Nazarian: Ninety-Nine Years Ago Today

Impressions from the Armenian Genocide commemoration in Istanbul

Ninety-nine years ago in the wee spring hours, Ottoman-era policemen marched through the streets of old Constantinople. Over the course of that fateful night, and the weeks that followed, they arrested and deported the most prominent Armenian writers, poets, journalists, intellectuals and men who lived by the pen from the Golden age of the Armenian intelligentsia in old Constantinople. These men were taken to the Haydarpasha train station and shipped deep into the interior of Ottoman Turkey where they were jailed and murdered.

A scene from the commemoration in Istanbul (Photo by Eric Nazarian)
A scene from the commemoration in Istanbul (Photo by Eric Nazarian)

Only a few survived, among them the iconic Komitas Vartabed, the priest, composer and musicologist who became mute and descended into madness as a result of the horrors he witnessed during the Armenian Genocide.

Komitas’s ancient musical soul went silent and today, 99 years later, I sat on the wet asphalt in the heart of Istanbul listening to his otherworldly voice recorded once upon a time in the early 20th century. It was crackling and booming on multiple loudspeakers among Armenians, Turks and Kurds gathered and jam-packed like sardines to honor the Armenian martyrs and to call what happened here in this country by its rightful name—Genocide. Young, old, middle-aged, natives and diasporans…we all sat side-by-side humming with Komitas, Dle Yaman and Der Voghormya.

Youth and elders held up laminated color and black-and-white photocopies of Krikor Zohrab, Siamanto, Diran Kelekian, Daniel Varoujan and several Ottoman-era Armenians who lived by the pen and were cut down by the swords. Their eyes gazed out from the photocopies at this new, small and fearless generation of Turks and Armenians committed to keeping the flame and voice of memory alive through the act of solemnity and presence together as a unified voice.

This is a brave and vocal minority that has chosen to not be silent. Middle-aged women wept openly. Members of the New Zartonk stood steadfast with printed banners. All gathered had managed through solidarity and sheer will to silence the filet mignon of Bolis real estate where millions pass through on a daily basis.

The press swarmed all over the street, perched on the roofs of businesses and establishments that demonstrated great respect to the commemorators by allowing the photojournalists to lean out of their windows and second-story patios immortalizing this brief hour on this very busy Spring day where the spirits of our one and a half-million dead were prayed for. Next year, this generation will return again and again and again.

While the speechwriters and politicos continue to conjure new ways to manipulate verbs and adjectives to avoid the truth of the Genocide, this new generation will be burning the midnight oil printing out the laminated images of the martyrs.

This small victory is a symbolic one that would have been unimaginable before. However small, its echoes are being heard now very loud and clearly across the world thanks to the point, shoot, save and upload settings in our garden variety of smart phones. And today’s presence and solidarity, like Komitas’s voice, will not be silenced. Today, I began to grasp the meaning of the word “vicdan” which means “conscience” in Turkish.

These young university students and Istanbul natives were here out of duty and a calling sitting on the damp asphalt holding vigil. They were here because they cared. Who would have thought that in 2014 we would hear the ear-shattering boom of Der Voghormya in the ground-zero of Istanbul? That is not to say things here are where they should be. Far from it but each small symbolic step here is a step forward.

After the end of the commemoration, I was handed a red carnation. With Komitas’s voice lingering in my ears, I felt a certain temporary peace gnawed by the begrudging reminder that we would never be able to grasp the complete magnitude of what happened during the Genocide. Yet, we will continue to hold candles to collective and personal memory and through voice, song, image, solidarity and creative outpouring honor and demand justice for what will continue to dwarf our imaginations for generations to come.

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Eric Nazarian

Eric Nazarian is a screenwriter, filmmaker and photojournalist. In 2007, Nazarian wrote and directed “The Blue Hour,” a first feature film that won six international awards. In 2008, Nazarian received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences® (home of the Oscars) prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for his original screenplay, “Giants.” In turn, Nazarian’s film “Bolis” was the recipient of the Best Short Film Award at the 14th Arpa International Film Festival in 2011.
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6 Comments

  1. Western University in London, Ontario, presented a lecture on April 25 by Dr. Fatma Müge Göçek from the University of Michigan titled: Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and the Collective Violence against Armenians, 1789-2009

    The following is the statement accompanying the lecture announcement:

    “In 1915, approximately 800,000 to 1.5 million of the forcefully deported Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire perished. To this day, the Turkish state officially denies that what happened to the Armenians in 1915 was genocide, while the Western scholarly community is almost in full agreement in classifying this as genocide. This talk focuses on why denial of collective violence still persists within Turkish state and society.

    “To capture the inherent negotiation of meaning that leads to denial, Dr. Fatma Müge Göçek’s research undertakes a qualitative analysis of 315 contemporaneous memoirs penned by 297 authors, in addition to secondary sources, journals and newspapers. The main theoretical argument is that denial is a multi-layered, historical process comprising four distinct yet overlapping components, the structural elements of collective violence and situated modernity on the one side, and the emotional elements of collective emotions and legitimating events on the other.”

    Dr. Fatma Müge Göçek is the author of several books, including: A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire.

    Dr. Göçek, who has defied death threats in the past, outlined how the perpetrators became heroes in Turkey. When I asked her about restitution, she reminded me that it was not only the State that had benefited by the plunder, but also, the wealthy leading families and business owners. They also have a vested interest in denial.

    Dr. Göçek said that she believes Turkey will have to acknowledge and apologize for the Genocide within ten years. She said that the pressure from within, from academia, coupled with the transparency inherent in popular media is too strong for Turkish denial to continue much longer.

    This was a highly informative lecture by a speaker who presents well-researched facts in a structured format.

  2. Please don’t use word madness for Gomidas…
    “I call him my secret God…”
    He developed severe depression…
    Could not recover from…!!!
    tell me who can recover from such a tragedy …
    This week I was severely depressed
    as if I lived through the stages of the Genocide…!!!

  3. Truth so well and eloquently written. Thank you Eric for capturing this moment in time for all of us to contemplate, be a part of and feel deep within our souls.

  4. Thank you Eric, for your thoughtful, elegantly stated impressions of the commemoration and for all your efforts toward complete recognition of the truth and remembrance and continuation of our beautiful culture.

  5. I am a full blooded Armenian and immediate descendant of a genocide survivor, victim and witness who chose not to bequeath religion to her children. This does not preclude my having beliefs. What is in the core of these beliefs is now verified by Nazarian’s eloquent salute to the brave intelligencia packing the streets in the heart of where the evil scene began. That belief is that education and enlightenment by the intellectuals of Turkey as exemplified by Fatma Gocek will bring the truth to their peoples lips.

    About 350 years ago, Edmund Burke said, “All that’s needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.” Those courageous souls filling the streets of Istanbul man the forefronts against an evil that one day will get its due!

  6. Vahe: re: your comment;”About 350 years ago, Edmund Burke said, “All that’s needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”

    My father, Misak Seferian, said, “Silence is the voice of approval.”

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