Conversations on Armenian-Turkish relations I

An interview series by Gonca Sönmez-Poole

(as published in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, Dec. 6, 2014)

FATMA MÜGE GÖÇEK (Part 1) Born, raised and educated in Istanbul, Turkey, Fatma Müge Göçek is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on the comparative analysis of history, politics, gender and collective violence. Her last book entitled Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and the Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 came out in November 2014 from Oxford University Press. Prof. Göçek was one of the founding members of The Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship (WATS), an unprecedented program that brought together Armenian and Turkish academics in a series of workshops starting in 2000.

What was the biggest challenge for you and your colleagues when you started WATS? One thing we had to develop in the first run was that we didn’t even have a common language, a language to discuss these things. And there were initially some problems because we didn’t use the same words to mean the same things. People attributed very different meanings to it. For example, I said in one context, “Well history is complex, it’s never clean…and things are not black and white, they are gray.” I just meant social reality itself is gray, I hadn’t at all thought about genocide. I mean there was no reference to genocide whatsoever. But because it was, you know, so much in their minds, they took me to task and said, “What do you mean?” So I had to explain what I meant, which is fine. The major contribution of WATS was to create a new space, a more neutral space, where people felt they could talk about these things and share knowledge and information. And that not all Turks, you know, were puppets of the Turkish state. And of course, during the last 10 years, things really changed and transformed.

How important was terminology, specifically the use of the word genocide in your work and research? From the beginning I myself did not want to use the word ‘genocide.’  Not because it’s not a genocide, it certainly is, but I said, drawing on my own life experience, “Look, I had no idea what happened until I started looking into it…At that point if somebody comes to me, if I have no knowledge and says your ancestors committed genocide, I mean, my first reaction would be, no. It will be not because I’m denying what happened…but I have no idea” So I said, “I’ll call it a genocide once I work on this, and I produce that body of knowledge.” So, because of that, of course some of them were upset. I mean, it was at the time, so politicized. If you said that, half of them wouldn’t listen, if you didn’t say it, the other half wouldn’t listen.

Did you make a conscientious decision not to say genocide in the title of your latest book? Yes, my issue is not genocide. What always fascinated me as a sociologist was not whether it was genocide or not, because I already know it was. So, I mean, to me, that didn’t matter. What I was interested in as a sociologist is why didn’t people acknowledge it? I mean, the denial of it was, for me, the more interesting part. And that’s why I wanted to look at denial of violence. And if you only look at genocide, I mean, in 1915, ’17, or ’22, however you picture it, what’s interesting is that, that’s not when the violence starts. I mean, that is the epitome of the violence, the high point. But there is violence in the 1894, ’96 massacres before then. So if you think about what happened afterwards, it still continues. It’s not like, it seizes with the violence against the Armenians. So, I said, this is just one part of it. I want to see the whole picture. Where did it start, when did it end? And that’s why it became 220 years.

Besides the point that it encompasses 220 years and it took you 12 years to finish it, what was the hardest part of doing this latest book? I felt like I was an onion. I sort of had to strip my layers all the way through, because until then, I had taken for granted and naturalized my position in Turkey’s society. I had not realized that I too was an ethnic Sunni‑Turk, you know, who was part of the dominant majority, who on top of it came from the upper‑class. And that had given me advantages and a sense of security that I took for granted.

Because of my belonging to the dominant majority, a lot of my parents’ friends and others, including academic friends took a virulent stand against me. They said, “How dare you put the interest of humanity before the interest of Turkey?” So as a consequence, I lost a lot of friends and that made me much more aware.  And I had to constantly ask, “Am I favoring one group over, over another? Am I being too understanding towards Armenians? Am I being too harsh towards Turks? And then, I was told of course, to stop working on it because they said it was dangerous…But then again, why are we academics? We’re academics because we want to find answers to the questions we ask, and if I can’t do that I might as well go and work on Wall Street, you know, or do something else.  (To be continued)

A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Gonca Sönmez-Poole is the founder of TAWA (Turkish-Armenian Women’s Alliance), a grassroots alliance of Armenian and Turkish women based in and around Boston.  A native of Turkey, Sönmez-Poole spent two decades working for WCVB-TV’s “Chronicle” program, followed by 13 years managing her own non-profit organization.

 

 

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.

