By William Armstrong
The work of Armenian-origin Turkish journalistHrant Dink was as important as his death was tragic. As editor of the weekly newspaper Agos, Dink helped break new ground in the late 1990s and early 2000s before he was shot dead outside the Agos office by a young ultranationalist 10 years ago on Jan. 19.
The book is written in a unique way, using the voices of Dink’s friends, family and colleagues, as well as his own work, to tell the story of his life. Why did you choose this method?
Hrant Dink was my friend. When I first started writing his biography, I immediately knew it was not going to be a standard biography. The pain of losing him was still too fresh, too intense. I couldn’t position myself as a “third-person omniscient” narrator to relate Hrant’s life. Nor could I write as if I had witnessed his life first hand. So I decided there would be no single narrator, no overarching “I” in my book. Instead, beginning with the Dink family, I would tell Hrant’s life story by chronologically bringing together the accounts of the witnesses of each period of his life: Their “voices” would construct the book.
I interviewed 125 people over a period of three-and-a-half years. While doing the writing I took special care to preserve the unique tone of their narration. At one point I also decided to include Hrant’s “voice” among all the other voices. There are over a thousand articles written by him in the Agos archive. I sorted out the autobiographical ones and edited them to fit the chronological and thematic flow of the biography. The book became an impassioned epic of one man’s life looking for truth and justice. It also tells the unofficial history of Turkey’s Armenians and the genocide of 1915 still denied by the Turkish state.
Did you encounter any particular difficulty while writing the book? What new information or unexpected impression did you draw?
After the speech made at Hrant’s funeral by his wife Rakel, the Dink family withdrew themselves from the outside world and took the decision not to speak to anyone. But Rakel persuaded them to end their vow of silence for my work. It was with her blessing that I entered the first door she opened, and moved one by one from the family elders to their Armenian friends. These were all members of a silenced and isolated minority community, and they were also all in deep sorrow and grief after Hrant’s assassination.
The first difficulty I encountered was emotional and it lasted throughout the whole work. The witnesses of his life not only shared Hrant’s life story with me, opening up their sealed hearts, they also went back in time to retrace a hundred years of the stories of their ancestors. So writing the book was a painful journey. The new impression, or knowledge, that I drew while researching and writing the book was that it was certainly “genocide” that the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire were subjected to in 1915.
Dink was known for having a very Anatolian, down-to-earth way of speaking and behaving. How did that affect his life and work?
The foundations of Hrant’s personality were laid at the orphanage of the Gedikpaşa Protestant Church in Istanbul and shaped, from as early as his secondary-school years, through the tough struggle to earn his daily bread. Added to this was his revolutionary leftism that developed at the high school where he studied as a boarding student during the years of the ’68 youth movement. This produced a daring young man, and that was also the meaning of the nickname “Khent” given to him by his closest friends: “Crazy Heart.”
To use the phrase he chose himself, Hrant Dink was “an Anatolian to the very core.” His life was a microcosm of Anatolian Armenians. Hrant told us the story of his ancestors, the Anatolian Armenians who were uprooted and sent to death in the last decade of the Ottoman Empire. He also told us about the continuation of that undertaking during the Turkish Republic through implementation of discriminatory state policies, ranging from the closure of Armenian churches and schools in Anatolia to the confiscation of Armenian minority foundations’ properties in Istanbul, stripping Armenians of their economic and cultural wealth and identity. Only a “Khent,” a Crazy Heart like Hrant, would dare to tell this story in Turkey.
His humane but direct style unsettled many people and forced them to think more deeply, from left to right and from Armenian nationalists to Turkish nationalists. He was a kind of iconoclast.
Hrant was not only the first secular voice of the Christian Armenian minority. Over a decade of political activism, he also became one of the most prominent public intellectuals, who fought for the democratization of the Turkish political system. He dared to speak and write against the taboos of the regime, including every single controversial issue – from the Kurdish question to the headscarf ban at universities, which was still in effect until the first years of the last decade. He did all this with the same commitment. In a country like Turkey where Armenians live in their shells as a silenced community, his undertaking was unprecedented.
