Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town, Christopher
de Bellaigue, Penguin Press, 2010
Regardless of time and place, sifting through history and approximating a single truth from a multitude of partial ones is an arduous task. But some places are more resistant to exploration than others, revealing themselves largely in the deceptions that hide in plain sight. From the weather-beaten ruins of a church; to a slip of the tongue over drinks; or from a conversation where commission, at least of a conceptual sort, is betrayed by an important omission in one's account of a massacre that occurred almost one hundred years ago—in places like these, history is simultaneously elusive and oppressive. It hangs in the air, stultifying and opaque.
A work of taut and absorbing beauty, Christopher de Bellaigue's Rebel Land documents the author's journey to and exploration of the area known as eastern Turkey. But "it is not for nothing," he observes, "that eastern Turkey, a.k.a Western Armenia, a.k.a. northern Kurdistan, has never properly been scrutinized." De Bellaigue, a former Turkey correspondent for the Economist who spent years living in Istanbul, immersing himself in Turkish culture, language, and—importantly—history, returned to explore the history of the District of Varto, in Turkey's Kurdish east.
Here, however, I've already fallen into a linguistic trap. Conventional descriptors do not do justice to Rebel Land's project, which is precisely to explore how this corner of the world can only implausibly be considered "Turkish," only arguably, and certainly not historically, "Kurdish," (if this is taken to imply an absolute and primordial sovereign right of a nation to a state), and only "eastern" if one's gaze is directed outward from cosmopolitan and western-oriented Istanbul and not plaintively from Yerevan, or wistfully from Mosul.
One of Rebel Land's chief virtues is its attention to complexity, and its refusal to cede the superiority of one narrative over another, for many peoples are bound to Varto through blood and soil. The first are the Armenians, whose presence is now vestigial, and whose ancient and storied churches remain as testaments to their long history in the region. During the waning days of the Ottoman Empire—or alternatively, the gestative period for the modern Turkish state—the Armenians of Varto, and all over the Empire, were subject to what was in the very least a vicious program of ethnic cleansing with concomitant, if unplanned, massacres, or, as is more likely, a genocide officially masquerading as a series of "forcible transfers." Supplementing scholarship on the matter—good examples of which are difficult to obtain, given the Turkish state's suppression of data related to the matter—with first-person interviews, Rebel Land reconstructs the events of 1915-1917 in Varto. This is history at its most personal, because body counts do not speak to us. They are merely numbers, abstractions. But when De Bellaigue pieces together an account of the deportations, and subsequent massacres, that decimated the Armenians of Varto, he writes so movingly, and with such an attentive gaze, that the horror appears to unfold simultaneously before both author and reader.
The Sunni Kurds are the second group to inhabit Varto. It is from their ranks and tribes that the local leadership traditionally arises. The Sunni Kurds have been both oppressor and oppressed, complicating any simple moral schematic. While they have formed the backbone of resistance to the discriminatory anti-Kurdish policies of the Turkish state (which operated for many years under the official illusion that there are no such things as Kurds), their participation in the Armenian massacres was widespread, and their treatment of minority groups within Turkish Kurdistan has been, at times, less than savory.
Which brings us to the third group to feature prominently in Rebel Land. The Alevis form the lowest rung on the social ladder in Varto, and have been intermittently, but violently, persecuted by the Sunni Kurds for their beliefs, which are considered blasphemous. According to De Bellaigue's account, Alevis in Varto consider themselves Muslims. But theirs is, at a minimum, a heterodox interpretation of Islam. For instance, while they revere Ali and Hussein—holy figures in Shia Islam—Rebel Land relays accounts in Alevi texts "of the Prophet bowing to Ali and the Prophet and Ali becoming one." This, unsurprisingly, has been seen as deeply disturbing by the Alevis' orthodox Muslim neighbors.
Questions about Alevi identity extend beyond matters of religious faith, and Rebel Land explores how they have become enmeshed in debates about national, and, with it, political membership. Are Alevis Kurds or are they Turks? This is not an easy question to answer, and De Bellaigue deftly traces the shifting alliances and ideological currents that have led the Varto Alevis to associate themselves, at least recently, with the Kurdish national cause.
The Turks—or better yet, the Turkish state—are the last group in Varto, and Turkey, and the idea of "Turkishness," features prominently in Rebel Land. Although there are no ethnic Turks living in Varto (aside from representatives of the state, most notably the military), the Turkish state is pervasive—a kind of absent presence. Varto is not merely administered; it is occupied. Much of the latter part of Rebel Land surveys the history Kurdish nationalism in Varto: the town's tense relationship with the Turkish state, and, beginning in the 1970's, the profusion of militant Leftist organizations—the most famous and successful of which was the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)—that found in Varto fertile terrain for recruitment efforts. Although sympathetic to Kurdish nationalist aims, De Bellaigue looks wearily upon the PKK's guerilla campaigns. His disdain for Apo, the PKK's megalomaniacal and ultimately craven founder, is even more pronounced.
Unusually, De Bellaigue himself features prominently in Rebel Land.
After living in Istanbul for years, he admits to having previously been enamored
with the vision of Turkey proffered by Ataturk—secular, rational, indivisibly
Turkish. Rebel Land is thus also the story of a man chastising himself
for the lies he once willingly believed, and who has decided to peer into the
abyss in order to shine a light. We should be glad that, whatever sense of ablution
De Bellaigue may have achieved from the researching and writing of Rebel
Land aside, he has produced this most illuminating, and delicate, work.