The Changing Face of MESA

By Rubina Peroomian

My first experience with the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference was in San Francisco–in 1982–where I participated as a student and merely a listener with no paper to present and no particular contribution to that scholarly forum. From then on–during my 25-year journey in the field of Armenian Studies and–more particularly–my engrossment in the literature of genocide and the pursuit of world recognition of this "crime against humanity,"(1) I have attended these yearly conferences perhaps more than fifteen times with feelings and perceptions fluctuating from gratification to disillusionment.

I remember that first conference in San Francisco. We were a group of graduate students of the UCLA Armenian History Program led by Professor Richard G. Hovannisian and the Naregatsi Chair of Armenian Studies led by Professor Avedis Sanjian. It was in this gathering that I discovered Leonardo Alishan–a charismatic Iranian American scholar from the University of Utah–Salt Lake City. He was presenting a paper on Ahmad Shamlu–a renowned Persian poet. My Iranian roots and his Armenian name had attracted me to that panel in a hall with standing room only–a hall that gave him a standing ovation–something that I found a rare or rather an impossible occurrence in my later years of MESA participation. Our acquaintance turned into a lasting friendship and resulted in Alishan’s introduction into the UCLA Armenian circle and consequent encouragement to contribute more and more to Armenian scholarship.(2)

My first exposure to this forum of Middle East scholars was an unforgettable experience. I remember our "Armenian contingent" from UCLA and other universities throughout the US getting together every evening after a hectic jaunt from one panel to another to catch our favorite speaker or topic. We would compare notes; we would express our enthusiasm about a pro-Armenian comment or even a topic only remotely touching upon an Armenian subject (rare); we would express our frustration–anger and disappointment about Turkish or pro-Turk panels (numerous) neglecting altogether the Armenian existence in Ottoman history or reiterating the Turkish denialist phrases when discussing World War One–the downfall of the Ottoman Empire–and the rise of the Turkish Republic.

In this vast field of Middle Eastern scholarship–I felt myself a member of a group that was marginalized at best–not to say neglected. The feeling shared by my mentors and colleagues persisted through our years of MESA participation with one or two Armenian panels per year at the most. That was all the MESA administration would spare their Armenian members and–from time to time–rejected panels that explicitly dealt with the Genocide. One such proposal in 1996 for a panel to be chaired by Professor Hovannisian was rejected and the reason given was that there were too many similar panels! Letters contesting the decision were sent–strings were pulled. Three weeks before the conference–we received a letter indicating that a slot had opened and we could fill it with our panel–if we so desired. We declined–of course. The following year–we sent in a proposal for the same panel with a different title that omitted the G- word. The panel was accepted.

It was always a challenge to get at least one or two panels accepted. Only three years ago–at the annual membership meeting of the Society for Armenian Studies–which takes place in conjunction with the MESA meetings–we decided that MESA was not a friendly forum for modern Armenian subjects (although subjects dealing with ancient or medieval history and culture were considered harmless and acceptable)–and perhaps we should look for other venues. And we did. The following year–there were no Armenian panels at MESA–and I am sure no one missed them or cared about them. Instead–we had panels at the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS) and at the American Historical Association (AHA).

Now–here we are again at MESA in Washington DC–witnessing a change of atmosphere–an openness which we never experienced before. One harbinger of this openness was my chance meeting with Ralph Jaeckel–Professor of Turkic languages at UCLA during the MESA general meeting–that is–the Presidential Address and Award Ceremony. Though we had avoided contact during the years I spent at UCLA–he now said "Hi" and offered for us to sit together. That evening he received the Mentoring Award for his long years of dedication to teaching Turkish–and I applauded–a bit surprised–but wholeheartedly. The Presidential Address was given by Ali Banuazizi–the outgoing president–an Iranian American scholar and Professor of Cultural Psychology at Boston College. The speech–titled "Sacrificing the Self and Others in the Way of God," was a daring journey into the concept of martyrdom and its Sunni interpretation into suicide bombing or contemporary acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. He spoke about the overblown and misrepresented conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis of the world–its politicization and use for personal political gains at the price of innocent lives. He pleaded with scholars of Islam to take a stance on this issue and help to put an end to terrorism.

When I had a chance to talk to him very briefly before the meeting–he said that I would be glad to know who was getting the Academic Freedom Award this year. As the Award was announced later in the evening–I realized what he meant. The Award went to Fatma Muge Gocek and Ronald Suny for their daring initiative to organize scholarly fora for Turkish and Armenian historians to discuss "the destruction of the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire" during WWI. This was the first time ever a MESA official–in this case Joe Stork–2005 CAFMENA (Committee for Academic Freedom on the Middle East and North Africa) chair–Human Rights Watch/Middle East–expressed this formulation about the events of 1915. Mind you–MESA did not use the G-word yet–but definitely took a huge step forward. Congratulations Muge! You certainly deserved the honor. I think most of us Armenia’s interested in Armenian-Turkish relations are familiar with her name as one of the organizers of the Bilgi Conference in Istanbul–as one of the three Turkish voices in a recent conference at UCLA organized by Richard Hovannisian–and for a closer circle–as the driving force behind the ongoing online dialogue of the listserve group.

