3031) Dispatches ( I-V) from Turkey By Khatchig Mouradian

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Re-Entering the River: Dispatches from Turkey (Part I)
ANKARA, Turkey (A.W.)—I am in Turkey again.

Let me rephrase that: I am in the Turkey of March 2010. Because, much like Heraclitus’s river, you can’t enter the same Turkey twice.

This is a country that is in constant change—change for the better and change for the worse, depending on when your toes touched the water . .

And this makes commentary on Turkey quite difficult and challenging. No matter how many commentaries one reads, or how many times one enters the river, when making predictions about Turkish politics, you might as well flip a coin. It’s anybody’s guess.

There is one statement that can be made quite safely: Turkey is at a crossroads. No matter when you say it, you are probably right. Sometimes I imagine Turkey as a person sitting at a crossroads (with a lot of baggage), while everyone else is flipping coins…

But I digress.

I am a member of a nine-member delegation of U.S. commentators and analysts visiting Turkey at the invitation of TEPAV (Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey). The editor of the Armenian Reporter, Emil Sanamyan, is also part of the delegation. We are scheduled to meet Turkish leaders and politicians in Ankara and Istanbul, and make a trip to Kars/Ani.

Over the next week, I will be reporting and sharing my experiences with the readers of the Armenian Weekly and Asbarez newspapers. My writings will resemble blog posts; the longer and more detailed reports and interviews will be published upon my return.

Now I have to wrestle jetlag and try to recover from a full day up in the air and in airports.

See you tomorrow!

‘Memleketine Hosgeldin’: Dispatches from Turkey (Part II)

“So what will I do tomorrow? If necessary,
I will tell them ‘come on, back to your country’…
I will do it. Why? They are not my citizens.
I am not obliged to keep them in my country.
Those actions [genocide resolutions] unfortunately
have a negative impact on our sincere attitudes.”

—Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan

ANKARA, Turkey—“Memleketine hosgeldin” (roughly, “welcome to your country”). That’s what a Turkish journalist said to me in a message upon learning of my arrival to Turkey on March 17. Knowing her, she was not simply extending a welcome note.

Which brings me to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to deport Armenians from Turkey. Not all Armenians, mind you. The “good Armenians” get to stay. Only the citizens of Armenia, the “poor Armenians” working in Turkey, would be deported. (Erdogan has put their number at 100,000, but it is considerably less than that—and that’s not a secret. A Turkish newspaper editor I talked to today said their number does not exceed 15,000).

As I, among others, have argued elsewhere:

Turkish diplomats and commentators do not view Armenians as a single monolithic block, but as three supposedly homogeneous blocks. The Armenians living in Turkey (mainly in Istanbul) comprise the first group. These are, mostly, the descendants of the thousands of Armenians living in Istanbul during the genocide who were spared deportations and killings, because they lived in a metropolitan city, right under the nose of Western embassies, consulates, and missionaries.

These Armenians today cannot even commemorate the genocide. In Turkey, these Armenians are regarded as “our Armenians” or the “good Armenians,” as long as they do not speak out about the genocide and the continued discrimination they face. A prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was assassinated in 2007 because he was an outspoken critic of the Turkish establishment and called for the recognition of the suffering of the Armenians. The citizens of Armenia, the second group, are, according to the dominant rhetoric in Turkey, the “neighbors” [the “poor Armenians”] who are under difficult economic conditions and do not mind forgetting the past and moving on, if the Armenian Diaspora leaves them alone. The Diaspora Armenians, the third group, are the “bad Armenians.” They are Turkey’s sworn enemies. They level accusations of genocide against Turks and try to undermine Turkey. These three stereotypes essentially describe the perception of most Turks. There is absolute ignorance and disregard to the plight of the genocide survivors and their descendants who were scattered around the world and rebuilt their communities after living in camps and in abject poverty, facing the threat of disease and death years after the genocide. In discussions in Turkey, the Diaspora Armenians—the descendants of genocide victims and survivors—need to be isolated and ignored. This is yet another example of official Turkey’s reluctance to face the past and address the roots of the problem.

Erdogan’s threat is, of course, empty. It would be a huge scandal to deport Armenians from Turkey, and would constitute a chilling reminder of what is referred to by the Turkish state as the “deportations” of Armenians almost a century ago (although the threat itself was enough to evoke such thoughts). But why make such a threat if it can’t be executed and reminds everyone of late-Ottoman history with a shudder? Is this a failed effort to brandish Turkey’s “benevolence” like a gun internationally? Or is politics, here too, local?

