[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
A few days ago a new friend of mine who happens to be an American Armenian played some beautiful songs for me that come from the deepest roots of her ethnic tradition. While I enjoyed the numinous rhythms of that magnetic Armenian music, I realized how similar they were to the tunes of the Turkish classical music that I have grown up hearing. “Despite all the political warfare,” I said to myself, “alas, look how similar we are.” I actually have a similar feeling when I drive along the magnificent mosques and palaces of Istanbul, some of which were built by Armenian architects – men in fez who devoutly worshipped Christ and proudly served the Sultan.
Well, we were the children of the same empire, weren’t we? We actually lived side by side as good neighbors for centuries until the modern virus called “nationalism” descended upon us. And then hell broke loose.
A War of Two Narratives
I know what you think about that hell, especially about its most horrific episode, the one that took place in the year 1915. Your grandmothers must have told you about the plunderers, killers and rapists who attacked them and countless fellow Armenians. You call the whole tragedy “the Armenian Genocide” and try to convince the parliaments of the world to accept that definition. You also think, I presume, that we Turks are monsters who not only committed that horrible crime, but also refuse to take responsibility for it even after nearly a century.
This is how you see history and the present moment, right? Well, as a Turk, let me say that I understand you. Because I see that you sincerely believe in the accuracy of the historical narrative that you were raised on. How else could you have responded to that?
However, please note that there is another narrative about the tragedy of 1915, and that is what we Turks have been raised on. Our grandmothers told us that Armenians of the time collaborated with the Russian invaders and started to kill our people. Then, the narrative goes, our people started to kill the Armenians in order to both to protect themselves and to take revenge. “They killed us and so we killed them” is the summary of what 99 percent of the Turks know and think about what you call genocide. And just like you do, they sincerely believe in the accuracy of their historical narrative.
So there are two different accounts of what really happened in 1915. I know that in the Western academic world your narrative has gained much more support, but there are serious non-Turkish scholars who tend to agree with the Turkish version, too. When I read the works of professor Guenter Lewy recently, for example, I was convinced that what my grandmother told me was really true.
Of course I am no expert on the issue. I don’t have enough knowledge to decide whether the truth lies in your narrative, in our narrative, or somewhere in between. But I am open to learning more and reconsidering my position. “Follow the evidence,” one of my core principles reads, “wherever it may lead.” And, believe me, that there are so many people in Turkey who think the same way.
Pushing The Wrong Way
Now since we are getting to know each other, let me be a bit more blunt and take on what you have just done by convincing the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution on “the Armenian Genocide.”
If you think that acts like these will push us Turks to be more self-critical and initiate an internal discussion that will lead us to consider your narrative about 1915, you are daydreaming. The reality is quite the contrary. Foreign pressure will make Turkish society only more reactionary. Grounds for internal discussion will vanish. Moreover, our ultra-nationalist nuts will go crazier than ever. Their most militant ones might well target, once again, liberal intellectuals and our Armenian citizens. You are simply fuelling the fire.
The leaders of Turkey’s Armenian community, including Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan II, have been warning you about these dangers and urging you to stop playing this resolution game. But sadly, you don’t ever listen to them. You accuse them for lacking courage and having a defeatist psychology. But how do you know that you yourselves are not the victims of another psychology – that of the diaspora? Social scientists repeatedly say that diaspora communities tend to go fanatic. Have you ever considered taking a hint?
If you would like to hear some friendly advice, here it is: If you really want to see more Turks reflecting on your narrative about the tragedy of 1915, initiate a genuine dialogue. Try to convince not Mrs. Pelosi and her colleagues, but us, the Turks. Write more books and articles, create better movies and Web sites, and organize fair conferences and seminars telling us about your story. And do these not as propaganda tools against the Turks, but as communication efforts toward them.
Convey your message calmly, in other words, and it will be heard. But don’t try to impose it onto us. We are not a nation of monsters, but we do have a stubborn side. When foreigners start to dictate our history to us, we tend to revert back to our grandmothers’ stories. And if we will start listening to your narrative, that will not be because we are pushed into a corner by the politics of a powerful lobby, but because our hearts are touched by the memoirs of a terrible tragedy. Sincerely,
A fellow Anatolian