Once a Syrian, always a Syrian

Maria Margaronis

  • Blood-Dark Track: A Family History by Joseph O'Neill
    Granta, 338 pp, £16.99, February 2001, ISBN 1 86207 288 4

Joseph O’Neill’s grandfathers, one Irish, the other Turkish, were both imprisoned without trial during World War Two. Jim O’Neill was arrested in 1940, when Eamon de Valera’s Government, fearful that IRA activities might compromise Eire’s neutrality, rounded up all known IRA men. He was held for four years at the Curragh internment camp in County Kildare. Joseph Dakak was seized by the British at the Syrian border in April 1942 as he travelled home by train from a lemon-buying venture in Palestine, and detained for more than three years in a series of British and French concentration camps on (undeclared) suspicion of being an Axis spy. In both families a tense silence surrounded these episodes. Sensing that his grandfathers must have done something wrong, O’Neill set out to learn what had happened to them; in the process he learned a great deal more than that. His interest, he explains, is not political; and what he knew of most historical subjects when he began this book could, he says, ‘be written out on a luggage tag’. But (like Cary Grant, perhaps, in North by Northwest) he found himself irresistibly drawn in.

His thoroughness and energy are phenomenal. He visits every place important to his grandfathers in Ireland, Turkey and the Middle East, tracks down every relevant surviving functionary of the British imperium, combs through letters, journals, testimonies, newspaper cuttings and censored documents in the Public Record Office. He flies to Israel with the memory of the 171 bus blown up at the Aldwych by an IRA bomb fresh in his mind; questions hotel doormen and Yitzhak Shamir; boards the Taurus Express at 4 a.m. to visit Dakak’s birthplace at Iskenderun. The drifts of detail and description can seem overwhelming. O’Neill is searching not just for the facts but for a visceral understanding of the worlds in which his grandfathers’ choices made sense. A barrister as well as a novelist, he draws on every available skill: ferreting out information; sketching characters; interrogating motives; pushing beyond his own facility at phrase-making (‘clouds white as cricketers’, the moon ‘like a button on a blazer’) to find plain words for what he has learned. As in any family history, the story at the heart of Blood-Dark Track is the writer’s own, the drama of his struggle to open a path from the present to the past and to pin down the connections between private lives and public events.

Jim O’Neill’s story is rooted in the landscape of West Cork, with its rivers winding through tunnels of leaves and its Big Houses hidden by high stone walls. Here is the bend in the Bandon where he poached salmon to pay for his sons’ confirmation suits; here is the copse where guns and ammunition were stashed by Republican fighters; here is the monument to the Kilmichael ambush, where Tom Barry’s IRA Cork No. 3 Brigade killed 18 British auxiliaries in November 1920. The world of Jim O’Neill and his wife Eileen was shaped by the sense of being permanently at war. This was felt at every level, from the murder of two first cousins and the memory of the Black and Tans hammering on the door to the misery of living in grey corporation housing during Jim’s internment. Their uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters were IRA activists, many of them high up in the organisation; Eileen’s brother Jack Lynch was the commanding officer who orchestrated the bombing campaign in England in 1939 which killed six civilians and seriously injured 55.

Cheated of his farm inheritance by a series of blunders and family quarrels, Jim O’Neill earned a living as a lorry driver for the Cork Corporation. He was hard-working, authoritarian, tough on his eight children. By the mid-1930s he was an IRA company commander and training officer, chosen to participate in the first raid against a British military target since 1921 (which was, to his lifelong regret, aborted). When Eileen wonders aloud what her husband might have done with education and opportunities, her grandson speculates whether Jim O’Neill’s internment at the Curragh, and even his political convictions, might have been manifestations of an unnamed ‘deeper captivity’:

Poverty was a cage of sorts, certainly; but it was not exclusive to Jim and did not affect him in his last years; and it didn’t fully account for an image of my grandfather that had crept into my mind and would not go away, that of a man who gripped life’s every stick and pole with the white-knuckled rage of a man gripping the bars of a cell.

