There is no us and them: remembering the lost Armenians

Perhaps the most difficult word to pronounce aloud in the Turkish language is “soykirim” – genocide.

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After a literary event in London this month, a middle-aged Turkish woman in the audience approaches me and says with a shaking voice: “Armenians have powerful lobbies in the west and they have convinced the world of their side of the story, but what about the Turkish side? Will anyone listen to us? Of course not, we are lonely. We have no friends. It is your duty as a Turkish writer to tell the world our version of events.”

“Our version” versus “their version”. A sense of loneliness mixed with bitterness. Hurt enmeshed in anger. A widespread paranoia that the entire world is conspiring against Turkey and an unflagging reluctance to come to grips with the past. Such are the sentiments that affect Turkish society today when it comes to the subject of the Armenian Genocide – “the Great Catastrophe” – which took place in the Ottoman empire during the First World War and began with the deportation of Armenians en masse from several corners of Anatolia into Syria’s deserts, causing the deaths of between 500,000 (according to Turkish historians) and 1.5 million Armenians (according to Armenian and western sources).

Perhaps the most difficult word to pronounce aloud in the Turkish language is “soykirim” – genocide. Emotions fly so high that reason is put aside. After Pope Francis called this dark phase of history “the first genocide of the 20th century”, a top religious official in Ankara claimed this would only “accelerate Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque”. When the European Parliament voted along the same lines as the Pope, President Erdogan insinuated that he could deport 100,000 Armenian nationals working in Turkey. The Turkish press follows closely which world leaders have joined the list of those who pronounced the G-word, and which world leaders have refrained from doing so (a list that includes President Barack Obama). It is as if people are more interested in the word than in the series of disastrous events it describes. What’s in a word that makes it so hard to hear and even harder to accept?

The term “genocide” was coined by the eminent Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who drafted the UN’s Convention on Genocide in 1948. Combining the Greek “genos” (“tribe” or “race”) and “-cide” from Latin, denoting an act of killing, he referred to the deliberate killing of a large group of people. Lemkin’s concept was born out of his thinking on the Armenian massacres. Since then, there have been heated debates as to what should be included in this category, ranging from Stalin’s horrific purges to the deadly settlement of Kazakhs or the Holodomor – the extermination by hunger of millions of Ukrainians in the USSR.

This month, on the 100th anniversary of the events of 1915, bookshops in the English-speaking world are displaying a stream of works on the genocide. They make for a harrowing reading list. As a Turkish novelist, I find it difficult to read the testimonies in these books and yet, my conscience tells me, I must. As my grandmother used to say, “They were such good neighbours, our Armenian neighbours in Sivas. We were close, their children would play in our house, we would visit their house... we cried when they left. We thought they would come back.” In order to understand how and why the culture of coexistence was broken, we must read history from multiple angles, not just the narrative we grew up with.

Ronald Grigor Suny, an Armenian-American scholar specialising in Russian and Caucasian history, draws on both eyewitness accounts and historical documents in A History of the Armenian Genocide. He demonstrates how the Ottoman equilibrium between Muslim and non-Muslim populations (religious minority groups, known as millets, had legal protection) disappeared with frightening speed throughout the second half of the 19th century. Once brimming with military power and economic resources, the empire now turned into “the sick man of Europe”. The swiftness of the decline, mixed with the fear of “internal and external enemies”, created a fertile ground wherein xenophobic policies could flourish.

Suny elaborates in poignant detail the myriad conflicts over land among a range of ethnic and religious groups across Eastern Anatolia. “What was fundamentally a matter of economics and embedded differences in political clout was therefore easily ethnicised, interpreted and understood as a conflict between Turks, Kurds and Armenians.” It complicated things even further that Ottoman Armenians were heavily concentrated in the six vilayets across Eastern Anatolia, which was becoming a frontier for clashes between the Russian and Ottoman empires. The steady military decline of the Ottoman empire, the interventions of rival European powers, international power struggles such as the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, accompanied by some Armenian rebel groups’ alliance with the Russians: all had a direct impact on the ruling elite’s perception of the entire Armenian population as “dangerous subjects” – hence the beginning of the Armenian Question.

