Ayse Nur Zarakolu

Battling Bigotry with Books

Turkish publisher Ayse Nur Zarakolu in an undated photo (AFP).

For 25 years, Turkish publisher Ayse Nur Zarakolu went head-to-head with the forces of repression in her country.

It was a Sisyphean task—but Zarakolu did not give in. “The place to debate our history is in books, not in the courts,” was her goal. Not an easy undertaking: Over the years, her publishing house, Belge (The Document), repeatedly inspired official wrath, because Zarakolu and her husband, Ragip, published books dealing with subjects and taboos better left untouched in Turkey: the Kurds’ plight, Turkey’s leftist movement, and the Armenian genocide.

Following the military coup in 1980, Zarakolu was arrested more than 30 times and imprisoned four times for a total of 15 months. In fact, she was the first person imprisoned under martial law intended to gag Turkey’s intellectuals and political dissidents with a flurry of state-sponsored harassments, backed by an avalanche of 300 laws.

Her life was repeatedly threatened, she was fined, and her passport was confiscated (which prevented her from attending the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1998 to pick up an award). Her publishing company was firebombed, her books banned. After each ordeal she rebounded and resumed printing books—until cancer struck: Zarakolu died in January at the age of 55.

“Like writers, publishers are preparing their suitcases—not for new studies and works, but for prison,” she wrote in 1993 after yet another arrest. “Thought has been deemed a crime. Indeed, a ‘terrorist crime.’ ”

Zarakolu—the first Turkish woman to direct a book-publishing company—knew how to work in challenging conditions; she even managed to run her company from a prison cell. She worked for Turkey’s Human Rights Association and prepared reports about the country’s notorious prison conditions. She received numerous prestigious humanitarian and freedom-of-thought awards, and she was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. The Internet publication Kurdish Media News praised her in an obituary as “a courageous fighter [and] brave defender of human rights.” “We lost an honorable woman,” wrote Istanbul’s Turkish Daily News, “a self-confident person who gave importance to friendships and who loved people. A person who kept her word. A real human...a brave, gentle woman behind her tough appearance.”

Aydin Engin wrote in her farewell in Istanbul’s Cumhuriyet: “She smiled like a rabbit [“rabbit” is a Turkish metaphor for a very competent person] when she went to jail, when she was released, when she learned that she was one of the 50 bravest women in the world. I did not see her inside the coffin—but I am sure she is smiling like a rabbit.”