The Armenian Don Quixote

The Armenian Don Quixote

The stone tower he commissioned is one of his latest whims. Like a watch tower, it offers a splendid view of the domes of the old Greek churches in the hill town of Şirince and the only paved road leading up to it from the plain. It’s an ideal observation point from which to observe an enemy’s approach, and we are not disappointed. Sevan Nişanyan reminds us of Obelix observing the arrival of the Romans. Gleefully rubbing his hands together, he says, “Cool! The cops!”

Two soldiers amble toward us, flanking three officials in purple ties. The three representatives of the Şirince subprefecture have arrived for the umpteenth time to inspect ten guest houses that Nişanyan had built without permits. “How many are there? How many rooms?” The answers are meticulously recorded by their superior while the rest stifle yawns. “This has been happening three times a week for the past twelve years,” sighs Nişanyan. “The bureaucrats would get bored without you,” jokes a soldier. But their ongoing entertainment is assured. This Armenian intellectual will continue to cross swords with the Turkish administration with the conviction of a knight errant, because the battle is part of a much larger war he is waging against the Turkish state – “the last fascist regime,” in his words, built on the genocide of his people in 1915.

It was in Şirince, near Turkey’s Aegean coast and the Ephesus archeological site, that Sevan Nişanyan chose to organize his resistance. He discovered that the history of the village was reminiscent of that of the Armenians deported from Anatolia: a Greek colony was founded here in the eighteenth century by Ottoman authorities wishing to populate the brigand-infested area, and to collect taxes while they were at it. The architecture is typical of Albania, so the town’s first inhabitants were likely brought here from northwest Greece and the Balkans – before being returned there two centuries later. In 1923– 24, those who had survived or resisted the policy of terror to sweep Greeks from the region, implemented in 1913 by the Committee of Union and Progress, were sent back to their homeland. At that time, the governments of Greece and Turkey had agreed to Exchange their minorities, each wishing to carry out a wide-scale ethnic cleansing to create racially and religiously “pure” nation-states. The great-grandparents of the current residents of Şirince were therefore expelled from Crete and Macedonia because they were Muslim. But according to Nişanyan, “These new inhabitants have never really felt comfortable here. The third generation still calls it the village of gavurs [infidels]. The spirit of the Greeks still walks among us.”

Feeling solidarity with these persecuted minorities, Nişanyan immediately made himself at home here. In just a few years, he had turned it into a popular tourist destination. The “who’s who” of Istanbul flocked to the guest houses that he designed from scratch, from their pantries to their chimneys. He quickly earned a reputation for serving the best breakfasts in Turkey, complete with views of the valley and classical music playing in the background. Success was not long in coming and, along with it, problems with the law for “illegal construction.” “But everything in Turkey is illegal and would have to be torn down,” Nişanyan argues. Indeed, construction without a permit has become a national sport. In Istanbul, 70 per cent of buildings have been erected outside the law. After a legal truce, the notices of demolition began to reappear three years ago. Nişanyan’s criminal record now includes seven trials, sentences totalling eighteen years’ imprisonment for illegal construction and resisting authority, the loss of his civil rights and the right to found a political party, plus a mysterious € 70 fine (about $ US100) for “good conduct.”

“Armenians are only tolerated in this country if they grovel and hang pictures of Atatürk,” he had declared a few months earlier. “By challenging the status quo, I broke the social contract.” Nişanyan is as rebellious as his compatriots are discreet. A 2004 photo hanging above the hotel’s front desk says it all: like a king with a mocking smile seated on his throne, he and his considerable bulk are ensconced in an armchair carried with great difficulty by police officers. It was the only way they could execute an eviction order. But this time he had to compromise, at least to some extent. To prevent his cottages from being bulldozed, he donated them to the Nesin Foundation, run by his friend Ali Nesin, a prominent mathematician and fellow disturber of the peace at the forefront of battles for democratic freedom in Turkey. The two men built a “mathematics village” in Şirince to serve scholars from Turkey and around the world whose passion is solving equations, and also to inspire a taste for math in Turkish youth. In the summer months, classes are held in an open-air amphitheatre in the shade of an olive tree. The goal is to share knowledge as it was done in classical antiquity. A theatre school followed last year – another slightly crazy project. But nothing pleases Nişanyan more than being called crazy.

