The Other F-Word: On History, Memory, and Experiments in Armenian-Turkish Conciliation




IT WAS LATE APRIL in the Capital, a time of blossoming cherries, daffodils, and other imported botanical cheer. The annual White House Easter egg hunt had recently passed — as, incidentally, had the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Washington, DC was in particular good form, enjoying the spoils of its imports and banishments. With spring in the air, I found myself warming to Paolo’s winter-long appeal to meet his Turkish friend Murat.

We’d just commemorated the annual April 24 Armenian Genocide, and Paolo, a friend and graduate student of international politics, had attended some of the Capital’s events with me. As a Brazilian national, Paolo knew more about the events of 1915–’17 than most Americans. Brazil is one of 28 nations around the world that formally recognizes the Armenian Genocide. The United States, a geopolitical Turkish ally, does not. And so when Paolo discovered that his classmate in international law, Turkish-American Murat, seemed hazy on the topic, Paolo hatched a plan to engage the two of us in dialogue.

To persuade me to meet Murat, Paolo assured me that his friend was a modern freethinker who’d grown up in New England. Both of Murat’s parents were prominent doctors at an Ivy League hospital, and Murat’s two older sisters were graduate students abroad. When Paolo added that Murat’s parents had Turkish diplomatic ties, a red flag went up; Paolo’s insisted that although Murat’s parents were aligned with Turkish ideology, their offspring were progressive liberals. In Paolo’s opinion, Murat was idealistic, open minded, and genuinely cared for the common good.

Zealously pro-recognition of the Armenian Genocide (1.5 million Armenians slaughtered at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915) by Turkey, I wasn’t exactly eager to exchange ideas with Paolo’s Turkish friend. While the Armenian Genocide has been formerly and internationally recognized, Turkey still vehemently denies it. The history books in Turkey reflect this denial, and generations of post-Genocide Turks have been taught to believe that the Armenians were an ungrateful minority who took up arms against a benevolent mother country. Though American-born, Murat was as versed in this narrative as his Turkish-born compatriots.

Paolo nonetheless argued that our meeting might be groundbreaking. In his collegiate exuberance, he idealized Track-Two Diplomacy [1], and envisioned a one-on-one resolution of the Armenian Question [2].

Our tentative introduction was made over the din of a Georgetown bar. Murat and I avoided any immediate eye contact and feigned inordinate interest in Paolo. Warily, we checked each other out when we thought the other wasn’t looking as Paolo made small talk before launching the obvious topic. Somewhat skeptically, we agreed to meet each week throughout the semester to discuss the Armenian Question, and to read books, journals, and papers that supported our respective positions.

Several short weeks into our dialogue, Murat started to see that his proof of a nonexistent Armenian Genocide was lacking. That’s when, like a fervent mullah, he dragged religion into the argument. Islam, he expounded, is the final and true religion, the completion of Abrahamic monotheism. Armenians, he arrogantly asserted, are naïve in their Eastern Orthodox Christian beliefs. Armenian Christianity, according to Murat’s belief system, was incomplete and would stay that way were it not for the enlightenment of Islamic Turkey.

For all of Murat’s privilege and modernity, there was something fundamental in his religiosity. In a way, I admired his conviction. He really believed in his version of Islamic theology. He claimed to worry for my soul, something I found both amusing and annoying. I respected his Ramadan fasts, and the duty-bound hospitality he often displayed to strangers. I appreciated the way he shared his food with homeless people in his neighborhood. When I’d walk with him on his “sandwich deliveries,” as he called them, he’d remind me — the unsophisticated Christian — of his responsibilities as a Believer. I might have been insulted, were it not for his quick apologies when I pointed out that self-righteousness was not a virtue of the Prophet.

