1206) We Grew Up With “Sevr Syndrome”

A new era is beginning for all of us

Alin Ozinyan, New Neighbors’ correspondent, is launching a series of interviews with the most prominent Turk intellectuals to know what they think about Turkey’s development prospects.

Elif Shafaq

Turkish writer Elif Shafaq was born in 1971 in Istanbul. As diplomat’s daughter, she spent her years of childhood and youth in European countries. She has graduated from Middle East Technical University’s international relations and political science faculty. In 2002, Elif Shafaq started giving classes at the U.S. Michigan University. Now she also works at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. . . . .

Working in the United States, meeting there Turk intellectuals whose views were completely different from Turkey’s official policy as well as talking to Armenian community representatives and learning their stories, Elif Shafaq started to take interest in Armenian Genocide. She has conducted studies in archives of Toronto’s Zoryan Institute.

Shafaq took an active part in the conference organized by Bilgi University and focused on the Armenian issue. In her latest book titled “Father and Illegitimate Child”, she stressed the importance of memory for the Turk nation, saying the only way to ease Armenians’ suffering is to cover the matter, since “the more Turks remember, the sooner Armenians will forget”. Shafaq’s novel is one of the highest-profile books in Turkey.

Shafaq’s views on some issues important to Turk community, including Armenian issue, prompted criticism from nationalists and accusations of treason and “anti-Kemalism”.

Today Shafaq, Orhan Pamuk and Yashar Kemal are considered as the most prominent Turk writers in Europe.

A.O. - What difficulties connected with your Turk identity did you face while living abroad for long years?

Sh. E. - The years spent in Spain had a tremendous influence on me. I attended a state college there and was the only Turk attendee, and my alias was “Turkish”. In such moments, one understands that besides his individuality and peculiarity, he also contains characteristics of his national identity.

I find it very dangerous to classify people by considering their national identity. There is nothing surprising in the fact that Turks living abroad are isolated from native residents. They are becoming harder-core patriots and religion devotees than their compatriots living in Turkey. But there is some part of their own fault in it. They should break the mould and unchain themselves.

We are inheritors of a multinational empire. That is why it is very natural that there are representatives of various ethnic groups in our families.

If people scrutinize their families background, they’ll see of what descent their ansestors were. It will become clear that somebody’s grandfather was Cherkez, another’s was Armenian or Curd... And this is a very positive phenomenon, since it enriches our culture. However, we tried to hide this for years and, as a result, everybody became alike. Unfortunately, this phenomenon was taken as the process of assimilation.

People tried to hide some facts but failed... And this is the main cause of current situation.

A.O. – What do you think do “My Grandmother” by Fehrije Chetin and “Migrant Children” by Irfan Palal, where they made revelation that their grandmothers were Armenians, constitute the examples proving this failure?

Sh. E. – These books had considerable influence on our community. Some journalists started writing that their families’ members are representatives of various nations. It becomes clear that a new era is coming for all of us.

I think these facts are taken easier in the eastern regions of Turkey because the residents of these areas are more familiar with the reality. Travelling to various places, one can hear “my grandmother was Armenian and always told us what happened then...”, another said “my grandfather married an orphan”. But there is a circle of elite intellectuals in Istanbul, who are absolutely indifferent to what is going on outside this city. To these hard-core adherents of certain ideology may be joined also journalists, diplomats and statesmen who are unwilling to hear any other opinion.

A.O. – What do you think about the process of Turkey’s entrance to European Union and what reforms must Turkey implement to join the union?

Sh. E. – I can say for sure that I welcome this process and I think this membership will be advantageous for both Turkey and for Europe. By accepting a Muslim country, European Union will prove the importance of various countries’ cultural variety in the society development process.

What for reforms, I can say for sure, I support them and think they must be implemented, but in order to drive our society to a higher level, not to comply with EU demands, as our community deserves to live at higher level. I think coverage of what happened in 1915 should be put on the agenda among other reforms.

I think all these reforms should be voluntary, not imposed. Otherwise, this process will only fuel nationalist sentiments.

A.O. – What do you think. has Turkey accomplished in paving a way for respecting human rights and building democracy?

Sh. E. – I think quite important steps have been taken, which aroused fear in some political and non-political circles.

Ideologies are thought to clash, thanks to which our future will form. One of this clash sides will be formed by those accepting Turkish cultural variety, considering themselves as world citizens and not equalizing their mind to Turkey’s borders, while the opposite camp will remain stuck to the eqalization and conservative stance. Europe’s stance will be very decisive. Political clashes happen here as well.