Joseph O’Neill is drawn to his Irish family – to their warmth, their liveliness, their risk-taking and moral certainty. His love and admiration for his grandmother are obvious. He envies the sense of belonging his Uncle Brendan finds in the Bogside when they drive together to the North, and thrills to the feeling of ‘kindredness and racination’ that sweeps through him when his grandmother describes his participation as a child in the march to dedicate the Kilmichael monument:

This was something other than a simple wave of pleasure set off by an encounter with one’s cultural origins; it was, rather, an intense recognition – or what felt like recognition – of a primitive affiliation to a political and historical community, an affiliation so pure and overwhelming that for an instant it felt as though I had stumbled upon a solution to a riddle.

But O’Neill is also an outsider, condemned to scepticism about such volkish epiphanies. As his investigation uncovers uncomfortable facts about his family, he is forced to confront his own views on the moral status of violence committed in a just cause – subtly aided by his grandmother, who leads him to truths she must have known would rock the family narrative of heroism.

Having arrived, as a Cambridge law student, at the pen-and-ink position that the IRA is not justified in killing people because there is no evidence that violence will help bring about a united, non-sectarian Ireland, O’Neill at first finds himself drawn into his relatives’ view of the struggle by their generosity and devotion to good works – in other words, though he does not put it that way, by his love for them: ‘If their ethical intuitions were so accurate in civilian life, who was to say they had not got it right in relation to the question of political violence in Ireland?’ He tries, for a while, to reconcile heart and head through an ends-and-means formula offered him by Yitzhak Shamir, who tells him of the right-wing Zionists’ interest in the IRA (‘My pseudonym in the underground was Michael, you know, after Michael Collins’): ‘A man who goes forth to take the life of another whom he does not know must believe one thing and one thing only – that by his act he will change the course of history.’ The signing of the Good Friday Agreement seems to support the application of this rubric to the IRA, confirming the efficacy of Republican violence while marking the end of its justifiable continuation. But the limitations of a position that can sanction, say, the massacre of non-combatants as a form of political complaint are brought home to him in a series of discoveries which begin with a smoking gun.

The weapon in question, a Colt .45 wrapped in a towel and dropped in his lap by his Uncle Brendan, was used in the (still unsolved) murder in 1936 of Admiral Somerville, a retired Irish Protestant, and a man who had earned the respect of Catholics and Protestants alike. The murder jump-started a new IRA campaign; it was committed, according to Joseph O’Neill’s family, by a great-uncle and great-aunt of his, acting with an accomplice. It takes O’Neill some time to understand why Somerville was shot: to accept that, in spite of the principles of toleration enshrined in the Irish Proclamation of Independence, Republicans have also been guilty of killing people just because of their religion. He is helped in this process of disillusionment by reading an account of a massacre absent from Republican versions of Irish history: the killing of ten Protestant civilians in the Bandon valley in 1922, some of them in misplaced revenge for the murder of his grandfather’s first cousins. But it is the example of his other grandfather, Joseph Dakak, that prompts O’Neill to consider the broader significance of these Protestant deaths.

Like Admiral Somerville, Dakak was a member of a wealthy, ascendant minority in a nationalist culture – a ‘Syrian’ Catholic in Kemalist Turkey. Not that the Dakaks considered themselves anything but Turks. It was their kin, along with the Greeks, who had built the little port town of Mersin, with its Neoclassical villas and walled orange groves. In the newly post-Ottoman Turkey of the 1920s they enjoyed a comfortable round of card games and cocktail parties, accompanied by Turkish coffee, Scotch, Greek pastries and English cigarettes. A Levantine French of untranslatable social nuance was spoken: désargenté, grande bourgeoisie, des gens bien, la classe soyeuse. (My own grandmother, a Greek from Istanbul, considered French to be indispensable to civilised intercourse.) Two other words favoured by this class, débrouillard and coureur, meaning, roughly, ‘someone who gets the best of any situation’ and ‘a skirt-chaser’, were applied by his relatives to Dakak himself, the owner of the one horse in this one-horse town, as well as the first fridge, the first automatic car (a 1956 Pontiac), the first central-heating system, the first proper cinema and the best hotel, the Toros, patronised by Julian Huxley and Freya Stark.

