Belatedness of Modernity, Hastiness of Earthquake: Avcılar, An Ethnography

Mehmet Ercan

(Link to CV)



“Some populations prepare their future disasters systematically” (Moseley in Hoffman & Oliver-Smith, 2002: 6)

On the August 17th of 1999 around 3 a.m. the Izmit-Earthquake struck Izmit with a magnitude of 7.4 and caught the residents of Izmit at sleep. Izmit, located around 90 km East of Istanbul, is an industrial city, which has the biggest population density and GDP of Turkey. The Izmit-Earthquake resulted in 17,000 dead victims killed by building collapses, another 40,000 injured and about 200,000 homeless. On November 12th of the same year another quake struck Düzce, with an epicenter about 100 km East of Izmit-Earthquake, with a 7.2 magnitude, killing almost another 700.In Istanbul, the district of Avcılar, located at the South West of Istanbul, was the only one,which was seriously affected by the Izmit-Earthquake. Even though it is nearly 100 km from the epicenter, 27 buildings collapsed, about 2076 buildings were heavily damaged, 274 people died and 630 more were wounded (Özmen in Şen, 2000: 351), whereas districts such as Bakırköy, Zeytinburnu and Mecidiyeköy, located closer to the epicenter than Avcılar, were not seriously damaged.The Marmara quakes were the most recent quakes of series, which began in 1939 to the East of Turkey and ran along from East to West the 1,500 km North Anatolian fault line, which is the plate border between the Anatolian and Eurasian Plate. Therefore, the next quake in this series is expected to take place South of Istanbul. Seismologists say the risk of a 7.6 magnitude earthquake striking Istanbul till 2030 is up to 70 percent high.1  Scientists think, it is very likely that between 73,000 and 120,000 people will be injured if a major quake shakes Istanbul, home to 15 million. Worst-case scenarios see 40 percent of the city hit by an earthquake with five million people affected. Best case scenarios see “only” 10,000 houses collapse and 1.5 million people affected.So taking Avcılar as my main research site, my film / research project aims to focus on the following questions:

(1) How the inhabitants of Avcılar (Istanbul) cope with such a risk in their daily life, and what is the role of Islam in those coping strategies?, and (2) What are the physical, economical, social and ideological reasons, that lie behind such a fatal vulnerability?2 Japon Int. Co. Agency report [from 2002] puts the probability at 62± 12 percent within the next 30 years and 32± 12 percent within the next decade (The World Bank & U.N., 2010: 211).

A view of Istanbul from the Bosphorus Bridge. © Mehmet Ercan 2011


I. Context of the Research Project

Personal Touch

Back in 1999, at the age of 19, I was at the second year of my film studies in Istanbul. On the night of the Izmit-Earthquake I was alone in the parental home alone and awake. All in all, the quake took about 45 seconds. Even though there was no severe harm done by the quake at our district, or generally in the Asian side of Istanbul, however, due to broadcasted pictures of victims and building collapses it took us as a family awhile to overcome the first panic. For the coming months and years, precautions at personal, familial, communal and local levels were always on the daily agenda. In our apartment building, neighbours, renters, landlords were never agreed on the budget and scale of the restoration and reinforcement processes of our concrete-framed, seven storybuilding.The final agreement was not beyond the esthetical restoration of the outer façade by repairing the demoralizing looking cracks rather than taking care of the steel skeleton of thebuilding.My father was discussing harshly in the family to sell the centrally located apartment and move to the outskirts of Istanbul, building our own one story house in a green area. My sister and me, both university students back then, were against the idea. My mother on the other hand was doing her best to prepare the family for the next possible quake. She prepared an emergency kit for all family members and put them under the beds. These kits consisted of a package of biscuits, a pet bottle of water, a battery torch and a whistle. As the time passed away, the battery of the torch leaked out, and at least in my case the biscuits were eaten and the pet bottle was empty...I have been living in Berlin since five years by now. I sometimes think about it and realise how lucky one is in Germany being far away from the hazard of an earthquake, and more importantly, far away from the issue itself in the daily life. But my relationship with “the Istanbul-Earthquake” has been even more problematic than in case of staying in Turkey. My ordinary day in Berlin starts with turning on the computer and checking Turkish news portals to see first of all, apart from the headlines in politics and sports, if there has been an earthquake. I observe that my Turkish friends in Berlin, who are like me students coming from Istanbul, have similar concerns. My guilt feelings rises during my long phone calls or skype-sessions to Istanbul. My mother once even told me in her most serious manner that it is good that I live abroad so that at least one (male) member of the family would survive if such a “worst-case scenario” is realized.


