When I heard the news, I called him first thing in the morning.
At the other end of the line, there was this elderly gentleman – 70 years old – known as one of the boldest taboo-breakers in Turkey.
‘Good morning’ I said to Ragıp Zarakolu.
His publishing house, Belge, was raided in Istanbul, the night before.
‘No good news I am afraid, although nothing comes as a surprise anymore’ he told me.
The police had called his assistant in the late hours and told him to come quickly to the door of the Belge office, or else they would have to break in.
The raid was, Ragıp told me, probably due to some ‘ridicolous’ suspicion that Belge was linked to an underground violent leftist organisation, known as DHKP-C. That’s what the police briefly had told his aide Mehmet Ali Varış.
The search went for a long while. Copies of two books – one titled ‘Kurds Without a State’ and the other, ‘Choices Harder than Death’ – were first on the raiders’ list. ‘There is a court ruling on confiscation of those’ they told Varış, who had not heard of it before.
Then, the search was enhanced. When the raid was ending, the police had seized 2.170 copies of various publications of Belge. The reason? ‘They all lack banderols on the back side’ the officers said. ‘It’s against the law.’ What they referred to was a tax label, which is obligatory for the books. Varış told them that many of those books were published before the ‘banderole law’ was issued, and they were kept in the office for archive purposes.
‘Should we have burnt those copies?’ he asked them.
No answer. Officers even picked up two rare books dating back to late 1960’s by the now defunct leftist publisher, ANT – a predecessor to Belge – citing the same law.
‘One doesn’t know if one should laugh or cry’ Ragıp said over the phone.
As a fiercely independent left-liberal intellectual, a ‘lone wolf’, his memory is loaded. The painful part for him is that the harrassment patterns have now returned with full force, after a brief period of ‘thaw’ in Turkey some ten years ago, thanks to the EU reform process then.
Sunday’s raid took place as Belge was celebrating its 40th anniversary, with over 850 books in its portfolio. It was also subjected to various court cases on ‘subversive content’ for over 45 times during this period.
Zarakolu and his late wife, Ayşe Nur – who he says was the real ‘engine’ behind the activity – had started by publishing books on Marxism and, later, European modern Left, often drawing rage from the dogmatists. Belge survived a lot of hardship throughout the 1980’s, and in early 1990’s Zarakolus thought time was ripe to break Turkey’s tightest-knit taboo of all: the Armenian Genocide. And it was with those books on the issue Belge came to be known as a pioneer.
It plunged into the academic literature – such as the large-volume books by the genocide scholar Vahagn Dadrian, narratives of the survivors of the extermination, by Vergine Svaslian, Franz Werfel’s ’40 Days in Musa Dagh’, Wolfgang Gust’s massive collection of German archive documents on the events in 1915. It published a long series of memoirs of Anatolian Armenians.
‘Turkish-German relations during WW1 was kept under the cover of the official narrative so much in Turkey that we published ‘Berlin-Baghdad’ by Lothar Rathman, ‘Ottomans’ by Ernst Werner” Ragıp told me.
Arnim Wegner, who is known as the ”photographer of the Armenian Genocide” was the one who had turned Zarakolus’ attention to the subject, so he was published, as well as Eva Gropler’s ”History of Anti-Semitism”.
”It was very important for us to inform readers on the situation of the universities during the Nazi period, because ‘cleansing of the academia’ in Turkey is a tradition” he said. ”Look at the purge now, it is the largest ever…”
Belge’s activity was a huge challenge in Turkey, which has been swamped in denial from top down. The more it published books on ethnic cleansings of Ottoman folk groups during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the more it was branded as an ‘enemy’.
The breaking of the Armenian Taboo had begun with Belge in 1993, with the publication of ‘History of Armenian Genocide’ by the French historian, Yves Ternon. They were followed by the books about massacres of Alevis in Dersim province, and works by Georgios Andreadis on the mass annihilation of Greek natives of Pontos, at the Black Sea coast of Anatolia.
”As a result, Andreadis was declared persona non grata. His entry ban to Turkey went on for 20 years, until his death.”
Yves Ternon’s book caused outrage of the authorities and the far-right, and Belge publishers felt how isolated one can be.
The entire left had left them alone while they were under threat; it was painful, Ragıp said, to sense the lack of solidarity, as opposed to the one that existed regarding the Kurdish struggle.
Ragıp added that ‘one did not have to come from a leftist background’ to raise awareness of the genocides and crimes of humanity.
”If you are a human rights activist and had read the UN Convention thereof, being disengaged is your shame. For us Armenian Genocide was not a taboo; because it involved summary executions, ‘missings’, massacres… But in those times, in 1970’s and 80’s, it was only seen as an event in history; some intellectuals even saw it as an ‘obsession’ if you opened the subject. ‘Stop whining, it’s past’ was a common reaction. For the leftists, even among Armenians of that flank, it was the future that was important.”
”Belge broke the taboo of the military, by publishing a Human Rights Watch report on attrocities in Kurdish villages in early 1990’s. We paid a price for that, but won at the European Court. It was also thanks to Ayşe, who pushed a publication of book titled ‘Kurdistan as an Interstate Colony’, Belge helped break Kurdish Taboo at that time.”
So, clearly, Belge with its vast portfolio on the ‘lost history’ of Asia Minor comes immediatey to mind when one seeks literature. An amazing achievement, an act of intellectual bravery, against all odds: a valid reason to be targeted whenever the winds of tyranny blow.
”Freedom to publish in Turkey is severely endangered, and raises concern’ Ragıp concluded. ”Citing coup attempt of last year as a pretext 29 publishing houses were shut down, and their assets were seized. It began with Gülen Movement, followed by Kurdish publishers.
The regime has three bags now: Left, Liberals and Kurds. All the oppositions voices are linked with terror and crammed into these bags. There is no longer any respect for law. Civilian courts are forced the issue ruling that are out of their jurisdiction. Turkish law actually says that if a book is not charged within a certain time, it gains immunity and can not be subject to indictment. Now, any court anywhere in Turkey can issue a ruling for confiscation. It had happened during the military regime in 1980’s. Now it is a so-called civilian one that does the same thing.”
He sighs deeply over the line.
Then he speaks in a low voice:
”There is a very profound reality behind all this… I am afraid this country will never, ever be able to change for the better. It couldn’t win for losing… This black history will simply keep repeating itself….”
”Until it gets the history’s big slap on its face…”