My Hrant, or Historian’s Guilt

The article below is based on a speech delivered by Dr. Oktay Ozel during a panel discussion on the legacy of Hrant Dink, held at MIT on Feb. 1.

I am a historian, studying Ottoman history in Ankara, Turkey; a professional in the academia of social sciences. And, Hrant Dink was a journalist, a political activist, a defender of human rights. He was also a member of the tiny Armenian community in Turkey. He was a neighbor in Istanbul.

I trained myself with the technicalities and methodological principles of the profession. Hrant, on the other hand, was a man of a different world. He was born into an Armenian family. While I was a school kid, he, as a young man, was trying to change the world, starting with his own first, and his immediate surroundings. There were other Armenian kids born into equally tough lives, coming from Anatolia to Istanbul, terribly in need of help. Hrant was there, with his wife, Rakel, as a volunteer, to set up with their own hands and labor a supportive social environment that eventually grew into an educational institution. At the same time, he was actively engaged with the same enthusiasm and compassion in a political movement along with many others of his generation.

When I got to college, and found myself accidentally as a student of history in Ankara, he was doing his second major in philosophy in Istanbul. In the years immediately after the coup d’etat of 1980, as I chose to become involved in the academic life, Hrant experienced the dark face of the military regime, ending up in prison, as did many of his fellow activists.

I gradually became a professional historian against all odds from the early 1980’s through the 90’s. Hrant, in contrast, ended up in journalism, eventually founding his own weekly, Agos, in 1996. I must have heard his name for the first time in those years, either through the publication of Agos or in one of his early appearances on TV discussion programs.

That’s how our separate individual journeys began to intersect. Hrant was writing intensively in his weekly and speaking to the public and to the whole of Turkey very differently with all his sincerity. He was speaking first about himself, and about being an Armenian in Turkey. His writings and TV talks gradually, and inevitably, evolved into a discussion of the burning issue, of one of the taboos in Turkish political and intellectual life: the Armenian Question. This was the very point where Hrant entered into my personal life as well as the realm of my professional interest. Although I was not specializing in the study of Ottoman Armenians, it was a familiar subject for me. Years before, either in 1979 or 1980, as a history student I had prepared a research paper on Armenian history up to the era of the Ottomans. This was for a seminar on the “Armenian Question.”

Starting from the earliest legends and Biblical references to Hays and Hayasdan, I learned a lot from whatever books and publications were available in those days in Turkey. That was new for me, and I enjoyed the study. But I also learned that the history of the same Armenian people under Ottoman rule ended with tragic events, the historical context of which remained at the time very unclear to me. I also learned during the same seminar that a) the topic of the seminar was a sensitive one, and b) one should be careful in either studying or talking about it. I still remember the reaction of my professor to a fellow student, who obviously must have gone too far in innocently discussing certain aspects or asking too many questions related to the Armenian Question: The professor got angry, and told us not to “insult our ancestors” while talking about history.

This was the state of historical research and training at the university level in the late 1970’s. It only became worse in the 80’s, as all the taboos concerning recent Turkish history burst into life, dominating the political and intellectual agendas. The ghost of military rule made itself strongly felt in all spheres, including academic life. I was one of those uncomfortable members of academia. In those years, I witnessed personally how fellow historians and colleagues directly contributed unconsciously or willingly to the ever-growing orthodoxies—orthodoxies that gradually developed into Turkey’s official view on a number of historical issues. Inevitably, one was the issue that was soon to be framed as the “so-called Armenian Genocide” (I have just heard with great pleasure that this phrase has recently been removed from the official language and the textbooks).

That’s how I developed an individual interest in this particular subject while specializing in other aspects of 16th and 17th-century Ottoman history. As a close follower of the literature and debate, I felt increasingly disturbed by the official stand, because I knew very well how much some of my university colleagues were ready to believe in everything presented to them as official views, and how capable they were of playing with facts and sources whenever they wished. But, more than anything else, we all knew very little about this issue; there were no serious scholarly works in Turkey other than ever-growing number of books and booklets written to contribute to the official view only.
Under such conditions, that appeared as a public figure and started to present a different story. As a Turkish Armenian, he was trying with utmost compassion and sincerity to show the other side of the coin. He was pointing to an alternative perspective, which until then was only obtainable through books and articles written in languages other than Turkish. Though limited with my personal interest, I was one of those who had the opportunity to have access to that literature.

