Winter 2011 Vol:XIII-2
Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide By Ece Temelkuran
London: Verso, 2010, 256 pp., $26.95, paperback, $16
Reviewed by G. M. Goshgarian
In a sober, balanced sketch of the history and historiography of the 1915 Armenian genocide included in a two-part article on Turkey published in the London Review of Books in September 2008, Perry Anderson notes that the perpetrators’ academic defenders have largely abandoned a discredited strategy of blanket denial for one of minimization or relativization, now increasingly discredited in its turn. He might have added that there has been a shift from genocide denial unabashed to genocide denial light in non-academic writing as well. The difference is that, outside the university, efforts at relativization or minimization continue to enjoy credit in the unlikeliest places. Verso, for example, has just released one: Ece Temelkuran’s Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide, a translation of some lightly upgraded newspaper journalism that began life in the mainstream Turkish daily Milliyet in 2006 and appeared in book form in Turkey two years later. The cover blurb touts it as a "nuanced and moving exploration of the living history [of] and continuing dispute on the Armenian genocide." The reformers at the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Armenian Desk should sit up and take notice. If a radical left publisher in Britain finds genocide denial light nuanced and moving, are the politically more tolerant friends of Turkey’s admission to the European Union not certain to gobble it up? And if it allows Turkey to duck its historical responsibilities quite as effectively as the cruder kind does, what harm does it do to let the bien-pensant Armenophiles at home flatter their sense that they are "pok[ing] a stick into the wheel of the world" (151) by restyling and repackaging the basic line?
Verso is one reason to take the time to denounce Deep Mountain. A publishing house that has long honored its commitment to promoting critical left thought should not be promoting critical variations on standing Turkish foreign policy. If its baffling endorsement of Deep Mountain stems from the ignorance of things Armenian betokened by the reference to "the Armenian community of Venice Beach" on prominent display in the first line of its blurb, it is not too late for it to say so, and back up. (There is no Armenian community to speak of in Venice Beach.) Ignorance, in this case, would be the best possible excuse. If it has knowingly put its imprimatur on relativization of genocide, it ought to be summoned to say why.
Temelkuran’s association with the Turkish left’s ongoing reassessment of the Armenian question is the other reason to notice Deep Mountain. The leaders of the nascent Kemalist Republic, many of whom had Armenian blood on their hands, undertook to blot the mass murder from the historical record; their post-Kemalist heirs are still at it. Many self-identified leftists in Turkey have long countenanced the cover-up or even half-justified the crime. Indications are that much of the fragmented left is now facing up to the task of exposing both. Temelkuran, a professed "democratic," "internationalist" "socialist" (90), plainly conceives Deep Mountain as part of its attempt to set things to rights. Yet much of what is to be found in her text — the remark is intended neither as provocation nor as insult, but as a demonstrable statement of fact — is akin to latter-day national-socialist treatments of the Holocaust. Whence the interest of calling attention to the contradiction: wider discussion of it may help spark a badly needed clarification of the ambiguities muddying the political and ideological movement that has spawned Temelkuran’s book.
Those ambiguities haunt two recent manifestations of a shift in Turkish leftists’ attitude toward the genocide. One is the ongoing protest against Hrant Dink’s January 2007 assassination and the Turkish state’s complicity in the crime. Dink was the Turkish-Armenian editor-in-chief of a bilingual weekly that he founded in Istanbul in 1996. Long persecuted by the right for helping to make the once unmentionable 1915 events a matter of guarded yet broad public discussion in Turkey, he was, for the same reason, convicted of violating a 2005 law (Article 301 of the Penal Code) against "denigrating Turkishness," left without police protection despite his complaints about an intensifying barrage of threats on his life, and then executed in Istanbul by a teenager almost certainly acting at the behest of Turkey’s "deep state," a nationalist network ensconced in the army, police, and administration. After his funeral, tens of thousands of people marched through Istanbul’s streets to cries of "We are all Armenians, we are all Hrant Dink." The left-liberal Dink has since become something of a cult figure for the still fragile movement for democratization in Turkey; pressuring the Turkish judiciary to bring his murderers to justice has become one focus of a growing struggle against the state/deep state violence that has cost countless Turkish citizens their lives.
As surprising as the wave of solidarity with Dink was a public apology by individual Turks to Armenians for the "Great Catastrophe" of 1915, coupled with a condemnation of Turkey’s continuing denial of it. Posted on the internet in December 2008, it was signed by some thirty thousand Turks over the next few weeks.
Initiators and signatories were protected from prosecution under Article 301 because the term chosen to designate the crime, a common name for it in Armenian, patently avoided identifying it as a genocide. The statement was nevertheless iconoclastic enough, by Turkish standards, to prompt the Turkish Prime Minister publicly to distance himself from it.
Armenian reaction to the apology and the demonstrations of solidarity with Dink has been measured. It is often noted, to begin with, that these actions reflect the views of a small minority in Turkey. Express refusals to apologize or demands for an Armenian apology, posted on the internet early in 2009 and reportedly signed by 100,000 people, show where majority opinion lies, as does the climate of nationalist, anti-Armenian and anti-Kurdish hysteria that set in across Turkey after Dink’s death. But even the critical minority’s campaign to put paid to a one hundred year-old falsification, it is argued, has to be evaluated cautiously, because limits on freedom of speech in Turkey, with sanctions ranging from fines and imprisonment to torture and assassination, make it hard to discern moderation imposed by the state and its deep-state auxiliaries from voluntary approval of state policy. Thus the word the initiators of the internet apology chose to designate the destruction of the Western Armenians, "catastrophe," is not irreconcilable with official descriptions of the genocide as a terrible tragedy that befell the disloyal Armenians because the state had hastily to resettle them, not least for their own protection, and thus to conduct them through forbidding regions controlled by unruly Kurdish tribes, under the same adverse wartime conditions that cost many more Muslims their lives. Article 301, in other words, may have allowed many who signed the internet statement (and raged against Article 301) to marry an apology for the "Great Catastrophe" to an apologetics for it, while conveniently prohibiting them from saying what they preferred not to: that the deportation and mass killing was a genocide, and/or that it calls for concrete, not just verbal, redress.
Temelkuran put her name to the apology, and she puts her book under the sign of her admiration for her friend and mentor Hrant. The skeptics will be pointing to the consonance of her aims with those of her Foreign Ministry and shouting that they told us so. Thus Temelkuran 1) indirectly justifies, in Part I of Deep Mountain, Ankara’s main policy objective vis-à-vis Armenia, a normalization of diplomatic and economic relations without prior recognition of the genocide; 2) firmly condemns, in Part II, a proposed French law, which Ankara is fighting tooth and nail, to make denial of the Armenian genocide a crime, as Holocaust denial already is; and 3) faithfully reproduces, in Part III, Turkish diplomacy’s and the Turkish mass media’s stock image of the mighty U.S. Armenian lobby and the fanaticized Diasporan masses at its beck and call. More generally, she downplays issues of responsibility and reparations, and banishes the very thought that redress might involve territorial adjustments.