In this turbulent framework, the rise of nationalism would have devastating results for the Ottoman social order. Nationalism, as an ideology and as political praxis, was at odds with the cosmopolitan fabric of multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires. One after another, various ethnic groups in the Ottoman empire rebelled, longing for their own independent nation state. Like other imperialists, the Ottomans were caught in a quandary. For a while the reformist elite tried to develop a supranational identity that would surpass all ethnic and national divisions, binding people of all backgrounds to each other. This glue they labelled “Ottomanism”. There were Turkish, Armenian, Jewish, Syrian, Kurdish and Circassian intellectuals who passionately believed they were all fellow Ottomans and should stay together. But against the tide of nationalisms the glue couldn’t hold. After being pummelled by Bulgarian, Greek, Serbian and Albanian nationalisms in the Balkans, the Turkish elite were now discovering their own nationalism. Two competing ideologies thrived: Islamism and Turkish nationalism. The ideal of a supra-identity embracing all millets was slowly and sadly abandoned.

Suny explores four main factors that accelerated the pace of events: the European intervention, which internationalised the Armenian Question; the Armenians’ appeal to the European powers; the sultan’s new policy of centralisation, which endangered the semi-autonomous status of many provinces; and the sultan’s new alliance and strategy with Muslim Kurds against Christian Armenians. With striking versatility, he studies the period from many angles, pointing out how “Ottoman Armenians were caught between their loyalty to the imperial government and their desire for reforms promoted by the Europeans”.

Suny also reminds his readers of Bernard Lewis’s statement that, for the Turkish leaders of the time, “the Armenian movement was the deadliest of all threats . . . [T]he Armenians, stretching across Turkey-in-Asia from the Caucasian frontier to the Mediterranean coast, lay in the very heart of the Turkish homeland – and to renounce these lands would have meant not the truncation, but the dissolution of the Turkish state.” In the eyes of the Young Turk leaders this was a zero-sum situation. The Armenians had sided with the “enemy”, could no longer be trusted and had to be relocated.

Suny’s narrative voice is calm and balanced. One of his strengths is his meticulous attention to psychological and cultural as much as international and domestic factors. He underlines the harmful effects of “the imperial ambitions of European powers, which repeatedly intervened in Ottoman politics”. He highlights how the First World War changed everything, destroying any possibility of coexistence. “Had there been no World War there would have been no genocide...”

Geoffrey Robertson QC, head of Doughty Street Chambers, the largest human rights legal practice in the UK, was one of the three jurists of the UN Justice Council, all appointed by the secretary general. At the beginning of his book An Inconvenient Genocide he makes it clear that he has no family ties with this dark stage of Ottoman history. It is not because he comes from an Armenian background that he is drawn to the subject: it is his consciousness as a human rights advocate that guides him.

Questioning why and how the Armenian Genocide could remain a “crime without name” for so long, Robertson criticises what he terms “the chorus of denialism”. His book rests upon three main pillars: the law, history and politics. After setting the legal framework for the usage of the word “genocide”, he offers a historical framework extending back to the time of Sultan Hamid, who in his efforts to advance a pan-Islamic ideology sanctioned the massacre of thousands of Armenians in the mid-1890s. Yet, for all their horror, the Hamidian massacres did not amount to genocide, Robertson concludes, because they were not planned by a central government in the way they were later on. Echoing Suny, he argues that things changed dramatically when “an extreme nationalism entered the soul of the CUP” – the Committee of Unity and Progress, the new ruling elite.

Exactly how many lives were lost in 1915 has long been a matter of contention. Armenian historians have argued that this was a systematic extermination of a race, but Turkish historians argued it was a mass relocation, which was made necessary under war circumstances. One thing is obvious, however: by the end of the First World War the number of Armenians in the Ottoman empire had been reduced by 90 per cent. My grandmother’s neighbours would never come back. Turkey’s Armenians, who constituted about 30 per cent of the population in Eastern Anatolia and had been in this region for more than a thousand years, were lost in a vast human tragedy.

Civilians, mostly women and children, perished during the impossible forced walk from their home towns to the deserts in Syria. Lacking enough food and water, many of them died due to starvation, disease and fatigue while others became victims of sporadic violence. Of those “lucky ones” who were able to reach Syria, many died in typhus-ridden camps.

