By Carl Robichaud
If you entered Istanbul’s annual book fair, descended a flight of stairs, navigated your way through the jostling crowd, took a right at the twelfth aisle, continued past kiosks — filled with vividly illustrated children’s books, language guides promising fluency, books on architecture, design and fashion — you might stop at the eighth kiosk on the right with the small placard “Belge”. If you turned to the shelf on your left, you might notice a small black book discreetly tucked in the corner and bearing, in red script, the word Jenosid.
Of all these books, Ulusal ve Uluslararasi Hukuk Sorunu Olarak Jenosid, by Vahakn N. Dadrian, is perhaps the most controversial. A Turkish translation of an essay published in the Yale Law Review, Genocide as a Problem in National and International Law concisely details the charge of genocide against the Turkish state, and discusses the legal ramifications. The book, published in Istanbul in 1995, was first banned and later unbanned in a historic State Security Court decision.
The public display, not to mention the publication, of Dadrian’s book would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. As recently as 1988, an intellectual was sentenced to seven years in prison for translating (correctly) a passage from the Encyclopedia Britannica that dealt with Armenians and Eastern Anatolia. Only a decade ago, someone who spoke only Turkish had no access to books which strayed from the official line on the events of 1915. Even Armenian novels, poetry, and cultural productions were suspect — if not prohibited. The Armenian Question was the greatest taboo in a land of taboos.
The publication of Dadrian’s book is only one indication that things in Turkey are changing. Since 1991 there have been almost two dozen books on Armenians, from novels and memoirs to political works by Dadrian, Taner Akçam and Yves Ternon. Agos, an Armenian weekly founded in 1995, publishes in Turkish (See AIM, March 2000) and reaches a significant Turkish audience. Salkim Hanimin Tanileri, a film about the injustices of the 1942 “Wealth Tax” as experienced by an Armenian family, was one of last year’s most popular movies.
These changes are by no means widespread or irreversible. But, as Historian Jirair Libaridian explains, “These are real changes. They constitute part of the larger changes in Turkish society, including the widening of the margin of debate on a number of issues. The creation and nursing of public opinion is no longer a monopoly of the state.”
Increased freedom in the cultural and political sphere has been paralleled by changes in the intellectual and economic spheres. Akçam, a Turkish scholar living in Germany whose 1992 book addressed the Armenian genocideand Turkish identity, presented his theses at conferences in Germany, Russia and (at the state-sponsored conference) in Armenia in 1995. As early as September 1990, Levon Marashlian, a California-based historian, was invited to present a paper on the Armenian Genocide at the Turkish Historical Conference. In 1998, Professor Ronald Grigor Suny of the University of Chicago was invited to Koç University in Istanbul, where he delivered a talk on the Genocide to students and faculty. A subsequent interview was published in Milliyet. This past November, Jean-Claude Kebabdjian, founder and president of the Paris-based CRDA (Centre de Recherches sur la Diaspora Armenienne or Research Center on the Armenian Diaspora) who had come to make a presentation at the Istanbul Book Fair, appeared on a popular television talk show, making his appeal for rapprochement between Armenians and Turks and further dialogue. His address was covered by every major newspaper in Turkey and was one of the first successful attempts to reach a large Turkish audience.
In March, a conference on “Armenians at the End of the Ottoman Empire at the Turn of the Century,” held at the University of Chicago, brought Turkish and Armenian scholars together to talk about what Libaridian calls “their two histories.”
On the political front there has been change as well. Encouraged by the US and Europe, the Republics of Armenia and Turkey have moved towards political rapprochement. This winter, serious talks took place on even a tentative opening of the border between the two countries, and business ties between Armenians and Turks, have already begun to materialize. Turkish products are widely available in Yerevan markets. Turkish construction workers come to Armenia on specific international projects.
There are hopes that relations will be normalized — even though all official sources seem to indicate this is still strongly linked to a resolution of the Karabakh conflict. There is even talk now of a Caucasus security pact which will include both Turkey and Armenia. Although the Armenian and Turkish (and Russian) proposals about such a pact differ, still, the very idea of a regional security system that shall include these two contentious neighbors is a bright sign.
Developments within Turkey have paved the way for discussion of what used to be called the Armenian Question, within Turkey and without. Calling what has emerged a dialogue may be incorrect. It is not a dialogue in the sense of a single recognizable side communicating with another. But Armenians and Turks are engaged in a range of conversations which encompass such diverse elements as scholarly conferences, cultural events, diplomatic gestures and business relations. To understand the future of such a dialogue, one must understand its roots, its goals and its potential pitfalls.