As for her main positive prescription, Turkish-Armenian "dialogue" without preconditions, it is useful to know, when assessing it, that the arsenal of measures with which Ankara has long battled international recognition of the genocide, ranging from economic reprisals to suspension of military agreements, has for the past five years been crowned by a standing offer to create an Armenian-Turkish historical commission charged with determining what really happened in 1915. Ankara’s objective is to reinforce the false impression that the reality of the genocide is widely disputed by historians, while allowing the Turks to point to joint scholarly deliberations — or, failing that, their willingness and the Armenians’ refusal to engage in them — as proof of the good faith and open mind they bring to resolving the "‘genocide’ issue." Temelkuran’s objective, she says, is to teach Armenians and Turks how to throw off the Mountain of Pain (the Turkish name for Mt. Ararat and the original title of her book) under which they both still labor because of whatever happened. The short form of her lesson is: let them talk about their "genocide" all they want, and listen sympathetically to their tales of woe until they finally get tired and stop. A certain family resemblance between that proposal and Ankara’s is hard to miss. Her humanist justification for hers, to be sure, is her own: only dialogue will allow the two sides to dissolve their differences in their Common Humanity. The purity of her intentions is beyond doubt. That does not necessarily recommend them.
Before forgetting good intentions in order to concentrate on what they pave the way for, let us look at a passage that illustrates both. It is a plea for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation. Addressed by the author, qua "conciliatory Turk," to a representative — that is, not yet conciliatory — imaginary Diasporan Armenian, it is manifestly intended as a grand goodwill gesture: "I’d like, one day, to be able to sit and drink raki with you [in Turkey]... and talk about our history, whether it be ‘glorious’ or ‘black,’ with light hearts and light words. I want us to put it behind us, and I want us to have children who don’t have to know about what we’re going through now" (256).
If you aren’t familiar enough with "our [Turks’ and Armenians’] history" to grasp why this confession is unlikely to disarm the distrustful, take any mass murder you know better. Grandpa was gassed in Sobibor, Grandma was raped for four years running and therefore not gassed, and you’ve just received, courtesy of Verso, a friendly little invitation to enjoy a beer and a bit of light-hearted banter about the whole bothersome business back home in Berlin with the best-selling author of Across the German-Jewish Divide. "Traumatised by accusation" (162), she’d like you to help her get over "whatever happened" (238) for good and all. Fair-minded to a fault, she’s willing, even eager, to help you to heal the trauma of "constant victimisation" (162) in exchange. More: she generously offers to let bygones be bygones, for the children’s sake, in accents bespeaking her awareness of the fundamental human decency of her gesture. She even takes the trouble to assure you, in mid-peroration, that she keeps an open mind as to whether Germany’s treatment of the Jews was, on balance, "‘glorious’ or ‘black.’" Is that not, as the blurb gushes, "nuanced and moving"?
It is not, at any rate, a momentary lapse. The passage is showcased at the very end of Deep Mountain. Temelkuran means it, just the way it stands. The proof is that the style and substance of the coda are in perfect harmony with the rest.
The rest sounds like this: "This is our [Turks’ and Armenians’] common history, something that happened to us all, whether or not you use the term genocide or blame a particular side. We have to recognize that, on a human level, there is still great pain over what happened — for all of us" (237).
That ecumenical celebration of our common human suffering has its historiographic corollary. While it is an indubitable certitude, in Deep Mountain, that it happened to us all, it is equally certain that, a century later, we do not at all know what happened. In that sense, we have, not a common, but two distinct histories, represented on "two distinct historical timelines," Armenian and Turkish. "The highlights" on them are "completely different" (151). We must, then, forge a common history of our common suffering. How? "We can create a common history only if we appreciate the importance of historical events on both sides" (238).
If the timelines involved are the usual two, this injunction is strictly comparable to a plea to evaluate Auschwitz with an eye to the Wannsee Conference on the one hand and, on the other, the Jews’ perfidious betrayal of the Reich in collusion with the Bolsheviks and international finance capital. The formulation which has it that "what happened" happened to those who were murdered in the camps and to those who murdered them there is admissible, or not, in the case of the World War I genocide of the Armenians and Assyrians exactly as it is admissible or not in the case of the World War II genocide of the Jews and Roma. The same holds for the casual suspension of the ancillary question as to which "particular side," murdered or murdering, was to blame for the murder. As for the bid to dissolve the distinctions between genocide and the "great pain" of World War in the night in which all wartime horrors are gray, it has its analogue in accounts in which the fire-bombing of Dresden, the 1945 massacres of Sudeten Germans, German misery after the war, and life and death in the camps count as equivalent ordeals. In short, Deep Mountain’s general conclusions about World War I and the Armenian genocide recall those of familiar revisionist histories of World War II and the Jewish genocide — with the difference that they are rather more extreme, and come, not from the nationalist right, but from the "internationalist socialist" left.
The informed will have concluded that Temelkuran makes the genocide a "general and mutual massacre of the peoples of the East" that led to the extirpation of one of the mutually massacring sides, to cite an apology for the ethnic cleansing of Van Province that appeared as Deep Mountain was taking shape. Her book certainly accommodates that kind of historical argument, proffered by Justin McCarthy and others. It does not, however, make this claim, or any other. It is not history or, in any rational sense of the word, argument; it literally reveals no more about 1915 events in Anatolia, microhistorical or macrohistorical, than Hamlet does. Rather, it presents itself as a report on interviews about Armenian-Turkish relations and therefore, inevitably, attitudes toward the genocide, interviews which Temelkuran conducted in 2006-07 with mainly prominent Armenians (and a few token Turks) in Armenia, France, and the United States. The aim, she affirms, is "to give the Turkish public as ... accurate a picture as possible of the varying views ... of Armenians in both Armenia itself and the Diaspora" (x) — an admirable project that would have been well served by letting the Armenians involved speak for themselves. Temelkuran prefers relentlessly to filter, paraphrase, and gloss whatever they might actually have said — a procedure she describes as "bringing to [her] task less objectivity but more insight than would be the case for a Western journalist" (x) — in pursuit of a different goal. It is to make her material illustrate a century of struggle between the friends and foes of Turkish-Armenian dialogue. She thus makes an argument about history after all, evaluating it with the help of a criterion applicable in the absence of all direct reference to actual historical events. It runs: a statement about history is true if it fosters dialogue. This leaves room for interpretation: how do we know whether it does? Deep Mountain’s answer, the criterion of the criterion, runs: a statement about history fosters dialogue, and is therefore true, if it is proffered by one of the "Beautiful People," "people like Hrant, people like us who believe in dialogue" (180). It is even truer if it can somehow be attributed to Hrant himself.
