photo appears in the press, it is simply “the” photo of the çuval olayı.[15]

Though neither of the images of the çuval olayı we have thus far examined are indexical representations of the event, they are both nonetheless clearly linked to the trauma it aroused. Meek’s notion of historical trauma is useful for understanding this relationship because, as he says, such trauma “cannot ultimately be grounded in any conception of realist representation (even a “traumatic” one) or removed from cultural circulation. Rather it is inherently caught up with the general production of images and narratives in contemporary culture.”[16] That is, the experience of trauma in our heavily mediated age is part and parcel with the acts of mediation that transmit it. To apply this point to the çuval olayı is to suggest that the trauma is neither contained in nor caused by purported photos of the event; neither, at least on the greater social level, is it contained in the experience of those who were there on that day. The historical trauma of the çuval olayı is a shifting reality that moves with the images that are added to it and the way they are received.

One of the images that has been added to the cultural memory/trauma that is the çuval olayı is the verbal image of Turkish and American soldiers drinking tea together, days or even hours before the raid. This event is mentioned in Iraq, providing an excuse of sorts for why the soldiers did not act immediately when they came under threat: “the people we’d just yesterday sipped tea with and fought alongside raided our base.” Ten months after the film came out, a retired lieutenant general who had been involved in the area at the time spoke out on Turkish television, noting, “They never guessed that something like this would happen. Because just a little earlier they had sat down and had tea together.”[17]

Whatever its origins, the story of the tea drinking has circulated widely as a verbal image. It was captured neither in photograph nor in film of the fictionalized account, but by the summer of 2009, when I was doing interviews on a related topic, it came up all the time. The analysis of E, the patron of a bookshop in Beşiktaş, was typical. Our topic was the book Metal Storm, a 2004 account of a fictional US invasion of Turkey that was to take place in 2007. Storm mentions the çuval olayı once, but the event is not the overt focus of the book.[18] Nonetheless, E returned to the çuval olayı at least four times during the course of our three-hour conversation and each time he mentioned the tea drinking. His emphasis was on the outrageousness of the US soldiers’ actions rather than on the matter of why the Turks had not fired. It was with a show of near disbelief that he remarked, “Imagine, you’re putting a bag over the head of someone you’d drunk tea with two hours before.” For E, such a circumstance was nearly beyond comprehension, and yet it bore repeating. It may even have been the most salient feature of the event.

This addition to the image highlights the living and shifting nature of the çuval olayı in popular memory, suggesting that Meek’s notion of historical trauma is quite relevant, but how does this trauma take shape politically? If we return to the verbal image of US and Turkish soldiers drinking tea together, we can see that one of its key qualities is that it dehumanizes the US soldiers to some degree. They lack the most basic element of honor insofar as they have, according to the image, ignored the social bond of a shared cup of tea. Rather than simply being an opponent, this addition to the image (or, rather, the subtraction of the quality of honor) helps to create out of the US soldier an enemy. We see an amplified case of the same phenomenon in Iraq, where only one US soldier ever questions all the heinous war crimes being committed by his fellow troops, and he is quickly shot by his commander for doing so. Politically speaking, both the tea story and the Iraq film represent a shift in the image complex to the state that DeLuca (1999) calls “imagefare.” Though he does not explicitly define this term, he uses it to refer to political struggle waged primarily through what he calls “image events.” In his use, such events are one of the few recourses of a lesser power (eco-activists, in his case) that has minimal access to the traditional tools of political activism: media, courts, money, and brute force. While it is clear that imagefare need not be (and indeed is not) restricted to the hands of the weak, we can see in both the tea story and the Iraq film a parallel in the sense that the lesser military power—Turkey writ large—exacts a measure of symbolic revenge for actions that are perceived of as wrong.

This immediately invites the question of whether such symbolic revenge—perhaps itself a strategy of coping with trauma—is likely to remain symbolic. US Embassy cables reveal that staff were preoccupied by precisely this matter when the film came out: “two concerned outside experts on Turkey told us they were worried that the movie would define the U.S. in the minds of many young Turk [sic]. One remarked that these young people would later perform their military service, and could perhaps comprise the most anti-American generation of Turkish soldiers ever.”[19] That is, those working at the embassy saw the potential for the symbolic images to take on material reality in the form of the next generation of Turks.[20]

