- On April 29, 2004 a rare event took place at St. Mary Armenian Apostolic
Church here. Ragip Zarakolu, a remarkable Turkish intellectual, spoke
to a capacity crowd on a range of subjects, including the Armenian Genocide,
censorship in Turkey and problems surrounding the publishing of books,
as well as the current human rights situation.
Zarakolu runs the Istanbul-based Belge International Publishing House,
which he founded in 1977 along with his late wife, Ayse Nur Zarakolu.
He has been a consistent and principled critic of successive Turkish
governments, especially with regard to the dismal human rights situation
in Turkey. The Zarakolus' dedication to freedom of expression led them
to found the Turkish Human Rights Association. It has also landed them
in jail several times, and the hardships of prison directly contributed
to the untimely passing of Ayse Nur.
Zarakolu, a prominent figure in Turkish intellectual circles, began
his lecture by providing some autobiographical information, detailing
his human rights work and resulting imprisonment in the early 1970s.
It was at this time that he realized that if the Turkish government
were capable of such brutality in the 1970s, the Ottoman Empire was
certainly capable of much worse during World War I.
He noted that the current system in Turkey, just as in the past, could
not survive without an enemy, whether minority, leftist or Muslim, and
that for the sake of democracy in his homeland, this state mentality
His anguish over the situation in Turkey led him and his wife to start
an international publishing house in 1977, which published in 1991 the
first book on the Kurdish Question, entitled International Colony Kurdistan
by Ismail Besikci. The government responded by imprisoning the author
and preventing the distribution of the book by the publishers. But this
response was mild in relation to the reign of terror that was then sweeping
Turkish Kurdistan. Zarakolu estimated that nearly four thousand Kurdish
villages were burned own and approximately three million Kurds "relocated,"
accompanied by the assassination and kidnapping of many Kurdish intellectuals.
This war of attrition and extermination reminded Zarakolu of the Armenian
Genocide. The comparison between the Armenian Genocide and the ethnic
cleansing of the Kurds prompted the Zarakolu to translate and publish
Yves Ternon's book on the Armenian Genocide, under the appropriate title
Ermeni Tabusu (The Armenian Taboo). This book, too, was confiscated
and banned. Ayse Nur Zarakolu, in an absurd turn of events, was put
on trial as the author of the book and sentenced to two years in jail.
Ragip Zarakolu noted the irony that, at the same time as Ayse Nur was
being prosecuted in Turkey for discussing the Armenian Genocide, the
distinguished scholar of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, was being sued
in a Paris court for denying what Lewis himself had previously termed
the Armenian Holocaust and subsequently was found guilty.
The Zarakolus were determined to challenge the authorities in the name
of freedom of expression by translating and publishing in book form
Vahakn Dadrian's lengthy article on the Genocide, which appeared in
the prestigious Yale Journal of International Law. This book, too, was
confiscated and the publishers arrested. This time, however, they were
acquitted by a Turkish court, which was fearful that drawing attention
to a work published in such a prominent journal would undermine the
government's denialist position.
Emboldened by this success, the Zarakolu translated and published Franz
Werfel's famous novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. The Turkish government
allowed its publication, partly because it was a novel and partly because
it did not want to draw more attention to the issue of the Armenian
Genocide. Such successes came with a heavy price, but as Zarakolu emphasized:
No doors will open without a struggle. And struggles there were.
In 1994, the publishing house was burned down and the inventory largely
destroyed, forcing him andhis wife, along with their supporters, to
go underground in order to continue the struggle.
Currently, the Turkish government tries to prevent distribution of his
books through the use of economic pressure, such as taxation and frequent
auditing. But Zarakolu remains optimistic and cited as an example the
fact that he has just published a collection of Professor Dadrian's
most important articles on the Armenian Genocide.
He strongly believes that he has a responsibility to Turkish society,
which has been grossly misinformed, especially the younger generation.
Zarakolu also feels a responsibility to the Armenian community of Turkey,
which also does not have a good grasp of its own history. Due to a pervasive
fear that it is not safe to pass on information from one generation
to the next, the Armenian community of Turkey has been denied its past.
It is through books such as those published by Belge that Turkish Armenians
have begun to rediscover their identity.
He stated that he is in constant touch with leading members of the community
in Istanbul and is alarmed by the threats that they have received from
Turkish fascist organizations.
According to Zarakolu, there are possibly up to one million people in
Turkey who either are of Armenian descent or are Armenian converts to
Islam. He argued that they have a right to learn their history and should
have the honor and privilege of knowing their heritage.
Zarakolu also feels that he is no longer alone in this struggle. He
noted that a decade ago, he was essentially alone, but that now the
ranks of those Turkish intellectuals who want to reconcile with the
past are growing. Turkish intellectuals are offended by the propaganda
of their own government and are no longer satisfied with the state dictating
what they are to believe.
He ended his formal presentation with a moving poem in Turkish, entitled
Gul Kirimi, or the Rose Massacre. During a lengthy and enthusiastic
question-and-answer period, Zarakolu elaborated on some of the points
in his presentation and also fielded inquiries on a wide range of subjects.
The first question was related to the motivations of people like Ragip
and Ayse Nur Zarakolu, to which he provided an answer by stating that
there are two essential factors in his own development. The first is
the fact that he was born in Buyukada (Medz Gughzee) and other multicultural
neighborhoods of Istanbul, in which Armenians were neighbors and not
viewed as enemies.
The second factor is related to the experiences of Zarakolu's generation,
which came of age in an era of state terror, which made it easier for
them to sympathize with the plight of the Armenians and the minorities
It is difficult to overestimate the courage and moral fortitude of Ragip
Zarakolu and his late wife and steadfast partner, Ayse Nur Zarakolu.
Ayse gave her life to the cause of freedom and Ragip has suffered tremendously
for his beliefs. Armenians, Turks and all those dedicated to the defense
of truth and human rights owe a debt of gratitud to Ragip, Ayse Nur
and their colleagues.
We can only hope that the day will come when people like Ragip will
not be persecuted for daring to question. Rev. Fr. Vertanes Kalayjian,
during the course of his introduction of the guest speaker, asked for
a moment of silence in honor of the late Ayse Nur Zarakolu for her courage
and dedication to the cause of human rights.
- (BELGE ULUSLARARASI YAYINCILIK, May 22, 2004)
- Le procès de Ragip Zarakolu sur Yevrobatsi