Anthropology, Reporters and the Middle East

April 6, 2014 Leave a comment
Click to see on Amazon.com

Click to see on Amazon.com

Holland’s enfant terrible of Middle East journalism, Joris Luyendijk, proved the law of unintended consequences back in 2006 when he blitzed the Dutch news-reading public about the shortcomings of his adopted profession. He had hoped that his book Het Zijn Net Mensen (published in English as ‘Hello Everybody!’ but roughly translatable as ‘they’re almost human, aren’t they?’) would stir the media to raise their game and prompt wider intellectual curiosity about the region. As sales soared, however, he found he hadn’t counted on one common reaction.

“People would come up to me, clap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I always wondered if the media was lying! So since that you say that they do, I’m just going to cancel my [newspaper] subscription’”, Luyendijk told me on his whirl through Ankara to promote the Turkish version of his book (Herkese Merhaba!) – its 14th language translation.

The account of his five years reporting from the Middle East – on top of years of Arabic study — came out four years before my own Dining with al-Qaeda. The narrative of journalistic self-criticism comes from different perspectives, but the conclusions of our two books are so much on the same wavelength that when Hello Everybody! came out, the Guardian newspaper reviewed them together.

The Middle East can be funny too. Luyendijk included pages of Arabic jokes in his book to help readers break out of news media-formed preconceptions of the region. Photo: Aslı Kaymak van Loo

The Middle East can be funny too. Luyendijk included pages of Arabic jokes in his book to help readers break out of news media-formed preconceptions of the region. Photo: Aslı Kaymak-van Loo

I’d never met Luyendijk, however, and it proved a delight to share a podium with him in Ankara last week at a lively outpost of Dutch civilization, Leiden University’s NIHA Institute. We discussed our pet loves and hates in journalistic coverage of the Middle East, and his book’s central arguments: that Western coverage of the Middle East is superficial, misleadingly uprooted from its context since it is purveyed by a crisis-hopping class of “presenters”; that few of these talking heads speak local languages; and that time pressure forces many to work from agency copy forwarded by their headquarters. It points out that few spend much time outside their hotels, omit the human context and have little special knowledge of local peoples who are caught up in long, complicated disputes that are not all of their own making.

Some in the Dutch media establishment rejected this newcomer’s lèse majesté, and indeed what makes the book so readable and hard-hitting is its funny mix of oversimplification, exaggeration and iconoclasm. Luyendijk claims an outsider’s legitimacy, insisting (often with a thump of his fist into his hand) that he has been first and foremost moulded by his first career as an anthropologist. His study of journalists in action, he believes, is scientifically analogous to the work he’d really like to be doing: studying Dutch-speaking grandchildren of the arrow-shooting aboriginals of the Surinam rain forest.

For our audience in Ankara we argued over whether to blame television or parti pris op-ed columnists for the Middle East’s wars and the shortcomings of Western reporting of them. I found his book over-envious of the well-funded correspondents of the great U.S. media outlets, a position which I (mostly) greatly appreciated during my decade on the staff of the Wall Street Journal. In fact, I was jealous of him, I said, because any story he wrote would have a head start in getting closer to the truth because he was writing for an open-minded, well-educated, relatively neutral country like the Netherlands. We sparred over whether to blame the reporter or the audience for journalism’s lack of far-sightedness and nuance, and found a useful scapegoat in the editors. Then we wondered if more editors wouldn’t improve a brave new Dutch initiative of collaborative, crowd-funded journalism, de Correspondent, which allows writers perhaps too much space.

Photo: Aslı Kaymak van Loo

To listen to a YouTube recording of our debate, please click on the photo. Photo: Aslı Kaymak-van Loo

Luyendijk kept his insights flowing at another launch event at the Dutch ambassador’s residence, acknowledging how much had already changed in the business since he was having agency copy faxed to him. Back then, not having images from, say, Chechnya, meant that the deaths of thousands never even got on the TV news. At the same time, the neatly choreographed if sometimes deadly daily Arab-Israeli ballet of Palestinian stone throwers vs Israeli troops in a small corner of Ramallah – filmed by the global media and watched by spectators, both served by falafel sellers – made it seem as though the Middle East was ablaze with violence.

Now, he said, leading blog sites are helping editors frame their ideas on the Middle East (he singled out the “excellent” website Arabist, for instance). An articulate modern-day Dutch embassy dragoman in the audience noted the paradox that there is now a plethora of film from Syria, but that these cellphone shorts have done little to blunt the violence ripping the country apart. Luyendijk doubted that this holy grail of 100 per cent truth or objectivity could ever be attained. (“A report is always going to be either ‘Ajax beat Liverpool’, or ‘Liverpool lost to Ajax’”). He proposed a better gold standard would be trustworthiness. In journalistic terms, we agreed, that could be defined as “an honest best shot”.

Both maybe it’s easy for us to talk. We are no longer burdened with the intimidating task of making sense of day-to-day Middle Eastern turmoil for a non-expert audience. I’m now with International Crisis Group, and find its research, reports and advocacy method far better suited than journalism for detailing, explaining and ultimately trying to do something to end Middle East turbulence. But, illustrating Luyendijk’s point about simplification, even the best-intentioned broadcast media still often find it easier to keep calling me a journalist, as here on Dutch TV news last week.

Photo: Jak den Exter

Photo: Jak den Exter

Fed up with requests to come in on the fourth day of every crisis to criticise the media coverage, Luyendijk has moved to London and reinvented himself as an anthropologist of the banking business. He has blogged from the front lines of finance for the Guardian (here), an experience he’s now turning into a book. After hearing him retell some of the stories whispered anonymously to him by apparently self-hating Masters of the Universe, I’m looking forward to reading it — if he survives the the English food, out-of-body encounters with the British intellectual classes and all-year-round swimming at the open-air Lido lake on Hampstead Heath.

After that Luyendijk says his next project will be the European Union and its native species, the Eurocrat. He has his work cut out. Europe’s often self-imposed sense of slow decline means that even NIHA, the Dutch centre of learning in Ankara where he and I talked, will close down this year. But I parted company with him with a reinvigorated belief in the qualities and energy that Europe still has, if only Europeans could articulate it better.

Thinking too about Luyendijk’s insistence on the importance to his work of his scientific background, I feel even more flattered to remember how an elderly Canadian professor once came up to me after I’d presented my last book Sons of the Conquerors at Montreal’s McGill University. After listening to me talk about this account of my search through two dozen countries for the soul of the Turks, he told me: “you know, Mr. Pope, you could almost have been an anthropologist”.

A full video of our debate can be found here http://youtu.be/BdLqFqOCiRs

Afghanistan: The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

November 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Graeme Smith has many metaphors for the often bloody mess made of Afghanistan by the supposedly good intentions of the world. One that stayed with me from his knockout new book on the country is that of his favorite barber shop in the south Afghan city of Kandahar. Despite some blue tile and sofa improvements over the years, the roof of the salon picked up a crack in the arched vault from a nearby suicide bomb. The fissure occasionally widens. The hairdresser, and his clients, assume that one day the whole structure will come tumbling down. Until then, however, he just clips to the fashions of the day: long and shaggy when the Taliban are close, cropped or spiky when more pro-Western powers are strong.

Buy book from Amazon.com

Buy book from Amazon.com

The Dogs are Eating them Now: Our War in Afghanistan” (Knopf Canada, 2013) lays out in chiseled detail much that everyone needs to know about the most important, Pashto-speaking theatre of the Afghan war. The Taliban, Smith discovers, are far more “a bunch of rebellious farmers” than foreign zealots. Military strategies of “clear, hold and build” are delusions, and, like Newton’s law of reaction equaling action, the reality is that levels of violence simply rise in direct correlation to levels of force applied. Foreign forces graft themselves onto local tribal feuds, not a struggle of good versus evil. Many Afghans view the Afghan police as more predatory than the Taliban. Goals and missions may at first be noble, but foot-soldiers on both sides fight mostly in self-defence or for revenge. Ordinary Afghans cannot see the difference between the dominant United States and Canada, or, by implication, any other “willing” coalition partner. Even Canada’s impressive moral codes are stretched to breaking point by association with torturing Afghan security agents. “The Westerners became intimately embroiled with a dirty war,” Smith concludes, “and the filthy awfulness of it will remain a stain on their reputation”.

