A Flower or an Oak Tree? A Response to Nanore Barsoumian

Armenian-language course graduates in Diyarbakir
Armenian-language course graduates in Diyarbakir

For the past few weeks, we have been reading the unbelievably emotional and informative revelations of Nanore Barsoumian, Weekly assistant editor, and Khatchig Mouradian, Weekly editor, in their travels in eastern Turkey, where they searched for traces of a three-thousand-year-old Armenian presence in the region that suddenly disappeared in 1915.

In one of the articles, Mouradian describes his travels to Cungus, a district of Diyarbakir, where all 10,000 of the Armenian inhabitants were massacred and thrown into a deep abyss called Dudan during the summer of 1915. Although still denied by the Turkish state, it is indisputably documented by multiple countries’ diplomatic representatives and historians, as well as by survivor and perpetrator accounts, that what happened in Cungus also happened in all of Ottoman Turkey—in the east, west, north, south, and central regions. Only the applied mode of the Armenians’ destruction differed from region to region. While Armenians in the north were thrown into the Black Sea, or driven to the desert in death marches from the west, east, central, and south regions under the guise of deportations “to keep them away from the war zone,” officials in the Diyarbakir region achieved the unique distinction of the highest percentage of Armenian massacres (97% of the deportees), without the need to deport any distance, immediately outside the city walls.

In another article, Barsoumian describes her emotions travelling as a “tourist” in Diyarbakir, where these sad events took place, and yet, where there is now a newly reconstructed church, Surp Giragos—the largest Armenian church in the Middle East, and the first church reconstructed in Turkey since 1915. And she asks difficult questions: Who am I, why am I here, how am I connected to these lands, what is next, what is a church without its congregation, where do we go from here?

While these questions may be rhetorical or impossible to answer, I will still attempt to find some answers, as I myself ask these same questions on a daily basis.

Using Hrant Dink’s famous quote, 1915 is a trauma for the Armenians, who cannot rest until their pain and losses are acknowledged and addressed, and are a paranoia for the Turks, who fear any acknowledgment will result in massive financial and territorial compensation. Dink’s prescription for both afflictions was always dialogue. Unfortunately, his message was not well understood by either Armenians or Turks while he was alive, and after a brief period of empathy following his murder—seen with the spontaneous outpouring of sympathy by several hundred thousand Turkish citizens during his funeral—his message continues to fall on deaf ears, of both the Turkish and Armenian governments, as well as a majority of the Turkish people and the Armenian Diaspora.

But one must not generalize. Dialogue between Turks and Armenians for the sake of dialogue will not serve any purpose if both sides just parrot their positions; this can only be defined as monologues, as ineffective as two people shouting at each other from the top of two faraway mountain peaks. Therefore, real dialogue can only start between people who have a desire for a common body of knowledge about the 1915 events. And such people exist in Turkey today, perhaps small in number, but increasing every day, and increasingly in influential positions. Most Turkish citizens are brainwashed with the official state version history about 1915 because of the educational system and constant hatemongering against the Armenians in the media; however, people in Turkey can no longer be defined as a homogenous, uniform group. There are serious clashes between the Turkish state and the sizable Kurdish minority—up to a quarter of the Turkish population—which wants greater autonomy and language rights.

For the first time in the history of the Turkish republic, the force of the “deep state,” consisting of key military, judicial, media, academia, and business personalities that governed by a secular Kemalist agenda, has been broken and replaced by a moderately religious group of politicians who have started questioning the past deeds of the previous Kemalist governments. There are numerous bright personalities in politics, academia, media, publishing, NGOs, arts, and literature that can be defined as “opinion makers” and who have started pulling Turkey toward democratization, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought—and who have acknowledged the truth and organized apology campaigns about 1915. In a way, any new perspective on dealing with the 1915 events has become a barometer to gauge the level of democratization in Turkey. There are countless Turkish and Kurdish families that have Armenian roots going back to 1915, most commonly through Armenian girls or boys rescued/hidden/abducted. There are also countless other Turkish and Kurdish families with Armenian roots that have converted to Islam or have hidden their identity since 1915. These various groups have one thing in common: They have started to openly question the official state version of history regarding 1915.

To answer Barsoumian’s question—What is next?—dialogue and contact with these various groups of non-uniform Turkish citizens is the way. We can cite very few examples of Armenian attempts for dialogue with the “opinion makers.” To date, the only serious and successful Armenian initiative of dialogue in the academic field has been through the Zoryan Institute. This resulted in many young Turkish historians and academia cooperating not only with Armenian but also international colleagues, in producing the most serious research on 1915. Within Turkey, the only other successful dialogue has been in the media, by the dedicated team at Agos newspaper, following in the footsteps of Hrant Dink. The third example is the pilgrimage tours to Anatolia, organized by the Armenian Church in recent years, bringing Diaspora Armenians to their roots and face to face with the Turkish/Kurdish people now living there, often leading to the conclusion that both sides have more in common than they realized.

Dialogue about the truth of 1915 with opinion makers in Turkey and ordinary Turkish/Kurdish citizens would have one far-reaching result—it would create voters in Turkey knowledgeable about the genocide. Voters would vote in parliament members and governments that, in turn, would need to set policies and decisions according to the voters’ preferences, sooner or later. Perhaps this is a very long winding road, but at the end, decisions respecting the truth of 1915 taken in the Turkish Parliament would be far more effective than any decisions taken by the parliaments of, say, France or Uruguay.

Barsoumian’s questions regarding Surp Giragos are noteworthy. By reconstructing this church as an Armenian church again, we have created rock solid evidence and a reminder to the Turks and Kurds that there was a sizable Armenian population in this region before 1915. The church has already become a pilgrimage destination for all Armenians worldwide, with almost 4,000 people attending the opening ceremonies in October 2011, and 400 worshippers during Easter 2012. More significantly, this church has quickly become a liberating beacon to all Anatolian people, showing that they can now stop hiding the truth about the past, with many increasingly revealing stories about their region, province, village, or family. Where no Armenians officially existed in Anatolia, there are now Armenian associations formed in places like Dersim, Sason, Bitlis, Malatya, or Sivas. An Armenian-language course organized in Diyarbakir had 41 students enrolled and already graduated. There will be a concert by an Armenian pianist at Surp Giragos in September 2012, the first concert of Armenian and classical composers since 1915. Perhaps Surp Giragos will not be a church without a congregation, after all. While Barsoumian likens Surp Giragos to a beautiful flower in a dying forest, perhaps a more apt description would be a revived oak tree, giving birth to many new budding plants after a forest fire.

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