ISSUE 3: CREATIVE RESISTANCE | NOVEMBER 2022 | ULAŞ BAYRAKTAR | An ‘island of hope’ greater than the sum of its parts: Kültürhane

An ‘island of hope’ greater than the sum of its parts: Kültürhane

When a group of academics were dismissed from their teaching positions for signing a petition calling for peace, they decided to open a new space to create and collaborate. Kültürhane has been operating since 2017 in the city of Mersin as a centre for academic resistance and association. We spoke with Ulaş Bayraktar, one of its founders, about this creative project and the pathways for creative resistance.

Menu Magazines published by Kültürhane || Courtesy of Ulaş Bayraktar

Would you speak about the journey of founding Kültürhane, which you describe as a ’story of hope’ and ‘an island of hope greater than the sum of its parts’ in Mersin’? How did this ‘island of hope’ come about? Who is on this island, who has been given space to join?

If you’ll allow me, let’s first start with hope. I see hope as the will for things to change. It does not depend on probability; it’s a decision to act. The environmentalist Bülent Şık had an apt expression in his book Bizi Yeryüzüne Bağlayan Hikâyeler (Stories That Connect Us to the Earth): ‘We don’t need hope to do something. We have to do something to be hopeful.’[1] This is a founding principle for Kültürhane. But this is a small island, after all, a foundation that is surrounded on all four sides with pessimism. Although it doesn’t make the grand claim that everything can change, that it can change everything, this island does claim that, through trial and error, it can work on different things, different relationships can be established, and a different experience is possible.

This island emerged with the declaration ‘We Will Not Be Party to This Crime’[2] that we signed in 2016. After its publication, a new chapter opened in our lives, first through administrative methods and then with the expulsions under the state of emergency and statutory decrees. Some of us were forced to move abroad; some of us chose to stay in Turkey and somehow start a new life. The idea of Kültürhane first germinated with the intention of making use of the books left behind by friends who had gone abroad. We came up with the idea of a library so that these books would not be confined to boxes and could instead find their readers. However, a lack of resources and institutions to support a library required us to consider a commercial mechanism to sustain this place. So Kültürhane emerged as a café-library.

At Kültürhane’s founding, there were friends, three academics who had been fired by decree and a feminist activist. But from the outset, many people from the city and all over the country were a part of the process, offering help and support and taking on responsibilities. There is room on our island of hope for everyone who comes with sincerity, knows how to restrain their greed and anger and avoids all forms of discrimination.

The library of Kültürhane || Courtesy of Ulaş Bayraktar

Kültürhane operates in many different areas: a studio, a stage, a library, a café and a fanzine inside the café’s menu. Could you briefly introduce these different areas?

We think of Kültürhane as a hybrid public space. We want it to be the basis for aesthetic political action. Taking into account the physical and emotional dimensions of collective action, we hope to re-establish our relationships with knowledge, labour, the city, forms of exchange and daily life, away from unaesthetic compromises. As the literary critic Terry Eagleton puts it, we aim to create a community not through ‘knowledge but [through] an ineffable reciprocity of feeling.’[3] That’s why we try to make this reciprocity possible with very different tools. For example, the library section is a place where young students who take the same exams and suffer the same pain in the education system come together. The café section is a cosmopolitan meeting place where paths cross, whether someone is here to sip their coffee in a quiet place, attend an event, or visit with friends.

We try to ensure that our activities are as wide-ranging as possible, and we try to bring together people with different interests who are unlikely to meet. We want as many intersections as possible. Since we cannot touch on all of these different areas ourselves, we organise many activities in cooperation with people and institutions that have knowledge and experience in these subjects.

We are also trying to publish and archive all of these events on social media because we do not want them to disappear. We want them to remain archived somewhere and to reach other people and lands. We wanted our Menu Magazine to serve the same purpose. A fanzine has emerged, which includes both the café’s menu and brief reviews of the events held the previous month. Our Menu made it possible for us to reach people beyond the events through its articles on urban culture and ecological problems.

