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.
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.