I have to confess that when I read Khatchig Mouradian’s editorial (Armenian Weekly, Nov. 21, 2009; available online at https://armenianweekly.com/2009/11/18/editorial-historic-indeed-cemal-pashas-grandson-in-watertown/) I was saddened, but at the same time I saw that there was something positive in it also. His article had the effect of “lancing a boil” and I think it was necessary that it be done so. I believe that the lines he wrote were the product of long lasting frustration, but still his response to Hasan Cemal could have been much different. At the very least, Hasan didn’t deserve the things that were hinted at between the lines. And it would be better if his appearance in Watertown were discussed in relation with his Harvard event.
On the other hand, Khatchig is right about many things. He’s been struggling for years to promote Armenian-Turkish dialogue and has tried mightily to get the voices of critical Turks to the ears of Armenians. The voices, therefore, from the civil society in Turkey have reached Armenians from Khatchig’s pen and his interviews. Unfortunately, however, he’s been sorely disappointed in this endeavor many times. Turkish intellectuals have given the interviews, written articles, or come to meetings mostly with a kind of “laundry list” in their hands, spouting advice to the Armenians about what they should and shouldn’t say and do. When you add to this the intense hostility towards the Armenian Diaspora in Turkey, well, the negative image is complete.
Khatchig’s built up frustration appears to have exploded in Hasan Cemal’s face. My dear friend Hasan ended up paying for the behavior of all those Turkish intellectuals who came before him.
As I said, dialogue is a very difficult art and Khatchig does have some valid points. But out of frustration and anger he stated things that Hasan Cemal didn’t deserve.
I want to illustrate just how hard dialogue is through a detail that on first glance seems rather trivial. Khatchig made this angry barb: “Cemal also repeatedly advised Armenians to be patient (read: It has only been 94 years, folks. Be patient!).” Sadly, it showed how Khatchig had himself stopped listening and reacted with a bit of anger. First, he tacitly places an “equals” sign between Hasan and the Turkish government and makes Hasan a representative of 94 years of denial politics. Secondly, when Hasan was talking about “being patient” he was not referring to the Turkish government’s policy of denial. Hasan was speaking about the birth of a new civil society in Turkey. Hasan was trying to explain how this civil society is just beginning and just starting to discover some things. “We don’t know the history,” he was saying. “We will learn it from you. We are in a learning process. We are coming out from darkness.” And he was requesting “a little patience” towards this newly burgeoning civil society. What Khatchig wrote was taken out of context. As I said, this otherwise trivial comment shows how difficult dialogue is when both sides are so invested to their existing positions that they can’t hear the other.
There is a lot Khatchig wrote that rings true, and I wish he had brought them up during the meeting. Not only would he have seen that Hasan’s ears were open and listening to him, but it would have also started an interesting debate. Hasan is someone who is ready to listen and capable of understanding what is being said. He is someone who can accept criticism if he has said something wrong and is ready to make the changes necessary to correct himself.
The proof of this is very simple. Below, is an email exchange between Hasan and myself. I wrote to Hasan without knowing about Khatchig’s article, and Hasan Cemal’s response is true also. You make the decision where the problem lies and where its solution can be found.
Before doing so, however, I would like to present my own self-critique. The day before the Watertown event, Hasan spoke to a mixed Turkish-Armenian audience at Harvard. His message was forceful and the event went very well. For the Watertown event, I informed him that it would be a mostly Armenian audience and we spoke a bit about what would be meaningful and important for that audience. I expected Hasan to speak about his grandfather, his family, and how his heart and mind have opened over the years—as he had at Harvard. I expected that he would end the speech with the words that he “had come here to listen to Armenians and that he would bring back their messages.” I’m not sure why, but he didn’t conduct the talk that way. He started his speech with what was supposed to be its ending and repeated Hrant’s statement regarding pain and understanding each other’s pain.
It seems as if it was one of those “wrong audience, wrong message” situations. The result was a dialogue of deaf, and maybe people misunderstood what he was really trying to say. I take some responsibility for the fact that the message didn’t come across the right way.
And that is precisely why I wrote to him. Below is that email exchange, which occurred after the talk. For your information the “Armenian friend” in the letter is a fictional character; I made him up.
I’ve been thinking for a few days now. About how hard it is to talk, to engage in dialogue… After the Watertown meeting, I’ve been such a mess of emotions. There are some confusing issues, and while wondering how to sort these out, an Armenian friend came to me and we started talking… It was an interesting talk.