The first words of Jean-Claude Kebabdjian’s November 8th address at Istanbul’s annual book fair were, in Turkish, Merhaba Dostlar, Merhaba Hemsehriler [Hello Friends, Hello Countrymen.] The audience, which exceeded the capacity of the auditorium and filled the aisles, edged tentatively into applause.
“You have before you today a man whose life is the result of a historical accident. My parents, born in Yozgat, arrived in France in 1924 after having lost everything because of history. They had to leave their lives, disappear forever, without a trace; this was the case of my maternal grandfather, who disappeared in 1915 during the deportation. This was the case for many others, dead or disappeared. Their children were never born.
“History is made by people. And not all these people did the same thing: there were those who were butchers and those who were not. The fact that my parents were able to survive, escape death, take refuge in another country is proof that in the masses of people there were people who were not indifferent. I owe my life to my parents, but also all the other people without whom my parents could not have survived.”
Kebabdjian, seated between author Rait Pertev and human rights activist Akin Birdal in a panel dedicated to human and minority rights in Turkey, came to Istanbul with the goal of creating a dialogue that could lead to reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian people.
“One cannot enclose a culture within frontiers or in the past. One cannot hide behind an official affirmation as if behind a besieged fortress. The sentiment of patriotism consists of discovering and appreciating one’s neighbors and their culture, and they doing the same.
“I believe that we are on the path towards a true reconciliation as we approach the future. For a long time, the people of Turkey and Armenia have been looking at each other and seeing only the face of a mirror. But now, thanks to the effort of publishers such as Belge and Aras and many others, we have the opportunity to see both sides of history, to lift the face of the mirror and to truly learn about each other.”
Belge, the publishing house to which Kebabdjian referred, had published over 350 titles, including the works of Laurence Durrell, Taha Hussein and Tarik Ali. Ragip Zarakolu and Ayse Nour Zarakolu’s leftist publishing house has been, for 25 years, on me frontier of minority and human rights publications in Turkey, and in 1993, they challenged the Armenian taboo, publishing Yves Ternon’s Histoire et Genocide under its title in Germany, Ermeni Tabou. Three thousand copies sold. The book was confiscated within days.
“It was very aggressive. The taboo is really deep,” Ragip told AIM in December.
Since the printing house was in Ayse Nour’s name, she was brought before the tribunal for the pre-trial hearing. She was accustomed to this. Thirty-five of her books had been “tried.” Asked why she published Ternon, Nour replied that she was a human rights activist who wanted to prevent all genocide, and that this was impossible without an acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide.
The prosecutor responded by asking for her immediate arrest. Her time in prison was harsh, and some say even caused the cancer from which she is currently suffering.
Though the Zarakolus lost the Ternon case — the book is currently banned and the publishing house was fined $7,500 — the state’s efforts to suppress the Armenian issue have led to increased international support for Zarakolu. It began when the prosecutor in the Ternon case, hoping to pin a few years on Nour’s sentence, claimed that she had not only published the book, but had written it under the pen name Yves Ternon. So in 1995, Ragip traveled to Paris to gain documentation that a man named Yves Ternon really exists. It was on this trip that he first met Kebabdjian and Raffi Hermonn Araxes of CRDA. They devoted themselves to publicizing Zarakolu’s cause to the Western press. Zarakolu’s European ties have been crucial in protecting Zarakolu from state efforts to end his work.
Since publishing Dadrian, Belge has published nearly a dozen works dealing with Armenians. The most recent are an eyewitness genocide testimony by Pailadzo Kaptanian, a collection of articles by Dadrian, and a book of short stories by the German humanitarian and attorney Armin Wegner, as well as a booklet of Armenian songs from Istanbul and Anatolia.
Immediately prior to the appearance of these most recent titles, Zarakolu was asked what he thought the government reaction to these publications would be. The man who has received death threats and fines, who has been imprisoned and firebombed, smiled.
“We will see,” he said. “We are forcing them, step by step, to accept the right to publish on Armenian issues.”
Within Turkey, the Armenian weekly Agos has become the center of a growing Turkish-Armenian dialogue. Since its inception in 1995, Agos has become the bridge between the two communities — a sort of Armenian embassy. Hrant Dink, Agos’s charismatic publisher, has forged ties with a wide spectrum of the Turkish press, and when a story breaks they turn to him for insight into the Armenian perspective. To date there have been no articles attacking Agos. On the contrary, there have been many articles in support of its efforts, to the extent that, according to Dink, “when Armenians have problems, these people [his readership] are the first to defend us.”
