Serovpian to Akcam: Cemal Should ‘Listen and Understand’ Before Lecturing

By Marga Serovpian

On Nov. 18, Hurriyet Daily News published the English translation of a column written by Hasan Cemal in Milliyet on his talk at Harvard University. Below, I comment on some of the things he said in the column. Some of my comments also address the Mouradian-Akcam discussion on Cemal’s lecture in Watertown.
“I said the biggest mistake while seeking peace is to give into sorrow and the past.” (H. Cemal)

And I, and others, say that seeking peace without first dealing with a denied genocide is bound to fail—that is, if “seeking peace” is your priority (there may be other desirable priorities). Being against violence and hostility doesn’t imply wanting peace at all costs (at the cost of justice, truth, and respect for the dead and their offspring).

I would like to humbly suggest that Hasan Cemal—and other Turkish citizens who claim they are knowledgeable enough to “explicate Turks, Armenians, and pain”—instead of determining what is needed with Hrant Dink’s posthumous blessing, and conveying it to an Armenian public that has so many reasons to feel cheated and exasperated, they simply ask ordinary Diaspora Armenians of various generations “to feel at peace with us/me, to have a sincere, quiet, friendly relationship with us/me, what do you need?” 

What do you do in everyday life when you detect suffering and are genuinely concerned? Don’t you ask your depressed child or sibling what makes him or her suffer, and what could help, instead of asking them to understand your divorce or your stomach ulcer? This is partly an answer to Taner Akcam, who says that Cemal is able to listen and understand. He is welcome to listen and understand, but it might be wise to do so before giving a lecture or writing an article, especially on such issues.


“I added that we need free discussions. With that, I mean, through cultural dialogues, Turks and Armenians will get closer. For this reason, focusing over genocide discussions wouldn’t help. That would even put free talks into a deadlock and only fanatics and nationalists on both sides would be happy.” (H. Cemal)

We know the tune of “fanatics and nationalists on both sides,” so no comment. But does Cemal realize that even if the genocide is left aside during the free cultural discussions he advocates, in most if not all cases (I cannot speak for everyone) it is constantly there, at the back (or the fore) of the minds of Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Greeks? We can’t help but think: Why is Cemal meeting Armenians at Harvard instead of in Erzerum or Smyrna? What are we doing, speaking of dolmas with a Turkish journalist or professor in Paris, Los Angeles, or Buenos Aires, if not living the very physical consequence of the genocide—which mustn’t “be focused on,” not because “it wouldn’t help” (come on), but because it is denied? And what can stop this uncontrollable awareness in most of the descendents of the dead, except the recognition of the crime, which can allow it to finally find its place in history and in the past, instead of being our present?

My experience is that only with Turks who recognize the horror can I almost instantly focus on other subjects. Otherwise, while we are politely chatting about cuisine, music, tourism, or Marxism, I am constantly at odds with these sweet “intellectuals.” I personally see them as “opinion makers” who, though they may have several agreeable activities on their agendas, are aiming to avoid recognizing the genocide—unlike Akcam. By the way, if Cemal admires Akcam that much, why not follow his example or that of other Turkish and Kurdish scholars? Many have seen how, once acknowledgement and recognition of the genocide is clearly uttered, friendship, even a certain closeness, develops almost immediately—and logically. For, if in the current political context I can trust a Turk on such a critical issue as the genocide, how could I not trust him or her with lesser subjects, like family life, children, health problems, etc.?

Joint cultural events, pleasant evenings, encounters, and conversations are all useful, but only as an addition to the very basic thing—recognition—that is needed, and has so far been largely impossible to get. These intellectuals are not very useful if their only purpose is to feel good (“See, I am a Turk who speaks and drinks with Armenians”) or to show that “Look, Armenians and Turks speak together and no one has drawn a knife, so leave the genocide issue to the civil society—for yet another century.”

As others have stressed, genocide recognition is not an obstacle to peaceful relations, and it is disturbing to hear people suggest that it might be.

I now wonder: Is it commonplace in Turkey that when someone harms you, he suggests friendship without recognizing what he did, without apologizing, and without offering some compensation, and you are the bad guy if you want all of the latter before shaking hands and accepting his coffee and baklava? Is this how Turkish society functions?


