Bir Zamanlar Publishing prints important works addressing the problems of minority groups in Anatolia, mainly those of the Armenians.
In addition it also uncovers stories of the Armenian community that have been forgotten over time, shedding light on their lifestyle, their contributions to society, their education and other subjects of the past, at the beginning of the 20th century. In this regard, the works Bir Zamanlar publishes includes postcards, photographs and texts that date back to those years to give an idea of how minorities pursued their lives in a multicultural society. The images included in the books are for the most part taken from special archives and collections. Bir Zamanlar Publishing is run by a team of just two people, Osman Köker, the owner, and his assistant, Evran Güneş.
“At Bir Zamanlar there are only one-and-a-half men, actually. Most of the works published by our house do not make money because publishing is a very difficult industry. You distribute new books at the beginning of the year and receive the money from them the next November. I use the money we earn from those books to publish new books. By working for different publishing houses in various ways, from printing to preparing books on behalf of other people, I earn my living and keep this place going. I allocate half of my time to this kind of work, and that means only one-and-a-half men [really work for Bir Zamanlar],” Köker told Sunday’s Zaman.
The history surrounding the founding of Bir Zamanlar Publishing, which is located in a small flat at the Women’s Market in İstanbul’s Fatih district, is very interesting. In the early 1990s, Köker, who worked in journalism and magazine publishing, became interested in the history of İstanbul and discovered that minority groups had played a role in all of the city’s historic events. At that time, Köker was participating on the Minority Rights Monitoring Commission of the Human Rights Association (İHD). Afterwards, he began working for the History Association based in İstanbul, which brings together scholars in various disciplines of the social sciences to pursue scientific studies, though he was not a historian, and went on to become the editor of Toplumsal Tarih [Social History Magazine]. He left this job in the early 2000s and began editing books dealing with the history of minority groups in Turkey for various publishing houses. In the meantime, he started work on a book titled “Yüz Yıl Önce Türkiye’de Ermeniler” (Armenians in Turkey 100 Years Ago) because he wanted to write something that would work to counteract the effects of the narrow-minded nationalism and misinformation regarding minorities and non-Muslim ethnic groups in the official Turkish history books, which claimed that Turkey’s minority groups betrayed the Turkish nation during the Turkish War of Independence.
No publishing house would publish Köker’s book, so he founded his own
Seeking to learn about Armenian society in the early 1900s in Turkey, Köker sought to answer questions such as “In which districts and neighborhoods did Armenians live?” “Where were their schools and associations located?” and “Where did they publish their newspapers?” While he was considering enhancing the book by adding photographs, he discovered an extensive collection of photos owned by Orlando Carlo Calumeno, who is himself a collector. Calumeno’s mother is Armenian and his father is Italian; his family has lived in Turkey for centuries.
Köker also began looking for a publisher. “Many publishing houses were interested in my book, but none accepted it for publication, saying that printing a book of photographs would cost more than printing a [text] book. They also weren’t sure that it would draw the attention of readers. Established publishing houses were not interested in my book for political reasons. They asked me not to include the word ‘Armenian’ in the title of the book,” he said.
Köker, who had worked in every branch of publishing, in every role, from printer to editor, was aware that founding a publishing house was not a smart move without a good deal of capital to finance it. But because he had to find a way to publish his book, he began to wonder if it would be worth founding a publishing house just for the sake of publishing the book. In the end he decided that he would open a publishing house, publish his book and sell off all of the printed books within two years, and close the publishing house down. That was the idea with which he started Bir Zamanlar Publishing.
When Köker became interested in the notion of having a publishing house, at first he considered the work to be a project from which he could walk away at any time he wished, but he was also aware of the fact that there was no other publishing house focusing on Turkey’s multicultural history. He published “Yüz Yıl Önce Türkiye’de Ermeniler” and organized an exhibition to display the photo collection and postcards titled “Sireli Yeğpayris” (My Dear Brother) to publicize it. The title references the fact that many of the notes on the postcards included in the book begin with this phrase.
After publishing his own book, he published Kemal Yalçın’s “Seninle Güler Yüreğim” (My Heart is Happy with You), which was supposed to be published by Doğan Publishing in the early 2000s, but wasn’t, because Doğan felt that it could not take the risk of publishing it due to the opposition against Armenians at that time. No other publisher picked the book up in the following four or five years, but Köker thought it should be published. That title and others dealing with similar topics have kept his publishing house busy until now.
His exhibitions are displayed around the world
Bir Zamanlar Publishing has released 25 books in the past six years. Güneş joined Köker in 2005. Speaking about his beginning with the company, he said: “Actually, it was a reunion. We [Köker and Güneş] first met at the Historical Association. I was in charge of sales at that time. We met again at the opening of his exhibition [“My Dear Brother”] in 2005. I was in charge of the exhibition. He was hesitant about keeping this publishing house going. After I helped him make the decision to keep it alive, we began working together.” More than 7,000 people visited the exhibition, and six months later it was displayed at the TÜYAP Fair and Convention Center for the TÜYAP International İstanbul Book Fair. There was demand for an international tour, and the exhibition traveled to Germany, France, Switzerland, the UK and Armenia. Film slides of the photos and postcards were sent to the US to be shown in exhibitions.
Köker wanted to do more than simply publishing and has followed up his first work with other projects focusing on the lives of Armenian citizens in İzmir and Sivas, which were similar to his previous work involving both books and exhibitions. Another project dealt with African black slaves who were brought to Turkey in the time of the Ottomans and then released when slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century in the empire. Köker will continue working on the history of minority communities in various Turkish cities. In this respect, several books on the communities who lived in the eastern provinces of Kahramanmaraş and Gaziantep as well as the Arapkir district of Malatya will be published. “Eski Diyarbakır’da Ermeniler” (Armenians in Old Diyarbakır), which traces the roots of the Armenian community in Diyarbakır, was recently published.
Osman Köker: Many academics study Turkey’s Armenian community, but few can speak Armenian
“Academics in Turkey cannot speak Armenian. A person will write two or three books on Armenians without knowing the Armenian language. Can anyone write on the history of England without knowing the English language? Even I, at my age, have learned the letters of the Armenian alphabet. I can read proper names in Armenian. I can figure out what a passage means with a little research. That is all I have learned about this language on my own, as I was working on my books. It is easier to get help from a translator. But I often meet people who have written dissertations on Armenians without the help of a translator, without knowing Armenian and even without reading books on Armenia.” -- Osman Köker.
Güneş: A visitor discovered that his own primary school was once an Armenian school
“We witness very touching moments in the course of exhibitions. At our first exhibition a women saw her grandmother on one of the postcards and her eyes filled with tears. Another visitor saw a postcard his uncle had sent to his father, who was working at the American College in Harput in Elazığ province. One man who had moved from Tekirdağ to İstanbul saw his old house in Tekirdağ on one of the postcards.
Once another man approached us at the book fair and told us in disbelief that we made it seem as though Armenians had once lived everywhere in Turkey. Brother Osman [Köker] replied that Armenian communities had existed everywhere and asked him where he was from. He responded ‘Bafra,’ and kept arguing that Armenians had not lived in the Bafra district of Samsun. Brother Osman brought out an old photo of an Armenian primary school and church in Bafra, and the man was shocked to see that the photo was of his own primary school. He gazed at it for a while, and then he told us that he had gone to that primary school. He was not even aware that his own primary school had been an Armenian school.” -- Evran Güneş