Finally, for those wondering what will happen after NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, Smith persuasively argues that the likely outcome will be similar to events after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. As long as the West keeps paying for the Afghan government (now 90 per cent of budget revenue), the current regime will likely have the means to keep going, and perhaps things will work more smoothly than when foreign troops were charging around. But the relatively effective regime of President Najib fell within months of Soviet subsidies drying up in 1992, and Smith implies that much the same will happen when the West tires of its Afghan project. In the ensuing chaos, the best-educated Afghans, the backbone of whatever the West was trying to build, will then be almost bound to leave.

Before Smith (full disclosure: the author is now an admired colleague of mine at International Crisis Group) won Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction prize for this book, publishers in London and New York were dismissing its wider relevance. (“We thought it was about Syria”, one told his agent while turning it down, while another rejected it even after the prize because “getting media for a book like this in the States is just too tough”). In fact, it should be required reading for anybody who thinks that nations can be built by foreign troops on temporary assignment. It’s also the best lesson in how lucky we are that no Western soldiers are trying to do in Syria today what they tried and failed to do for 12 years in Afghanistan.

"I survived" - Afghan soldier standing to attention after a suicide bombing nearby. Photo by Graeme Smith

“I survived” – Afghan soldier standing to attention after a suicide bombing near Kandahar in 2006. Photo by Graeme Smith

Above all, Smith warns against believing NATO statements that there was any kind of “victory” in this graveyard of empires. “Our modern techniques resemble the early days of medicine, when the human body was poorly understood and doctors prescribed bloodletting or drilled into skulls to treat madness,” he says. He is cautious, too, about the way humanitarian agencies passionately wanted to make the NATO intervention to work for the best. Perhaps there were some eager classes of Afghans on the internationals’ wavelength in Kabul and the north. But, Smith asks, “whose dreams were we chasing in southern Afghanistan? … the road to Kandahar was paved with the best intentions, but the foreigners had no idea what Afghans wanted. That disconnect [had] horrendous consequences.” A persistent piece of graffiti in a Kandahar Air Field washroom – NUKE AFGHANISTAN – prompts Smith to reflect:

Maybe it was a more sophisticated commentary on the absurd logic of the war, a Swiftian modest proposal that revealed the only way Western countries could feel absolutely certain that Afghanistan would never serve as a terrorist haven. Given that no sane person wanted to turn the country into a sheet of radioactive glass, perhaps this was the soldiers’ way of saying that the civilians at home had better get used to accepting risk in their lives, because there was a limit to how many people you can kill as a preventative measure. The phrase ‘never again,’ so often heard after 9/11, represented an impossible task for any military force.

Smith is not naïve about the Taliban, whose propaganda “showed a sickening taste for blood,” and whose tactics included a ruthless pattern of assassinations of anyone they believed to be cooperating with their enemies (500 people in Kandahar at the latest count). But his innovative interviews with the militants taught him four main lessons: the war is basically a family feud; air strikes, rather than being an effective deterrent, often pushed people into the insurgency; things were only made worse by destroying poppy fields (now double the size they were under the Taliban, a drug that “powered the south like … an invisible life-giving energy”); and that the real Afghan nationalism of the Taliban does ultimately leave room to negotiate.

Graeme Smith at work in more peaceful climes

Graeme Smith at work in more peaceful climes

Amid the tragedy and hypocrisy are moments of black comedy. The man given a U.S. contract to plant pomegranates in the war zone jokingly calls it “combat farming.” The military’s positive thinking about how each final push would bring victory becomes a doctrine Smith sums up as “rivers of blood … but it’s a good thing.” He describes the paradox of a “stubbornly optimistic atmosphere [in which] a bright young commander could stand near a troop carrier spattered with human remains and declare victory.” Amidst a rich feast of soldiers’ vocabulary, bullets popping off inside a burning armoured car are known as a “cook-off”. Then there is the Kandahar governor who takes Smith for a walk along a path where a disabled land mine still lay half-concealed and gestures “at the hazard casually, the way somebody might warn a friend to avoid dog poop on a sidewalk.”

Smith told me that much of his reporting technique involved transcribing hundreds of hours of audio recordings, one reason perhaps why the quotes in the book are so vivid. A soldier describes bittersweet Afghanistan as “eating at McDonalds and then going and visiting the slaughterhouse”. Then of course the battlefield quote from a Canadian officer for the book’s title: “We hit a couple of guys over there. Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now”.

He is also a superb photographer, the 16 chapters accompanied by gems of images that capture both desert wastes and human spirit in grainy paper tones of grey. These in turn complement his literary gifts, particularly intense as he writes down exactly what it was like to experience military camp life, battles and suicide bombings. He describes an Afghan earth so fine it is puffs up “feathery plumes of talcum powder”; an early commitment by the internationals to saving Afghanistan is so intense that a whole military camp “seems to vibrate with an energy like the thudding rotors of a helicopter”; and at one point he finds the Afghan government presence in the insecure south like “the dust devils that flitted into empty quarters, appearing and disappearing, taking form only long enough to make you wonder if they had shape.”

Smith’s voice is in tune with other clear-eyed narratives of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq – Deedee Derksen’s Thee met de Taliban (Tea with the Taliban, my review here), or Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well (review here). As a Globe and Mail reporter, Smith regrets how he just can’t fit into stories some comments by interviewees that don’t match his Canadian readers’ preconceptions, the same problem I encountered as a Wall Street Journal correspondent (described in my book Dining with al-Qaeda).

When writing a story about apparent popular support in Kandahar for the Taliban, for instance, Smith meets a psychologist who tells him that the main reason for it is the ruling foreigners’ own mistakes, including their desire to change the way Afghan women dress. “’Ninety per cent of women here are happy with the burka’ [the psychologist said]… That evening, back in my tent at the military base, I omitted those quotes from my article about his clinic. They didn’t fit my story about a city under siege by unwelcome militants.”

The book’s last reporting tour de force is from Kandahar’s main prison. Here Smith details with elegant lucidity the failure of all the vigorous, expensive efforts of the internationals to make it safe, well-guarded and impregnable. “None of these improvements would matter, however, if the ideas behind the mission proved incorrect” he writes. “They cleared, they held, they built – but it fell apart in an instant … there was nothing they could do about the bigger problem, that few people in the south seemed enthusiastic about resisting the Taliban”.

“A brilliant book … full of wit and intelligence” – William Armstrong in Hürriyet Daily News

November 6, 2013 1 comment

Three years after publication, it’s good to see the reviews of Dining with al-Qaeda still coming in – especially since the last two say my memoir of Middle Eastern reporting life remains highly relevant despite the excitements of Arab uprisings that have grabbed headlines in the meantime. William Armstrong’s piece in one of Turkey’s main English papers today is already one of my favourites.

 

Click to see the book from Amazon.com

Click to see the book from Amazon.com

DINING WITH AL-QAEDA

By William Armstrong

6 November 2013

Hugh Pope is perhaps slightly unfortunate to have written “Dining with al-Qaeda” just before the Arab revolts erupted across the Middle East. As it is, you read his reflections on 30 years of reporting in the region with the knowledge of what was to come always lurking in the back of your mind. I wonder what he makes of today’s events in the Arab world; he comes across as a natural optimist, but three decades of covering the region have disabused him of any fantasies dreamt up in the Oriental Studies department at Oxford. Still, he’s able to stay free of any of the hard-boiled cynicism that affects many others in his line of work, and has written a brilliant, vivid book that is full of wit and intelligence.

