Istanbul Letter: Lunch with Boris Johnson’s Turkish cousin
BoJo is the great-grandson of Ali Kemal, a politician in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire
Strictly speaking, a Turk? Boris Johnson on the Brexit campaign trail in London on May 12th. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
I’m late for lunch in Beylerbeyi on the Asian side of Istanbul, but Sinan Kuneralp is the perfect gentleman.
Courteous to a fault, he’s worried about wasting my time. “I suppose if Boris does become Britain’s next prime minister, there could be some interest,” he says, almost apologetically. “But, are you sure it’s really news?”
Newsworthy or not, lunch with Boris Johnson’s Turkish cousin is an intriguing prospect.
BoJo, for those not in the know, is the great-grandson of Ali Kemal, a newspaper editor and politician in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, who got on the wrong side of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
After the first World War, Turkey was occupied by the British. Kemal, who served as minister of the interior in what was in effect a puppet government, made the mistake of outlawing the man who would go on to become the founding father of modern Turkey. In 1922, after the nationalist victory, Kemal was assassinated.
Right up to the 1970s, he was viewed as a national traitor, says Sinan. It appears the man was the victim of his own obstinacy, having ignored the pleas of friends to jump on the nationalist bandwagon, choosing instead to place his faith in the British.
“Boris’s great-grandfather was a born opponent,” says Sinan, a publisher of history books. “He was against everything, he was controversial, a contrarian.” Sounds vaguely familiar. But, before rushing into easy comparisons, there are some differentiating factors.
“Boris has a sense of humour, which our grandfather didn’t,” says Sinan. I get the impression that Sinan is not entirely supportive of the former London mayor’s latest incarnation as Britain’s chief Brexiteer, a gamble that may eventually win him the premiership, but could just as well turn out to be a career ender.
And little wonder. In the days before he turned against Brussels, cousin Boris used to champion Turkey’s membership of the EU. These days, he voices public opposition to visa-free travel for his fellow Turks in the UK, as promised under the shaky EU-Turkey deal on refugees.
“His own grandfather wouldn’t have been able to come to the UK,” says Sinan, of his cousin’s new stance. Ironically, the Turkish side of the family is known for being enthusiastically pro-European, Sinan’s late father having served as one of the country’s most distinguished ambassadors, in Berne, London and Madrid. Sinan’s brother, also an ambassador, was at one time responsible for negotiating Turkey’s entry to the EU.
But, before we go any further, a quick genealogical detour. Ali Kemal’s first wife, an Anglo-Swiss woman called Winifred Brun, died after giving birth to Boris’s grandfather. Originally named Osman Kemal, the orphan’s name was later changed to Wilfred Johnson, anti-Turkish sentiment being on the rise in England prior to the first World War.
Sinan’s father was a product of Kemal’s second marriage to a Turkish woman, Sabiha Hanim. The two bloodlines, English and Turkish, might have gone their separate ways, had it not been for a concerted effort by Boris’s father – Stanley Johnson – to strengthen ties with Sinan’s father, as detailed in Stanley’s autobiography, one of the chapters of which is entitled “Strictly speaking, I ought to be a Turk”.
Strictly speaking, Boris Johnson is actually Boris Kemal. He increasingly looks like Ali Kemal, thinks Sinan. He fears, however, that the Turkish connection is less important to Boris these days, as he leads England to glorious isolation.
“To become such a Little Englander is silly,” says Sinan, frustrated. “His family is as cosmopolitan as it gets!”
Last week, Boris gave a speech outlining the “liberal cosmopolitan” case for leaving Europe, a riposte to accusations of being a Little Englander. Reached by phone after our lunch, Sinan is still not convinced.
“He doesn’t strike me as being very honest about his views. I think he’s playing at populism. He’s worth much more than this.”
Despite the differences of opinion, Sinan admires his cousin. He remembers when Boris visited Istanbul in 1984 with his soon-to-be first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen. “I inspired him with a subject for his first ever news article.”
The said article, on the British-built First Bosphorus Bridge, was published in the Economist. “It was a very erudite piece,” he says.
Sinan is entertaining company, speaking in faultless English, with the odd French term thrown in, hither and thither. It’s all redolent of a certain old-world glamour.
I am an émigré de l’intérieur, he says woefully, describing his sense of being an exile in his own country, passively watching its slide towards authoritarianism under the rule of President Tayyip Erdogan.
In a curiously apt twist of fate, Ali Kemal’s legacy now rests in Britain, on Boris’s shoulders. “The Turkish line is finished,” says Sinan. “I have a daughter, but she’s not the marrying type.”
If Boris becomes Britain’s next prime minister, Sinan will be the first to raise a glass. “I would be very happy,” he says.
“But, I can’t say I’d see eye-to-eye with his politics.”