The Dakak family’s memories of Joseph are full of superlatives. He spoke seven languages, bathed three times a day and read six newspapers, morning and evening editions. He was a connoisseur of water and of watermelons, capable of slicing open ten before he found one to his liking. Careful, meticulous, observant of all social niceties, he was a man of substance, one of Mersin’s great and good. How could such a man fall so spectacularly foul of the British as to be arrested and held for years without trial or any due process?

In his efforts to answer this question, O’Neill first takes the British at their word and looks into his grandfather’s connections with the Germans. In his youth, Joseph Dakak had been employed as a labourer on the Berlin-Byzantium-Baghdad railway, built by the Germans as part of their effort to move in on the dying Ottoman Empire. Later, he acted as an agent for German companies building sewer systems around Mersin. The Toros Hotel was frequented by all kinds of foreigners, including, in 1939 or 1940, Franz von Papen, who had been Hitler’s Vice-Chancellor and special envoy to Austria, and was at this point Ambassador to Turkey. At a time when the Allies were making huge efforts to keep Turkey out of the war, Dakak chatted in German with his charming guest, lent him his Arabian thoroughbred and sent him off on a jaunt along the strategically sensitive Mersin coast. Informer, or innocent ‘Levantine’ (in O’Neill’s mordant gloss, ‘any half or pseudo-European . . . who formed part of the transnational commercial scum that floated on the clear sea of pure Turks and Arabs’) transfixed by his image of himself as a serious man of the world?

O’Neill finds no further indications that his grandfather was a spy. He does, though, find detailed evidence of British cruelty, incompetence and disregard for the rights of inconsequential natives and ‘Levantine traders’. Dakak left a long testimonial about his experiences in detention which, even allowing for his considerable paranoia, describes a programme of slow physical and mental torture. Shifted from place to place, deprived of legal representation and outside contact, maddened by stage-whispered descriptions of his impending death and periodically poisoned, Dakak attempted suicide several times. This hospitality was extended by the British on the basis of hearsay and malicious gossip, recycled through His Majesty’s consulates in Mersin, Ankara, Beirut and Istanbul, gathering credibility like a rolling stone. When Norman Mayers, Consul at Mersin from 1941 to 1943, tried to raise questions about Dakak’s imprisonment, his superiors slapped him smartly on the wrist:

I can say at once that, in normal times, we should have complete sympathy with the case which you put up. These times are, however, anything but normal and, whether we like it or not, we have to face the fact that principles which are perfectly good in peacetime have to be scrapped or weakened under the exigencies of war . . . It is neither practicable nor desirable in matters of this kind, under war conditions, to have the whole story brought out.

O’Neill is very forgiving of his grandfather’s captors, pointing out that they were fighting a just war and that in such circumstances ‘the moral sense may only with difficulty be tuned to the lot of any particular individual, which can seem of minuscule significance.’ What magnetically draws his attention is the unfamiliar term – ‘Syrians’ – by which British officials and documents distinguish his family’s community from the Turks. From Sir Denis Wright, Mayers’s successor in Mersin, O’Neill learns that contrary to his family’s self-presentation as pillars of Turkish society, the Syrians were in fact ‘disliked, mistrusted and envied by the Turks because of their origin, their religion and their wealth . . . the flashiness of their behaviour and their group instinct’. The revelation that his family were members of an oppressed minority sends him (perhaps belatedly) scurrying to the history books, where he takes in, for the first time, the extent of the religious and ethnic diversity that characterised what is now southern Turkey at the turn of the last century. It is as if, after staring all his life at a portrait of his family posed in an empty ballroom, he suddenly sees the cast of thousands dancing around them, in a bewildering dazzle of national costumes.

Among those thousands were, of course, the Armenians, cynically encouraged in their national ambitions by the powers that rushed to fill the void left by the waning sultans and betrayed into the hands of the Young Turks. Joseph Dakak travelled the same route as thousands of Armenian deportees on his way to Aleppo for his last year of school in 1915 and to Belemedik to work on the Baghdad railway in 1916. Yet he and his family never spoke of those forced marches, or of the Armenian massacres of 1909 and 1915, or of the exodus of 1921. In order to stay on and succeed in Turkey after 1922 as a member of a distrusted minority, Dakak committed himself to ‘the politics of good citizenship – of ingratiation and submission and compliance’ – collusion, in other words. So deeply had he internalised this imperative that every Armenian mentioned in his account of his internment is portrayed as shifty, suspicious or menacing – a bad Levantine.

