Stand by for a quotation to take your breath away. It’s from a letter from my Istanbul publishers, who are chickening out of publishing the Turkish-language edition of my book The Great War for Civilisation. The reason, of course, is a chapter entitled “The First Holocaust”, which records the genocide of one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, a crime against humanity that even Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara tried to hide by initially refusing to invite Armenian survivors to his Holocaust Day in London.
It is, I hasten to add, only one chapter in my book about the Middle East, but the fears of my Turkish friends were being expressed even before the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was so cruelly murdered outside his Istanbul office in January. And when you read the following, from their message to my London publishers HarperCollins, remember it is written by the citizen of a country that seriously wishes to enter the European Community. Since I do not speak Turkish, I am in no position to criticise the occasional lapses in Mr Osman’s otherwise excellent English.
“We would like to denote that the political situation in Turkey concerning several issues such as Armenian and Kurdish Problems, Cyprus issue, European Union etc do not improve, conversely getting worser and worser due to the escalating nationalist upheaval that has reached its apex with the Nobel Prize of Orhan Pamuk and the political disagreements with the EU. Most probably, this political atmosphere will be effective until the coming presidency elections of April 2007… Therefore we would like to undertake the publication quietly, which means there will be no press campaign for Mr Fisk’s book. Thus, our request from [for] Mr Fisk is to show his support to us if any trial [is] … held against his book. We hope that Mr Fisk and HarperCollins can understand our reservations.”
Well indeedydoody, I can. Here is a publisher in a country negotiating for EU membership for whom Armenian history, the Kurds, Cyprus (unmentioned in my book) – even Turkey’s bid to join the EU, for heaven’s sake – is reason enough to try to sneak my book out in silence. When in the history of bookselling, I ask myself, has any publisher tried to avoid publicity for his book? Well, I can give you an example. When Taner Akcam’s magnificent A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility was first published in Turkish – it uses Ottoman Turkish state documents and contemporary Turkish statements to prove that the genocide was a terrifying historical fact – the Turkish historian experienced an almost identical reaction. His work was published “quietly” in Turkey – and without a single book review.
Now I’m not entirely unsympathetic with my Turkish publishers. It is one thing for me to rage and roar about their pusillanimity. But I live in Beirut, not in Istanbul. And after Hrant Dink’s foul murder, I’m in no position to lecture my colleagues in Turkey to stand up to the racism that killed Dink. While I’m sipping my morning coffee on the Beirut Corniche, Mr Osman could be assaulted in the former capital of the Ottoman empire. But there’s a problem nonetheless.
Some months earlier, my Turkish publishers said that their lawyers thought that the notorious Law 301 would be brought against them – it is used to punish writers for being “unTurkish” – in which case they wanted to know if I, as a foreigner (who cannot be charged under 301), would apply to the court to stand trial with them. I wrote that I would be honoured to stand in a Turkish court and talk about the genocide. Now, it seems, my Turkish publishers want to bring my book out like illicit pornography – but still have me standing with them in the dock if right-wing lawyers bring charges under 301!
I understand, as they write in their own letter, that they do not want to have to take political sides in the “nonsensical collision between nationalists and neo-liberals”, but I fear that the roots of this problem go deeper than this. The sinister photograph of the Turkish police guards standing proudly next to Dink’s alleged murderer after his arrest shows just what we are up against here. Yet still our own Western reporters won’t come clean about the Ottoman empire’s foul actions in 1915. When, for example, Reuters sent a reporter, Gareth Jones, off to the Turkish city of Trabzon – where Dink’s supposed killer lived – he quoted the city’s governor as saying that Dink’s murder was related to “social problems linked to fast urbanisation”. A “strong gun culture and the fiery character of the people” might be to blame.
Ho hum. I wonder why Reuters didn’t mention a much more direct and terrible link between Trabzon and the Armenians. For in 1915, the Turkish authorities of the city herded thousands of Armenian women and children on to boats, set off into the Black Sea – the details are contained in an original Ottoman document unearthed by Akcam – “and thrown off to drown”. Historians may like to know that the man in charge of these murder boats was called Niyazi Effendi. No doubt he had a “fiery character”.
Yet still this denial goes on. The Associated Press this week ran a story from Ankara in which its reporter, Selcan Hacaoglu, repeated the same old mantra about there being a “bitter dispute” between Armenia and Turkey over the 1915 slaughter, in which Turkey “vehemently denies that the killings were genocide”. When will the Associated Press wake up and cut this cowardly nonsense from its reports? Would the AP insert in all its references to the equally real and horrific murder of six million European Jews that right-wing Holocaust negationists “vehemently deny” that there was a genocide? No, they would not.
But real history will win. Last October, according to local newspaper reports, villagers of Kuru in eastern Turkey were digging a grave for one of their relatives when they came across a cave containing the skulls and bones of around 40 people – almost certainly the remains of 150 Armenians from the town of Oguz who were murdered in Kuru on 14 June 1915. The local Turkish gendarmerie turned up to examine the cave last year, sealed its entrance and ordered villagers not to speak of what they found. But there are hundreds of other Kurus in Turkey and their bones, too, will return to haunt us all. Publishing books “quietly” will not save us.