Hastiness of Earthquake: Avcılar

Avcılar, the most seriously affected district by the 1999 Izmit-Earthquake in Istanbul, is located on the northern shore of the Marmara Sea. Once a small Greek village with 50 houses, the population of the village rise from 340 in 1935 to 1,250 in 1950 and to 15,000 in 1975. Avcılar became even a munipalicity within the Greater City of Istanbul as early as 1980 and its population continued to rise:The central authority put the first plan for Avcilar together in 1973. It estimated that the size of the population in 1990 would be 40,000. Three years later [1976], a new plan (an MDP)was drafted, which predicted that the size of the population in 1990 would be 65,000. Under this plan, the height of buildings was not to exceed two floors... One year later, in 1977, a third plan was approved. This time, the population estimate for 1990 was 150,000, and the height of buildings was set at a maximum of four floors. Finally, in 1978, the central and local governments signed a protocol that paved the way for the legalisation of unplanned developments. Instead of drafting a holistic plan prior to development, the planning authorities produced a post-development plan in a piecemeal fashion that assigned gross densities, such as 700, 900, 1,000 or 1,100 persons per hectare in residential areas, meaning a population of approximately 400,000 in 2000. This figure was ten times larger than the population estimate contained in the first plan (prepared only five years earlier). In the census of 1997, the population of Avcilar was recorded at 213,000; most houses remained unoccupied [emphasis added]. (Sengezer & Koç 2005: 178-179) As Sengezer & Koc show beautifully in their “critical analysis of earthquakes and urban planning in Turkey”, Avcılar is a good candidate to do the field research not only because of the process of hyper-urbanization but also because it is located on the North Anatolian Fault. Last but not least, as Oliver-Smith argues, “the conjunction of a human population and a potentially destructive agent” in Avcılar should not necessarily produce a disaster. A disaster in Avcılar has been made inevitable by “the historically produced pattern of vulnerability, evidenced in location,infrastructure, socio-political structure, production patterns, and ideology, that characterizes a society” (Oliver-Smith, 1999: 29, emphasis added).I argue that the vulnerability in the case of Avcılar, and Istanbul in general, is primarily dueto the fact that the modernity is / was belated. Borrowing the term “belatedness of modernity” from Gregory Jusdanis, I want to show the fate of a modernizing project introduced to a society that was unprepared for it; “a stratified, agrarian, and noncapitalist society often hostile to rationalism, Enlightenment, and secularism” (Jusdanis, 1991: xi, xii).


Belatedness of Modernity: “Crazy Project”

While brainstorming about my next ethnographic film project, it seemed that the topic of the Istanbul-Earthquake found me. The “convergent catastrophe” (Moseley, 1999, 2002) of Fukushima released the trigger for discussions about “green politics” all around the world. The German coalition for example has agreed to abolish all nuclear plants at latest by 2023. Turkey, meanwhile, goes ahead with planning to build her first ever nuclear plant and has other plans for the year 2023. On June 12th 2011, the general election in Turkey was held. The current Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party AKP (Justice and Development Party) won a third term in parliamentary elections with a legendary success of almost 50% of the votes. The slogan of AK Party's election campaign was “Türkiye Hazır Hedef 2023” (“Turkey is Ready, Target set for 2023”)2 referencing to the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey.3 Just before the elections Erdoğan began to announce his projects for his third governmental term, which he names in his own words “ustalık dönemi” ( period of mastery). Two of these projects were especially about the transcontinental Megacity Istanbul and were referred by the prime minister himself within one package as “Çılgın Proje” (Crazy Project). The first of the two projects,“Kanal İstanbul” (Istanbul Canal), deals about a new water passage planning to be built on the outskirts of the European side of the city, connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea in order to reduce traffic in the Bosporus, one of the world's busiest and most dangerous shipping lanes 4.The second project, the so-called “Two New Cities”, aim to build up two new settlements as extensions of Istanbul rather than constructing two separate cities that will “help provide safer housing for the city residents living in earthquake danger zones”.5 Erdoğan announced that these two settlements would be built on each side of Bosphorus with a population of about one million each. The one settlement on the European side would be built in largely uninhabited mining areas along the Black Sea coast where the risk of earthquakes is lower. Announcing Istanbul Canal at an international press conference, Erdoğan desribed the plan as a “dream” that “Turkish and Ottoman leaders have nurtured for centuries” and added that “Turkey deserves to enter 2023 with such a major, crazy and wonderful project”.6


The earthquake simulation truck of Turkish Earthquake Foundation in Avcilar. © Mehmet Ercan 2011


Research Questions

As has been the case with my last ethnographic film project,7 I am planning to “invest” two years time for the pre-, post- and production itself, for my new film project about the Istanbul-Earthquake.At the second stage, I started to think about doing a PhD “around” this new film project. As someone seeing himself more “image-and-sequence-based” than “word-and-sentence-based” in his “anthropological thought” (MacDougall 1997:292), it was the idea of making a new ethnographic film that motivated me to write this proposal at the first place. My film / thesis aims to focus on the following two main questions: (1) How the inhabitants of Istanbul, in this specific case the people of Avcılar, cope with such a risk in their daily life and what is the role of Islam in those coping strategies? and (2) What are the physical, economical and social reasons that lie behind such a fatal vulnerability? Related to the second question one might than ask following: (a) What is the role of “belated Modernity” in the vulnerability of Istanbul? (b) How Islamic – rather than how modern – is the Islamic Modernity, represented by the Islamic government in Turkey? Also, I will also be challenged with the questions of visual anthropology: Is it possible for a film to answer to (or even to ask) such complex questions (stated above), accepted that film is a “thin” description “compared to anthropological writing” (Kirsten Hastrup in MacDougall, 1997)?