Along with millions in Turkey, I was also deeply moved by the extraordinarily personal and humane language Hrant used. This language gradually developed into a powerful manifesto. To me, it was a manifesto that surpassed the technical details and methodological aspects of the historical problem. His words, the way he expressed himself, and his views appealed directly to the very hearts of the wider public in Turkey. And, it eventually eased or melted hearts, and opened up the minds of ordinary people in front of televisions in their homes. I am sure he had the same effect on many historians, too.

It was in the same years, in the late 1990’s, that I met my dear friend and colleague Taner Akcam. He had just completed his major work in Germany on the Armenian Genocide both as a historical phenomenon and an issue of human rights. I was on the editorial board of a series for a publisher in Ankara, and soon found myself recommending the publishing of Taner’s book in Turkish (the original of A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility). I wanted to do this partly because, as a historian, I had heard enough of the clichés. I found the “official” embargo on the issue and the aggressive media support it got humiliating for the historians of Turkey; it also undermined the very foundations of our profession.

But, for me, it was not only a matter of professional concern. The decision to publish Taner’s book in Turkish partly derived from the direct influence of Hrant’s powerful language. It was in a sense my personal reaction to Hrant’s call to Turkey not to stay blindly idle or indifferent to a historical and political matter—a matter that has in one way or another played an important part in shaping not only the course of the history of Modern Turkey, but also our minds and public historical consciousness.

This was the time I also began to write in certain newspapers and magazines for the wider public to show my anger and strong resentment, and to defend the rights of scholars (such as Taner Akcam and Halil Berktay) to express different views freely. After all, I was learning from them and others as they researched and wrote further on the issue.

While the public debate developed in Turkey, the issue also grew further into a matter of international politics and diplomacy that evolved around Turkish recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Some historians also felt the need to directly and more boldly intervene in the debate, risking political and professional complications. They emphasized the urgent need to seriously and fundamentally revise the basic tenets of the current argument on the part of Turkey, directly challenging the politico-ideological nature of the whole discussion. They also pointed to the negative impact of nationalistic attitudes on the mainstream historiographies of both the Turkish and Armenian sides. This was the background to the controversial conference that was convened in Istanbul in 2005, with the participation of historians (including myself), social scientists of different fields, journalists, politicians, retired diplomats, and members of the Armenian community in Turkey.

Hrant was there, too. He was literally everywhere in the organizational process of the conference, enthusiastically supporting us, with the active involvement of the Agos team. To me, that conference had a particular importance because it was there that I had the chance to personally meet Hrant Dink. In the midst of the most stressful moments and atmosphere of the days prior to and during the conference, I remember Hrant’s positive mood, constant encouragement, and unending optimism, which derived from the fact that he was a man of tough times.

I have written elsewhere some other aspects of my encounter with Hrant during that conference. Although our priorities and professional concerns did not always match, our friendship continued from a distance after the conference, in its own strange way. After all, I was an academician, and he was a political and intellectual figure. But my special bond to Hrant remained as strong as ever until that dreadful day.

The murderer of Hrant was a young boy; I am sure he had not read any of his writings, nor had he ever listened to him on TV. But blindly and cold-bloodedly, he did what he was instructed to do by the very same “darkness that turned an innocent baby into a murderer,” as Hrant’s wife Rakel cried out in the greatest pain on the very day hundreds of thousands gathered on the streets of Istanbul to say farewell to Hrant.

Hrant was murdered after a series of harsh campaigns aimed against him, during which he was accused of and tried for “denigrating Turkishness” through one of his articles published in Agos. This campaign and the court case were outcomes of a period of blind indoctrination over previous decades. The accusation in particular reminded me of that history professor of mine, who some 30 years earlier had warned us not to “insult the ancestors!” while talking about history. Here we were, still using the same dangerous rhetoric that eventually became a lethal weapon in the hands of extreme nationalists.

During the same 30 years, vivid discussions of almost all political, ideological, social, and historical issues have brought some positive changes towards fuller democracy and basic human rights in Turkey.  Hrant Dink, too, was an integral part of and contributor to this public debate. The process still continues with growing numbers of original historical studies, writings, and publications by scholars like Taner Akcam, Fuat Dundar, and Halil Berktay, as well as by some younger historians studying aspects of other “burning” historical issues. Thanks to their research and writings, as well as translations into Turkish of scholarly literature in other languages, our knowledge of recent Turkish history is also expanding, and different approaches are circulating more easily and are being discussed on sounder grounds.

However, the same process has been equally challenging for historians, who were often literally terrorized, indirectly or openly, while studying those “sensitive” topics. These topics included the question of what happened to the Ottoman Armenians during World War I, the issue which the world tends to discuss by reference to the term “genocide” today. While I, on my part, had been working hard in trying to contribute to the normalization of the study of history in Turkey, political, ideological, and popular pressure on the scholarly community amounted to the point of a public insult to and humiliation of our profession, as I perceived it.

