Unraveling the Riddle
of History in a Turkish Town
by Christopher de Bellaigue
Penguin, 288 pp., $25.95
The east of Turkey is home to a multitude of people whose history rivals any in the world in terms of brutality, hostility, and endurance. A river of blood has flowed through this area for over a century, with Kurdish, Armenian, Alevi, and Turkish tributaries of suffering and embittered memories living in vigorous incompatibility alongside one another.
Christopher de Bellaigue is a British journalist who has found both the linguistic skills and the human sympathy to tell the story of these people, and to do justice to their competing narratives and distortions. He started as a lover of Turkey and of a Turkish woman, an excellent reason for developing an affection for the people and language of Istanbul. That relationship gave way to one bringing him together with an Iranian woman, and naturally, his affections moved east. Not to Iran itself, but to the part of Turkey contiguous with it. He settled on a small town named Varto which, in microcosm, showed him the full richness, complexity, and tragedy of contemporary Turkish history.
De Bellaigue is a fine observer, and is in the long and distinguished British tradition of debunking national myths. First came the Turkish national myth: The Armenian genocide never happened; the West was then and is now preparing to carve up Turkey, whose territorial integrity must be defended to the last. Lies and geopolitical blackmail have worked for generations to keep under covers the nasty secret—which never was a secret at all—that the ruling triumvirate of Turkey in the First World War ordered the elimination of the Armenian community in the east and southeast of Turkey. This was not collateral damage or deaths lost in the fog of war; this was cold-blooded murder on an artisanal scale, but still tantamount to genocide. Killing the children; converting the women; murdering the men: That is what it amounted to, and, by and large, Kurdish gangs carried it out.
That story is one the author progressively uncovered, and by doing so, he began to lose his sense of ease within Turkish society. Then, when he changed women and moved east, both physically and linguistically, he began to confront other national myths, which he takes apart in this book. In particular, the Kurdistan Workers’ party and its leader Apo, now permanently a guest of the Turkish prison system, are taken apart, and in traditional British fashion, the big words are brought down to sadder and more tragic realities. The Kurdish struggle for liberation has come down to a confidence trickster like Apo doing a volte face in prison to save his neck.
Political leaders of all colors are given short shrift in this book; it is the ordinary people who arrest de Bellaigue’s attention and fire his imagination. He digs into his adopted home in eastern Turkey and learns, as he says in a borrowed phrase, to smell of skunk. But this is one travel writer who never looks down on his subjects, or their predicament. He therefore abjures stylistic irony in a place abounding in it.
The result is a finely observed portrait of a very mixed population, whose stories cannot be tied up in little boxes fashioned by “the planckton of state historians or the advocates of one diaspora or another.” To be sure, de Bellaigue does not hide his contempt for Turkey’s paid hacks, but he is not above wondering whether Armenians can see any shade of gray in their story of real persecution. Do they have a genocide fixation, he asks? I am less critical than he is about this subject: A people whose population was reduced by at least 50 percent in a few short years have a right to dwell on the matter, and we have a duty to listen to them. But on balance, de Bellaigue keeps his sanity and his balance while living in a part of the world which will turn anyone, as Amos Oz once said about Jerusalem, into an authority on comparative fanaticism. Varto is no different. Indeed there are similarities with the occupied east of Jerusalem, in that the presence of informers and highly visible police and army units reminds inhabitants of who is running the show. They tolerate de Bellaigue, but remind him, at times in a desultory manner, that they are watching him.
He returns the gaze and the contempt of some of the more unsavory Turks located in this ethnic patchwork of a place, and seems more interested in probing the messy ethnic interface of this part of the world. He is never the superior outsider coming to look at “primitive” peoples, nor did he “go native,” as the French writer Pierre Loti did a century and more ago. His view, in sum, is that of a talented linguist and traveler, a populist conservative, attuned to the voices of those who have to pick up the body parts and corpses after the latest installment of intercommunal violence, or the latest case of torture or assassination on the orders of what he terms the secret state, the Turkish security apparatus.
He speaks of admiring “feats of loyalty and self-sacrifice, poppies amid the refuse, and the pleasing symmetrical propensity of those who hate with passion, to love, disinterestedly, with passion also.” He tasted these passions, by getting to feel them ripple through this rough landscape, and has left us a fine, brooding portrait of a part of the world which has had more than its share of suffering.
Jay Winter, professor of history at Yale, is the author, most recently, of Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin 1914-1919.