This piece by Deniz Gundogan Ibrisim is the sixth post in the Emotional Ecologies series edited by Sarah York-Bertram and Jessica DeWitt. In this series, contributors were asked to reflect on what role emotion plays in connecting humans to their environment and more-than-human beings.
On the first pages of Orhan Pamuk’s widely acclaimed political novel Snow, Kars, the historic city that sits in the cradle of the southern Caucasus, closer to Yerevan, Armenia and Tbilisi, Georgia is cut off from the world through three days of unremitting snow and impending blizzard.1 The narrator reflects on this isolated world as follows:
Were the streets empty because of the snow, or were these frozen pavements always so desolate? As he walked, he took careful notice of writings on the walls—the election posters, advertisement for schools and restaurants. […] Through the frozen windows of a half-empty tea house, Ka saw a group of man huddled around a television set. It cheered him just a little to see, still standing, these old tone Russian houses that in his memory had made Kars such a special place. The Snow Place Hotel was one of those elegant Baltic buildings. […] The arch was 110 years old and high enough for horse-drawn carriages to pass through with ease; Ka felt a shiver of excitement as he walked under it. […] The old decrepit Russian buildings with stove pipes sticking out of every window, the thousand-year-old Armenian church towering over the wood depots and electric generators, the pack of dogs barking at every passerby from a five-hundred-year-old stone bridge that once belonged to wealthy Russians and Armenians. […] These sights spoke of a strange and powerful loneliness. It was as if he were in a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if snowing at the end of the world.2
As the narrator reflects, Ka wanders through a decaying city haunted by its glorious former selves: there are architectural remnants of the once vast Ottoman Empire; the grand Armenian church stands empty, testifying to the massacre of its worshipers; there are also ghosts of Russian rulers and pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic as well as indication of the “modernization” campaign.
The novel asks us to contemplate the imperial, and I suggest inter-imperial debris that rely on the co-emergence of empires, institutions, language regimes, stratified economies, and literary cultures.3 More significantly, the above excerpt from Snow, I claim, brings upon emotions that are not simply “within” or “without” ourselves, but create the very effect of the surfaces or boundaries of bodies and worlds. Ka embarks here on his own wonderous journey into an imagined world oscillating between the troubled past and the chaotic present. He walks the streets, playing the intrepid reporter, visiting tea houses, talking to people, and taking notes. The reader follows Ka in his struggle to come to terms with both his exilic past and the emergent chaotic present in Kars. Ka immediately finds himself in an intricate set of circumstances, such as political battles between Islamists and Secularists as well as bloody assassinations. As he is caught in the web of political conspiracy, the snow, for Ka, becomes tiring, irritating, and terrorizing as it gives rise to the interruption of the city life, chaos, and murder.
At the same time, however, Ka escapes into a second world that is more diverse and richer than the ordinary sturdy houses and the middle-class comforts of his childhood in Istanbul. Over the course of three days walking slowly in the heavy snowstorm in Kars, Ka reunites with his childhood love İpek and is drawn into a world populated by Islamists, Kurds, staunch secularists, and everyone in between. More significantly, he reunites with the old Russian ruins and the remnants of Armenian community during the Ottoman period, the life of Greeks, Georgians, Circassians, and Kurds, the hidden stories of endless wars, rebellions, and massacres. In this way, both Ka and the city itself evoke, remember, and mourn its past Russian, Ottoman, Armenian entangled heritage. In this way, we are encouraged to actively trace the lingering affective archives of empire or what communities—both human and nonhuman—are left with.
We are encouraged to actively trace the lingering affective archives of empire or what communities—both human and nonhuman—are left with.
In Imperial Debris, Ann Stoler claims that empire does not easily recede in the folds of a bygone era. The imperial formations, instead, point to “processes of ongoing ruination […] that ‘bring ruin upon,’ exerting material and social force in the present.”4 Ongoing ruination is “what people are left with.” The ruination, then, neither ends with the end of empire nor through decolonization. At the same time, ruination presents an opportunity to envision new futures for a city, whether that is by rewriting its past or throwing off old assumptions and proposing radical change.