This concern leads us to the final stop in tracing one particular lineage of the çuval olayı. In October 2011, the youth group Turkey Youth Union (Türkiye Genç Birliği – TGB) “reenacted” the çuval olayı on a US soldier in the southwestern town of Bodrum. This nationalist-Kemalist oriented student organization is committed to defending Turkey from what they perceive as the external threat of imperialism and the internal threats of religious influence. Two of their primary modes of activity are demonstrations and what might be called imagefare. They staged the çuval reenactment with media in mind, taking video and still photos, which were released to the public at a press conference seven months later, and some of which are still available online.[21] Of note is that many of these people were probably between nine and 15 years old at the time of the original event; 12 to 18 at the release of Iraq. What the members of the TGB performed is certainly an image event in DeLuca’s terms: they staged an image production that takes advantage of media cycles in order to put forth a political agenda. Furthermore, from their perspective, this is an agenda of the oppressed relative to US power.

Figure 6 - TGB cuval revenge

TGB çuval revenge

Figure 7 - TGB cuval press conference

TGB çuval press conference

Stepping back from this most recent iteration of the image it is worth taking a moment to trace its evolution. It began with a news story that related a traumatic experience for eleven individuals. This trauma affected many Turks who did not know the individuals involved because of its socio-mythical implications—a foreign force negating the power of the sacred Turkish soldier. Though no indexical image of the event has yet come to light, related images nonetheless became instrumental in retelling, (re)living, remembering, and perhaps revenging the trauma, to such a degree in some cases that people who were not directly involved seem to have felt that they witnessed the event. Some of the later images to join the image complex put forth a simplified enemy that becomes a target for emotional and political dissatisfaction, as well as nationalist identification. Ultimately, these trends culminate in a physical manifestation of revenge that is a direct reference to the original event, carried out without regard for the original actors and focusing, rather, primarily on lines of national identity.

[1] 109th Congress, “The State of Us-Turkey Relations,” Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, 11 May 2005; Zeyno Baran, “Patriot Games,” The National Interest Spring(2006); Ioannis N Girgoriadis, “Friends No More?: The Rise of Anti-American Nationalism in Turkey,” The Middle East Journal 64, no. 1 (2010); Aylin Guney, “Anti-Americanism in Turkey: Past and Present,” Middle Eastern Studies 44, no. 3 (2008); Soli Özel, Şuhnaz Yılmaz, and Abdullah Akyüz, “Rebuilding a Partnership: Turkish-American Relations for a New Era, a Turkish Perspective,”(Istanbul: Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD), 2009).

[2] Wikileaks, “03ankara4278 – 2003-07-08 15:09 – Turkey: Establishment Seethes While Ak Government Maintains Measured Stance on Iraq Incident,” Wikileaks, 30 August 2011; “03ankara4319 – 2003-07-10 04:19 – Turkish Reactions to Iraq Incident: Ak Government Protecting Close Bilateral Ties with U.S.,” Wikileaks, 30 August 2011.

[3] “03ankara4240 – 2003-07-07 10:51 – Turkey: Growing Hostility toward Usg in Wak of N. Iraq Incicent,” Wikileaks, 30 August 2011. Nine years later, in the wake of a series of struggles between the AK Party government and the Turkish Armed Forces, the latter claim has come to political fruition in terms of trials such as Balyoz and Ergenekon, which are largely perceived to have reigned in the military. In some popular understandings, this outcome is now seen a deliberate AK Party strategy that began with the çuval olayı. According to a pots and pans seller I spoke with in the Sülimaniye neighborhood of Istanbul in the summer of 2012, the AK Party allowed the event to happen specifically to weaken the image of the military in the public eye. This same man felt that the US had used the event to get back at the Turkish Parliament for refusing to authorize a ground invasion of Iraq through Turkish soil in March 2003. These two explanations would seem to be at odds with each other, as the US take on the March events is that it was an AK Party failure to follow-through on a commitment. That is, the two “causes” purported by this explanation entail antithetical understandings of who was exercising influence over whom. Contradictory explanations are not in short supply with regard to this event, as another informant twisted himself in knots trying to sort the causes out. Though he started by blaming the US, he thought the event was so egregious that no one in the US government or military could be stupid enough as to allow it. He assumed, therefore, that it must have been a counter-agent planted by someone else to harm the US. Since it had harmed the Turks as well, he thought the event should be the topic of a detailed joint investigation.

[4] Nasuh Uslu et al., “Turkish Public Opinion toward the United States,” Middle East Review of International Affairs 3, no. 9 (2005).

[5] Though global opposition to the Iraq war was high and Turkey, as a both a neighbor and a Muslim majority country, certainly had ample cause to be concerned about such an invasion, an additional element of context is worth mentioning here. The country had suffered immense economic hardship as a result of the 1990 Gulf War and had seen little in the way of US assistance to compensate for this difficulty.