One day I asked Murat about the Atatürk [3] portrait that hung imposingly in his university flat. His guard was down, and he disclosed that while he was happy to be a US citizen, when it came to his cultural homeland he generally shared the nationalistic ideals of many of his fellow Turks. This meant that in the face of proclamations for a democratic and equalized Turkey, he was essentially a “Turk for Turkey.” Almost in defense of this stance, Murat shifted the conversation toward his parentage. His very own mother and father, for example, were both doctors committed to saving lives. Thus, he concluded with childlike logic, no Turk could have committed crimes of genocide. He had been led to believe that around the year 1915, Armenians (and Greeks) had rebelled against Turkey and, therefore, had posed an existential threat to the national entreaty for a Turkish homeland. That the Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, or Kurds had occupied present-day Turkey centuries prior to Atatürk was irrelevant to Murat. It seemed that the Socratic questioning Murat normally applied in his studies of the law, and in much of his life, was inaccessible to him when it came to this particular topic.

That his parents had settled in New England very near to one of the most heavily Armenian-populated cities in the United States struck me as a curious coincidence. Murat was eager to share stories of the numerous ways in which Armenian kids back in junior high had ostracized him. Once he related a bizarre story of getting knifed in a dark alley. Lifting his shirt, Murat showed me the scar across his abdomen. I held my breath and waited for him to tell me about the big, bad “Armo” who had done this to him. Anticlimactically, he reported that the perpetrator had been a mentally ill homeless man; inwardly I thanked God.

With respect to the Armenian Question, Murat and I disagreed on literally every point. I would never come around to his way of seeing things, nor he mine. But in spite of our bitter differences, in spite of our biases, pride, and egos, we grew to like each other. Murat was type-A nervous, a fast talker with a lively wit and quirky sense of humor. He made me laugh. He was also warm and affectionate, and, I must admit, not unhandsome — in a bookish sort of way. My aesthetic sensibility double-crossed my better judgment, and I shocked myself at finding Murat rather attractive. The attraction (while not openly addressed) was mutual. For a fleeting instant, we fancied ourselves star-crossed friends, a platonic Romeo and Juliet, soulmates in a parallel universe. Parachuting over enemy lines, so to speak, our association became our secret, something that neither of us would publicize among our respective communities lest we be seen as traitors.

During our dialogue sessions, time and space collapsed. The project that began as something for “our people,” but, with an air of destiny, shrank down to a much smaller, more personal and confidential one. At times, The Question was not even in question, as our discussions bounced all over the place. We discovered similarities and shared liberal outlooks on controversial topics, like the death sentence or the war on drugs. Finding common ground, we bonded as comrades on a mission.

Ardent law student Murat was clever, articulate, and keen to debate. Though I didn’t possess an Ivy League degree, I was confident around him and able to hold my own. His cross-examinations served to refine my argument; my points and position were uncontestable. Toward the end of that semester, we grew weary from the exertion of rigorous debate, and were equally dispirited that one of us had not yet yielded. Resignedly, we turned to clichés: we “agreed to disagree” and halted all further deliberations.

When Murat’s stint in DC was coming to a close, he proposed a farewell dinner. I arrived at the restaurant to find my devoutly abstinent Muslim friend shooting tequila poppers at the bar. Seesawing as he stood to greet me, he pushed his glasses up, and intimated that we needed to talk. He prefaced that the alcohol was a necessary courage booster. He asked to me listen closely because he would say this only once. The gravity of his words, in contrast to his buzz, was funny. I laughed and waited for him to speak. Nervously, he made the rounds on his tespih (Turkish prayer beads).

After another shot of tequila and another pass on the beads, Murat confessed that he had had a revelation: the Armenian Genocide had indeed occurred. The reported facts, documents, and official dispatches chronicled by non-Turkish and non-Armenian parties, he conceded, were incontestable. For the first time in months of continuous dialogue, I fell speechless. My mind reeled forward, thinking of the new ground we’d just broken — not only for ourselves but for “our people.” Murat went on to express his profound sorrow and shame; nevertheless, this disclosure, he warned, must remain confidential. His confession would be only to me and only this once.