An example will show how this validating principle is applied. It is not Temelkuran, but a rare Turkish interviewee who declares, on behalf of the Turks in her Turkish-Armenian discussion group, that "what happened" "happened to us all," so that we must jointly write a two-timeline "common history." Her membership in the group already strongly suggests that she is a person like Hrant and us. This is proven, as is the idea that it happened to us all, etc., when, immediately after citing her, Temelkuran points up a certain similarity between that idea and one she assigns Hrant: "that’s what Hrant meant when he used to say that whatever happened had happened to us all, and that we shared the same history" (238). Q.E.D.
Let us leave aside the question as to whether that’s what Hrant really meant and, if so, why the people who had him shot did not, instead, hire him on. For present purposes, it suffices to note that not all Armenians are Ece Temelkuran’s Hrant Dink. Many are, rather, "hardline sectarians" (180), also known as "shouters" (153, 248). These Armenian enemies of dialogue routinely identify themselves as such by rudely "thrusting" Turks such as Temelkuran "into the position of someone who has to ‘deny’ or ‘recognize’ genocide" (208). An interminable parade of them winds its way through Deep Mountain. It includes the Yerevan "rocker" who asks her to leave his bar unless she "recognizes the genocide" (25), although — paradoxically, for her — it is adorned with a huge Che Guevara poster; the children gathered at the Yerevan Genocide Memorial who scandalize her by asking, when they learn she is Turkish, whether she recognizes the genocide (29); and the "elderly couple" (151) disinclined even to put that question or any other to the young Milliyet reporter waiting expectantly outside their Paris bookstore, apparently because they have gathered that she does not quite recognize the genocide. Spanning the generations, the Armenian hardliners also span the political and social spectrum, from the little world of former members and sympathizers of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (one of whom, unbeknown to Temelkuran, owns that Yerevan bar) through the ranks of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, "the most hardline leftist organization in Armenian political history" (220; the ARF is in fact a social-democratic party that furnished the Second International with a vice-president last year) to a leader of the neo-liberal ruling party in France, Patrick Devedjian (who acted as defense counsel for a comrade of the Yerevan bar owner tried in France in 1986 for Secret Army activity, thus bringing us full circle). In a word, Deep Mountain’s readers are invited to watch Temelkuran making the ostensibly shocking discovery, from Yerevan to Los Angeles, of something she surely knew before she set out: a majority of Armenians right, left, and center, of both sexes and all ages, in Armenia and the Diaspora, are, by Deep Mountain definition, hardline sectarian shouters and shriekers.
Temelkuran by no means denies that the Armenian fanatics who insist on genocide recognition have their opposite numbers on the other side of the Turkish-Armenian divide. One of her central theses, in fact, is that there are "hardline sectarians positioned on opposing sides of the same game" (180). The Turkish sectarians are the ultra-nationalists and fascists. Whence a fine distinction. "Those who assault writers as they’re hauled into court," Temelkuran declares (perhaps thinking of the thugs who tried to attack Orhan Pamuk when he was brought to court under Article 301 in December 2005 for affirming in an interview that "we killed a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds") "are no more representative of my people than those who chant ‘Recognize the genocide or get lost!’ are representative of all the Armenians living in distant lands" (99, emphasis added). The "all" is all-important: it indicates that the Armenian-Turkish divide runs between a representative majority of Armenian extremists and an atypical minority of ultra-nationalist Turks. That may explain why Deep Mountain’s "illuminating look at the part nationalism plays in the way we see ourselves and others" (the blurb) is essentially a look at the blinding effects of Armenian nationalism on Armenians. The Turkish shouters are neither named nor described, let alone interviewed. Despite the subtitle (for which the author may bear no blame), Deep Mountain is thus about, not the Turkish-Armenian, but the Armenian-Armenian divide.
Better, it is about two Armenian-Armenian divides. For the hardline Armenian majority is itself divided. Most hardliners, as will appear, are at least a little "like us." The worst aren’t. They are a race of calculators, a race apart. The reaction they elicit from Temelkuran’s photographer, assigned the role of the sturdy Turkish yeoman in Deep Mountain, speaks volumes. After a brief glimpse of the species and "what makes it tick," the honest fellow cannot bear to hear his GPS pronounce the word "Recalculating!" (187). The calculators form a subset of a somewhat larger coterie of cosmopolitan Armenian Los Angelenos. They are "the very picture of the ‘sitting pretty’ Armenian Diaspora as painted in Turkey." This pack of "wealthy businessmen and lawyers" "live in luxury" in their adopted country, meet "poolside" in posh Los Angeles restaurants, smoke "long, thick cigars," and speak in "exaggerated American accents" about "figures and dollars" (213-4). The irredeemable among them, true to their unnatural natures, insist on appearing anonymously in Temelkuran’s book and "are not at all that interested in talking to" her (they do not care about Armenian-Turkish dialogue). She dubs them Mr. Smithian and Mr. Brownian. They are, respectively, an "extremely influential figure in Armenian lobbying circles" and his "powerful, wealthy friend," "prominent not only in Armenian circles but on the national political scene as well." Both boast that they "enjoy increasing influence over policy and politicians" in the United States (182-4). The reader will get the picture, even if he has never heard of Armenians.
What do Smithian and Brownian and their ilk want? Ask, first, what they do not want. They do not want to "go into any details about what happened in 1915." They do not want "to talk about dialogue, or mourning, or messy details" (185). They can rattle off the names of Anatolian towns, it is true, but they do not really care about the land, "the blood ... shed in the lands of Anatolia throughout history" (75) or "the people at one" with that "blood-soaked land" (5). The proof of this inhuman indifference to blood and soil? "They’d consider the [Armenian-Turkish] issue solved so long as they received reparations." These money-grubbers want greenbacks and nothing else: "millions of dollars." (Temelkuran, a down-home Anatolian sort for whom the logic of a Brownian’s calculations is in any case "incomprehensible," may have missed a few zeros: the grasping Armenian-Americans who filed a lawsuit against the Turkish government and two Turkish banks in U.S. Federal Court in late July 2010 are talking billions.) Brownian doesn’t beat around the bush: "We don’t want land, we want money!" (185). "Buying peace," Temelkuran exclaims, appalled; "how removed the sentiment is from the Middle East, how foreign ... to Turkey" (185-6).
