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Accepting the Past Will Set Us Free

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  • Accepting the Past Will Set Us Free

    Accepting the Past Will Set Us Free

    Talin Suciyan reflects on the groundbreaking Armenian conference and the
    liberating effect that the open discussion of this history will have for
    Turkey and for the Armenian diaspora.

    BIA News Center

    By Talin Suciyan ([email protected])

    BIA (Istanbul) - Are we able to admit the fact that after the departure
    of Armenians this country became barren; ideologically, artistically,
    politically and by every means socially? Can this society admit that we
    need to be able to express this issue, and that the Armenian Diaspora
    needs to hear it?

    The recent "Ottoman Armenians During The Last Period Of The Empire:
    Scientific Responsibility And Democracy" conference was realized as a
    result of great efforts, and was an event of extraordinary properties,
    meanings and references. Under our current conditions we are in, the
    importance of this event can be approached from many different angles,
    and people have been writing about if from every perspective.

    I would like to take this chance to reflect on these two days, in which
    many different disciplines complemented each other, while shedding light
    on some old questions and presenting new ones. With the vast amount of
    information and comments presented on this one particular period in
    history, this conference shook its audience and lifted a huge dead
    weight that was bearing on the shoulders of this issue.

    The questions at the beginning of this article are asked in response to
    Elif Safak's paper and they are very important ones related to this
    moment. Can we leave aside the never-ending polemics and claims--" it is
    genocide or not"-and "they massacred us, the numbers of victims are such
    and such," and look at our present situation, where Safak directs her

    Safak, in her paper, presents an extraordinary mix of her authorial and
    academic identities. Her presentation on the life and works of feminist
    Armenian writer Zabel Yesayan was prepared with the scrutiny of an
    academic and the elegance of a writer of literature. She concluded it
    with a quotation from a novel. Safak relays to us the answer of a
    question which is asked of the hero of the novel: What would an Armenian
    survivor of the events of 1915 like to hear from the Turks ?

    He replied " I would like to hear that after we left, their country
    became barren". Safak, directing this sentence to us, continued: "Yes,
    after you left, our country became barren ideologically, artistically,
    politically and every means socially, we have the need to say this, as
    the Diaspora has the greater need to hear it ". In the end she presented
    an approach that passed beyond the Armenian Diaspora's, which dictates
    'You have to recognize the genocide first; then we start talking' or the
    official Turkish thesis, which claims 'Genocide didn't happen, in fact
    they massacred us'.

    Safak continued; saying that today the people of Turkey, having lost
    their Armenian neighbors (except roughly 60 thousand people living)
    should acknowledge that as a result of this loss, we became lonely and
    barren. Today we should start mourning for this loss: "The mourning of
    their absence, and that which made us barren".


    Like Melisa Bilal said, can we integrate feelings into our social and
    intellectual systems without the confines of nationalism? Can we recall
    the feeling of times that we lived together? As she said, can people who
    are living in this country really understand that Armenians in Turkey
    were made homeless and that they are lost? Not all were necessarily made
    homeless by means of deportation, but as Bilal defines it, "they were
    uprooted from their language, religion, history at the very place they
    had been living, [and entered a] state of homelessness by means of
    estrangement. " And indeed like Hrant Dink said, having been uprooted
    and scattered around the world, as Bilal says, when they are constantly
    searching for a surname with an 'ian-yan' suffix at the back credits of
    every film, in reality they are searching for a piece of themselves.
    Today, are the people of Turkey capable of understanding all of feelings?


    Can we rethink the phrases that entered in to our language, particularly
    those which carry the traces of negative historical weights? As in the
    example Fethiye Cetin provided, why is it that while lifting a heavy
    load, we say "It is heavy as an infidel's corpse." Are we able to ask
    ourselves the question, "Why is the corpse of an infidel is that heavy?"

    Paranoia and Trauma

    As Erol Koroglu said in his presentation 'Examples of forgetting and
    remembering in Turkish literature: The breaking points of silence',
    Armenian-ness is an identity that is constantly kept at the threshold,
    at at the same time we have the incapability of not being able to
    describe it as different as well as familiar. This gives way to an idea
    that makes Armenians traitors and enemies. Can we think over this idea
    and accept it as a social paranoia? Hrant Dink is right to say that the
    antidote to this paranoia is the democratization of Turkey. This process
    not only would cure the paranoia in Turks, it would also help heal the
    trauma that the Armenians live with.


    Elif Safak directs our attention to writer Zabel Yesayan. When she
    escaped the events of 1915 and settled in Baku, she started to write her
    memoirs. This demonstrates her importance in preventing a social amnesia.

