History is a subject important to us all, whether it’s personal or national. For Selin Barlas it’s both. In addition to her scholarly work she voices Bemaddy children’s stories for iPad, and every Saturday night with Murat Bardakçi and Erhan Afyoncu, c0-hosts Haber Türk’s Tarihin Arka Odasi (History’s Back Room). Like Istanbul, Selin is a woman with a Western and Eastern sides, her father is Turkish and her mother is American. When it comes to Istanbul, Turkey and history in general, there’s no other place to be.
I got a chance to sit down with her recently and discuss her work, and understand why history is so personal and so passionate a subject for her.
How did you come to be a co-host of Tarihin Arka Odasi?
SELIN BARLAS: My predecessor and friend, Pelin Batu, decided to leave the show and suggested me to Murat Bardakçi. Like her I also went to Bogaziçi which was important to him.
Is the show political?
It’s a very democratic show, we speak about historical subjects that have never been discussed before.
Do you think Turks have a problem with their history?
That’s a dangerous question … the Republic did what it had to do to construct the nation, without those measures it would have been impossible. They did the right thing at the right time. I wish Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) had lived ten more years, though, to complete his work. However, over the last 30 years, they should have opened the archives, because every struggle we’ve faced is dealt with in them.
The government. History is either glorified or denied, perhaps because Mediterranean culture views things with either love or hate.
What should Turks learn more about from their history?
We only think of our history as Ottoman, be we need to think of our Central Asian history too.
What’s your feeling about Orientalism and Occidentalism in history?
I think both sides are at fault. Westerners have wanted to romanticize and mystify Middle Eastern history, and Middle Easterners have done a terrible job of representing their own history and culture. Turkey is a little schizophrenic with its history. In the 1920s and 1930s they went completely Westernized, and now we’re pointing too far towards the East. How did we suddenly become spokespeople for Arab nations?
Who are your historic heroes?
My grandfather, Cemil Sait Barlas, for one. He was a journalist, newspaper publisher and Member of Parliament. Adnan Menderes tried to have him hanged when he and other journalists tried to expose election-rigging. The government building ‘mysteriously’ burned down and he and 160 all the journalists were thrown in jail, accused of a coup attempt. He waited 51 days before being released from the shadow of the hangman’s noose. That’s why what’s happening today is nothing new. In this country freedom of the press has never existed. Right now I’m working on a book about him.
Aysenur Arslan is also one of my present day heroes because she fights for freedom of the press with such dignity and respect, without crudeness or violence. She fights with elegance.
And last, but not least, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is my favorite hero. Thanks to him we have the life we lead today, which people too often take for granted and don’t respect enough.
Would you ever live anywhere else?
No. Istanbul is like no other place. She was a glorious empress back around 220 AD and again in 1453, those were her crowning days. Today she’s beaten and molested but still manages to glow. That’s how beautiful she is.
Tarihin Arka Odasi airs every Saturday night at 11:15 on Haber Türk.