Report from Turkey: Hrant Dink’s Spirit Lives


Mayda Saris

By Daphne Abeel
Special to Mirror-Spectator

ISTANBUL — I had been motivated to travel to Turkey as a result of my association with the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, where I worked as the assistant editor for eight years and where I continue to work as a freelance writer.

I had been to Armenia back in 2001 and in the meantime had read countless articles about Turkey in the Armenian and American press, and hadmet some of the Turkish scholars, writers and intellectuals who have acknowledged the Armenian Genocide — people like Taner Akçam, Hassan Çemal, Orhan Pamuk and Fatma Muge Goçek. I had reviewed books by Turkish writers such as Pamuk and journalist Ece Temelkuran. It was time, I thought, to see Turkey for myself.

Hassan Çemal

I arrived in Istanbul on September 19, the day that the Armenian community held a mass at Akhtamar. I did not arrive in time to attend the ceremony, but it was written about the next day in the English- language Hurriyet daily and people in Istanbul seemed to know all about it. The young concierge at my small hotel in the Sultan Ahment district in Istanbul chatted quite cheerfully with me about the occasion, without expressing any particular opinion about it.

And the newspaper reported that the reason the cross had not been raised was that it was too heavy. This seemed like more than a bit of spin. A week or so later, another article in the English-language daily noted that local Turkish residents in Akhtamar had been fearful that the gathering of some thousand Armenians who attended the ceremony would turn on them and demand their houses and lands back.

My first impression of Istanbul, driving in from the airport, was of a massive blanket of low rise buildings stretching as far as the eye could see on both sides of the Bosporus. Today, Istanbul is home to more than 15 million people and the city is continuing to grow. I wondered if I would be able to make any sense of this vast metropolis in a few days. The little Hotel Almina on the European side of the Bosporus turned out to be very much on a human scale, situated in a cul de sac — the narrow streets leading to it were far too small and narrow for any tour buses to penetrate, and I would discover that was a blessing.

My first appointment was with the editors of Agos, Hrant Dink’s paper, located on the Asian side. It was at least seven to eight kilometers from my hotel and I did not dare try to use the public transportation system for fear I would get lost or not get to my appointment on time. I had taken the precaution of typing out on single sheets of paper the addresses of every place I wanted to go, and this turned out to have been a prudent maneuver.

I called a cab and handed the driver the address. To reach one’s destination it is important to know the district of the city as well as the street name and Agos is located on a main thoroughfare in the Sisli district.

Taxi drivers in Istanbul are a hardy and resourceful lot. They cope every day with what is, essentially, a permanent traffic jam. Sunday is the only day that the streets are even moderately clear. I was told the situation was far worse 10 years ago before the metro system had been built. In any case, we proceeded with stops and starts across the Bosporus on the Galata Bridge, where many men and a very few women were casting their fishing lines into the water. I wondered if the fish were clean enough to eat as it seemed to me the Bosporus was a very busy place with oil tankers, other sorts of cargo ships, public ferries, tour boats and private fishing boats plying the waters vigorously and, no doubt, discharging all manner of waste.

When we got to the other side, my driver, who spoke only a few words of English, did not seem to know exactly where to go. “Gerek sormak” (it is necessary to ask) said I, in my extremely rudimentary Turkish. He leapt out of the cab and began running up and down the sidewalk asking shopkeepers if they knew the address of Agos. As he did this, I thought about how horrific it was that Dink was murdered in broad daylight on this very busy street. I tried to imagine the scene, the shot, the young assassin, the fallen body, the bystanders, the blood on the pavement.

He returned to the cab and signaled me to get out. In fact, we had stopped exactly in front of the right building. It had a sign on the old double wooden doors, Sebat, which, aptly, means perseverance in Turkish. The driver accompanied me in the minute elevator, which barely held the two of us, and we ascended to the Agos offices. Only a small hand-lettered sign written on the door jamb announced the presence of the newspaper.

A male receptionist, seated at a desk at the end of a narrow hall lined with small offices, greeted me suspiciously and was not about to let me in until I blurted out the name of the woman I had come to see, Mayda Saris, the paper’s art director. I produced my typed sheet of paper with her name on it. And then she, herself, appeared and assured the receptionist that, indeed, she was expecting me.

