21 September 2007
1983) Turkish - Armenian Peace Link A Small Step For A Great Goal - Turkish-Armenian Dialogue of Boston
What Does Dialogue Mean to Us
Dialogue is a process that provides a safe space for respectful, open and honest conversation geared towards increasing understanding of issues, feelings, cultures and historical narratives, as well as forming relationships and finding constructive ways to move forward.
Why We Meet
To understand other side's way of thinking
To challenge prejudices and negative stereotypes
To move beyond common modes of behavior in Turkish/Armenian encounters: either ignoring the subject or avoiding the conversation
To move from confrontational mode to constructive discussion
To define, undefine, redefine who we are, what we think as Armenians, Turks and individuals
And of course, to form friendships
Where do we come from
Members of our dialogue group come from diverse backgrounds. The group is comprised of students and young professionals from Boston area dedicated to finding ways and means of improving the modern day Turkish-Armenian relations. In addition to having members from Turkey and Armenia, we have representation from the United States and the Armenian American diaspora.
Dialogue Participants Fall 2005
Idil Akyol, Nanore Barsoumian, Mustafa Canli, Zeynep Civcik, Karoun Demirjian, Ceren Ergenç, Phil Gamaghelyan, Isabella Jean, Jacob Olidort, Daniel Moses, Inessa Shishmanyan, Mehmet Tarzi, Gor Zakaryan.
Dialogue Participants Spring 2006
Zeynep Civcik, Turkey
School of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis Univeristy
I am a first year Ph.D student at Brandeis University, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department. This dialogue is important to me because I always believe that the problems between the nations or countries should not affect the relations between the individuals. I had not met any Armenians before this diaolgue and I really wanted to meet Armenians to understand how they feel and what they think about the Turks. I am very happy to be friends with them and discuss very very sensitive-emotional issues with them without getting upset. This is such a naive and nice attempt to put aside every single stereotype about both nations and have a friendly and respectful relationship. I am so glad to be a part of this dialogue.
Phil Gamaghelyan, Armenia
MA in Coexistence and Conflict. Brandeis Univeristy
As a Conflict Resolution practitioner, I have been working with Arab/Israeli, Indian/Pakistani and other dialogue projects when I realized that being an Armenian, it was somewhat hypocritical of me to promote the idea of dialogue among others as the only way toward lasting and mutually acceptable solutions to any conflict, while Armenians are overwhelmingly refusing to enter into dialogue with Turks. The usual interaction of Armenians with Turks is limited to putting political pressure on the Turkish government to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish/Armenian dialogue group was a chance for me, at least on the personal level, to break this destructive pattern of interaction of either avoiding or confronting Turks. Despite all our differences, during our sessions we were able to find a friendly and emphatic way of dealing with our disagreements and sharing our deepest feelings and concerns. In a process we formed some very strong friendships. Our experience gives me a great hope that a more constructive relationship between Turks and Armenians, both on the individual and societal level, is very much possible.
Ceren Ergenc, Turkey
Boston University, PhD, Political Science
I’m a student of Political Science, working on theories of nationalism and collective memory. I’m particularly interested in how the history is reconstructed and manipulated for contemporary political purposes. Apparently, the Turkish-Armenian conflict constitutes a case study for such field of interest. However, my primary motivation to join this project was not academic but truly personal/emotional. Since I had n ever encountered negative attitudes towards myself because of my nationality before, I wasstunned by the unfriendly attitude of quite a few Armenians I met abroad. Since then, I’ve been longing to understand what makes these people of a significantly similar culture decline even to shake hands with me. The dialogue process provided me with insights about not only this question I’ve been asking to myself but also about many other things I had previously failed to see. The best of all, in the dialogue we have not only developed strong friendships but also a capacity to deal with communication problems that we might face in any sphere of our lives.
Gor Zakaryan, Armenia
International Business School, Brandeis University
Having come to the United States for receiving higher education, I met many fellow Turkish students with whom I made great friends. However, espacially during the earlier years of my studies, I always felt a great tension when talking to a Turkish friend. I guess, it was also due to the fact that this was the time I first encountered a Turkish person in my life. By mutual understanding, my Turkish friends and I always avoided discussing any sensitve topics between us despite the fact that I would greatly enjoy listenning to what the Turkish young people have to say. During all four years of my undergraduate studies, I did not have one chance of discussing the modern day Turkish-Armenian relations with my friends. After starting my graduate studies at Brandeis University, I heard about the Turkish-Armenian dialogue group that was just being established. I was very glad to join to group hoping to break that tension that I always felt and having the chance to talk to Turkish students in the area about our past, present, and future. The dialogue group has given my the opportunity to do so, teaching me a great deal about Turkey and Turkish culture and openning a new horizon of understanding the issues surrounding our nations.
