By Semra Eren-Nijhar
“I took early retirement to concentrate on my research and writings” said Prof. Salahi Sonyel, who sadly passed away on Christmas Day 2015, in an interview I had conducted with him back in 1998. And indeed his writings and all the research he conducted over many years made him one of the most respected Turkish Cypriot historians residing in
Prof. Sonyel was born in
1932 and graduated from the English School in Lefkoşa ( ). He later went to serve as a civil servant
in the British Colonial Administration. Nicosia
He first came to
1957, studied at the Queen's University,
and obtained his BA and MA qualifications in 1959. Prof. Sonyel went back to Belfast Cyprus and then returned to the UK in 1964 following the start of the troubles
Since then he has lived in the Cyprus
for over 50 years till his death. UK
In 1971, he gained his PhD from the
of London and became an Associate of the .
He was also a member of the Cyprus Turkish Association [Kıbrıs Türk Cemiyet] for over 40 years – the first Turkish association
to be established in Institute of Education Europe.
|Prof. Sonyel was a lifelong member of Cemiyet, located in D'Arblay Street|
As a historian he was an expert on Atatürk, Atatürk’s revolutions,
Independence War and the period during the establishment of the . His passion on the subjects of
Armenians in Republic of Turkey
and the Armenian massacre of 1915 was a central theme in his books and pamphlets. He was an honorary member of the
Turkish Historical Society based in Turkey . Ankara
After our first meeting in1998, I met Prof. Sonyel on many occasions and interviewed him on various different other subjects. On areas such as migration, identity, racism, and being Turkish and living in the
, Prof. Sonyel proved he was not
only a historian, but equally committed as a social scientist. UK
Soon after I met him, I learned about his research in the area of Turkish migration while he was active in the Cemiyet during the 1970s and 1980s. I discovered fairly quickly that he was interested in the education of Turkish and Muslim children in schools, and had written many articles about their situation along with education improvement strategies. His book The Silent Minority – Turkish Muslim Children in British Schools, published in 1988, widened the debate within society on the underachievement of Turkish-speaking children in British schools, which remains a challenge even today.
To my surprise, I went on to discover the immense work he had carried out in the area of the Turkish people living in
. During my research in the
archives of Cemiyet I came across many articles
written by him on the exclusion of the “silent
community” in which he refers to as the ‘Turkish Muslim Community’, and
many more articles about Turkey’s history in the magazines, which were
published by Cemiyet in particular in their Turkish
publication Toplumun Sesi, and others
in the English language like Turkish News.
The more I delved into the extensive archives, the more I discovered the many
old articles written or edited by Prof Sonyel. Britain
In one of our conversations Prof. Sonyel told me he had originally wanted to become a poet and wanted to work in the area of literature, something he was very passionate about. However the Turkish Cypriot poet and writer Nazif Süleyman Ebeoğlu said to him at the beginning of the 1950s that Osman Türkay will become a very famous poet, but he (Prof.Sonyel) should rather concentrate his energy on other areas like political science, economics or social sciences. Nazif Süleyman Ebeoğlu’s advice was to prove very wise and helped Prof Sonyel to find his own way into the world of social sciences. He was very grateful to Nazif Süleyman Ebeoğlu, whom he considered his teacher and mentor.
Prof. Sonyel also worked very closely with the twice Nobel Prize Nominee Turkish Cypriot poet Osman Türkay, helping him and other members of Cemiyet with the publication of their magazines. Innovative papers and articles were published on the issues faced by ethnic minorities, which were unique and groundbreaking during the period, especially in the 1970s where people were seemingly more interested in talking about the migrants’ issues instead of analysing and writing about them. I have not yet come across in any periodicals which were published during the 1970s by any other ethnic minority communities concerning the issues faced by migrants during that era.
Prof Sonyel was aware of the existence of racism in British society and worked tirelessly to overcome the prejudice in the wider community. He told me in one of our conversations: “When I first came here, I tried to find employment, but found it very difficult because of my name, as it is a Muslim name. I changed my name and within a fortnight I became the head of a large social science department in a secondary school. I changed my name when racism was rampant in the
; it was before the time of the
emergence of multi-cultural education. The Turkish people who have changed
their names like me are doing well, but a lot of the Turks who hung on to their
names experienced racism.” UK
The modern day term ‘Islamophobia’ seems to have existed in different guises much before the 9/11 events. In fact it is shocking to know that a respected historian and academic had to change his Muslim sounding name in to an English sounding one, in order to progress within his profession and professional life. It is important to mark the current atrocities happening in the name of Islam and increased Islamophobia in British society, yet we must also remember that Islamophobia is not an entirely new issue.
Prof. Sonyel reminded me in some of our interviews on this subject that, the level of racism is not the same as that experienced by Asian or Black people living in
However, he always added that all the ethnic minorities are experiencing
varying degrees of racism in diverse areas of their working or professional
Prof. Sonyel will be remembered not only as a historian, but I believe it would be improper if we failed to recognise him as a social scientist too. It would be unforgiveable to forget all the work he has done in the last 50 years, in the area of exclusion, xenophobia, education of Turkish-speaking children and Turkish migration to
|In 2002, Prof. Salahi was awarded the State Medal for Distinguished Service by Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem|
Prof. Sonyel was one of many remarkable people from the Turkish-speaking community who came to
lived and worked in .
And during his time, Prof. Sonyel left an indelible mark and a treasure trove
of writings for his own Turkish community, to other ethnic minority communities,
to the academic community and to the wider British society. Britain
He worked very hard and crafted his thoughts into words, the words were converted into books; these books will, in the future, be converted into new thoughts. Prof. Sonyel left a written historical legacy for the future generation of the Turkish-speaking communities not only in
, but across the world. The
void he leaves behind will not be easily filled and will take time. Britain
He once remarked, “I live in
Turkish Cypriot identity. I carry my Turkish identity everywhere I go but of
course, I am part of the wider British society, too.” Britain
Prof. Sonyel has published many books, articles and pamphlets. Some of his books in English are works appeared in numerous periodicals and newspapers in
Greece, UK, the , and in other
countries. United States
|Some of Prof. Salahi Sonyel's many publications|
He was a visiting professor at the
Near East University in Lefkoşa, in the Turkish
Republic of Northern Cyprus, as well as in various universities
in Turkey, and
other countries. Britain
Prof. Sonyel became a major part of the history of the Turkish people living in
Britain and also played a huge role in recording
history and sharing his analysis of the Turkish people living in the . UK
He was married and had two daughters.