Hrant Dink, in memoriam

After five years finally some people have been convicted for the murder on Hrant Dink. Yet, liberal newspaper columns are filled with outrage at the verdict, which rules out that any organisation –let alone with links to the state- has planned the murder.

Like yesterday I remember being in a different court, trying to fend off the blows of a bunch of furious ultra-nationalists. They push me into the arms of Hrant Dink, their real target. They want to jump on him and punch him, but a court guard stops them and pushes them to the other end of the waiting room. From there they shake their fists. I don’t mind ending up in a clumsy embrace with Hrant, because I’m very fond of him, but both of us get a good scare. The case we’re both attending is targeted against Orhan Pamuk who hasn’t won the Nobel Prize yet, but has had the nerve to declare to a Swiss newspaper that one and a half million Armenians and thirty thousand Kurds were killed in his fatherland. Breaking such taboos, especially in a foreign publication, is not appreciated, as Hrant knows only too well.

I met Hrant for the first time during yet another court case in 1994, against my friends Ragip and Ayse Zarakolu. They ran an publishing house near the Blue Mosque and were the first ones to publish a book on the Armenian Question, translated from French. Ragip told me once he started caring for the Armenian cause after hearing the story of his mother. She hadn’t been allowed out when she was a child in 1915, but shed bitter tears while she had to listen how all her Armenian neighbours and friends were being forced to leave their homes for the gruesome death march to the Syrian desert.

Ragip and Ayse published everything which was controversial, be it on the Armenian, Kurdish or Greek Questions, just because they believed in freedom of expression. Because the content of these books did not match the sanctioned version of history, the Turkish State considered them dangerous. Ayse had the dubious honor to be the first Turkish publisher who was jailed for the offense of publishing such books. As I write, nearly two decades later, Ragip and his son are in jail, accused of being members of a dangerous organisation, because they continued to uphold the same publishing principles.

Back in 1994 Hrant was bubbling with indignation. He wanted to do something. The Armenian community did not support him. Every day young Turkish conscripts were dying in the war against the Kurdish PKK. The Turkish reflex was to put Kurds and Armenians in one basket: all traitors. The best thing to do in such times was to duck and remain silent. But Hrant didn’t want to shut up anymore, exactly because of the growing tension and all the false accusations. It was time, he believed, that his country looked in the mirror and recognized that the Armenians belong here too, no matter what had happened in the past.

Two years later he was at my door, proudly waving the first edition of AGOS, the newspaper he lead until his death. The articles were both in Turkish and Armenian, and aimed to open the eyes of both sides. There were columns of copy on the senseless restrictions on all things Armenian, but also reviews of Armenian books, and stories about Armenia, the country that had only recently become independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

‘If only I could go there,’ Hrant often sighed when we had tea together. ‘But I’m not getting my passport.’ It took a while before he realized this was how the authorities kept him in check. Never he was told a definite ‘no’, only that his case was ‘being handled’ eternally. He was one of the gentlest people I knew, but he could rage about this treatment. Because his country was so dear to him. s

After years of insisting, he did get a passport, but traveling didn’t make him happy. He now also had to confront the radical attitude of the Armenian diaspora. The Armenians in the U.S., in France and elsewhere hated Turkey, and nourished that hatred. They did everything in their might to turn the world against the country that spat them out a century ago. Hrant couldn’t hate his country.

He traveled everywhere to preach tolerance and mutual understanding. He became a busy man, so busy that I’d have to make an appointment to see him. He got bags under his eyes and more and more hate-mail. ‘I’m afraid, Jessica,’ he said one of the last times I saw him, very briefly between interviews. ‘I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this up.’ His face looked tense. He had taken upon him such an enormous task.

Radical-minded folk were sending these emails. They believed Turkey belongs to the Turks only, and anyone who wants to call himself something else is a traitor. There was a lawyer, a creepy, slippery man, who made it his life’s work to persecute people like Hrant under article 301, which made it a crime to insult Türklük, the Turkish identity, or Turkishness. Hrant was never more hurt than by this accusation. But he was the first one to be actually convicted for it.