Urban ruin, collapse, or decay are a challenge to capitalist narratives of unbounded and fast-paced progress. From this perspective, ruins and ruin of empire can be viewed as epicenters of novel claims and renewed emotions; as an affective counter-history; as sites that animate new possibilities. Ruins and ruination process are linked to both nonhuman realm and the mindscapes of people who inherited postimperial worlds with and through myriad of complex and entangled emotions such as excitement, melancholy, and grief. Thus, “emotional ecologies” surface as the protagonist’s emotional engagement with built environment, ruins, and narrative—what Avery Gordon wrote about as “endings that are not over”; endings with an after that retains a sense of emotions and vitality.5 Exploring emotional ecologies opens possibilities for imagining new kinds of human-nonhuman relations, more deeply theorizing imperial debris, power, and resistance. Emotional ecologies disclose lived experience and relational subjectivities that insist on continuity in the midst of rupture and on persistence in the face of loss.
Emotional ecologies disclose lived experience and relational subjectivities that insist on continuity in the midst of rupture and on persistence in the face of loss.
It is quite striking that emotions and emotional ecologies are not limited only to Pamuk’s novel and its characters but also encompass the reader. Since its publication (especially over the last two decades) Kars has been particularly a famous destination for the trip of an investigation into why Pamuk chose to stage his most political novel and the one that undoubtedly contributed to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. Writers, international journalists, and literature lovers who make the most of the journey, want to see that they could find out two things: the first one is what questions Kars posed to Pamuk back then, and the second, what Snow has to say nearly two decades after it was published. Therefore the fast train from Ankara to Kars, the “Doğu Expresi” (The Eastern Express) has recently become the hottest domestic and international travel destination. The train is often fully booked from December through March, prompting thousands to buy their tickets in advance. Although “Doğu Expresi” runs year long, the route is highly popular in winter because many locals and tourists want to see the vast melancholic landscape veiled in snow, referring to Pamuk’s emotional ecologies in the novel. This curiosity, I suggest, works against the modality of the passé composé—of a past safely closed off from the present, and unlocks sites and circumstances of dispossession: the magnificent, ruined city of Ani.
Surfacing Memories, Entangling Emotions: Ani, an Abandoned City of Ghosts
The vast geography of the eastern Anatolia houses Ani, which has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage and located around fifty kilometers outside of Kars, right on the border with Armenia. Ruled by a dizzying array of kingdoms and empires over the centuries–from the Byzantines to the Ottomans–the city of Ani had its heyday in the 10th and 11th centuries, housed thousands of people and was an important center of the region. At that time, the city was the capital of the Armenian Kingdom, strategically located on the Silk Route between China and Europe. Ani was a cultural hub and regional power under the medieval Bagratid Armenian kingdom centered in the Eastern Anatolia—the Asiatic peninsula that today makes up most of current Turkey. It expanded into the northern branches of the Silk Road. It was a rich trade metropolis with bazaars overflowing with spices and precious metals. When the Silk Route became less important as a trade route between East and West, Ani lost its key role. The city known as “city of 1,001 churches,” suffered from conquests and natural disasters. Earthquakes destroyed much of the magnificent architecture. Over the next few centuries, Ani was abandoned and forgotten due to political conflicts. Today it remains as a remote and desolate place of a scattering of broken cathedrals and empty streets, left to deteriorate for over hundred years.6
Pamuk does not explicitly narrate Ani in Snow. Throughout the novel, we obliquely read about the ruined medieval Armenian city. During his visit in Kars, Ka works with Recai Bey, who emerges as a fictional expert on the history of Kars and Ani. In fact, Recai Bey appears as the embodiment of the real time writer Sezai Yazıcı who has devoted his entire life for storying the forgotten history of Ani.7 Some of Yazıcı’s works include Ani Bibliography, Ani Through the Eyes of Travelers, and Secrets of Ani. Thus, Ani is obliquely mentioned in the novel. And yet, Ani significantly reveals emotional pasts concealed, repressed, and rejected while it represents an affective and vital site for contesting and challenging the very ground of what and who counts as dead or alive. In other words, Ani manifests that the past—through material objects that affect bodies—exerts on the living. Today, as we walk among the magnificent ruins of Ani such as churches, monasteries, and high city walls, we see that the past is embodied in the affective topography of the region, providing not only a melancholic gaze, but a critical vantage point on the inter-imperial remains and the present.
