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Reviewed by:
  • Rebel Land: Among Turkey's Forgotten Peoples
  • Michael M. Gunter (bio)
Rebel Land: Among Turkey's Forgotten Peoples, by Christopher de Bellaigue. London, Berlin, and New York: Bloomsbury, 2009. x + 264 pages. Acknowl. to p. 267. Bibl. to p. 270.$35.70.

British despite his surname, fluent in Turkish, and a former correspondent for the Economist, Christopher de Bellaigue has written a fascinating journalistic account of ethnic and sectarian divisions in modern Turkey. Although most of Rebel Land deals with the Kurds, Alevis, and Turks, his book is most useful for its insights into the Armenian massacres during World War I. Indeed, what de Bellaigue has to say on this issue would be useful reading for the participants of any future truth-finding or historical commission that may be established by Turkey and Armenia as they seek to reconcile their ancient feud.

To gather much of his information, de Bellaigue journeyed to Varto to interview the inhabitants of this demographically diverse town and district in central-eastern Turkey now peopled mostly by Sunni Kurds speaking Kurmanji and Alevi Kurds speaking Zaza, while "almost everyone [also] speaks Turkish" (p. 10). In addition, ethnic Turks were present as government representatives, while in the past there were a considerable number of Armenians. Indeed, a few Armenian descendants, now converted to Islam, still live in the district. The author also traveled to Europe to interview Armenian and Kurdish émigrés from Varto.

Illustrative of the often fluid, opportunistic identities present in Varto, Alevi Kurds "suffer from a peculiar existential angst. They are divided over whether they are Turks or Kurds" (p. 10). In addition, said one observer "we Kurds ... have many famous freedom fighters, and almost as many traitors" (ibid.), i.e., Kurds who have supported the Turkish state. Indeed, even concerning the Shaykh Said Rebellion in 1925: "the people will never agree on what happened where, who did what, and who, in the shadows, pulled the strings. The disputants are not objective scholars" (p. 148). "Behind many a story in Varto, the political one, lies a second, of jealousy and pride, and behind that a third, of dishonour and lust" (p. 160).

All the more, when it comes to the fate of the Armenians, "the field is left to men, many of them frauds or part-timers . . . men with an agenda" (p. 24). To the Turkish Historical Society "history is politics fitted to the past" (p. 105). "The requirement is that you absorb the official ideology and history as laid down by the state ... For a Turk who has done all this, a foreigner like me, poking around in the lands of Kurds and Armenians, is no friend" (p. 31).

What then is de Bellaigue's conclusion? Based on his interviews, he finds that "it is hard to take issue with much of the detail that one finds in the Armenian accounts of the events of 1915 ... It would require a stupendous concert of deceit to fabricate the descriptions of massacre, to dream up the reminiscences ... The massacres did indeed take place, many hundreds of them big and small" (p. 104). "The big historical question is ... whether or not the killings took place by fiat ... [or were] a crime on the sly" (p. 90) for which no written order exists.

De Bellaigue questions the genocide label, however, because "in the memory … shared by millions of Turks ... the Ottomans were the victims of the machinations of the European Powers, and of the intrigues of sly minorities" (p. 84). Furthermore, "when the Russians took Varto later in 1915 ... many thousands of Muslims were slaughtered by the [returning] Armenians ... It is odd that so erudite an Armenian authority as Vahakn Dadrian should skip the subject in his exhaustive [End Page 148] History of the Armenian Genocide ... Would it be awkward for Dadrian ... to concede that his countrymen inflicted agony of their own" (p. 106)?

The result is that "nearly 100 years after the event we find ourselves in an absurd situation: two sides have drawn themselves up, those who work night and day to prove that this was genocide, and those who strive equally hard to prove that it was not. This is a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-3461
Print ISSN
0026-3141
Pages
pp. 148-149
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-23
Open Access
No
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