So O’Neill discovers that though his grandfather was almost certainly innocent of the obvious charge – spying for the Germans – he was guilty of vaguer crimes of omission. Not that it helped him much with the Turkish authorities, who were almost certainly implicated in his arrest. Once a Syrian, always a Syrian. Dakak’s cosmopolitan persona – that of a man with no strong national allegiance, whose boat can be lifted by any wave, who can head off across the Middle East in wartime for a good deal on lemons and play cards with Palestinian activists without arousing suspicion – was so much part of him that he could not see it for the liability it was.

There is a virtue in learning history through the stories of individuals, as Joseph O’Neill did in writing this book. The big picture may be flawed or partial, but you see very clearly how large events bear on people’s lives. In many ways O’Neill’s grandfathers appear as opposites: the nationalist and the cosmopolitan, the activist and the egotist, one blown down a narrow path by a fierce political wind, the other derailed by his determination to remain outside the fray. ‘They stand,’ he writes, ‘as paradigms of political and moral vision of different sorts, the blind eye and the dazzled eye, each with its own compensations and each with its own price.’ But what he gradually comes to understand is that both lives were fundamentally shaped by the same historical moment. Though it seems on the face of it absurd to compare the Irish Protestants with Turkey’s Armenians and other Christians, ‘both were minorities regarded as a fifth column of a foreign enemy; both suffered a demographic cataclysm unmentioned by dominant national histories; and finally, both left a vestigial population in the new nation-state whose members instinctively understood that, whatever the political and constitutional affirmations to the contrary, their citizenship was a matter of indulgence and not of right.’ The family silences around the lives of Jim O’Neill and Joseph Dakak remind us of the silence in Irish Republican narratives about Irish Protestants, and the silence in Turkey about the Armenians and others crushed by the nationalist project.

Of his two grandfathers O’Neill most resembles Joseph Dakak, though it is Ireland that more vividly seizes his imagination. Like Dakak, he is fastidious, exact, a member of a cosmopolitan elite; the ‘who, me?’ Cary Grant persona he tries on at the beginning of the book is a distant cousin of the studiedly neutral figure cut by his grandfather. Raised mainly in The Hague, educated at the British School in the Netherlands and at Cambridge, he has the outsider’s combination of committed independence and a longing to belong. He swims in the English language with a convert’s skill; it comes as no surprise that cricketers and blazer buttons pop up among his metaphors, or that his verbal facility sometimes seems to relieve him of his feelings. And what he sees but does not fully take on board in his long investigation is the importance of the part played by the British in each of his grandfather’s stories.

The family connections that underpin the British establishment are never far from the surface of O’Neill’s enquiry. The wife of Sir Denis Wright, British Consul in Mersin, is the niece of the first prime minister of Northern Ireland; Sir Patrick Coghill, head of the British Security Mission in Syria at the time of Dakak’s imprisonment, was a nephew of Admiral Somerville. O’Neill himself feels the weight of Britain’s power when he visits Latrun, where Dakak spent most of his captivity: ‘The Fort was just like its counterpart at the Curragh: the same strategic location and coldly functional set-up, the same phantasmal presence of the British and their internment camps.’ His grandfathers were imprisoned in two of the three countries in Europe and the Middle East (the other was Cyprus) whose partition was planned by the retreating British Empire – places where people are still killing one another in now intractable struggles which were at best exacerbated by the departing occupier.

Yet O’Neill never points out that both men were put away in part by the long arm of the weakening Empire: Jim O’Neill because any hint that Ireland’s neutrality was compromised could still have been disastrous to her fledgling independence, Dakak not only as a suspected Nazi spy but because he fell into the broad category of people who might pose some threat to the British Mandate in Palestine. Like his grandfather, who remained in Turkey even though he knew he had been sold into captivity by the authorities – like most of us, in fact – O’Neill has no trouble reverting to a vague sense of the benevolence of British institutions even after describing in detail some of the iniquities for which they were responsible. Not even someone as scrupulous as he is can be immune to what he calls ‘morally self-sparing compartmentalisation.’