Indeed, you have to be a bit crazy to contradict historian Yusuf Halaçoğlu on live TV. Elected to parliament on the ticket of the far-right, ultranationalist MHP, Halaçoğlu is the poster child for state-sponsored revisionism. For many years he served as president of the Turkish Historical Society, a public organization that denies the genocide. You also have to be a bit of a kamikaze to publish in the daily newspaper Taraf, another thorn in the side of Kemalist ideology, an editorial adapting Atatürk’s “Address to Youth.” Displayed on the walls of every classroom in the Republic, Atatürk’s words have been recited by rote by generations of Turkish youth. But under the pen of this born provocateur, the rousing command “Your first duty is to preserve and defend Turkish independence” became “Your first duty is to be a human being.” In France, Nişanyan’s revision would have been seen as a harmless parody. In Turkey, where worship of the nation has replaced that of God, it was the ultimate insult. The declarations of the founder of the Turkish republic are as sacred as the chapters of the Koran. Outraged zealots responded with death threats: “We’ll make you write the correct version of the ‘Address to Youth’ with your own blood. We’ll kill you like that dog Hrant Dink.” Nişanyan has no doubt that, in sentencing him to jail for his guest houses, the judges are really making him pay for his words.

At the guest house where he has welcomed us with a generosity befitting his own larger-than-life persona, we are enjoying an afternoon snack. Popping a last bite of fresh-baked cake into his mouth, he interrupts his story to excuse himself until supper time. He must finish a series of articles on the reform of Turkey’s education system. Outside, the warm winter sun caresses the landscape, a dog slumbers in the middle of the road, a goat bleats in its pen, and smoke wafts gently over the rooftops. Far from the prevailing schools of thought, Şirince offers the ideal vantage point from which to observe the ills of society.

The next day, Nişanyan insists on showing us the replica of a Lycian cave tomb he has had carved into the rock in the hills above the village. In the pediment above the portal are chiselled, in Ancient Greek and Old Armenian, the words “Built by Sevan Nişanyan in 2012 AD” This project – which will no doubt lead to another conflict with bureaucracy (making us wonder if that is not the whole point of the operation) – is consistent with the man: over the top, astonishing, self-indulgent. But this attempt to provoke the authorities is also designed to challenge the country’s official history, which has erased signs of all who lived here before the Turks.

Nişanyan’s aversion to nationalism shaped his education. At seventeen, he left Turkey to study philosophy at Yale, then political science at Columbia. Hungry for knowledge, he soaked up languages like a sponge: in addition to Armenian and Turkish, he speaks English, Arabic, and modern Greek, gets by in classical Latin, Greek, and Armenian, and boasts a smattering of French, Hebrew, Ethiopian, and Syriac. As a child, he amused himself by memorizing the Petit Larousse encyclopedic dictionary and, early on, he developed a keen political sense. “By the time I reached college, I already detested everything related to nationalism, Kemalism, and militarism; in short, I had developed a deep disdain for our political system, which claims the superiority of the Turkish race.” In this young rebel, the ideological propaganda hammered home by the education system had the reverse effect: instead of accomplishing the desired brainwashing, it taught him to use the extraordinary brain with which nature had endowed him “for political purposes.”

Living in Istanbul’s well-to-do neighbourhood of Şişli, his family had escaped the genocide. Neither his architect father nor his home-maker mother speaks of the atrocities of the First World War. Only his grandmother refers to them occasionally with flashes of bitter wit. But Nişanyan’s childhood memories are full of daily acts of discrimination. The implicit message transmitted by newspapers and the radio was that “minorities are the enemies of the republic.” When, as a student in the United States, he learned about the genocide, his “obsession with destroying the Turkish state” was fuelled. He became a Marxist. Now fifty-four, he has long since given up his Marxist beliefs, but his youthful rebellion has remained his intellectual compass. “All my books have the same objective: to deconstruct the racist Turkish ideology that overshadows the rich history of this country.” This is true even of those books that appear at first glance to be inoffensive, since in Turkey everything is ideological.

In 2006, for example, Nişanyan published a tourist guide to the Black Sea region. 38 This Turkish Switzerland along the country’s northern border is worth exploring for its magnificent mountains and multi-ethnic history. But the region is less famous for its alternative tourism than for being a stronghold of the Grey Wolves, the Turkish ultranationalist youth organization. In the section devoted to the town of Giresun, on the shores of the Black Sea, Nişanyan mocks a statue honouring Topal Osman, or Osman the Lame, a hero of nationalist literature. In 1915, Osman commanded a squadron of gangs in the pay of the Committee of Union and Progress that exterminated the local Armenian population. In 1919, history repeated itself, this time against the Greeks.