We’ll see who wins the victory here, since Eiropean winners will strengthen the supporters of their stance in various countries.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that all of us grew with “Sevr syndrome” and was taught that Turkey is surrounded by three seas and four foes. And this instinct bears a continuous nature.

A.O. – As diplomat’s daughter, you lived in Europe in 1980s. Can you call this period difficult? What did the word “Armenian” mean to you then?

Sh. E. – All of as have their personal dictionaries and every word in them has different meaning to each of us. That is why if you asked me then who an Armenian was, I would perhaps say “a dark person, armed terrorist who wants to kill my mother”.

I had obviously negative attitude toward Armenians, and was ready to hate them despite being unfamiliar with any Armenian.

A.O. – What studies and work related to Armenian-Turkish relations did you carry out before writing your “Father and Illegitimate Child” new novel ?

Sh. E. – I consider myself as a part of a network created by Turk and Armenian intellectuals for dialogue. I attach great importance to the network, since both sides are in need of ability to listen, since this is the only way for creating new bridges.
I want to say the following: the concept of “Armenian issue” is absent in my book. I do not like the very wording, because of its ugly sounding. What does Armenian issue or Curd issue mean?

Does it mean that Armenians conducted themselves wrongly in the past, and we try to solve this problem? People don’t understand anti-democratic policy of assimilation and mass loss of memory is obvious here. I take it this way and pay attention to the issues omitted and forgotten by official history.

A.O. – I drew inference from your book that both nations can’t adjust themselves to the present things, since Armenians, who can’t come to terms with the past, hold their ansestors’ memories and emotional experience and Turks have no idea about their past at all. That’s why a huge gap appeared between the two nations.

Sh. E. – Your conclusion is right. Both sides fail to perceive the present reality and extremism reigns on both sides. Especially the youth living out of Armenia have more extremist attitude toward Turk people than their ancestors who witnessed what happened in 1915 and went through considerable suffering. The older generation is not so hard-line and doesn’t treat everybody alike. There are Armenians who say that when Turks displaced them, some other Turks tried to save Armenians. However, the third breed leaves no room for speaking about Turks either good or bad. If we become able to speak about the 1915 openly, we’ll find here human conscience, not only tragedies.

It should also be said that Turk side has taken oversensitive stance on this matter. They don’t remember the past at all. New generation finds absolutely no connection between them and Ottoman Turkey epoch’s final stage.

A.O. – You are a writer and it is not your obligation to find solutions to these problems, but I think you point out something.

Sh. E. – I think this matter will be settled by the third breed. That’s why various readers can receive various addresses from my books. This is just what I wish.

When I was writing the book, my greatest wish was to stress the importance of memory, since memory brings also commitmnets. Considering that, the first step shiould be made by Turks, but I don’t mean the authorities or politicians. Individuals, scrutinizing their families background and putting aside their bias, will listen to their conscience. I am convinced that even this move will change many things.

I cordially wish Armenian youg generation not to limit themselves with past memories and to manage to forget cruelty of past days. But important is that to help Armenians forget the past, it is necessary to remind it to the Turks. The more Turks will remember and admit the past, the more Armenians will forget it.

When we become able to say “I understand you, I share your pain, I mourn with you and feel sadness for the past...”, we will bridge the gap between us. Doing this in my private live, I manage to find many Armenian friends.

A.O. – Halit Refit accused you of anti-Kemalism and “being so-called Turkish citizen”. Why can’t cerrtain persons have realistic approach to these issues instead of blaming those having it? People are still afraid of voicing their opinions openly in Turkey.

Sh. E. – Such people are guided by old instinct – they are looking for an internal enemy to blame him. There is certain sensitiveness to such things in Turkey. We don’t like critics and hate when they criticize Turkey from the outside.

Nationalist sentiments dominate not only among nationalists, but also among those saying they are Social Democrats, leftists, democrats or Kemalists. They are led by the same instinct. It is very dangerous when one doesn’t realize that he is a nationalist. Every time when the issue related to official record of 1915 events appears, this instinct takes force.

People blame me for writing in English. The same persons critisize me for using Ottoman words. They portray me as cultural traitor.

We don’t like to criticize and to be criticized. This reminds me a well-known “love or go away” saying. People don’t realise that criticism is the result of love. We criticize what we love and what we are concerned about...

Interview by Alin Ozinyan

New Neighbors


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