One result of Pope’s many years of experience is a refusal to succumb to overarching intellectual schema, which he says is born of a “long-lasting suspicion of all ideological interpretations of the Middle East.” Instead, he allows himself “to go with the flow of the truer and more interesting confusion of everyday life … the vivacious human contact that make the region so addictive.” Far from making the book a lightweight read, this ideological skepticism has been hard-won through years of reporting some of the most intractable conflicts in the region. He may be buccaneering, but Pope has no spectacular Anthony Loyd-style reporter’s tale of psychological breakdown and heroin addiction, substituted by thrills on the perilous front line. Instead, he simply writes fluently of what he has observed and learnt, with a nice line in pithy summaries of people and places. Of Iran he writes: “I despaired of my own side for giving so many winning arguments to someone as sanctimonious and hypocritical as Khameini.” Of the Yezidis: “high on the scale of oppression, even in the Middle East’s competitive arena.” Of Turkey: a “free but distorted burlesque of conflicting viewpoints.” Of Lebanon: “Israelis were all over the south, neck-deep in the Middle Eastern delusion that conquerors were keepers.” Of Saddam’s Iraq: “a sinister B-movie.”

Much of the book is spent reflecting on Pope’s frustrating experience as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Iraq as the war drums started rolling after September 11, and during the subsequent occupation. A principled and thoughtful journalist, he’s excellent at describing his exasperation at his own apparent futility to “bridge fully the gap between Middle Eastern reality and American  perceptions” during those dark days – a particularly tough task considering the state of the Journal’s tub-thumping opinion pages at the time. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but the disillusioning professional experience of the second Iraq War probably did as much as his family commitments to finally convince him to throw in the towel after 30 years on the beat. “As someone who tried to write articles that challenged the logic of that invasion, I felt by turns futility, emasculation, depression, and even physically sick,” he writes at one point.

The title “Dining with al-Qaeda” is grabby – (though somewhat less so than fellow reporter Edward Behr’s “Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?”) – and refers to Pope’s nail-biting encounter with an al-Qaeda operative in Saudi Arabia shortly after 9/11. On the whole, however, he has too much experience to suggest that the region can be reduced to such sensational episodes. While it’s highly entertaining, “Dining with al-Qaeda” is also an astute warning from an authoritative voice about the clichés and blind spots that distort coverage of the Middle East.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Tahrir, Taksim and the Ottoman Empire

October 7, 2013 1 comment

Screen shot 2013-10-07 at 22.19.44In 2011, a book review monthly sent me Michelle Campos’s Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, asking for 5,000 words on all that it might mean. It set my head spinning, a dense, comprehensive battery of sources writing in 1908-1914, making me feel like I was in the same busy conference as a crowd of bourgeois Ottomans. There were also many uncanny parallels with what was going on in 2011 in Tahrir Square and other places of ferment during the Arab Uprisings. I wrote nothing about it at the time – I wasn’t part of those Arab events and wasn’t sure it was a fair to make the comparison. I delayed and prevaricated. I stopped hearing from the book review monthly. Then, in the summer of 2013, protests poured onto the streets of Istanbul outside my house, and I understood what I could and had to say. And, at last, I achieved a long-held ambition: to weave my electricity subscriber number into a story.

OTTOMAN GHOSTS

Istanbul’s Pro-Constitution Coup of 1908 Haunts Erdogan’s Turkey

By Hugh Pope

The Majalla, 1 October 2013

Elektrik 77 squareAn old enamel electricity subscriber disk, No. 77, hangs over the high wooden door to my Istanbul apartment. The number likely dates back to one of the Ottoman Empire’s first public power generators, and, in today’s metropolis, my bills duly come to subscriber No. 00000000077. My neighbor below, a prosperous Armenian furrier who cuts Dutch mink and exotic furs for the bourgeoisie, speaks fluent Kurdish due to his family’s once wide land-ownings in the pre-1915 east of the country. On the floor above, the direct descendants of the aga or commander of the 56th Regiment of Ottoman janissaries, whose surname translates as “Son of the 56th,” manage their family’s charitable foundation—set up in 1826.

The Republic of Turkey, founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, spent most of the last century deliberately framing itself as the opposite of much that was Ottoman or even Islamic. Yet the Ottoman legacy remains tangible in many parts of Turkey’s geography and culture, and the Turkish people have become increasingly fascinated by their long-belittled past.

A taste for post-Ottoman chic (and kitsch) emerged in the 1990s, cropping up in places from restored Greek taverns to mosque design. The once-banished Ottoman royal family began making it into the society pages. For the secular rich, a restored Ottoman mansion became the desirable abode. The trend has reached new heights since 2002, as the pro-Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan restored parts of Istanbul to resemble an Ottoman Disneyland and blended neo-Ottoman themes into party ideology.

This has triggered a deeper debate. How much is Turkey still rooted in the Empire that held sway for centuries over territories in the Balkans and Middle East that now encompasses more than 30 modern states? And do these roots represent a past best forgotten, an inherited magnificence to be recreated or a cautionary history of the region’s ethnic, sectarian and historical cleavages?

Take, for instance, the scenes on the streets in front of my apartment building near Taksim Square during Istanbul’s 2013 summer of political unrest [my first blog on that here]. “Now nothing will be like it was before,” read one slogan spray-painted onto a nearby wall. There was an intoxicating spontaneity and a freedom to say anything at all, out loud and in public—including egregious insults hurled by both the government and secularist sides. But was this outpouring on city walls and social media really so new? Was it a replay of Egyptians’ freedom-loving chants on Tahrir Square two years before? Or the Syrians’ later demonstrations? Or was this an echo of something from the Ottoman Empire, whose own pro-secular and pro-Islamist ructions in 1908-1909 reached a bloody climax in that same Taksim Square?

Prime Minister Erdoğan certainly thinks they are linked. He insistently uses an obscure insult, çapulcu (“looter”), as a label for the pro-secular demonstrators against his government, recalling the name given to Bulgarian irregulars who joined the secularists against the Ottoman Sultan in 1909. In a way, he may be right. Taksim and Tahrir’s praise of freedom, their early anti-sectarianism, and their heady moments of civil society asserting civic rights, do echo exactly those that inspired Ottoman public squares and meeting halls in Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Istanbul in 1908-1909.

This early cycle of revolution and counter-revolution, of secularist nationalism and Islamism, is captured in vivid detail by the book Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, by American Middle East specialist Michelle U. Campos (Stanford University Press, 2011). Just as with the heady days of 2011 when Arab peoples were carried away by the dream of an ‘Arab Spring,’ Istanbul’s pro-constitution coup of 1908 swept the empire’s multi-ethnic citizenry off their feet.

Above all—as in Tahrir in 2011—the word “hurriyya”, or freedom, seemed to herald a new dawn. “It sometimes seems as if one lives in a dream” one resident of Jaffa writes to his friend in Beirut in 1908. Another, reformist Rafiz Al-Azm, wrote that “wherever I met an Ottoman friend who was known for his love of freedom, whether in Syria or Egypt, we became overwhelmed with emotions, and our eyes burst with tears for the joy that was within us.” In 2013, such spontaneity was an unprecedented feature in Turkey too, as thousands of ordinary pedestrians expressed euphoria and togetherness with impromptu waves of clapping along the length of İstiklal Street leading to Taksim.

If Twitter and Facebook define communications now, the social media of the earlier era lagged only slightly behind, to judge by the wealth of telegrams, letters, wire reports, posters, diary entries and newspaper columns quoted by Campos. Crowds in Palestine shouted “Long live the Padishah [Sultan]!”—because the sultan had brought back the secular constitution—just as Turkey’s crowds shouted “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s republican founder, who died in 1938 and invented Turkey’s secular constitution). In both Palestine then and Turkey today, months of extemporaneous meetings in parks and public places followed, in which all were welcome to express their views.

Among the Jews, Muslims and Christians in Palestine in 1908, and the Copts and Muslims in the first weeks of Tahrir in 2011, observers were astonished at the extent that people put aside differences to embrace and support each other. Then as now, the army leaned to the modernist side. Ottoman intellectuals’ narrative of “awakening,” “revolution,” “rebirth” and “throwing off tyranny” all “reasserted the empire’s role at the center of Europe rather than at its margins,” Campos argues. Similarly, the “occupy” spirit and “anti-authoritarian” language in Taksim and Tahrir persuaded European visitors in 2011-13 that these events were a breakthrough for Western values. The same language echoes in the title of Ashraf Khalil’s bracing account of Tahrir: Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation (St. Martin’s Press, 2012).