Although I had not met her previously, she had come to the United States a few years ago and visited the Mirror-Spectator’s offices in Watertown. We spoke in French, hers being fluent due to some years of study in Paris and mine only adequate. I asked her what it was like to continue with the paper now that Dink was gone.

“It is a completely different situation, psychologically,” she said, “mais il faut que continuer [but it is necessary to continue]. Certainly, we have the sense that we are in danger.”

Saris, a lively and attractive woman, with a shock of thick, blond hair, lives with her husband within walking distance of the office and said that, of course, the employees lived with a greater sense of risk, but that their sense of commitment to the paper and its mission was undiminished.

Agos employs 25 people and comes out once a week at 24 pages, 20 in Turkish, and four in Armenian.

Aris Naidjhi

Shortly, I began a conversation with Aris Naidjhi, who calls himself the business manager (redacteur) of Agos, but is quick to add that people on the staff wear many different hats. He speaks English well and we were able to converse freely. He had been to Akhtamar to report on the religious ceremony. He said he had been making regular trips to Van for the past 10 years to visit the local people and to see how things were there.

“It was an enormously emotional moment for the people who had come to celebrate the mass. You could feel it, you could sense it,” he said.

“Everyone wants to come to Istanbul these days,” he said, “and they practice living city life in Van. Then, they come to Istanbul.”

He continued, “One of the issues the Armenian community here has to face is the Armenians who once converted to Islam. Some want to convert back, and the question is how can they be integrated with the Armenian community who remained Christian.”

Naidjhi lamented the lack of Armenian books in the schools. “The Minister of Education doesn’t seem to know that there are no Armenian or Greek books in the schools. The last Armenian book was published in 1884.”

Naidjhi’s relationship with Agos dates back a long way. Now, in his early 30s, He first began working for the paper when he was 17. He has involved himself in efforts to take Turkish journalists to Armenia. He is also somewhat disparaging of what the Armenian-American Diaspora has been able to accomplish in Armenia.

“Look,” he said, “the big player in Armenia is Russia. It Russia doesn’t want something to happen, it doesn’t happen. Gazprom owns many of the energy facilities in Armenia; Russia imports more from Armenia and sells more to Armenia than the US does.”

He concluded, “So, Hrant is gone. The paper is different, it is not the same paper. Hrant opened the door. It’s not easy to carry on, many people expect everything to be the same. I brought 14 people to Turkey last year from the US and Iran. Many of them were afraid to come. What I want people to see is that it isn’t about ethnicity, it’s about humanity. How can you say it isn’t possible for an Armenian to marry a Turk when there are only 50,000 Armenians in Istanbul?”

My second appointment, the next day, was with Hassan Çemal, the grandson of Talaat Pasha. I had met him briefly at Harvard University, where he gave a talk last fall to a packed audience of Armenians and Turks in which he explained how he had come to his position of acknowledging the Genocide.

Çemal is a senior columnist for Milliyet, one of Turkey’s major newspapers. Milliyet is owned by the Dogan Media Group, a large conglomerate, which owns several newspapers as well as television stations.

Again, to arrive at Milliyet, I called a cab and we drove for what seemed miles on a major highway out of the center of Istanbul. After passing through security, I was ushered to Çemal’s office by his longtime assistant, Birkan Erk. As behooves a senior columnist, Çemal occupies a large corner office with a view, off the main newsroom, which is as modern as any boasted by the New York Times, Boston Globe or Washington Post. The room is lined with the book jackets of his many published works, the most recent being a study of the Turkish military. His column appears in Milliyet six times a week. He began his career as a journalist in Ankara in 1969 after graduating with a degree in political science and studying for a year and a half in Germany.

Like Orhan Pamuk, he has written about and acknowledged the Genocide, but unlike him, he continues to live full time in Turkey.

“For a while, I wore a bulletproof vest and the state assigned me a body guard,” he said. “But I got tired of all that and just stopped doing it. I came to the acknowledgment of the Genocide through reading the work of people like Taner Akçam and Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk was one of the first well-known novelists to touch one of the taboos in Turkey. And Taner Akçam was the first intellectual who wrote openly about the Genocide. Pamuk still spends time in Turkey, but he is careful and does not make public appearances.”

