I’m watching on a small screen in my hand. A man in his bedroom in Brooklyn, with his back turned to the camera, is playing Komitas on his violin while looking outside of his window. It’s “The Crane” or “Groong” in Armenian. It’s raining outside. The music is so calming and moving. Full of memories from the past. “Groong, mer ashkharhén khabrig m choonis?” [Oh crane, don’t you have news from our homeland?], the lyrics go. It’s Haig Papazian, the violinist of Lebanon’s Mashrou’ Leila band. “When grief and anxiety render words inadequate in times of uncertainty, music offers a space to seek refuge, mourn, reflect and find hope,” explains Papazian in his post on Instagram with the hashtag #SongsOfComfort.
Songs of Comfort is an initiative of the international Cello Maestro Yo-Yo Ma, who started posting recordings of himself playing music that gives him comfort in times of anxiety. His challenge was picked up by so many in an attempt to spread comfort and inner peace while half of the world is in lockdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
It’s fascinating how so much can be felt and expressed through music, how much comfort can be felt in and through a song. It reminded me of April 2017.
I’m in Istanbul. A city between two continents. Only a select few of my friends and family know that I’m there. It will be my first time commemorating the Armenian Genocide in the city where it all began.
It’s the eve of April 23. I was told there is a concert planned to mark ‘the memory of 1915.’ I found myself in Depo, an old tobacco warehouse in Istanbul’s Tophane district. It now serves as a cultural center – hosting exhibitions, talks and musical performances that celebrate the cultural diversity and plurality of Turkey and push forward a discourse of critical thinking.
What happens in Depo does not, however, reflect the actual treatment of Turkey’s ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities beyond the parameters of that progressive venue. Kurdish is yet to be taught in schools and was banned from being spoken in public, until recently. The Armenians cannot elect their patriarch without recognizable state pressure and interference. Their community centers and landmarks are often spray painted with racial slurs and hate speech. The Alevi cemevies are yet to be accepted as legitimate places of worship. The Jewish community faces anti-Semitism on a regular basis. The Greek community is shrinking more than ever. Being different and non-conforming in Turkey does not come easy.
In a state where freedom of speech is threatened, people resort to the arts to express what they otherwise cannot. This is exactly what Depo serves for. It is an initiative of Anadolu Kultur, a Turkey-based cultural organization that aims to develop mutual understanding and dialogue through cultural and artistic exchange. It is founded by Osman Kavala. Kavala is a Turkish visionary businessman, philanthropist, civil society activist and peacemaker. I had the honor of meeting him in Beirut and in Istanbul. Kavala has been instrumental in organizing Armenian Genocide commemoration events in Turkey and bringing the peoples of Turkey together through the arts. His work earned him the respect and friendship of many around the globe and the enmity of his own country’s ruling establishment.
In November 2017, a few months after the concert in Depo, Kavala was arrested on charges of terrorism – organizing and financing the Gezi Park protests of 2013. He spent more than two years in pre-trial detention. Eventually, with the absence of any evidence against him, his case was dropped, and the court ordered his immediate release in February 2020. A day later, Kavala was accused of playing a role in the 2016 failed coup attempt and was never released. He has been behind bars for more than 900 days now. The same injustice that the Armenians witnessed a century ago is now being applied to a man who Turkey’s civil society and cultural scene owes so much to.
Back to the eve of April 23. I walk into one of the large halls of Depo. A dark room with 102 lit candles, each symbolizing a year of denial, injustice and mourning. A total of 102 years from the eve of April 23, 1915 which marks the launch of the pre-planned systematic annihilation of the Armenian people from their ancestral homeland. It was almost like Khavaroom – the evening vigil on the Thursday of Holy Week kept in memory of Jesus’ last sleepless night. It is when the Armenian Church goes dark except for 12 lit candles and the hymn “Oh Mother, Sweet and Tender, Where Art Thou?” is sung in the dark. It’s an emotional song of comfort for so many believers.
The concert is yet to begin. People are murmuring. A genocide commemoration event that was supposed to take place in public in another district organized by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has been forced to shut down and go indoors. This was not what we wanted to hear. But it does not come as a surprise. The HDP is the only mainstream Turkish political party that has recognized the Armenian Genocide. It has also championed the rights of the Kurdish people and other minorities. Its fate is not very different from that of Kavala. The state has been harassing the party from day one. Their leaders are jailed. Offices raided. Parliamentary immunity revoked. Mayors removed. And the list goes on. We were just hoping the concert proceeds without any police knocking on the doors. And fortunately, they didn’t.
Opening words were in English with live Turkish translations on the spot. The English speaker started by saying, “We have organized this concert to commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian G…”. She stopped there. She wouldn’t say the G word. She looked around to a room full of people nodding their heads as a green light to say it. “The Armenian Genocide,” she says and breathes. By Turkish law, it is illegal to call the events of 1915 as genocide. It is considered an insult to Turkishness and Turkish history. The parliament has banned the use of the term within the legislative body. The same applies to the term “Kurdistan” and “Kurdish regions.” Even though Depo is not the parliament, the Turkish translator did not use the G word. The English speaker referenced the genocide again, the Turkish translation omitted the G word again. This time, random voices from the room yelled ‘Soykirimi’ [genocide in Turkish]. The translator apologized and finally used the word ‘genocide.’ She says it was unintentional.
