More than 30 minority languages are spoken in Turkey, and there used to be a flourishing sector of specialist publishing houses. Now, however, a combination of rising paper prices, diminishing public interest and a lack of state support is putting the future of this industry in doubt.
The economic crisis that hit Turkey last summer affected many businesses that depend on import, including publishing houses. Paper produced in Turkey supplies only three per cent of the country’s needs, which means that almost all the material for books and newspapers is imported, as well as ink and glue. In 2018, the cost of paper increased by 80 per cent, leaving the industry very vulnerable.
Publishing houses specialising in minority languages, which struggled to stay afloat even before the price hikes, are finding it particularly hard to survive.
Some observers claim that the Turkish state should do more to protect the country’s multi-ethnic heritage by supporting publications in minority languages. Others say that not even state intervention can change the fact that the whole publishing industry is on a downslope caused by the lack of interest of younger generations in print media.
Greek, Armenian and Kurdish are the mostly widely spoken minority languages in Turkey, and proponents say they form an integral part of the national character.
“Keeping the Armenian and other minority languages alive through regular publications is important because they are all part of Turkey’s culture,” said Sevan, 43, who teaches Armenian language at Kadir Has University and the Hrant Dink Foundation.
He is one of 60,000 Armenians who live in Turkey today, mostly in Istanbul, and said that in some respects the community was flourishing.
“There are 16 or 17 Armenian schools in Istanbul that provide education in the Armenian language. However, adults find it difficult to spark the young generation’s interest in this language,” he said. “There are no popular writers in Turkey who can write in Armenian and reach children and adolescents, and as a result, the new generations of Armenians are not interested in their mother tongue. They are disengaged from their culture.”
Several daily Armenian-language newspapers are available as well as weekly and monthly publications, such as Jamanak, Marmara, Agos’s Armenian annex, and Surp Pirgic magazine. Aras Publishing, Jamanak and Marmara also produce books in Armenian.
Aras Publishing recently increased their output from seven to eight per year to between 24 and 26. However they don’t expect this positive trend to continue, due to the financial crisis.
Its editor-in-chief, Rober Koptas, said that their mission was “not to make money, but to promote Armenian culture”.
Aras Publishing, in business for 25 years, supplies Armenian schools with books and is well-respected in literary circles, recently voted publishing house of the year by the Istanbul-based Dünya Newspaper.
Koptas said that the ministry of culture bought books from minority publishers twice a year, which provided some relief.
“We sell these books to the ministry with 45 per cent discount, but the fact that they buy books in bulk for state-owned libraries helps small-scale publishing houses like us,” Koptas said.
He explained that Press Ad Agency makes small financial contributions to newspapers for minorities every year, but publishing houses do not receive that kind of aid.
In recent years Aras has started to apply for funding usually reserved for NGOs.
“We have received support from the Gülbengyan Foundation in Lisbon for a series of seven books. We are now planning to apply for the funding that will enable us to publish a series of 11 comics. So, we have received some funding, but not yet from Turkey,” Koptaş said.
Nostalji Book Cafe, located in the Kurtuluş district of Istanbul, sells books in Armenian and Greek. Its owner Süha Hamamcı said that he also struggled to make ends meet, bemoaning the lack of state support.
In February this year, the Turkish government lowered VAT for books to zero, seen as a positive move by most publishers. But Hamamcı said that could not help solve all publishers’ problems, especially those specializing in minority languages who already have a limited number of customers.
“There is no state policy on supporting minority bookstores, there has never been one,” he said. “And without substantial and strategic support, we will not be able to survive in this market.”
The ministry of culture did not respond to requests for comment.
Preserving language means preserving culture
Turkey is home to between 18,000 and 21,000 Jews of Sephardic origin, who – in addition to Turkish – also speak Ladino (Judeo-Espanyol).
Raşel, a 38-year-old from Istanbul, said that although he didn’t learn Hebrew when he was younger – a decision he now he regrets –there were plenty of opportunities these days for those in Turkey who want to learn the language.
“This language is taught in Jewish schools starting from nursery, and courses are offered to adults as well. I can say that Hebrew is now appreciated more than before,” he said.
Raşel added that to keep minority languages in Turkey alive, it is necessary to have access to various publications and newspapers in those languages, printed locally. Şalom (Shalom) is the only newspaper serving the Jewish community in Turkey, published once a week. It focuses on news relevant to the Jewish community, domestic and international affairs, and Jewish culture and traditions.
Raşel added that, while it would be good to have more Hebrew publications in Turkey, it would be “unrealistic to expect non-community publishers to invest money in this endeavour, when there isn’t sufficient demand”.
He himself understands only a few words of Ladino.
“Our parents always spoke Turkish at home and used Ladino only when they discussed something that they didn’t want the children to understand,” he explained.
Gözlem Book, which publishes both in Turkish and Ladino, is facing serious problems due to high prices of imported paper and ink. One employee, Gila Erbeş, said that Gözlem Book had been unable to take part in book fairs for the last few years.
“Our aim is to promote Sephardic culture, which is why we want to participate in these fairs. But now we can’t do it because the costs are too high,” she said.
Erbeş added that another problem for all publishers specialising in minority languages was that their readers were mostly middle-aged or elderly, since young people showed very little interest.
“Young people hardly read anything in print, including publications written in the language of their ancestors, and prefer digital media instead. As a result, minority languages are slowly disappearing from Turkey,” Erbeş explained.
She said that Turkey’s ministry of culture had no particular policy with regard to minority-language publishers and that Gözlem Book had received no support.
“Essentially, regulations and incentives for publishers are inadequate, and this applies to all publishers,” she said.
Istos, which releases books in Turkish and Greek, also sees its role as promoting minority culture.
“We are a publishing house that keeps the Greek language and culture alive, but we also tell the stories of Istanbul. We want to preserve the city’s multicultural flair,” said Seçkin Erdi, one of its founders and editors.
“There are six new books waiting to be published this year, and at least eight new editions. As we don’t have enough money, we cannot print them all at once, but gradually,” Erdi explained.
Despite the financial problems, Istos is determined to keep publishing books in Greek.
“They are going to be printed, whether we can sell them or not,” Erdi said. “People who don’t speak Greek are also buying these books as a way of supporting Greek culture in Istanbul.”
Erdi also said that the ministry of culture’s purchases helped Istos keep its head above water.
“These purchases are very important because they provide us with cash flow that we badly need,” he explained. “At the same time, it makes us very happy that İstos’s books will be available in state libraries around the country that we normally couldn’t reach.”
More recently-arrived minority communities also see the promotion of their own language as an important means of maintaining their cultural identity.
For the past eight years, Syrian graphic designer Samer el Kadri has run the Pages Bookstore in Istanbul with his wife. They sell titles in English, Turkish and Arabic to mostly young refugees from Arab countries.
According to the official data from the Turkish authorities, there are more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which makes them one of the largest minority groups in the country. Around half a million of them live in Istanbul.
El Kadri said that books in Arabic were an indispensable resource for the Syrian community.
“While it is important for refugees to integrate into Turkish society, they should also maintain their own language and culture. They should not forget the country that they have left behind,” he said.
But without government action, some in the industry still fear for their future. Selahattin Bulut, the owner of the Medya Bookstore which sells books on Kurdish and other minorities, said that while interest currently existed, it was not enough to support the costs inherent in publishing and selling material of niche interest.
“Governments are responding to the society’s needs. If there is a consciousness and sensitivity towards protection of minority languages, then the society will demand action from the government,” he said. “Otherwise, these languages will disappear.”