He continued, “After the assassination of my dear friend, Hrant Dink, I traveled to Yerevan. It was his suffering that took me there. I visited the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan.” Çemal serves as a member of the jury for the Friends of Hrant Dink Foundation, which awards grants to journalists, filmmakers and others, who promote Dink’s spirit.

Speaking about the role of the press in Turkey, Çemal smiles ruefully and says, “It all depends on what point of view you come from. Taraf, for example often criticizes the government and they write about the supposed military plots by the Ergenekon to overthrow the government. Taraf makes a great contribution to the rule of law in this country. No other paper has taken on this role.”

As to the question of whether Erdogan’s Islamic AKP party is taking Turkey closer to being a religious Muslim state, Çemal snorts derisively, “The rumors of the Islamization of the government is all just total bull. You can criticize the government justifiably for many reasons, but claiming that Turkey could become another Islamic dictatorship is simply preposterous. Turkey is firmly on the path to democracy and trying to deal with two main problems. One is the military. The military should stay out of politics.”

Çemal continued, “The other major problem is the Kurds. There have been about 40,000 people killed in the clashes between Turks and Kurds. It is important that the Kurds be granted their cultural identity, their cultural rights, their education in Kurdish. The recent passage of the 26 articles to reform the constitution are an important step in the right direction.”

Çemal is wily when it comes to categorizing any segment of Turkish politics. “What is a liberal? What is a leftist? Well, in the US, in Texas, if you’re a liberal, you can be called a Communist. In New York, you would be called something else entirely. Again, it all depends upon where you are coming from.”

Prof. Betel Tonbay

My third and final interview was with Prof. Betel Tonbay, to whom I had been referred by Taner Akçam. We met at the very modern coffee shop at the Sabançi Museum. Tonbay holds a PhD in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley, and teaches at a local university. A lively and attractive woman, she is also a member of the board of the Friends of Hrant Dink Foundation, which has offices in the same building as Agos. She spoke movingly about how she had come to recognize the Armenian Genocide. She had studied in Paris for a time and came across the work of Akçam when she was about 17. She had never heard of the Genocide, she said but once she read Akçam’s work, she did more research and became convinced of its historical and factual truth.

She spoke of the work of the Dink Foundation and said that its main purpose was to award grants to journalists, artists and others, who embodied the spirit of Dink. She mentioned a recent award to a woman Palestinian filmmaker.

It is my impression that Turkey is striving energetically to present an image of a forward-moving, modern, democratic country. Twenty million people will have visited Turkey by the end of this calendar year, and the government would like to push that to 30 million. That, in a country of only 72 million may be a strategy of diminishing returns. The majority of tourists are from Russia and Germany, and, at present, the United States only accounts for about 600,000.

However, with all major sites truly mobbed by tourists, the word may get around that visiting Turkey is too much of a crowd experience, at least in the peak tourist months of September and October. The cruiseships, are to a large extent, to blame for the influx as they bring two to three thousand people in at a crack. I heard that Istanbul was planning to build a special docking area for the cruise ships so that they would not interrupt the other types of ship traffic. Many of these visitors are herded on to tour buses and at the most important monuments and museums; it is impossible to avoid them. When you visit the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia. Topkapi Palace, Ephesus, etc. there are tours behind you and tours ahead of you.

Turkey has worked hard at updating and renovating many hotels, restaurants and places of interest. Turkish toilets, which were once an object of derision in the late 1950s and early 1960s when I first started traveling, are a thing of the past, at least in the better hotels and at the gas station rest stops along major routes. In fact, Turkey’s streets are cleaner than ours. There is virtually no trash or garbage visible. There is no graffiti on city walls or buildings, and drivers, by and large, obey the speed limit.

As for the appearance of women and their state of dress, the manifestations ran the gamut. In the university district along the shore of the Bosporus north of the city center, I saw young women in skintight jeans, wearing scanty tops and holding hands with their boyfriends and many couples walking along the street with their arms around each other. This is prohibited by Islamic law. I also saw many women in the business districts wearing nothing but modern dress.

