Norman Stone on the dramatic life and death of Ali Kemal, one-time interior minister of Turkey and our mayoral candidate’s forebear
Boris Johnson is one eighth Turkish. His great-grandfather (there is, if you abstract the fez and the moustache, a family resemblance) was a well-known writer, Ali Kemal (1868–1922) who came, because of his politics, to a tragic end. He knew England very well, and when the British occupied Constantinople for four years at the end of the first world war, he collaborated with them. They had left the Sultan on his throne, and there was a puppet government which controlled a few back-streets. Poor Ali Kemal made the awful mistake of becoming its minister of the interior for some three months. As happens with collaborationist regimes, he quarrelled with his colleagues (there is a very funny scene of this sort, about Vichy France, in Céline’s D’un château l’autre, where Alphonse de Châteaubriant ends up throwing the crockery). Then he spent his time on journalism, and taught at the university: he knew a great deal about literature. But a nationalist resistance built up in the interior (based on Ankara) and when, late in 1922, it triumphed, Ali Kemal did not leave.
It was crazy: the Sultan himself was smuggled out in a British ambulance to Malta, and the Ottoman dynasty was thrown to the four winds. History does not reveal the reasons for Ali Kemal’s staying. At any rate he was picked up, while being shaved at the Grand Cercle d’Orient in the European city — it was the Levantines’ club, and only Turks of a high rank were admitted — and put on a train for trial in Ankara. His captor, Nurettin Pasha, had lost his two sons in the war, and had gone a little mad. Somehow, he allowed a mob to take Ali Kemal off the train at Izmit, the old Nicomedia, and they lynched him. The episode is written up in Louis de Bernières’s Birds Without Wings.
That book is a homage to the Turkey that might have been, with Greeks and Armenians taking their place. Ali Kemal thought that that should have happened. That was why he supported the British, in whom he put his faith. But at the time Lloyd George was really after the partition of Turkey: Greater Greece, Greater Armenia, even an Anglo-Kurdistan, with bits and pieces for the French and the Italians. There would have been a rump Turkey, run by a puppet Sultan. Ali Kemal was the puppet of a puppet. Everyone, including himself, let him down. The story ends, none the less, with some uplift. He had had two wives, one British — hence the Boris connection — and, after her death from childbirth, one Turkish. Boris (and his father, Stanley Johnson) has done him proud. On the Turkish side, there was a boy, Zeki Kuneralp, who was very bright and needed a state scholarship. Kemal Atatürk, the chief target of Ali Kemal’s journalistic attacks, was by then the Turkish equivalent of de Gaulle. He said: give that boy the money. Zeki’s son is now a chief negotiator on the subject Turkey-in-Europe. Another son is a leading publisher.
Curiously enough, Ali Kemal wrote a book, predicting what would happen to his progeny. It is called Fetret, meaning ‘interregnum’, and the word itself has some significance. In 1402, the first Turkish (or, more accurately, Ottoman: ‘Turk’ until the 20th century was a word used by foreigners) state was overthrown by Tamerlane, and for three decades there was in effect a war of succession, between men who identified with the east and men who identified with the west; that war, in various forms, has gone on to this day. You could have used that word to describe the Ottoman empire of the later 19th century and this is reflected in the architecture. The Sultans had given up the old Topkapi Palace, and moved to the Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus, over which the spirit of Queen Victoria hovered. Old Stambul had become a museum piece, and even then a chief building in it — now a school — was the Caisse de la Dette Ottomane, the headquarters of foreign money-men who were collecting the debts from charges on the railways or the customs. The heart of town was the European quarter, Pera, with the Cercle d’Orient where Ali Kemal was finally caught. Now, what was a bright young Turk to make of all this?
In 1840, there had been some hope. At the time of the Crimean war, even Karl Marx applied himself to learning Ottoman Turkish, because he thought that ‘the Asiatic Mode of Production’ would adapt to capitalism in a modernising Turkey (or Egypt). But by 1870, the debts had gone up and up, and by 1890 more or less everyone was writing off the Ottoman empire as yet another derelict non-European concern — what was soon to be called ‘the Third World’. Not just the Greeks but now also the Armenians, who had been called ‘the most loyal’ of the Sultan’s Christian subjects, were falling prey to separatist nationalism. Sultan Abdul Hamit reigned for 30 years and reckoned that modernisation could happen, provided politics did not get in the way. He practised a sort of absolutism, but promoted schools to train his officials, whether civilian or military. These schools in effect produced an opposition to him, of young men who spoke good French and who knew something about Europe. Ali Kemal was one of these, dreaming of a liberal and European Turkey. Most of his peers — they can loosely be called ‘Young Turks’ — were meritocrats, often from the southern Balkans, but Ali Kemal was socially a cut above them, the son of the head of a guild, living in quite grand circumstances in a villa above the castle of Rumeli. As such, he must have had some private money, because he spent much of his time abroad, and married an Anglo–Swiss wife, Winifred Brun, in 1903. She died, leaving two children, in 1910, and, when the radical Young Turks were briefly out of power in 1911–12, he went back to Istanbul, marrying again.
Then the Young Turks, led by the formidable and ruthless Enver Pasha, came to power again, and took Turkey into the first world war. Ali Kemal sat it out, disapprovingly, in Bournemouth, and the two English children were brought up by their grandmother in a village near London. Fetret is a book dreaming of the Turkey that his little son will one day see. It is liberal, modelled on England. It has room, and more than room, for Christian minorities, but it is Turkish. It is Muslim, but the Islam is generous and tolerant. It adheres to its own identity, especially linguistic, but the young must learn French, because French literature is far ahead of any other.
Ali Kemal (incidentally a pseudonym: he was originally called ‘Ali Riza’, after one of the very first, tentative, Turkish nationalists) apparently belongs quite high up the tree in Turkish literature. I have to say ‘apparently’ because he wrote in Ottoman Turkish, and that is a very far cry from the modern language: my copy of Fetret has a small dictionary at the back, translating the old (Arabic and Persian) words for today’s readers. When Kemal Atatürk took over, he changed the script, and drastically modernised the language; and in the Sixties it was even mutilated (there is a superb book on this by Geoffrey Lewis, A Catastrophic Success). Turks disagree quite violently as to the language reform: slavish imitation of the West, or Turkey’s ticket to the modern world? Ali Kemal, who read and wrote very widely, was clearly in two minds. He was quite right to disapprove of the Young Turks’ taking Turkey into the first world war. That produced endless disasters, including the loss of a quarter of the population — Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Kurdish.
Ali Kemal hoped that the British would pick up the pieces and realise his ambitions. His timing was quite wrong; and he ought to have gone with the people who joined Kemal Atatürk in the depths of Anatolia. But he was a decent man, living a lonely
life as an exiled litterateur, speaking broken English to a small son who must have seen him as a sort of Martian, and dreaming that one day the little boy would see a different Turkey. And lo and behold.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 26, 2008