Ayse Nur Zarakolu

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ayse Nur Sarisozen, publisher: born Antakya, Turkey 9 May 1946; married Ragip Zarakolu (two sons); died Istanbul 28 January 2002.

In Turkey, a country where nationalism has such a strong grip, and deviating from the generals' narrow interpretation of current reality and history can be dangerous, Ayse Nur Zarakolu was a brave woman.

Together with her husband Ragip, she published books of history, politics and poetry that in any other country would hardly be controversial but which in Turkey led to countless court hearings, fines, imprisonment, denial of a passport and state-sponsored harassment. Whole print-runs of dozens of her books were confiscated and in 1995 the offices of her publishing house Belge ("The Document") were fire-bombed.

From a basement in Istanbul, Belge published pioneering books acknowledging the Kurds' very existence and historical works on the genocide perpetrated in the early years of the 20th century against the Ottoman Empire's large Armenian minority and on the Greeks.

The publication in the early 1990s of the poems of Medhi Zana in Kurdish was enough to bring charges of separatist propaganda under the draconian anti-terrorism law. In 1997 Zarakolu published in Turkish Wie teuer ist die Freiheit ("How Expensive Freedom Is"), a collection of articles and reports by the German journalist Lissy Schmidt, who had been killed three years earlier on assignment in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The book was banned and confiscated by the government, while Zarakolu and the book's two translators were sent for trial.

But the books she published on the Armenian genocide inspired the most official wrath. This made her all the more determined to persist. "The place to debate our history is in books, not in the courts," she insisted.

In December 1993 she published a Turkish translation of the French original of Yves Ternon's Les Arméniens: histoire d'un génocide, aptly entitled Ermeni Tabusu ("The Armenian Taboo"). She was sentenced to two years' imprisonment as punishment. Among other works she published was a Turkish translation of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a 1933 novel by the Austrian writer Franz Werfel about an Armenian village's fight back against genocide.

Ayse was born in 1946 in the multicultural town of Antakya (Antioch), less than a decade after its annexation to Turkey. After studying sociology, she began working in the roadmenders trade union. She joined the publishing company Varlik in 1968, becoming head of the library at the Institute of Financial Studies at Istanbul University in 1970.

In 1977, she and Ragip set up Belge with the mission of "striking down taboos" and "investigating the rights of minorities". When the directors of Cemmay, a progressive book distribution company, were arrested following the 1980 military coup, she became the first woman in Turkey to direct a book-distribution company.

She was first imprisoned in 1982 and again in 1984. She later served on the board of the Human Rights Association, founded in 1986. Even with the return to civilian rule, Turkish writers, editors and publishers continued to grapple with anti- terrorism laws that severely restricted discussion of some of Turkey's most pressing problems, and Zarakolu turned her attention to challenging these laws when she returned to publishing full-time in 1988.

In 1990 she published a work by Ismail Besikci, a Kurdish sociologist who was the first academic to investigate atrocities committed against civilian Kurdish populations in Turkey and who was imprisoned for 15 years for his books. Zarakolu became the first publisher imprisoned under Turkey's 1991 anti-terror law when she was jailed for printing another book by Besikci in 1993. "I am here today since thought has been deemed a 'crime', indeed a 'terrorist crime'," she wrote from her prison cell. "Like writers, publishers are also preparing their suitcases, not for new studies and works but for prison."

Adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, Zarakolu was the recipient of numerous awards, among them those of the Turkish Publishers' Association, Human Rights Watch and various branches of the International PEN organisation.

"As long as people cannot express their identities and their views, they are not really free," she wrote just before her arrest in 1994:

We believe in what we are doing. Despite fines and possible future prison sentences, we at Belge will continue to give suppressed voices a chance to be heard. If we persist, we will win.

Denied a passport between 1993 and 1998 (it was returned the day after she had been due to fly to Germany to pick up an award at the Frankfurt Book Fair), she was determined to remain in her homeland:

I'm not prepared to live elsewhere: it's difficult to make a country more democratic from the outside. We want Turkey to be a country in which people of different religions and races can live together. If you struggle, you must sometimes pay for it. We will go on.

Felix Corley

Comments