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Three Brave Turkish Writers


Would you continue writing under threat of imprisonment by your own government?  That's precisely what three brave Turkish writers are doing in order to break the taboos that prevent writers from writing historical facts—not of their Government's approval.  Their stories and names are woven into one another like the threads of a fine Oriental rug.   

Rather than fight for their freedom to write from outside their country, they believe that they can only effect change if they write from within Turkish borders. 

For close to 30 years, Ayse and her husband Ragip Zarakolu have been publishing books acknowledging the Kurds' very existence. Ayse and Ragip's steadfast belief in freedom of expression, their vocal campaign against the confiscation and banning of their books, and their persistence in publishing works that violate Turkey's repressive censorship laws, have resulted in innumerable condemnations dating back to the early 1970s.  

In 1977, Ayse Nur Zarakolu and her husband Ragip Zarakolu set up the Belge Publishing House from a basement in Istanbul, with a mission to strike down prohibitions and to investigate the rights of minorities in "democratic" Turkey. The Belge Publishing House (belge meaning documents) operated under a barrage of charges by the Turkish authorities against Zarakolu and his wife. 

Over the years, Ayse's passport was confiscated, preventing her to pick up her award at the book industry's most prestigious international get-together, The Frankfurt Book Fair, in 1998. Her life had been threatened and she was arrested more than 30 times and imprisoned four times for a total of 15 months.  She and her husband Ragip suffered fire bombings of their offices and presses, the confiscation and destruction of great quantities of their books, and the imposition of heavy fines.  

Ayse Nur studied sociology and later became the head librarian at the Institute of Financial Studies at Istanbul University.  She published more than 100 books on the Armenian genocide. Thus, inciting the wrath of Turkish officials. She grew increasingly determined in her passion for the "right to write." She avowed: "The place to debate our history is in the books, not in the courts." 

She rebounded after her ordeals until her death on January 28, 2001, of cancer at the age of 55. Even after her death, Turkish officials summoned her to appear in court! After his mother's funeral, her son was arrested because he beckoned the Kurdish women mourners, whose cause his mother had championed, to carry his mother's casket.

Her husband, Ragip Zarakolu, is a writer and remains the publisher of Belge Publication House. Ragip. He is currently facing three trials in September, 2005. The Turkish courts accuse him of what he cherishes more than his own life—his passion for the "right to write" in his own country.  Ragip  spent a total of two years in prison, some of it in Turkey's f-style prisons, reputed for their isolation cells. Despite his constant financial struggles, he refuses to give up. His words resonate, "Whether it's a member of the European Community or not, Turkey must reform. The citizens of Turkey demand their rights."  

The Turkish writer, Ömer Asan was born in 1961 in Trebizond, an area with strong Islamic traditions and with many Greek speaking inhabitants. It is where an aging community still speaks the Pontian language that is related to Greek. Ömer Asan, an economist turned writer, is a Greek-speaking Turk who was driven to write Pontos Kultura in 1996. He said, "I began to search for my identity because of the fact that the language my ancestors spoke was not Turkish … At school they taught us that we were Turks … but at home, in the village, everyone in the family spoke to each other in the language we called 'Romaiika'… By asking 'Who am I?' I plunged into the unknown. I had to find the answer… I began, in amateur fashion, to collect Pontian words.  I decided to focus my research on Erekioi, my village of Of, [in Trebizond] and to study its living culture as an extant trace of Pontian culture." 

Originally, Asan's book was published by the Belge Publishing House in Turkey where it met its fate by confiscation and condemnation and its author was condemned to imprisonment of possibly between 14 months to 4 years. Asan was accused of being a 'traitor', a 'friend of Greece' and a supporter of those who wanted Orthodox Christianity restored to the chiefly Islamic Pontian region. The good news is Omer Asan was acquitted in September 2003 as a result of the abolition of Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law. 

His book found a new life when it was published in Greece under its new title, The Civilization of the Pontos. It became one of the most important books sold in Greece. Its new publishers are Kyriakidis Publishers in Thessaloniki.   

Ömer Asan described the traditions of his people from the north eastern part of Turkey known as Pontos. He vividly described the customs and "forbidden language" spoken only in the home—of traces of an ancient Greek culture that Mustafa Kemal's new "democratic" military government prefers that the world should not know about. By now, Turkey had hoped that when the survivors are no longer with us that future generations would not know Turkey was originally inhabited by Greek, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, who were either massacred or forcibly converted into Muslims. Ömer Asan comes that background.   