Mehmet Tarzi, Turkey
Tufts University, B.A. International Relations and Philosophy
Born and raised in a secular family in Istanbul, I came to the US at the age of 18 to attend Tufts University. I didn't learn a great deal about the Armenian issue while I was in Turkey, but of course I remember family discussions about the issue and discussions at my high school. This is one of the reasons why I was shocked to see the extreme unfriendlieness between Turks and Armenians while I was in the US. I can't generalize this of course; I had and still have very close Armenian friends at Tufts. The dialogue group enabled me to better understand the Armenian claims and to see the issue from their side. Although I reject the 'genocide' claims, the sensitivity of the issue for my Armenian friends made me really sensitive on this issue as well. However, I am not optimistic for the future of Turkish-Armenian relations as long as extreme demands, ideas and actions continue to dominate the relations, at least on the political level and somewhat on the individual level.
Pertshouhi Torosyan, Armenia
University of Iowa
I am a recent graduate of University of Iowa International Studies and Economics program. Being raised in Armenia I have been exposed to the conflict from early childhood. I have heard many historic and personal opinions about the issue, yet all of them have been coming from the Armenian side. Having received my higher education in the United States, I acquired friendships with students from different backgrounds including those from Turkey. This is when I realized that I have never had an opportunity to discus the issue of the Turkish-Armenian conflict with Turks. Although I was not optimistic about the possibility of a frank dialogue, I was amazed to discover the level of sincerity and openness the dialogues had. I truly believe that the core of the conflict has to be resolved not on a political level but rather amongst people of the countries, and our dialogue group has helped me to gradually achieve this goal on a personal level.
Marina Pevzer, Israel
Group Facilitator. Fletcher School, Tufts University
I was born in Estonia and moved to Israel with my family as a child. I came to United States to pursue my formal education at Brandeis University as a Slifka Coexistence Scholar. Since then I have also graduated from the Fletcher School, Tufts University with a Master in Law and Diplomacy. For the last eight years I have facilitated, trained and established dialogue processes in the Israeli-Palestinian context, among Indian and Pakistani students in the United States, in Sri-Lanka and in Georgia (the country). During the past year I had the honor to serve as a facilitator and trainer of this dialogue group. I saw the group evolve from strangers to friends who respect each other’s opinions and willing to challenge their own perceptions and stands even when conversations turned difficult and touched on painful topics. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience for all of us and I learned a lot from working with this group and most importantly I made new and close friends with whom I hope to continue relationship for life. I look forward to seeing new groups emerge and go through similar (or different), but all incredibly rewarding experiences of learning about each other’s opinions, cultures, perceptions of the history and conflict and finding new and creative ways to reach understanding.
In September 2005, two Brandeis graduate students, Phil Gamaghelyan from Armenia and Zeynep Civcik from Turkey, decided to organize a dialogue group for Turkish and Armenian students studying in Boston. Soon they were joined by Marina Pevzner who would serve as the facilitator of the group. In early October 2005 few Armenian students and few Turkish students met in uni-national groups with Marina, Phil and Zeynep to discuss their expectations from the dialogue and their concerns. In late October the group had its first joint meeting.
Joint Meeting #1
During that meeting we discussed administrative issues and set the ground rules and our expectations. We decided to meet once a week for two hours at Tufts, Brandeis or Harvard. We also decided that each week one of the participants will volunteer to write weekly summaries. This report is a result of these summaries.
The members of the group had the following expectations: to exchange different views and feelings; to try to understand the issue from both sides; to develop mutual respect; to be able to challenge one's perceptions; to get to know the cultural backgrounds; not the "judge" but to "challenge"; if needed, in the end write an article or a report on the dialogue.
The members were concerned about: people being rude and offending each other personally; interruptions; not respecting each other's views and feelings; participants not attending the meetings regularly.
We also established the following ground rules: regular participation; respect for each other; no interruptions; keeping the discussions confidential, i.e. quoting anyone outside the group only with that person's permission.
We spent the next few meetings trying to learn more about each other with a help of various confidence building exercises introduced by our facilitator.
We also tried to develop an understanding of what is an ‘active listening’. We agreed that it includes staying close to person's story and keeping eye contact; focusing on specifics, such as time, place, person etc; attending to language, i.e. be aware that the same word might have different connotation in different cultures and languages; listening from a position of not knowing; asking specific questions that are short and easy to understand; trying not to interpret the intensions of the speaker according to ones own stereotypes; trying not to project ones own 'baggage'/experience from the past/identity on the speaker.....