[6] Sam Kaplan, The Pedagogical State: Education and the Politics of National Culture in Post-1980 Turkey(Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006); Kerem Öktem, Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation(London: Zed Books Ltd, 2011); Umut Özkırımlı and Spyros Sofos, Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey(London: Hurst Publishers Ltd., 2008).

[7] Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins(New York: Routledge, 1992), 55.

[8] Meek, Trauma and Media: Theories, Histories, and Images, 9.

[9] Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 70.

[10] Türk-Kan, “Re: Tayyip Ve Abdullah ‘Çuval Olayı’nı Önceden Biliyor Muydu? – Hafızamıdaki Hortlak [Re: Did Tayyip and Abdullah Know About the ‘Hood Incident’ Ahead of Time? – the Ghoul in Our Minds],” http://www.guncelmeydan.com/pano/tayyip-ve-abdullah-cuval-olayi-ni-onceden-biliyor-muydu-t18244-15.html. “Direniş olmadı. Teslim oldular. Yere yatırdılar. Ellerini arkadan bağladılar. Ve başlarına çuvalı geçirdiler… Ben o günü unutamam. O fotoğrafları unutamam. Türk askerlerinin o hali hafızamın en kuytu yerlerinde birer hortlak gibi saklanır.” The final sentence might more artfully be translated “The image of Turkish soldiers in that state is hidden away…” I have translated it in the plainer form to avoid over-emphasizing the importance of the image here.

[11] Some definitions of trauma refer specifically to the repressing and/or forgetting of the event as an aspect of trauma. In the era of digital media, however, these definitions have begun to shift to encompass the ways in which forgetting may not take place.

[12] Of some interest here is Sontag’s key distinction between photography and moving pictures: ”Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it. The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb. Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall.” Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 20. Though the image that accompanies the quoted passage is a photograph, it is a still from a film, and it is far from certain which is the more potent medium in this case.

[13] This correspondence is the topic of a chapter of my forthcoming dissertation on the blurring of fact and fiction in Turkish popular media.

[14] Hürriyet Staff, “Jr Talabani De Filme Çekmiş [Jr Talabani Also Shot a Video],” Hürriyet, 12 July 2003. Bağdat’taki Amerikan askerleri, önceki gün Dide Nehri kenarında yasak olmasına rağmen alkollü içki satan bazı satıcıları kamyonlara doldurup böyle gözaltına aldı. Süleymaniye baskınında Türk askerlerine yapıldığı gibi stıcıların başlarına çuval geçirildi, kolları arkadan kelepçelendi.

[15] For example: Taraf Staff, “Sabah Eğitim, Ikindide Baskın [Morning Education, Midafternoon Raid],” Taraf, 4 April 2011.

[16] Meek, Trauma and Media: Theories, Histories, and Images, 39.

[17] Hürriyet Staff “Çuval Olayı’nın Kilit Ismi Konuştu [Hood Event’s Key Name Spoke],” Hürriyet 18 December 2006. Hiç böyle birşey olacğıını tahmin etmemişler. Çünkü daha önce birlikte çay içmişler ve oturmuşlar.

[18] In conversations with the editor and with the authors, however, I learned that the incident was both an inspiration for the writing and one of the events that actually made the publishers think it was a viable project.

[19] Wikileaks, “06ankara783 – 2006-02-17 14:44 – Turkey: Valley of the Wolves and Anti-Americanism,” Wikileaks, 30 August 2011.

[20] Such concerns were clearly prescient, as subsequent polls have consistently shown that those in Turkey have among the most negative opinions of the US worldwide. For example: Steven Kull et al., “America’s Global Image in the Obama Era,” World Public Opinion: Global Public Opinion on International Affairs, http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/views_on_countriesregions_bt/623.php?nid=&id=&pnt=623&lb=btvoc; Pew, “Global Unease with Major Powers: Rising Environmental Concern in 47-Nation Survey,”(Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2007); WPO, “Why Turks Feel Threatened by the Us,” World Public Opinion: Global Public Opinion on International Affairs, http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/brmiddleeastnafricara/393.php?lb=brme&pnt=393&nid=&id=.

[21] News coverage of the event and press conference: http://tinyurl.com/dylqd2a

Photos from TGB: http://www.dha.com.tr/dhaalbumdetay.asp?kat=22083

Eight members of the group are currently on trial for the assault and face potential prison sentences of up to 16 years.