We gained skills and technical equipment to broadcast videos live during the pandemic. During the period when the venue was closed, we began producing interviews, short films and documentaries that were independent of events. In this way, Kültürhane also took on the function of an amateur studio.

Slowly, Kültürhane has transformed beyond a physical café and library into a lively public space, sharing its events in print or digitally.

In a broadcast by Academy Unchained, a student initiative at Boğaziçi University, you said that at Kültürhane you seek to leave your own academic ghetto. Can you unpack this a little? How does Kültürhane manage to be a space for everyone? What role has this taken in your personal and academic journeys?

I think academia’s relationship with the rest of society and the public sphere is quite problematic in Turkey. Except for a small opposition group, the university mainly consists of members who either choose to be an organ of the institution or are only interested in their own academic studies. In either case, contact with society seems to be limited.

Since its establishment, Kültürhane has been working to adopt a different profile and operation. It makes a special point of connecting with a wider audience, both with the openness and accessibility of its space and with the thematic breadth and language of the events it organises. Communication isn’t carried out with the language of technical expertise, but with a sense of humble experience. As I mentioned, we seek to achieve this by creating an aesthetic political space. We welcome our neighbours and friends, not teachers and experts. We do not give lessons or train, we have a conversation. We are trying to open up space for everyone who has something to say that does not violate our principles. We are the ones who benefit the most from such a process because, on the one hand, we explore new ways of expanding our interests, sharing what we know and gaining new means of expressing ourselves, and on the other hand, we get the chance to come together with hundreds of people whom we are unlikely to meet in the corridors, classrooms and halls of the academy and to add their experiences to our storehouse.

Various activities at Kültürhane || Courtesy of Ulaş Bayraktar

Various activities at Kültürhane || Courtesy of Ulaş Bayraktar

Various activities at Kültürhane || Courtesy of Ulaş Bayraktar

Various activities at Kültürhane || Courtesy of Ulaş Bayraktar

Kültürhane provides an example of an academy that overcomes obstacles. While bringing scholarship to people with its library and talks, it also opens a space in its café where people can spend time together. Would you describe Kültürhane as creative resistance?

We see the term resilience as more apt. Rather than resisting to remain the same in the face of oppression, we aim to survive/be well/keep hope alive by considering what needs to change in the current situation. The Latin age quod agis, or ‘do what you are doing,’ is very similar to our spirit. Roughly speaking, we're focused on continuing to do what we’ve been doing. What were we doing before the dismissal? We were trying to produce knowledge and pass it on to students and make this knowledge meaningful to the public. The focus of our struggle after the expulsions has been to find ways to continue what we did before in a different format, just as much as it is to expose this injustice. In other words, we see ‘resistance’ as not standing against something, but insisting on doing what we can. It’s undeniable that this requires a modicum of creativity, because we do not have the opportunity to use the usual methods. We have to find and develop new ways. That’s why one of our main mottos for five years has been, ‘Our master is inexperience.’ We try, we experiment, we build on that experience and develop new practices. To cut a long story short, we are pursuing persistence, not resistance, so we must be creative.

In addition to academic solidarity, which is the main starting point of Kültürhane, you also collaborate with various cooperatives. Could you speak about the various kinds of solidarity that have taken place in Kültürhane?

As the Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci said, ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born.’ We are witnessing the bankruptcy of market-loving policies that served as pallbearers to the welfare state. We are experiencing an economic, ecological, social and cultural composting. The rot is rampant. This decay can create an acidic environment, release bad odours, even explode, and yet it is the means for fragrant and abundant soil. The conservationist Güneşin Oya Aydemir believes that three conditions must be met for the second scenario to take place: diversity, circularity and the transfer of energy.

