A journey into Turkey's 'rebel land'
William Armstrong - email@example.com‘Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town’ by Christopher de Bellaigue (Penguin, 2011, 35TL, pp 288)
Christopher de Bellaigue was Turkey correspondent for The Economist during the early 2000s. He lived a comfortable life in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul, in a smart top-floor apartment with a panoramic view of the Bosphorus. Almost without realizing it, he had come to adopt the orthodox Turkish view on the key issues facing the country, paying little attention to the marginal voices of the Turkish liberals who argued that for Turkey to emerge as a full and mature democracy it would have to “come to terms” with its past. However, spurred by negative responses to a piece he wrote for the London Review of Books on Turkish-Armenian relations, de Bellaigue decided to embark on a journey of discovery in Eastern Anatolia, to “confront the story of how Asia Minor had gone from being perhaps the most chaotically cosmopolitan place on earth to a declaredly homogenous nation state, with what agonies and at what cost.” In practice, this meant spending the best part of three years in the small town of Varto in the eastern province of Muş, a place where history is conceived of as “a chaotic series of emotions, of outrage and guilt.”
De Bellaigue is sympathetic to the Kurdish predicament, but is acutely aware of the essential nihilism of ethnically-defined resistance movements, even if they are themselves provoked by aggressive, ethnically-based nationalism. Spending time with PKK rebels at a camp in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq, he finds each of them to be “pitted like fruit, [their] self-ness gouged out.” For the guerillas, he writes, “fidelity to the Kurdish cause was measurable in contempt for the Kurdish people, a contempt so odious, it bore comparison with the worst of Turkish chauvinism.” Later on, de Bellaigue quotes an “articulate Kurdish nationalist,” who is unusually aware of all the paradoxes of contemporary Kurdish nationalism:
There are now Kurds in every single small Turkish town. If you propose an independent state or federation, 60 or 70 percent of Kurds will oppose it. They’ll say, ‘We’re mixed up now; we can’t be separated. We’ve married. We have children. Mum’s a Kurd. Dad’s a Turk. The children are neither Kurd nor Turk’ … Let’s suppose the state throws up its hands and says, ‘All right! I accept a federation. This will be the Kurds’ autonomous region: right here.’ So what happens to the Kurds of Istanbul and Izmir and all the other towns in western Turkey? Won’t that lead to ethnic cleansing?
Ultimately, de Bellaigue finds little to admire with the rebels in the mountains, aside from the harsh beauty of the landscape.
On his travels, he constantly passes the remains of abandoned, crumbling, once-Armenian villages. There are no Armenians left in the province, and the locals he ventures to question about the issue are obstructive at best. After giving a brief history of the area in the lead up to 1915, de Bellaigue provides an expert summary of the whole vexed issue, offering such a magnanimously fair-minded view that it should be distributed to all Turkish and Armenian government officials, civil servants, and university departments:
Nearly 100 years after the event we find ourselves in an absurd situation: two sides have drawn themselves up, those who work night and day to prove that this was genocide, and those who strive equally hard to prove that it was not. This is a travesty of history and memory. What is needed is a vaguer definition for the events of 1915, avoiding the G-word but clearly connoting criminal acts of slaughter, to which reasonable scholars can subscribe and which a child might be taught … Today’s Turks, Kurds and Armenians were not alive in 1915, and need not live in its shadow.
It is impossible to argue with the reasoning, but he himself is nonetheless under no illusions, knowing that there are deeper, more pressing emotional imperatives on both sides. Immediately after the above passage, he admonishes himself: “No; this is the prattle of a naïf, laughable, unemployable.”
Recommended recent release
‘Capricious Borders: Minority, Population, and Counter-conduct Between Greece and Turkey’ by Olga Demetriou
(Berghahn Books, $80, pp 220)