I realize more clearly now that as a historian, I found in Hrant Dink great psychological and moral support, a strategic ally that we, historians in Turkey, greatly needed in those days. But more than that, to me Hrant Dink was a voice of consciousness, a rational mind. However dangerous it may sound, I can even say that he was a voice of a “deeper truth” through which I, as a historian, often readjusted myself, especially when caught between the basic methodological requirements of my profession and the sense of justice—between remaining humane while being a professional. It was much easier for me to pace myself when Hrant was alive.

In his absence now, I often feel that I lost a guiding voice. But, then I remind myself that there are now more “Hrants” in his country (and elsewhere in Armenian communities) continuing his work, keeping his legacy alive, even enriching it, and elaborating it further with the amazing multiplicity of their own tunes and colors. To them, I now turn my ears, eyes, and heart, to keep going, to not totally lose faith in my profession. History as an academic engagement could have made a major positive contribution to the much-needed “re-humanization of ‘the other,’” as Prof. Gerard Libaridian rightly points out. Instead, the heavy identity politics and a certain understanding of “national history” both in Turkey and in the Armenian world proved extremely detrimental to historians’ craft. I remain a strong adherent of the notion of re-humanizing the “other.” I strongly believe that Hrant was one of the most significant political and intellectual figures who contributed towards that direction much more than any one of us.

Now, in his absence, these other voices remain and will always be a constant reminder of the sad fact that we, historians in Turkey in particular, could have done better, much better. And not only for ourselves and for our profession. No! We could have done much better also to help Hrant in the struggle that he almost single-handedly and heroically carried out to his death. Help that he, I believe, also needed so much while he was alive.

So, here remains a strong sense of guilt: historian’s guilt. This is the price we pay for our lack of professionalism. We will have to live with this wound, bleeding in heart and mind until we fully understand the degree of the harm caused directly by us.

In short, to me, this is the bitter legacy Hrant left behind for historians. It is now in our hands to show respect, by simply doing our job properly. Hrant’s whole life and his tragic death should not be in vain! To the contrary, the community of historians in Turkey as a whole owes him and his people a belated but sincere apology, not only for their indirect contribution to the very process that ended with Hrant’s death. Such an apology is also needed for the still-continuing ignorance of the ethics of the historical profession. All we need is to remember these basics all over; and, of course, a bit of decency.

In his absence, Hrant continues to challenge us through his book published after his death. He is reminding us of how to restart and where to go from now on. I strongly believe that not only historians, but Turks and Armenians in general, will always find his thoughts a source of inspiration.

And, it is my consolation and sincere belief that the memory of Hrant’s handsome smile, cheerful laughter, and equally powerful but all-too-humane anger and bitter gaze will always be there forever—ready to direct us from wherever he is now.

Oktay Ozel

Oktay Ozel

Oktay Ozel is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Bilkent University (Ankara, Turkey). He has taught several courses on Ottoman socio-economic history; demographic changes; and methods and problems in historical writings. He recently began working on the late-19th century history of mass migrations, immigrants, and inter-communal relations in the central Black Sea region. He has also published several articles in journals and newspapers publicly criticizing the popular and political pressure on Turkish scholars in discussing the Armenian Genocide. Ozel was also one of the participants in the 2005 symposium on Ottoman Armenians, convened in Istanbul. He is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University.
Oktay Ozel

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  1. A very powerful piece! I really appreciate the great work the Armenian Weekly is doing. You are bridging the Turkish Armenian divide by serious and honest dialogue…

  2. Powerful piece indeed. So much is changing in Turkey thanks to scholars that are brave enough to confront the official history.

  3. I agree. I hope Turkish historians listen to professor Oktay’s voice of reason: “In short, to me, this is the bitter legacy Hrant left behind for historians. It is now in our hands to show respect, by simply doing our job properly. Hrant’s whole life and his tragic death should not be in vain! To the contrary, the community of historians in Turkey as a whole owes him and his people a belated but sincere apology, not only for their indirect contribution to the very process that ended with Hrant’s death. Such an apology is also needed for the still-continuing ignorance of the ethics of the historical profession. All we need is to remember these basics all over; and, of course, a bit of decency.”

  4. True that this is avery telling speech, I met and enjoyed talking with Hrant, he was talkable. Nevertheless, most of the Armenians colleagues are not talkable, akşnd of dictators in their capacity and they want to hear such voices as theirs. I would love to hear from Oktay some reference to Erman Şahin who demonstrated the academic capacity of Taner Akçam.

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