But this is not all. I was particularly impressed by young Turkish scholars who explored the late Ottoman history with casual and unbiased references to the overwhelming Armenian presence in Turkey–especially when the topic was about the pre-WWI Missionary activities or tracing a map of old neighborhoods in Istanbul–for example. The presentations sometimes suffered because of the limited resources available to them. But a first step was taken. These scholars–mostly from US universities–had no doubt wondered during their research: So where are these Armenia’s now? What happened to all these Armenia’s in the Ottoman Empire after the War? A Jewish American scholar–art historian Carol Bertram had come face to face with this question while conducting her research about the architectural characteristics of Turkish houses in Amasia. To her inquiry about changing hands on these houses–she had received the most unexpected answers. Most of these houses had originally belonged to Armenia’s. After attracting the suspicion of the Amasia police and as she puts it "being invited out of the country" by the government–she promised herself to pursue the issue. Her presentation at the conference "Anchoring the Hosts of Ghosts: Istanbul and Armenian Pilgrimage Itinerary," was the result of her inquiry into the trips-visits-pilgrimages that Armen Aroyan has organized to Western Armenia (Eastern provinces of Turkey today) over the past twelve years–taking diasporan Armenia’s to the native towns and villages of their parents and grandparents–survivors of the Armenian genocide.

And finally–our own panel–"Ninety Years: The Armenian Genocide in Literature–Memoir–and Film," sponsored by the SAS–organized by Barlow Der-Mugrdechian of California State University–Fresno and chaired by Richard Hovannisian–was another showcase of this openness–as were the topics presented: Barlow Der-Mugrdechian "Across the Chasm: From Catastrophe to Creativity;" George B. Kooshian–Jr.–UCLA–"The Web of Hope: The Memoirs of George B. Kooshian;" Rubina Peroomian–UCLA–"Historical Memory: Threading the Contemporary Literature of Armenia;" Vahram Shemmasian–California State University–Northridge–"Literature–Film–and Genocide Denial: The case of Frantz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh."

The hall was almost full–with a mixed audience. There were no Turks sneaking in with tape-recorders. There were no Turkish–mostly female–students challenging the papers and articulating the official Turkish lines of denial. There were–however–Turks who asked questions and added their insight. Muge was one of them. The two-hour session lasted three hours (ours was the last of the evening). As I exited the room–my excitement was replaced almost immediately by ravenous hunger. I headed directly for the hotel restaurant where we had breakfast every day. It was a pleasant way to celebrate the successful ending of this year’s MESA conference.

But there was more to come. I could not help overhearing two men speaking two tables away from me. I couldn’t hear them very well–but the younger man kept repeating the word Armenian and referring to the Istanbul conference. I sharpened my ears; he was telling his companion how the conference was canceled at first–how a third venue was chosen to hold the conference–and how the Turkish Prime Minister had recommended for the conference to take place. My puzzlement was interrupted when Muge entered the restaurant with a group. After taking a table–she noticed me sitting alone and came to my table to invite me to join them. I declined–because I was almost done and they were just starting. On her way back she kissed and hugged the young fellow–the one talking about the Istanbul conference. They must have been close acquaintances. I grabbed the opportunity to approach them and told Muge I was dying to know who this young gentleman was and why he was talking about the Istanbul Conference. As Muge said my name–without waiting to be introduced–he took my hand saying "I am Koray Caliskanian. Pleased to meet you." We laughed–because by adding the "ian" to his name he was referring to the ongoing Turkish slander that whoever among Turkish scholars deviates from the official Turkish line in regards to the Armenian Question is either from a remote Armenian ancestry or is paid by the Armenian lobby. In no time–Muge had transferred my plate–the basket of bread–the butter–and my glass of water to their table–"ordered" me to sit with them and think about a joint panel for next year’s MESA.

Koray Caliskan–from the University of Bogazici–was the recipient of this year’s Malcom H. Kerr Dissertation Award announced the day before at the general meeting. He was sitting with Noubar Hovsepian–a professor at Chapman University in the City of Orange in California. The conversation that ensued was a topping on the pleasant experience I had during the few days at the conference. Koray was articulate–and humorous too–and freely criticized the Turkish government’s approach to the issue of the Armenian genocide. He had been a Teaching Assistant of Professor Hovsepian–I found out–and he joked about it. "Professor Hovsepian had two TA’s," he said. "I was one and the other an Israeli woman. It is funny–I told him one day. You have chosen your TA’s well. One has killed your ancestors–the other your wife’s." Hovsepian’s wife was Palestinian. In the end–when I asked the waitress for my check–my new Turkish friend adamantly refused to let me pay for my dinner. With embarrassment I gave in to his gentlemanly gesture. As I walked to my room–I was amazed of my own openness. For the first time–a Turkish gentleman had picked up my tab.

As I write this–I am flying back to my routine in LA–thinking about the turkey I have yet to buy and cook for 20 people the day after tomorrow. But I am taking along a pleasant impression with me. MESA is not–after all–the unfriendly atmosphere for modern Armenian subjects. Armenian scholars are not after all marginalized and often a neglected minority. Obviously–the majority of Turkish scholars–old pillars of this association–have not changed their position vis–vis the Armenian Question. Many panels still examine Turkish history within the same framework–with the same vantage point as in the past. But a window has opened–and the fresh air coming in is gradually clearing away the taboo of speaking about the Armenian genocide without the protective shield of "the so called."

1. This wording was used in a joint declaration of Allied Powers on May 24–1915 condemning the Turkish government for atrocities committed against Armenia’s. At the time when the word genocide was not coined yet–the principle of "Crimes Against Humanity" was being introduced. See Vahakn Dadrian–History of the Armenian Genocide–p. 216.

2. Alishan was a poet writing in English and Persian. In all his life of 54 years he remained obsessed by his grandmother’s ordeal during the Genocide and composed his best poems around that theme.

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