The recent "Ottoman Armenians During The Last Period Of The Empire: Scientific Responsibility And Democracy" conference was realized as a result of great efforts, and was an event of extraordinary properties, meanings and references. Under our current conditions we are in, the importance of this event can be approached from many different angles, and people have been writing about if from every perspective.
I would like to take this chance to reflect on these two days, in which many different disciplines complemented each other, while shedding light on some old questions and presenting new ones. With the vast amount of information and comments presented on this one particular period in history, this conference shook its audience and lifted a huge dead weight that was bearing on the shoulders of this issue.
The questions at the beginning of this article are asked in response to Elif Safak's paper and they are very important ones related to this moment. Can we leave aside the never-ending polemics and claims--" it is genocide or not"-and "they massacred us, the numbers of victims are such and such," and look at our present situation, where Safak directs her attention?
Safak, in her paper, presents an extraordinary mix of her authorial and academic identities. Her presentation on the life and works of feminist Armenian writer Zabel Yesayan was prepared with the scrutiny of an academic and the elegance of a writer of literature. She concluded it with a quotation from a novel. Safak relays to us the answer of a question which is asked of the hero of the novel: What would an Armenian survivor of the events of 1915 like to hear from the Turks ?
He replied " I would like to hear that after we left, their country became barren". Safak, directing this sentence to us, continued: "Yes, after you left, our country became barren ideologically, artistically, politically and every means socially, we have the need to say this, as the Diaspora has the greater need to hear it ". In the end she presented an approach that passed beyond the Armenian Diaspora's, which dictates 'You have to recognize the genocide first; then we start talking' or the official Turkish thesis, which claims 'Genocide didn't happen, in fact they massacred us'.
Safak continued; saying that today the people of Turkey, having lost their Armenian neighbors (except roughly 60 thousand people living) should acknowledge that as a result of this loss, we became lonely and barren. Today we should start mourning for this loss: "The mourning of their absence, and that which made us barren".
Like Melisa Bilal said, can we integrate feelings into our social and intellectual systems without the confines of nationalism? Can we recall the feeling of times that we lived together? As she said, can people who are living in this country really understand that Armenians in Turkey were made homeless and that they are lost? Not all were necessarily made homeless by means of deportation, but as Bilal defines it, "they were uprooted from their language, religion, history at the very place they had been living, [and entered a] state of homelessness by means of estrangement. " And indeed like Hrant Dink said, having been uprooted and scattered around the world, as Bilal says, when they are constantly searching for a surname with an 'ian-yan' suffix at the back credits of every film, in reality they are searching for a piece of themselves. Today, are the people of Turkey capable of understanding all of feelings?
Can we rethink the phrases that entered in to our language, particularly those which carry the traces of negative historical weights? As in the example Fethiye Cetin provided, why is it that while lifting a heavy load, we say "It is heavy as an infidel's corpse." Are we able to ask ourselves the question, "Why is the corpse of an infidel is that heavy?"
Paranoia and Trauma
As Erol Koroglu said in his presentation 'Examples of forgetting and remembering in Turkish literature: The breaking points of silence', Armenian-ness is an identity that is constantly kept at the threshold, at at the same time we have the incapability of not being able to describe it as different as well as familiar. This gives way to an idea that makes Armenians traitors and enemies. Can we think over this idea and accept it as a social paranoia? Hrant Dink is right to say that the antidote to this paranoia is the democratization of Turkey. This process not only would cure the paranoia in Turks, it would also help heal the trauma that the Armenians live with.
Elif Safak directs our attention to writer Zabel Yesayan. When she escaped the events of 1915 and settled in Baku, she started to write her memoirs. This demonstrates her importance in preventing a social amnesia.
In contrast, Etyen Mahcupyan emphasized how the State, by its constant repetition to Turkish people that they are a people whose memory is very short and that Turkey is a country that should always look to the future and not to the past, constantly creates space for communal amnesia . In response to the victim's attitude of 'not letting it to be forgotten and talking about it' the perpetrators covers themselves to an extent that they reache a point where even talking about events becomes frightful. At this point, can the victim, with the comfort to speak, help the perpetrator?
As Aysegul Altinay says, Fethiye Cetin's book "My Grandmother", Takuhi Tovmasyan's book "Be Your Meals Cheerful" and Osman Koker's "Armenians In Turkey 100 Years Ago" books, follow a therapeutic approach which can lead people to create an environment where empathy can grow, opening the way to cry and laugh together. Following this approach, can we multiply these examples so that we can exercise more empathy in this direction?