Facebook Facts and Footnotes

I’ve always loved reading the footnotes in any article.  Not only because I was told way back in graduate school how valuable they can be for background and context, but I’ve always cherished the value of digging deeper and lifting the veil on those facts and figures that stare us right in the face.  The latter kind hit me just last Friday, when, against my better judgment, I decided to check in with social media first thing in the morning.  And so, I opened my eyes to a Facebook posting about the murder of an Armenian teacher in Istanbul.  Needless to say, I was horrified.  But I have to say that I was also disturbed about some of the comments that followed…those blanket statements about one ethnicity’s barbarity against another…  Never mind that a “man” had been slaughtered, it was his ethnicity that mattered… And wouldn’t you know it, two to three hours later, another bit of news followed.  The man was not Armenian you see, he simply happened to work at an Armenian school as a computer science instructor.  Then followed another batch of tit-for-tat comments …nothing surprising there. This is after all life a-la-social-media!  But here is one comment I wanted to translate from Turkish, from what I can only assume is an average FB user:

“We need to read a lot, learn a lot and stay away from one-sided and obsessive perspectives so as to see the world and humanity as a whole”

And that is why I like reading footnotes and in between the lines, because some of the best advice can sometimes be found not in that big huge headline, but in those little pockets of history, written nowadays in small print inside our social-media-infused lives. And so every now and then, it does seem worth it to sift through the unbearable weight of everything else that seems to blur our eyes to what really matters.

Dancing to the same tune?

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a performance by the Sayat Nova Dance Company of Boston in Worcester.  Having spent a good portion of my high school years in Turkey learning and performing folk dances from all corners of Anatolia, and having watched several performances by Turkish folk dance groups on many occasions, I had decided that attending a performance by this reputable Armenian dance group was long overdue.  And so, thanks to a few Armenian friends of mine, the arrangements were made and here we were driving from Watertown to Worcester with what I would call a marvelous mixture of mixed company.  Let me set the scene for you: in the back of the car, I am sitting in between two starkly different generations.  To my left sits 26-year-old Ümit Kurt. He is from Gaziantep, Turkey, currently a doctoral student at Clark University and already a published academic. He tells me his mother is Kurdish and assumes his father is Turkish…but then again we both agree that with a background so rich in multi-ethnicity during the Ottoman times one can never be sure of one’s roots in Anatolia…Anyway, Ümit, quite the bright young man, has taught himself the Armenian alphabet and is currently enrolled in Armenian language classes in Watertown, Massachusetts. And to my right sits Siranoush Kassabian, a 92-year-old born in Evereg (renamed Develi in present-day Turkey), raised in Lebanon and living in the United States since 1976. I must point out that Siranoush is sharper than many a twenty-something that I have known and she doesn’t miss a beat.  Not only does she keep abreast of what is happening inside the car, keeping an eye on her daughter Hripsime and the GPS device she is following, but she switches from Turkish to Armenian to English with comfort and ease and puts me to shame since my Armenian is pathetically limited to “hello” and “how are you.”

As I mentioned our driver is Siranoush’s daughter Hripsime (they call her Hrip for short) Parsekian, a former nurse and bilingual language teacher from Watertown. Next to Hrip sits her cousin Ardemis Yepremian (Arda for short) who is visiting from Cranston,Rhode Island. It’s the first time I’ve ever met Arda so we don’t get to exchange too many words beyond the usual questions about where we live and where we come from and the like. After a slow walk up to the theatre with Ümit helping Siranoush up the steps, the show starts.  They barely start the second dance number and I immediately feel like I’ve been here before…the steps, the pacing, the rhythm, they are all so familiar to me. I am seated next to Ümit on one side and Arda on the other.  I glance over at Siranoush and as I suspected, she’s not missing a beat, no senior moment or snoozing halfway through a show in her case!  Overall, the performance is delightful [1] not only because the overall rhythm of the dances are quite familiar to me, but I also find the tracing of the history and traditions of the Armenian nation and culture through different sections of the performance to be well designed, informative and entertaining. It’s not the first time I have heard of the famous troubadour Sayat Nova or the composer Gomidas Vartabed but it is especially resonant to see/hear these names associated with the art of dance.

That said, one of my favorite moments comes about halfway through one of the dance numbers when I feel that Arda, sitting next to me, is starting to move and bounce in her seat, at the very same time that I am! It becomes delightfully obvious to me right then and there; Arda and I are clearly dancing to the same tune. Towards the end of the performance, she leans towards me and asks: “Have you ever seen anything like this?” and I respond, “In fact yes, many of the performances by my Turkish folk dancing friends have been quite similar really.”

And so I ask myself:  if Arda and I can well shimmy to the same tune, when will the rest of the Turkish and Armenian communities in Boston and beyond follow?


