Ali Kemal: Martyred Journalist and Iconic Traitor

By Kaya GençSeptember 3, 2013

Ali Kemal: Martyred Journalist and Iconic Traitor
ON NOVEMBER 6, 1922, Ali Kemal, the 55-year-old journalist, novelist, politician, and great-grandfather of London’s mayor Boris Johnson, was lynched in Turkey. Earlier in the day he had taken a tram to the barber’s shop for a shave, unaware that two police officers, with orders to bring him to an Independence Tribunal in Ankara, were following him. Although Kemal briefly managed to escape from his captors, he was swiftly arrested, put into a ferry, and shipped to a neighboring city. There, General Nureddin Pasha, an influential soldier who wanted to make an impression on revolutionary leaders, waited for him. Meanwhile a crowd had gathered outside general’s offices. There are various accounts of what happened next. According to The New York Times, “an angry mob of women pounced on Ali Kemal, attacking him with knives, stones, clubs, tearing at his clothing and slashing at his body and head with cutlasses.” Others argued that Kemal met his end at the hands of young Turkish soldiers who used hammers to crush his skull. Kemal’s body was hung from a pole near a train station so that it could be seen by İsmet İnönü, one of the masterminds of the Turkish revolution. İnönü noticed that a placard was placed around the lynched man’s neck that intentionally misspelled his name as “Artun Kemal” implying that he was Armenian and not Muslim. Contrary to Nureddin Pasha’s expectations, however, İnönü was appalled by this show of force. “This is not acceptable,” he reportedly said after seeing Kemal’s body. “One dies in the battlefield or is executed by a court of law. This is not an acceptable way to die.”

Nevertheless, Kemal has ever since served as Turkey’s iconic “traitor.” An opponent of the nationalists after the Great War, in favor of Turkey becoming a British Protectorate, he doubted that a nation-state could be built that would reflect the will of Turkish people. His short temper also served to further sink his reputation. His name became synonymous with antidemocratic demagoguery. He was unearthed again in 1990s when the country’s ascension to the European Union was being discussed — those opposed to membership christened EU sympathizers as “modern Ali Kemals.” Sovereignty was the centerpiece of these discussions. According to critics of the ascension process, refusal of Turkish sovereignty and support for political rule from Brussels were partly inspired by the ideas of Ali Kemal. He continued to be an image of betrayal and sedition.

But in 2004, Turkey’s Journalism Association listed Ali Kemal among “martyred” journalists of the republic. The association’s list was quite long and included journalists with very different political stances. This seemed to herald a change in Kemal’s reputation. Almost eight decades after his death, he was no longer seen only in relation to his unpopular political stance, but as a journalist, in fact, as one of the most accomplished journalists of his time. Even the harshest critics of the EU process wrote sympathetic pieces. Although Kemal’s politics were regrettable, they argued, the conditions that surrounded his death had been atrocious, an affront to the very democratic values he was held to oppose.

This led to a reappraisal of Kemal’s role in Turkish history. Was he a westernizer, like the revolutionaries, or was he an enemy of westernization? He had visited Paris and Geneva in 1886, when he was 19, and when he got back home he set up a student union whose radical political program got him into trouble. He was jailed and exiled to Aleppo (where he penned two novels: İki Hemşire [Two Nurses] and Çölde Bir Sergüzeşt [An Escapade to the Desert]), then sent to Paris. There he spent time with the revolutionary Young Turks from whom he was later alienated. He also became a friend of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the emperor and caliph of the Ottoman Empire. His close relations with the imperial elite angered his old friends. Kemal published a newspaper, Peyam, which was later outlawed by revolutionaries because of its opposition to the popular uprising against the British.

After the Great War, thanks to his anti-revolutionary stance, Kemal served as education secretary and then as secretary of state in the postwar government. He personally went after the Turkish revolutionary leaders and helped establish The Association of the Friends of England in Turkey alongside Robert Frew, a British spy living in the country. After the revolutionaries got into power Kemal returned to Dar-ül Fünun (later Istanbul University) where his pupils complained of his irreverence towards religious and nationalist values. This caused a furor, and he lost his academic post and returned to journalism, becoming an open critic of the revolutionaries. In his career Kemal penned more than a thousand articles; he remains among the most famous contrarians in the history of the Turkish press.

Fearing revenge from revolutionaries Kemal escaped to France in 1909 and then moved to England where he lived in Bournemouth, a coastal resort town in Dorset. He met and proposed to Winifred Brun, Boris Johnson’s great-grandmother, during his days in London, and they had three children, their son Boris Johnson’s grandfather. In the years following Kemal’s death, Zeki Kuneralp, his son from a second marriage, showed interest in politics. İnönü, who now served as Turkey’s president, took the boy under his wing, providing him with a career in the foreign office. Quickly rising in the ranks, Kuneralp became a top diplomat and worked as Turkey’s ambassador in London and undersecretary in foreign office. Kuneralp, whose great-grandfather was known to criticize the killings of Armenians in 1915, lost his wife after ASALA (the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) assassinated her in Madrid.

Kuneralp died in 1998, but his family is still active in Turkish politics. A few years ago The Daily Mail reported how “the Queen was introduced to an urbane Turkish diplomat at a garden party in the grounds of the British Embassy in Ankara.” This was Zeki’s son Selim Kuneralp, who proudly introduced himself to the Queen as a cousin of Boris Johnson. Johnson, of course, was a journalist himself, editor of The Spectator before entering Parliament and then standing for mayor of London.

So what exactly is Kemal’s legacy today? According to Hasan Bülent Kahraman, who served as Ertegün Professor in Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies department and is now the vice president at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, Kemal’s name had become part of revisionist and restorationist ventures in historiography. “Ali Kemal was a journalist, not a dissident,” he said:

He liked power. There was an aspect of him that enjoyed power immensely. His private life influenced his public stance. He was married to an English woman and was the most excessive example of Turkey’s westernizing intellectuals. In this foreigner role it was impossible for Kemal to reconcile with the revolutionary movement of Anatolia. He didn’t have a systematic political agenda. He was not an Edmund Burke figure. Had he lived longer Kemal would be embarrassed by his opposition to the revolutionary movement. After all, his politics were in line with republicans, as he shared their passion for westernization.

According to Kahraman, had Kemal managed to escape from the two policemen who entered the barbershop on that fateful November day, he would probably be exiled to Europe and live there until 1939, the year in which Turkish parliament issued political amnesty to those whose actions were deemed treasonous. Kemal’s city of exile might have been London, one of his favorite cities, which many decades later would be run by his own great-grandson.


Kaya Genç is a novelist, essayist, and doctoral candidate from Istanbul.

LARB Contributor

Kaya Genç is the author of three books from Bloomsbury Publishing: The Lion and the Nightingale (2019), Under the Shadow (2016), and An Istanbul Anthology (2015). He has contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement, and essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The New Republic, Time, Newsweek, and the London Review of Books. The Atlantic picked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s “best works of journalism in 2014” list. A critic for Artforum and Art in America, and a contributing editor at Index on Censorship, Kaya gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and appeared live on flagship programs including the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week. He has been a speaker at Edinburgh, Jaipur, and Ways with Words book festivals, and holds a PhD in English literature. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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