Members of parliament reacted with indignant condemnations when Hrant was murdered. But one wonders what they were really thinking. Some two years earlier Abdullah Gül, who hadn’t become the president yet, but was the Foreign Minister, held a small, informal meeting with the foreign press in Istanbul. He told us the Armenian government had turned down a Turkish proposal to establish a joint committee of historians who should investigate the archives of Turkey, Armenia, Russia and the U.K. to determine once and for all what happened in 1915.

‘Could Turkey not, regardless of what we call it which happened, say sorry to the Armenians for all the sorrow they’ve had to go through?’ I asked.
Astonished, Mr. Gül stared at me.
‘As a gesture,’ I added, ‘to help make the past discussable.’
‘To say sorry?’ he asked, incredulously. ‘They betrayed ús! They stabbed us in the back. We were attacked by Russia and they helped the enemy. Armenian militia murdered countless Muslim villages. Who has to say sorry?’
‘But hundreds of thousands of Armenian women and children got deported too,’ I said. ‘They weren’t fighting, were they?’
‘The Ottoman government ordered to move the civilian population because they were in the middle of the fighting. To protect them. It was 1915, in an undeveloped region. There was no communication, nothing. Istanbul didn’t know what was going on. It’s very sad that so many perished, but most people died because of disease or bad circumstances, not intentionally.’
‘And what about all the possessions they left behind?’ I asked. ‘Their houses and farms that were taken by the local population? Do you think those will ever be discussed?’
The minister snorted. ‘Such things happen in wars. We can’t turn back history.’

If only we could.

In the afternoon of January 19, 2007, my telephone rings. It’s the Dutch National Broadcasting, NOS, whose correspondent I am. ‘Jessica, we just get a news flash. Somebody got shot near you. Hrant Dink. Does that name mean anything to you?’
Swallowing my tears I’m on air half an hour later. That evening I’m pressing my fingernails into my palms while I stand in front of the camera, just a few yards away from where he fell forward, his gentle face on the pavement, the worn hole in the sole of his shoe visible for all. He was shot in his back, cowardly, by a young man from Trabzon who claims he didn’t know more about him than that he –according to a friend- had insulted the Turks. Later this wretch poses with the policemen who arrested him. They move each other around in front of the Turkish flag to get the best pose. You can hear someone say: ‘make sure that text about the indivisibility of the fatherland can be seen.’ In football stadiums supporters wear the hat of the murderer. And on Youtube a song appears with the images that a security camera took of the killer and a menacing text about ‘Armenian games’.

Fortunately also hundreds of thousands of people participate in the funeral, holding placards that say ‘we are all Armenians.’ Prime Minister Erdogan objects. ‘It’s noble that so many people feel in solidarity with our fellow citizens,’ he says. ‘But calling oneself an Armenian goes a little far.’

The day he gets killed, Hrant describes in his column in AGOS how his court case went. He writes about the evidence that acquitted him, time and again. About how this reassured him. Even in appeal the prosecutor did not want to prosecute him. And yet, the judge declared him guilty. He is strongly aware of the fact that many people now see him as someone who insulted the Turks to their core. The stigma is a yoke for him. He calls it dirty and wrong.
‘For me the real and unbearable threat is the psychological torture I apply to myself,’ he continues. ‘What do all these people think of me? That’s the question that churns over in my brain. Unfortunately I’m much more famous than I used to be and when people cast me a glance of ‘hey, isn’t that the Armenian guy?’ I feel it stronger than ever. As a reflex I start torturing myself. Partly because of curiosity, partly out of anxiousness. Partly out of alertness, partly from worry.
I’m like a dove.
Just like a dove my eyes dart left and right, back and forth. My head is just as agile. It’s so fast it can turn immediately.
That’s what I call a price.
What did the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül, say again? What did the Justice Minister, Cemil Çicek say? “Man, no need to exaggerate this article 301. Did anyone ever go to jail for it?”
As if the only price to pay is a jail sentence.
Do you know what price it is to be condemned to be as skittish as a dove, hey, Ministers, do you know? Have you ever observed a dove?’
The column continues to describe how he has considered leaving the country, but he can’t bring himself to do so.
‘Yes, I feel skittish like a dove,’ he concludes. ‘But I know that in this country nobody does any harm to a dove.’

Not to a dove, no.

(translated and adapted from my book ‘Gezichten van Istanbul’ –Faces of Istanbul, Conserve 2008)

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