Another parallel binds these oft-scorned neighbors of Europe to the old continent. The old Sultan cultivated an image of divine-paternal-political omnipresence, copied from the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg or Russian Romanov dynasties, while today’s Taksim demonstrators attacked Erdoğan as a “Putin,” shorthand in their minds for an oppressive Russian autocrat. And to cap off the comparisons: just as Tehran’s Green Revolution of 2009 came two years before the Arab uprisings, so did the Iranian Revolution of 1906 come two years before the Ottoman upheavals.

Of course, there are differences too. The scenes of ethnic and sectarian intermingling during the 1908 Ottoman constitutional revolution were more extraordinary than in 2011, with priests, rabbis and imams hugging and kissing in front of everyone. It was also accompanied by real changes in laws and prisoners’ releases, it was an empire-wide affair against an Islamic establishment backed by the army and a strong new political secularist faction, the Committee of Union and Progress, and it roundly defeated a 1909 counter-revolution by pro-Sultan Islamists in the old Taksim Barracks. By contrast, if there is a region-wide political movement involved in the unrest today, it is pro-Islamic, including Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Syrian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhoods. There is no neat story line. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood now represents a failed revolution. Meanwhile, the AKP has overcome many traps laid by the pro-secular establishment and built itself into a new pro-Islamic status quo. Istanbul’s summer protests rumble on with tear gas-filled weekend moments on İstiklal, confounding the pro-Islamic Erdoğan, but not overthrowing him.

Neo-Ottoman aspects of Erdoğan’s policy, however, are clearly at a dead end. The AKP’s idealistic attempt in the late 2000s to create a Middle Eastern area of free trade, free movement of people, regular joint Cabinet meetings and infrastructure integration collapsed with the Arab uprisings. Erdoğan’s chief policy guru Ahmet Davutoğlu—foreign minister since 2009—denied this was an attempt to turn back the historical clock, and indeed it also looked like an attempt to copy the European Union’s success. But Davutoğlu read from Ottoman firmans (royal decrees) when visiting former Ottoman lands, drew attention to what he considered good Ottoman policies and publicly praised Ottoman leaders.

More dramatically, Davutoğlu repeatedly vowed to smash the Sykes-Picot agreement, the 1916 British-French pact that divided up the Middle Eastern lands of the Ottoman Empire. AKP leaders also seemed seduced by the ideal of Islamic brotherhood, disregarding the lessons of the Ottoman period. The Sublime Porte’s policy was rarely pan-Islamic and kept a suspicious eye on non-Ottoman Muslims. And the Turkish republic’s policy of caution, neutrality and commercial opportunism towards the Middle East was based on the memory of how pan-Ottomanism failed and realism about Turkey’s limited capacity for regional hegemony.

The republic’s skepticism was branded into the Turkish consciousness by how brutally short-lived the euphoria of the empire’s 1908 revolution proved to be. The 1909 Armenian massacres and Ottoman defeats in a new Balkan War made it even harder to keep all the empire’s religions and ethnicities in balance, and defeat in the First World War of 1914-18 devastated Turkey’s geography. Ultimately, the events of 1908-09 presaged the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—just as the Arab uprisings are now putting under pressure the Sykes-Picot borders drawn one century ago.

The 1908 upsurge of pan-Ottoman citizenship may not have survived imperial collapse, but other Ottoman ghosts live on. The long-lasting pain of the Greeks forced out of Anatolia in the 1923 population exchange has been excellently explained by Bruce Clark in his book Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey (Granta, 2007). And a revelatory new book by French journalists Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier La Turquie et le fantôme arménien : Sur les traces du génocide, Actes Sud, 2013 (Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: in the steps of the genocide) found much that has survived the genocidal massacres of Armenians in 1915: survivors, converts, crypto-Armenians, derelict churches, descendants of ‘righteous’ Turks, artisans’ tools in second-hand shops, flour mills, abandoned houses, as well as songs and traditions that have blended into mainstream Turkish culture.

Do the Arab uprisings presage a worse fragmentation to come, a regional rebalancing as dramatic and bloody as the First World War? Michelle Campos’s book argues that the failure of Ottomanism was by no means a foregone conclusion, and that the 1908 outburst of togetherness and reform showed an empire that was arguably more tolerant than its European contemporaries. She also notes that later, the First World War’s European victors tried to buttress the political role they seized in the Middle East “by ignoring or even reversing the developments that had taken place in the last decade of Ottoman rule.”

Certainly, many Ottomans regretted the social disintegration. As Campos quotes an Ottoman Jewish writer in Liberty in November 1909: “Everyone says to give it time and our situation will improve … our situation gets worse by the day.” In Palestine, Campos argues, Zionism did not gain adherents so much as the failure of the idea of a common Ottoman identity lost the Zionists. She also details how the confused unscrambling of the imperial omelet made Arabs and Turks unintentionally lose their sense of common cause.

When Ottomanism did collapse, however, it rent apart the Middle East’s society and geography. Similarly, the retreat of the twentieth century order is today tearing open ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq, Syria and Libya, even putting pressure on the fault-lines of Turkey, the region’s most stable and successful twentieth century state. Indeed, when Foreign Minister Davutoğlu rejoices that the whole twentieth century was an aberrant “parenthesis” that has now closed, this may mean more challenges than opportunities for Turkey. Already, Kurdish intellectuals demanding autonomy in Turkey today regularly use the same arguments as Michelle Campos quotes from the Arabs’ Decentralization Committee in 1913:

“Every thinking Arab who understands the meaning of life demands that his place will be side by side with the Turk in this empire…where neither of them takes advantage of the other….But if our brothers do not want to understand this fact … then the Arab people want life and will struggle for it.”

Categories: Uncategorized

“Among the handful of books that explain the road to the Arab Spring” – Walter Posch, JIPSS

August 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 23.20.13A new German review of Dining with al-Qaeda by Walter Posch – a hands-on expert from Austria about Iran, Turkey and Kurdish affairs with Germany’s Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) – warmed my heart on many counts. Posch mostly likes the book and strongly recommends it; gives the longest review the book has yet had in German (in the Austrian  Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies), and best of all says in conclusion (my translation, and I am far from fluent in German as Posch graciously says in the review): “Pope manages to make tangible the tensions inside the societies of Arab states, and between state and regime. After reading this book the reader really expects a political explosion, which indeed happened with the Arab Spring in the year that the book appeared. The Arab Spring does not make Dining with al-Qaeda obsolete, but is far rather to be counted among the handful of books that explain the road that led there.”

See on Amazon.com

See on Amazon.com

On the critical side, Posch is cautious about what he sees as selective and “frank, ostentatious yet viewable-by-all” autobiographical material, believes that I have misjudged and misunderstood academic reserve and work on Middle Eastern society and politics, and finds me too soft on Turkey (in my defence,  I felt I’d little new to say after writing Turkey Unveiled and Sons of the Conquerors). Still, Posch particularly likes the chapter titles (I’d worked hard on them!) and feels the book is “successful” overall. “This book is recommended not just for its easy readability and its rich colours [but also] as an introduction to how stories become articles … particularly impressive is his skill in presenting the various sides, for example seeing the same event from Palestinian and Israeli, or through Arab and American eyes”.