We went on discussing our identities: this gave the group a chance to practice the 'listening skills', but also to tell the group how we see ourselves (ethnicity, religion, culture, values, gender, feelings, ideology, background etc etc etc) and learn how other see us.
Then we had a discussion about stereotypes: first we discussed what we understand by telling stereotype. Later the Turkish and Armenian groups wrote their stereotypes toward each other as well as the stereotypes that they thought ‘the others’ had toward them. The Turkish stereotypes about the Armenians were: belief of betrayal; existence of Armenian terrorist groups; perception that they are politically hostile. Turkish members had no stereotypes about Armenians on a personal level.
A perception that Armenians intensely hate Turks was mentioned as a stereotype that Turkish participants thought that Armenians have toward Turks.
The Armenians came up with positive as well as negative stereotypes about Turks. The POSITIVE stereotypes included: good, tolerant past ("millet system"); secular Muslims. NEGATIVE ones were: Turk = Azeri = Barbarian; "Enemy" (innate); Peasant, uneducated; Pan-Turkism (invaders, dreams of occupying neighboring countries); Deniers of "genocide".
According to the Armenian perspective, the Stereotypes that Turks might have toward Armenians included: NEGATIVE: "Fifth Columnists"; Not loyal citizens; liars; manipulators of history for material gain. POSITIVE: People of the Book (monotheism); middle-man minority.
Group members proposed topics that we would like to discuss. Despite a strong desire from the part of some participants to discuss the contemporary problems, it was decided that the groups have to try to confront the historical issues first.
The Turkish and the Armenian groups developed historical timelines, writing down chronologically the events that according to their opinion had influenced Turkish-Armenian relations over the centuries. Then the group jointly went on discussing what the uni-national groups have produced.
One thing became clear right away – even when addressing the same event in history, the focus and the highlights in the Armenian and the Turkish timelines was very different. Each timeline would show something that was important for their side, while ignoring other important historical developments. The Armenian group started from 301 AD – the adoption of Christianity as official religion. The Turkish group started from 1071, the Battle of Manzikert (Malazgirt). Before the meeting ended, the group discussed the historical events during the Middle Ages and reached the late 19 th century and decided to discuss the 20 th century during the next meeting.
During this meting we tried to address the hardest topic: Turkish-Armenian relations in late 19 th – early 20 th centuries. The discussion fast became heated. Strong disagreements emerged not only between the Turkish and the Armenian groups, but also within each group. Some personal and family stories from 1915 were shared. As many would confess later, the stories had a very strong impact on everyone.
As the meeting progressed, the usual friendly (maybe just polite?) atmosphere of previous meetings disappeared and many of us started to adopt increasingly radicalizing positions. Finally the time of the meeting came to the end, but the conversation was far from being over. Many participants left frustrated, with doubts about whether or not they still want to be part of the dialogue.
Quite unfortunately, this happened to be the last meeting of the fall 2005 semester, which left us with no choice but to wait till the end of winter vacations to continue the discussion.
The First Party
Quite fortunately, although we had no more conversations regarding history that year, but we also didn’t end up the year on a minor note and we held a farewell party hosted by our lovely facilitator.
Meetings #7 and #8
When we returned we found out that a noticeable number of participants have left the group. We were facing a dilemma: to start recruiting a new group and start from ‘ground zero’ or to continue where we left the meeting with the smaller group. It was decided to continue with the smaller group for the time being and recruit a new group in fall 2006.
Another problem the group was facing was the fact that the facilitator of our 2005 meetings could not be present during most of the meetings. Initially we tried to continue without a facilitator, but after only one meting (Meeting #11 below) we realized that the conversation was getting out of control and we were risking killing the group. After that it was decided that for each meeting when the facilitator would not be present, one of the group members would assume the role of the facilitator.
We reevaluated what dialogue meant for us, how far we came and where we wanted to go. Some of the things that were expressed: to understand better ‘other’s’ point of view; to eliminate prejudices and negative stereotypes; to acknowledging the existence of ‘the elephant in the room’ and to move beyond superficiality and the typical modes of behavior when Turks and Armenians meet either confronting or ignoring each other or avoiding the issue; to define, undefined, redefine who we are, what we think as Armenians, Turks and individuals;
To create: a safe space where we can discuss our differences; a place for conversation without pre-set boundaries as individuals who can make their own decisions; friendships despite all the differences.
