by Peter Byrne
De Bellaigue, Christopher: Rebel Land, Among Turkey's Forgotten Peoples, Bloomsbury, London, 2009; ISBN 978 0 7475 8628 9, photographs, 270 pages.
Arslan, Antonia: Skylark Farm, Vintage, NYC, 2007; ISBN 978 1 4000 9567 4, translation from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, 275 pages.
"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
—Adolph Hitler, as inscribed on a wall of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
(Swans - April 5, 2010) Rebel Land touches us all. The rebel, after all, is a stubborn version of the "other" who in one guise or another raises concern everywhere. Christopher de Bellaigue came to grips with the "other" in Turkey:
The Republic of Turkey is interesting in that it contains, in a big rectangle, both a "we" and an "other." Just as old Europe regarded with alarm the advance of the unspeakable Turk, so the republican elite regards with alarm the advance of the unspeakable Turk -- the Islamists; the Kurdish separatists; the traitors Pamuk and Dink [since murdered]. (Page 259)
De Bellaigue chronicles his own attempt to get beyond generalities and look the "other" straight in the eye. Born in London, he went directly from university to work in India as a journalist. In 1995 he moved to Turkey as a foreign correspondent and soon considered himself a permanent resident. He was at home in an apartment in the old European quarter of Istanbul with a view of the Bosporus and the Asian shore. His Turkish was faultless and he felt equally at ease in the culture of the republican elite from whom his friends were drawn.
Like them he kept to the western edge of the country and looked to Europe. This was Kemal Ataturk's Turkey and de Bellaigue felt at one with the great man's rationalism and agnosticism. He went along with the certainty of his friends that Turks belonged to Europe. He didn't question their view that Ataturk had saved Turkey from dismemberment by various separatist factions. Nor did he challenge Ankara's conventional wisdom on the Armenian question. This was that during WWI, at the time of the Czarist invasion there had been cruelties on both sides. The displacement of the Armenians had been a military necessity. In the third millennium all that was best left to historians. There was no reason to make it a political issue of the day, as Armenian lobbies were doing in Europe and America.
It was this Kemalist view that came through in an article de Bellaigue published in the The New York Review of Books, March 8, 2001. A Harvard specialist immediately challenged his handling of the Armenian question. Taken aback, de Bellaigue began to reconsider his historical presuppositions. He had to admit that his article, and his thinking generally, relied on Turkish and pro-Turkish sources. Was it possible that Turkey hadn't been and still was not the ethnically uniform country the Kemalists pretended?
De Bellaigue was determined to put the Kemalist assumptions to the test. He would not do so in archives and libraries. His bent was direct contact with people. But he knew that the various minorities had their own agendas and their own versions of history. He did not want to be briefed by the Kurdish, Armenian, Alevi or Sunni lobbies. He would avoid them and get to know individuals whom he would ask about their lives and what they had learnt from their forebears. The terrain of his enquiry would be the east of the country where the Turkish Republic had always found it harder to conjure away ethnic differences.
But eastern Turkey was vast and de Bellaigue's preferred close observation. "I write about small things." He was curious "about land and identity and the way people view their past." He would center his attention on one town and its surroundings. This was Varto with a population of 41,000, tucked into the mountains midway down the rectangle at the far end of Turkey. It was close to the borders of Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Varto was in territory that historically had not only been eastern Turkey, but also western Armenia and northern Kurdistan. 19th century Ottoman Varto had three social tiers. The Sunni Kurds were on top, the Armenians in the middle and the Alevis at the bottom. The Alevis, usually ignored by Western writers about Islam, are heretic Muslims despised by both Shia and Sunni. They were long ago driven off the plains into the hills.