In summary he said this:
“I’m disappointed,” he said to me. When I asked “Why?” he said, “Why did Hasan Cemal tell me the things that he should be telling Turkish people? I don’t get it.” Two things stuck in my Armenian friend’s mind. “First” he said, “For us Armenians, the issue is this: The Ottoman government in 1915 annihilated almost 1.5 million of its own citizens. We want this recognized and at the moment we’re discussing how to talk about this with democratic, open-minded people like Hasan Cemal.” He continued, “What I’ve noticed is that they seem to insist that as a pre-condition for speaking about and denouncing this chapter in history, we need to understand the pain experienced by Muslims in the Balkans and the Caucasus.” My friend then added, “Don’t you think this is kind of a strange? First of all, Armenians didn’t deport the Muslims out of the Balkans or the Caucasus. What they experienced is tragic also, but shouldn’t that be taken up with the Greeks and the Russians? Why push this argument of ‘You need to understand this history too’ making it a kind of pre-condition for accepting the annihilation of the Armenians?” “I just don’t get it,” he continued. “I mean, is Hasan Cemal incapable of understanding my pain, unless I’m able to understand the pain experienced by Muslims in the Balkans and Caucasus? Let’s just say that as someone who supports human rights, I declare that I understand Hasan Cemal,” he went on, “how am I supposed to explain to the average Armenian the argument that ‘the pre-condition to having the destruction of our people acknowledged and understood is that those same victims understand what has happened to others in other parts of the world?’” I had no answer to that.
What my friend was trying to draw attention to is the fact that both of these issues are separate from each other. First is that “if a people have been annihilated, there can be no pre-condition to understanding and sharing the pain of those people.” We need to address those people without pre-conditions. The other is a general rule. If we as a people cannot develop an attitude that understands the pain of other people, we will never be able to prevent violations of human rights. “But,” my friend said, “this general rule seems like it’s become the pre-condition for understanding the annihilation of the Armenians.” My Armenian friend seemed to think that you had mixed up the two things.
The second point that my friend was trying to make is this: “I understand the importance of the democratization of Turkey, but when Hasan Cemal approached me, he came with a long ‘laundry list’ of things. Again, we Armenians were reminded of ‘all the rules that we must follow.’ I was told about these sensitivities and how I needed to be mindful of these sensitivities.” My friend was upset. “I don’t understand,” he said, “and I’m having a hard time understanding. There’s been 95 years of a very intense demeaning campaign of denial and no one during this period discussed our ‘sensitivity.’ As a result of all that destruction, we Armenians have been reduced to a mere handful of people. If there’s an issue of “sensitivity,” wouldn’t some ‘sensitivity’ towards the situation that we’ve been in for ages be meaningful? For some reason everything seems to rotate around Turkish ‘sensitivities’; shouldn’t we change this wheel? At the very least shouldn’t we demand ‘equality of sensitivities?’”
My friend gave an example: “If” he said, “Hasan wants to say something about democratization, this is what I would have liked to have heard: Until we accept the harm that was done to you, democratization will never take place fully. And we haven’t been able to bring the struggle for democracy to a level where acceptance of your pain and healing of those wounds is a part of it yet. What we need to do is to make the acknowledgment of 1915 into a part of the struggle for democracy and then and only then will the distance between us be narrowed.”
Dear Hasan, I wait with anticipation for the reaction to your talk. Most likely it was received as important and great for the Turkish students, but as someone who knows both sides and as someone who listens, I have to confess that there are serious obstacles before us. What we are doing is really a “difficult dialogue.” Here’s an idea for a way to get past it. We have to take people like this friend of mine and invite them to Turkey and create a forum for them to express themselves. Let them talk to a Turkish audience, the way we have invited Turkish intellectuals here to talk. I think the act of bringing Armenian intellectuals to speak to Turks is far more important at this juncture than Turkish intellectuals coming to Armenians to speak. We ought to open that door. If the dialogue remains limited to only Turkish intellectuals and Armenians, this road is going to get blocked pretty quickly and this type of dialogue will not bring us anywhere. Hrant’s words are in my ears: “Tell your friends Taner (he meant our Turkish-Armenian academics) this business is going to get finished here (in Turkey). Let them come here and try to become part of the debate here. Until they become part of the debate here, nothing will move forward.”
Hasan Cemal’s response:
I read your note with interest. Dialogue is definitely a difficult art! But we need to keep on doing it, without tiring of it. I guess I was unable to explain certain things to that Armenian friend. Some of what he said did make sense but I think in truth, he shut off his antennae after a while to keep from getting too confused…
What I should add is that the main problem is not 1915. The main problem is that we (the civil society in Turkey) still have to learn how to speak to each other and how to learn from each other. The events of 1915 in the past and speaking about it today are two separate issues. And there are so few of us willing to listen to each other; we have to work on this. We have to increase the dialogue between Turkey and Armenia and the diaspora. As Hasan says, we have to continue desperately to talk to each other. There are those who are ready to listen to you, ready to acknowledge their ignorance about history. As I mentioned in my talk, civil society in Turkey will learn the gravity of the past from you, and you, my dear Armenian friends, you learn the meaning of the present. This is a very hard, very difficult process. But as I put in title of my Turkish book in 2000, “Is there any way other than dialogue?”