26 December 2006
We kept on wandering the streets of Yerevan. There's a new focal point in the heart of the city called "Gasgad" (cascade). The hill is trimmed and reshaped by interesting architecture, beautifully decorated with modern statues. The huge white stairwell with water fountains running down them is all reminiscent of a natural waterfall in a river or stream. The project was started all the way back in the '70s and isn't finished yet, and the cost must be enormous. . .
"This is the dream of wealthy American Armenian," a friend told me. "He invested billions of dollars here. Do you see that fat cat? He teases that it's a million dollar cat. But he believes that once whole complex (with shopping malls, cafes and restaurants) is finished, he will get piles of money. At the top of the Cascade, the Cafesjian Museum of Contemporary Art is under construction. You see, it's a popular place especially for foreigners to jog."
The huge black cat figure just in front of the Gasgad was really cute and it was our starting point. Looking at the hundreds of stairs to climb, I must have looked worried, so my friend told me we could take an elevator. But even with elevators it took us more than 15 minutes to get to the top.
In fact Yerevan seems to be an easy city without much traffic or pollution. Razdan River adds a unique beauty to Yerevan by cutting through the city and adding water cascades.
But more Yerevan hills remained to be climbed. There's another one, the one where you can find the genocide museum. We took a taxi to get there.
The most difficult thing in the world for a journalist must be visiting the genocide museum in Yerevan, especially if she's Turkish. I recall the words of an Armenian friend: "Don't tell people in the museum that you're from Turkey."
First we went through the entrance hall; the walls are all covered with pictures taken before 1915. You see the pictures of "western Armenian" cities. The Armenian population, schools, and churches of those years are given in detail.
The main hall is fuller. Thousands of pictures, documents, films and objects (skulls, for example) are exhibited. They're all focusing on the 1915 tragedy. One Armenian civil group member told me how the April 24 "genocide" commemoration ceremonies are held:
"Every year on April 24, the genocide commemoration starts in Yerevan and ends here in this museum. Thousands of students and people walk here. At the end of the commemoration ceremony the Turkish flag is set on fire. The commemoration lasts almost all day. Some years ago there wasn't any habit of burning the Turkish flag but recently they've done this."
Actually this is my second time visiting the museum, as I was here five years ago. But back then we were filming for the TV station I worked for, so we were guided there by the museum director, Lavrenti Baghrsegyan. He told us we were free to film anything we wanted, but this time museum officials told us not to take any pictures.
Documents and counter-documents
The documents in the museum are mainly based on these allegations:
1. Turks occupied Armenia and deported the Armenians.
2. The Turks systematically massacred Armenians starting after the 1877-78 Russo-Ottoman War.
3. From the beginning of 1915, the Turks methodically annihilated Armenians.
4. Talat Pasha (interior minister) gave secret commands for the annihilation of the Armenians.
5. 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the genocide.
What about the Turkish stance towards these allegations? Let's check what Turkish school textbooks say:
1. When the Turks came to Anatolia, no independent Armenia existed; thus, it's impossible to say that Turks occupied Armenian lands.
2. The Armenian riots following the Russo-Ottoman War in 1877-78 are important. Armenians revolted to attract the attention of the European Powers.
3. The events of 1915 were just a measure taken by the Ottoman government to provide security in its territories against the Armenians who stabbed the Ottoman Army in the back. Besides, the United Nations describes genocide as a government's intention to annihilate a race. There's no evidence to prove such an intention of the Ottoman government. The Ottoman archives are open to the historians, and any further investigation would reveal the facts.
4. Armenian historian Aram Andonian claimed that he found the confidential documents of Talat Pasha, and for many years these documents were cited as evidence of the so-called genocide. However, two Turkish historians studied those documents and proved them to be fakes.
5. The number of the Armenian casualties lacks any valid basis. It's said that 1.5 million Armenians were killed, but according to the Ottoman records, there were only 1.3 million Armenian inhabitants. If the total Armenian population was 1.3 million, it's impossible to kill 1.5 million. However, there's neither a method nor a record to count the Armenian casualties. For example, the head of the Armenian delegate at the 1920 Lausanne Conference, Bogos Nubar, stated that, at that time, 700,000 Armenians migrated to other countries and there were only 280,000 Armenians in Turkey."