“Dear Hrant had said: ‘Understanding comes first, not denial or acknowledgment…’” (H. Cemal)

Sorry, but so what? Hrant Dink, who is not allowed to rest in peace, said a lot of things, and it was his right to do so. But as some of us remarked when he was still alive, he was not appointed by millions of Armenians to speak in our name. Nor have others, like the Catholicos, Charles Aznavour, party leaders, Armenia’s president, NGO representatives. They haven’t been elected by the masses. The fact that Hrant Dink was another Armenian assassinated by a Turk earns him respect and empathy, and still hurts, but it doesn’t automatically make him everyone’s spokesman.

Besides, if the Turkish intellectuals (whose statements many of us question) were so sure of the ethical foundations of what they are doing and saying, would they need to use quotations from Hrant Dink (conveniently an Armenian)? Whatever the context surrounding the words above, it is a fact that denial has come first, and is still there—in Turkish schools with Sari Gelin, and imported in European and American schools and universities. Now, not yesterday. So for many Armenians (if not for certain politicians) yes, acknowledgment must come first, just as it probably would in a one-to-one relationship with a neighbor. (Just try to apply this rhetoric to other cases. Take a nice Japanese journalist, send him to make a similar speech to Korean “comfort women,” and let’s see if they applaud.)

I don’t have a problem with Cemal as a person; rather, I have a problem with what he says and does. He is certainly a kind man, who liked Hrant Dink sincerely, and I appreciate the fact that he visited the Genocide Museum in Yerevan. However, the destruction of a people and of the future of its offspring needs something different. Before addressing Armenians, he might use his reputation and his pen to demand that Talat’s Mausoleum be destroyed, that no streets be named after Talat, and—why not—that his government face the past. There is no doubt that his actions will be more relevant within Turkey, as other readers of the Armenian Weekly have pointed out.

Finally, I don’t agree with Akcam that Cemal “paid for others.” Especially after reading Cemal’s own column, I think he “paid” for what he himself said, for which he and he alone is responsible. I have no doubt that as a columnist and a “public person,” he is able to take responsibility for what he says, and to accept criticism. Cemal also “paid” for not learning from so many similar occurrences in the past. I won’t name names but many other Turkish opinion makers (and that’s the problem—they speak to a public, not to one or two individuals) have made similar statements before and have gotten similar responses. So the responses, not just Khatchig Mouradian’s, were perfectly predictable, if, that is, one were really willing to listen and learn.

And the next one who asks Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians (who, it seems, have been forgotten thanks to the protocols) to “understand” Turkish pain first or drink raki first, will be welcomed with even more frustration indeed. In addition, I don’t believe that Mouradian’s frustration is with “Turkish intellectuals,” but with certain Turkish intellectuals. And I find it perplexing that several of the journalists who deal with the Armenian-Turkish issues do so while being in the process of learning (we hear); and yet they are the ones educating a Turkish audience! Is this supposed to be normal? Imagine a first year medical student “who is still in the process of learning” writing columns in national newspapers to explain what to do in case of a heart attack, or epilepsy, or when you suspect your baby has appendicitis? Would you like your children to be taught how to drive on a motorway by an instructor who himself is still in the process of learning how to drive?

How can anyone be able to “explicate Turks, Armenians, and pain” when they are still learning? Again, the problem is not the person; it is what is said, written, published, and disseminated. Maybe the next article will be just great, who knows?

And now, a very simple question: Suppose tomorrow morning, Turkey wakes up and discovers that during the night, the Turkish president and prime minister have officially recognized the “Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, and Greek Genocide carried out in the Ottoman Empire.” Imagine they have apologized for it publicly, have pledged to examine the compensation issue and to remove all denialism from textbooks. (Just think of the money Turkey would save!) Then suppose Cemal is invited to speak to Armenians again. (And the same for other Turkish opinion makers, especially the designers of the apology statement.) Would they repeat the same things, word for word? “Medz Yeghern,” “mutual suffering,” “Balkan Turks”?


In a book called Dialogue sur le tabou arménien, by Ahmet Insel and Michel Marian (Liana lévi, 2009), Ahmet Insel says, “Dans 20 ans, dans 2 ans, dans 6 mois, un jour, j’utiliserai peut-être le terme génocide parce que j’aurai de nouvelles informations. Tu sais, j’ai déjà pas mal évolué.” (pp. 123-4). (“In 20 years, in 2 years, in 6 months, one day, maybe I’ll use the term “genocide” because I’ll have new information. You know, I have already progressed quite a lot!”). This too is an indirect answer to Akcam and others:  What Insel is saying is that until he finds that last bit of information, he is going to continue teaching his audiences and his readers that “it” was a lot of awful things, but not genocide. 