De Bellaigue's look into present day Varto was not facilitated by Turkish officialdom that acted very much like a colonial administration. The all powerful man in the region was the governor who is appointed by Ankara. Varto's mayor is elected, but has little actual power. Moreover, no candidates for mayor would be allowed who didn't belong to mainstream parties. All the same, the actual mayor, Demir Celik, was suspected by Ankara of having relatives in the PKK (the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party). When de Bellaigue complained that his work was made difficult by the police and secret service, the mayor told him: "The state has fears. It fears the Kurds, the Left, Islamism. It fears each and every one of its neighbors. Everyone is an enemy. A state that has lots of enemies develops a peculiar shell as protection." (Page 30)
Did de Bellaigue's enquiry bear fruit? Only in the sense that it made him aware of the complexity of a situation that he had complacently simplified back in Istanbul. But that was no small gain, seeing that complications defined places like Varto. The Alevis and the Sunnis were both Kurdish, but not necessarily supporters of the rebellion that the PKK had launched in 1984. Varto town-dwelling Kurds generally preferred to speak Turkish, a language they often mastered better than the Turkish bureaucrats that arrived from Ankara. But there was a Kurdish language, indeed there were two, Kumanji and Zaza. Many Kurds agreed with an historian, the Kurdish and Alevi Mehmet Serif Firat, that there was no such people as Kurds, only Turks. The followers of the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan or Apo, leader of the PKK, were also divided. Many thought he had betrayed them after his capture by calling for a ceasefire. Others, often former female guerrillas -- and here de Bellaigue agreed -- had long thought him a despot who was reckless with the lives of his fighters and encouraged a personality cult.
Nor was the disappearance of the Armenians from Varto a simple matter. Many had perished in the displacements ordered by the Ottomans before the Russian invasion. But when the Czarists arrived with their Armenian volunteers it went hard for the non-Armenians of Varto. Moreover, not all the Armenians had disappeared. De Bellaigue discovered many who had become Muslims, some in the easy to bear version of Alevism. Contradictions abounded. There were individuals who spoke treason against the Kemalist state and still worshipped Ataturk. There was a surviving Armenian who was a fervent Kurdish nationalist and not at all bothered by the fact that it was the Kurdish bands who had decimated the Armenians in 1915-16.
In one respect being on the spot proved invaluable to de Bellaigue. He had known about the official Turkish state ideology taught in the schools -- that the Kurds were mountain Turks and the Armenian subjects had turned in treason against the Ottoman state. He had also known of the demands of Kurds abroad for an independent Kurdistan. And he had known too that Armenians all over the world accused Turkey of genocide. What surprised him in Varto was that ordinary people, unlike Kurds in Hamburg or Californian Armenians, often didn't want to talk about the past. This wasn't only because the authorities might be listening.
Rather the silence here comes from an absence of anything to say in response to the relentless drumming of politics and communications and the trajectory of apologies and human rights in the world -- which come together and mean that this catastrophe, unlike so many before it, will not be forgotten.
In this silence, there is not the scowl and amnesia of an offended nation, but the cowering of individuals before a truth that has the ability to overwhelm them. This silence is a silence not of affront, but of fear. (Page 46)
De Bellaigue tries to go beyond stereotypes and has an eye for the incongruent. He talks to people and reflects on what they say, and then does a stretch of travel writing until he finds someone else to talk to. His essay is halting, sometimes confusing, but rich. Antonia Arslan's novel, though ostensibly concerned with everyday living, becomes schematic and hollow. She doesn't set out to ask questions but to impose answers.
Arslan followed a road familiar to Diaspora offspring. Born in Italy and firmly ensconced there in a university job she became absorbed in her forebears. Nothing original there. Historians of the future will have a field day tracing the scramble for identity that began in mid-twentieth century America. This frantic search, born in the civil rights movement, would soon have its landmarks in Roots, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Godfather. It would make a lot of people feel better about themselves or, anyway, self-important, before degenerating into tales of eccentric great uncles, misery memoirs, and tips for exotic cooking.
Armenians around the world had a head start. They had been dispersed like nobody else. Their shrunken home base in the Eurasia didn't matter. (Yerevan, where's that?) It was as distant as Oz for most of them. But they were well inserted into societies from Paris to Fresno to Buenos Aires. More important, they had honed their myth sharp as an obsession. By the beginning of the 21st century, Armenian communities had obtained considerable leverage over politicians in places where Turkish votes were scarce. This resulted in various governments declaring the events of 1915-16 in the Ottoman Empire a genocide. The West had entered the Age of Apology and Armenians wanted one from Turkey.
