Thursday, March 23, 2006

Commemorating the Armenian Genocide

Commemorating the Armenian Genocide
by Khatchig Mouradian
April 23, 2006

“Today I bow down before the memory of all Armenians who lost their lives and look forward to the day when the souls of their grandchildren will finally be at peace. In order for our souls, however, to be at peace, and for this country [Turkey] to account for this crime against humanity, I guess people have to make many more journeys to the past to see the truth,” says Turkish Human Rights activist Nese Ozan. She is referring to the deportation and massacre of the Armenians in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, a genocide commemorated every year on April 24 by their descendents around the world.

Although the Armenian Genocide is acknowledged by most genocide scholars and many parliaments around the world, the Turkish state continues to vehemently deny that there was a state-sponsored annihilation process that took the lives of approximately 1.5 million Armenians living in their ancestral lands. The Armenians were, it argues, the victims of ethnic strife or war and starvation, just like many Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Moreover, according to the official historiography in Turkey, the number of the Armenians that died due to these “unfortunate events” is exaggerated.

Ozan, a metallurgy engineer by education, recounts to me how two years ago, she embarked on a “journey to the past” to find what is left of the Sourp Sarkis Church and the Mesropian School, two of the countless reminders in modern day Turkey of the destruction that befell upon the Armenians in 1915. “When you asked me to write what I feel about April 24, I remembered how we stood watching, engulfed in a deep sorrow, the ruins, hiding in them the memory of the long lost lives,” says Ozan.

A growing number of intellectuals and activists in Turkey are, like Ozan, speaking up about the importance of facing the past and recognizing the horrors committed against the Armenians. In a country shaped with a predominantly nationalist ideology, in a country where human rights violations and oppression of minorities had become the norm for the better part of the 20th century, speaking about one of the greatest taboos in Turkey could get one in all sorts of troubles. Examples abound. In 1994, for the first time in Turkey, a book affirming the Armenian Genocide was printed by publisher Ragip Zarakolu. Soon afterwards, his editorial office was bombed. More recently, world renowned Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was taken to court for “denigrating Turkish identity” by telling the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger in February 2005 that “30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands [Turkey].” The court case was eventually dropped. Many similar cases, however, are pending, and many others have concluded in prison sentences and fines. Turkish scholars like Halil Berktay and Murat Belge, who publish and speak in Turkey about the mass annihilation of the Armenians, are bombarded with hate-mail and are subjected to slanders by Turkish nationalists.

Mujgan Arpat, a Turkish TV reporter and Human Rights activist, also commemorates the Armenian Genocide. “For me too, April 24 is the date marking the start of the Armenian Genocide planned by the leaders of Committee of Union and Progress (CUP),” she tells me.

In 1908, the CUP gained control in the Ottoman Empire, with promises of sweeping reforms and equal rights to all peoples of the empire. However, in 1913, the nationalist faction of the CUP, keen on cleansing Turkey from non-Muslim peoples, gained control of the CUP and, under the guise of World War I, embarked on the deportation and the massacre of the Armenians living in the Empire. “The Armenian Genocide was largely a by-product of the First World war –as far as its successful execution is concerned. But the preconditions were already created through an ideology that aimed at transforming the troublesome heterogeneous social structure of the Ottoman Empire into a more or less homogeneous one,” explains Taner Akcam, the first Turkish Scholar to publicly acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, in his book “From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide” ( Zed Books, 2004).

However, this was not the first round of mass- killings against the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. As Arpat recounts, “In the pre-Genocide period, the perpetrators of the 1894-96 pogroms and 1909 massacres, also known as “Hamidiye massacres”, had gone unpunished and this was one of the factors that encouraged the perpetrators of the Genocide.”

“What stands in the way of Turkey’s confronting its past is the fact that the Turkish Republic was founded by the very same figures who were in leading positions in the Committee of Union and Progress,” notes Arpat.

According to many historians, the Turkish Republic was built on genocide and the Turkish state understands that recognizing the Armenian Genocide would shake its foundations. In an interview, Turkish sociologist Fatma Muge Gocek, an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Michigan, agrees with them. However, “If there is a foundation and you know there are problems with it, would you live in that house?” she asks. “You would know that at one point, it's going to cause trouble. You know you'll eventually have to fix the foundation. Otherwise, the whole thing will collapse,” she notes.