Zarakolu believes that by publicizing state infringements of minority and Armenian rights, Agos has created sympathy for Armenian issues, especially among Turkish intellectuals. Their work has made “a real contribution to the creation of an atmosphere of dialogue,” he said. But, he emphasized, Turkish publishers need to get involved as well.
“The Genocide has become part of the Armenian identity. We must free them from that burden, we must carry it together.”
The Kurdish Factor
It is impossible to speak about these changes in Turkey without discussing one of the primary catalysts: the Kurdish issue. In Turkey, the relevance of the Armenian question is directly proportional to the relevance of the Kurdish question.
The emergence of a Kurdish identity in Anatolia made it impossible for Turkey to maintain the façade that Turkey is and always has been a land of only Turks. Twenty years of human rights abuses and intercommunal fighting has alienated the Kurds which form a large segment of Turkey’s population, and driven them to reexamine their history. And as Kurds began to look into their own past, they could not ignore the parallels between their current situation and the Armenian genocide.
In Turkey, those fighting the hardest for genocide recognition are those who fear that Turkey may be headed for another disaster in Anatolia. This is true of Zarakolu, whose first efforts on behalf of the Armenians came out of his realization that “Turkey was in danger of a new disaster that could develop on the same level as the genocide.” It is true of Ahmet Önal, head of Peri Yayinlari, a Kurdish press that has published a half-dozen books on Armenian history, who realized that “in order for Kurdish scholars to claim a Kurdish reality they had to discuss the Armenian reality.” It is true of MED-TV, the Kurdish television station broadcast from Western Europe and watched via satellite throughout Anatolia. MED-TV runs programs about Armenians, and reserves April 24 of every year for a full day broadcast commemorating the genocide. It is true of Ali Ertem, who founded the Association Against Genocide in Germany (see accompanying story) which gathered over 11,000 signatures from Kurds and Turks who recognized the Armenian genocide. And it is true of the thousands of Kurds in Anatolia who acknowledge, among themselves for now, the reality of the genocide.
The awakening of Kurdish interest in Armenian issues is evident at the Book Fair. Kurdish readers have been avid consumers of recent publications about Armenians, and Mgrdich Margosian’s memoirs about life among Diarbekir’s Armenians sped through multiple editions at Aras publishing. But, as Robert Kopta of Aras tells it, Kurds came to the Book Fair not only to thank Aras for their books.
“People would come to us saying `I’m sorry, my grandfather killed Armenians,’ or `My grandfather saved some Armenians,’ ” said Robert, who estimated that in the past two years, there were probably 40 incidents like this. “Our stand turned into a wailing wall.”
Within Turkey there is increasing internal and external pressure, for a re-examination of the past. Surprisingly, the government seems reluctant to shut down this discourse. Do these changes reflect a meaningful change in Turkish policy? Many, like Dadrian, have their reservations. While Dadrian acknowledges that “Turkey’s European Union candidacy is bound to encourage greater press freedom,” he maintains that “These changes are but token gestures aimed at impressing European observers rather than earnestly liberating the system as a whole.”
Surprisingly, the issue of academic dialogue is a controversial one.
Richard Kloian, director of the Armenian Genocide Research Center, is “all for dialogue,” but, he continues. “I am troubled by the projection of such a dialogue into the public arena as a step forward when it in fact simply gives Turkey and her trained `experts’ another opportunity to `debate’ facts, to counter arguments and to once again take credit for `engaging in open dialogue with Armenians,’ all the while proceeding at full speed the continued aggressive denials of the genocide in every forum it surfaces.”
But those scholars who believe in the need for such a dialogue, and who are looking for ways to create the necessary forums, disagree vehemently.
Libaridian says, “This is not a matter of haggling over the Genocide. The truth is not somewhere in the middle. The numbers, the facts, they are not debatable. That is not what we are doing.
“That’s not the way to get at the truth,” Libaridian continues. “My argument is that you have to look at the whole mental attitude. This is a historical problem. Why is it that Turks have not recognized this? The answer is that the problem of Genocide is a problem in and for Turkish history. It says something to a Turkish historian or intellectural about Turkey. Not that they’re good or bad, but it says something about how the state evolved.”
That is precisely the reason some Turkish scholars have openly called for a discussion of the Armenian Genocide.
And they call it Genocide.
That’s a sign that the dialogue has begun.