Several commentators I talked to here think it is the latter. Erdogan, they say, was talking to the street: To those who would love to hear a discourse of “Let us teach those Armenians a lesson.” One commentator noted, “I have not seen any other politician who does so much good for this country and causes so much damage at the same time!”

The deportation threat is front-page news here in Turkey, and was the topic of conversation among many people I talked to—or overheard on the street. There is a joke going around in Ankara that the Turkish Foreign Ministry—which is currently trying to calm the international and local outcry—should in fact be called the Ministry of Damage Control because of the work it has to engage in every now and then, when Erdogan makes such statements.

Although in private, it was clear that those who do not subscribe to racist agendas found Erdogan’s threat unnecessary at the least, there were also many who publicly criticized Erdogan. There was at least one small demonstration against the anti-Armenian rhetoric by Erdogan and others. It was reported that the chairman of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, Ozturk Turkdogan, said: “These remarks could lead some people to think that to expel people is a 2010 version of forced migration. This mentality is far from human rights-oriented thinking. People have the right to work, and this is universal. There are many Turkish workers all over the world; does it mean that Turkey will accept their expulsion when there is an international problem? Secondly, these remarks are discriminatory; there are many workers in Turkey of different nationalities.”

It was in this atmosphere that, on March 18, our delegation met with the vice-chairman of the main opposition party in Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the vice chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Reha Denemec. The protocols and the Armenian Genocide Resolution figured prominently during both meetings. We will publish a report on these meetings on March 19.

Meeting with Turkish President Gul: Dispatches from Turkey (Part III)
ANKARA, Turkey—Our delegation of nine commentators and journalists from the U.S. (including two Armenians) met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Fri., March 19. Also present at the meeting was the Turkish ambassador to the U.S., Namik Tan, who was recalled after the House Foreign Affairs Committee vote on the Armenian Genocide. During most of the 45-minute meeting held at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, the only two issues the president discussed or answered questions about were related to the Armenian Genocide and Iran.

In his introductory remarks, the president of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), M. Rifat Hisarciklioglu, said to the president: “One of the members of the American delegation, Khatchig Mouradian, speaks Turkish with an Istanbul accent, even though he wasn’t born in Turkey.”

After that, Gul was told that the two main topics consistently on the agenda during the delegation’s meeting were the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s Iran policy. He allocated a considerable amount of time to talk about Turkey’s official policies on those two issues. (We will publish a detailed report on Gul’s remarks later this weekend).

Answering a question by my colleague Emil Sanamyan, Gul said that Turks, Armenians, and others all experienced a great tragedy during World War I. He noted, “Millions of Turks were deported from the Balkans after living there for hundreds of years, and three million of them were killed in the process.”

At the end of the meeting, as photographers took pictures of the delegation, I approached President Gul, who greeted me in Turkish. I told him (also in Turkish):

“I learned Turkish because my grandparents and other elderly women who were survivors of the Armenian Genocide used to speak the language. Armenians had nothing to do with the fate of the Turks in the Balkans, nor do they deny what happened to the Turks in the Balkans. Most of those who survived 1915 are dead now. But what do you say to the few survivors who are still alive and waiting for acknowledgment from Turkey?”

Gul insisted that he understands the pain and suffering of all those who were killed during the tragedies.

Minutes later, as I was leaving the hall, he added, “My best regards to the elderly.”

Kars, Kars, Kars: Dispatches from Turkey (Part IV)
KARS, Turkey—I arrived in Kars this afternoon and checked in to my hotel room. This was my fourth day in Turkey and I had already seen and heard a lifetime’s worth of outrageous things (and, to be fair, I also had many great moments). But nothing had shaken me—yet.

My first stop was the 10th-century Armenian Church Sourp Arakelots.

I looked at Kars through my hotel window. The entire city was looking back at me. A bare tree nearby with several crows perched on it caught my attention.

And there and then, I broke down in tears. A bare tree and a few crows had done what no one and nothing else had been able to do over the past few days.

My first stop after leaving the hotel was the 10th-century Armenian Church, Sourp Arakelots (St. Apostles Church) in the Kale Ici neighborhood. The church was turned into a mosque, now called the Kumbet Mosque.

