REVIEW: Sifting Layers of Loyalty and Manufactured Reality in Turkey’s Tumultuous East

August 2011, TimeOut Istanbul (print edition only)

REVIEW: Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town, by Christopher de Bellaigue

As all good journalists and historians know, no source can be trusted at face value. They must be examined, any hidden agenda or bias taken into account, before their testimony can be considered.

Never is this principle more important than when studying recent conflicts. Academic sources about a dispute are rarely entirely academic; they are often the very weapons with which the dispute is still being fought. By trusting such sources, a scholar becomes implicated in the same conflict that he or she is trying to analyze from afar.

Such was the fate of Christopher de Bellaigue.

While working as a foreign correspondent in Turkey, de Bellaigue wrote an article for the New York Review of Books in 2001, presenting the mass killings of Armenians a century ago as reprisals for rioting and incidental casualties, rather than genocide. His death counts were too low by an order of three. The Review was barraged with angry letters from other scholars, forcing de Bellaigue to re-examine his own understanding of Turkish history.

Several years later, he decided to redress his shallow scholarship by conducting a new study of Turkey — one that circumvented the official sources and went straight to “the forgotten peoples. From them I would get the story, gritty and unfiltered, of their loves, their losses and their sins.”

With this mission, de Bellaigue headed to the eastern town of Varto. Over the last century, the town had seen Armenian deportations and massacres, Russian occupation, government efforts to homogenize Turkish identity through education, PKK enlistments, and “PKK attacks” staged by the state to sap support for the real guerillas. The Armenian population had been all but excised from the town, and the Turkish state had taken its place, in the form of soldiers, bureaucrats, and subtle nationalist influences. In turn, Varto’s people had become skilled shape-shifters, changing their identities and affiliations to survive each new bout of violence.

From de Bellaigue’s research, a new picture of Varto emerges: one stage in the manufactured, theatrical reality that various actors have constructed in Turkey over the past century.

This engineering of loyalties and affiliations began under the reign of Abdulhamit II, who created “Hamidiye” cavalry regiments out of major Kurdish tribes to spread pan-Islamism and keep other minorities from getting too powerful. It was further exercised on Varto’s Alevis, an oft-persecuted heterodox Muslim sect, who began attending universities in Istanbul and Ankara in the 1970s and returned as “Turkish-speaking universalists”. It is evident today in the district governor of Varto’s province, who tells de Bellaigue that, “We have no minorities in Turkey… It’s out of the question to have minorities.” And it is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than by the ethnic Armenians remaining in Varto, most of whom have converted to Islam and adopted a conspicuously Turkish or Kurdish identity.

Scholars have generously contributed to the effect as well. In Armenian Deportation by Professor Yusuf Halaçoğlu, former president of the Turkish Historical Society — a work “less of history than of modern neurosis,” according to de Bellaigue — the Armenian massacres of 1895 and 1896 are inverted, with Armenians the perpetrators and Muslims the victims. The Ottomans were tolerant and supportive of Armenians, in Halaçoğlu’s account, and any killings were in response to Armenian rebellions that were themselves instigated by European Christians.

De Bellaigue identifies a similarly revisionist history in Kurdish writing on Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, who was known for his brutal policy toward traitors yet denounced the Kurdish movement for independence as an “unattainable fantasy” after his capture. In 1999, the same year as Ocalan’s arrest, the Vartolu Mehmet Can Yuce exalted Ocalan in his book, The Sun Also Rises in the East. The same unquestioning worship of Ocalan is also present in the PKK fighters whom de Bellaigue interviews. Of one young guerilla, who recites Ocalan’s teachings in answer to de Bellaigue’s questions, he observes that “she had been pitted like fruit, her self-ness gouged out and stuffed with [Ocalan’s] rage.”

Why is it so difficult to articulate a history of Turkey on which all can agree? The answer, which echoes again and again from the pages of Rebel Land, harks to the Orwellian maxim: who controls the past controls the present. De Bellaigue is surprised to find that the main fear of modern Turkish nationalists is not “economic fluctuations or threatening armies,” but rather “people — Greeks, Armenians, Kurds — whose books give a competing view of events.” This tendency isn’t confined to nationalists, however; de Bellaigue seldom finds Vartolus who will admit to any malfeasance on the part of their ancestors, or admit to any bias in their version of history.

De Bellaigue’s book will not make him any new friends. He observes little unity in the modern Armenian lobby, describing Istanbul’s 40,000 Armenians as “timorous and withdrawn” — a write-off that, coupled with his scant mention of assassinated journalist Hrant Dink, constitutes a lapse in his scholarship. He ends the book’s passage on the Kurdish movement by similarly dismissing it as objective-less, “a mirage”. In his effort to atone for his past gullibility, trusting no source completely and rejecting received wisdom about the past, de Bellaigue has achieved a somewhat skewed understanding of the present.

For the most part, however, Rebel Land is a thoroughly researched and illuminating text, useful to anyone who, like de Bellaigue, seeks to unravel the riddle of Turkish history.

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