Gocek herself had the following to say to the Armenians commemorating the 91st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide this year: “I want you to know that as an ethnic Turk I am not guilty, but I am responsible for the wounds that have been inflicted upon you, Armenians, for the last century and a half. I am responsible for the wounds that were first delivered upon you through an unjust deportation from your ancestral lands and through massacres in the hands of a government that should have been there to protect you. I am also responsible for the wounds caused by the Turkish state’s denial to this day of what happened to you back then. I am responsible because all of this occurred and still occurs in the country of which I am a citizen. Yet I want to tell you that I personally travel every year to your ancestral lands to envision what was once there and what is not now. When I am there, I realize again and again how much your departure has broken the human spirit and warped the land and the people. I become more and more aware of the darkness that has set in since the disappearance of so many lives, minds, hopes and dreams.”

Ayse Gunaysu, an activist from the Istanbul Branch of the Human Rights Association of Turkey, wrote the following when I asked her about her thoughts on the Armenian Genocide: “Asia Minor never found peace, happiness and well-being after the Armenian Genocide. A big curse fell upon this land. The settlements where once artisans, manufacturers, and tradesmen produced and traded goods, where theatres and schools disseminated knowledge and aesthetic fulfillment, where churches and monasteries refined the souls, where beautiful architecture embodied a great, ancient culture; in short, a civilized, lively urban world was turned into a rural area of vast, barren, silent, uninhabited land and settlements marked by buildings without a history and without a personality.”

Gunaysu continued that, “Governments brought highways and electricity and water supply systems, which are the symbols of civilization but the land didn’t even become half as civilized as it was a century ago. The history of the homeland of Armenians since then has always been marked with bloodshed. Kurdish uprisings, their violent suppression, massacres never ended. No democracy prevails; no hope for the future is nurtured. Yes, the Armenian Genocide left these lands damned. Only agony, deprivation, conflicts, killings, unsolved murders, disappearances under custody, rapes linger. Bloodshed continues. It will continue until the day Turkey surrenders to the call of conscience, sense of justice, and honest confrontation with its past.”

Unfortunately, 91 years after the Armenian Genocide, there are very few survivors of the horrors of 1915 who are still alive and who could be comforted by the words of courageous Turkish-born individuals who acknowledge their suffering and apologize. The descendents of those survivors, however, will lay wreaths on genocide memorials around the world today, knowing that a minority of Turks are also commemorating-- in their own way-- with them, in a country that will, hopefully, one day build its own memorials of the Armenian Genocide.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Storyteller's Quest

A Storyteller's Quest
by Khatchig Mouradian
March 14, 2006

"Anatolia has always been a mosaic of flowers,
filling the world with flowers and light.
I want it to be the same today"
Yasar Kemal

The Anatolia Yasar Kemal, arguably the greatest Turkish author of the 20th century, wants to see and the Anatolia he can actually see today cannot possibly be considered the same region of Turkey. What was a century ago a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups (Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Turks, Kurds, etc.) is now almost homogenized through blood and destruction, and the memory of many of the peoples that once dwelled in the region of Eastern Turkey is being negligently allowed to pass into oblivion.

A number of Turkish intellectuals are striving to push Turkey to face its past and recognize the "mosaic of flowers" that Anatolia once was. Will their vision one day become reality? Much depends on the changes currently taking place in Turkey. Novelist Elif Shafak, one of the courageous intellectuals struggling today for the preservation of memory and recognition of cultural diversity, spoke to me of Turkey today and the Turkey she would like to see tomorrow.

The Two Faces of Turkey

"I feel connected to so many things in Turkey, especially in Istanbul. The city, the people, the customs of women, the enchanting world of superstitions, my grandmother's almost magical cosmos, my mother's humanism, and the warmth, the sincerity of the people," Shafak tells me, speaking of her native country. "At the same time I feel no connection whatsoever to its main ideology, its state structure and army," she notes.

Turkey is the country of opposites which oftentimes, defying the laws of physics, repel one another. Eastern and Western, Islamic and secular at the same time, the country is torn between democracy and dictatorship, memory and amnesia. These dualities, bordering on schizophrenia, are unsettling for Shafak, an author of five published novels. "I think there are two undercurrents in Turkey, both very old. One is nationalist, exclusivist, xenophobic and reactionary. The other is cosmopolitan, Sufi, humanist, embracing. It is the second tide that I feel connected to," she says.