Rezension: Hugh Pope, Dining with Al-Qaeda. Three Decades Exploring the many Worlds of the Middle East, St. Martin’s Press, New York 2010

Posch_Walter_SWP_7651_2332

Walter Posch (SWP, Berlin)

Der britische Journalist und Nahostexperte Hugh Pope verfasste eine berufliche Autobiographie, mit der er den gelungenen Versuch unternahm, einen kritischen Blick auf das westliche Verhältnis zum Nahen Osten zu werfen. Ausgehend von seinem Werdegang gelingt es ihm, Zeitgeschichte und Analyse erfolgreich zu verbinden. Da er auf jedem Schauplatz des Nahen Ostens und der benachbarten Regionen journalistisch tätig war, ergibt sich eine Zeitgeschichte der letzten dreißig Jahre. Jedes der achtzehn Kapitel ist eine eigene historisch-politisch-biographische Vignette mit griffigem Titel und Untertitel, der meist die politischen Verhältnisse des jeweils behandelten Landes auf den Punkt bringt (z.B. The Plot in the Conspiracy: Spies in the Syria-Lebanon-Palestine Triangle S. 28-37; Hunting for Scapegoats: Foreign Interference and Misrule in Lebanon, S. 38-48; The Drunken Lover: Revolutionary Iran’s Struggle with Its Poetic Soul, 68-83; Dining with Al-Qaeda: A Saudi Missionary and the „Wonderful Boys“ of September 11, S. 132-155; Regal Republics – Democratic Kings: Syria, Jordan and the Dimensions of Dictatorship, S. 196-217; Stop Firing! This is a Military Situation: One Step behind the War with the Kurds,“ S. 249-271; u.s.w.).

Durch die achtzehn Vignetten zieht sich ein autobiographischer Faden, der freilich nur das verrät, was der Autor unbedingt enthüllen will – über sein Privatleben erfährt man genauso wenig wie über die Gründe für seine Niederlassung in der Türkei. Das ist insoweit von Bedeutung, als es meiner Ansicht nach den Mangel an substantieller Kritik an der Türkei erklärt – Pope ist seit 2009 der Türkeiexperte der renommierten International Crisis Group und lebt seit über zwei Jahrzehnten im Land, er ist also privat und professionell vom Wohlwollen der türkischen Behörden abhängig. Daher drängte sich beim Rezensenten der Verdacht auf, dass er bei den Türken Zurückhaltung übt während er bei allen anderen Völkern der Region, also bei den Arabern, Kurden, Iranern und Israelis mit Kritik nicht geizt.

Gleichzeitig plaudert er kurzweilig „aus dem Nähkästchen“ und erlaubt dem Leser einen Blick hinter die Kulissen der angelsächsischen Nahostberichterstattung, wenn er zum Beispiel von einer offiziösen journalistischen Faustregel über die „Nachrichtenwürdigkeit“ menschlicher Opfer schreibt, die in den 1980er Jahren für die westlichen Journalistengemeinschaft in Beirut galt: absolute Priorität hatten amerikanische Opfer, die gleich viel wert waren wie zwei Israelis, oder drei Europäer oder fünf arabische Christen oder zehn Muslime. Kriegsbedingt hatten es Iraner und Iraker am schwersten in die Seiten internationaler Zeitungen zu kommen, erst wenn iranischen Agenturen mindestens 100 Tote berichteten, war ein gewisser Neuigkeitswert gegeben. (S. 45) Pope war zwanzig Jahre lang Nahostkorrespondent bei UPI und dem Wall Street Journal, von dem er sich in gegenseitigem Einverständnis, aber aufgrund großer inhaltlicher und politischer Differenzen, trennte. (S. 261) Viele der interessantesten Szenen in seinem Werk schafften es seinerzeit nicht in das Journal oder wurden für eine amerikanische Leserschaft so überarbeitet, dass weder der ursprüngliche Kontext noch die differenzierten Beobachtungen des Autors erkennbar waren. So zum Beispiel in einem der Kapitel über Saudi Arabien (Mecca and Mammon: Crushing Religious Diversity in the Name of Islam, S. 117-131) wo er den don-quijotischen Kampf des mekkanischen Architekten und Kulturhistorikers Angawi gegen die Zerstörung des kulturellen und architektonischen Erbes des Islams zum Ausgangspunkt für eine exzellente Erörterung der saudi-arabischen Gesellschaft nimmt. Wie zu erwarten machte das Journal daraus eine Geschichte über wahnsinnige Wahhabiten, die nicht nur die USA angreifen, sondern auch verrückt genug sind, die Zeugnisse der eigenen Kultur in die Luft zu jagen oder zu schleifen.

Pope verfügt über beindruckende Kenntnisse der saudischen Gesellschaft und durch sein Talent, eine Geschichte in ihren kulturellen und politischen Kontext zu verorten, gelingt es ihm, die geistigen und ideologischen Strömungen des Landes einzufangen. Besonders hilfreich ist diese Methode in dem Kapitel, das dem Buch den Namen gab: Abendessen mit Al-Qaeda. Pope zeigt wie er durch den Kontakt zum Sohn eines politischen Gefangenen mit viel Geduld zu einem Abendessen mit einem Werber (da‘i) von Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabien kommt. Der ungenannt gebliebene Werber sah sich dabei weniger als Mitglied der Organisation sondern als Propagandist für die Ideologie Al-Qaedas. Dennoch eröffnete er das Gespräch mit der Frage, warum es nicht besser sei den britischen Journalisten gleich zu töten. Pope beschreibt, wie er dies für eine leere Drohung hielt und wie sich langsam ein Gespräch basierend auf gemeinsamer Koranexegese entwickelte, bis der Werber schließlich mit Einblicken in das Innere Al-Qaedas aufwartet und glaubhaft beschreibt, wann und wie er die Attentäter, die für ihn „wunderbare Burschen“ sind, kennen lernt (S. 144). Was Pope zum damaligen Zeitpunkt nicht wusste, war, dass gleichzeitig sein Kollege vom Wall Street Journal Daniel Pearl in Pakistan mit einer anderen Al-Qaeda Gruppe in Kontakt war und von diesen grausam ermordet wurde – sie hatten ihn enthauptet.

Nach Popes Aussage waren er und Pearl jene Journalisten, die trotz des 11. Septembers ihrem Anspruch treu blieben und ein ausgeglichenes Bild von der arabischen Welt zeichneten. Pope, der auch an anderen Stellen an getötete Kollegen erinnert, nimmt Pearls Tod zum Anlass, die tragische Rolle kritischer Journalisten zu thematisieren, die zwischen den Wünschen unkritischer Blattmacher und der Brutalität islamistischer Fanatiker stehen. Das Abendessen mit Al-Qaeda wurde vom Wall Street Journal übrigens mit der Begründung abgelehnt, der Werber würde nicht mit Namen genannt werden, (s. 150) was bei Menschen, die im Untergrund leben, allerdings zu erwarten ist.

Neben dem Journal, gegen das er sich die eine oder andere Spitze nicht versagen will (wenn er z.B. von einer Redaktionskonferenz berichtete, in der die Unmöglichkeit diskutiert wurde, eine unabhängige arabische Stimme in diesem Blatt zu Wort kommen zu lassen S. 60-63), ist es vor allem ein britischer Journalist, den Pope mit einer überraschenden Hartnäckigkeit angreift: Robert Fisk, dem er verantwortungslose Übertreibung, schlampige Recherche und mangelnde tiefere Kenntnisse der Region vorwirft. Der Grund für Popes radikale Abrechnungen mit seinem Zunftkollegen liegt einerseits im Starruhm, den der Grand Seigneur der britischen Nahostberichterstattung genießt (Fisk ist der Autor mehrerer Bücher und war jahrzehntelang einer der wichtigsten Korrespondenten bedeutender britischer Zeitungen) andererseits jedoch auch in einer gewissen Enttäuschung des Autors begründet: freimütig gibt Pope zu, dass es die Artikel Robert Fisks waren, die ihm als Studenten der Orientalistik in Oxford den modernen Nahen Osten nahe brachten und den er am Beginn seiner journalistischen Karriere noch bewunderte. Als er mit ihm als Kollege zu tun hatte, wurde er jedoch von seinem arroganten Verhalten dermaßen enttäuscht, dass er ihn und seine Artikel nun mit kritischeren Augen sah (S. 21-26).