Over against the Armenian hardliners, who are legion in Deep Mountain, stand those on the other side of the Armenian-Armenian divide, those who, by "leav[ing] the shouting to others" (239), provide living proof that it can be crossed. These people believe in dialogue, like Hrant. How do we know? Simple: they do not demand that Turks "‘recognize’" the genocide before establishing relations with them.
This category of dialogue-minded Armenians has its poetic and prosaic subdivisions. Temelkuran encountered many of the prosaically reasonable when she travelled to Yerevan in 2006 to gather material for what has become Deep Mountain, Part I. The timing of her trip was not accidental. Turkey had sealed its border with Armenia in 1993, aggravating the newly independent country’s already dire poverty. Now it was offering to lift its crushing economic blockade and establish normal relations, but only if Armenia dropped its insistence that Turkey first recognize the genocide. Milliyet sent Temelkuran east to reconnoiter. They "can’t have forgotten," someone may well have told her before she boarded the plane, "that the dispute over the ‘genocide issue’ is the main reason the border remains sealed" (49). Her generally sympathetic report on the country indicated that they had indeed not forgotten. Focusing on its economic misery, and giving good play to an interview with an economist and TV personality who set great hopes on a resumption of good-neighborly relations, it also showed that the Armenians had drawn the right lessons from Turkey’s economic warfare. "‘It’ll be great when the border’s open!’" a representative tired, poor Armenian woman excitedly exclaims. "‘For you and for us!’" "‘Tell [the people in Turkey],’ she seems to be saying, ‘tell them to open the border right away!’" (49).
Temelkuran told them, adding that this woman was hardly the only Armenian ready to "talk as though the border issue is completely unrelated to the ‘genocide issue’" (49). It remains to be seen whether Deep Mountain qualifies as prophecy. In October 2009, with Washington’s and Brussels’ benediction, Yerevan signed protocols with Ankara supposed to pave the way for a resumption of normal relations, going so far as to accept the idea of the Turkish-Armenian historical commission. In April 2010, the Armenian parliament — probably grateful for Turkish foot-dragging — froze ratification of them. There the matter stands.
Overwhelmed by Temelkuran’s convincing depictions of the ex-Soviet Armenians’ desperate economic plight, the Armenophile Turks who are her ideal readers will be hoping, for these poor people’s own good, that the ratification process comes unstuck. But they will also have noticed that the mainstay of Deep Mountain’s defense of Republican Armenian reason is a Turkish economic blockade. Like the objection that Part II repeatedly raises against the pending French bill to criminalize denial of the genocide — "Hrant Dink has warned" that "the Armenian community in Istanbul ... could face grave consequences if the law passes" (107) — an economic blockade, albeit a powerfully persuasive argument, is morally uninspiring. Deep Mountain aims to inspire and uplift. It therefore provides this crass coercive logic with its ennobling humanistic supplement.
That spiritual icing on the economic cake consists in the demonstration that there exists a subcategory of dialogue-minded Diasporan Armenians who want to put the 'genocide issue' aside, not to 'avoid economic collapse' (107) or other punishment, but of their own free will; their goal, like Hrant’s, is a dialogical, common-humanity relation with like-minded Turks. This brings us to Deep Mountain’s subtlest contribution to the intellectual arsenal of genocide denial: a fuzzy-logical defense of refusing to "recognize" the genocide that simultaneously constitutes a rejection of Ankara’s refusal not to "deny" it. Dry dialectics, you say? But they inspire Temelkuran's one outburst of rage: an impassioned plea against the bitter injustice of the law of the excluded middle. She is as staunchly opposed to it as she is to the proposed French law against genocide denial, and ultimately for the same reason. That reason is put in the mouth of a Beautiful Armenian, the psychoanalyst Hélène Piralian. When it comes to "denying" or "recognizing" the Armenian genocide, this "exquisite" (160) French-Armenian informs us on Temelkuran’s behalf, tertium datur (there is a third possibility).
"It is, of course, an injustice," Piralian is quoted as saying, "to divide a people into ‘deniers’ and ‘non-deniers.’ There are Turks whose reactions to the Armenian story fall into neither category" (162). It is of course an injustice for the same reason that it of course happened to us all: because saying so encourages Armenian-Turkish dialogue of the kind that people like Hrant, Hélène, and us are for. What kind of dialogue? "It isn’t about genocide or reparations" (164). It isn’t about territorial concessions, either — perish the thought: "land disputes are always resolved with blood" (217), and "‘Western Armenia’... has been under Ottoman or Turkish control since about 1500 CE" (217n), and, as Hrant once "thundered," "moved to tears": "‘Yes, we have our eyes on this land. But not to take it away — just to be buried deep within it!’" (223). About neither genocide nor reparations nor (for Armenians this side of the grave) land, the dialogue with conciliatory Turks like Temelkuran, to which any Armenian can gain admission by accepting the legitimacy of the non-denialist/non-non-denialist approach to "whatever happened," is about "wounds and healing" (164). Temelkuran would appear to concede, most of the time, that the wounds to be healed are mostly the Armenians’. From this it follows that the dialogue is of a special sort, so that it might be better "if we replaced ‘dialogue’ with a different word: listen. Listen in silence until they’ve said all they need to say" (235). This will "alleviate the burden of these conflicting versions of a shared past.... That’s what they need" (208).
"We," however, know that most of "them" do not know that "that’s what they need." Our fantasy therefore threatens to founder on the fact that the real supports of our imaginary relation are, on our own witness, mainly sectarian shouters, resistant to therapeutic dialogue with such as us. Deep Mountain proposes the classic humanist solution to this problem. It runs: 1) the basis on which we can "share [their] stories" is our "common humanity" (199); 2) de-Middle-Easternized Brownians and Smithians aside, even Armenian hardliners have a share in it; ergo 3) "people like us" can experience fleeting moments of communion even with hardliners. We may thus reasonably hope that they, too, will one day become willing partners in the all-embracing dialogue of reconciliation that will efface the Armenian-Armenian and, simultaneously, Armenian-Turkish divides. Meanwhile, it isn’t our fault if they haven’t come round.
The crucial corollary runs: Just as, in much of the world, our Common Humanity is Northern European, so in Eastern Turkey — Anatolia — our Common Humanity is Anatolian. With that, we have arrived at the fantasy that sustains the fantasy of therapeutic reconciliation, the one on which Deep Mountain ultimately rests.
Temelkuran did not invent it. Anatolianism is currently in vogue on one Turkish leftish fringe. In its innocuous adolescent Armenophile variants, it has its votaries swooning over Anatolian-Armenian folk rock, sobbing over Fethiye Çetin’s 2004 best-seller about her aged Anatolian-Turkish grandmother’s confession that she had been an Anatolian-Armenian as a girl (My Grandmother, Verso, 2008) and, in advanced cases, scouring the family tree in quest of that (latterly) badge of Bohemian-Stamboliot distinction, an Armenian grandmother of one’s own. In its deadly Deep Mountain strain, it is an elaboration of the conciliatory humanist’s first article of faith: we can come to terms with them because they are (almost) like us.