[1] Except for the artistic rendering of a horrific scene of murder and carnage of young Armenian women during the Genocide.  As a Turkish speaking person, this was exceedingly disturbing to me since the “dance” (more like a visual representation of Ottoman-Turkish soldiers summararily massacring young Armenian women) was accompanied by a Turkish tune (Bir dalda iki kiraz, biri al, biri beyaz) clearly associated with joy and happiness!  I guess we all have our “red line” when it comes to artistic license. Mine hits that line at dark and disturbing use of dance choreography.

 

Comments on “When They Died…” II

Wanted to share the comment below…in response to the article I had written a few months back:

Dear Gonca,
After reading your article, it occurred to me that I had an experience
similar to yours. During a 1979 visit to the Los Angeles Consulate to get
an extension on my Turkish Passport I met Turkey’s  Consul General
Mr. Kemal. Mr. Arıkan, a kind, good natured “Babacan” gentlemen who
after signing my passport, asked me questions and was interested to hear if
I was able to cope working and going to school, and that I could call if I
needed help, and he was proud of my accomplishments. Every year I
looked forward to visiting the TR Consulate, getting my passport signed,
drink the çay and tell the consul general how I was promoted to a project
engineer and how everything was just great and so on and so forth. The last
stamp I received on my passport was January 27, 1982.
The next day, our Kemal Bey was shot and killed.
Harry Sassounian took his revenge for the crimes committed long before
our Kemal Bey was born. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation
supports Sassonian as a hero to this day. How does one deal with this?

First of all you stop all thoughts for a while and just get on with life. Next
step is to disassociate the underdeveloped individuals from the ethnic
group they belong.
Today, I enjoy the company of my good friends Agop Bey and Corina
Hanım, the owners of the Armenian restaurant Shiraz in Worcester. I have
completely disassociated the killer of Kemal Arıkan from my Armenian
friends. Similarly, my Armenian friends appear to have disassociated me
from the revolutionaries who murdered our citizens and destroyed our
empire.
Going forward, what can we do to soften the anger Armenians feel towards
the Turks and the seeming lack of compassion Turks exhibit towards
Armenians?   Frankly I don’t think there is a lot we can do. Since 1915
mankind has evolved, however not enough for the majority to value a
human being for what he or she is, rather than clutter the equation with
gender, age, race, religion, nationality, etc.

Gonca, we have both been subjected to ultra nationalistic and downright racist
primary education, I have begun to question things ten years ago after turning fifty,
and having read your article, you are obviously well ahead of me and at an earlier age. I truly admire your sense of right thing to do.
Ahmet Erkan

 

 

What does dialogue look like?

My answer: it depends on what you mean by it. For those of you in an around the Boston area, here is my attempt to get some dialogue going between Turks and Armenians in the next few weeks. I encourage my Turkish friends to show up at one of these events and see if they can strike up a conversation. Go ahead and try it, you may make a few new friends and maybe participate in a history lesson as an added bonus.

Street fair in Watertown. Friday, July 20 through Sunday, July 22

http://www.boston-kermesse.org/index.php

Book talk and signing by Chris Bohjalian for his new book “The Sand Castle Girls” at the Armenian Library and Museum of America. Visit naasr.org for more information.

And for those of you who missed this morning’s Labyrinth Walk at he Armenian Heritage Park, there will be two more of those coming up in the fall. Check out: ArmenianHeritagePark.org

Comments on “When They Died…”

It’s been nearly two months since I wrote an article about Armenian-Turkish relations which can be found on this site in English, Turkish and Armenian. Today, I’d like to share a sample of the comments I have since received from across the United States.   Here in no particular order are a few of the reactions to “When They Died….”

Gonca,Was in the middle of something, started reading and could not stop.  And then started crying as went on.  Thank you for sharing,                                             Anonymous

Dear Gonca, Your article challenged me to keep talking, keep questioning, keep learning and not pull back from both the Genocide or from people whose nationality is Turkish. Not to hide behind my own racism or hatred or what I think my community expects of me. A couple of weeks ago there was a discussion about Armenian folk tales and folk music. The artist was from Armenia describing the traditions that have come from before Christianity in stories, lessons, fables, music and dance. She asked what songs our families, our grandparents sang  in the house. And then the conversation turned very dark. Someone said “our families were deported, there was no music in my childhood home.” Someone else got up and said, “this is the other side of genocide, not just the loss of life, but also our music and our folktales, our language, our food and our our heritage because this part of culture isn’t written down, it is shared and taught generation to generation.” He called it the white genocide, the loss of more than just life, but everything that is Armenian. That made me grieve, but it also made me think, we shared villages then, perhaps we also shared music and stories and so much that was suddenly broken apart in 1915.  Somehow if we can bring out those familiar threads- in Turkish folklore/folk music a story that is similar in both of our languages, a tune of a song, a fable or lesson on values….. But we have to start the conversations, and it starts with our own selves. I am grateful for your clear voice and your bravery to start this and put it out to the world. I will still keep thinking and talking. Tsoleen Sarian (political campaign consultant)

