Special for the Armenian Weekly
The story never ends when it comes to Armenians and Turks, the genocide, and the blowback of the aftermath. It’s in our genes, the air we breathe, the memories we never lived that we recall from ancestors still in the infernal limbo of the sands of Der Zor, now bulldozed by the new era of terror branded by the black flags of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Flying into Istanbul, my mind gyrates like a shotgun blast of seemingly irrelevant realizations, reflections, voices, names, poems, and deceptions that end up patching together with braided patterns like my late beloved grandmother Tavoos’s magnificent carpets. Then, when I try to put pen to paper and shoot down these thoughts, poof! They defy verbs, nouns, and adjectives and I am left with a stunning frustration as the tidal waves of images and feelings eclipse and belittle the pen in my hand as the plane docks into the city of Constantine, then the Byzantines, and finally the Ottomans. The cycle of history is built on chaos, power, empire, lust, greed, more power, and the road of bones built on the skulls of the indigenous in Istanbul and far east into the roads of the interior deep in the root of Western Armenia.
I was back in Bolis for the Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop on “The Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians in Art, Theater, Cinema, and Literature” that took place on Nov. 5 and 6 at Sabanci University. Sabanci was built by the billionaire Sabanci family, which had raked in endless millions of dollars—some after capitalizing on the properties they had confiscated from the Armenians in the wake of the genocide. Several books that are required reading for any pilgrim interested in the plunder of the properties, include Ümit Üngör’s Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property and The Spirit of the Laws: The Plunder of Wealth in the Armenian Genocide by Taner Akçam and Ümit Kurt. This massive theft of Armenian properties is a separate subject to return to eventually in a much longer piece, if not a court case, or several, which I hope someday happens under the international spotlight, bringing to light the magnitude of wealth stolen from the Armenians by some of the wealthiest families in Turkey, including Sabanci and Koc.
However, I digress. It’s natural in Istanbul. You can’t walk a block without getting your conversation redirected in at least three directions as we native foreigners and diasporans try to understand the still-flying shrapnel and mayhem of 1915 a century later.
Nov. 5 is Guy Fawkes Day around the world. The mascot for this day for anti-establishment activists, left-leaning folk, graphic novel geeks, and pop culture vultures is the mask of Guy Fawkes designed for the Warner Brothers film, “V for Vendetta,” which was based on the Marvel Comic by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, inspired by Guy Fawkes, an English Catholic who tried to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. Fawkes and his conspirators were caught, castrated, and hanged. In the four centuries since, the failed assassin and extremist has morphed into a mascot of rebellion in the current age, symbolized by the mask made famous in the graphic novel and film.
I was over 2,000 kilometers away from the House of Lords by the Golden Horn and the Galata Bridge that day. The Sabanci campus is right around the corner from Bank Ottoman where, on Aug. 26, 1896, 28 Armenian revolutionaries led by Papken Siuni and Armen Karo raided the bank to bring international attention to the Hamidian Massacres of Armenians by Sultan Abdulhamid, the “Bloody Sultan” as he was known to the West.
The revolutionaries never touched the gold or one bank note. Their attack was a symbolic act hoping to reach the world’s deaf ears about the sultan’s atrocities against the Armenian population in the provinces of Anatolia. Siuni was killed. Karo took charge and the world became alerted to the “Armenian Question,” which was followed up with the slaughter of Constantinople’s Armenian community. Some 6,000-7,000 civilians were butchered by the sultan in retribution for the Bank Ottoman attack; this was followed up with additional massacres in the Armenian villages in Western Armenia/Anatolia, particularly Akn, where Siuni’s roots were from.
The Bank Ottoman attack kick started Elia Kazan’s masterful “America America,” dramatizing the collective punishment the sultan executed on Armenian civilians and the elderly in retribution for the attack on the bank, which ultimately triggered more newspaper headlines worldwide but little, if any, action to aid the Armenians.
And now, on this same street in Bolis on Guy Fawkes Day 119 years later, we gathered in peace to give voice again to the genocide and its aftereffects through the arts, with hope for the possibility of grassroots healing through storytelling and unity with brave souls who care deeply about advancing education and knowledge about the genocide in Turkey. Inside the conference hall, I tried to visualize the moments leading up to the day they took Bank Ottoman. I looked out at the waters under Galata Bridge across the boulevard. They were the same waters then as they are now, the tide continuing indifferently to the trials and plagues that men unleash upon each other, generation after generation, empire after empire.
My presentation was on “The Armenian Genocide and Diaspora on Film,” supplemented by visuals, poster art, and period photographs, a few of which were made by William Sachtleben, a famous American cyclist who returned to Erzerum in the time of the Bank Ottoman era to investigate the disappearance of Frank Lenz, another cyclist biking around the world who had been killed in the vicinity of Erzerum in Anatolia. Sachtleben came looking for his friend but instead witnessed the Erzerum massacres, and photographed its aftereffects. Thanks to this wayfaring cyclist, we have some of the first photographic proofs of the massacres from the last decade of the 19th century.
As the laptop flashed images of lifeless bodies splayed on horizontal, desert sands, of Aurora Mardiganian and the once-charismatic eyes of Armin T. Wegner etched with a darkness in his grayer years, my mind drifted back to the irony of Guy Fawkes Day and the ghosts of revolutionaries.
I walked down Bankalar Caddesi again after dark. I didn’t hear the footsteps or tinny pops of the first fin de siècle bullets that were triggered on that hot August day in 1896, but I could feel the tension in my throat of being an Armenian still in 2015 Istanbul and the rage that races with every step I took, trying to visualize the moments before Papken and Armen Karo and the 26 revolutionaries took the Ottoman. Did their cry serve its purpose? Did anyone care outside of the immediate days and hostage negotiations that led to the exile of the surviving revolutionaries and the butchering of Istanbul’s Armenian community? The “Bloody Sultan” Abdulhamid once again lived up to his name that year, laying to waste scores of civilians as payback for the uprising of a few.
Every time I attempt to visualize the magnitude and the immensity of the horrors of the massacres, I wonder yet again if my efforts are naive and futile in the end as a storyteller. Is there a purpose to telling the history of our people to a hall full of Turks, Armenians, Kurds, and international scholars? I believe in efficacy and tangible change for the betterment of people. I’m not sure that telling stories creates efficacy and a tangible source of good that saves a person’s life, but I have never stopped believing that it can help heal the soul, both for the storyteller and the listener.
The lectures and presentations at the conference moved me deeply. They were painful, personal, brave, and insightful. In the end, no amount of storytelling, dialogue, handholding, and empathy can ever heal the horrors of the magnitude of the Armenian Genocide and the hideous denialism that continues to white out any trace of the Pontic Greek and Assyrian Genocides. The anonymous dead remain anonymous and the cruel Draconian forces of history apathetically continue to ignore the indigenous of this land and their traces wiped clean from public memory. That is exactly why we must keep telling our stories here in Turkey and Western Armenia. In storytelling, there is truth and healing. There is also rebellion and true pacifism. The act of storytelling is an act of defiance against violence, against erasure and oblivion of history distorted, warped, and manipulated by the winners. This is why I return. To correct that history through the storytelling act, however small or insignificant that may be.
To be an Armenian is to live with the ghosts of the Ottoman past. To be an Armenian is to be keeper of these ghosts and this ravaged civilization that still refuses to perish. Destruction and desecration is a part of Armenian destiny but perishing is not. The very last fragments and shreds that are left of this stalwart, defiant, and silent past in Western Armenia refuse to go. But they will. Time destroys everything in the end, but not the memory if we are stubborn enough to etch and carve it, to breathe and tell it in the stories that will no doubt endure because the tongues and the heart cannot be silenced. Not time, not mortality…NOTHING can silence the story.
The eyes of the descendants will tell this story even if the storytellers perish. This was the last pang of loss and hope I felt colliding as I stood outside those 19th-century stones of Bank Ottoman staring at me in the twilight, sphinxlike as I departed, wanting to grip my Uni-ball pen and put ink to paper again, instead of bashing my fist into the stones for all that we have lost, never to recover in a world that continues to remain a hostage to complicity through that ugly, beastly, eternal coward of silence. I roamed past the Galata Bridge and the fishermen reeling in the night’s catch, calmly courteous and clueless of the ghosts and spirits inside me.
The print version of this article will appear in the Armenian Weekly December Magazine.