What Does Survive? The Roar of the Lion

What Does Survive? The Roar of the Lion

An evening with a journalist-in-exile at the Raindrop Turkish House


On March 4, 2016, Abdülhamit Bilici lost his position of 25 years as Editor in Chief of Zaman, the largest newspaper in Turkey. Ten days later, with an overnight bag in hand and a passport that might just as easily have been already revoked, he boarded a plane out of Istanbul, knowing full well he might not ever be able to return.

On March 3, 2017, I had the flu and a fever of 101. I also had tickets to a lecture at the Raindrop Turkish House in Albuquerque. The presenter I wanted to hear was a journalist in exile from Turkey. His name was Abdülhamit Bilici. And so at 4 p.m., against all odds and with complete disregard for the health and safety of others, I hoisted myself out of bed and into the shower. I knew I might never have the opportunity to meet this journalist again.

Abdulhamit Bilici

Abdülhamit Bilici

Mr. Bilici was distinguished and soft-spoken. His accent was strong, but he was articulate in his speech. I hung on every word because my friends are gone from Turkey now and there are few avenues to the truth. The newspapers are gone; the reporters are gone; the intellectuals are gone, the teachers, the professors, the academics are gone; the judges are gone. They are all in jail or have fled the country. What could we do? Mr. Bilici asked. We were weak. Against the police, we could do nothing. We were weak. But all I could see was his strength.

Mr. Bilici’s story is tragic and yet, he is fortunate. He is here in the United States with his family. He is luckier than his friends and colleagues. He is not sitting in jail.  He got out while he could, but now, he cannot go back. Sit back for even one moment and think of what that means. Just think if you would have to leave everything behind and run for your life. And your crime would have been what? Managing a newspaper that printed articles and columns that President Erdoğan didn’t like. When I think about the comments I’ve made about President Trump, I’m horrified. If I lived in Turkey, I would be in jail.  And my only worry that evening, listening to Mr. Bilici, was that I had the flu. And I had almost not attended this lecture because of it.

I knew that I would go home safely that night to my comfortable house in Placitas, in spite of the fact that I had said many negative things about my government. I had no fear of losing my home or my country. And why? We have freedom of speech here. This is not something to be taken lightly.  I felt extremely saddened for Mr. Billici and for Turkey. In the course of 24 hours, his life had forever changed. In the course of a few years, so had Turkey’s.

My father ran from persecution in Russia as a young boy. He finally became an American citizen in his early 30s. He could not go back to Russia for many years. By the time my mother pushed him into traveling there when Russia opened their doors to American tourists again, it was far too late to even look for any of his family. They had all perished in the war. Going back was not a good experience for him.  There were too many memories attached.

So I sat there listening to Mr. Bilici, wondering as I have done so many times in my life, what it would feel like to have to run from your home and your community, from everything you had built, to run in fear, and to start all over again in the latter years of your life?

Some years ago, maybe ten, I met a Colombian psychiatrist who had fled from his country. His home had been taken over by the rebels or the government, no one really knew his story, and he had escaped with his wife and son. The day I met him, it was at a Christmas party thrown by friends who had also just met him. They invited him in order to welcome him into our community. He was, of course, highly educated and well trained in his profession. But he could not find work. I think it was maybe two years later that we all attended his memorial service. Starting over was too much for him. I thought about him again while Mr. Bilici was speaking. And I thought of my grandfather, my father’s father. He was never able to adapt, to start over or to learn a new language. He died of tuberculosis in his 40s, still a young man.

We are so fortunate and we have so much. I would not be here today if my father hadn’t gotten into a hay wagon with his mother and little brother in the middle of the might and made their long journey. Even as I write these words, I cannot begin to imagine how frightening and difficult it was. Many sacrifices were made in order for me to be able to live the good life that I have.

I am grateful that Mr. Bilici was able to escape from the nightmare of jail and prosecution, from possible torture and death. And I am pleased that he was able to come to my country and live to tell his story to us. I don’t know if I would have his courage, but I am glad to be able to welcome him here. We are still able to do that. I’m proud that I live in a place that can provide refuge, the same refuge that my father found here. But now I am afraid that I, all of us, might lose that privilege. We might take for granted what has become so common and so accepted in our lives.

When I thanked Mr. Bilici for his moving talk, I asked him if there was anything I might do. He smiled and said, “But you have done it. You’ve written a novel about my country.” This was a thoughtful thing for him to say, but is that enough? What is enough?

Well, I am writing another novel about his country with a third in mind. This is what I know how to do. This is something I can do. Perhaps we all have to think about what it is we can do. And even if you feel there is absolutely nothing you can do, there is always something. There is always something, as long as the lion can roar.




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