Using eyewitness accounts of diplomats, missionaries, journalists and Red Cross members, as well as photographic evidence, Robertson lays out the extent of the catastrophe. One of the most powerful chapters in his book is about the little-known “Constantinople trials”. At the end of the First World War the Turkish parliament condemned the CUP members who had been involved in the deportation of Armenians. A committee was formed to investigate the crimes. Mustafa Arif, the then minister of the interior, announced: “Unfortunately those who were our leaders during the war have applied the law of deportation in a manner that would rival the most bloodthirsty bandits. They decided to exterminate the Armenians, and they were exterminated.” Had he said these words today he would be prosecuted under Article 301 of the penal code for “insulting Turkishness”.

Robertson tackles the question of whether genocide denial should or should not be a crime – a difficult one for those of us who believe in freedom of speech. He insists that the Turkish government should acknowledge the crime and make a historic apology. He offers suggestions that will help the process of reconciliation and peace. Gestures are important, such as restoring the old Armenian churches, erecting monuments to the victims and mentioning the tragedy openly in school textbooks. Strikingly, Robertson is equally adamant that Armenia should “express regret for the vigilante killings of Turkish officials in the 1970s and ’80s”, which were terrorist offences.

In Fragments of a Lost Homeland: Remembering Armenia, Armen Marsoobian, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, has produced a formidable work of research that is partly microhistory, partly political history. At times the book reads like a novel, focusing on the trajectory of Marsoobian’s forebears, the Dildilian family, starting with their lives in the Ottoman empire and ending with their migration to the United States in the first half of the 20th century. The narrative is enriched with an amazing range of visual material: photographs, drawings, maps, house plans. “Keeping family secrets can be motivated by a variety of reasons,” he writes. “Secrets hidden by one generation from the next are often the result of shame or fear: the shame that comes from believing – often falsely – that one should have behaved differently in a morally challenging situation or the fear of causing harm if a trauma is passed on to the younger generation...”

Marsoobian describes powerfully the struggle to survive and its impact on the human psyche. The chapter on the forced Islamisation of the Dildilian and Der Haroutiounian families is riveting. Despite the importance of Marsoobian’s grandfather to the government, he and his family were forced to convert to Islam and adopt Turkish identities in order to avoid deportation. Thus Tsolag became Pertev, Mariam became Meryem, Jirair became Fatih and Aram became Zeki. Reading this list of names, I could not help but wonder how many other families in Turkey had been in a similar position. How many names have been changed, erased, forgotten. The final exile, and the final chapter, arrives when the Dildilians understand that there is no future for them in their homeland. Together with Armenian orphans they leave their beloved Istanbul behind.

These books, and many more, should be translated into Turkish and made available to readers in Turkey. As fellow human beings we do not have to trap ourselves in nationalistic mental boxes. Nationalism has already caused humanity enough harm. We need to recognise the enormous human suffering of the Armenians in the late Ottoman empire. This need not be an “either/or” choice as my middle-aged Turkish reader seems to fear; at the same time, we can research and recognise the sufferings of many Turks, Kurds, Circassians, Azeris and Alevis. Our minds and hearts are vast enough to mourn all the sorrows and silences in our common history.

The Sufis used to say that time is a big circle wherein the past and the future whirl together. Especially in the Middle East the ghosts of history are with us. In lands where people cannot discuss things peacefully, books are our wise companions. They reveal to us truths that we are reluctant to see.

Some day, one hopes, Armenians can start to forget and forgive – but, for that to happen, Turks and Kurds must first remember. Memory is a responsibility. It is time to abandon the unhealthy Manichaean duality of “our version v their version”. There is no “us”; there is no “them.” After a hundred long years, it is time to read together, remember together, grieve together.

“They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: a History of the Armenian Genocide
Ronald Grigor Suny
Princeton University Press, 520pp, £24.95


An Inconvenient Genocide
Geoffrey Robertson
Biteback, 304pp, £20


Fragments of a Lost Homeland: Remembering Armenia
Armen T Marsoobian
I B Tauris, 368pp, £22.50

Elif Shafak’s most recent novel is “The Architect’s Apprentice” (Penguin)

This article appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?