By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 30, 2005
ISTANBUL -- The exhibit opened 50 years to the day after the mayhem it chronicled in the cobblestone street right outside the gallery.
Captured on black-and-white glossies was a modern-day pogrom, a massive, state-sponsored assault on a foreign community that awoke on the morning of Sept. 6, 1955, still feeling safe in Istanbul. By sunset a day later, a mob of perhaps 100,000 Turks had attacked foreigners' homes, schools and churches, and filled whole streets with the contents of the ruined shops that lined them. In the aftermath of the attack, a city for centuries renowned for its diversity steadily purged itself of almost everyone who could not claim to be Turkish.
The exhibit at Karsi Artworks attempts to confront that history, dubbed the Events of Sept. 6-7, in the era before "ethnic cleansing" entered the popular lexicon. But when ultranationalist thugs swarmed into the gallery on opening night -- throwing eggs, tearing down photos and chanting "Love it or leave it!" -- the question became whether it really is history at all.
"Just like what happened 50 years ago," said Mahmut Erol Celik, a retired civil servant emerging from the defaced exhibit. "It's the same mentality. That's what's so embarrassing."
Appearances have lately counted for a lot in Turkey. Under intense international scrutiny, its government hopes to begin negotiations Oct. 3 that should conclude with Turkey as a member of the European Union. Even if the process takes 15 years, as many predict, the result would apparently fulfill an ambition such as that which drove modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who preached that the country's future lay firmly with the West.
But questions arise almost daily about whether either side wants to proceed. Europe's mixed feelings about absorbing Turkey's large, poor and overwhelmingly Muslim population are well known. But Turkey harbors its own ambivalence, apparently rooted in the recurring question of how much the country cares about the world beyond its own borders.
That question came up again this month, when a Turkish court made headlines by barring a handful of scholars from gathering to discuss the deaths in 1915 of perhaps a million ethnic Armenians, in circumstances that Armenia and many independent scholars describe as genocide but Turkey calls the consequences of war.
The disagreement has poisoned relations between the neighboring nations for decades with an obsessiveness that overtakes Turkish efforts to appear poised. This summer, readers of Time magazine's international edition found a DVD tucked into a four-page ad for Turkish tourism. The disc included 13 minutes of commercials and an hour-long propaganda film accusing Armenians of slaughtering Turks.
"It's not a polemic," said a spokeswoman for the Ankara Chamber of Commerce, which paid for the disorienting mix of polished commercials and grainy footage of dead bodies. "We just wanted to position Turkey on this issue."
Last May, the prospect of scholars gathering for an independent assessment of the controversy brought a chilling warning from Turkey's justice minister, who called them "traitors." After objections from the E.U., the scrapped conference was rescheduled and was finally held this month, but not without an accompanying demonstration by Turkish nationalists. Also this month, a prosecutor filed charges against Orhan Pamuk, the country's most acclaimed novelist, for observing that the Armenian issue was off-limits in the country.
"There is no other country which harms its own interests this much," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said.
But then few other countries are so nationalistic. Turks are raised to believe that Turkey is surrounded by enemies and can rely only on itself. The unitary notion of the state views all citizens as ethnic Turks and regards any other presence as a dire threat.
So there was deep concern in official circles this month when Pope Benedict XVI made plans to travel to Istanbul at the invitation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the ethnic Greek who serves as spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians. The Orthodox patriarchy remained in Istanbul, then called Constantinople, after the city was overtaken by Muslims half a millennium ago. But modern Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the patriarch's authority and hastened to issue its own official invitation to the pope, who obliged by postponing his trip.
To cultivate Europe, the government also invited Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Assyrian Christian and Muslim leaders to an ecumenical conference due to conclude four days before the crucial opening of the prospective E.U. negotiations, which one analyst predicted will be "contentious."
"When a country is embarking on a major negotiation process, when it's trying to eradicate old taboos and embrace modern norms, you usually do that in the name of nation-building," said Katinka Barysch, an analyst at the London-based Center for European Reform. "As Turkey embarks on this, it invokes nationalism. Which doesn't sit very well with the E.U. process."
So far, E.U. officials have been quick to label the prosecutions, court rulings and other embarrassments as transparent provocations intended to sabotage Turkey's image. But each also reflects a debate within Turkish society that was on plain view in the lobby of the Karsi gallery the day after the thugs trashed it.
Two visitors were recalling the 1955 attacks from memory.
"I was in the street that day and I remember very clearly," said Mehmet Ali Zeren, 70. "In a jewelry store, one guy had a hammer and he was breaking pearls one by one."
Celik, the retired bureaucrat, called the attack a stain on Turkish history, comparable to the infamous "wealth tax" that was enforced only against foreigners. "Therefore Istanbul lost many things," he said. "It lost most of its beauty."
"Why are you all speaking English here?" asked an agitated man, overhearing an American reporter's questions. He carried a bound volume of Ataturk's speeches and pointed angrily to a photo caption on the wall that identified leaders of the pictured mob as provocateurs.
"Shame on you!" he said. "These are our lands! A man holding a Turkish flag cannot be called a provocateur!"
Can San and other officials from the History Foundation, a co-sponsor of the exhibit, answered the man's complaints, then watched him leave through the exit the thugs had poured through the night before while chanting their slogans.
"But," San noted, "the public in the street did not join them."