Can history be so abstract?
On the way back to Yerevan I tried to judge what I saw seen there and the responses to it. I asked myself: "How can history be so abstract? How can historians, even the most distinguished and well-respected ones, be so relative?"
I honestly wished that a joint commission or dozens of joint commissions were formed to study the issue, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested. I think this is the only way the issue can be discussed openly.
Thank God in the afternoon I met a small group of academics and we talked about the issue. I'm certainly no expert, but as a journalist, I have an idea how things are in Turkey.
They told me about the difficulties they faced when they tried to do research in the Turkish archives, but their experience was long ago, back in 1990. So I suggest they should try it again, maybe even in cooperation with their Turkish or Turkish-Armenian counterparts.
Certainly they have their own hesitations. Maybe they think because they're Armenian, they won't be allowed to freely work in the Turkish archives.
But I can't believe such an obstacle could still exist in this globalized world.
"How could we trust Turkish and Turkish-Armenian scholars?" one asked.
So this question clearly indicates the reason behind the deadlock, namely a lack of trust.
I also asked their response to some well-known historians who reject the Armenian thesis (such as Justin McCarthy). They simply said, "They're paid by the Turkish government."
A wedding ceremony
So once again I was on the streets of Yerevan. This time I was accompanied with two young students -- Movses and Melisa, both Armenians, but one is from Syria, the other from Istanbul. Melisa told me about her own experience in Yerevan as a second year university student. "I have my own difficulties here too," she said. "When we discuss issues, they don't believe that these are my freely developed opinions, but that I act this way because I'm under pressure."
Movses is a skilled photographer who takes marvelous pictures. So walking the streets, by chance we came across a crowd in front of a cathedral. It was a wedding ceremony but it had just ended, so we rushed to the stairs, because at the end of the ceremony the young couple releases a pigeon. We took dozens of pictures.
The next day when I shared my impressions about the wedding with a young Armenian girl.
"It's a very embarrassing custom, but the next day the groom's mother comes and visits the couple," she told me. "Her aim is to see the sign of the bride's virginity. Once she's confident of this, she sends a red apple to her family. In turn, the bride's parents share the apple with their relatives. This is still an important custom, but we young people really hate this."
Tstesootyun (Goodbye) To Yerevan
On our last days in Yerevan, we had another appointment at Hracya Acharyan University. I was supposed to be meeting with journalism students in a workshop but there were many others from other faculties too. Another surprise was the presence of several students from Yerevan State University. They seem to be upset with the way their Rector Aram Simonyan cancelled an earlier meeting, as after that they were at almost every program I had scheduled.
When we discussed how the media covers things. I gave some examples from the Turkish media. Actually I'm critical on our own media, as I believe especially reporters should steer clear of stereotypes. I told them about the Armenian church recently being renovated at Akhtamar Island in Van. A professor told the students that even if the church is renovated there won't be any sign saying it was an Armenian church. Then I told them what I saw there with my own eyes. One student stood up and asked me:
"Our great-grandparents were all deported or massacred by Turks. All the students you see here can tell you this. So why don't you believe in the genocide yet?"
I tried to tell her that I understand their feelings.
"I believe that this was a great tragedy," I said, "but many people in Turkey believe the tragedy happened faced because of the unforeseen results of the deportation order. I'm not an expert on history, but I believe things should be openly discussed."
I give the example of last year's Armenian conference in Turkey, which was first cancelled but later with public pressure was moved to another venue. So I asked them what would be wrong if Turkish and Armenian historians got together and discussed the issues together, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested. Would it be the end of the world?
Just then someone stood up and said:
Then an argument started between that person and the program organizers.
"It was the dean of the international relations faculty who waned you to be correct," my translator told me. "Caucasus Center head Georgi Vanyan asked him, 'Why are you acting so rudely to a foreign guest? Is this the style of diplomacy you're teaching your international relations students?"
In fact it hadn't bothered me, but all those reactions told me how conditioned most Armenians are. We then left the meeting room, when the university rector offered us Ararat cognac, Armenian coffee and chocolates in his room.
We tried to leave the controversy behind us.
Yerevan is an interesting city with many different faces. One of them is the open bazaars, for example, and all the things they sell.
