The Sabiha Gokcen affair in February 2004 proved to be the start of Turkey’s soul searching vis-à-vis its Armenian problem. Finally facing this rather difficult question brought with it the advent of yet another era of pain and violence.
On Feb. 6, 2004, a news report written by Hrant Dink appeared in the Agos newspaper and claimed that Sabiha Gokcen, the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the first woman war pilot in Turkey (and the world), was an Armenian. When, on Feb. 21, the Hurriyet, a high-circulation daily, carried the same claim onto Turkey’s agenda (with the headline “Sabiha Gokcen’s 80-year-old secret”), a heated debate ensued overnight.
The Gokcen affair was perhaps the greatest trauma suffered by Turkish national identity, an identity fostered by an official ideology with a strongly totalitarian bent. The disappointment was felt nationwide. In view of this, the day we actually lost Hrant Dink should be regarded not as Jan. 19, 2007, but as Feb. 21, 2004.
In the museum of innocence painstakingly constructed over 80 years by an “oppressed” nation, the lights suddenly went off, an angry wind rose up, and doors started to creak. February 21 was the night when the stars dimmed. Small black birds that had lost their way crashed against the windowpanes, falling in showers upon medals, photographs, portraits, sculptures, and paintings depicting heroic wars. The Anatolian mosaic—all of one piece, the central display of the museum and symbol of the unified state, the indivisible wholeness of the nation—shattered with great noise and a frightening babble began to emanate from its core.
“She was Armenian!” sent tremors all over. “It never crossed my mind that she would be exploited in this fashion. That she’d be declared an Armenian!” shouted a voice in the dark, full of hatred. “They want to tear apart Turkey and share the pieces… Strange intrigues are afoot,” said another.
A thin trickle of blood oozed down the neck of a dead bird.
“Even though this has been presented merely as an allegation,” resumed another voice, “who would bother with the details once these words, ‘Sabiha Gokcen’ and ‘Armenian’ have been coupled together in the minds of the public at large…”
The trickle of blood kept oozing slowly down its path lighted by the moon.
“The most effective way of pushing a society into a state of abjectness is to besmear its idols with false allegations,” so thundered a “scientist.”
A door slammed, everything shook… The huge, elaborately framed portraits adorning the walls fell and smashed into pieces. Deep down…and deep, deep down perhaps a woman was crying…
The moon hid itself behind the clouds. It was dark…much darker now… Shards of broken glass, dead birds, and the babbling… The babble was growing louder and louder… Suddenly, footsteps approached.
“As our first woman pilot…she is a name revered by the Turkish aviation community. To turn this symbolic figure into a topic for debate, whatever the motive, does not contribute to national unity and civic peace,” said a voice from above.
Suddenly the babbling stopped. There came a long, deep silence. We groped along in the dark, tripping against warm beating wings.
A sunless day was dawning outside. The floor of the museum was strewn with dead birds. Perhaps 600,000, perhaps 800,000, perhaps one million… In the morning chill we were trying to find our way out, careful not to tread on the birds over a floor made slippery with their blood, shards of glass assailing our feet. We were exhausted. And we were still afraid. We had tired of everything but we had not tired of this mortal fear… Memories and stories, and poems, the tolling of bells and the corner church, the Tigris and Euphrates, newspapers and books… We feared all… We had not slept for years; we feared the Armenian.
Suddenly three shots rang out. “I shot the Armenian,” shouted a little boy. A man like a Mountain collapsed in a heap on the ground. Ler Yev Jagadakir (In Armenian, Mountain and Fate) was actually an unfinished story. Neither the Turks nor the Armenians knew this. One noon, the story ended on an Istanbul sidewalk. Hrant became the fate of the mountain.
Blood oozing from his body trickled slowly… And mingled with the blood trickling from the Oppressed Nation Museum. The modern state and its menfolk—government ministers, municipal governors, policemen, judges, lawyers, diplomats, soldiers, and intellectuals talked and talked…and talked and talked…for days on end. And the babbling grew incessant, as if issuing from a many-headed monster. Sabiha, a secret, listened.
1915 was “history,” “document,” “archive”; the “historians” would find it all out. A “committee” would be set up. And graves dug up. We would have to dig up…graves…and graves…many more graves, grave upon grave. What did it all have to do with the Republic? It was an “imperalist plot,” horrible as it was… It was a dark, hellish cloud hanging over us, it was the swamp in which we kept sinking deeper, it was an embarrassing nightmare, a shadow that always followed us… A pitch-black notebook stuck in our throats.
The trace of Hrant’s lifeless body chalked out on a sidewalk, on the other hand, was an object of compassion with boundaries. This forensic space became our conscience and our “common sorrow.” Could it be that this blank space—this emptiness—was what we were looking for? Delimited by Hrant Dink, delimited by his lifeless body. We could love this emptiness; we could comprehend it; we could share its sorrows. And for this emptiness we could apologize.
Amid the lonesome white noise of “We are all Hrant, we are all Armenians” was finally an economical solution to both pain and fear in modern Turkey. The Oppressed Nation Museum was quickly restored with contributions from the populace. A part of it was now dedicated to Hrant. By remembering Hrant, by shedding tears for Hrant, we could forget a genocide and its unknown victims. He was now one of us. We apologize for any inconvenience caused during the restoration of our museum.
The Turkish version of this article was published in Tukish in Agos on Jan. 16, 2009.
Fatma Ulgen is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Communication at the University of California San Diego.
The Armenian Weekly
Jan. 24, 2009