These unintentional slips of the tongue do not come as a surprise. Turkish citizens have learned to self-censor or else face trial. But the people of Turkey have not given up. They have a story to tell and a song to sing. That concert in Depo was much more than a musical evening. It was a storytelling session. A story of survival.
What we experienced that night was indeed special. Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi artists had come together to perform in Armenian—a language that was once mainstream in Istanbul and now regarded as marginal, in fact forced to go underground. People, who all my life I was taught to fear and regard as enemies, were there in solidarity with me and my history. I found parts of me in them. They sang for memory. For justice. For comfort.
The music of Komitas hadn’t sounded this beautiful. The room was crying. Komitas was returned to the streets where he belonged to. His music was heard again in the alleys where he lived and created. Songs of comfort to a city that witnessed so much pain and injustice.
It’s the next day. April 24. We head to the Armenian cemetery in Sisli. It’s the anniversary of Sevag Balikci’s murder. Balikci, a young Turkish soldier of Armenian descent, was shot to death in Batman while in compulsory military service by his fellow Turkish soldier on April 24, 2011 – the remembrance day of the Armenian Genocide.
His friends from the Nor Zartonk [The New Awakening] political movement organize this every year. Garo Paylan from the HDP is the only Turkish MP of Armenian descent who has joined the marking. Rakel Dink, wife of assassinated Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, is holding the hands of Sevag’s mother. An image too precious to forget. Two women who have lost their loved ones to hate crimes. Two women who are still awaiting justice. Both in black. Caressing one another. Crying as prayers are sung over Sevag’s grave. I’m not sure if they were songs of comfort.
A few hours later, it was time for the sit-in protest. A few of us headed to Istiklal street in Beyoglu from the new offices of Agos, the newspaper established by Dink, who paid the price of telling the truth and standing up for what is right with his life. His assassination in broad daylight in front of the newspaper’s office and the obstructive delays and stalling of his case to date say a lot about the state of freedom of expression in Turkey.
In fact, most media outlets are now co-opted by the ruling party. There is little room for disagreement with government policy lines. Life for journalists and reporters hasn’t been this scary. Turkey now ranks 154th out of 180 in the 2020 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. “An estimated 119 journalists and media workers […] are in pretrial detention or serving sentences […]. Hundreds more are on trial though not in prison,” adds the 2020 Human Rights Watch Report on Turkey. In 2019, Amnesty International named Turkey the largest prison for journalists. The government’s proposed draft of the amnesty law to release one-third of Turkey’s 300,000 prisoners over fears of the COVID-19 pandemic within the overpopulated jails excludes journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians, but grants freedom for thieves, committers of organized crimes and rapists. Not much has changed since Dink’s assassination in 2007.
But one cannot deny that Dink’s assassination triggered a massive movement of cross-ethnic and cross-religious solidarity in Turkey, the result of which we were about to culminate in the genocide commemoration vigil on Istiklal. We arrived at the sit-in site. Hundreds were there. Not just Armenians. There were Turks and Kurds. Young and old. They had joined in a beautiful scene of solidarity. Nothing like I’ve seen before.
Protesters were holding flowers and black-and-white pictures of the martyrs of the genocide. Hrant and Sevag were among them. The protesters stood in silence as music played. There weren’t any chants. Just silence. Silence and reflection on the 1.5 million innocent lives lost and the continued state of fear and repression that the community lives under. The silence was interrupted when passers-by booed and made fun of us – a mini counter protest that was quickly dispersed by the police in order to avoid clashes. The gathering ended with a song. Sari Gyalin (or Sari Aghjik).
It’s a song that both unites and divides the peoples of the region. With no consensus on the origin of the folk song, Sari Gyalin exists in Armenian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Persian and other languages. It’s a song that is sung in the same melody across all versions, but with different lyrics and interpretations. A song that there, in that spot, was no longer about a suffering love story or one that divides the different ethnic groups that live in Turkey, but rather a song of unity and solidarity. A song of memory and nostalgia. A song of empathy and compassion. A song of comfort.
As the lockdown persists and we all reflect in isolation, we cannot escape from the truth. Now, more than ever, we need global solidarity. In a reality characterized by imaginary walls, we need to build bridges. We need to recognize historical and modern injustices and heal them with humanity and kindness. Collectively, we must face intolerance, radicalism and hate. Together, we must fight xenophobia, racism and ultra-nationalism.
I cannot help but think of Hrant Dink famously coining the phrase “One must confess that Armenians with their trauma and Turks with paranoia represent two clinical cases juxtaposed.” We can change that image. But it requires first and foremost the recognition that the Armenian Genocide took place, because denialism is the last stage of genocide. And recognition cannot but be followed by reparations for the damage inflicted upon the Armenian people. Our struggle for justice will persist. The legacy of Hrant Dink will persist. We will always find hope. We will always find songs of comfort.