The Murder of Hrant Dink
ISTANBUL—”I feel like a pigeon,” Hrant Dink wrote in his last article. “Like a pigeon I wander uneasily amidst this city, watching my back constantly, so timid and yet, so free.” That pigeon was gunned down Friday by a young Turkish fanatic on one of the most crowded streets of Istanbul.
Few people can inspire a whole nation in their lifetime, fewer still with their death. Hrant Dink did both. He was a prominent journalist, the editor of the Armenian weekly Agos, an outspoken intellectual, a peace activist, a true citizen of Istanbul and a dear friend. When the news of his assassination broke, thousands poured into the streets, chanting, “We are all Hrant Dink, we are all Armenian!” People slept in front of his office, guarding the spot where he’d fallen with candles and flowers.
The next day, all the main Turkish papers, left or right, spoke in a chorus of outrage on their front pages. Even more hard-line writers sincerely mourned his loss, asking where things had gone wrong. His death shattered the country and the grief cut across all sorts of ideological and social divides. His funeral will be attended by people from all religions, ethnicities and political inclinations. For Hrant Dink was a man impossible not to love, and far from “denigrating Turkishness,” the crime which an Istanbul court convicted him of (under the anti-free-speech Article 301), for talking about the killings of Armenians in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire, he truly loved this land.
That his death was interpreted by some beyond Turkey as proof that Turks don’t belong in the European Union would have upset Hrant. Without close ties to the EU, and the West as a whole, he worried that the country will become less democratic and more insular. His Turkey is a tapestry, a place where conflicting voices coexist. His best friends, companions and colleagues were Muslim Turks.
Yet Hrant Dink was, since his early childhood, used to discrimination. As he was getting ready to appeal his six-month sentence (eventually suspended) to the European Court of Justice, he wrote that, “I had no other option left. Why is it that although everyone tried under Article 301 has been acquitted one way or another, I have been sentenced to prison? Is it because I am Armenian and they wanted to intimidate me, teach me my limits?” Hrant knew the price to be paid for being in the political and ethnic minority, and still refused to withdraw into a glass ghetto.
Surrounded with friends and family, Hrant Dink was in many ways a lonely man. As critical as he was of Turkish ultranationalism, he had little time for Armenian ultranationalism. At his talks in the U.S., Europe and Australia to Armenian groups, he never played to the gallery. The biases and generalizations about Turkey and Turks in the Armenian diaspora frustrated him. “There is a big difference between Armenians in the diaspora and Armenians in Turkey,” he once said. “You guys are Armenian one day a year, on the 24th of April”—the commemoration of the 1915 massacres and deportations—”whereas we are Armenian every day of the year but on that one.”
Hrant opposed a French bill last year that sought to criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide, as well as a similar law now under discussion in the U.S. Congress. “If they pass the law in France, I will go there,” he said, “and though I believe the opposite, I will openly say that there was no genocide.” As a genuine supporter of freedom of expression, Hrant believed that it should be up to people, Turks and Armenians together, to find the means to reconcile, not to politicians to pass judgment on that history.
Many people asked Hrant why he didn’t leave Turkey for Europe or America. The answer he gave was the inspiration for one that a Turkish-Armenian characters in my last novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, offers.
“But why would I want to do that? This city is my city. My family’s history in this city goes back at least 500 years. Armenian Istanbulites belong to Istanbul, just like the Turkish, Kurdish, Greek and Jewish Istanbulites do. We have first managed and then badly failed to live together. We cannot fail again.”
Shafak is the author of The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking, 2007).
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