Kurdish bookshop turns page on dark past

Once blacklisted for its ‘subversive’ wares, Istanbul’s Medya Kitabevi is now Europe’s most extensive Kurdish bookstore.

Selahattin Bulut sells about 5,000 books each year at Medya Kitabevi [Samantha North/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul, Turkey – In a narrow, haphazard alley beside Istanbul’s busy Istiklal Avenue, hidden behind stalls of fake designer handbags and tourist junk, sits an unassuming little bookshop. Only a few titles are displayed in the window, and the shop’s enigmatic name, Medya Kitabevi (Media Bookshop) does not give much away.

Inside, the place is buzzing, shelves piled high with colourful books. Customers flit in and out, stopping to exchange friendly words with the silver-haired shopkeeper, who sits at a book-cluttered desk at the back, talking on his vintage telephone.

These days, business is going well. Owner Selahattin Bulut has sold books for the last 18 years and made Medya Kitabevi – which specialises in a wide spectrum of Kurdish literature – famous among academic and media circles. But once upon a time, being caught here could have meant going to prison. Turkey has for decades been embroiled in conflict with Kurds seeking an independent state, and after Turkey’s third military coup in 1980, the state began cracking down on “subversive” political organisations, imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people, including many Kurds.

“Turkey didn’t want Kurds to know about their own identity. That’s why many writers, journalists and magazine sellers were killed or jailed during the 80s and 90s. During those decades, the only way to learn about Kurds was through music, books and a few newspapers,” Latif Tas, a Kurdish analyst and independent consultant for Oxford University, told Al Jazeera.

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Bulut’s story began in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, during this dark period of modern Turkish history. In 1981, Bulut, a Kurd, was locked away in the notorious Diyarbakir Prison, accused of carrying out operations for the separatist group KUK (Kurdish National Liberators). Conditions in the prison were so barbaric that some claim it encouraged the formation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Bulut says he endured immense suffering until his release in 1989, although he declines to go into detail. After being released from prison, he decided to help support his fellow Kurds in his own way: promoting Kurdish identity through the written word.

Selahattin Bulut’s bookshop [Samantha North/Al Jazeera]

One day in Istanbul, Bulut discovered people selling books from portable iron stalls in Freedom Square in the Bakirköy district. Feeling inspired, he began collecting all the Kurdish books he could find – from fiction and poetry, to dictionaries and academic texts – and rented a book stall to put his controversial wares on display.

When customers reached Bulut’s stall, he recalls the shock on their faces. Many were openly disdainful, and no one bought any books.

“Although I sold nothing, I was happy to show people books that had rarely seen daylight,” Bulut said. “I hoped to somehow make a difference for Kurds.” 

Tahir Abbas, a professor of sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul, said the Kurdish question has long had considerable consequences for issues of social cohesion and identity politics throughout Turkey. “At the time, Bulut’s book stall was a bold move politically and culturally,” Abbas told Al Jazeera.

Indeed, local police soon started watching him closely, Bulut said. Fellow stall holders refused to associate with him for fear of getting into trouble.

“Bulut would have been considered a ‘terrorist’, ‘separatist’, and simply a dangerous person,” noted Welat Zeydanlioglu, founder of the global Kurdish Studies Network.

In December of 1995, as Bulut sat outside bundled up against the winter chill, municipal officials arrived and told him to leave. They said his stall “didn’t fit in, and looked strange”, he recalled. He brought his books to a friend for storage; the friend, he says, was terrified of keeping this stash of dangerous material, as if it were a ticking time bomb.

After closing down his stall, Bulut wandered to Taksim Square seeking inspiration. In a small alley where he used to drink tea, Bulut discovered a hidden nook under the stairs – and two months later, his books were on display again. But soon, undercover police officers began visiting the bookshop. Each time, they tore down shelves, confiscated stock and marched customers outside in handcuffs. Bulut spent several days in prison almost every month.

Every evening I planned to close the shop in the morning. But as each day dawned, I felt compelled to open again.

by Selahattin Bulut, bookshop owner

“Legally, it was difficult to shut down a legitimate business,” Bulut said. “Confiscating my stock gave them reason to close the shop for a while. But I think the main reason was to create a sense of oppression, so that eventually I’d close of my own accord.

“I often felt like giving up during these harsh times,” he added. “Every evening I planned to close the shop in the morning. But as each day dawned, I felt compelled to open again.” 

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Years passed, and the political climate gradually became more favourable towards the Kurds. The current peace process began in March 2013, although it has been significantly derailed by Turkey’s perceived inaction following Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) advances in the Syrian city of Kobane, home to many Kurds.

Bulut says the renewed tensions have not caused any problems for his shop, but “life in Turkey is like being in traffic; you never know when a truck will hit you”.

Today, Medya Kitabevi has outgrown the nook under the stairs to become the most extensive Kurdish bookshop in Europe, selling approximately 5,000 books a year. Bulut’s once-forbidden bookshop has become famous.

“Several of my friends, who research and write on Kurdish issues, have been directly encouraged by the existence of Medya Kitabevi,” said Tas, the consultant for Oxford University. “It’s a gateway for them to get their work seen by the world.”

This is how Selahattin Bulut fought back.

Source: Al Jazeera