Rebel Land: Unraveling The Riddle Of History In A Turkish Town originated from an error. In a 2001 New York Review Of Books piece about Turkey’s history, Christopher de Bellaigue stated in passing that the deaths of Armenians in Turkey during the 1890s and the infamous genocides of 1915 were aberrations rather than a calculated, coordinated, state-endorsed effort. Many letters of outrage later, he realized he’d gotten his information “only from Turkish or pro-Turkish authors.” Mortified, de Ballaigue pulled up stakes and decided to move to one place where he could learn about Turkey’s 20th century of ethnic conflict in microcosm. He ended up in the town of Varto, where he spent more than two years piecing together the narratives he heard, slowly gaining local trust. The result is Rebel Land, a rich but problematic history.
De Bellaigue reaches back, briefly, to Varto’s origins, but really gets down to business (some 60 pages in) in the 1890s, with the formation of Hamidiye regiments—auxiliary cavalry regiments composed of Sunni Kurds whose harassment of Armenians was the opening governmental salvo in a long history of repression. The many struggles frequently centered around the same questions: What does it mean to be Turkish, what past wrongs can be redressed, and what can be done? What de Bellaigue sees is often depressing: An early interview with Varto’s district governor yields the flat assertion “We have no minorities in Turkey.”
Rebel Land is thorough, serious, and informative, a scholarly investigation that pieces together histories the country itself could never officially acknowledge. It’s also often confusing. Though de Bellaigue eventually minimizes the number of personal interjections, already-hard-to-follow stories are interrupted by walks, observations, and reflections that tend to stop the book dead rather than enriching it. His exhaustive research is all there on the page, and his admirable unwillingness to simplify anything can make things impossibly opaque. (Typical sentence: “According to people I spoke to in Varto, the Kurdish response to the firman was founded on expectations of pillage… and not on sectarian hatred, for the Sunni Kurds did not generally hate the Armenians, certainly not as intensely as they hated the Alevis.”) Tribes and terms are introduced with dizzying speed, often out of order: De Bellaigue alludes to PKK leader Apo many, many times before explaining (some 200 pages in) that Apo is actually Abdullah Ocalan, and what he did. Much of this is fascinating and comprehensive, but the way he presents it is often a mess; it’s a valuable correction, but getting through is a task for the patient.