We decided to create a web-site. We also tried to produce some joint document. The ‘Statement of Understanding’ was written (YOU CAN FIND IT IN THE VERY END OF THIS SUMMARY)
We continued discussing the timeline from where we left it, i.e. '1915'. To make things even harder, this was our first meeting without facilitator.
We started great, exploring the issue of importance of the 'genocide recognition' for the Armenians, then tried to define what we mean by 'genocide' and whether the UN definition is acceptable (not for this case, but as a definition). Then we tried to recall how this part of the history was covered in Armenian and Turkish schools and Universities.
Then the discussion became increasingly heated and the tension grew. Within 15-20 min we jumped back and fourth from topics like ethnic discrimination against Armenians and the Armenian rebellion to whether there was a Bulgarian Genocide and then to what was the role of the Ottoman government in Armenian massacres to questioning the capacity and the motivation of the Ottoman state to commit a Genocide to the massacres of Muslims by Armenian guerrillas etc. Soon most of us were 'triggered' by one or more sentences that we heard from others. Not having a chance to ask for clarifications or try to understand each other, we rushed into a chaotic debate when at least three people would speak (or rather shout?) at the same time. Others felt increasingly alienated. Eventually one of the participants asked to stop the discussion. Most agreed. But a lot remained unsaid and the atmosphere was charged with a negative energy.
Fortunately, we didn’t leave the room like that. To preserve our group and our relationships, we all engaged in a friendly conversation with other participants whose words caused our emotional outbreak. Many issues were clarified, many realized and confessed that the reason of becoming emotional was either a misunderstanding or a projection of some 'baggage' from our past. In the end of the day we left with shattered nerves (even the nonsmokers smoked), but having achieved a mini-reconciliation on a personal level.
Our regular facilitator still wasn’t present and one of the group members took the role of the facilitator.
The discussion started somewhat tense due to last Sunday's uncomfortable
meeting, yet it turned out to be a very pleasant and fulfilling day.
A question was raised: should we try to deal with our difficulties ourselves or should we always have an outside facilitator? Group members had different opinions about this issue.
Then, in order to understand what went wrong during the last meeting and how to avoid similar situations in the future we shared how we felt about the last meeting. Then we revisited our ground rules. It turned out that the rules where commonly neglected. Interruption was agreed to be one of the worst violations of the rules. We all agreed that interrupting one another led to disrespect, hence misunderstanding. A decision was made to post the ground walls somewhere visually accessible for everyone so they could remind us have a more respectful and civil conversations.
The silent withdrawal of some of the participants from the conversation during the sessions was noted to increase tensions in the room. Also, some members of the group confessed that now when most of us became friends, it was increasingly harder to honestly discuss sensitive issues, since they were afraid that the disagreements would affect our relationships. We decided that we can deal with this dilemma if we ALWAYS let others know when we are upset and share our reason for being upset. As a result, a new ground rule was introduced: never leave the room without sharing our upsets and with important things remaining unsaid.
Another lesson from the Meeting #11 was the realization that whenever we are pushed to a corner, each of us tend to adopt a rather radical position and feel a need to be patriotic and defend it’s side, even if s/he does not believe in what s/he is advocating.
Overall, everyone felt that this meeting was highly successful and friendly.
We resolved the unpleasant residue of the last meeting and made tremendous progress in understanding one another.
We continued discussing the timeline and covered most of the 20 th century. We had no major disagreements here. Instead it became apparent that priorities for Turks and Armenians in learning history were very different. What was important for the Armenians was often hardly familiar to the Turks and vice versa.
Armenians were most familiar with the Sevres Treaty, while Turks knew better the Lausanne Treaty. Then, we discussed the Wealth taxation of minorities in Turkey in 1946 and September 6th & 7 th events: was these nonsystematic unfortunate or a part of the Turkification project? Then we talked about the 1965-1977 period in the Armenian timeline. Soviet Union’ repression of the genocide subject, the 50th anniversary of the genocide and the creation of the memorials, repatriation. The revival of the Armenian parties abroad and their transformation into a pro-genocide recognition force. We discussed the ASALA issue: the fact that terrorism was a popular means of publicity in 70’s, 80’s (IRA, ETA,etc) was mentioned.