Yet in  an interview to Nouvelles d’Arménie Magazine ( he  conceded that according to Lemkin’s definition, what happened in 1915-16 was genocide, but added that the word “blocked” discussion in Turkey. He did not say, however, that he needed more information.

One is amazed: every 6 months, or 2 months, depending on Ahmet Insel’s changing views on the matter, should the Turkish public learn a different lesson about a historical event that concerns its past and present? Should the very fact of what Ottoman Christians were subjected to change like the pictures of a kaleidoscope? A little twist, and the “events” become “incidents,” another one and you have “massacres,” then “crime against humanity,” then a “Great Catastrophe,” and another effort, oh, OK “genocide”… and two months later, again a twist and what? “Disaster”? “Big inconvenience”?

Do Turkish journalists deal with everything—biology, economics, law, cars etc.—in this way?


I leave you with one last thought over “Turkish intellectuals” and “leave it to the civil society”: I don’t know what the judiciary system is like in Turkey, but in the west, the most serious crimes are judged by a jury of “ordinary” people, not by professional judges. If a mechanic, a nurse, or a grocer is competent enough to examine a criminal case and sentence someone to life in prison, he or she must also be competent to have an opinion about the killing of an entire population. I do not understand why “civil society” seems to exclude such people, whose sensitivity and ethics may be as fine-tuned as those of university graduates—provided they do not teach others what they haven’t yet learned.

The last word to Cemal: “If we really want peace and calm, let’s not be afraid of history.”

OK, but hurry up.

Marga Serovpian is a Weekly reader based in Marseille, France.

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.


  1. Excellent article dear Marga. I read Cemal’s article and while his statements may appear outwardly frank, they are highly insufficient and do not even scratch the surface of what Turks must do to learn about what their forefathers partook in over 90 years ago.

  2. Wow, Marga. This is the last nail in the coffin of pseudo-intellectuals and their discourse. This is ourstanding stuff! I am so impressed by some of the Armenian voices in this forum! The Hrant Dink portion of your article is a killer! Great job! The Weekly seems to have a “nose” for great writers… I look forward to more articles! (sorry for the disorganized thoguhts)

  3. Bravo Margo Serovpian, ca cest tres bien fait et j’espere que vous continuez a ecrire.
    Engeragan Cherm Parevnerov

  4. Dear  Margo ,
    Turkish   political  approaches  to political issues  is very intricate .They have yesterday decided(in their Maejlis) Parliament that they would admit non-muslim delegagtes to same and…
    This, in light of a Eiropean Commission meeting soon to review admittance of great Turkey into the EU….
    Fast, they act  fast don´t  they.While  these “Peace -seeking Emissaries”  TRY TO BLOW DUST into the beautifull eyes  of Armenians-The Diaspora  of same , mainly and in exstension  to RA
    While I do respect what  our public-that  is those  who can write such articles as you very well do-are kept busy with such discussions…
    Hama Haigagani SIRO,
    gaytzag  palandjian

  5. Dear  Margo,
    I´m sorry if I did not priase  your very indepth analysis on these Pseudo-ingtellectuals(turkish, i.e.)
    You also mention-in essence-that indeed acknowledgement ought to ,nay, should be a first  on the part  of their authorities.My response  to that  is:-Don´t worry it will come!!!!
    But-do not be disappointed- in their wily Ottoman turkish fashion , that  is  BY AND BY,with sugar-coated  words etc.,But  that  it will come there should be no doubt.Please refer to my above  response to your,however  in precis format.To add  that they will even come and kneel at Tsitzernagapert..however ,having by passed-in their  minds(reparations  issue), for this time over  we stand on a somewhat different pedestal-ground, and will  not bend over to their machinations-maneuvres.
    We have recuperated  our nation/state(s)and are  on a much firmer position in the Diaspora(s).Latter  to be re-structured to become  a SUPER-STRUCTURE   HOPEFULLY  SOON.
    Hama Haigagani SIRO
    gaytzag  palandjian

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