"This is a society that specializes in forgetting rather than remembering."
Murat Belge is one of Turkey's most outspoken liberal intellectuals. Since 1996 he has been teaching literature at Istanbul's Bilgi University. He has translated James Joyce, Charles Dickens and D. H. Lawrence. He has been a long-time contributor to the daily Radikal; since June 2008 he is a columnist for the daily Taraf.
Belge is the son of a political journalist and the grandson of a former governor of Bursa. After the military coup in 1970 he was sent to prison. After the coup in 1980 he had to leave academia. Belge co-founded a publishing house for left-wing classics and became one of the founders of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly in Turkey.
Belge's deep interest in Istanbul's hidden multiethnic past grew out of his personal experience. As he wrote in a city guide published in 1993:
"Just imagine, the houses where I was born, where I spent my childhood, where I was during university, where I lived during my first marriage, where the children were born, where two children grew up – none of them exist anymore. […] But the problem is not only buildings. All the people changed. In 1960 the population of Istanbul was slightly above one million. Included in that were still a measurable number of minorities… and in the blink of an eye my school friends, my friends from the neighbourhood had disappeared. We didn't really understand it while it was happening. And then a day came when we looked around and saw that no one was left."
"Economic change also brought cultural change. A new population, a new language, a new culture under new circumstances, with its face turned towards the future. In the 1980s, following the Evren coup, the meaning of "future" in Turkey changed, "lost times" immediately gained importance, and "nostalgia" set in. We all became like Proust…"
Since the early 1980s Belge has been offering interested Istanbullus guided tours through historic quarters of Istanbul or (by boat) along the Bosporus. He recalls the reactions to his first walking tours through old Istanbul. People, he says, were stunned to find an incredibly rich multiethnic past ready to be (re)discovered.
"Everybody was terribly interested and surprised. This was very new. … People in Istanbul have forgotten, because they never were reminded that this city had a very multicultural, multi-religious life."
Today Belge receives personal protection, provided by the state, due to his status as one of Turkey's most outspoken public intellectuals. He was one of the organizers of the first conference on the Armenian question in Turkey (where the official line was challenged by a number of speakers), which took place at Bilgi University in 2005. Belge has never been afraid of questioning taboos, from human rights violations to the cult of Ataturk, and the ideas of modern day Kemalists.
"Kemal, I'm sure, was the most brilliant man in his milieu, at the time when he lived. A brilliant strategist, a very good soldier, and a very ardent westerniser. And maybe he was too successful. Instead of putting society in a straitjacket, more care and affection could have been spared for creating a stronger civil society, rather than treating society as a child to be fed this and to be fed that. […] Present-day Kemalism has almost nothing to do with Kemalism as it was: it is hostile to the United States, it is hostile to the European Union, it is hostile to Western democratic ideals."