The official reconciliation process between Turkey and Armenia may now be frozen, but a late January book exhibit in Yerevan suggests that the undercurrent for dialogue and understanding between the two long-time enemies remains strong.
The 170-page book, published in Armenian, Turkish and English and titled Speaking to One Another, features stories based on interviews with 35 Armenians and 13 Turks. The interviewees recount family recollections of the 1915 massacre in Ottoman Turkey that left hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians dead. The stories also illustrate how memories shape views on Turkey and Armenia today.
“The exhibition is part of the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement process,” said Ragip Zik, a project coordinator for Anadolu Kültür, an Istanbul-based non-governmental organization that handled research for the Turkish portion of the book. “We are trying to convey certain thoughts to the two nations through art, and we believe that people are more powerful” than politicians.
Anadolu Kültür and Armenia’s Hazarashen Center for Ethnological Studies shared research responsibilities. The 400,000-euro (about $548,800) project was financed by Germany’s Foreign Ministry and implemented under the auspices of the DVV International (Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association).
“Naturally, it was very hard making people talk, but it’s my belief that the time will come, when that obstacle will be overcome, too,” said Zik, the project coordinator for Anadolu Kültür. Exhibitions based on the book’s research were staged in January in Turkey and Armenia.
One of the Turkish interviewees, Necmi, a 70-year-old schoolteacher from the Anatolian town of Divriği, remembers his mother recounting how the sound of footsteps one night in 1915 prompted her to look out on the street. “’People tied to one another by ropes were going by in silence. Many were moaning and coughing. They just walked off,’” he recollected her saying. “And my father used to say, ‘We woke up one morning and there weren’t any Armenians left in Divriği.We went into the houses and they just stood empty. In one of the houses, the dinner table was set, with a soup pot with spoons around it.’”
Anadolu Kültür obtained such interviews through “trusted personal contacts,” the reason why the book contains far fewer Turkish interviews than Armenian, Zik said. None of the Turkish participants agreed to have their photograph taken or published.
For some Armenian visitors to the Yerevan book exhibit, the Turkish interviews held greater interest. “We know our history. The Armenians’ recollections are more or less the same, but we don’t know those of Turks and this is a unique opportunity,” said Mariam Siradeghian, a 29-year-old post-graduate student at Yerevan State University’s Faculty of Eastern Studies. “I wouldn’t be able to approach those people and talk to them, so this project has let me have some virtual communication with Turks.”
In an analysis that prefaces the Turkish section of the book, one researcher, Leyla Neyzi, a Sabancı University professor of anthropology, writes that Turkish “[m]emories of Armenians were commonly tinged with nostalgia and regret. Often, an idealized image of the Armenian would emerge from these accounts: intelligent, hard-working, disciplined, well-educated, generous.”
The accounts often boiled down to a simple concept, Neyzi wrote, “that if only the Armenians ‘had not left,’ their village, town, city and country might be better off today.” Zik noted that the book’s exhibits in Turkey were mostly welcomed. “[S]urprisingly, there was no attack, and even the media gave rather positive responses.”
The book’s Armenian section, entitled “Whom to Forgive, What to Forgive,” similarly attempts to look beyond standard accounts of the 1915 massacre. “[O]ur primary task was to present the recollections of those people who were part of that history, or their descendants, that are often ignored” in public discussions about the issue, said ethnographer Hranush Kharatian-Araqelian, head of the Hazarashen Center.
While project participants say they do not expect the book to influence either Turkish or Armenian official policies, some Armenian observers believe that just allowing Armenians and Turks to make “an important step toward getting to know each other” is a key contribution by itself.
“It’s really important to know what they think, how they feel, what their memories are regardless of politics and state policies,” commented Ruben Safrastian, director of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Eastern Studies. “This is a unique dialogue.”
Saribek Tovmasian, an Armenian interviewee who lost family members in 1915, echoed that view. “If they are speaking out and starting to consider their recollections as something important, then there’ll come a day when we’ll hear the word ‘sorry,’ and our pain, the pain of our ancestors, will be relieved,” the 58-year-old Tovmasian said.