BY AYSE GUNAYSU
I was in Los Angeles from Nov. 23-27, a place I never imagined I would go! Long journeys to unknown lands have always frightened me. But this time I was invited by the ANC-Western Region to participate in their three-day conference at the Sheraton Universal.
My LA days, the time I spent there, what I did, saw, and heard there, and my state of mind, still seem to be covered by a mist. This was because of the deep and complicated mixture of fear, excitement, emotional upheaval, and awkwardness that had engulfed me, both before and during the visit, until the moment I found myself standing before an audience of 400. But why fear? Despite the risk of sounding a bit too personal, I will confess: fear of speaking in public, especially in English, has been my phobia since my childhood due to the long history, even a sort of affection, between me and my old friend stuttering!
So, during those three days, until that moment on the platform, the shimmering panoramic view of LA from my hotel window at night, the faces of the people I met, the words spoken, the eyes looking at me, still appear as if they are all behind a thin curtain moving with a soft breeze, causing the images to be blurred at times, coming and going as if in a dream.
Yet, very paradoxically, there are many things that are crystal clear in my mind: moments with the individuals and families I met, their warmth, their commitment to the Armenian identity, the fluent Armenian in my ears spoken by everyone around me, the feeling of fulfillment from hearing it just like when I hear it in Turkey (though very seldom in the case of the latter), their immediately responsive heart, the very familiar Armenian spirit embracing the entire atmosphere in the home of that dear family I visited, and the dignity, respect, affection, and devotion with which the family members treated each other, just as I have seen in Armenian homes in Turkey. And as for the organizers and activists, I remember their sharply focused energy and the professional quality of their voluntary work.
Until just a few days before my journey, I didn’t know what to talk about at the conference. In everything I do in Turkey in my voluntary work for the recognition of the genocide, there is the boiling motivation to show individuals what they have been unable to see, to refute lies, to establish connections between well-known facts, and to draw conclusions that I hope will help make an impact in a country of total denial. So I always know what to do and what to say here in Turkey. But when it came to talking to the Armenian community in LA, the question was what kind of a talk would be meaningful for them, apart from saying things they already knew by heart?
Besides, I am not a scholar, nor an historian or a writer or a researcher, but just a human rights activist. So, I decided to tell stories–quoting what I said there, “human stories, small anecdotes, momentary observations, snapshots from life, which, when put together correctly, can present us the landscape of Turkey today.”
I told my father’s story to explain how the enormous mechanism of denial worked so smoothly to convince people. I said what I heard from the local people in historic Armenia to illustrate the suppressed collective guilt for the colossal plundering of Armenian wealth. I told of the incidents of collective hallucinations stemming from this guilt.
But before all this, I said I was not alone: “I must say that although you see me, a single one person, I am not alone. I brought to you with me the message of others back in Turkey who believe that no peace, no justice, no salvation, no cure for all the illnesses we are suffering from, will be possible for what is now Turkey without the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the genocide of Assyrians and Greeks in Asia Minor, and who want to express their apology as the perpetrator group’s descendants.”
I also gave examples that show how denial in Turkey is not only over the genocide, but over the very existence of Armenians in the country even before the Turks came: “Only a few years ago, a publishing house published Arnold Toynbee’s memoirs and they censored the parts where he refers to the Armenian Genocide. I checked the whole section and noted the missing and distorted parts one by one. But nobody had ordered them to do this. They themselves did it.”
“Another example,” I continued. “The Turkish branch of a big multinational company published in Turkish and English a prestigious book about the history of Turkey in the late 1980’s. The book was written in English by one of the top-level global executives of the group. But while the translation was going on, the Turkish manager in charge managed to get the author’s permission to delete all references to the past existence of Armenians–the old kingdoms dating back to the first century B.C., and so on. He told the author that the company’s investments in Turkey would be endangered if he did not.”
“What if non-governmental organizations and corporations did not do what the government would like them to do? In the 1980’s, the chief editor of the Turkish edition of Ana Britannica encyclopedia was prosecuted for mentioning the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia under the topics Adana and Adiyaman. The prosecutor demanded a prison sentence of 15 years for her. At the end–the trial took more than one year–she was acquitted. But it was one of many messages the state sent to people about what would happen if they were not totally committed to the official ideology.”
“Please take note that there is no mention of genocide in any of the two incidents I just mentioned. It is only the mention of the existence of Armenians in the past, centuries before the genocide.”
Nearing the end of my talk, I said that, regarding recognition and an apology, I didn’t believe in good intentions only. “There must be reparations. At least, the ones who work for the recognition in Turkey have to demand, put pressure on the policy makers, for official steps to compensate for the immense loss. I know that it is irreparable, it is unforgivable, it is incurable, but still Turkey will always bear the responsibility, the obligation, to assure the grandchildren of genocide victims that it is ready to heal the wounds in any way it can.”
What was given to me after the session and during the banquet that night was both disproportionately rewarding and achingly embarrassing. The encounter was itself painful and heavily loaded, as were the words exchanged and hugs given.
On my way back to Istanbul, my feelings were inextricably entangled. I felt grateful to those who were so generous to me. I felt unhappy with myself for not being able to respond how I would have liked to. I felt a strong awareness that my real duty was in Turkey, where causing doubt–over the official Turkish ideology–in the mind of even one person or pointing out one tiny piece of the truth to a bunch of people in a small conference room is a big achievement for those who demand justice.
A week after I returned home, for the first time I moderated a meeting in my home country, speaking freely and confidently. The obsessive fear of talking to the public was gone with my participation in the ANC conference in LA. It was a sort of therapy, a healing. This time, in Istanbul, I was moderating a presentation by Osman Koker on the lost churches of Anatolia, either purposefully demolished by the state or left in disrepair. We saw the sad photographs of the remains of once-beautiful works of art witnesses to a rich and developed civilization. Yes, it was held in a small conference room, a sharp contrast with the one in LA. The audience was few in number, around 70, compared to the 400 listeners in the Sheraton Universal Ballroom. As Osman invited the audience to interrupt while he was speaking and contribute to the presentation whenever they felt the need, Armenians from Arapkir, Diyarbekir, Sivas, and Kayseri contributed their own knowledge from their childhood or from their parents. A young Turkish lawyer introduced herself and, before asking her question to Osman, apologized for being a Muslim. After the meeting I invited her to work with us in our Committee Against Racism and Discrimination, and she accepted willingly. Yes, I said, I have to be here, to work here humbly, rather than travel abroad and receive heartfelt appreciation for something that should and would not be extraordinary and praiseworthy if Turkey were a country where justice is served and the obligation to compensate is duly fulfilled.
Now, after nearly a month after the LA conference, I thank the ANC-Western Region for the extraordinary experience, and each team member for their help during my stay. I thank Lena, Linda, Karo (Gary), and their families for the elegance and warmth in welcoming me in Glendale.
Now, I am dreaming of a conference on recognition in Istanbul to host a colleague from the ANC-Western Region as a participant. Who knows, may be one day, not before very long.