Author: Gonca Sönmez-Poole
April 15, 2012
We are approaching another April 24, the day Armenians around the world remember the year when thousands of their ancestors perished during what’s widely known as the Armenian Genocide of 1915. I am neither a historian nor an international law expert, and yet I feel compelled to give you a sense of my own personal journey as it relates to Armenian-Turkish relations.
I am a fifty-two-year-old Turkish American woman. I have lived in the Boston area for over thirty years, first as a college and graduate school student, later as a television producer, and most recently as a mid-career student of international affairs. I must admit that it wasn’t until I was in my late forties that I ever had an actual conversation with an Armenian person about his or her personal and national history, let alone the Armenian Genocide. Why?
The answer explains why I am compelled to write about my own personal journey, and about my relationship to two murders a quarter of a century apart.
On May 4, 1982, I learned that a man I knew personally had been shot to death on his way home from work. That kind and gentle man was Orhan Gündüz, Turkey’s honorary consul to Boston at the time. I had stopped by his little souvenir shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a quick hello—as it happened, just a few hours before he died. I remember trying to console his wife during a few phone calls, and saying some words of condolence at his funeral. But what I remember most is how Gündüz’s murder (a group named Justice Commandos against Armenian Genocide claimed responsibility) confused me so much that I spent the next twenty-five years avoiding the subject altogether.
During those early eighties, a few of the area’s Turkish influentials often sent me lengthy packages of propaganda material to submit to my employer at the time, WCVB-TV. The aim was to make sure that nothing outside the official Turkish narrative (which referred to the events of 1915 as the “so-called genocide”) would be exposed to Western media. This was also the time when the program I worked on, the news magazine Chronicle, was producing stories about the richness of Boston’s ethnic makeup. But there was no profile on the relatively small Turkish community, and when it was time to air the Chronicle program on Armenians, I simply skipped work—the first and last time ever in my life. I simply wasn’t ready to hear the “G” word repeated over the airwaves, and I knew it most certainly would be used…that infamous, scary, to-be-avoided-at-all-costs word, genocide. The reasoning was quite simple if you happened to be raised in Turkey. Like most other Turkish people of my generation, my knowledge about Armenians was limited to what I had studied in history classes: that the Armenians had sided with the enemy during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, and for that they were forever marked as traitors, for Turkey and the Turks.
Over the next two decades following the Gündüz assassination, I simply shunned the subject of the Armenian Genocide because it was too uncomfortable, too painful, and too difficult to deal with. In fact, when I attended a mid-career master’s degree program at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, I wrote my thesis on the rights of Turkey’s Kurds, bypassing the subject of the Armenians. I was passionately involved in the rights of the Kurds of Turkey, but I stayed away from anything related to the Armenians. So through those twenty years, I raised two children, instilling in them my own values of equal rights and social justice, but with one exception: I did not speak about the Armenians or the reason that I had stopped going into Watertown (the second-largest Armenian-populated area in the United States) after the passing of Orhan Gündüz, who my children had never met.
Then came the summer of 2006, when I received an invitation to work on an Armenian-Turkish dialogue project partly affiliated with Harvard University. As I immersed myself in new knowledge (for example, the history of the Ottoman Armenians, missing from all the school textbooks I read as a child) and new friends (for example, Armenian Americans with whom I’d been living parallel lives, while never exchanging a word), I heard the news of an assassination. Hrant Dink, a Turkish Armenian newspaper editor, was gunned down in front of his office in Istanbul by a sixteen-year-old Turkish nationalist. I did not know much about Dink at the time. I knew only that he was the founder of Agos, the first community newspaper in Turkey printed in both Armenian and Turkish…that he had opened the eyes of his traditionally quiet and passive Armenian community, encouraging both Armenians and Turks to speak openly about their ethnic identities and their family histories…that countless people in Turkey had discovered their lost Armenian ancestry through his help and support.
But I didn’t know all of this that fateful morning when I turned on the morning news. When I heard Dink had been killed, there was only one thing I knew with absolute certainty: something horrible and despicable had happened, and it was unacceptable. The date was January 19, 2007, twenty-five years after I had buried the subject of the Armenian Genocide.
So for the next five years, I followed a long and winding road of learning, reading, and thinking; of hearing from a variety of people, locally and internationally, in person, over the airwaves, and on the Internet. I attended workshops, participated in events, and watched countless videos and films on the subject of the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath. But most important, I spoke with myriad Armenians, from a variety of backgrounds and affiliations: overachieving twenty-somethings, hard-working midlifers, and a few elderly gems like Areka Der Kazarian from Watertown, who will be turning 100 very soon. Over many a coffee and tea meeting, I became friends with Harry Parsekian, whose ancestors came from the province of Gesaria (Kayseri in Turkish), and who, in his effort to bring more and more Armenians and Turks together across the Atlantic, has made frequent trips to Turkey over the past few years; I met playwright Joyce van Dyke, who was encouraged to write a beautiful play based on the story of her grandmother Elmas, a genocide survivor from the village of Mezireh (a village in the province of Elazığ in Turkey); and I watched and reviewed the videos produced by Roger Hagopian, a rug specialist from Lexington, Massachusetts, who never misses an opportunity to remind me of the Turkish mayor of Marash (where his grandparents were born), who saved the lives of many Armenians during the nightmare of 1915. I listened to countless stories of loss, both physical and emotional, from my newly found Armenian friends, and I observed the goodwill gestures of Armenians who overcame their initial fear by making the decision to visit their ancestral homes in today’s Turkey. As I became acquainted with the names of former Armenian villages and understood why every Armenian I met would mention the name of a village I knew only by its Turkish name, I was saddened—but mostly enraged—by the lack of information, and by the taboo-promoting silence I had experienced growing up in Turkey.
