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Kohen blazed a path in Turkish journalism

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Amid a profusion of newspaper stories bearing typical Turkish bylines, Sami Kohen’s Jewish-sounding name stands out as a tacit triumph of merit over small-mindedness in contemporary Turkish journalism.

A foreign affairs columnist for the Istanbul daily Milliyet, Kohen is a member of a select club, being one of the rare Turkish Jews writing for a general interest Turkish-language newspaper.

When he joined Milliyet, which has a circulation of about 250,000 and is one of Turkey’s biggest dailies, he quietly made history by becoming the first known Jew in modern Turkey to work for such a publication.

Yet his claim to fame does not solely rest on his status as a Jewish journalist in a Muslim land.

Kohen, Millyet’s foreign editor from 1955 to 1992, left an indelible mark by chalking up a series of “firsts” as a journalist.

A freelance contributor to major western newspapers, he was the first Turkish reporter to cover Albania when it was still a Stalinist hermit state, the first to report from China during the Cultural Revolution, and the first to visit North Korea.

At 83, he is long past retirement age, yet he is as active as ever, contributing four columns a week to Milliyet on Turkey’s foreign policy and international relations.

A slight, unassuming figure who has been on its staff since 1954, he is one of its longest-serving employees. “It’s unusual for a journalist to be attached to a newspaper so long,” he acknowledged.

Fluent in English, French and Ladino, the lingua franca of Jews in the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, Kohen was raised in a journalistic milieu. His father, Albert, was founder, editor and publisher of Turkey’s Voice, which he established in 1936 and was printed in Ladino and Turkish.

Kohen’s first stories appeared in his father’s newspaper, and after his death in 1949, he succeeded him, becoming Turkey’s youngest publisher.

Since Ladino was a dying language, he converted Turkey’s Voice into an-all Turkish language periodical. The tactic did not work. The paper, read by 5,000 elderly subscribers, could not meet its overhead, and Kohen closed it in 1950.While studying journalism at Istanbul University, he applied for a reporter’s job, but his applications were ignored. During this era, when xenophobia and racism were common, general-interest Turkish newspapers did not hire Jews or members of Christian minorities, he noted.

Having been rejected once too often, Kohen began submitting pieces to Yeni Istanbul – a scrappy Turkish newspaper specializing in local news – while completing his university studies.

Duly impressed by his articles, the editor hired Kohen as a night editor on the foreign desk. Apart from being the sole Jew on staff, he was the first known Jewish journalist ever to work on a mainstream newspaper in Turkey since the creation of the secular Turkish republic in 1923.

Shortly after joining Yeni Istanbul, Kohen was called into the publisher’s office and congratulated on his industriousness. Having buttered him up, the publisher asked Kohen whether he would adopt a Turkish pen name. To some ethnocentric readers, the byline Kohen stuck in their craw.

“I was furious,” he recalled. “I almost stormed out of his office. I told him my surname is an integral component of my heritage, and I would not give it up.”

The publisher relented, letting him keep his cherished Kohen byline.

“After that, I never had a problem with my name, identity or religion,” said Kohen, a secular Jew who regards himself as a loyal, patriotic Turk of Jewish origin. “My colleagues have been very respectful of my Jewish identity. I’ve had no problems.”

After joining Milliyet, a newspaper with social democratic leanings, he covered major events abroad, primarily in Europe.

In 1963, Kohen was assigned to report on an upcoming  soccer match between Turkey and Albania. Since Albania did not usually admit reporters, he went officially as the team’s masseur. Turkey was then one of the few countries maintaining diplomatic ties with Albania.

In 1971, following Turkey’s recognition of mainland China, Kohen became the first Turkish journalist to visit China, three months before Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger set foot on Chinese soil.

Three years later, relatively fresh from reporting on the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he covered Turkey’s invasion and occupation of northern Cypress.

While on assignment in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, he dropped everything to fly to Ottawa to file stories on the attempted assassination of Turkey’s ambassador to Canada.

He visited North Korea in 1985, notching up another “first” in the annals of journalism in Turkey.

Always something of a workaholic, Kohen started freelancing for the Tel Aviv-based daily Maariv in the 1950s, a gig that lasted until 2000. He wrote on Israel’s evolving relations with Turkey and internal Turkish affairs.

Kohen began reporting from Israel in 1950, when he wrote a seven-part series focusing on kibbutzim and the role of women in the armed forces.

“I was very impressed with all the developments in Israel and with the spirit of the people,” he said, noting that Turkish newspaper coverage of Israel was usually favourable in those years. “It was such a dynamic, free society.”

He returned to Israel many more times on assignments, covering, among other events, the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Kohen is less than sanguine that Israel’s strained relations with Turkey, exacerbated by the 2010 Mavi Marmara affair, will improve any time soon. Asked whether Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is anti-Israel, he replied, “He might be. He opposes [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s policies, but not the Israeli people.”

Kohen launched his career as a freelancer in the 1960s as a succession of American and British newspapers and magazines – notably the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, Newsweek, the Guardian and the Economist – tapped his expertise on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs.

To the best of his knowledge, there are only two other Jewish journalists working in Turkey today for general-interest newspapers: Gila Benmayor, a reporter on the staff of Hurriyet, and Soli Uzel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University who writes a column for Haber Turk.

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