Young people speak out through oral history project

Young people speak out through oral history project

Leyla Neyzi (Photo: Sunday's Zaman)

December 11, 2011, Sunday/ 13:07:00

Turkey is a country that has one of the youngest populations in the world, with approximately 20 million people between the ages of 15 and 30.

In other words, about 60 percent of the total population of Turkey is under the age of 30. Yet the unemployment rate for young people currently stands at 20 percent, almost twice the national average. Despite those facts, there are neither particular laws regarding issues involving young people nor specific policies geared toward solving their problems. Indeed, the period of youth has been seen as a “transitional period” in society.

Therefore, they put young people at the center of their research titled, “Young People Speak Out: The Contribution of Oral History to Facing the Past, Reconciliation and Democratization in Turkey.”

Leyla Neyzi, who is teaching at the faculty of arts and social sciences at Sabancı University, told Sunday’s Zaman that young people shoulder the main burden of the country’s economy, and they are forced to migrate, thus experiencing social conflict and violence.

“The young are a significant and understudied group in Turkey. Collaborating with young people themselves to carry out this project helped us to better understand contemporary Turkey,” she said.

As oral history projects have become more frequent and visible in Turkey in recent years, Neyzi said that this is encouraging because the recording of oral history gives value to the individual and what an individual has to say.

“Sharing the narratives of ordinary people can enhance dialogue and empathy between individuals from different segments of society,” she added.

The project team has chosen two provinces in Turkey for the study: Diyarbakır in the East and Muğla in the West as both cities are developing economically and demographically, and intraregional inequalities and conflicts are on the rise. Oral history interviews were also made with young people who have migrated from one province to another or from Turkey to a global metropolis, Berlin.

“In both Diyarbakır and Muğla, urbanization has resulted in a crisis in agricultural and livestock production, and young people view transnational migration as an opportunity. While Diyarbakır has become a symbol of Kurdish identity and organization in the public sphere, a reactive Turkish nationalist identity prevails in Muğla,” Neyzi said.

Oral history interviews were conducted with young people from the ages of 15-24 from different gender, class, and cultural backgrounds in those two provinces and in Berlin.

Young people actively took part in the project as a group of university students from Dicle University and Muğla University were trained in oral history at Sabancı University, and they participated in the project as research assistants.

“Our goal has been to investigate how young people approach one of the key taboo subjects of the country: the recent past. In addition, we are interested in finding out how young people’s relationship to history affects the ways they construct their life story narratives and identities,” Neyzi said. “The most important thing is to have the individuals empathize with their differences and similarities.”

So how would perceptions of young people regarding identity differ depending on where they are from?

Neyzi said young people from the east of the country know the West better since they are personally exposed to the Western culture of Turkey but that young people from the West shape their perception of the East mostly through media and education.

“We observe a rising wall between perceptions in regards to how Turkey’s east and west see the issue. On the other hand, Kurdish people know western Turkey well since they go there for jobs and education. But it is not true to say the same thing for the people of the country’s west,” she said.

As opposed to the political debate concerning the “Kurdish problem,” in the oral history recordings “being Kurdish” and how that influences their life story comes to the fore when it comes to how the identities of young people are shaped.

“I always wondered how an ordinary young person, either in Diyarbakır or Muğla, perceives the Kurdish issue, other than what has been presented through politicians, the media, etc. What I saw was that the ones who do not define themselves as Kurdish -- and they are usually in the West -- see the issue in black and white terms,” she said.

However, she saw that a Kurdish person talks about the trauma of going to school and being introduced to Turkish after years of speaking in his or her mother’s tongue.

Young people from Diyarbakır and Muğla would say that their issues are so much different than each other, but indeed their problems also show a lot of similarities.

“They both have anxieties about their future. How are they going to be able to complete their university education? Are they going to be able to find jobs? These are their main concerns,” she said.

The analysis of the interviews, which were completed in 2011, will take years, Neyzi said, adding that what has been completed will be shared both academically and publically next year. In 2012, the project team will work on the dissemination of the project results through various multi-media tools as all interviews were recorded digitally in audio and video format. There are also documents, photographs and letters from personal and family archives plus from other local sources.

The project archive will be used to create a project website in English and Turkish. There will be also be an oral history book addressed to a general audience in English and in Turkish including photographs and a CD. There is an exhibition planned to tour several cities in Turkey and a film to be shown as part of the exhibit. Moreover, a workshop will be organized with the participation of the young people taking part in the project to share the results with the general public.

“Our museums can be really fun places to visit if we share oral history in such mediums,” Neyzi said. “They should be able to say, ‘Oh, this person’s story is so similar to mine.’ This is about empathizing, which is not done much in Turkey.”

Administered at Sabancı University, the project has been funded by the Open Society Institute, Global Dialogue, Heinrich Böll Stiftung and the İstanbul Policy Center. The core project team includes audio-visual technical expert Sibel Maksudyan and project assistants Haydar Darıcı, Adnan Çelik and Seda Doğan.

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