Pamuk’s Snow as a fiction of a sprawling and affective web of events, places, human and nonhuman forces, ruins, and imperial debris operates as a remarkable work of memory as it memorializes what remains both emotionally and physically in Kars province and beyond.
Pamuk’s Snow as a fiction of a sprawling and affective web of events, places, human and nonhuman forces, ruins, and imperial debris operates as a remarkable work of memory as it memorializes what remains both emotionally and physically in Kars province and beyond. More significantly, it is also about what melancholically returns and what haunts us that might otherwise be celebrated as an unencumbered, vibrant start for connecting us to our so-called disenchanted world in a nuanced way. In his essay “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin reflects on how works of art live on in their translations. For Benjamin, life is not merely defined by “organic corporeality” but by the very fact that something “has a history of its own,” creating emotions and vitality.8 Pamuk’s depiction of Kars and its environs where objects and landscapes, ideas and emotions come alive in their translations into lived experiences resonates with Benjamin’s concept of vitality and forces us to rethink absence, loss and demise that engender historical reckoning in the twenty-first century.
Benjamin, Walter.“The Task of the Translator.” Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996).
Doyle, Laura. Inter-imperiality: Vying Empires, Gendered Labor, and the Literary Arts of Alliance (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2020).
Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
Pamuk, Orhan. Snow. Translated by Maureen Freely. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).
Stoler, Ann. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
Yazıcı, Sezai . Ani Bibliography (Kars: Serka Kalkinma Ajansi, 2017).
Yazıcı, Sezai Secrets of Ani (Kars: Serka Kalkinma Ajansi, 2017).
Yazıcı, Sezai. Through the Eyes of Travelers Ani (Kars: Serka Kalkinma Ajansi, 2017).
1 Set in in the early 1990s Turkey in eastern Anatolia, Kars, a Turkish-Armenian border city, Snow depicts the tension between the secularism established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s and the rise of political Islam afterwards as well as the cultural divide between the Westernized élite and the theistic masses. In order to report on the municipal elections and on a wrenching series of suicides by young women wearing headscarves, the protagonist poet Ka travels back to Kars after twelve years of political exile in Frankfurt. For three days, it snows non-stop in Kars, which cuts the city off from the outside world. The reader follows Ka in his struggle to come to terms with both his exilic past and the emergent chaotic political present in Turkey and particularly in Kars.
2 Pamuk, Snow, 8-10.
3 See Laura Doyle’s Inter-Imperiality: Vying Empires, Gendered Labor, and the Literary Arts of Alliance (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2020) where Doyle brilliantly theorizes the co-emergence of empires, institutions, language regimes, stratified economies, and literary cultures over the longue durée. Doyle, Inter-Imperiality, 35-38.
4 Ann Stoler, Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 196.
5 Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
6 In 2018, however, in order to rework the memory of Ani, the exhibition, “Poetry of Stones, Ani: An Architectural Treasure on Cultural Crossroads” opened at the Depo Gallery in Karaköy, Istanbul. The exhibition was dedicated to the restoration work that has been done in Ani, with collaboration of the Russian and Turkish archaeologists. As part of this exhibition, Depo also held a panel about the history of the restoration work in Ani, and the project’s current status. The exhibition and workshop aimed at a revelation to find out the status of the ruins in their already dilapidated state. The exhibition also became a catalyzer for the historical importance of Ani as a forgotten nexus.
7 Pamuk, Snow, 170-72.
8 Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator.” Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), 253-63.