My film / thesis will be composed of three layers (see Frömming, 2006: 11), each layer somehow interacting with each other: The first layer of my project is what can be called an ethnographic layer, where I will try to reflect the concrete situation in the chosen site, namely Avcılar. In the second ethnological layer, I will give the ethnographic data, collected from the first layer, a theoretical reading. On the third theoretical level of this inductive reasoning method, I will try to reflect the relationship of “belated modernity” and earthquake as a “natural disaster”.

For the ethnographic layer of my research, I will use long-term fieldwork, participant observation as methods. As far as the film is concerned, I will make use of participatory camera and feedback, two core features of “shared anthropology“, which enables “sharing” with the people who, before, were only the objects of study (Rouch, 2003: 44). Another tool in my kit will be mainly “oral history” as a research tool since the historical record of the research site, Avcılar, shows that most of the radical changes happened after 1950s, which can be traced back in form of interviews.


Atatürk, the founder of "modern" Turkey - Mosaic art on a state building in Avcilar. © Mehmet Ercan 2011


Theoretical Framework

The refinement of the concept of “vulnerability” was the most important departure in disaster field from the hazard / event / behaviour focus. Hewitt rejected the dominant view that disaster is basically the collapse of the productive functions of the social order and posited that most natural disasters are more explainable in terms of the “normal” order of things. The conditions of inequality and subordination in a society rather than the accidental geophysical features of a place, “decides who is more likely to be exposed to dangerous geophysical agents” (Hewitt in Hoffman & Oliver-Smith, 2002: 61). Dombrowsky argues that such a social theory of disasters constitutes a critical theory per se (in Hoffman & Oliver-Smith, 2002: 58).

Another point that I find important for this research is about the land use plans and policies. In developed countries that live with the threat of earthquakes these plans and policies are gaining importance in reducing or eliminating the long-term threat to people and property. Whereas the transfer of the planning models that have been designed for delevoped countries fail to produce successful results in terms of disaster mitigation in less developed nations because settlement policies are not rooted in the public conscience (Sengezer & Koc 2005: 171, 193). I would argue that “the failure of transfering the planning models” in developing countries, where “settlement policies are not rooted in the public conscience” can be read as the “the fate of the modernizing process introduced to a society that was unprepared for it” (Jusdanis, 1991: xi, xii). Oliver-Smith's historical approach sees the Peruvian earthquake of 1970 as an event which “in certain respects began almost five hundred years ago with the conquest and colonization of Peru” (Oliver-Smith & Hoffman, 1999: 75). In a similar approach, I see the forthcoming Istanbul-Earthquake as an event that has in certain respects began with the introduction of the modernizing process to the Turkish (Ottoman) society almost two hundred years ago.


Future Perspectives

Jean Rouch addressed often to the question, for whom and for what reason he made his ethnographic films, his answer at first was for himself, for his own necessity to film. His second response was his subjects; since film, unlike books and articles, had the possibility of direct communication with the group he studies. And finally his third response to the question was that he made his films actually for "everyone, for the largest viewing public possible” (Rouch, 2003).I guess my answer would also not be any clearer than the one of Rouch. Firstly, there are some personal objectives that can be summarized as “paying back” one's debt to one's “hometown”, one's “own people”. Then of course, there is the naivety of a filmmaker / researcher believing from the bottom of his heart / mind to be able to change something. Thanks to the “direct communication possibility” which film supplies, I hope to awake the attention from the locals in Istanbul and youth in Turkey about the earthquake issue. But then there are also “pure” academic objectives essential here. Anthropological literature on Turkey, other than the genre of the village study, has been meager due to obstacles placed by the Turkish government in the path of foreign scholars. Also, this lack was due to the absence of a colonial past, contrary to India or Africa, where ethnographers gathered knowledge that served the interest of the colonial administration (Ewing 2004). So the contributions for the literature of the post-Marmara-Earthquake Turkey, unsurprisingly, came from all diverse disciplines, but anthropology: economy (Selcuk, F. & Yeldan, E., 2001), human geography (Pelling & Dill, 2010), geography (Hubert-Ferrari et al., 2000), geophysics (Paradiso-poulou, P. M. et al. 2010), physcology (Başoğlu et al., 2002; Tural et al., 2004), medicine (Vanholder et al., 2001; Sever et al., 2002), architecture and engineering (Sengezer & Koç, 2005; Tobriner, 2000), sociology (Jalali 2002; Kasapoğlu & Ecevit, 2003), social and political science (Papagaroufali, 2010; Pelling & Dill, 2006), journalism (Ergül et al., 2010) and Islamic studies (Sayers, 2001). I hope my research would contribute to the limited anthropological literature available about Turkey in general and specifically in areas of disaster anthropology, visual anthropology and applied anthropology in Turkey.



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Internet Sources

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3 On 29 October 1923, Republic of Turkey was formally proclaimed by M.K.Atatürk.

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