Not surprisingly, the first tide she mentions is not at all happy with her line of conduct. Hate-mail and accusations of being a traitor to her country have become commonplace for the young writer.

"The nationalist discourse in Turkey-- just like the Republicans in the USA-- is that if you are criticizing your government, you do not like your nation. This is a lie. Only and only if you care about something you will reflect upon it, give it further thought. I care about Turkey. It hurts me to be accused of hating my country," she explains.

However, Elif Shafak, who spent most of her childhood and adolescence in Europe and later moved to Turkey to pursue her studies, is anything but wrong when she points out that her country has come a long way in the last few years. "There are very important changes underway in Turkey. Sometimes, in the West, Turkey looks more black-and-white than it really is, but the fact remains that Turkey's civil society is multifaceted and very dynamic. Especially over the past two decades there have been fundamental transformations," she says.

"The bigger the change, the deeper the panic of those who want to preserve the status quo," she adds.

A cornered tiger is the fiercest, however, as an Eastern proverb says. This is why the prospect of membership to the European Union (EU) is deemed necessary by the country’s cosmopolitan undercurrent, which is struggling against the status quo. For decades, those, who have dared to challenge the official rhetoric on a wide spectrum of issues, have faced oppression, persecution, and imprisonment, and they know well that the only way not to take the country back in time is to keep it going in the direction of the EU. Shafak herself believes that Turkey's bid to join the EU "is an important process for progressive forces both within and outside the country". She adds: "Definitely the whole process will reinforce democracy, human rights and minority rights. It will diminish the role of the state apparatuses, and most importantly the shadow of the military in the political arena."

Dealing with the Turkish Society's 'Underbelly'

"For me, the recognition of 1915 is connected to my love for democracy and human rights," says Shafak. 1915 is the year when the Turkish government embarked on a genocidal campaign to exterminate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. This topic remained the greatest of all taboos in Turkey until very recently.

Although the Armenian genocide is acknowledged by most genocide scholars and many parliaments around the world, the Turkish government's official stand maintains that the Armenians were not subjected to a state sponsored annihilation process that killed more than a million and a half people in 1915-16. The Armenians were, the Turkish official viewpoint argues, the victims of ethnic strife or war and starvation, just like many Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Moreover, according to the official historiography in Turkey, the number of the Armenians that died due to these "unfortunate events" is exaggerated.

Like a growing number of fellow Turkish intellectuals, it is against this policy of denial that Elif Shafak rages. "If we had been able to face the atrocities committed against the Armenians in Anatolia, it would have been more difficult for the Turkish state to commit atrocities against the Kurds," she argues.

"A society based on amnesia cannot have a mature democracy," she adds.

Why did she choose to tackle this very sensitive issue, knowing well that harassment and threats were inevitable? "I am a storyteller. If I cannot "feel" other people's pain and grief, I better quit what I am doing. So there is an emotional aspect for me in that I have always felt connected to those pushed to the margins and silenced rather than those at the center", she notes. "This is the pattern in each and every one of my novels; I deal with Turkish society's underbelly."

Her upcoming novel, "The Bastard of Istanbul", is no exception. The Turkish translation of the novel, titled “Baba ve Pic” was released in Turkey on March 8, 2006. The original novel in English will be released in the U.S. in January 2007 out of Penguin/Viking press. "The novel is highly critical of the sexist and nationalist fabric of Turkish society. It is the story of four generations of women in Istanbul. At some point their stories converge with the story of an Armenian woman and, thereby, an Armenian-American family. I have used this family in San Francisco and the family in Istanbul as mirrors," she explains. "Basically, the novel testifies to the struggle of amnesia and memory. It deals with painful pasts both at the individual and collective level," she adds.

The Turkey she would like to see in 2015, a century after the Armenian genocide, stands in deep contrast to the Turkey the world has known for the better part of the past century. It is "a Turkey that is part of EU, a Turkey where women do not get killed on the basis of "family honor", a Turkey where there is no gender discrimination, no violations against minorities; a Turkey which is not xenophobic, homophobic, where each and every individual is treated as valuably as the reflection of the Jamal side of God, its beauty."

It would be hard to disagree with Shafak that only in the Turkey she envisions can cosmopolitism overshadow nationalism and remembrance emerge victorious over denial.