    In contrast, Etyen Mahcupyan emphasized how the State, by its constant
    repetition to Turkish people that they are a people whose memory is very
    short and that Turkey is a country that should always look to the future
    and not to the past, constantly creates space for communal amnesia . In
    response to the victim's attitude of 'not letting it to be forgotten and
    talking about it' the perpetrators covers themselves to an extent that
    they reache a point where even talking about events becomes frightful.
    At this point, can the victim, with the comfort to speak, help the


    As Aysegul Altinay says, Fethiye Cetin's book "My Grandmother", Takuhi
    Tovmasyan's book "Be Your Meals Cheerful" and Osman Koker's "Armenians
    In Turkey 100 Years Ago" books, follow a therapeutic approach which can
    lead people to create an environment where empathy can grow, opening the
    way to cry and laugh together. Following this approach, can we multiply
    these examples so that we can exercise more empathy in this direction?

    Defence and getting tired of being right

    Halil Berktay describes the mood of Turkish foreign policy: defence by
    means of digging a trench so deep that it became a synonym for being
    stuck at the bottom of the trench, and therefore foreign policy became
    enslaved by the trench. Temel Iskit, a former diplomat with a career of
    40 years, agreed with Berktay's characterization.

    Iskit states that Turkish foreign policy was mortgaged by the Armenian
    Question, because the " power policy" that Turkey was following required
    an absolute obligation to be right. He added, "During 41 years of
    service I got tired of always being 'right'."

    "We won't do it"

    Cemil Kocak presented an interesting story on Ruseni Bey and his place
    in the Special Organization (Teskilat-i Mahsusa). Ruseni Bey coined a
    definition of nationalism that stated "Societies grow/get nurtured by
    eating one another." Against this outrageously nationalistic statement,
    is it too difficult to say 'No, we won't do it'? As Halil Berktay points
    out, isn't it about time that spanner needs to be thrown in the
    clockwork of these spine-chilling historical repetitions-- a repetition
    that starts with "Every Armenian is a Tashnak Guerilla" and continues as
    "Every Kurd is a PKK member"?


    Berktay also told of an unfinished novel written by Omer Seyfettin
    between 1912-13, named "Primo Turkish Child II". Can we wake the hero of
    this novel from his dream? In the dream, he sees a crescent moon and a
    star in the sky, meanwhile he feels a wetness on his feet. This wetness
    is the blood of Turkish enemies-and as he walks in their blood, he
    notices the reflection of the moon and the star on the surface .

    Departing from this point, Berktay continued to say that the red colour
    of Turkish flag does not symbolize the blood of Turkish martyrs (as we
    are always told), but actually comes from the blood of our enemies. We
    can purify ourselves of this history of hatred and violence. We can get
    out of pools of blood and set out to a new journey, in which the moon
    and the stars won't spare their light to illuminate our road, and with
    the knowledge that at the end of a clear starry night, the coming day
    will be sunny and hopeful.


    "This meeting will liberate us," said former Health Minister Cevdet
    Aykan, who compiled the memoirs of old people he knew. As Cem Ozdemir
    stated, the realization of this conference will relax Europe as well as
    Turkey . Turkey's initiation of this talk on the "Armenian issue"--which
    Europe saw as a burden to Turkey's process of democratisation--will
    lighten this load for Europe as well as Turkey.

    It is time to acknowledge these loads, to recognize them, and to be
    liberated from them. We will feel relaxed by means of liberation from
    them. We passed the threshold and we are on that road now. We will
    continue to move forward slowly but surely.


    As I was talking with historian Christoph Neumann, he draw my attention
    to the point that during the conference there had rarely been talk of
    mourning--only once or twice. He said, "Why is there no talk of
    mourning?" ...meaning not the mourning of events 90 years ago, but the
    mourning of our state in the present, the mourning of our loneliness.
    Maybe by acknowledging our present loneliness slowly, we can go back
    from the present to the past and try to see more clearly how we were
    made so lonely in the first place?

    Despite all the insistences of amnesia, contrary to our state of
    defensiveness due to unresolved traumas, we would be able to find the
    path to empathy. By acknowledging the lost and deported ones, we could
    start to sympathize with their sensitivities. And by getting rid of our
    paranoia and trauma from historical burdens in our language and
    consciousness, could we not turn back even just for a moment to our true
    feelings, and mourn?

    To Pass the threshold, pass beyond the 'genocide'

    Has any threshold been passed? Surely the answer is yes. This conference
    has been the embodiment of that very crucial move. The conference has
    led us pass the threshold of Turkey's democratization progress, the
    threshold of scientific freedom in universities, the threshold of
    freedom of expression, the disappearing threshold of being unable to
    speak, the threshold of endless arguments about 'who massacred who' and
    'is it or is it not a genocide'--and even past the thresholds of
    hardened, polarized and immobile identities.

    Today we reached a different point, because during these past two days
    whoever witnessed this historical event tried to understand amnesia,
    empathy, trauma, paranoia and what actually happened. While they
    examined and scrutinized all these issues with the help of many
    different disciplines, we mourned for our present day a little, we
    became purified a little, and we became little more liberated. We
    listened, we thought and we learned--and then we learned more, thought
    more, and listened more.

    Now, it is time for this experience to leave the confines of the
    building where the conference was held and spread, so even more people
    can rethink what they had already known and learn to listen more.
    Because this conference has liberated us, it provides hope that there
    will be many others. It is this very hope that will make our roads
    (Tr anslation: Arman Sucuyan)