“And the naming of the intolerable is itself the hope”


The photograph which lies on the table in front of me has become incriminating.  Better not to print it – even thousands of miles away from Turkey.  It shows six men standing in a line, in a wooden-panelled room somewhere on the outskirts of Ankara.  The photo was taken after a political committee meeting, two years ago.  Five of the men are workers.  The eldest is in his fifties, the youngest in his late twenties. 

Each one is as unmistakably himself as he would be in the eyes of his own mother.  One is bald, one has curly hair, two are thin and wiry, one is broad-shouldered and well-covered.  All are wearing skimpy, cheap trousers and jackets.  These clothes bear the same relation to the suits of the bourgeois as the capital’s shantytowns, where the five live, bear to the villas with French furniture where the bosses and merchants live. 

Yet, with their clothes taken off, in a public bath, a police or army officer would have little difficulty in identifying them as workers.  Even if the five half-closed their eyes so as to mask their expressions, so as to pretend to a commendable indifference, their social class would still be evident.  Even if with the magical aid of certain djinn they assumed, with consummate art, the typical facial expression of a speculator’s mistress – an expression of sugared charm, sugared indifference and greed – the way they hold their heads would still betray them. 

It is as if a court, at the moments of their conception, had sentenced them all to have their heads severed from their necks at the age of fifteen.  When the time came, they resisted, as all workers resist, and their heads remained on their shoulders.  But the tension and obstinacy of that resistance has remained, and still remains, visible – there between the nape of the neck and the shoulder blades.  Most workers in the world carry the same physical stigma:  a sign of how the labor power of their bodies has been wrenched away from their heads, where their thoughts and imaginings continue, but deprived now of the possession of their own days and working energy. 

For the five in the wood-panelled room, resistance is more than a reflex, more than the muscles’ primitive refusal of what the body knows to be an injustice – because what its effort is continually creating is immediately and irredeemably taken out of its hands.  Their resistance has mounted, an entered their thoughts, their hopes, their explanations of the world.  The five heads, whose eyes pierce me, have declared their bodies, not only resistant, but militant. 

Since the coup d’etat of September 1980, DISK – the left confederation of trade unions, to which the five belonged – has been declared illegal, as indeed have all political parties. 

At least 50,000 people have been arrested.  The prosecution has demanded hundreds of death penalties – particularly against militant trade unionists.  The manhunts are as systematic as the torture used in the hope of extracting further names and connections.  This is why the photograph has become incriminating. 

Thousands have disappeared without news.  to date at least eighty have died under torture.  It is probable that one of the five I’m looking at is being tortured today.  His body, so unmistakable in his mother’s eyes, is being made to suffer the unthinkable. 

How much this photograph says about politics!  About how politics, at their origin, are irrepressible.  These five men, with their loves, their children, their songs and their Anatolian memory, are the dupes of nobody.  They were often badly led, often carelessly organized, often the first victims of the charismatic self-indulgence of their leaders, but none of this has surprised them.  Of this present world which they know so well, they did not expect better. 

They know that there has never been a winter in Anatolia without snow, a summer without animals dying from drought, a workers’ movement without repression.  Utopias exist only in carpets.  But they know too that what they have been subjected to in their lives is intolerable.  And the naming of the intolerable is itself the hope. 

When something is termed intolerable, actions must follow.  These actions are subject to all the vicissitudes of life.  But the pure hope resides first and mysteriously in the capacity to name the intolerable as such:  and this capacity comes from afar – from the past and from the future.  This is why  politics and courage are inevitable.  The time of the torturers is agonizingly but exclusively the present. 

If I screen out the heads in the photo of the five men in the wood-panelled room, it is no longer incriminating.  One sees only the skimpy clothes, the hands, the open collars.  But headless like this, their bodies are trapped in the present of their torturers…..Ahmed, Salib, Mehmet, Deniz, Kerime…it will end. 

— John Berger, And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.  London, 1984, 16-19.  

John Berger, 2007

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