I was in utter disbelief that Murat would keep silent on this life-altering truth. I couldn’t conceive of the possibility that Murat wouldn’t be outraged by the lies he’d been told. Escaping behind a facade would be worse than ignorance. In my way of thinking, the enormity of Armenian Genocide recognition — the fact that Turkish acknowledgment could liberate two ethnic groups politically and spiritually — was not something Murat could turn his back on.

He explained that prior to our discourse he was convinced that the Armenian Genocide was a fabrication. He never once considered that our discourse might prove otherwise, and was never prepared to take on the pressure that would accompany the admission of “guilt.” Murat’s focus was not on the truth of the Armenian Genocide or justice for Armenians, but on himself and the promising new career in front of him. For Murat, this acquired knowledge was an undetonated bomb that had the potential to blow apart his very foundation.

The American journalist Dorothy Thompson, once said, “There is nothing to fear except the persistent refusal to find out the truth, the persistent refusal to analyze the causes of happenings.” What was the use in Armenian-Turkish discourse, or any discourse, or of peace work and conflict resolution, if not to bring forth truth? I felt that Murat was refusing much-needed analysis. And analysis was his forte. How could he cut that nobler path in the world of which he frequently spoke if he was unwilling to address issues that hit closer to home? From what I could tell, Murat had lived a charmed life. Yet for some inexplicable reason, he felt a calling to become a Juris Doctor, “a teacher of law,” and public defender at that. I was floored by his sudden complacency, which, we had both agreed when discussing other issues of social justice, equals complicity.

The rest of that evening was stilted, and ended with few words. Pausing momentarily outside of the restaurant, Murat perfunctorily kissed my cheeks and mumbled that he’d call.

 

Home Turf and the Homeland

An early East Coast summer brought an invitation to Murat’s graduation party. As it happened, I was to be in Boston that very weekend. I decided to attend, for in my mind this could only mean one thing: Murat had had a change of heart. I conjured up scenes in which he renounces his “don’t tell” policy. My thoughts flew in the opposite direction too, and I worried about being an outsider on Murat’s home turf. Heartening myself with the memory of Paolo’s original vision, I considered that maybe, just maybe, Murat and I had forged a small inroad toward Armenian-Turkish resolution after all.

Murat’s wealthy parents hosted his graduation party at an elegant downtown hotel. I was surprised to find myself seated at Murat’s family’s table. The extravagant dinner was of traditional foods they considered Turkish and I knew as Armenian. (Truth be told, these foods originated in the Arab world, subsequently varied by neighboring ethnic groups.) Eventually, they clued in to my Armenian heritage. The surprise was visible on the faces of his parents and sisters, who rushed to say how much they liked Armenians, that they had Armenian friends. Meanwhile, Murat — who was sitting at the opposite end of the long dining table — frowned and refrained from all further eye contact with me. I felt abandoned.

The table banter was replete with awkward and patronizing inquiries as to whether I liked the food of the “homeland,” or if I’d ever visited the “motherland.” Turkey — the motherland? More like fatherland, I thought to myself.

 

Asia Minor

Traveling from Armenia to the Middle East the previous summer, my Yerevan–Tel Aviv flight connected in Istanbul. My traveling companion, Alex, and I decided to spend the eight-hour layover exploring the city. As Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar hawkers waxed poetic on the wonders of the Turkish motherland. “Before this country was Turkey, it was Armenia,” I silently screamed.

Armenian tribes and dynasties can be traced as far back as 2400 BCE, covering great swaths of land bordered by the Caspian Sea to the northeast, the Black Sea to the northwest, farther west to the Aegean Sea (also known as the Anatolian Peninsula or Asia Minor), and, at times, as far south and west as modern-day Israel. This land that includes Mount Ararat, the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, was also the historical home to Assyrians, Greeks, and Kurds. The Turkmen came later, beginning with an invasion of Armenia in the 11th century CE. The “Young Turks,” rulers of the Ottoman Empire, came into power in the 16th century, promoting an ideology known as “Pan-Turkism.”