Defence and getting tired of being right
Halil Berktay describes the mood of Turkish foreign policy: defence by means of digging a trench so deep that it became a synonym for being stuck at the bottom of the trench, and therefore foreign policy became enslaved by the trench. Temel Iskit, a former diplomat with a career of 40 years, agreed with Berktay's characterization.
Iskit states that Turkish foreign policy was mortgaged by the Armenian Question, because the " power policy" that Turkey was following required an absolute obligation to be right. He added, "During 41 years of service I got tired of always being 'right'."
"We won't do it"
Cemil Kocak presented an interesting story on Ruseni Bey and his place in the Special Organization (Teskilat-i Mahsusa). Ruseni Bey coined a definition of nationalism that stated "Societies grow/get nurtured by eating one another." Against this outrageously nationalistic statement, is it too difficult to say 'No, we won't do it'? As Halil Berktay points out, isn't it about time that spanner needs to be thrown in the clockwork of these spine-chilling historical repetitions-- a repetition that starts with "Every Armenian is a Tashnak Guerilla" and continues as "Every Kurd is a PKK member"?
Berktay also told of an unfinished novel written by Omer Seyfettin between 1912-13, named "Primo Turkish Child II". Can we wake the hero of this novel from his dream? In the dream, he sees a crescent moon and a star in the sky, meanwhile he feels a wetness on his feet. This wetness is the blood of Turkish enemies-and as he walks in their blood, he notices the reflection of the moon and the star on the surface .
Departing from this point, Berktay continued to say that the red colour of Turkish flag does not symbolize the blood of Turkish martyrs (as we are always told), but actually comes from the blood of our enemies. We can purify ourselves of this history of hatred and violence. We can get out of pools of blood and set out to a new journey, in which the moon and the stars won't spare their light to illuminate our road, and with the knowledge that at the end of a clear starry night, the coming day will be sunny and hopeful.
"This meeting will liberate us," said former Health Minister Cevdet Aykan, who compiled the memoirs of old people he knew. As Cem Ozdemir stated, the realization of this conference will relax Europe as well as Turkey . Turkey's initiation of this talk on the "Armenian issue"--which Europe saw as a burden to Turkey's process of democratisation--will lighten this load for Europe as well as Turkey.
It is time to acknowledge these loads, to recognize them, and to be liberated from them. We will feel relaxed by means of liberation from them. We passed the threshold and we are on that road now. We will continue to move forward slowly but surely.
As I was talking with historian Christoph Neumann, he draw my attention to the point that during the conference there had rarely been talk of mourning--only once or twice. He said, "Why is there no talk of mourning?" ...meaning not the mourning of events 90 years ago, but the mourning of our state in the present, the mourning of our loneliness. Maybe by acknowledging our present loneliness slowly, we can go back from the present to the past and try to see more clearly how we were made so lonely in the first place?
Despite all the insistences of amnesia, contrary to our state of defensiveness due to unresolved traumas, we would be able to find the path to empathy. By acknowledging the lost and deported ones, we could start to sympathize with their sensitivities. And by getting rid of our paranoia and trauma from historical burdens in our language and consciousness, could we not turn back even just for a moment to our true feelings, and mourn?
To Pass the threshold, pass beyond the 'genocide'
Has any threshold been passed? Surely the answer is yes. This conference has been the embodiment of that very crucial move. The conference has led us pass the threshold of Turkey's democratization progress, the threshold of scientific freedom in universities, the threshold of freedom of expression, the disappearing threshold of being unable to speak, the threshold of endless arguments about 'who massacred who' and 'is it or is it not a genocide'--and even past the thresholds of hardened, polarized and immobile identities.
Today we reached a different point, because during these past two days whoever witnessed this historical event tried to understand amnesia, empathy, trauma, paranoia and what actually happened. While they examined and scrutinized all these issues with the help of many different disciplines, we mourned for our present day a little, we became purified a little, and we became little more liberated. We listened, we thought and we learned--and then we learned more, thought more, and listened more.
Now, it is time for this experience to leave the confines of the building where the conference was held and spread, so even more people can rethink what they had already known and learn to listen more. Because this conference has liberated us, it provides hope that there will be many others. It is this very hope that will make our roads intersect. (TS/AS/EA/YE)
(Translation: Arman Sucuyan)