April 24 has a highly symbolic meaning for us, Turkish citizens. It is a day of national reunification – a national rebirth of sorts. To a nation deeply polarized over discussions on Islamism and secularism, corruption scandals, political assassinations, and the ‘Kurdish problem,’ April 24 presents itself as the perfect opportunity to rekindle Turkey’s lost national fervor. On the day when Canada and the world commemorate the mass murder of nearly 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915, we defy the collective memory of the entire world and simply refuse to remember.
In Turkey, festivities related to April 24 include a well-established set of rituals to be thoroughly observed each year. First, high-level diplomats and cold-blooded politicians are dispatched to major Western capitals to lobby against the possibility of further recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Reporters from major news channels follow their footprints. Specialists and strategists are invited into heated public debates. Nationals living abroad are mobilized and urged to counter the Armenian narrative at all costs. Well-prepared and ready for battle, we know what to expect from our age-old foes. The only question remaining, then, is what to expect from our ‘biggest ally,’ the U.S.. Thus begins the most exciting part of our venerable tradition: we gather around our TV screens, hold our breath, and turn our eyes and ears to the almighty U.S. president’s annual address on the ‘Armenian problem.’ We nervously ask ourselves: is he going to use the ‘g-word?’
He doesn’t. Geopolitical considerations win over moral ones, as usual. The president follows the path set by his predecessors: he acknowledges the suffering and pain of the Armenian people, talks about horrendous massacres and mass murder – after all, it’s not what he says, but what he declines to say, that matters. He is well aware of Turkey’s position as a ‘key ally of the U.S..’
When it comes to speaking of the dispossessed, even the most unorthodox views are freely expressed by people who think themselves courageous.
The annual thriller ends in victory and relief. Until further notice, Armenians are kindly invited to return to their hundred-year-old mourning while we cheerfully go back to our necropolis, still haunted by their grandparents’ agonizing souls. It is springtime, and the race for the title in the National Football League is closing in. We’ve got bigger issues than acknowledging a genocide.
Our glorious ancestors put on their best efforts to conceal the actions in which they were engaged a hundred years ago. Names of countless villages, mountains, and rivers that could have reminded us of past Armenian presence were methodically changed; hundreds of churches and schools were destroyed or reused as barns or warehouses (recycling alla turca); houses were seized and redistributed among the local Muslim population – the recently abandoned creaky Presidential Palace in Ankara belonged to the Kasabians, an Armenian family that fled Ankara during the genocide. Traces of Armenian heritage have thus been systematically and successfully erased, while streets, boulevards, and universities have been renamed after the main perpetrators of the violence, who were glorified and hailed as national heroes. Nowadays, no one remembers the Pangaltı Armenian Cemetery that once stood near Istanbul’s main square, Taksim. Desecrated and razed, the gravestones have been reappropriated and used to build the stairs of the legendary Gezi Park, the only piece of greenery left in central Istanbul.
The Ministry of National Education has also played its part in forging the ideal, enlightened Turkish denier. At school, we were initially told that we hadn’t killed Armenians (believe it or not, they had killed us). If this answer seemed unsatisfactory or biased in any way, we were told that – sadly indeed – the Armenians had to be exterminated: it was a state of war and they had betrayed us. What else was there to do but to orchestrate the massacre of 1.5 million men, women, children, and elderly people?
Another argument frequently heard in Turkey is that we, Turks, are not racists and are thus incapable of committing a genocide. Racism, a Western invention, did not exist in Turkey: our cordial relations with the Armenian community still residing in Istanbul – also known as “the leftovers” – are living proof of that. In fact, so long as they don’t meddle in politics or mention the g-word, Armenian Turkish citizens are allowed to breathe, walk, and travel freely within our borders. Yes, Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist challenging national historiography, may have been killed in broad daylight, but a non-negligible number of Turkish or Armenian public intellectuals holding similar opinions are still alive, protected by bodyguards or living in exile.
I conclude with a note on the boundless limits of our freedom of expression. Insulting Jews, Greeks, Armenians, or any other minority group is routinely met with the utmost compassion and admiration from both state and society, and the same goes for assassinating them: the police officers who arrested Hrant Dink’s murderer swiftly got in line to take photographs with their ‘hero’ under the Turkish flag while a famous pop singer composed a song praising the killer’s ‘accomplishment.’ When it comes to speaking of the dispossessed, even the most unorthodox views are freely expressed by people who think themselves courageous. Here is a brief conversation I had with a cab driver in Turkey a few years ago. For some reason, the discussion turned politico-historical:
“Do you believe in the Armenian Genocide?” the driver asked me.
“You know what, I do too.”
“Yes. And if they come back, we’ll do it again.”
Arda Eksigil recently graduated with an M.A. in Ottoman History. To contact the author, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.