Our facilitator was back for this session and we decided to reevaluate yet another time our performance, including the unfortunate session #11 and our ability/inability to deal with crisis situation. We had a very detailed and productive analysis of past few meetings and came to a conclusion that everything happened for good. The explosion during the Meeting #11 helped us to break away from our ‘politeness’ and our desire not to hurt others. Our subsequent steps, our ability to resolve the conflict on our own, without a help from our facilitator have empowered the group. Since that day the quality of the relationships in the group changed. One can say that we finally became a group. Now we were able to discuss any topic, even the most sensitive one, express our honest views and disagreements, strongly challenge each other, but still manage to have pleasant conversations and strengthen our friendship.
We ended the meeting by most of the participants sharing some very personal family stories: stories that had a very strong impact on every one of us.
We met at home of one of our participants. We discussed how one should address such highly sensitive problems as the once that are underlying the Turkish-Armenian conflict: from rational/pragmatic or emotional/moral standpoint? As an example we discussed a recent lecture by Taner Akcam and Vahagn Dardarian. Akcam argued from a realist and pragmatic standpoint, arguing that Turkey should recognize the genocide not for the humanitarian and moral reasons, but for strategic reasons like entering the EU. Dardarian's speech was more emotional. It was noted that that those Turkish scholars who acknowledge the Armenian Genocide usually explain this with strategic necessity, while the Armenians expect an apology based on morality.
To point out further how the emotions and pragmatism can be in conflict, some of the Armenian participants remembered that they numerous times received the same email forwarded by various Armenian friends, asking to vote "no" on some poll regarding Turkey's EU membership, while even the government of Armenia stated publicly that Turkish EU membership would be beneficial for Armenia. In other words although the Turkey’s EU membership was strategically beneficial for Armenia, Armenians opposed it derived from an emotional satisfaction to see Turkey fail. It was argued further that in this case for Armenians the emotions were so strong that it was impossible, even for the government, to fully separate morals from strategy and to approach this conflict strictly strategically.
If was also argued that when the moral and strategic concerns did not reconcile, it leads to extremist behavior.
Then we watched A. Goldberg’s documentary on PBS called "The Armenian Genocide" and talked about how we felt while watching it and what we thought about it.
The group members reflected on almost a year of our joint work noting our progress, outlining new directions.
Between the meetings #16 and #17 the Turkish members of the group offered to put all our differences aside and joined the Armenian members in participating in some April 24 commemoration event. One of the Turkish members who does not consider the events of 1915 a genocide, stressed that irrespective of the details or of who is to blame, what happened during WWI was a great tragedy for Turks, Armenians and the rest of the humanity alike and the memory of the innocent victims had to be honored and commemorated. We all agreed.
The meeting #17 was the last one for the 2005-2006 academic year. The atmosphere was very friendly and a little sad. Every one realized that this was the end of the group as we knew it, the end of a very though, but productive year that generated many disturbing, but also pleasant memorable moments.
We had achieved all we were hoping to achieve in the beginning of our journey. We even went few steps further: we were able to exchange our very different views and feelings; we were able to see the problem by the eyes of the ‘other side’ and develop strong empathy toward each others feelings, fears and concerns; we develop mutual respect and were able to challenge our own perceptions. More importantly, we developed some very strong friendships.
In terms of tangible outcomes, the group achieved the following:
A coordinating group consisting of three Armenian and three Turkish students was formed in order to organize another dialogue group involving new participants during the 2006-2007 academic year;
The members of the coordinating group attended facilitation training to be able to run the meeting of the 2006-2007;
A web-site was created: www.turkisharmenian.com ;
A listserv that connects all of the former and current members of the group is functioning;
Ceren Ergenc from Turkey and Phil Gamaghelyan from Armenia are jointly writing a research paper for a conference in South Africa titled ‘Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness - Reflecting on 10 years of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ http://www.trc10.co.za/index.html
STATEMENT OF UNDERSTANDING: Turkish-Armenian Dialogue
Who we are?
We are a group of Turkish and Armenian students and young professionals from Boston area who come together on a weekly basis to discuss sensitive issues concerning Turkish-Armenian relationship in the past, present and future. Our purpose is not to advocate any particular point of view but rather to explore diverse opinions among ourselves. We welcome anyone who is interested discussing these issues with us within the spirit of dialogue.
What does dialogue mean to us?
Dialogue is a process that provides a safe space for respectful, open and honest conversation geared towards increasing understanding of issues, feelings, cultures and historical narratives, forming relationships and finding constructive ways to move forward.
Why we meet
To understand other side’s ways of thinking
To challenge prejudices and negative stereotypes
To move beyond common modes of behavior in Turkish/ Armenian encounters: either ignoring the subject or avoiding the conversation
To move from confrontational mode to constructive discussion
To form friendships
To define, undefine, redefine who we are, what we think as Armenians, Turks and individuals
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