By Orhan Pamuk
The New York Times has published an article by Turkish novelist, screenwriter, academic and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature Orhan Pamuk about Ara Guler, the late Turkish-Armenian photojournalist who died on October 17 at the age of 90.
Guler, who was a friend of Pamuk, was nicknamed “the Eye of Istanbul” or “the Photographer of Istanbul”.
Below are excerpts from the article:
“I first heard of Ara in the 1960s when I saw his photographs in Hayat, a widely read weekly news and gossip magazine with a strong emphasis on photography. One of my uncles edited it. Ara published portraits of writers and artists such as Picasso and Dali, and the celebrated literary and cultural figures of an older generation in Turkey such as the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. When Ara photographed me for the first time after the success of my novel “The Black Book,” I realized happily that I had arrived as a writer.
Ara devotedly photographed Istanbul for over half a century, continuing into the 2000s. I eagerly studied his photographs, to see in them the development and transformation of the city itself.
My friendship with Ara began in 2003, when I was consulting his archive of 900,000 photographs to research my book “Istanbul.” He had turned the large three-story home he inherited from his father, a pharmacist from the Galatasaray neighborhood in the Beyoglu district of the city, into a workshop, office and archive”, Pamuk says.
“In the early days of our friendship, we never spoke about Ara’s Armenian heritage and the suppressed, painful history of the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians — a subject that remains a veritable taboo in Turkey. I sensed that it would be difficult to speak about this harrowing subject with him, that it would put a strain on our relationship. He knew that speaking about it would make it harder for him to survive in Turkey.Over the years, he trusted me a little and occasionally brought up political subjects he wouldn’t raise with others”, Pamuk writes in the article.
“In 2005, I gave an interview where I complained that there was no freedom of thought in Turkey and we still couldn’t talk about the terrible things that were done to the Ottoman Armenians 90 years ago. The nationalist press exaggerated my comments. I was taken to court in Istanbul for insulting Turkishness, a charge that can lead to a three-year prison sentence.
Two years later, my friend the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was shot and killed in Istanbul, in the middle of the street, for using the words “Armenian genocide.” Certain newspapers began to hint that I might be next. Because of the death threats I was receiving, the charges that had been brought against me and the vicious campaign in the nationalist press, I started spending more time abroad, in New York. I would return to my office in Istanbul for brief stays, without telling anyone I was back.
On one of those brief visits home from New York, during some of the darkest days after Hrant Dink’s assassination, I walked into my office and the phone immediately started ringing. In those days I never picked up my office phone. The ringing would pause occasionally, but then it would start again, on and on. Uneasy, I eventually picked up. Straight away, I recognized Ara’s voice. “Oh, you’re back! I am coming over now,” he said, and hung up without waiting for my response.
Fifteen minutes later, Ara walked into my office. He was out of breath and cursing everything and everyone, in his characteristic manner. Then he embraced me with his huge frame and started to cry. Those who knew Ara, knew how fond he was of swearing and forceful masculine expressions, will understand my amazement at seeing him cry like that. He kept on swearing and telling me, “They can’t touch you, those people!”
His tears weren’t slowing down. The more he cried, the more I was gripped by a strange sense of guilt and felt paralyzed. After crying for a very long time, Ara finally calmed down, and then, as if this had been the whole purpose of his visit to my office, he drank a glass of water and left”.
Hrant Dink was the editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian Agos newspaper. He was shot dead outside his office in 2007. Although the gunman was apprehended, the court proceedings resume up to this day as the investigation hasn’t revealed the sponsors behind the murder.
“I no longer felt the urge to ask him about his grandfathers and grandmothers. The great photographer had already told me everything through his tears.
Ara had hoped for a democracy where individuals could speak freely of their murdered ancestors, or at least freely weep for them. Turkey never became that democracy. The success of the past 15 years, a period of economic growth built on borrowed money, has been used not to broaden the reach of democracy but to restrict freedom of thought even further.
And after all this growth and all this construction, Ara Guler’s old Istanbul has become — to use the title of one of his books — a “Lost Istanbul”,” Pamuk concludes.
By Orhan Pamuk
Mr. Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.