Forget the Elephant—Just Look Around the Room!

You know the expression “the elephant in the room”? Of course you do! We’ve all used it. Whether we call it dialogue, rapprochement, track-two work, or any other method of conflict resolution relating to Armenian-Turkish relations, we have all used and abused this poor elephant, albeit for perfectly valid reasons. That’s because up until the last few years, the consensus—too easily dictated to us all—was this: it is nearly impossible for these two sides (I hate that word “sides”) to come to terms in this intractable (I hate that word, too) conflict unless the Turkish government were to officially acknowledge the Armenian genocide (and I hate the word “genocide” more than any other word).

Well, I humbly suggest the following scenario for all of those holding or participating in any meeting between any number of Turkish and Armenian people: acknowledge each other.

You see, I’ve been meeting with just such a Turkish and Armenian group for the past eight months, and the more I talk to them and the more they talk to each other, the more I realize that we don’t have to speak about the “elephant” in order to reach beyond the barriers of communication. We simply have to acknowledge each other. We have to acknowledge each and every one in the room, be curious about each other, and want to know something about what makes us all who we are. And so, at the expense of alienating a few players out there whose job it is to make or break high-level meetings at the top, I want to advocate for what I believe has the most power to move us along: connecting one person at a time. I would like to put forward a whole new mantra, and that is to forget the elephant and look around the room. And no, I do not mean forget the Armenian genocide or the events of 1915—but I believe that no fictional symbol, elephantine or not, can come close to representing what genocide is. So let’s forget the tired elephant phrase. Instead, what I’m suggesting is simply another tool, not among historians, not among diplomats, and certainly not among politicians. I suggest the simple tool of asking for each other’s stories and listening to them. I am appealing for all of us in the vast arena of Armenian-Turkish relations to extend a listening ear and to hear as many stories as we can about each other. I believe it is through those stories that we will learn what makes each of us the unique product of our backgrounds, our upbringings, our educations, and our social environments.

To make my case, I’d like to share with you a few snippets of the interviews I have conducted with some of the participants in the group I started last September.[1] Following our first meeting, I asked members of TAWA (Turkish-Armenian Women’s Alliance) about their future expectations regarding our group.

Tsoleen Sarian: “You know, just the fact that we’re here is so worthwhile to me, just the fact that I’ve gotten this far is excellent. I am so content and happy and anything is like a bonus, you know . . . because I have now met people and be able to sit around a table and I’ve never done that before, I’ve never even considered I wanted to do that before . . . it’s not even something I even looked into or searched out and to be able to do this is . . . I’m thrilled, I’m thrilled . . . I can’t change other people’s minds, I can’t explain centuries of history . . . I can’t do that, but if I can learn myself a little bit more and if I can grow in my understanding, then excellent . . . yeah.”

Zeren Earls: “It seems like an interesting group of women, progressive thinkers from different walks of life, and creates interesting conversation; and to this point, I haven’t really made an effort to get to know Armenian people, just because I’m not near them usually, and this gives an opportunity to find out who they are and what they’re doing in an environment that I feel would be useful to spend time with.”

Laura Bilazarian-Purutyan: “I would ask that people try to think of our meetings as a time of instruction for others as well as time for sharing of their own experience . . . so if the audience is learners and not just people hearing my experience, I think it changes how you frame and how much background you give . . . you might step back and say, well, if they’re gonna understand me, I need to help them understand where I came from, where I come from, where my parents come from.”

Ayşe Kaya Fırat: “I can’t just say ignore the past, you know, jump into the future and experience new things; that is not what I’m saying, but I believe we can be [a] great example for many other controversies, you know, between other nations . . . so if that was the goal, a lot of good, a lot of goodness can come out of that, right? So that’s what I’m thinking . . . I’m going beyond Armenians and Turks for God’s sake, let’s go to Africa together . . . you know, let’s change lives there you know, let’s fight with hunger, and you know goodness is good for everyone; it would heal me and, you know, people from both sides I think.”

Note that these comments came at the outset of this journey that TAWA began in September 2012, and it hasn’t been smooth sailing ever since. As the person in the middle of the process, I needed to not only keep track of the availability of a dozen busy women, but I had to listen and recognize their concerns and their sensitivities between meetings. And most important, I had to keep track and assess the mood and atmosphere of the group during and in between our gatherings. We did lose one participant due to her heavy work schedule, but twelve of us are still getting together, determined to carry on.  Here’s a preview of what I would like to share with you next, on the subject of history:

Laura Bilazarian-Purutyan: “I’m an Armenian, I’m a granddaughter of survivors . . . and I’m coming here . . . I am coming here as the granddaughter of survivors, and if I am . . . if I understand too deeply your perspective, do I give up something of my experience? I’m trying to hold on to their experience and honor it, but there is a problem on the table: you know it’s an ongoing problem of lack of recognition, and the communities, the Armenian community is not grappling with it, and the two nations are not grappling with it, and so . . . am I at risk of losing something in this conversation . . . honoring my grandparents?”


[1] Please note that no recording device was used during the off-record meetings with this group. The separate interviews were conducted with a partial group of participants on a voluntary basis. The quotes used are from those interviewed who have agreed to sign a release form, permitting the author to make their words public.

Bravo Mary Robinson!

I listened to a book talk last night with Mary Robinson, an extraordinarily accomplished woman.  She served as the President of Ireland.

But that’s not why I want to congratulate her.

She also served as the UN high commissioner for human rights.

But that’s not why I want to congratulate her either.

Currently, during her not so-passive retirement, she has formed her own NGO and is fighting for climate justice, trying to increase awareness regarding the effects of global warming and other environmental ills on the world’s poorest and neediest populations.

It’s a fantastic goal but that still isn’t why I wanted to congratulate her last night.

You see, during the book event, the moment that, for me, capped the significance of her speaking on the eve of International Women’s Day came during the question and answer session. One of the audience members, a man, extended the customary congratulations to her, and then went on to speak about Samantha Powers, another Harvard-educated author and activist, which he emphasized was also of Irish descent. “Isn’t that a testament to the power and brilliance of Irish women” or some such question, he asked, egging her on; to which Robinson answered by saying that the point was not so much whether Powers and she were Irish, but that they were speaking about and for the power and strength of all the women of the world.  And that is why I want to congratulate Mary Robinson…for not taking advantage of the podium for applauding one group of women over another, but by speaking of the women of the world as a whole. That approach can do wonders for all of us…whether in Ireland, Iraq, Indonesia or Iceland.  And for that I salute Mary Robinson on this International Women’s Day!