But I’ve also learned a few things from my Turkish friends and colleagues over these past few years. Turks of various backgrounds feel an inordinate amount of pressure when speaking with Armenians about the events of 1915. Because all Armenians call this period the Armenian Genocide, and would like to hear the same from Turks, there is a dialogue of the deaf at work between these two groups. Many Turkish people—who are just starting to learn about their own history—feel that somebody is always trying to shut them up unless they start any sentence with the “G” word. This is true even for those Turks who openly condemn the criminal acts of the Ottoman government of 1915, and who admit that thousands of innocent Armenians, women and children included, were killed by some Turks. They just can’t quite get out the “G” word. They also feel that more attention should be given to the scale of pressure that was exerted on the Ottoman Empire at that time in history, including intense pressure from Western nations, whose ideologies encompassed hateful attitudes toward Muslim people. Many Turks today want to be heard; they don’t want their ancestors labeled “barbarians” who one day woke up and decided to slaughter Armenians.
As important as these points may be to many Turkish people, they don’t disguise the elephant in the room. Whether the realization comes after a quarter of a century, as it did for me, or overnight with luck and soul-searching, I believe that all Turkish people need to know and accept one simple truth: somewhere, somehow, an ancestor of theirs may have taken the life of an innocent Armenian person just because that person was Armenian. Period. When that bit of information is understood, genuinely accepted, digested, and settled into the hearts and minds of every Turkish person, then, and only then, can we all start a new chapter. And in that chapter, the discussion will no longer be an argument about the term genocide, the definition of intent, or the total tally of killings on either side—it will simply be a discussion about the question we want to leave for our children to ponder: how do we deal with the “other”?
Orhan Gündüz was killed because he was a Turkish diplomat, and he represented the misguided silence on an issue that affected millions of the world’s Armenians. Hrant Dink was killed because he was an Armenian from Turkey who spoke up and promoted the opposite of silence on the same issue. As a human being—not a Turk, an Armenian, or an American—who abhors the notion of stereotyping, humiliating, attacking, targeting, or killing because of anyone’s ethnicity, I cried the same kind of tears over those two murders. But here’s where those two heinous acts diverge in my heart and soul: the first murder led me to years of silence and ignorance, but the second murder led me to knowledge and truth seeking. And in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., I truly believe that truth will set us free. In fact, some equate Dink with King because of his inspiring commitment to improving the rights of all of Turkey’s minorities, and his hope to begin a new era of civil rights in that country. Only time will tell whether Dink’s legacy will indeed transform the country of his birth and death. Here’s what he wrote about the need for greater dialogue between Armenians and Turks:
We have lived together on this land for a very long time and therefore possess a common memory. And yet we have transformed this common memory into a string of one-note memories. We are speaking to our own choirs. Isn’t it time we changed these monologues into a dialogue so that we can work on reconstructing our common memory?
I wonder what Orhan Gündüz would have said to Hrant Dink when they were both alive? Alas, we will never know, because we weren’t supposed to dig deep into our history or give voice to the voiceless during the years when Gündüz was alive.
So where does all of this leave me, in the tortured landscape of Armenian-Turkish relations? Am I hopeful when I speak to the young generation of Armenians and Turks? Yes. Am I disgusted and appalled when I see clearly racist and anti-Armenian propaganda on the streets of Istanbul? Without a doubt. Am I ready to give up hope? Absolutely not! I believe that, if not my children’s generation, but maybe my great-grandchildren’s generation will finally find a way out of this mess, a way that will require a more open and transparent relationship within—and in between—the various communities of Armenians and Turks.
And finally, as an American citizen of Turkish descent, I now use the word genocide when speaking about the massacres of 1915 because doing otherwise would be a retreat into ignorance on two fronts, both intellectual and personal. I think a lot about those two politically charged murders, Gündüz’ and Dink’s, bookends of sorts in my reeducation journey. And I know I simply cannot go on denying the true depth of brutality and suffering brought upon the Ottoman Armenians, and the animosity and hatred 1915 perpetuated for nearly a century. On a more personal level, such a denial would be an affront to all of my new friends and acquaintances…not only because they happen to be Armenian, but because they are first and foremost human beings who I care about.
 From Hrant Dink’s article published in Agos, November 10, 2000