In the residential sections of the city, in the neighborhood of my small hotel, for example, most women, although not all, wore the scarf and also (to me) a peculiar, raincoat-like garment buttoned down the front.

The Hotel Almina was located close to three mosques and they sent out the call to prayer five times a day starting at about 5:45 a.m. I have to say I never saw a single person going into a mosque, people didn’t even turn their heads at the call to prayer.

Mosques are ubiquitous in Turkey. Every town of any size has one, and while some are built by private community groups, most are built by the government and all mosques are the property of the government.

Our guide was an interesting example of the multi-ethnic aspect of Turkey. Although he repeatedly stated his loyalty to the Turkish government and made a point, several times, of saying that he was a Turkish citizen and spoke Turkish, it became apparent, that he was, in fact, a Syrian Arab. His family lived in Antioch, a town on the Syrian-Turkish border and at home they spoke Arabic. He referred in somewhat vague terms to the hope that his identity and ethnic group would be fully accepted in Turkey. Because he did not explain what he meant by this, I could only guess that there were some ways in which he did not feel fully accepted. He had attended the university in the modern city of Izmir and stated that he had been occasionally harassed by his fellow students, but he painted himself as something of a rebel and admitted that while he was at university, he did not fast at Ramadan.

Concerning negativity and hostility towards Armenians, I did not encounter it except for on one occasion. While I was on my own in Istanbul, I took one of the commercial tours around the city. As we drove along the Bosporus, the somewhat elderly guide, who spoke both bad English and German, pointed out sections of the city, which were previously identified with various religious and ethnic groups. He recited the locations of the Greeks, the orthodox Muslims and the Jews. I piped up, “What about the Armenians?” and his response was an angry, dismissive gesture. “They live on the other side,” he said, pointing towards the Asian side.

Both Çemal and the tour guide stated that Kurds are rapidly becoming a larger percentage of the population in all sectors of the country.

“They have many more children than the Turks do,” said our tour guide. “Our fear is that they will gradually out-populate us.”

Our tour guide referred repeatedly to Armenians in his accounts of the history of various sites. He spoke of the Armenian architect, Balian, who had designed buildings for the sultans. He never, in his talks on the public address system in our bus, referred to the Genocide, but privately, he told me that he believed the Genocide had taken place and that as far as he was concerned, it should be acknowledged.

A glimpse of real Turkey for me was the day we visited a site known for its association with the Greek physician, Aesclepius. I chose not to visit the entire site, which was very large, and waited for the rest of the tour near a small stand that sold honey and nuts. Turkey is a very hot and dry country and this year, it has been especially dry. The entire sunflower harvest was lost and I saw cattle and sheep nibbling on brown stubble. However, the one crop that seems to survive the most difficult climatic conditions is the olives. Olive trees grow everywhere, in fields, on mountain slopes and the time of the olive harvest was at hand.

I noticed a rather stout, elderly man leading a very small donkey by a rope. The donkey was already laden down with saddlebags of olives. The man and donkey stopped almost in front of me and the man prepared to heave himself on top of his minute beast of burden. Oh no, I thought, this isn’t going to work. The donkey is going to collapse. Not at all. Once the man had hoisted himself aboard, the little donkey picked up his head and trotted off at a brisk pace, as though there were nothing more in the world he would like to do.

Another glimpse of the real Turkey for me was in Antalya, an attractive and modern town on the coast, several hundred kilometers from Istanbul. I was outside our very fancy hotel which was in a posh neighborhood on the sea’s edge, waiting for the tour to get started. I saw two women emerge from one of the expensive apartment houses across the street. Each had a young child firmly by the hand and were headed for a private van that was parked by the sidewalk. Obviously, the kids were being sent off to school. One of the children, a boy of perhaps 5, was having none of it. He kicked, he screamed. His mother dropped his backpack on the sidewalk and he fell down clutching it, kicking his legs and continuing to yell at the top of his lungs. His mother grabbed him firmly by the arm and pushed him towards and into the van. The van closed its doors and the two women walked back to their apartment house, no doubt looking forward to a quiet second cup of coffee.