Recently in 2005, Ragip Zarakolu published in Istanbul Attila Tuygan's (the Turkish intellectual) translation from English into Turkish of an Armenian doctor's journal, Garabed Hatcherian: My Smyrna Ordeal of 1922.  It has been translated into nine languages. Its title into Turkish is Bir Ermeni Doktorun Yasadiklari: Garabet Haçeryan' ın Izmir Güncesi.  

Dr. Hatcherian was born in 1876. He held a promising post in Smyrna as general surgeon and gynecologist at the Armenian National Hospital in Smyrna. To avoid being apprehended by Kemal's troops that had entered the city, he wore a fez on his head when walking through the streets. Dr. Garabed Hatcherian described in his journal, "Wednesday, the 13th …I see a Turk who approached me say, 'We did what was due; you turn back.' The Turk, who obviously had assumed an active role in the arson, takes me obviously for his compatriot and accomplice and advises me not to advance, but to turn back. I answer, "Very well," with the attitude of someone who understands the situation and I stop for a moment to distance myself from the Turk and to avoid conversation…."


An Armenian Doctor in Turkey: G. Hatcherian, My Smyrna Ordeal of 1922.

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In the biographic section of her grandfather's journal, Professor Dora Sakayan, wrote, "In Smyrna On September 24, 1922, the Hatcherian family managed to escape to the Greek island of Mitilini, leaving behind in Akhisar ten members of the extended family on both sides. All ten family members including the mothers and brothers with their families, were massacred after the occupation of Akhisar [original Greek name was Thyatira 80km/50miles NE of Smyrna] by the Kemalist army. 

"Another positive outcome of reading the diary was that I was once again filled with gratitude toward Greece, the country of my birth, for its humanitarian act of giving shelter, along with thousands of Greeks, to so many Armenian refugees. Among them was my grandfather with his family who was given the opportunity to restore not only a normal and happy family life, but also his faith in humanity.

"Reading the pages of my grandfather's ordeal, I also realized how fortunate we are to be living in a free humanitarian country like Canada, a country which espouses the humanitarian principles in which my grandfather believed."

As the threads of the Oriental rug weave in and out of the loom, we must question a Government that carried out its deliberate extermination of all of its original inhabitants, and now is hell-bent on discouraging its writers, lest they reveal its bloody past. "Out of print" books written 88 years ago by U.S. officials were mysteriously removed from our own public libraries. Those books only recently have been reprinted and are now available for purchase. They can be downloaded from the Internet as well. As far back in 1917, the American physician and missionary, Dr. Clarence Ussher wrote, "They [the Turks] confiscated my New Standard Dictionary because it contained 'pernicious' words 'liberty' and 'revolution,' cut out the maps of my Bible because on several of them 'Armenia' was to be found."   

Meanwhile, the Turkish Government glorifies its nation's founder as a "man of peace" and continues to use the same methods concocted during the inception of its founder, Mustafa Kemal, "Ataturk" (Ataturk meaning  father of the Turks).  It continues its repressive actions, its human rights violations, and its military intervention to maintain Kemal's vision of a highly centralized nation state. For having published and distributed in Turkey Dr. Garabed Hatcherian's journal, Mr. Ragip Zarakolu faces three trials in September 2005, and the possibility of a long brutal prison sentence. More than four generations later, Turkey's efforts to quash the truths through denials, distortions, threats, fines, and imprisonments, must come to an end. World politics aside, the truth cannot be stifled. Although many have raised their voices in opposition to the tactics of Turkish officials, it is incumbent on world-wide agencies to watch closely Mr. Zarakolu's trials. Until there is a positive change in Turkey's policies towards its writers, we must speak out against its repressive maneuvers. We must support these gallant writers who risk their very lives, for freedom of expression. After all, as the late Ayse Nur Zarakolu so wisely affirmed, "The place to debate our history is in the books, not in the courts."

          Cf.:  Turkey's treatment of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Christian minority  * The Blight of Asia: An Account of the Systematic Extermination of Christian Populations by Turks   * Violations of Free Expression in Turkey: Human Rights Watch   * How Turkey re-writes history   * The Burning of the city of Smyrna   * Smyrna 1922, Memories   * The Asia Minor Holocaust of 1922 - Four articles from the New York Times   * Photo album 1922   * The Armenian Genocide   * A Chronology of the Assyrian Genocide   * World resolutions condemning Turkey for committing genocide   * Photographic evidence of ethnic cleansing   * "If you want to destroy Europe, let Turkey in"

  More links on Turkey


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