Pope studierte gegen Ende der 1970er Jahre Orientalistik mit Schwerpunkt persisch und arabisch in Oxford. Daneben spricht er noch fließend türkisch, deutsch, niederländisch und französisch. Obwohl er der gediegenen orientalistischen Ausbildung die Grundlagen seines Wissens verdankt, spricht er ausschließlich ironisch über dieses klassische Fach, dem er Weltfremdheit bescheinigt. Mit der Realität des Nahen Osten kam Pope nach eigener Aussage 1980 in Berührung, als die syrische Armee im März – April 1980 Unruhen in Aleppo brutal unterdrückte. Allerdings war die Lage des damals noch jungen Studenten eher surreal: während die Armee Artillerie und Granatwerfer gegen die syrische Opposition einsetzte, versuchte er sich in seinem Zimmer in einem Bordell in Aleppo durch die arabische Grammatik zu arbeiten und dabei dem homoerotischen Begehren eines arabischen Machos, der unablässig an seine Tür klopfte,  zu widerstehen (- mit Erfolg S. 9). In der Tat sind manche Sachverhalte nahöstlicher Wirklichkeit nur schwer in Vorlesungen und Proseminaren zu vermitteln.

Seine Verbesserungsvorschläge für die Orientalistik und Nahostinstitute entbehren dann ihrerseits der Realität, jedenfalls der Praktikabilität. So schlägt er vor,  westliche Universitäten mögen die Geschichte der Region des Nahen Ostens  „anderswo“ als in den genannten Fächern behandeln – wo und warum? Die Konkurrenz bei den Anthropologen, Theologen und Politikwissenschaftlern hat bisher eher selten mit  Nahostexpertise aufwarten können. Doch nach Pope würde nur so gewährleistet, dass man den Nahen Osten nicht mehr so behandelt, „als ob die dortigen Probleme irgendwie verloren und anders als jene im Rest der Welt wären.“ (S. 308) Doch genau das sind sie, wenn man zum Beispiel, wie er es tut, das Schicksal der Palästinenser und Kurden nicht unter den Tisch kehrt sondern ihnen große Bedeutung beimisst.

In gewisser Weise ist seine Kritik an der akademischen Ausbildung typisch für politische und journalistische Praktiker. Doch hier übersieht Pope zweierlei. Erstens  die politischen Schwierigkeiten, mit denen unpolitische Orientalisten oft genug konfrontiert werden (so zwang das Interesse für die Literatur esoterischer Sekten in der Türkei diesen Rezensenten sich während seiner Studienzeit intensiver mit der türkischen Innen- und Sicherheitspolitik auseinander zu setzen). Selbst die weltfremdesten Bücherwürmer sind unfreiwillig zu wahren Experten für politische Wetterlagen gemacht worden. Vielleicht ist, was Pope als Weltfremdheit auffasst, in Wirklichkeit akademische Diskretion, die durchaus auf Kenntnis der Politik beruht? Außerdem versagt der Autor ein wenig bei der Selbstreflexion: schließlich verdankt er der Orientalistik nicht nur seine Sprachkenntnisse, sondern auch seine nach wie vor „orientalistische“ Einstellung. So ist es letztlich seine historisch-philologische Schulung, die ihn die richtigen Fragen stellen lässt, und es ist in gewisser Weise „Orientalismus“ (eben nicht im Sinne von Edward Said!) wenn er davon ausgeht, dass die Völker des Nahen Ostens das Recht haben, ihr Schicksal selbst zu bestimmen. Genau diese Einstellung brachte ihn öfters in Schwierigkeiten und unterscheidet ihn von den meisten Politikwissenschaftlern, Studenten der Internationalen Beziehungen oder Mitarbeitern des Wall Street Journal.

Anekdotisch lässt er einen nicht zu unterschätzenden Aspekt seiner Karriere einfließen: die Begegnung mit Nachrichtendiensten. Sowohl Orientalisten als auch all jene, die sich entschließen, eine nahöstliche  Fremdsprache zu lernen, stehen unter Generalverdacht der Spionage. In Syrien, bei den Palästinensern und im Iran war das Misstrauen besonders groß – warum, so die entwaffnende Logik, würde man sonst eine der Sprachen in der Region lernen wollen? In der Tat wurde einer seiner Kommilitonen – der beste Arabischstudent Oxfords (S. 31, 32) –  Analyst beim MI6. Als britische Staatsbürger hatte es Pope natürlich besonders schwer, einerseits wegen der imperialen Vergangenheit Großbritanniens in der Region, andererseits, weil das Vereinigte Königreich einen der besten und aktivsten Geheimdienste der Welt unterhält. Vielleicht geht das Problem aber noch tiefer, denn  die Omnipräsenz britischer Spionage wurde im Laufe des letzten Jahrhunderts Teil der Folklore des Nahen Ostens. Es scheint aber wohl eher seine Tätigkeit als Journalist gewesen zu sein, die ihm die vielen Einladungen für Abendessen und lange Gespräche eintrug  -  unter anderem von französischen, amerikanischen und anderen Botschaftsmitarbeitern der besonderen Art. So auch von  einem jungen britischen Diplomatenehepaar, von dem er jahrelang nichts mehr hörte – bis zu dem Tag als er aus der Zeitung (woher sonst) erfuhr, dass John Sawers zum Chef des MI6 ernannt wurde. (S. 34). Pope gibt nützliche Tipps zur Vorsicht: immer davon ausgehen, dass das Telefon abgehört wird, niemals Witze über Spionage am Telefon machen, das ist eine Garantie für Spionageverdacht, Vorsicht bei Consulting-Tätigkeiten, denn der eigentliche Auftraggeber sitzt meistens wo anders usw. Doch die Regel lautet nicht, dass man Spione sucht, vielmehr, dass diese einen finden. (Mittlerweile gibt es genügend „graue“ Literatur und Tipps im Internet, mit denen sich die einfachsten Grundregeln gegen das „Abschöpfen“ und instrumentalisiert werden, leicht lernen lassen. Freilich, die nötige Erfahrung bekommt man erst bei der Arbeit.)

Zu seinen Vignetten gehören auch Beobachtungen über die zwischenmenschlichen Beziehungen in der Region, zwischen Mann und Frau und Mann und Mann. (Der Titel des Kapitels könnte von Rosamunde Pilcher sein: „Subversion in the Harem: Women on the Rise from Cairo to Istanbul S. 84-98“ aber er geht auf dieses Thema auch in anderen Kapiteln ein.) Hier greift er größten Teils auf eigene Erlebnisse zurück, was mit einer oder zwei Ausnahmen die geradezu ostentativ jugendfreie Natur der Episoden erklären dürfte. Er ergänzt daher gerne durch Beispiele aus der erzählenden Literatur und bastelt daraus eine – wenig überzeugende – Soziologie der zwischenmenschlichen Beziehungen des Nahen Ostens. Darüber hinaus belastet er den politisch interessierten Leser mit Tratsch und Klatsch von multikulturellen Paaren, die er in seinem Freundes- und Bekanntenkreises kennen lernte (S. 94) – sehr zum Ärger des Rezensenten, der ein guter Bekannter des Autors ist.

Dennoch ist das Buch nicht nur wegen seiner leichten Lesbarkeit und seines bunten Kolorits zu empfehlen. Seine Einblicke in die Art wie aus Geschichten Artikel gemacht werden und wie und unter welchen Umständen diese es dann tatsächlich in die Zeitung schaffen oder abgelehnt werden, ist eine gute Einführung für all jene, die keine formelle journalistische Ausbildung genossen haben, zu deren beruflichem Alltag jedoch verpflichtende Zeitungslektüre gehört. Besonders beeindruckend ist auch seine Fähigkeit, die andere Seite darzustellen, wenn er zum Beispiel dasselbe Ereignis aus palästinensischer und israelischer, oder aus arabischer und amerikanischer Sicht darstellt. Darüber hinaus gibt das Buch einen exzellenten Eindruck der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse von den 1980er Jahren zu 9/11 bis zur Zeit unmittelbar vor dem arabischen Frühling. Pope schafft es, die Spannungen innerhalb der Gesellschaften der arabischen Staaten und zwischen Staat und Regime greifbar zu machen. Nach der Lektüre erwartet der Leser eigentlich eine politische Explosion, wie sie im Erscheinungsjahr des Buches mit dem Arabischen Frühling auch eingetreten ist. Der Arabische Frühling macht Dining With Al-Qaeda nicht obsolet, vielmehr soll es zu jener Handvoll Büchern gezählt werden, die den Weg dorthin erklären helfen.

