‘Dinner with the President, Back to the Wall’: A Conversation With Oral Calislar

ISTANBUL, Turkey (A.W.)—On March 16, Radikal columnist and Turkish journalist Oral Calislar spoke to the Weekly about the current state of Armenian Genocide politics in Turkey just prior to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Turkey and Iraq.

Speaking about Turkey’s current ruling government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Calislar stated, “Turkey is now in a changing position with the AKP in power but there are many Kemalists still in the army. They wanted to prevent the AKP from taking power but they couldn’t. Now the AKP has brought Turkey closer to Western standards.”

Of his own record as a voice of Turkish dissent, incarcerated by the state in the 1970’s alongside historian Taner Akcam for his views in support of Armenians and Kurds, Calislar said, “For many years I was a Maoist. I spent 10 years underground and 7 years in jail. At this point, though, I’m closer to the Islamic party on many issues. It is a pity, but it is true. On the Armenian issue this government is closer to my views.” 

He expanded, “This government is not in favor of the apology campaign [initiated in December 2008], but they do want to do something on the Armenian issue. But if recognition [of the genocide] comes from the U.S. this year, it will affect Turkish policies negatively. The problem now is relations.”

Asked whether Turkey and Armenia should open their common border for commerce and passage, Calislar stated, “I am very supportive of Turkey and Armenia opening up the borders. I went to Armenia several times in favor of this. I was also one of the first signers of the apology. I think 90 percent of the world believes it was genocide, but in Turkey there was a total blackout period. Now books are being written here on the subject but we need time. The Turkish people need time.”

Commenting on the role Hrant Dink’s assassination has played since 2007, he said, “Millions of people cried for him. He was a very effective and important figure and we used to travel around Anatolia speaking in many panels together.”

Asked whether he feels safer today from ultra-nationalists in Turkey who seek to silence dissenters through violence, he noted, “Well tonight, for example, I will eat dinner at a function with President Abdullah Gul and I will bring my bodyguard. But in general I do feel safer than I have before.”

Much of this feeling of increasing safety is from the ongoing Ergenekon trials, in which Turkish security forces have made sweeping dragnet arrests of political figures and intellectuals they have alleged are members of the “Deep State,” seeking a coup of Turkey’s present government.

He added, “Many of these people are killers and the majority of the bad killers have been put in jail. My name was on their list of people to kill, too.”

Asked whether he was currently under any indictments or in any court proceedings involving the infamous Article 301 statute that had made it a crime to “insult Turkishness,” Calislar said, “I was before, because of my articles and declarations [regarding the Armenian Genocide] but not today. Although now the state wants to open up cases against the signers of the apology. But 30,000 people signed the apology. What can they do?”

The number of those in Turkey that recognize the genocide is increasing, he said, and “step by step things are changing. Now at least 10 percent of Turkish people think it was genocide. That’s a huge improvement.”

Of his own projects, Calislar has written a new book called Alevi Lands that will come out this year in Turkish. “The Alevis [ethnic Kurdish minority] are about 10 million in Turkey and have hidden their identity for so many years but are now looking to secure minority rights,” he explained. “My wife, Ipek Calislar, also has a new book coming out called, Mrs. Ataturk, about Ataturk’s wife Latife Hanim or Latife Hanimefendi, that will be published in English, German, and French.”

“They tried to open a case against her, too,” he said of the Article 301 prosecutors, “because she recounts a story of how Ataturk once disguised himself as a woman during the war to escape capture by the Allies. But what can you do, this is reality.”

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Andy Turpin

Andy Turpin has been the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly since 2006. He was raised in Palma City, Fla. His family is of Italian, Welsh and Armenized-Romani stock. He graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., with degrees in history and journalism. Following graduation, he went to Armenia as an English as a Second Language (ESL) U.S. Peace Corp volunteer. He received his CELTA-ESL degree from Cambridge University in 2006.

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