 

What a profound and heartfelt message you have created and sent around to your inner world…  There are many conceptual experiences that we share in your story.  Individuals like Orhan Gunduz and Hrant Dink live or have lived among us through time.  Their intense commitment to their beliefs were similiar.  Who knows if their ancestry is shared at some point in the past?  The more we observe and freely discuss these issues (hopefully not sparked by another death or unfortunate event), the closer we become to facing the truth together, and the healing can begin and the anger slowly dissolved… I wonder that if things from the past could ever be somewhat settled, many of us (Armenians, Turks, Kurds, etc.) would indeed be freer to reflect on the ‘common memories’ we shared together along with the same land, food, culture and friends before the Genocide occurred.  Your personal reflection certainly deserved a response of gratitute, appreciation, acknowledgement and compassion from me.  Sincerely,                                                                                                                          An Armenian friend

Merhaba Gonca, I like what you have written.  This is the sort of piece that appeals to both open-minded Armenians and the open-minded Turks who are thankfully becoming less and less silent.                                                                                   Nareg Seferian (Graduate student of international affairs)

“Gonca,You have said so much here. We can all understand more clearly through your eyes. If I may, I would like to use this in Sunday School with our teens tomorrow.”  Laura Bilazarian Purutyan (Educator)

 

Dear Gonca Sonmez-Poole,                                                                                               I was deeply moved by reading your sincere inner feelings on such a sensitive subject. It takes great courage and humaneness to express your thoughts on the Armenian Genocide in such an open manner.                                                                              Harut Sassounian (Publisher, The California Courier)

Dear Gonca, I just sat down and read your essay and was moved to tears by it.  I am so grateful for the deepened personal reflections in this piece and your account of how very difficult it was to travel the distance you have travelled. Your honesty feels like a balm.  On my side (and I don’t know if I’ve expressed this to you already), I feel something like a yearning, a need, to make a connection with Turks—this began happening to me as I worked on the play.  In talking to you, in talking to Ahmet and Ayşe, and other Turks I’ve met, there’s a kind of release, I don’t know from what!  There’s some kind of freedom, some kind of balm.  Freedom from censorship in myself? Freedom to know Turks as human beings, as friends? Not to have to be walled off?  I think about how we all have a common wound. We are bound together by the past, by the attempt to divide us—we are all wounded by it, and that connects us. Joyce Van Dyke (Playwright)

 

Dear Gonca,Very heavy soul searching yet it seems like you are free at last in your search.  We had to choice as to how we were to enter this world, but once here, seek truth and have empathy along the way.  As you had said from the very beginning, above all, “I am a human being.” Thanks for sharing your inner feelings with me    Harry Parsekian (Retired businessman)

 

Gonca, this is so well written. I did not know of your personal journey.  Part of me is always sympathetic with Turks that it must not be easy to admit that one’s grandparents (not all, of course), did something horrific. It takes courage to acknowledge it. I will circulate this widely.  It brought tears to my eyes.                                                      Anna Ohanyan, PhD (Academician)

 

Gonca,  I am especially grateful to you for sending me your very sincere article…yes when they died…we all had tears gushfull tears for Orhan Bey whom my mother knew well and Hrant…right when I gave birth to my second child Orhan Gündüz was a victim of our horrendous conflict…was he not friend of Armenians?..of course he was!  Yet he was also a representative of Turkish government and he could not accept the genocide officially apropos to his officials…he was so helpful to  my mom whenever she wanted to go to Istanbul he arranged everything—we always visited him at Topkapı at Central Square I even brought gifts from Turkey to him…my mom and him had many friendly conversations and I felt deep grief of his assassination I wanted to turn my back to all these issues—just deny everything and not talk and be apathetic to all these…can I? …no…if I have in my family many  members killed only because they were Armenians…I have close friends who are Turkish…we are all people of that land… Varteni Mosdichyan (Artist/painter)

 

Gonca,Thank you for this. I see hope!                                                                          Kay Mouradian, EdD (author/health and physical education specialist)