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In 2005, Christopher de Bellaigue, a British journalist, installed himself in a remote, forbidding Turkish town and, by so doing, acquired an anguished intimacy with the region’s peoples and their secret and mythic pasts. This extraordinary intervention — which can be read as old-fashioned Orientalism or, more generously, as a globalized conscience courageously at work or, most accurately, as a bit of both — has a reflexive subplot, namely de Bellaigue’s own intellectual and moral odyssey, which is of an unusually vulnerable and romantic character.
As de Bellaigue freely explains in “Rebel Land,” a love affair drew him to Turkey in 1995, whereupon “the love affair ended but Turkey captivated me.” He stayed (in Ankara and Istanbul, writing for The Economist), learned to speak Turkish fluently and, immersed in a Westernized environment, more or less unwittingly became a Kemalist, which is to say, a subscriber to the “foundation myths” promulgated by Kemal Ataturk and holding sway in Turkey ever since. Notable among these are the notions that the Turkish republic is a nation-state containing no subgroups with valid claims to ethnic or political differentiation, let alone autonomy; that the country has a European and secular essence and destiny; and, more emotionally, that the achievement of Turkish nationhood was an enterprise reflective of a righteous people who to this day remain victimized by the self-interested incomprehension of the West.