 

Airport Insecurity

Hours later, checking in at Atatürk Airport, the friendly face of the motherland receded into the atmosphere of a militant fatherland. The Turkish soldier/passport inspector’s disinterested expression changed as he flipped through the pages of my passport. Abruptly, and with no explanation other than an Uzi strapped across his body, he pointed for me to move away from the line. After 9/11, I would grow accustomed to being singled out, frisked, searched, and questioned in a private room; at that point, I was not.

It felt surreal, and my heart raced when I realized what was happening. The soldier, his Uzi, and his German shepherd brusquely escorted me down a hallway to a windowless office. My mind spun, and I though I might faint. As the soldier fired questions at me in Turkish and broken English, I regretted my refusal to learn any Turkish. Scenes from Midnight Express flashed through my imagination, as I tried to look cool, clenching my teeth against their nervous chattering.

Relief swept over me when I finally heard Alex banging at the door, demanding to see me. After several hours, Alex reached a Turkish Airways supervisor who offered no explanation into my detainment, but eventually cleared my departure from his country. I wanted to know why I’d been singled out, why I’d been detained, and Alex had not. Our passports carried the same stamps. His, however, carried the surname of an Ashkenazi Jew. Though his Armenian mother and half-Armenian father had brought Alex up as an Armenian, his Jewish last name may have granted him uneventful passage through Turkish customs. Ironically, Alex is more Armenian than I am.

Handing me a boarding pass, the Turkish Airways manager spoke to us in Armenian, “Little by little, we Turks and Armenians are working together.” I was incredulous. Sprinting to the gangway, feet barely touching the ground, I was never so grateful to leave a place.

 

Offense of Denial

Back at Murat’s graduation dinner, I was pissed; not just at him, but at myself too. I’d ridiculously assumed that Murat was going to come clean about how he knew me, why we’d met, and the realities to which he’d awakened. It takes daring to put truth into practice. I’d assigned this sort of daring to the Murat I’d known briefly, privately — Murat the would-be public defender. I’d fantasized that he might be another Taner Akçam, the Turkish historian and sociologist who put his life on the line by openly acknowledging, discussing, and writing about the Armenian Genocide. In my naïve opinion, Murat’s declaration to stand up for the underdog should have carried universal weight; in 1915 Turkey, the Armenians had been the underdog. I tried in vain not to judge his character, or to look on him as a fraud. In retrospect, I understand that if Murat had spoken out against the Turkish government, he would have simultaneously cut himself off from those he loved and needed.

As the firstborn grandchild to a maternal grandfather whose family escaped Turkey, I have been passed a torch, of sorts. As my family’s representative of the next Genocide survivalist generation, I carried this unwieldy torch to the Armenian Student Union, to the Armenian National Committee of America, to Capitol Hill, to Armenia, and to Turkey — sometimes in proud solidarity, sometimes faltering in confusion, and other times simply out of habit. This implicit sense of duty is something that, even now, after years of conflict resolution study, coalition-building training, cross-cultural communication, personal growth therapy, self-reflection, and spiritual inquiry, occasionally still nags at me. I continue to learn to let go of struggle, to discern which suffering is mine to bear and which isn’t, and how to surrender to healing.

 

The Other F-word: Forgiveness

Applying learned techniques from the likes of nonviolent communication and a variety of psychosomatic therapies, I made an attempt to take full responsibility for my thoughts and feelings concerning the Armenian-Turkish conflict in general, and Murat in particular. Instead of pointing the finger at Murat and others like him, I began looking for contradictions that I’d likely defend in my own life. One contradiction had to do with religion. As a Christian people (one of Armenia’s claims to fame is that it was the first nation to officially adopt Christianity in 301 CE), we understand that forgiveness is the very underpinning of Christ’s message.

