Precarious Hope

Precarious Hope: Migration and the Limits of Belonging in Turkey, by Ayşe Parla (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).

Reviewed by Nikos Christofis, Shaanxi Normal University

Ayşe Parla could not have chosen a more appropriate, perceptive, and at the same time ironic title for her book: “Precarious Hope” reflects both the central motivation that leads people to migrate and the ambivalence and uncertainty that shape migrants’ worlds. Parla’s approach is to analyze, explore and problematize the concept of belonging through the journey of migrants to Turkey. In particular, she examines the Bulgarian community of Turkish-speaking Muslims, so-called Bulgaristanlıs, who migrated from Bulgaria to Turkey after the end of the Cold War. But Parla’s study is much more than a single community study. She not only narrates the story of the Bulgaristanlıs, but also offers a theoretically robust account of their experience and feelings as migrants to Turkey, influenced by the work of Lila Abu-Lughod, Catherine Lutz, Raymond Williams and others. In so doing, she makes the term hope—which holds a central place throughout the book—into a powerful analytic device. 

Precarious Hope deals with immigration to Turkey since the end of the Cold War – the “third phase” in Turkey’s immigration history. The first phase, from the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 until World War II, saw the Turkish government encouraging return migration of Turkish people from across the former Ottoman Empire, trying to recover from the population losses associated with its collapse. The second phase encompassed the period from WWII to the end of the Cold War, when the Turkish authorities discouraged immigration and indeed supported mass outward migration, through schemes like the European guest worker programs. Parla’s deep historical knowledge and sound understanding of the shifting contexts of immigration policy in Turkey offer the reader a clear path through the book.

Historically, the Balkan Turks represented the most welcome migrant group in Turkey. Their entry into Turkey was enabled by the ethnicist bias of the first Settlement Law of 1934, which reserved rights of migration exclusively to those of Turkish descent and culture. This privilege however, was to change after 1989, when at least a tourist visa was required of those who wished to come to Turkey.

Indeed, since the 1990s Turkey’s migration profile has transformed rapidly, as the country has become a destination country for labor migrants from post-Soviet countries and those seeking to escape war and poverty in the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa. Labor migrants from Bulgaria alone have been estimated to number 700,000 during this period. Since Turkey was hardly in a position to accommodate so many refugees, most of the Balkan Turks became part of the precarious informal labor force in Turkey, and eventually, many of them trickled back to Bulgaria. However, the sheer scale of Bulgarian labor migration to Turkey is not the most interesting aspect of the book, which lies in the fact that these migrants, despite their economic and social precarity, are part of a more privileged category legally designated in Turkey as soydaş.

Soydaş, a peculiar term in itself, denotes in Turkish a sense of locality and belonging, including a whole range of markers—from race and lineage to ancestry and pedigree. Parla presents a multifaceted explanation of how it is used in everyday life, from its literal meaning of close “racial kin,” to its legal meaning as a designation for those who have certain citizen-like rights in Turkey even if they are citizens of other countries and have never resided in Turkey. Parla elaborates: “The term soydaş carries far more inclusive political and symbolic power in Turkey than the term ‘minority’—a term that justifiably induces misgiving and fear among Turkey’s dispossessed citizens” (p. 66). For decades, the Bulgaristanlı have held a privileged place in Turkey due to the soydaş link, although this is a status that “Bulgaristanlı migrants only reluctantly appropriate.” “Such strategic but uneasy appropriations,” in turn, Parla argues, serve to “reveal the hegemonic grammar of racialized citizenship in Turkey” (p. 67). The author eloquently and convincingly demonstrates that the Bulgaristanlıs have transformed from a privileged group of migrants to a minority grouping in the community whose once special status has waned—in both legal and cultural terms—since the turn of the century, such that today this group occupies a place of systematic irregularity (p. 12).

As mentioned, Parla draws cleverly on hope as a framing device to lay bare all the various dimensions of the migrant experience in Turkey. But her interest is not just in “amounts of hope” but also the “intensities of hope” that are differently created by groups of migrants (p. 88). Parla is careful to deploy terms like “intensity” only after critically engaging with them, and she notes that this is part of the vocabulary used by affect theorists. Indeed, the discussion of affect theory in Parla’s introduction is of great interest. She does not dismiss this framework altogether but adopts a critical stance toward any direct application of affect theory to the Bulgaristanlı case. Following Raymond Williams, Parla shows that “the hope for legalization that circulates among Bulgaristanlı migrants” is also “a ‘collective structure of feeling’ […] one that varies according to social class and is shaped by migration bureaucracies, laws, and their criteria of differentiation” (p. 5). In this way, she details “the degrees and limits of migrant privilege and the terms of belonging in contemporary Turkey by tracking the constant fluctuations that Bulgarian migrants experience between expectation and uncertainty, entitlement and refusal” (p. 5).

Against this background, Parla presents distinct dimensions of hope, moving  through them one chapter at a time—her chapters address, in turn,, the historical production of hope; entitled to hope; precarious hope; nostalgia as hope; and troubling hope. She thus lays bare the multifaceted and complicated content and dimensions of the term, deconstructing, reconstructing and contextualizing it, all at the same time.

One of the most challenging questions this ethnographic study seeks to answer is what happens when we shift the lens away from the figure of the downtrodden migrant whose hope is often framed as “a hope against hope” (p. 73). Given the massive flow of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey from countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and most recently, Syria, the study sheds much needed light on seemingly less eventful, more ordinary experiences, like those of the Bulgaristanlıs, that reveal just as much about power, privilege, and entitlement.

Ayşe Parla’s study is truly original and thought-provoking in its focus on the Bulgaristanlı immigrants, a group both welcomed as “Turkish kin” and marked as different at the same time. Furthermore, Precarious Hope calls us to rethink the immigration regime not only in Turkey but worldwide, and to contest the neoliberal agenda that singles out one category of migrants as “rightful” and another as “illegal.” Precarious Hope is a welcome and indeed, an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the hopes for belonging that migrants have and how they manage the precariousness of legal recognition.