Erschien in: Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies, 7.1.2013 S. 182-185

Turkey’s Armenian Ghosts

July 19, 2013 31 comments

For many years in Turkey, conversations became awkward if they turned to defining what used to be called the “events of 1915”. Basically, I had read one set of history books, which discussed the genocidal deaths of 1-1.5 million Armenians who died in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War deportations. Most Turks had read a completely different set of books. If there was a mention of the Armenian question at all, it was suggested that some unfortunate wartime accidents had been exaggerated by Turkey’s enemies as part of great conspiracy to do the country down.

Ergen, in Dersim/Tunceli. Photo by Antoine Agoudjian

This old lady in Ergen (Dersim/Tunceli, Turkey)  is an Armenian who converted to Alevism, the heteredox faith influenced by Islamic Shia thinking that predominates in that province. Photo by Antoine Agoudjian

Discussion, therefore, would usually soon choke up, having revealed a genuine absence of knowledge of what happened to the Armenians, accompanied by a naturally offended sense of personal innocence; a counter-assertion of the never-addressed trauma of the wrongs done to millions of Muslims expelled from their homes in the Balkans and elsewhere in the 19th and early 20th centuries; legalistic arguments about how by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide cannot be applied retrospectively; and among a few who worried that something awful could have happened, fears that any recognition of an Armenian “genocide” would result in expensive reparations, awkward atonement, and, not least, odium or worse for contradicting the official narrative of denial.

With such minefields to cross, therefore, I found I alienated less people by discussing basic facts of the case rather than how to label it. I agreed with the advice of Hrant Dink, the late Armenian newspaper editor, who would say it was counterproductive for outsiders to insist upon one label or another until Turkey was ready to debate fully and reach its own conclusion. He believed that processes like Turkey’s EU accession would bring freer information, and with that, understanding of what really happened. The trouble is, Dink was murdered in 2007, perhaps precisely because he represented what should have been a joint Armenian-Turkish road to reconciliation. Sadly, Turkey has yet to get far in undoing the official ideology of denial and hostility to Armenians that formed the mind of the young nationalist who pulled the trigger – let alone bring to justice acts of official negligence and even official complicity with this killer.

CouvNow a new book by the Turkey reporters of France’s Figaro and Le Monde newspapers has done an electrifying job of filling Turkey’s information gap. Surprises lurk under every stone turned over by Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier’s “Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: in the steps of the genocide.” (La Turquie et le fantome Arménien: sur les traces du génocide, Actes Sud, March 2013: Arles, France). It will be published in Turkish by İletişim in January 2014, and deserves to find an English publisher too.

The authors’ inventory of discoveries shows just how much that is Armenian has carried through into modern Turkey. They then use these to make a controversial yet compelling argument: that the Turkish Republic founded in 1923 shares moral responsibility for whatever happened to the Armenians. They contend that Turkey’s many decades of denying that there was anything like an Armenian genocide is actually part of the continuation of a pattern of actions by the Ottoman governments responsible for the Armenian massacres and property confiscations of the 1890-1923 period. For instance, the judicial “farce” of the investigation and trial of Hrant Dink’s murderer is, to the authors, proof positive that “since 1915, impunity has been the rule”.

There are other rude shocks. Some Turks now realize they were being misled by the old official narrative of denial, thanks to a new openness about and better understanding of the Armenian question in Turkey over the past decade. But how many appreciate that Istanbul’s best-loved Ottoman landmarks are often designed by Armenian architects? How many know that the famed Congress of Erzurum, corner stone of the republic’s war of liberation, was held in a just-confiscated Armenian school? And how many have heard, as Marchand and Perrier allege, that even the hilltop farmhouse that became the Turkish republic’s Çankaya presidential palace was seized from an Armenian family – and that descendants of the family, some of whom were well-enough connected to escape with their lives — can calmly be interviewed about this “original sin” of the republic? (The official history of the palace simply says that Ankara municipality “donated” it to republican founder Kemal Atatürk in 1921).

It seems apposite that the authors quote Çankaya’s current incumbent, the open-minded President Abdullah Gül, as saying while he toured the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital of Ani on Turkey’s closed border with Armenia: “That’s Armenia there? So close!”

Amid such evidence that Turkish perceptions can be naïve, one problem with the book is its unrelenting insistence that Turkey end its “fierce” and “obsessive” denial that a genocide happened (unlike, the authors point out, Germany, Serbia, Rwanda and others). This tight argumentation leaves the impression of a Turkey that is deliberately calculating and somehow evil, rather than the more likely case that it is clumsy, embarrassed and a prisoner of its own contradictions. A preface by U.S.-based Turkish academic Taner Akçam, a once-lonely pioneer who calls for Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide, sets a trenchant tone and outlines the problem. “To recognize the Armenian genocide would be the same as denying our [Turkish] national identity, as we now define it”, Taner writes. “Our institutions result from an invented ‘narrative of reality’… a coalition of silence … that wraps like a warm blanket…if we are forced to confront our own history, we would be obliged to question everything”.

Marchand and Perrier brush aside any need for a transitional commission to study the history of the genocide, as suggested in the still-born 2009 protocols between Turkey and Armenia, because the genocide “is a fact that that is barely debated in scientific circles”. Even though the study of Russian archives on the matter is still in its infancy, for instance, the authors dismiss valid elements of the Turkish narrative as yet more ghosts whose abuse has made them an extension of the earlier misdeeds. Parts of the Turkish story are therefore mentioned in passing or only partially, like the massacres of Turks and Muslims by Armenian militias operating behind Russian lines, the 56 people were killed by Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) terrorists during their 1970s and 1980s terrorist campaign against Turkey, or the fact that most of the one million refugees from the fighting in Mountainous Karabagh are Azerbaijanis who fled conquering Armenians. Also, there may be some ill-judged memorial ceremonies, but Turkey does not have a “cult” of Talat Pasha, a probable principal architect of the Armenian genocide. As the authors themselves point out, the site of his grave in a small official memorial park for the Committee of Union and Progress leaders of late Ottoman times gets little official or popular attention.

Guillaume Perrier and Laure Marchand

Guillaume Perrier and Laure Marchand

Still, Marchand and Perrier state early on that their mission is not to write history, but to “give visibility to what has been erased … to gather together an antidote to the poison of denial … because impunity is always an invitation to reoffend”. And here they succeed to a remarkable extent, finding much that remains of Armenians, even as Turkey nears the 2015 centenary of when they were effectively erased from Anatolia: survivors, converts, crypto-Armenians, derelict churches, descendants of ‘righteous’ Turks, artisans’ tools in second- hand shops, flour mills, abandoned houses, songs and traditions. “Turkey”, they say, “is still haunted by the ghost of an assassinated people”.

Indefatigably, the authors travel to remote mountain villages and with President Gül to the Armenian capital for a football match that was part of the ill-fated late 2000s reconciliation process. They listen to the Armenians of Marseilles, France’s second city where 10 per cent of the population are descended from Armenians who fled Turkey, and explain why France and its parliament are so sensitive to the Armenian question. (They also suggest that some in the Armenian diaspora have constructed a counterproductive dream of a “fantasy Armenia, a promised substitute land”.) They interview the grand-children of a brave Turkish sub-prefect, Hüseyin Nesimi, who tried to stop the massacres in 1915, but was quickly assassinated near Diyarbakir, presumably at the orders of an alleged local organizer of the killings. They sit with the family of an Armenian citizen of Turkey killed by a far-right nationalist fellow soldier while on national service – on April 24, 2011. They slip into the mountains and show in a feast of detail how the spirit of the Armenian ‘brigands’ of yore lives on with the left-wing TIKKO group (Turkey’ Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army, founded, you guessed it, on April 24).