I removed my shoes at the entrance (as required when entering mosques) and went in. A local was praying. After an initial hesitation, I silently said my Hayr Mer (the Lord’s Prayer).

It felt like I had never prayed before.

Voir Ani et Mourir: Dispatches from Turkey (Part V)

Have you ever felt, after arriving somewhere, as if your entire life was a gravitation towards that particular destination?

Ani is a monumental reminder that Turks do not need to go very far to face their past. She is staring at them with a piercing look every single day.

This is not the “all roads lead to Rome” kind of sensation. It is rather as if all the roads you thought you consciously took in your life to get to this or that place, were unconsciously taken to reach that specific, fateful destination.

Sunday, March 21, my fifth day in Turkey, witnessed that kind of an arrival for me. I was among the ruins of Ani.

Ani, once the glorious capital of an Armenian kingdom, was luring me towards her for thirty years, it seemed.

It felt I had learned walking only to one day walk here.

If you’re looking for glorious monuments, look elsewhere. Ani has been grieving her lost glory for centuries. The stones of many of her majestic churches have now become building blocks for uninspiring (an understatement) houses in nearby villages. Her scars are only covered with newer scars that are covered with even newer ones.

Here, the distortion of history is as striking as the scars of Ani. There is not a single mention of Armenians on the Ministry of Tourism signs and placards. People from Krypton could have built those churches for all we know.

A horse’s feces at the entrance of one of Ani’s churches was a powerful reminder of her place in this country (see photo). It reminded me of the fecal matter I saw at one of the 1915 mass graves I had visited in the Syrian desert of Der Zor last September. Back then, I told the Economist “Donkeys are now defecating on the bones of my forefathers. They were not allowed dignity, not even in death” (Bones to Pick, The Economist, Oct. 8, 2009).

A horse’s feces at the entrance of one of Ani’s churches was a powerful reminder of her place in this country. (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)

Nearby, the ruins of a bridge on Akhourian—the river that demarcates the borders between Turkey and Armenia today—is a chilling reminder of the state of affairs between the two countries. If you are not sure exactly why Turks and Armenians are nowhere near “normalization,” ask Ani.

During my stay in Turkey, I learned about several initiatives to renovate Armenian cultural monuments (from Malatya to Diyarbekir to Ani). TEPAV, the think tank that invited me alongside a group of eight American experts to Turkey, is planning to renovate the bridge on Akhourian, and, after that, other structures and monuments.

The Turkish state can’t bring back those who lost their lives during the massacres and genocide, but if it is genuinely interested in mending fences with Armenians (as I was told it was by top officials of the current administration), perhaps it should start by creating a conducive environment in which the thousands of Armenian architectural structures across the country can be renovated, and their authenticity preserved. Reparations for the genocide (a topic many progressive intellectuals I met here are comfortable discussing these days publicly, and even more so, during private conversations—something which was almost impossible only a few years ago), is not only about returning confiscated land, property, and money.

Ani is a monumental reminder that Turks do not need to go very far to face their past. She is staring at them with a piercing look every single day.

“To see Venice and die,” they say. We, Armenians can easily say the same about Ani.

I won’t.

Because Ani is worth living for. Ani is worth revisiting. And Ani is worth every drop of sweat you and I can spend to make it rise from the ashes and feces.

Khatchig Mouradian is a journalist, writer and translator. He was an editor of the Lebanese-Armenian Aztag Daily from 2000 to 2007, when he moved to Boston and became the editor of the Armenian Weekly. He is a PhD student in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. His articles, interviews and poems have appeared in many publications worldwide. Many of his writings have been translated into more than 10 languages. He contributes regularly to a number of U.S. and European publications. He has lectured extensively and participated in conferences in Armenia, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Austria, Switzerland, Norway and the U.S. He has presented papers on genocide and the media at several academic conferences such as the 5th and 6th Workshops on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship, held at NYU in 2006 and at the Graduate Institute in Geneva in 2008; the 2009 International Conference on Genocide and International Law at haigazian University in Beirut, and the 2009 MESA conference in Boston. He is a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS). His translations include Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist" published by Hamazkayin in 2004. The book was launched in Yerevan, Armenia in the presence of Coelho and Mouradian..


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