It is possible to see Kültürhane through this lens. I have already explained how we work hard for diversity. The other two conditions coincide with the solidarity practices of Kültürhane. First of all, we try to ensure circularity in the operation of Kültürhane by including producers, tradespeople and entities that we feel aligned with. We take care to shop from local tradespeople, producers and solidarity organisations when we can. We have prepared short documentaries of local solidarity venues; we are making efforts to increase their awareness. My dream is to create a solidarity currency among these and similar institutions and move cyclicality to an institutional basis.

I also have a dream of a wedding hall – a Wedding Hall Cooperative formed by all the tradespeople, craftspeople and artists necessary for weddings. It would bring together in solidarity tailors, designers, cooks, musicians, photographers, dancers, printers and florists and others who would work at a wedding. If such an organisation is put into practice, I think we can have a large space to diversify events, as well as regular income that will ensure the financial sustainability of the events.

The third pillar of Güneşin’s approach – energy transfer – comes to life with Kültürhane’s focus on relationships of solidarity. In addition to trying to support collective entities, we are the beneficiary of a very wide solidarity network. For example, a world-class artist like Ahmet Yeşil donated five of his works to our house to be auctioned. Other artists have followed this practice of solidarity. With the pending subscription system, many of our friends support students whose financial situation is limited so that they can benefit from our library. During the ‘Waste-Free Additive: Mess Kit’ practice that we implemented during the pandemic, our friends left meals for their less fortunate neighbours. In the same period when we were closed, we had many friends who participated in the ‘alasiya card’, the opposite of veresiye, or buying on credit. They paid for food and beverages to consume later.

It’s with all of these practices that we are trying to transform the period of decay we are undergoing into composting, to use Güneşin’s analogy. We both benefit from a very strong solidarity network and are working to support others as much as we can. We believe that a fragrant soil can emerge from this decay that we are living through, witnessing and suffering from. To paraphrase the writer Yaşar Kemal, ‘If we were iron, we would have rotted; we have resisted by becoming soil.’[4]

Kültürhane ‘Waste-Free Additive: Mess Kit’ practice promotion material || Courtesy of Ulaş Bayraktar

Mersin has a large place in the story of Kültürhane. You are always in dialogue with Mersin in your activities about the city and its history. So what does Mersin contribute to Kültürhane? Do you currently have or will you have events in different cities?

Rather than Mersin contributing to Kültürhane, Mersin is what enables Kültürhane to exist. I don’t think there are many cities in Turkey where we could open such a place and keep it open for five years. From the very beginning, our neighbours embraced us. This may account for our sense of indebtedness and responsibility towards the city. But more than that, the city where we live is very precious to us because of our commitment to the public and our belief in collective politics. We put a lot of effort into doing things about the city, compiling, documenting and disseminating its knowledge. Fortunately, it does not leave our efforts unrequited. We have so many fellow citizens that we will always receive support, both individually and institutionally.

Mersin is not an ordinary city, and its cosmopolitan roots still carry the seeds of the society that Kültürhane dreams of. I enjoy taking every guest to Asri Cemetery, which is enough to support my claim. The city’s former residents of different religions lie side by side in their graves, and the cemetery is enough to sense the multicultural and democratic character of the city.

We are also trying to organise events in different cities. We have shown our documentaries in different cities. We have ideas about this for the coming period. In other cities, we try to support the activities of organisations that we think are connected to our cause and participate in their activities and, in this way, we take part in such networks. Apart from these matters, if you are asking whether we plan to open a branch anywhere else, we are not.


Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley

  1. Bülent Şık, Bizi Yeryüzüne Bağlayan Hikâyeler [Stories That Connect Us to the Earth] (İstanbul: Doğan Books, 2020).
  2. ‘We Will Not Be a Party to This Crime’ is a public statement signed by a group of university staff members known as Academics for Peace in 2016, calling for a non-violent resolution to the conflict in Turkey’s east and southeast, after which a large number of signatories were dismissed from the universities where they had been working.
  3. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 75.
  4. ‘If I was iron I would have rotted; I have resisted by becoming soil.’ See Yaşar Kemal, Memed My Hawk, trans. Edouard Roditi (New York: NYRB Classics, 2005).