The Turkish Question

“In turning toward the deepest wounds and farthest-reaching dreams, I walk with a tangled web which I have come to think of as ‘The Turkish Question.'” (Photo: Sevanavank 2014/Flickr/Peter Chou Kee Liu)

People are not a question. The fundamentals of human rights—the right to be, become and belong—are not a question. Yet since the late 1800s, Armenians have been forced to endure a flattening of our existence and oppression in our native lands, collapsed into “The Armenian Question.” This dehumanizing phrase is still in use today, even as we approach the 106th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide while the cruelties of the Artsakh War continue to unfold. 

We are not alone. In scholarly and popular discourse, there are persistent references to “The Kurdish Question,” “The Uyghur Question,” “The Native American Question,” “The African American Question,” “The Palestinian Question” and so on.

I would like to know what, exactly, is the question. 

I understand the history and efficacy of such terms being used to obscure accountability for the benefit of those who commit harm and also those who benefit from it by upholding the status quo, casting a misleading reframe of imperialism and colonization into these so-called questions. It is similar to referring to a “battered woman” instead of an abusive partner in situations of family violence or referring to the “global refugee crisis” instead of what it really is— complex global patterns of dispossession. 

To be clear, I am not a historian, political scientist, journalist or expert in international relations. I am simply a poet committed to personal and collective liberation. Over the past decade, I have studied restorative justice and trauma healing and promoted street-level transformation through healing arts and activisms. Simultaneously, I have worked to recover elements of Armenian culture not available to be passed down to me, and to better understand the thresholds of my nervous system. I am as curious as I am vulnerable, driven to disrupt and repair ethical violations and tethered by a tendency to become overwhelmed by them. Research suggests this push-pull is common in cases of developmental trauma. The good news is, our greatest strengths can come from making meaning out of suffering, co-creating healing paths forward and learning to witness the witness.

Two decades ago, while majoring in psychology at UC Berkeley, I had a nervous breakdown during a class examining layered impacts of genocide and displacement on Native American tribal nations. Though it was neither my first breakdown nor the last, it marked the beginning of inquiries into the effects of the Armenian Genocide on myself, my family and our people worldwide. From a young age onward, depression has loomed large in response to troubles at home and the open wounds our people carry, a condition which generates a heightened sensitivity to unrepaired human-wrought harm, across space and time. The worst of it is knowing that cyclical acts of brutality can bring people twisted pleasure and ill-gotten profit and generate and inflate a sense of individual and nationalist pride, which is both hollow and rotten to the core. 

Better to risk overwhelm than turn a blind eye. Better to see our injustices reflected in the suffering of others than believe we are alone. Better to learn from the dark and watch for the light.

In today’s world, there are the recent heinous behaviors of Azerbaijan’s government and the echoes of the unrepaired past embedded within them. To name a few: the Artsakh War itself, torture and beheadings proudly displayed on social media, victory celebrations in Baku on the UN’s Human Rights Day, the issuance of stamps on Armenian Christmas depicting Azeri soldiers “fumigating” Nagorno-Karabakh (of Armenians), and the opening of the Military Trophies Park memorializing their war crimes the week before the 24th of April, while justifying the continued captivity of Armenian soldiers and civilians.

With each act of depravity, it is as though Azeris cannot see they are also cutting off parts of their own humanity. In connecting with forward-thinking Armenians around the world and in being in Hayasdan at present, I see each twist of the knife seeking the eyes and hearts of our people and ironically awakening “the love of war.” This is an expression a filmmaker friend in Artsakh is using to highlight what they are seeing: the pain of war and the profound love for one another and our ancestral homelands, which can unite us in our pain and in our determination.

It is a gross understatement to say there are of course vast, underlying and interrelated patterns of harm and denial at the hands of the Turkish state, affecting Armenians, Kurds and other targeted groups. About this, where to begin? Perhaps it is best to start with a question.

In turning toward the deepest wounds and farthest-reaching dreams, I walk with a tangled web which I have come to think of as “The Turkish Question.” It turns out this phrase was the title of an article published in the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, written by none other than German philosopher and political theorist Friedrich Engels, co-founder of Marxism. Considering that the article begins with the following dubious statement, I take it with a grain of the salt still being rubbed into our raw and open wounds: “It is only of late that people in the West of Europe and in America have been enabled to form anything like a correct judgment of Turkish affairs.” Was that true then? Is it true now? I believe US and European powers continue to imagine they benefit from allowing the Turkish and Azerbaijani states to act with impunity.

Setting aside Engels’ article and the complicity of Europe and the US in Armenian struggles, what, exactly, is “The Turkish Question”? Could there possibly be just one? Short answer: no, անշուշտ. 

i. 

Who taught you to glorify dishonor and steal beauty?
What can satisfy the appetite of hungry ghosts?
When were you last grounded in the soil of your ancestors?
Where is the field in which we meet, and you don’t see us as the enemy?
Why did you leave the places you are truly from?
How many generations of lies does it take to become indigenous in stolen homes, on stolen land?

ii.

Who taught me to stay silent and hide beauty?
What can I make with these tears, this love of culture, this passion for justice?
When will I once again touch the soil of my ancestors?
Where is the field in which we meet, and I don’t fear being hated?
Why do I look for home in every face and place, and dream of Մհերի դուռ?
How many lies have I swallowed, just to face the world tomorrow?

iii.

Begin here.

Elise Youssoufian

Elise Youssoufian

Elise Youssoufian is a poet seeking justice, truth and beauty in every language.
Elise Youssoufian

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