Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

At the Borders of Public and Private: The Oturmalar of Kayseri

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

At the Borders of Public and Private: The Oturmalar of Kayseri

Article excerpt

This article examines the political implications of the vibrant social life of the city of Kayseri in Turkey. By using qualitative data collected by participant observations and in-depth interviews, we discuss the traditional form of gatherings called oturmalar. We evaluate the lively participation in public gatherings whose borders blur public, private, and religious fields in the light of more theoretical debates on the public sphere and situated within the literature on the public sphere in the Middle East.

This article examines the political implications of the vibrant social life of the Turkish city of Kayseri. By using qualitative data collected by participant observations and in-depth interviews, we will discuss the traditional gatherings called "sittings," or oturmalar.1 These periodic meetings are attended by ordinary citizens as well as by the city's political, economic, and religious elites. The frequency of participation may vary from three or four meetings a month to two meetings a week. While ortumalar reflect some characteristics of the liberal and plural meaning of the public sphere, they also echo more recent understandings like the eccentric modernity of Armando Salvatore's new Islamic civilizational project and Charles Hirschkind's counterpublic of ethical values.

A major question we address in this article is the following: how can we evaluate the lively participation in public gatherings whose borders blur public, private, and religious fields in light of more theoretical debates on the public sphere? We will try to elaborate on how these old and traditional gatherings are being transformed into modern networks for political, economic, social, cultural, and particularly religious organizations and how they became the core centers of public life in the city of Kayseri. THE PUBLIC SPHERE: SUBSTANTIAL ACCOUNTS VERSUS BORDER NEGOTIATORS

The public sphere is a normative concept. Its definition varies from "the realm of freedom," where fellow human beings get together and create the common world (Hannah Arendt) to the "true public" where people engage each other in conversation (John Dewey).2 The concept of the public sphere is considered a tool for further democratization, but also what we look for when we consider equality of participation in public debate and deliberation.3 In the same way, Bruce Ackerman stated that "the public dialogue is a defining aspect of public sphere."4 A public sphere is a site for different groups to attempt to solve problems of mutual coexistence reasonably, even when they do not share the same conception of the good.5 It strongly implies that people cherish debates over policies and issues affecting everyone.

The debate on the public sphere consists of reflections, responses, and reactions to these definitions. We propose to classify the prolific literature on the public sphere into two groups. In the first group is the work of scholars that prioritize the content of the public sphere. Works such as Arendt's The Human Condition and Jürgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere laid the ground for the definition of the public sphere. The group concerned with the content of the public sphere argues for the existence of a public sphere as an arena to collectively deliberate on the issues of the polity. The content of the public sphere is established by offering answers as to what the public sphere is. We see this in Habermas's definition of a public sphere as a body of "private persons" assembled to deliberate on matters of "public concern" or "common interest."6

However, the most contested aspects of this definition lie in its claim of (procedural) rationality and the systematic exclusion of certain groups,7 including those based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, family, and religion. By pushing these groups into the private realm, this definition makes the distinction between public and private highly problematic. This brings us to the second body of literature on the public sphere in which scholars have questioned the spatial and temporal boundaries of the public and the private. …

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