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ANKARA: An Open Letter To Mr. Ertugrul Gunay, Minister Of Tourism An

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  • ANKARA: An Open Letter To Mr. Ertugrul Gunay, Minister Of Tourism An

    By Ara Sarafian

    Today's Zaman
    Nov 20 2008

    Dear Mr. Minister,

    I wish to congratulate the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture
    for its planned initiative to honor the American-Armenian writer,
    William Saroyan, with a museum dedicated to him in his ancestral town
    of Bitlis.

    Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, but his forefathers came
    from Bitlis. The proposed museum will be the first time a diaspora
    Armenian -- a much-maligned category in some quarters in Turkey --
    will be recognized as a fellow "Anatolian" of Turkish citizens today. I
    hope your initiative will contribute to a more sympathetic discussion
    of the Armenian cultural heritage of Anatolia (and there are many
    beautiful examples of this) and the Anatolian roots of Armenians.

    You must be aware that your announcement of establishing a Saroyan
    museum in Bitlis will lead to some obvious questions: If there were
    Armenians in Bitlis, what were they like and what happened to them? If
    there are no Armenians left there, why are they not there today?

    Allow me to state that on the eve of World War I, the town of Bitlis
    had an Armenian population consisting of around 1,140 households,
    and there were over 70 Armenian inhabited villages around the
    city. Armenians made up over one-third of the population in this
    province and lived alongside Kurds and Turks. There were four
    monasteries in or immediately around Bitlis, plus four churches in
    the city itself. There was also an Armenian Protestant and an Assyrian
    church. These churches attested to the typical good relations between
    Muslims and Christians in the city.

    Unfortunately most of the Armenians churches that were left behind
    in 1915, and practically all cemeteries where Christians were buried
    (such as Saroyan's ancestors), have been desecrated or plowed under
    the soil. This is also the case outside of the city where grave robbers
    still dig around to search for "Armenian gold." While it is true that
    many Turks and Kurds have defended the dignity of such locations,
    they have not always been successful. I remember reading on a Turkish
    Internet site how peasants in the village of Duz, near Bitlis, were
    trying to save an Armenian church. Their muhtar's sentiment was simple
    and very moving: "In those days we lived like brothers and sisters with
    Armenians. We went to our mosques and they went to their church. We
    now do whatever we can to keep the church standing." ("O dönemlerde
    Ermeniler'le kardeÅ~_ gibi yaÅ~_ardık. Bizler camilerimize, onlar
    da kiliseye giderlerdi. Å~^u anda kilisenin ayakta durması icin ne
    gerekiyorsa yapıyoruz.") I have personally heard such remarks from
    many ordinary people in Turkey.

    I think it is important for Armenians to come and see for themselves
    that, whatever the problems Armenians faced in 1915 (it makes no
    difference whether one calls it genocide, massacre or deportation),
    there is still a lot of good will among ordinary people in Turkey

    I am not sure if you will be able to find the Saroyan house in Bitlis
    today, but as far as I know, there is at least one Armenian church
    remaining in the city. It is abandoned and used to be used for storage
    purposes. It is now owned by the British-American Tobacco Company,
    hardly befitting a cultural treasure in Turkey. Perhaps as minister
    of culture you will be able to come to an agreement with the tobacco
    company and save this building from further deterioration and restore
    it as a cultural treasure in the name of William Saroyan. The projected
    Saroyan museum could thus become an offering for a happy future, when
    people love and respect each other and celebrate their differences
    as fellow human beings and Anatolians. Such a vision would be fitting
    to Saroyan's memory.


    Ara Sarafian