Birand: A heartfelt loss for his Greek colleagues, too
“Nothing is going to happen, whatsoever. The opportunity has been lost,” Mehmet Ali Birand said. He had offered to give me a lift to Taksim Square after a special TV program on Cyprus. It must have been soon after May 2004, the Republic of Cyprus had been accepted in the EU and the Annan plan had been thrown into the bin by the Greek side. “The Greek Cypriots are not going to lift a finger now that they are in Europe, the talks are for show. The new generation of Cypriots will not know each other,” Birand said, answering my question as to whether he foresaw any possible solution in Cyprus. At the same time, he was giving instructions to his assistant sitting next to me in the back of the car: “Call this person, then call Ankara, try to get him on the show.” On the clip board he was holding in his hand, I could see his notes for the next show. In spite of his impeccable manners and his politeness toward me, I could sense clearly that his mind was already on his next show. For him, that half hour’s drive, after a long, tiring live TV show, was not a time of reflection or a physical repose, but rather preparation for the next subject. He was like a perfect news machine tuned to run constantly on high speed.
I had to report on his short illness and unexpected death for the Greek media. Although I knew how well known he was in Greece and Cyprus, I was amazed by the number of Greek journalists who turned out saying that they knew him personally. I do not mean the top TV or print Greek journalists who had worked with him on stories over the years. I mean the lesser known ones, such as the journalist who called me on the day when the news of Birand’s illness came through, to tell me how deeply upset he was, so much so that he could not sleep. They had worked together once and had become personal friends, “as if he was a member of my family,” the journalist told me. There was also the TV producer who called me on Saturday, the day of Birand’s funeral, to ask for the story. She told me how deeply upset she was, because they had worked once together and became friends, “it was like losing a relative,” she said.
I don’t know whether Birand had such a long list of friends in other countries. He probably did. He certainly had an impressively long and devoted list of colleague friends among the Greek media who now are very upset at his loss - people he had helped over the years as a colleague and as a wise commentator. The fact that any mention of his name was preceded by the qualitative adjectives such as “well known,” “authoritative,” and “respected” is not a coincidence. As far as I know, he was the only Turkish journalist who had not been seriously challenged, objected to, disrespected or seen through a conspiratorial lens, so frequent in our countries’ difficult media history.
However, I think that besides his constant flow of professional adrenaline and thirst for the news, what appealed to his Greek colleagues was that personal touch. He had an ability to instantly set up a friendly, one-to-one relationship so familiar to the Greeks. It was that which converted him from a “Turkish journalist” to their “own person”.
And it was something else, too. It is described by Alexis Papachelas’ article on Birand in the “Kathimerini” daily. He remembers how once, in a night club by the Bosphorus, Birand “started drinking and then threw his glass into the sea.” Thinking it was some kind of local custom, Papachelas started to do the same. The head waiter told him to stop, but Birand asked the waiter: “How could you insult my friend from Greece?” The whole episode finished when the head waiter came back with two other waiters, holding trays with glasses and asking Papachelas to throw as many as he wanted into the sea.
“You will be missed by Turkey” was the headline of Hürriyet on Saturday. I can surely say that he will be missed by his many Greek friends, too.