"This is a society that specializes in forgetting rather than remembering."
Murat Belge is one of the most outspoken liberal intellectuals in Turkey. Since 1996 he has been teaching literature at Istanbul Bilgi University. He has translated works of James Joyce, Charles Dickens and D. H. Lawrence. Many years he has written columns for 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 also had to leave academic life. He co-founded a publishing house for left-wing classics and became one of the founders of the Helsinki Citizen's Assembly in Turkey.
Belge's deep interest in Istanbul's hidden multiethnic past grew out of his personal experience of seeing the dramatic changes in his own environment. 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, they don't 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 friends from school or the neighbourhood had disappeared. While this happened we didn't really understand it. And then a day came when we looked around and nobody was left."
"Economic change also brought cultural change. A new population, a new language, a new culture under new circumstances, with the face turned towards the future. In the 1980s, following the Evren coup, the meaning of "future" in Turkey changed, "lost times" gained importance immediately 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 remembers the reactions to his first walking tours through old Istanbul: people 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 security, provided by the state, due to his status as one of the most outspoken Turkish public intellectuals. He was one of the people organizing the first conference on the Armenian question in Turkey where not only the official state view was presented, 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 straight jacket, 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."