He observed that the silence to which Armenians had been condemned due to the denialist and oppressive state policies had also kept the Turkish people in the dark about their past. And beginning with simple human stories, he set out to inform the public. The language he used was never blaming or accusing. On the contrary, it was inclusive, and that is why it was very effective.
The book describes how Agos also unsettled many within the Armenian community in Turkey, asking bold new questions. Could you give a few details? What changes did Agos help develop in the late 1990s and 2000s?
In his newspaper Agos, Hrant set out to give the silenced Armenian community a political voice. He also set out handling issues such as Patriarchal elections, in which the Turkish state was involved. When Agos aired those “internal disputes,” there was widespread consternation. The circles inside the community with links to the state launched a campaign of threats and negative propaganda. Hrant began to openly attack those members of the community as state informers. He even began to criticize the way the Patriarchate was spending its money. Hrant was discussing openly things that everyone had been witnessing in silence for years. He began to argue that the Patriarch should not have the last word on every matter, and the community should “secularize” and become “transparent.” Around the time of the elections of the Armenian minority foundations, Agos faced two confiscation orders.
After raising uncomfortable questions in Agos he was targeted by nationalists in a defamation campaign for many years, which was very difficult for him and his family. Could you describe the years leading up to his assassination?
In the year 2005, Hrant published an article in Agos, saying that Sabiha Gökçen, Atatürk’s adoptive daughter and Turkey’s first woman combat pilot, was an Armenian girl taken from an orphanage in Anatolia after 1915. The publication of that story caused an explosion. Thus it marked the beginning of the end, leading to Hrant’s tragic end.
The Office of the Chief of the General Staff immediately issued a statement accusing Agos of “an approach that does not contribute to our national unity and social peace.” In the following days Hrant was called to the Istanbul Governor’s Office, to be warned and implicitly threatened by two members of the national intelligence agency. A day after he was rebuked at the Governor’s Office, ultranationalist groups took to the street and gathered in front of the Agos building, shouting menacing slogans such as, “Love the country or leave it!”
Overnight, Hrant became the enemy of the old nationalist establishment. He faced charges for “insulting and denigrating Turkishness” under article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. He was prosecuted three times under the same article, which was a restriction of freedom of thought and expression. In 2006 he was given a prison sentence.
In the meantime, Hrant became the subject of a hate-campaign in the nationalist and right-wing media. Shocked and humiliated by the judgment, he took his case to the Court of Appeals, and six months later the High Court confirmed the verdict against him, which led to an increase in death threats that he was receiving. These threats did not only target him, but also his son.
With the confirmation of the verdict, the hate-campaign in the media surged, accusing him of being a “traitor.” As Hrant was walking towards his death, bearing the label “enemy of the Turks” like a crucifix on his shoulders, he wrote in his last column: “I am fluttering like a pigeon. But I know that people in this country do not harm pigeons.” Two days before this article was published, he was shot dead on the pavement in front of the Agos office.
Ten years after his death, what legacy did he leave behind? What would say about today’s Turkey?
Ten years is a long time. Maybe in the first few years after his assassination, we could speak of some positive aspects about Hrant’s legacy. There were people chanting “We are all Armenians” and “We are all Hrant Dink” at his funeral; there was the “I Apologize” campaign to Armenians, an online petition signed by more than 30,000 Turkish people; and there was the partial amendment of the notorious Article 301 of the Penal Code. Hrant’s assassination also added further impulse to democratization efforts in the country on the path to membership of the European Union. Thus, some properties of the Armenian minority foundations, which had been confiscated by the state, were given back to their previous owners.
But 10 years is a long time. The case into Hrant’s assassination, which has been ongoing since then, led to a profound disappointment with the justice system. It degenerated into a farcical game of different power centers within the state endlessly blaming one another. And over the past two years Turkey has drifted further and further away from democracy. Turkey in 2017 has become a country under authoritarian rule, dangerously polarized, with an uncertain future. It is not possible that Hrant’s legacy would not be affected by that negative political climate.
The current witch hunt that Turkish Armenian MP Garo Paylan is currently subjected to over his reference to the Armenian genocide in his speech at parliament on Jan. 13, shows that Hrant Dink’s legacy in today’s Turkey is nothing other than the Myth of Sisyphus.