"Us," to be sure, is us Anatolians, not us Turks. Anatolia, however, has been under Ottoman or Turkish rule since about 1500 CE. How, then, do even Armenian hardliners signal that they have not ceased to be Anatolians and are therefore capable of one day crossing the Armenian-Turkish divide? They do so "as though sending out a signal flare of some kind." In the middle of "unemotional discussion[s] of dry matters," "all of a sudden, unaware perhaps of what they’re doing," they "recollect the ‘old brotherhood’ and launch into Turkish." This "happens to them all the time" (233). They continually and irrepressibly burst into Turkish song, or recite Turkish poetry, or pepper their conversation with phrases displaying an intimate, affectionate knowledge of things Turkish. Even when they don’t know that universalizing tongue, they smile at Temelkuran "in the language of Anatolia [Turkish]" (166). They sooner or later drop their affected European or American manner to become more warm and sincere, that is, more Turkish (as is indicated by the fact that these striking shifts to the genuinely human plane are "even more striking" in the case of those who "have once lived in Turkey" ).
And they dream of a mythical place called "Western Armenia" that Temelkuran plainly takes to be Turkey, because, troubled by their obsessive invocations of the former, she keeps asking them if they have ever visited the latter, and is repeatedly astounded to discover that many have not. For her, the conclusion is obvious: "the Diaspora is in love with the same country they fear" (163) — Turkey. Or, rather, Anatolia, and therefore also Turkey.
These imaginary relations with our imaginary relations form Deep Mountain’s deepest ground. They attest that what happened happened to us all because it happened to the fraternal union we once formed, restoration of which is the object of the fantasy of reconciliation between Diasporan Anatolians and the stay-at-homes. Better: Deep Mountain lets the Anatolian shouters themselves show, like signal flares, that that brotherly union persists in and through the Anatolian-Anatolian divide. "Something shameful happened that summer" of 1915. Shameful, indeed: Anatolian raised his hand against fellow Anatolian. (The Turkish Foreign Ministry calls this "civil strife.") "Who was guilty, who was stronger — it’s been talked over for ninety years." Yet, paradoxically, "we’re still not talking." About what? About the whole family’s "pain." "Would it not be better to talk about that," and "better to go slow"? After all, it’s only been ninety years. Moreover — or on the other hand — "our enemies" [that is, the foreign foes of us Anatolians] are profiting from our silly little spat about what to call our fraternal quarrel (99). As Hrant once thundered, these meddlers are passing laws on "genocide" and "genocide denial" in order "to obstruct dialogue between our people" (if you’re wondering whether the printer dropped an "s," you haven’t understood a thing). "If the label we attach to our pain makes it impossible to discuss that pain" (100), should we not, as patriotic Anatolians, forget about "mere labels," remember that we are "a people bound together by tales of Anatolia," and get on to the real, the only serious business to hand: telling and listening to those stories? It is a matter of some urgency: "our people have scattered, to Armenia, France, America, and who knows how many other places [our Anatolian people have scattered to Armenia?] — members of a Diaspora even in their own countries" (192).
It was necessary to reproduce this much of Temelkuran’s vision in order to make that last sentence comprehensible. Many a reader will still not have understood it. Those who have will also have understood that it is, at the discursive level — her manifestly good, internationalist intentions notwithstanding, there is unfortunately no avoiding the word — genocidal. One hopes the movement she belongs to will notice the fact, and point that out, not last to her.
As for Verso — it is perhaps time to send it a signal flare of some kind.
During Deep Mountain's book tour in Boston at Harvard University, Ece Temelkuran gave an interview to Gonca Sonmez Poole who is working on a documentary project regarding Hrant Dink
Chasing Dreams - Interview With Ece Temelkuran
21 January, 2011 Jamie Stern-Weiner
Ece Temelkuran is one of Turkey’s most prominent journalists. A recipient of the Turkish Journalist of the Year and the Pen for Peace awards, she is a persistent foe of right-wing nationalist currents in her country and has suffered death threats over her writings on the Kurds and the Armenians. Her most recent book, Deep Mountain, is a thoughtful reflection on the personal and communal politics of nationalism. Published in Turkish in 2008, and translated into English last year, the book explores ways of bypassing the formal politics of reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia through personal engagement between Turks and Armenians. Its value, in my view, lies primarily in its exposition of the subjective experience of nationalism and the ways in which personal and communal identity can become bound up with political demands.
I met with Ece in London late last year to talk about the book and its reception after publication.
What prompted you to write the book? What were you trying to do with it?
Basically, in the beginning, the idea was to speak to Turks and tell them about Armenians. Because they don’t really know anything about the Armenians. We are told not to learn anything about the Armenians and we are told not to be curious about the Armenians. So the basic idea, and the main goal, was, in the beginning, to talk about Armenians to the Turks.
But during the course of writing it the whole thing became ‘richer’ – it took on another aspect: retelling the stories of Armenians to Armenians themselves. Also, putting myself in the book as ‘the Turk’, ‘the traveller’ was about curing myself, as a Turk. Because I had been indifferent, numb to the whole issue. So I hoped that readers, both Turkish and Armenian, could come along with me and see what it means to be a Turk when it comes to the Armenian issue, and for Turks to see what it means to be Armenian. So while it was only for Turks in the beginning, it became more complicated.
You say that in Turkey people are encouraged to be indifferent to the issue – you write in the book that “a nation can forget en masse”. What are the mechanisms by which this takes place?
There is huge propaganda in the schools against Armenians, but it’s not only that. It’s on the street, it’s everywhere. ‘Armenian’ is a curse word in Turkish, still. And when you ask people about Armenians, you get this blank expression. It’s like you’ve entered the wrong password and their brain just stops, and the password is ‘Armenian’. They go blank. Especially in south-east Turkey, when you see an Armenian church and ask about it people will say ‘oh, it’s prehistoric’, although it dates back only to 1915. And when you insist on this question – ‘this is an Armenian church’, ‘where are the Armenians?’, etc. – if they don’t get angry with you they will say, ‘oh, the Armenians are gone. They are gone.’ And if you ask, ‘where did they go?’ ‘They went over the bridge’. And beyond that, it’s blank again. In Istanbul there are many Armenian buildings and you don’t really see them or think about them.
It’s not only about Armenians though. 1923, the year of the establishment of the Republic, is considered to be Year Zero. There was nothing before that. We built up this grandiose republic, which was completely clean and completely young. It’s this quite ambitious attitude that was present through the nation-building process.
