Journalist’s Account of Life in Turkish Village Exhibits Naiveté or Worse


Book Review:
Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town by Christopher de Bellaigue. Penguin Press. 270 pp. $25.95. 
ISBN 978-1-59420-252-0

By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

First off, many Armenians are going to hate this book. Christopher de Bellaigue, an experienced journalist and a gifted writer, has written an account of his stay in a small Turkish village in eastern Turkey that demonstrates a certain appalling naiveté and ignorance regarding Armenian history.

The key passage in the book, for Armenians asks why Armenians do not find another word to describe the Genocide. He writes, “What is needed is a vaguer designation of the events of 1915, avoiding the G-word but clearly connoting criminal acts of slaughter to which reasonable scholars can subscribe and which a child might be taught….”

Apparently, de Bellaigue remains ignorant of the fact that Rafael Lemkin, a lawyer and Polish Jew, coined the word “genocide” in 1944 specifically to name and define what happened to the Armenians between 1915 and 1923.

One of the most curious aspects of the book’s recent publication has been its critical reception, which includes two major reviews in the New York Times, (the daily and Sunday editions), as well as a review in The American Scholar. All quote the passage mentioned above. The Times rarely reviews books twice, and only when they are considered of major significance. The book was also listed in the Editors’ Choices column of the Book Review, March 14. The book was first published in Britain last year, where it also received major attention.

It is beyond this reviewer’s ability to document a conspiracy regarding the unusual focus on this book, but what is known is that the Genocide recognition bill has just been passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is now poised for a vote on the floor of the House. (It has never passed, and for the past few years, at least, has not even reached the floor.) Already Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has contacted the chair of the committee to tell him that passage of the bill would damage US relations with Turkey. Further, the protocols approving the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border await votes in the countries’ respective parliaments. The State Department has leaned heavily on Armenia to approve the measure, although there is serious opposition, particularly in the diaspora, to opening the borders without Turkish recognition of the Genocide. The marking of the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is coming up next month on April 24.

Is there some connection between these geopolitical concerns and the attention lavished on this slender book? One can only pose the question.

It is perhaps appropriate that the introduction of the book describes the author looking at himself in the mirror, because the book has been written for somewhat narcissistic reasons. De Bellaigue, a few years ago, wrote an article for the New York Review of Books in which he suggested that the Genocide of the Armenians was a result of chaos in the Ottoman Empire during the period of World War I. James Russell, Mashtots professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, blasted de Bellaigue in a letter to the editor, and Bellaigue, who is married to an Iranian woman and based in Iran as correspondent for The Economist, decided as a kind of penance to live in a small Turkish village for a year and see what he might discover about the history of the Armenians in the area. He is a convert to a sect of Shiva and lived in Istanbul long enough before embarking on this book to learn Turkish and make many Turkish friends.

The suggestion that Armenians soften their demands for Genocide recognition will be simply an anathema to a community that is bound together in great part by the drive for acknowledgement of a crime against humanity that festers to this very day.

It is hard to understand how de Bellaigue, 39, can take the position he does. He is not a stupid man, and as mentioned previously, he is a gifted writer.

In his bibliography, he lists books by the Turkish scholar Taner Akçam, Richard Hovannisian and Vahakn Dadrian.  A reading of Akçam alone would disabuse him of any doubts that the Genocide was a genocide. Akçam has been able to research Turkish documents that demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the elimination of the Armenians was embraced by the Ottoman government. Other Armenian scholars such as Dadrian have also provided copious documentary evidence. And then, there are the horrendous photographs taken at the time by the German photographer, Armen Wegner, as well as the letters written by Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau.

To give de Bellaigue his due, in the end, he does not write so extensively about the Armenians, as he does about the issue of identity in the small, eastern Turkish town of Varto. Relatively isolated, it is home to the members of the Alevi tribe. Mostly reviled and persecuted by the Ottoman government, the Alevis have a complex relationship with the Kurds and the central Turkish government.  As de Bellaigue digs into the community’s history, he discovers many instances of violence and betrayal on all sides.

The issue of sources is always interesting and in the case of this book, telling, as de Bellaigue consults few Armenian sources and relies heavily on two accounts of what happened in Varto — one by an Alevi, the other  by H. B. Lynch, a 20th-century British scholar. He also interviews people from the Varto diaspora in Berlin and leans heavily on sources that document the Armenians’ crimes against the Turkish population.  De Bellaigue himself was under surveillance during his stay in Varto, as the ever paranoid Turkish authorities are certain he is up to no good, is perhaps a Marxist or at least a perpetrator of some sort of plot against “Turkishness.”

In an early section of the book, de Bellaigue characterizes Turkey as “mostly democratic,” which is giving a lot of leeway to a government that continues to oppress its minorities, to charge, try and sometimes jail writers and intellectuals who even deign to mention the Armenian Genocide. Neither Akçam nor Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, who has referred to the Genocide, are able to live in Turkey at the present time.  And who can forget the assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink three years ago? But then, according to at least one official in Turkey, whom he quotes, “There are no minorities in Turkey.”

The book contains many perceptive insights, but is something of a jumble. A man named “Apo” is often mentioned and it would be only the well-informed who would recognize him as Abdullah Oçalan, the Kurdish leader who has been in jail for the past few years. 

Rebel Land can be read as a penetrating portrait of the confusions and conflicts in one small community in Turkey — the issue of the secular vs. the Islamic, the grudges between families, the rapes and murders that are hidden or glossed over are all there and described in fascinating detail.  There is value in this portrait, and de Bellaigue’s often-commanding turn of phrase makes the book compelling reading.

Still, his obtuseness regarding the reality of the Genocide and its acknowledgment will make this book a mixed bag, especially for Armenian readers. 

It may not be fair to impugn de Bellaigue’s motives. He freely admits his admiration for Turkey and affection for his Turkish friends. But he should be called to task for his selective use of sources and his ill-informed suggestion that Armenians find a more “neutral” word to describe the Genocide. Would the Jewish community welcome that suggestion regarding the Holocaust? A writer of undeniable talent, de Bellaigue should know better.
In his epilogue, de Bellaigue seems, finally, to give the nod to the Armenian cause, relating an incident told to him by an Armenian friend in Yerevan, who visited a Turkish village and ended up buying a silver belt from its Kurdish owner. The friend explains to de Bellaigue that the belt was originally made for an Armenian woman, not a man, and that it had, no doubt, been wrenched from her.

Back in London, de Bellaigue muses on his family and his family possessions, “Supposing these people, these things were wrenched away from me by an ancestral enemy, supposing that I was robbed in a matter of minutes — I suppose that I too would disregard these principles of love and forgiveness, that were instilled in me painlessly as a child, and abandon myself to insatiable rage.” Well, yes.