At one stand, you can see many leather products, jackets and so on. If you take a closer look you notice that most of these products are from Turkey, my Armenian Turkish friend Melisa told me.
"One day I really needed a jacket so I had to come here to shop," she said. "But the shopkeepers knew I wasn't Armenian, so they asked me: 'Where are you from?' When I told them I'm from Turkey, they all got mad and said to me, 'You must be crazy to buy things here. You see they're all from Turkey. Don't you see they're much more expensive?' "
Yes, the Turkish-Armenian border has been closed since 1993, since the Armenian invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, and no Turkish government has wanted to open it without at least a partial Armenian withdrawal.
In other stands you can find all kinds of spare parts for just about anything you could need. Seeing all that variety I remembered the flea markets in Ankara when I was a girl.
We kept on wandering the streets of Yerevan and reached the heart of the city, right on Liberty Square in front of the National Gallery.
I saw a huge poster of Andranik Pasha (*) in front of the gallery and remembered how also during this visit, I was interviewed on TV for a half-hour and the anchor asked me about him.
It's clear that Andranik Pasha is a great hero in the eyes of every Armenian, but they seem they don't care much about Hovhannes Katchaznouni, their first prime minister, who in 1923 gave a speech blaming his own people and country for creating the conditions for deportation through insurrection and provocation.
Actually I was very surprised to get such attention from the Armenian media during my 10-day stay in Yerevan. Especially after the TV show, many times people stopped me on the streets and shared their views with me.
Wandering the Yerevan streets we passed by the Opera Building with a statue of famous Armenian composer Aram Khatchaturian out in front. In every restaurant and cafe we heard the popular songs from Armenian singers, and I liked them a lot, because they had many elements in common with Turkish folkloric music.
I was lucky enough to meet a young Armenian pianist-composer, Artur Avanesov, and asked him why Armenia was seeking a new national anthem. He told me that he doesn't like the current anthem's words and music, so he's glad that for the change. He says, the new anthem will be based on a Khatchaturian composition but the lyrics haven't been settled because there are a number of different alternatives.
The existing national anthem's lyrics seem to allude to the tragic past. I wonder: What will be the next one be like?
ARMENIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM
Our fatherland, free and independent,
That lived from century to century
His children are calling
Free independent Armenia.
Here brother, for you a flag,
That I made with my hands
Nights I didn't sleep,
With tears I washed it
During our final hours in Yerevan, my last meeting was organized by the British Embassy in Yerevan. Listening to the British diplomat's words -- "Hatred doesn't help to create a new future, and both sides should at least be in contact" -- I wondered how long we will stay apart like this. Can't we digest each other's existence? Shall we keep on endlessly living in our virtual realities?
But I had no answer, so I said "tstesootyun" (goodbye) to Yerevan.
(*) Andranik Toros Ozanian was born in historic Shabin-Karahisar (80 miles northeast of Erzurum). He was destined to join the revolt against the Ottomans. At the age of 22, having lost his wife and two children, Andranik joined a partisan group formed in his hometown. Inspired by the group's ideas, Andranik went to Istanbul to meet those who had already been deeply involved in the movement. He readily accepted tasks assigned to him.
When Serob Aghbiur, the leader of a fighting group which Andranik had joined, was killed, Andranik was named leader. It was in 1901 when his fighting group held out in the Arakelots Vank against an overwhelmingly superior force that Andranik's name became famous for his effectiveness as a leader. There were many more similar occurrences to come. Andranik, at first, joined the Hunchak party; it was through party organization that he could be effective in securing men and materiel with which to carry on. But disagreement with party policies led Andranik to leave the Hunchak ranks and join the Dashnak party.
There too, when that party engaged in practices judged to be wrong in principle, Andranik resigned. During the period 1907-13, Andranik committed his energies to helping the Bulgarian revolt. In it he created an Armenian division, which brought distinction to itself by its effective participation. For his efforts Andranik was decorated and commissioned an officer. With World War I under way (1914-1918) Andranik went to the Caucasus and assisted in organizing Armenian battle units to fight the Turks alongside the Russian army units. In 1915 Andranik was named commander of all Armenian volunteer units within the Russian army.
25 December 2006
The New Anatolian