BY HENRY ASTARJIAN
Yes, it was a meeting, but not a “historic meeting” as posted by the Friends of Hrant Dink, the organizers of an academic event entitled “Closing the Divide.”
The event was designed to build cultural bridges between the Armenian Diaspora on one side and the Turkish people on the other, to traverse a colossal gorge, not divide, created by centuries of slavery, abuse, colonization of Western Armenia, and pogroms, which peaked with the infamous genocide of 1915-23.
The meeting took place in, of all places, the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center (ACEC) in Watertown, Mass., a hub of the Armenian cultural activities.
The luminary in this event was the principle speaker, Hasan Cemal, who was to talk about his “recent trip to Yerevan and the memories about his grandfather [Jemal Pasha].” Additional reflections were to be articulated by two professors, Taner Akcam of Clark University and Asbed Kotchikian of Bentley University.
I am not sure what the organizers were trying to accomplish. Some 25 million of Turkey’s population, the Kurds, knew firsthand about the genocide because they witnessed it, actually committed the killings, or else kidnapped our daughters and later married them to their sons. Most Turks are aware of the genocide, and they rationalize it because, as Ataturk’s propaganda has it, the genocide was a necessary policy carried out to protect the Vatan (Fatherland) from Russian invasion (which was supposedly exploiting the rebellious Armenians to divide and defeat Turkey).
Yes, the people of Turkey—the Turk, the Kurd, the Lezgis, the Chechen, the Greek; the Sunnis, Shiites, and the Alevis—all know about the Armenian Genocide. Most importantly, the governments of Turkey have known about the genocide from the beginning, yet have refused to face the reality, and have muzzled the Turkish intelligentsia and people of conscience from discussing Turkey’s criminal past.
Inhabitants of Turkey know about the genocide. They all felt it on their skin when their doctors, pharmacists, professors, architects, the artisans and other skilled workers were no longer there, overnight. The same was felt in Iraq, when the Jews left to Israel in 1949.
I know a Turkish doctor from Elazig (Kharpert region, Mamourat el-Asiz) who swore to God he overheard this conversation between two elderly Turks, sitting outside a mosque chatting about old times. One of them said: “I asked Avedis to come to my house for protection. Me and my friend killed this giavour oghlu giavour (infidel, son of infidel). I took his jacket and my friend took his shalvar, and we dumped the body.”
It is accurate to say that the Armenian Diaspora knows Turkey better than Turkey knows the Diaspora. Armenians do not trust Turks and the Turkish government. Their so-called “Europeanization” is only a veneer; the real Turkey has been exposed in many ways, many times. In the early 90’s, they let the people of Armenia freeze to frost when they prevented oil from reaching the country. People cut trees to cook and get some warmth to avoid hypothermia. The Turks blockaded passage of international food aid to starving Armenia; and when they gave in to international pressure, they exchanged the donated good quality wheat with a cheaper one, before it got to Armenia.
Turgut Ozel, the president of Turkey at the time, contemplated “hitting Armenia with a couple of missiles, and claiming mistakes for doing it.” Two days later he died, and Armenian folklore considers that as God’s punishment.
These are only a fraction of the facts that paint Turkey’s portrait with us; there is much more. The Turkish government and people of Turkey must come clean; they must wash their hands of Armenian blood. People-to-people dialogue, though well intentioned, will not bridge the gorge, despite Cemal’s attempts to find common ground. Shared food recipes for dolma and chigkufta, make a weak bridge leading to a recipe for yalanci dolma (fake, meatless, stuffed grape leaves): It is a naive diplomacy. The message, which is noble in itself, is not practical because rapprochement between our two peoples, does not and will not change the policies of the Turkish government, which is driven by its own agenda of hegemony of the region, and by the big power’s designs over the Caucasus.
It is evident that the issue is political. The dynamics of this game will change in favor of understanding and friendship, if Turkey quits resisting the recognition of the genocide and acknowledges its reality, and if Turkey quits de-facto support of the Azeris on Karabagh. After that, we can talk about the borders.
Hasan Cemal, who has been badgered by Turkey because of his book The Kurds, is the wrong messenger for the message he is advocating. First, he is in the wrong place; he should sell his ideas in Turkey, not in the Armenian Diaspora. Second, intellectuals can never change policy; neither can he. Intellectuals rarely get to a governing power anywhere (an exception is Vaslav Haavel in Czechoslovakia). Similar writers and intellectuals in Turkey—like Yasar Kemal, Ayse Nur, and her husband Ragip Zarakolu, even the lighthearted Aziz Nesin, to name a few—suffered and still suffer the wrath of the reactionary governing establishment. Third, he carries a big chip on his shoulder. He is the grandson of a war criminal “Sakalli (Bearded) Jemal Pasha,” who as the third member of a criminal gang formed of Enver, and Talat, members of the Ittihad ve Tarraqi (CUP-Committee of Union and Progress), shared the responsibility of implementing the genocide. He also committed war crimes against the Arab intellectuals in Aleppo by holding kangaroo courts, then hanging 12 of them headed by Dr. Abdul-Rahman el-Khalil, within 24 hours of the lower court’s decision; he did not allow them appeal, as required by law, and did not wait to obtain the approval of Istanbul, as required. In the Arab annals, he is known as the saffah (blood-thirsty, indiscriminate executioner).
Now, I am not naive enough to saddle Hasan with his grandfather’s criminal past. I have no doubts about his decency and sincerity; however, that enigma will never disappear if he does not condemn his grandfather’s deeds, outright. That is a bitter pill to swallow, but that is the means to fortify his message. Otherwise this whole project could be construed as being Yalanci Dolma Diplomacy.