I was born in Israel, and there are interesting parallels. On the one hand, because the actual fighting is ongoing and because some Palestinians remain within what is now Israel, people can’t just forget about their existence totally. But if you ask about certain aspects of the history, of 1948, people go blank and say ‘well, they left…’, and so on.
Nations can forget, when it’s more comfortable to forget. The thing is, they don’t really forget. There is a narrative which is written by some ‘ghost writers’ during the nation-building process and memorised by repetition. But even though nations can forget, people don’t – they still whisper to each other about Armenians. When you listen to south-eastern Turkish people they will tell you about Armenians and how their ancestors killed them. But when it comes to national discourse, there is this blankness.
For readers who aren’t familiar with the issue, can you briefly talk about the current political situation between Turkey and Armenia?
Yes, I think there is a market of conflicts in the world. There are ‘hip’ conflicts and not-so-cool conflicts. The other day one young journalist was talking about Kyrgyzstan and how people suffer there, and how nobody gives a fuck about it in Britain. And I said, yes, because it’s not a ‘cool’ conflict like, for instance, Darfur, which everybody around the world wants to be a get involved with, and they fund television advertisements about it, and so on. The Armenian issue is not one of those top-of-the-agenda conflicts – it comes up only every 21st April, the commemoration of 1915. That’s why nobody knows about it – not ‘nobody’, but…
I think the selectivity is at least partly politically driven. So with Darfur, if ‘we’ are at fault it is through omission, through something our governments failed to do, rather than through active wrongdoing, which makes it an easier and more politically useful conflict to focus on.
Right. Well, back to your question about the current situation. Armenia and Turkey – although this conflict is not about ‘Armenia vs. Turkey’, but about Armenians in Armenia, Armenians in the Diaspora, and Turkey – have been engaged recently in a diplomatic process which has its ups and downs. When it is down both countries revert to classical chauvinistic discourse, which yields great dividends for both governments in domestic politics. Lately for instance on the Armenia side, they decided to stop the protocols, as we call them, for a while. The next thing you know the Turkish Prime Minister started threatening poor illegal Armenian workers in Turkey, which, I’m sure, made Armenians in Turkey feel like hostages. And that strategy always works, because normally Armenians are not the most loved community in Turkey.
On top of this the very conflicting relationship between the Armenian Diaspora and the Turkish state pops up every April 21st. Ever year Armenians in the Diaspora, in the United States, push for a resolution in the Congress to mark the date. Sometimes they are successful and somebody in Congress makes a declaration and then the Turkish state goes furious. And such things happen in European countries as well. So it’s not an ongoing discussion, but it’s more lively when it comes to April 21st.
Right now, in Turkey, is the Left a significant actor?
Absolutely not. At least five or so years ago they were present in the consciousness of working class Turkish people. Right now, it’s not even that. Nobody listens to us.
Would the Turkish left agree with you on the Armenian issue?
Yes, they would. Surprisingly the current government, which doesn’t really like me and who I don’t fancy either, would agree with me as well. They wouldn’t be speaking in a completely different manner, anyway.
What is the record of the current government on the Armenian issue?
It has initiated some diplomatic moves, but whenever something goes wrong, when there are downs in this diplomatic process, it immediately retreats to classic chauvinistic discourse, which I think is very dangerous, because each and every time you feed that chauvinistic feelings, when you use that discourse, it means you are keeping that in your pocket – you can talk about ‘Armenians are brothers’ and so on, but whenever you need it you take out that nationalistic gun from your pocket.
The Kurds have their own history of persecution by the Turkish state. Does this translate into solidarity with Armenians?
Well, when it comes to the Armenians the Kurds were also the perpetrators once. Today, politically, they have accepted their responsibility, while the state hasn’t yet. The BDP, a Kurdish party, offered such a declaration, acknowledging that ‘our ancestors did such and such to Armenians, and we apologise for that’. More broadly, for the time being, there is this undercurrent among people in Turkey, and it’s also true for Kurds, where people are looking back to try and discover their roots. And having Armenian roots became kind of ‘hip’. Now and then I hear people saying, ‘you know what? My grandmother had no relatives, so we might be Armenian’, or ‘I remember my grandfather talking in a weird language, so we might be Armenian too’. Especially after the death of Hrant [Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist gunned down in 2007 by a Turkish nationalist], becoming Armenian started to be ‘cool’, and I think this represents another role for Turkish people – they don’t want to be the ‘perpetrators’ after Hrant’s death, because that killing touched their hearts, so they want to move to the ‘victim’ side by having Armenian roots.
After Hrant’s death there were huge solidarity demonstrations in the streets. You describe them as a “crack” in this kind of nationalistic discourse. But you go on to describe the subsequent nationalist backlash to those protests. For instance, you recall the school children who slashed their fingers and used the blood to paint a Turkish flag, which was then framed by the armed forces minister. What is the situation like now? Is the nationalist discourse ascendant or is the “crack” widening?
After Hrant’s death the Armenian issue was humanised. They became humans again in the eyes of Turkish people, or nationalist Turkish people. During his funeral, there were banners saying, “We Are All Armenian” and “We Are All Hrant”. This is very, very difficult statement to make in Turkey. But the following day some of the newspapers ran the headline “We Are All Turks” – you know, ‘get yourself back together’. So that crack is for those people who are ready to receive the message coming from Hrant and from his death. I don’t think it changed the whole nation into a different country, but there were people who were ready to understand this issue, and who didn’t know anything about it, and who were used to neglecting the issue, and this was for them. Now they are speaking about it and thinking about it, so there is a crack still, but we still have a long way to go. Because as I said, the word ‘Armenian’ is a still used as a curse.
In term of the process of writing the book – what was it like travelling through and speaking with all these Armenian communities? How did your being a Turk affect the experience?
The journey and the writing were different from each other. The journey itself was Hrant’s idea, not mine at all, because I was just back from Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and I’d had enough hate mail already for mentioning the name ‘Kurdistan’. And he said ‘why don’t you go to Armenia and do the same thing for Armenians?’ In Kurdistan I wrote about people’s daily lives, not the high politics of the situation. So I did, and when I came back I was getting this hate mail – ‘how dare you, you make them look like human beings’. Many Turks were angry with me, because I ‘made’ Armenians look like human beings. But throughout, I never thought of myself as ‘Turk’. Turkish intellectuals hesitate to call themselves ‘Turks’ – actually we never do, because it has connotations of that kind of national identity which is seriously problematic. We prefer to describe ourselves as ‘from Turkey’ or even ‘from Istanbul’. But although I’d never thought of myself that way, in Armenia that’s the first thing I was – a ‘Turk’.
