Rebel Land: Unravelling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town, by Christopher de Bellaigue, Penguin Press, 280 pp., $25.95
In 2003, an Istanbul bookshop sold me an 1881 travelogue chronicling the Rev. Henry Fanshawe Tozer’s journey through what is now the eastern part of the Turkish Republic. Accompanying the transaction was a slight outlaw thrill: this was a book that clearly identified that area as “Armenia,” and Turkey was at the time aggressively censoring claims that eastern Turkey was anything but Turkish. The government has jailed people for publicly acknowledging the massacre of Armenians in eastern Turkey, and in one case a deranged Turkish nationalist murdered a newspaper editor in retaliation for his views on the Armenian question. Police caught the assassin, then proudly posed with him in front of the Turkish flag before locking him up.
Christopher de Bellaigue’s new book, which covers the controversial history of Turks, Armenians, Kurds, and Alevi Shia in eastern Turkey, grew out of an unfortunate article he wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2001. The article drew a volley of learned invective from James R. Russell, a neoconservative Armenologist at Harvard who analogizes Turkey to Nazi Germany. Russell pointed out that de Bellaigue misstated the Armenian dead by a factor of three and had embraced the dubious Turkish version of the events that nearly exterminated all the Armenians in Asia Minor. Would de Bellaigue have dared underestimate in print the near extermination of European Jewry in the Holocaust?
De Bellaigue, who was then at The Economist, is an excellent journalist, and should have known that any dodgy accounting of the Armenian genocide would not just tickle the raw nerves of Armenians but brutally vivisect them. Rebel Land is written partly in penance for these prior journalistic sins and omissions, and partly in hopes that his own writing can advance the argument more effectively than the spleen of Russell or the denial of the Turks. De Bellaigue spent five years living in Turkey before heading east to Varto, a town of 13,000 just south of Erzurum, to explore the interlaced histories of Turks and the minorities—Armenians, Kurds, and Alevi Shia—who have been “pebbles in the Kemalist shoe.”
Rebel Land is not a craven attempt to split the difference between the two sides. Splitting the difference is not really possible, since what the Turks absolutely deny—that massive, ethnically targeted, premeditated pogroms occurred—is a historical truth. But the James R. Russell–approved account of the genocide, Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris, has already been written. Instead, de Bellaigue opts for a more impressionistic approach, a series of views of the town of Varto and its history from the 18th century to the present, and a portrait in miniature of niggling historical facts that call into question the foundational myths of the Turkish state. The result is one of the most balanced and most interesting recent books about eastern Turkey.
Turkey’s patrimony is gloriously mongrelized—consider the Eastern Orthodoxy of Constantinople and Trebizond, the Hellenic roots of Smyrna—even if nationalists prefer to deny it is anything but Turkish. Varto in particular is so crisscrossed with apparently irreconcilable ethnic claims that a much larger volume than this would not suffice to explain it. Diaspora Armenians visit Varto to touch the stone inscriptions of their forebears (only dozens remain). Turkish authorities control the town and have administered it—competently, it seems—for decades, but the citizenry consists largely of Kurds and Alevi Shia. The latter are ethnically Turkish but not always accepted by the Sunni majority, and the former have been blowing up Turkish soldiers and murdering Kurdish collaborators for decades in a bid for secession.
De Bellaigue uses the testimony of current and former residents to reconstruct Varto’s history and to understand the aspirations of the townspeople. “The past and the future compete with each other in people’s hearts,” he writes, “and we call that the present.” The past is atrocious, and the present somewhat less so. The region’s most grisly recorded period was the Armenian massacres of 1915–18, which featured truly grim scenes, such as the murder of 34 Armenians by cramming them into a barn with two angry buffalo that were then doused with kerosene and set aflame. Today the rebellious minority is the Kurds, who have contributed active and passive support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Maoist insurgency based in northern Iraq. As de Bellaigue works, the Turkish authorities loom annoyingly, monitoring his investigation and occasionally offering preposterous propaganda to guide him.
The book is weakest in its prescriptions, which are appropriately few. De Bellaigue recommends a “vaguer designation” for the genocide, so as to “avoid the G-word” and open up at least the possibility of a dialogue between Armenians and Turks (and for that matter Kurds, to whom Turks delegated much of the killing). In 2001, France officially recognized the massacres as a genocide, and Turkey responded by recalling its ambassador and canceling deals with French defense contractors. The word genocide was coined in 1944 with the massacre of Armenians specifically in mind, so it seems doubly perverse, as a matter of history and of etymology, to tiptoe daintily around it just because it enrages Turks. Yet it is undoubtedly true that Turks won’t listen to any conversation once the “G-word” is mentioned, and what are synonyms for, if not to trick the stubborn into unplugging their ears?