By Ayse Gunaysu /gunaysu-turkish-perception-of-the-recent-us-court -ruling/
August 27, 2009

Among thousands of news items showering down from international
agencies, none of the Turkish dailies or TV channels skipped the
news about a U.S. Federal Court of Appeals ruling against Armenian
demands for unpaid insurance claims. Many headlines revealed a
hardly concealed note of victory, reporting that the U.S. Court had
dealt a "big blow" to Armenians. Some of them were a little bit more
professional, reflecting only a satisfaction: "Court decision to anger
Armenians." Even the most seemingly "objective" ones used wording
that presented the issue as a defeat on the part of the "Armenians"
-not a violation of the rights of legitimate beneficiaries, the
clients of insurance companies that profited from a government's
extermination of its own citizens. Even the daily Taraf, considered
to be waging the most courageous struggle against the "deep state,"
used the headline: "Bad news to Armenians from a US court" (Aug. 22,
2009, p.3), a headline that, intentionally or not, reinforces the
essentialist conception of Armenians widespread in Turkey and reflects
a cold-hearted pseudo-impartiality -"bad news"!-in the face of an
infuriating usurpation of one's rights.

Apart from a handful of people, no one in Turkey, watching the news
or reading the headlines (often without reading the full texts), knows
that at the turn of the century several thousands of Armenians in the
provinces of the old Armenia were issued life-insurance policies,
with benefits amounting to more than $20 million in 1915-dollars
still unpaid to the legal heirs of the victims who perished under
a reign of terror. This is not surprising because this audience is
even ignorant of the fact that on the eve of World War I, there
were 2,925 Armenian settlements in the old Armenia, with 1,996
schools teaching over 173,000 male and female students, and 2,538
churches and monasteries-all proof of a vibrant Armenian presence in
the Ottoman Empire. When I tried to explain this to my 83-year-old
mother, who thought the U.S. court had done something good for Turkey,
she couldn't believe her ears. She was quite sincere when she asked:
"Western insurance companies? At that time? In Harput, in Merzifon, in
Kayseri? Are you sure?" Because she could not even imagine that what
is now to us the remote, less-developed cities with rural environs
where pre-capitalist patterns still prevail-places more or less
isolated from today's metropolitan centers-were once, before 1915,
rich and developed urban centers, with inhabitants much closer to the
Western world than their fellow Muslim citizens, in their economic
activities, social structure, and way of life. Although a university
graduate (something unusual for a woman in Turkey at that time),
a person of culture with a real sense of justice in everything she
does, my mother was brought up in a system of education based on
a history that was rewritten to reconstruct a national identity of
pride, and which turned facts upside down. This was the result: an
"enlightened" individual who knew nothing about how things were in
her own-beloved-country and what had happened just a decade before
her birth.

So, how can one expect my mother to know that Talat Pasha, a member
of the PUC triumvira and one of the top organizers of the Armenian
Genocide, had shocked Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Ambassador to Istanbul
in 1915, with his audacity when he said: "I wish, that you would get
the American life insurance companies to send us a complete list of
their Armenian policy holders. They are practically all dead now and
have left no heirs to collect the money. It of course all escheats
to the state. The government is the beneficiary now. Will you do so?"

The Turkish audience, apart from that handful of people, that
received the message about the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling against
the Armenians' right to seek justice, didn't stop to think that this
was something about one's most basic rights.

But the reason is simple: National ideology blocks people's
minds. There is a special meaning attributed to the word "compensation"
in Turkey. It is believed that recognition will be followed by demands
of compensation, which will naturally lead to demands of territory. So,
the reference to "compensation" (to be paid to "Armenians") in these
reports is directly connected in their minds to Armenians' claim
to territory.

This is all about denial. Denial is not an isolated phenomenon,
not a policy independent of all other aspects.

Denial is a system. An integrated whole. You don't only deny what
really happened; in order to deny what really happened, you have to
deny even the existence of the people to whom it happened. In order
to deny their existence, you have to wipe out the evidence of their
existence from both the physical and intellectual environment. Physical
refers to the 2,925 Armenian settlements with 1,996 schools and 2,538
churches and monasteries that are non-existent now. Intellectual
corresponds to my mother's perception of the U.S. Court of Appeal's
ruling as something good for Turkey.

I watched a film on TV tonight, Akira Kurosawa's "Rhapsody in
August," a film about an old lady, a hibakusha (the Japanese word
for the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
during World War II) and her four grandchildren. Watching the film,
I saw people commemorating their dead ones with great respect,
taking care of their monuments with endless love, raising their
children in the same spirit, observing Buddhist rituals, praying for
their losses. The details showing all these were elegantly and very
impressively depicted. Watching a blind hibakusha gently cleaning
the marble platform of the monument with great care, I thought of
Armenians of my country, who are deprived of this very basic right
to publicly honor the memory of their lost ones. This ban is woven
into the very structure of Turkish society, because the founders
of the new Turkish Republic and their successors built a nation
and successfully put into practice an "engineering of the spirit"
whereby the people are convinced, made to sincerely believe, that
such commemorations are a direct insult to themselves.

The outcome of such engineering, this whole complicated system of
denial, is very difficult to dismantle. The Turkish ruling elite
will not recognize the genocide, not in the short-term, not in the
mid-term. In the long-term, maybe. But how "long" a term this will be
is something unknown. The dynamic that would step up the process is
the recognition from below, i.e. recognition by the people-a very slow
process, but much more promising than an official recognition in the
foreseeable future. People in Turkey are one by one going through a
very special kind of enlightenment-meeting with facts, learning more
about the near history, getting into closer contact with Armenians
here and elsewhere (for example, meeting and listening to Prof. Marc
Nichanian speaking in the language of philosophy and literature,
hearing his words about how meaningless an apology is when what
happened to Armenians was "unforgivable," about the meaning of the
"usurpation of mourning" and the "impossibility of representation"
of what Armenians experienced. More and more stories are appearing
in the dailies and periodicals in Turkey of our grandmothers and
grandfathers of Armenian origin who were stripped of their Armenian
identities, at least in the public sphere. More and more books are
being published about the genocide, enabling the readers to try and
imagine what is unimaginable.

This will turn the wheels of a long process of recognition from below,
a recognition in the hearts of people that will inevitably interact
with the process of official recognition-a must for true justice-no
matter how distant it may be for the time being.