In Sivas, they visit the last few rat-infested ruins in the once-thriving Armenian quarter. In Ordu, they find the old Armenian quarter rebaptised “National Victory”, and the old main church now turned into the mosque. In another town, an Armenian protestant church survived as a cinema and now an auditorium, with no sign of its provenance. Elsewhere, the dismantled stones of Armenian monasteries and houses have become the building material for new houses, sometimes with their religious symbols becoming decorative features. State ideology, they think, “even wanted to assimilate the stones”.

They join an Armenian guide who arranges tours for diaspora visitors to find the many souvenirs of Armenian-ness in eastern Turkey – and inhabitants who are not as hung up about their Armenian connections as might be expected. This picaresque explorer has tracked down 600 former Armenian villages, in some of which 1915’s survivors occasionally lived on for decades (the authors even stumble upon one during their travels). Other small Armenian communities “hidden, forgotten or assimilated” still live in thirty small or medium-sized towns. They show how village names have been changed and the memory of Armenians has been expunged. Very few people in Turkey are aware that the now iconic and ubiquitous signature of “K. Ataturk” was one of five models of signature dreamed up for the new republican leadership by a respected old Armenian teacher in Istanbul – whose son tells the story to the authors.

The authors discuss the impact of Fethiye Çetin’s 2009 book ‘My Grandmother’, which lifted the veil on Turkey’s many Armenian grandmothers, saved from the death marches to become servants or wives. In Turkey there are now, the authors believe, “millions of grandchildren of the genocide” who, because of the way Armenian-ness has been denigrated, have not wanted to be identified “more out of shame than fear”. In a province like Tunceli/Dersim, “it’s rare to find a family that doesn’t have an Armenian grandmother or aunt”. Shared saints’ days, common dances and music have blended into a new Armenian-Turkish-Kurdish mix in which it is hard to tell where one ethnicity ends and another begins. The book recounts touching scenes from Armenian churches as some of the descendants of Armenian converts try to return to the Armenian church and community. Indeed, the picture that emerges gives new meaning to the sign held up by many in the massive funeral procession in Istanbul for Hrant Dink: “We are all Armenians”.

Marchand and Perrier do not spare Turkey’s Kurds, who they say need to accept not just that there was a genocide but also recognize their part in plundering and kidnapping from the Armenian death marches. Still, a mainly Kurdish-speaking city like Diyarbakir has played a leading role in trying to make amends for what happened to the Armenians, rebuilding a church that had fallen into ruins, and bringing the language back into official use at a municipal level. Much of Diyarbakir actually used to belong to Armenians – more than one half, the authors suggest.

Indeed, the authors point out that many of Turkey’s grand companies today got their start in places where Armenian businesses had been forced out. Crucially for their argument of continued responsibility, appropriation continued into the republic, with the wealth tax that crushed the “minorities” in 1942 and the state-tolerated actions that took successive tolls on minority properties in the decades thereafter. (This continues: the front page headline of Taraf newspaper today, 19 July 2013, is an angry denunciation of municipal plans to appropriate, knock down and redevelop the last stone houses of the abandoned old Armenian quarter in the eastern town of Muş). It’s not all grand state policy: they meet the family of an Armenian convert to Islam who came back from his years of military service to find that his lands had been peremptorily seized by his neighbours. There are harsh words about the energy that goes into the search for gold and valuables thought to have been hidden by Armenians as they were forced out of their homes: “pillaging is still today a national sport … a prolongation of the plundering.”

At first the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked as though it would lead Turkey out of this dead end. But it failed to see through normalization protocols with Armenia in 2009, and later it was Erdoğan himself who ordered the demolition of a monument to friendship with Armenia in the border town of Kars – on another 24 April. The authors give little credit to his government’s restoration of some Armenian churches and reinstatement of at least some Armenian property confiscated by the republic. Perhaps this reticence is because of the bad grace sometimes on display. At the reopening of the Armenian church of Akdamar on Lake Van, favorite of Turkish tourism posters, the envoy from Ankara managed to make a speech that mentioned neither the words “church” nor “Armenian”. Also, there were more than 3,000 active Armenian churches and monasteries in Anatolia before the First World War; now there are just six.

“Turkey and the Armenian Ghost” ends by conjuring up the changing spirit of the Armenian history debate in Turkey. This is largely thanks to the determination of Turkey’s academics since 2000-2005 to end what they knew to be an unacceptable and professionally untenable official policy and culture of denial. Clearly, it is real and trusted information developed by such experts at home, not the grandiose and sometimes hypocritical declarations by foreign legislatures, that has the best chance of changing the Turkish public’s mind. Marchand and Perrier’s stiletto-sharp impatience with the Turkish state’s slow pace or lack of official change may alienate many of those who most need convincing. But people can increasingly see more elements of what happened, and the deeply researched, convincing reportage in this book can help open up minds. “Of course it’s a genocide, but that’s a word that doesn’t work,” academic Cengiz Aktar tells the authors. “The only way to block the narrative of denial is to develop a policy of remembering, and to start the process of informing the population.”

Some old battles never die – the case of Istanbul’s Taksim barracks

June 14, 2013 7 comments

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The old Taksim Barracks

Inspired by a paragraph in Sean Singer’s fine article in the American Interest on the historical background of Turkey’s current unrest, I started looking for more reasons for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on rebuilding an Ottoman-era barracks on Taksim Square. Yes, it was partly intended to reverse an outrage against the fabric of the city by one of Istanbul’s many destructive modernisers, who leveled the barracks in 1940 to make Gezi Park. And surely the prime minister feels that he would lose face and a patronage opportunity by giving up the project. But is restoring it worth the high current domestic and international damage to his image? Perhaps there’s more to it than meets the eye. As Singer wrote:

Erdogan had addressed the protestors directly earlier in the day. “Do whatever you like”, he told them. “We’ve made the decision, and we will implement it accordingly. If you have respect for history, research and take a look at what the history of that place called Gezi Park is. We are going to revive history there.”

Erdogan was not referring to the Armenian cemetery that once stood nearby, but the Halil Pasha Armory Barracks, built in 1803–06. In 1909 the barracks were the site of a mutiny against the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ideological predecessors of the nationalists who founded the Republic of Turkey. The CUP had come to power in the name of constitutionalism in 1908 but eventually succumbed to the authoritarian temptation. It used the mutiny to justify the deposition and exile of Abdülhamid II, the last Ottoman Sultan to wield total power.

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Artillery damage done to Taksim barracks in the fighting

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A ‘revolutionary disguised as a preacher’, arrested by the CUP.

In other words, the barracks was the site of a pro-Islamic, anti-CUP Turkish nationalist revolt – and even today, Erdogan’s ruling party remembers Sultan Abdulhamid with fondness. I hadn’t realized that the ideological struggle over this barracks went back this far! One of the Turkish Wikipedia article on the barracks – and the “31 March Events” of 1909 – even tells how the “Action Army” that marched in support of the CUP nationalists and crushed the uprising in the barracks was accompanied by Bulgarian “çapulcus”, irregular looters/marauders, the same name that Erdogan gave to the mostly secularist, nationalist demonstrators that occupied Gezi Park in June 2013.

IMG_7686IMG_7689Most of these photos come from a May 1909 copy of the Ottoman “Resimli Kitab” (‘Picture Book’) magazine, a random volume I inherited from the late French writer Jean-Pierre Thieck, who must have found it in a flea market and realised that the events described in it would one day be relevant again. The big photo below shows how even back then, the international media was in the thick of things. This reporter certainly conducted himself with some style, and was no doubt also accused of being behind all the trouble. And yes, as on the left, there was an environmental angle too, with a picture of a tree that got damaged by the shelling.

"American Journalist wounded during the Taksim fighting"

“American Journalist wounded during the Taksim fighting” (the Ottoman text seems to say he works for an English newspaper)

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