It was retired General Veli Küçük, suspected of being one of the instigators of the murder of Hrant Dink and now behind bars for his association with the so-called “Ergenekon” plot to overthrow the government, 39 who argued for the erection of the statue. In 2006, Küçük was still a free man, and the memory of Osman the Lame was not to be trifled with. Emotions in the country were running high, with the genocide taboo beginning to crumble. Atom Egoyan’s film Ararat had been seen on television for the first time, and, confronted with its historic responsibility, the country was hit by a wave of paranoia. Nişanyan’s tourist guide to the Black Sea was seen as a dangerous, subversive opus, and the province’s governor called for its banning. Nişanyan was accused on television of doing evangelical missionary work and received thousands of death threats. “They stopped overnight,” he says, “proving they were the result of an organized campaign.” A few months later, on 19 January 2007, his friend Hrant Dink was gunned down.

For Nişanyan, Dink’s funeral sounded the death knell for the racist ideology that had nourished the Turkish republic since 1923. On 23 January, more than 100,000 Turkish citizens marched in Dink’s funeral procession carrying signs reading “We are all Armenians.” Said Nişanyan, “Seeing that this spontaneous demonstration was not repressed, I understood that the regime had fallen with the death of an Armenian.” He decided to deliver the final blow by publishing a manuscript that had lain waiting patiently in his desk drawer since 1994: Yanlış Cumhuriyet (The wrong republic), 40 an all-out attack on the foundations of the republic. Once again, the premise was sacrilegious: Atatürk had never intended to found a democracy and had created a dictatorship.

Nişanyan continues to deconstruct history with the same determination that he devoted to constructing houses. “An Armenian identity is a plus for criticizing the Turkish state,” he says: “it helps to complicate the situation.” Even his passion for etymology has been placed at the service of his political objective. His encyclopedic knowledge of linguistics led to the writing of The Country That Has Forgotten Its Name, a comprehensive survey of the Turkification of Anatolia designed to highlight Turkey’s multicultural identity. The task is endless and, from his home in Şirince, he uses the Internet to pursue it. He has created the Index Anatolicus, an interactive tool for compiling a list of all the former Armenian, Syriac, Ottoman, Kurdish, Arabic, and Greek names of places and villages that have been renamed. By fall 2012, a total of 31,511 had been inventoried. An Armenian is thus “helping Turks to discover their country and their history.”

In October 2012, during a prime time program on CNN-Türk, the Turkish version of the cable news channel, Nişanyan declared, “No one knows Turks or Turkey better than I do.” With his characteristic blend of smugness and anxious awkwardness, he had come to defend his position on Innocence of Muslims, the US-made anti-Islamic video that had triggered violent protests in the Muslim world. As always, this Armenian intellectual challenged conventional thinking and political correctness. On his blog, he had said this about Mohammed: “It is not a hate crime to poke fun at some Arab leader who, many hundred years ago, claimed to have established contact with God and made political, economic, and sexual profit as a result. It is almost a kindergarten-level case of what we call freedom of expression.”

In effect, this was a little online test of the new taboos of Turkey, a country increasingly ruled by bigotry. His Twitter account was flooded with insults: “Armenian dog!” Bekir Bozdağ, the country’s deputy prime minister, called for the criminal prosecution of his “crime.” A Turkish lawyer, politician, and theologian, Bozdağ declared that “only a sick mind could produce such madness.” On CNN-Türk, Nişanyan fired back that “people with healthy minds are necessarily atheists,” before launching into a brilliant but outrageous analysis of Turkish ills. “In Turkey, two monsters have been confronting each other for the past century. One is Kemalism, and the other is Islamism.” Abandoned by some of the Turkish intelligentsia, who had tired of his boundless ego, and criticized by the Armenian community, who feared they would bear the brunt of the backlash, he was like a condemned man who has willingly entered the lion’s den. 41 A free-thinking extremist, he confronts dogmas of all kinds. Sevan Nişanyan: intolerable, but oh so indispensable.

Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier. “Turkey and the Armenian Ghost”


Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier