Reflections on the Centennial Commemorations in Istanbul

My roommate and I always joke about what things are like in some “parallel universe,” where bizarre things are the reality. For example, in one parallel universe, he is the world’s greatest surfer and I’m in the National Basketball Association.

Outside of the former home of Komitas Vartabed, demonstrators hold portraits of the intellectuals arrested on April 24, 1915, as well as portraits of Hrant Dink and Sevag Balıkçı.
Outside of the former home of Komitas Vartabed, demonstrators hold portraits of the intellectuals arrested on April 24, 1915, as well as portraits of Hrant Dink and Sevag Balıkçı.

The week of April 24th in Istanbul made me feel like I was temporarily transported to a parallel universe. Now, 75 days after we commemorated the Centennial, I’ve finally digested everything that happened that week.

Exactly 100 years after the day my great-great grandfather was arrested, I joined hundreds of Turks, Kurds, and Armenians at Şişli Cemetery to pay respects to an ethnic Armenian soldier who was killed four years earlier—on April 24, 2011—while serving in the Turkish Military.

Earlier in the day, I held a sign in Turkish among scores of activists at Haydarpaşa Terminal, the very spot where the 250 arrested intellectuals were taken in 1915.

I was one of hundreds of Armenians from the diaspora who had travelled to Istanbul to participate in the commemorative events that occurred in April. The group I was a part of, “Project 2015,” co-sponsored some events and took part in several others that were hosted by human rights associations in Turkey and by the Armenian community in Istanbul. It was quite an honor to represent my family and participate in these historical events. I flew to Istanbul alone, but I knew that my family members’ and friends’ thoughts and prayers were with me.

Demonstrators at the event on İstiklal Avenue by Taksim Square
Demonstrators at the event on İstiklal Avenue by Taksim Square

Although I’ve been to several protests and demonstrations in the United States, I didn’t know what to expect in Istanbul. It wasn’t too long ago that Hrant Dink was assassinated for his outspokenness of the genocide, and we all know about Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, the destruction/repurposing of Armenian churches and buildings, and the government’s clearing of the Gezi Park protests. Turkey certainly didn’t seem like the friendliest place to hold a large demonstration in memoriam of the Armenian Genocide, but it was the right place.

When the week concluded, things returned back to normal. Instead of being at Şişli Cemetery honoring Sevag Balıkçı, I was at Hackensack Cemetery honoring Arshavir Shiragian with family and friends. We all congregated in Times Square the following day in the largest gathering of Armenians I’ve ever seen. Now that it’s all said and done, here is what I’ve taken away from all of the events:

First, it seems like times are changing in Turkey. During our demonstrations, speakers openly used the word “genocide” and talked about reconciliation. Not too long ago, such statements would have been considered “insults to Turkishness” and could have led to arrests. Turkish President Erdogan may not be changing his views, but there’s an increasing number of Turks who have accepted the truth and are demanding that their government and the rest of their country do so as well. While all of this is great, the existence of counter-protesters at the events still means that there’s a lot of work to be done, and we can’t rest now.

Second, I couldn’t help but notice who else was participating in the events with me. Notable writers, artists, activists, musicians, scholars, politicians, and religious figures had congregated in Istanbul, and I couldn’t help but think that the people in our group resembled those arrested in the same exact spot during the onset of the genocide. Any Armenian could have been a victim, as could any Turk or person standing alongside an Armenian. I made the same association a few days later in New York City, and protests in several other major Armenian cities must have had the same feel. I’ve heard people compare the Young Turks’ failure to exterminate us to a wind that dispersed the seeds that led to the Armenian Diaspora. Since their strategy was to cut off the head, then kill the body, we can also make the analogy that when they cut off the head, many new ones grew from the remains, just like a hydra.

A wishing tree on İstiklal Avenue, where people would write down their wishes or the names of their loved ones on pieces of cloth, and tie it to the tree.
A wishing tree on İstiklal Avenue, where people would write down their wishes or the names of their loved ones on pieces of cloth, and tie it to the tree

Lastly, I was reminded about how my generation is facing a large task. I spent a lot of my time in Istanbul with people from the older generations and got an invaluable reminder of how our situation is different from our elders’. We are more removed from the genocide than our parents or grandparents. We didn’t march through the desert and nearly starve, then move to a new country and establish a new life without knowing the native language. Most of us didn’t hear the first-hand accounts of this from family members, either. A lot of what we’ve learned about the genocide was taught to us how any general history lesson is usually taught. It’s much easier to lose sight of how important Genocide Recognition is when you’re so separated from the crime. Some people my age believe that Genocide Recognition isn’t the most important issue on our plate, but I think that’s partially because we don’t see how it directly affected us. The aftershocks of the genocide still affect the Armenian Nation and the Armenian Diaspora, and recognition is the biggest step in our recovery.

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Garo Sarajian

Garo Sarajian grew up in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y. He recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University and is starting his Ph.D. program in mathematics at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the fall. Sarajian is a member of the New Jersey “Arsen” AYF Chapter and enjoys doing puzzles, playing basketball and baseball, and spending time on the beach.
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1 Comment

  1. Attitudes do seem to be changing in Turkey. However, a survey taken in the country concerning Armenian genocide recognition shows the overwhelming majority of Turks prefer maintaining the status quo of denial. What is just as appalling to me as an American, is that my country defers to Turkey’s judgment. This must change.

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