Arguing with myself, I postulated that as Christians we’re supposed to forgive, even the Turks. But we don’t easily do that, and here’s the line of reasoning. As long as the Turks do not admit to their moral offenses, Armenians are frozen in time. The denial of 1.5 million Armenian deaths and countless exiles has become a time warp. As long as Turkey denies the Genocide, Armenians have no place to put their grief. And for Turks, there are no real means for sorting out unexpressed shame or regret. In the words of Turkish human rights activist Ragib Zarakolu, whose books on the Armenian Genocide and other crimes against humanity have landed him in Turkish prisons twice, “We [Turks] are crying inside and Armenians are crying outside.”

As a Christian, I know that forgiveness is not reserved only for a perpetrator who admits guilt and offers recompense. To forgive is not to condone or forget. Forgiveness is about liberation, letting go and moving forward, and by extending compassion and mercy, naturally developing into an agent of positive change. It’s about having the tenacity to love without fear of repercussion. Once, in an interpersonal communication workshop, the instructor addressed the necessity of forgiveness for personal, as well as world, peace. One student spoke up to say that there are certain people who don’t deserve forgiveness. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors; therefore, she could never forgive Hitler. We shouldn’t confuse forgiveness with deservedness, justice, or retribution though. Forgiveness actually allows us to pursue justice with a sense of humility.

Years after my Murat experience, I would interview the 14th Dalai Llama’s abbot, Tibetan Khen Rinpoche Geshe. Like His Holiness, Khen Rinpoche espouses forgiveness and compassion for the Chinese despite Tibet’s suffering. Intellectually, I get it. And I’d like to think that I’m evolved to the point that I can feel a similar compassion for the Turks, but I’m not always there.

I maintain that there is a time and place for accountability, for contrition and reparation. The danger in remaining angry, however, is that it impedes wisdom, shuts down potential openings, and under such conditions, delays transformation. Putting Murat on trial — even if only in my mind — for all Turkish deniers was immature. I’ve come to understand that for paradigms to shift, we must first begin within ourselves. When one person takes responsibility for her or his part in the greater collective, whatever is remedial and expansive for one person can become remedial and expansive for others.

As close to my heart as I’d held my experience with Murat, ultimately, it wasn’t personal. What I mean is that our months of provocative and emotionally heated dialogue were part of a bigger picture. My expectations for Murat had been shortsighted. He was a young man on the brink of a promising career. He had goals for himself that, at the moment, did not include confronting Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide. He was not equipped to apply his knowledge of US law to Genocide recognition. For him, these goals were worlds apart. Who was I to expect him to be other than who and where he was?

Looking back, we were two young people stumbling through our ancestral circumstances. We offered each other temporary, if not conditional, asylum. Ultimately, our differences were of consequence; yet, however meagerly, I believe we altered history. I can’t be sure that Murat will ever share his knowledge with others, but I’m tempted to think that he doesn’t immortalize the tales he’d once believed. Disappointments aside, of greater import, perhaps, was the humanness and sense of possibility that emerged from our brief and fateful intersection.

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Mischa Geracoulis writes about social and health justice, human rights, cultural identity and culture clash, capacity building, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Middle East Eye, and Truthout, among others.

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[1] Track-Two Diplomacy is informal and unofficial engagement in dialogue for the purpose of conflict resolution and confidence and/or coalition-building.

[2] In early 20th-century diplomatic-speak, the Armenian Question referred to the protection and freedoms of Armenians from their neighboring communities, most specifically, the Ottoman Empire. In informal discourse, this term has also come to include the issue — or question — of Genocide as committed by the Ottoman Turks.

[3] “Father of the Turks,” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is credited as founder of the modern Turkish Republic after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide. In the early 1920s, he organized the expulsion of Greeks from Turkey; Turkey’s several million remaining Greeks were deported (most of Turkey was once Greece), the majority having already fled during the Ottoman era.


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