In East Anatolia

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Rebel Land [1] is the story about the ethnic and religious conflicts in East Anatolia in the 20th century. It is remarkable as it blends known and largely unknown historical facts with personal experiences of an investigative journalist and very emotional descriptions of a largely forgotten, harsh and dramatic region and its mainly inhospitable people(s). It is from the borders between civilization and notorious unrest, West and East, Europe and, well, something in-between. Let’s describe it as a country gradually developing into (or from) Central Asia, from where the various Turkish tribes have once colonized the Anatolian highlands. Willingly or not, Rebel Land provides excellent evidence for denying modern Turkey’s desire of eventually joining the European Union in the near future.

The author, Christopher de Bellaigue, is a likeable writer. He has lived in Turkey in the 1990s for five years and speaks the language fluently. At first encounter he is usually considered a Turk, as he writes not without some pride. I have become curious after having read his two books about Iran [2], a country which also fascinates me for a long time. He went farther. He has got married to an Iranian woman and even converted to the Shi’a branch of Islam. Rebel Land is written in a century-long tradition of a traveling reporter who wants to tell a true story about history.

De Bellaigue’s first and main intention to travel to Varto in the East Anatolian province of Mus was definitely to figure out the truth about the Turkish genocide of the Armenian people in 1915. It is the most disturbing part of the book and portrays well the problems of modern Turkey, which officially denies the very facts and threatens with prosecution everybody who is telling what actually had happened. It is also about Turkish ‘historians’ counterfeiting the dark chapters of Turkish history in the last century [3]. There is an unfortunate melting pot there made of Armenians, Ottoman Turks and Kurds, Sunnis and Alevis. The struggle for forced modernity in remote regions hopelessly stuck in medieval traditions, numerous military coups, etc.

De Bellaigue visited and interviewed also Turks from Eastern Anatolia now living in by and large xenophobic Germany, who seemed to have lost their real identity as Armenians, or Alevis, even Kurds. Lost identity, another sad aspect of this book. It may culminate in the epilogue, when de Bellaigue describes a visit in Armenia’s capital Yerevan and an afternoon in an unforgiving Armenian friend’s home. Armen, so his name, told him that once he met, in a tea house in Anatolia, a Kurdish man wearing a silver belt heavily embossed with detachable sections and with Armenian inscriptions of 1902. He managed to buy the belt after some bargaining. Men are not wearing this kind of belts, he said. Armenian girls are given these belts when they got married. For his friend, still full of hatred, it was clear that this belt had been stolen from an Armenian family which had been killed in the massacres. Now, ridiculously, a man was wearing it! De Bellaigue confesses:

“I think these things in a neat, well-ordered terraced house in London, where I have belts of my own – my family; the nice reassuring things that I inherited from my mother. Supposing these people, these things, were wrenched away from me by an ancestral enemy, supposing that I were robbed of everything in a matter of minutes – I suppose that I too would disregard those principles, of love and forgiveness, that were instilled in me painlessly as a child, and abandon myself to insatiable rage.”

The book is at best when its author entertains with sad and poetic stories about the people there, somewhat disclosing their soul. “Tell me about the Armenians”, de Bellaigue asks an Alevi from Varto, who narrates the following story about the pepukh, the yellow-winged cuckoo.

“There were once a sister and a brother. Their mother had died and their father had married again. The stepmother was wicked and she was cruel to the children, who were scared of her. When spring came, and the cardoon started to sprout across the meadows, the stepmother gave the children a saddlebag and told them to fill it with cardoon. When they had filled it, they set out for home, the little boy carrying the saddlebag over his back. As they approached home, the girl noticed that the saddlebag was empty and she accused her brother of eating the cardoon. ‘It’s almost dark! What will our stepmother do to us now?’ Her brother was distraught. ‘I didn’t eat the cardoon. I only took one stalk, and that was with your permission. Open up my stomach and look; you’ll find one stalk inside.’ So the girl split open her brother’s stomach and saw that he was telling the truth; there was only one cardoon stalk inside. Then she was filled with remorse, for her brother would never rise again, and after washing and burying him she prayed: ‘God! Turn me into a bird that will forever mourn my brother.’ And this is what God did. And she sang: ‘Pepukh! Oh woe! Who slew him? I slew him! Who washed him? I washed him! Who buried him? I buried him!’”

“We and the Armenians were like brother and sister,” the Alevi said sadly. “Only we didn’t have the decency to bury them.”

Notes
[1] Christopher de Bellaigue C. Rebel Land. Among Turkey’s Forgotten Peoples. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. London 2009.

[2] C. de Bellaigue. In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs. A Memoir of Iran, HarperCollins Publishers 2005; and The Struggle for Iran, NYRB collections 2007

[3] De Bellaigue describes with bitterness his discussions in the 1990s with Professor Yusuf Halacoglu, author of Ermeni Tehciri, or Armenian Deportation, who estimates a ridiculous 30’000 casualties among the Armenian people during the 1915 deportations, rather than the one or one and a half million commonly assumed.

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