In France or in the US, during the journey, I never saw myself as being contaminated by nationalism. But in realising my own numbness to the Armenian issue, I understood that I was contaminated as well. And nobody is immune to this in Turkey – or it’s not easy to be immune, let’s put it that way. So the journey was for me an inner journey as well.
Writing the book was intellectually challenging as well, because there was this ontological security issue. Although I don’t represent anyone but me, I was coming from the ‘side’ of the perpetrator, and I was telling the story of the oppressed. So do I have the right to do that? How should I do that? During my time in Oxford Bernhard Schlink, the writer of The Reader – he’s a German jurist and an author – was there giving seminars on collective memory and collective guilt, and I joined one of them. He was talking about his guilt, and his generation’s guilt, over the Holocaust. After a while, following the speech, a Palestinian Oxford student asked him what he thought about the ‘Holocaust industry’, and he said ‘there is no such thing’. I asked a question, ‘what do you think about the fact that a nation is building up its hostile foreign policy on your feeling of guilt?’ He said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ – no, he said ‘I cannot talk about it, because I am German.’ So that was a great example of this phenomenon where if you’re coming from the perpetrator’s side you’re obliged to shut up and not talk about it. And I don’t think that’s correct – we should talk about it.
During my stay in Oxford I also understood, thinking back through all these interviews, that while we should talk as Turks about how we feel, more important is that we should listen to Armenians. So during the writing process I wanted to explain the story of me listening to Armenians. When the book was published in English that was the first time that I talked to Armenians who’d read the book. They read their own stories through me. I met them in London and the United States, where I gave talks at Harvard, Tufts, Michigan, etc., and it seemed that listening to their stories related by a Turk, and reading how this Turk tried to understand their story, made them feel, as far as I observed, quite relieved.
The Armenian reaction was positive?
Yes, especially the people who came to the speeches, and who wrote to me. But there is one rather interesting thing about the reaction. There is an email chain called ‘WATS’. It’s mostly intellectuals – or semi-intellectuals – who are extremely engaged in this issue, and I’m told that there are people on it who hate this book, sometimes without reading it. Apparently there is this weird discussion going on about the book: somebody is defending it – this is among Armenians – and some people are hating it because it is written by a Turk, and so on and so forth. But I wrote the book for common people, not really for the intellectuals who are already engaged in this and who already know all the factual details. The book can be helpful to those academics, but I targeted it at common people because it’s common people who will be solving this problem – or at least, if it’s solved on a diplomatic scale, they should be ready to embrace this solution.
In the book you don’t really take a position yourself on whether to call what Turkey did to the Armenians in 1915 a genocide – when you use the word, it’s in quotation marks. Obviously that was an unavoidable decision you faced when you decided to write about the topic – how to refer to what happened in 1915. What was behind your decision?
Normally terminology is used to make conversation easier. But in this case it’s not making conversation easier, it’s making it impossible. Terminology becomes an obstacle between two parties. That’s why I wanted to go beyond it and talk about the stories behind it – the whole purpose of the book was to go beyond the terminology. So if you ask me why, I would show you the book again.
But there is something which really touched me. During all these speeches, none of the Armenians asked me that question. How about that? I think they are very mature people, at least the ones I know. I was expecting this question, but they didn’t ask it. All those talks were a kind of experiment, for them and for me, and there were Turkish people as well as Armenians in the audiences. They tried to speak to each other in a different manner, and that’s why every speech was quite lengthy, because both sides were eager to tell their stories to each other. And all of a sudden they were starting to speak to each other – which I was very happy to watch. And they never asked each other that question and they never asked me that question.
You describe how in some ways it is easier to fall back into the standard formal political way of talking, which would for example make a big deal of this terminology issue, and argue that it can be harder to look beyond it and talk directly to people as people. As you put it, “stripping politics of a human face obstructs dialogue”. I’m not on this WATS email list, but I imagine that this is what some people might object to. They might feel that in your attempt to restore the personal to the political, you are escaping from the political altogether.
Well, high politics, not ‘political’ per se. I don’t want to be misunderstood in that sense, because I’m a deeply politicised and political person. I write columns, and books, and they’re all politics – and this book is very political as well, in my view. But having only that discourse, I cannot take seriously. For instance, some Armenians claim some Turks are trying to distance themselves from the whole conflict and push away the whole issue. But in using the completely politicised discourse, they’re doing the same thing – they’re putting the whole story out there, but they are distant from it. So I want to personalise the story on both sides. I know that might be hard for Armenians, because it’s like meeting your torturer. Pirelian in Paris talked about this. Every Armenian is afraid of meeting a Turk – it’s not that they’re afraid of the Turk, it’s that they’re afraid of what they’re going to feel. So making it personal might be hard for Armenians, as it is for Turks. But we should do it, because once we do it will all become easier. And the personal is completely political, anyway.
You write a lot about the power of ‘stories’ to shape people’s identities and conceptions of themselves. Why do you think some stories gain greater purchase with people than others? There are always alternative ‘narratives’, so why do you think, say, the hardline nationalist one has gained so much purchase in Armenia?
Not only in Armenia – it’s always like that, because people find it easier to be angry than to be sad. Anger makes you stand up, it’s galvanising. So that’s why nationalist narrative, which most of the time depends on anger, has a stronger impact on people. Also, in this conflict people who are ready to speak about their sorrow, or about their concerns, or about their contradictions, and so on, are always smothered with a blanket of national narrative, on both sides. That’s why I wanted to go back to the personal stories, where the real memory lives.
The picture you paint of Armenia is of a country in transition from the Soviet system. You describe the older generations in particular as a bit lost and confused by the pace of change. Do you think in these circumstances nationalism, and more specifically the genocide issue, represents a kind of security blanket? Do you think, in other words, that the transition to capitalism has strengthened the appeal of nationalism? Because on the other hand, you also talk about “the reality of poverty trumping the abstraction of betrayal”.
About this transition: even if the regime is fascism, when the regime collapses, the most tragic thing is to watch people trying to adjust. I think this has always been the same, e.g. in Germany or in the Soviet Union, it’s so tragic when heroes of the country and of the regime and of the public one day become the enemies of humanity the next. Armenia is going through a similar process at the moment, and I think these changes create really tragic stories.
