A brave investigation into the buried history of Armenian massacre and Kurdish violence in a small Turkish village.
Conversant in Turkish and charmed by the cosmopolitan nature of the people, foreign correspondent de Bellaigue (In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran, 2005, etc.) was posted to Istanbul for some years before he began to question the official Turkish story that the forced deportation and massacre of Armenians during World War I had been provoked by their rebelliousness and collusion with Russia. Moreover, the perpetual harping on the supposed genocide was the result of “a vindictive Armenian lobby and its friends in Europe and America—xenophobes and racists.” In order to uncover the truth, de Bellaigue installed himself in the mountainous village of Varto, just east of the Iranian and Armenian borders, in the heart of what used to be a thriving population of Armenians, now dominated by Kurds and Alevis, a kind of offbeat Shia sect. In these prickly ethnic pockets, the author found a troubling, fairly typical “history of forced removal and migration, a memory of flight” still fresh in the minds of the inhabitants. From Mus to Erzurum, he learned about the massacre of Armenians, such as the cold-blooded slaughter of a caravan of refugees heading toward Syria by official Turkish decree in June 1915. In his readings and travels, the author discovered the bewildering history of heroes and turncoats in the area, including Ataturk, who wielded modern Turkey out of the Ottoman collapse, but ultimately turned a blind eye to the Kurds, setting in motion “decades of oppression and denial”; Varto native Halit, the architect of the Kurdish rebellion of 1925; and Mehmet Serif Firat, author of a late 1940s’ history that first defined an identity for the Alevi, at the expense of the Kurds, then was murdered for it. These are blistering, long-running controversies, and de Bellaigue gets in the thick of it.
A tortuous, somewhat discombobulated tapestry of research and experience.