Christopher de Bellaigue was once a Kemalist. Living in Istanbul as a foreign correspondent he absorbed the views and prejudices, subtle and less so, of the Turkish Republic and its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This modern state, created in 1923 through an act of ferocious will, has shown a fetish- istic attachment to its founder, whose portrait is still displayed in shops throughout the country. The mythologizing devotion betrays a measure of insecurity. It is related to the persistence of the very fissuring pressures—not least Kurdish nationalism—that Atatürk subdued to create his unitary nation-state from the many-shaded ruins of the Ottoman Empire. As a district governor in the eastern town of Varto blithely tells de Bellaigue early in Rebel Land:
We have no minorities in Turkey. A lot of people talk about minorities, but we don’t have them. It’s out of the question to have minorities. There is no discrimination in Turkey.
De Bellaigue’s Kemalism never went that far. He is too sharp an observer to believe that the genius of Turkey’s warrior-founder could somehow homogenize Anatolian diversity. Still, he writes,
During my time as a journalist in Turkey, writing from my Kemalist perspective, the aspirations of the Kurds for independence or autonomy had seemed presumptuous and unwise. I doubted whether this, in fact, was what many of them wanted.
The author’s presence in Varto, as close to Iran as his beloved Istanbul is to Greece, is an act of contrition for this former view. Deluded, he decides, by life in the swinging Turkey of Istanbul’s Taksim Square, de Bellaigue chooses to investigate veiled Varto (“a name like a cleaning detergent”) to launder his illusions. This troubled eastern town—“a district of widows visiting gravestones,” of a color that is “mellow and valedictory,” a place of tangled history and religions and ethnicities where death speaks “with a numbing authority to its congregation”—becomes a place for him to examine his own views and to explore another Turkey, the one Atatürk and his successors tried to conjure away.
Skepticism toward the Kurdish na- tional struggle is not the only piece of Kemalist lore de Bellaigue absorbed. Atatürk built his state and status on his reversal, through force of arms, of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which had granted the Kurds a state in Anatolia. Another nation—the Armenians—was also granted a national homeland in Anatolia at Sèvres. Like the Kurds, they saw it vanish in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.