But coming to your question: yes, I think you’re right. Nationalism and the ‘genocide issue’ have this stabilising function during the transition. But I really don’t want to exaggerate this, because there is a widely used propaganda trope in Turkey saying that ‘oh Armenians, they are poor and that’s why they don’t talk about genocide, so you see, if poverty can wipe off that narrative of genocide it’s obviously not really correct’. Or else the propaganda goes like this: ‘Armenians in Armenia, they don’t talk about genocide, you see? It’s just those troublemakers in the Diaspora who are doing it just to hurt the interests of Turkey or to block Turkey’s accession to the EU. So you see? It’s the Bad Armenians in the Diaspora who talk about genocide, not the Good Armenians here in Armenia or in Istanbul.’ I don’t want to feed this propaganda. But yes, there is some truth there – this country is landlocked, it’s going through painful transition. Moreover I think, being so close to Turkey, there is an unspoken connection. Although the border is closed – well, it’s not actually closed, I flew to Yerevan, everybody comes and goes, but officially it’s closed – having such connections makes it difficult for Armenians to talk as passionately as they might about the ‘g-word’.
Do you think that the Armenian-Turkish issue can be looked at in isolation from wider issues of economic security, social justice, etc.?
You mean like identity politics, or…?
In a sense – so, would it be possible to, for example, moderate the more extreme versions of identity politics absent some broader socioeconomic change?
I have always been bored by identity politics. There was some devil somewhere who created this huge trouble of identity politics, and it’s now all over the world with people killing each other over it. I miss those Good Old Days where class struggle was the main issue. But the left must create a new discourse to overcome this adolescent politics, so I’m trying to contribute to that as a ‘democratic socialist’. This is my personal challenge – I’m trying to put something into that, and because I’m a leftist it’s a leftist discourse, it’s personal, it’s feminist, and it’s universalist.
You identify yourself in the book as a “democratic socialist” and an “internationalist” but you nonetheless describe how “you are compelled to love your country”. Do you think it’s possible to have a kind of progressive patriotism?
Great question. Nobody knows the answer I suppose. The nationalism of emerging nations or peoples are considered to be legitimate whereas the nationalism of already-existing nations is not. But ‘patriotism’ is a narrow word. I think a love of people, loving the people in general, must have a universal approach to it. But again, there is this narrative, or story, that binds you with people – my mother and father were both leftists and they were speaking about the ‘people’ in a quite abstract context, but they were speaking about people, so I was taught to love people and to care about them and to have concerns about them. So it’s rather a way of being brought up, I guess – I cannot get rid of it, loving my ‘own people’, even if it’s not legitimate. Although they kind of hate me.
Well, you talked at the end of the book about how in foreign translations of books some words remain italicised and in the original language, because the concept is so distinct to the original culture that no translation could be found. So it’s kind a shared understanding that comes from growing up together.
Yes, and it’s from being part of the same story, so you don’t have to itemise all the funny words, and so on.
A big theme in the book is shared suffering as the basis of communal identity. You discovered this in the Armenian community, where the genocide provides a strong common point of reference, but not only there. So for instance, after Hrant was killed, you and a friend “embraced through Hrant”. And when you talk about Anatolia, you wrote that there was a gulf between you and other people from Anatolia on the one hand, and the rich Armenian lobbyists in DC on the other, because you had gone through “privation and pain”. So you talk about the unhealthy effects of basing self- and group-identity so heavily on suffering, but do you think it’s inevitable?
Yes, I did the same thing. But what I tried to understand throughout the book was specifically the construction of identity based on a pain you didn’t experience. When your friend is dead, and when you see him lying on the ground, it’s you who has been through that and you want to share it with someone, and it has an impact on your mind, obviously, and on the lives of people who you know and who he knew. But the transmission of pain, and the construction of a narrative over it, is what I was looking at it in the book. Putting the coming generations into the experience although they didn’t experience the pain directly – that’s the interesting part of the story. And up to a certain degree I understand it. There is a choice for an Armenian parent in the U.S., for instance: you can tell your children about this thing, about genocide, and you make him or her a part of the community, a part of your people, and you see them suffer because of it. This is one choice. The other choice is: you don’t want your children to suffer, and you don’t want to transmit the pain, but when you do that you lose your child, your child is out of the community, out of the narrative. And when you’re out of the narrative in such communities, that means you’re completely alone. That kind of loneliness might be as painful as being a part of a painful story. So this is the choice, and I don’t know what my decision would be if I was an Armenian mother.
In terms of a, if not solution then at least some steps towards a solution – in the book you call for increased personal engagement between people on either ‘side’, but you also seem very wary of simply calling for ‘dialogue’.
I hate the word ‘dialogue’. It’s almost rotten. These words – ‘reconciliation’, ‘dialogue’ – they’ve been repeated so much, there has almost become an industry surrounding them. Moreover I don’t think people feel anything with the word ‘dialogue’ – the word ‘dialogue’ wouldn’t touch a person’s heart, and wouldn’t convince him or her to talk or listen to someone. It doesn’t sound very humane – it sounds more like the name of an international corporation.
So what’s your alternative?
Telling stories. That’s why I’m so much into these stories. I’ve been doing journalism since I was 19 & my main concern was to listen to the stories and write them for other people in such a way that they don’t lose their original essence. So I’m trying to inform both parties that each has a very interesting story to tell about the other. That’s why I personalise the whole book – because I want readers to personalise the whole issue. One, because I’m trying to cure the indifference among Turks, and two, because if someone doesn’t treat the issue personally they won’t be part of the solution – or even ‘steps towards’ a solution.
But do you think that’s really a workable approach on a national scale? I mean, I could understand that an individual might need stories to become personally invested in the issue and to humanise the other side, but in terms of a national political solution, do you see that as emerging from this kind of individual process?
I’m not really interested in high politics when it comes to this issue, because it’s rather fragile and inconsistent. I’m all about the ordinary people side to it – so yeah, I’m all about ordinary people telling each other their stories.
You argue that external pressure by other countries on Turkey to recognise the Armenian genocide has the effect of causing ordinary people to retreat further into a defensive posture. But is there anything we can do, do you think?
Some people think that pressure from outside helps. I don’t think so. Government-wise and state-wise, I don’t think there’s something to be done there. But people might like to know the story to help understand the very basics of conflict between two peoples, because it’s always the same human drama – there are aspects to it that can be generalised beyond just Turkey-Armenia. Peter Preston made this point in a piece about the book in the Guardian – that it should be read for its lessons about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
You’re a well-known journalist in Turkey. How reflective of wider opinion in Turkey are you?
Well, this book has become a bestseller in Turkey – amazing, but true. I thought nobody would read it, but it has sold officially more than 60,000 copies and unofficially more than 100,000 in Turkey, which is surprising for such a book. So I am ‘popular’ in that sense – I have a TV show, etc. But that doesn’t mean much – the Turkish media, and psyche in general, is not very consistent. It could change tomorrow. But there is some support, yes, and I’m happy for that.
Finally, are you optimistic about the future for Turkish-Armenian relations?
I don’t believe in the words ‘optimism’ or ‘pessimism’. Even ‘hope’ is a slippery word. I believe in ‘stubbornness’, even if there’s no hope.
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