For Ankara, it was out of the question. To please the European Union, Turkey would go a very long way. But its leaders were not going to stand up with a Bill Clinton blush and say, "Sorry, back in 1915, our grandfathers organized one of those regrettable things, a genocide." That would not have been a bullet in its own foot, but as far as Turkish internal politics went, blowing off both legs.
Moreover, as historians without an agenda have discovered, the end of the Ottoman Empire was not something to be encompassed by punchy third millennium slogans. Libraries have been built to hold the contentions pro and con. Here we limit our curiosity to Arslan's viewpoint in her historical novel.
Sky Lark farm is a country property outside a small Anatolian town. The author approaches it and Turkey by first introducing the Italian branch (her own?) of an Armenian family. The first half of the novel describes the life of this prosperous family in its Anatolian setting. Its members, like the rest of the Armenian community there, are at once essential to the well-being of the town and in the vulnerable position of second-class citizens. They have not forgotten the suppressions of 1896 under Abdul Hamid II.
Arslan's Armenians, though sometimes quirky and ingenuous, are always honorable and hard working. They are all blessed with a streak of generosity. Not so the Turks we meet, who are mainly Ottoman officials and military personnel. They are, to a man, envious and self-serving. When upheaval comes for the Armenians the author will divide the Turks in two batches, those who are cowardly, corrupt, conniving and lazy in the old Ottoman manner and a new breed, deprived of all decency, who are sadistic killers. In a word, Turks either love money or they love blood.
The author depicts Armenia life just before WWI as colorful, savory, and alive with the doings of the clan. The town is an Eden flawed only by bad dreams of the Turkish serpent under the floorboards. Arslan prepares the Armenian exit from paradise by a reckless bit of historical fantasy. She invents a conversation at the summit of power in Constantinople between members of the Committee of Union and Progress. The key figures, Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha are gloating sadists, busy polishing their master plan to liquidate the Armenians of Turkey.
Back in Anatolia the massacres have already begun. The males of the extended family introduced to us by the author are brutally murdered. Their womenfolk have been ordered to take to the road. The author, who has spared us none of the details of the slaughter, tells us that the plan she has put in the mouths of her arch villains Talaat and Enver also calls for the rape and murder of the women. This soon begins with the incursions of Kurd mounted tribesmen. In Arslan's script Kurds are ignoble savages, just as Turks are slothful predators and Armenians peace lovers given to altruism.
Killing has now spread over the whole country. But our author as a storyteller must stay close to the survivors of the clan and characters we know. Since the males are no more, it's perhaps inevitable that she settles on the theme of Armenian women as the saviors of the race. This becomes the subject of the second half of the novel. Even non-Armenian women -- never Turkish women though the country is full of them -- keep popping up and gushing benevolence.
We follow the women of the clan on a death march. They are harassed by the Turkish policemen that escort them as well as by Kurd bands. The author reiterates that this is all part of the government plan meant to kill them off one way or another. The reader is spared none of the horrors. At one point, in a spot of melodrama, succor comes from faithful Greek friends and from the novel's one "good" Turk, a professional beggar, reformed spy, and addled mystic.
Surviving Armenians from all the forced marches have been brought to Aleppo. The narrative continues to pile up corpses there while it interweaves incidents reminiscent of John Buchan's boyish adventure stories among the terrible Turks. The resourcefulness of the persecuted is brought center stage so as not to finish the novel in an odor of rotting flesh. "Good Europeans" from the French Consulate help cogitate a bagful of Count of Monte Cristo stratagems to rescue the surviving women of the family.
The reader might go along with the toppling of history into folk tale in Sky Lark Farm if the characters had any depth. Or he could accept it as a somber account of what man can do to man if the top dressing of mechanical suspense and adventure didn't blur that picture. As it is, he is left with airport lounge reading. Arslan has already done a sequel, not yet translated, for reading on the beach. La Strada di Smirne takes her Armenian legends to the city of Smyrna.
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