Difference between revisions of "Elif Şafak"

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square one! As in every state mechanism within the Turkish state,
square one! As in every state mechanism within the Turkish state,
there is a reactionary line against every endeavor that might disturb
there is a reactionary line against every endeavor that might disturb
the status quo. Challenging the official historiography is a struggle
the status quo. Challenging the official historiogr
and it is not an easy one. Nevertheless, thank God things are not as
black and white as Westerners tend to think sometimes; there are
other shades in Turkish civil society, and other cab drivers in
Copyright 2005, Turkish Daily News. This article is redistributed with
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may be reproduced, further distributed or archived without the prior
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http://www.TurkishDailyNews.com for details.
The Washington Post<br>
September 25, 2005 Sunday <br>
Final Edition
In Istanbul, a Crack In the Wall of Denial; <br>
We're Trying to Debate the Armenian Issue
by Elif Shafak
I am the daughter of a Turkish diplomat -- a rather unusual character
in the male-dominated foreign service in that she was a single
mother. Her first appointment was to Spain, and we moved to Madrid in
the early 1980s. In those days, the Armenian Secret Army for the
Liberation of Armenia, known as ASALA, was staging attacks on Turkish
citizens -- and diplomats in particular -- in Rome, London, Zurich,
Brussels, Milan and Madrid; our cultural attaché in Paris was
assassinated in 1979 while walking on the Champs-Elysees. So
throughout my childhood, the word "Armenian" meant only one thing to
me: a terrorist who wanted to kill my mother.
Faced with hatred, I hated back. But that was as far as my feelings
went. It took me years to ask the simple question: Why did the
Armenians hate us?
My ignorance was not unusual. For me in those days, and for most
Turkish citizens even today, my country's history began in 1923, with
the founding of the modern Turkish state. The roots of the Armenians'
rage -- in the massacres, atrocities and deportations that decimated
Turkey's Armenian population in the last years of Ottoman rule,
particularly 1915 -- were simply not part of our common historical
But for me today, and for a growing number of my fellow Turks, that
has changed. That is why I am in Istanbul this weekend. I came to
Bosphorus University to attend the first-ever public conference in
this country on what happened to the Ottoman Armenians in and after
1915. As I write, we are fighting last-minute legal maneuvers by
hard-line opponents of open discussion to shut the conference down. I
don't know how it will turn out -- but the fact that we are here,
openly making the attempt, with at least verbal support from the
prime minister and many mainstream journalists, highlights how far
some in my country have come.
Until my early twenties, like many Turks living abroad, I was less
interested in history than in what we described as "improving
Turkey's image in the eyes of Westerners." As I began reading
extensively on political and social history, I was drawn to the
stories of minorities, of the marginalized and the silenced: women
who resisted traditional gender roles, unorthodox Sufis persecuted
for their beliefs, homosexuals in the Ottoman Empire. Gradually, I
started reading about the Ottoman Armenians -- not because I was
particularly interested in the literature but because I was young and
rebellious, and the official ideology of Turkey told me not to.
Yet it was not until I came to the United States in 2002 and started
getting involved in an Armenian-Turkish intellectuals' network that I
seriously felt the need to face the charges that, beginning in 1915,
Turks killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians and drove hundreds of
thousands more from their homes. I focused on the literature of
genocide, particularly the testimony of survivors; I watched filmed
interviews at the Zoryan Institute's Armenian archives in Toronto; I
talked to Armenian grandmothers, participated in workshops for
reconciliation and collected stories from Armenian friends who were
generous enough to entrust me with their family memories and secrets.
With each step, I realized not only that atrocities had been
committed in that terrible time but that their effect had been made
far worse by the systematic denial that followed. I came to recognize
a people's grief and to believe in the need to mourn our past
I also got to know other Turks who were making a similar intellectual
journey. Obviously there is still a powerful segment of Turkish
society that completely rejects the charge that Armenians were
purposely exterminated. Some even go so far as to claim that it was
Armenians who killed Turks, and so there is nothing to apologize for.
These nationalist hardliners include many of our government
officials, bureaucrats, diplomats and newspaper columnists.
They dominate Turkey's public image -- but theirs is only one
position held by Turkish citizens, and it is not even the most common
one. The prevailing attitude of ordinary people toward the "Armenian
question" is not one of conscious denial; rather it is collective
ignorance. These Turks feel little need to question the past as long
as it does not affect their daily lives.
There is a third attitude, prevalent among Turkish youth: Whatever
happened, it was a long time ago, and we should concentrate on the
future rather than the past. "Why am I being held responsible for a
crime my grandfather committed -- that is, if he ever did it?" they
ask. They want to become friends with Armenians and push for open
trade and better relations with neighboring Armenia . . . . as long
as everybody forgets this inconvenient claim of genocide.
Finally, there is a fourth attitude: The past is not a bygone era
that we can discard but a legacy that needs to be recognized,
explored and openly discussed before Turkey can move forward. It is
plain to me that, though it often goes unnoticed in Western media,
there is a thriving movement in Turkish civil society toward this
kind of reconciliation. The 50 historians, journalists, political
scientists and activists who have gathered here in the last few days
for the planned conference on Ottoman Armenians share a common belief
in the need to face the atrocities of the past, no matter how
distressing or dangerous, in order to create a better future for
But it hasn't been easy, and the battle is far from over.
Over the past four years, Turks have made several attempts to address
the "Armenian question." The conference planned for this weekend
differed from earlier meetings in key respects: It was to be held in
Istanbul itself, rather than abroad; it would be organized by three
established Turkish universities rather than by progressive Armenian
and Turkish expatriates; it would be conducted completely in Turkish.
Originally scheduled for May 23, it was postponed after Cemil Cicek,
Turkey's minister of justice, made an angry speech before parliament,
accusing organizers of "stabbing their nation in the back." But over
the ensuing four months, the ruling Justice and Development Party
made it clear that Cicek's remarks reflected his views, and his
alone. The minister of foreign affairs, Abdullah Gul, announced that
he had no problem with the expression of critical opinion and even
said he would be willing to participate in the conference. (As it
happens, he has been in New York in recent days, at the United
Meanwhile, the Armenian question has been prominently featured in
Turkish media. Hurriyet, the nation's most popular newspaper, ran a
series of pro and con interviews on this formerly taboo subject,
called "The Armenian Dossier." The upcoming trial of acclaimed author
Orhan Pamuk, charged with "denigrating" Turkish identity for talking
about the killing of Kurds and Armenians, has been fervently debated.
Various columnists have directly apologized to the Armenians for the
sufferings caused to their people by the Turks. And stories have been
reported of orphaned Armenian girls who saved their lives by changing
their names, converting to Islam and marrying Turks -- and whose
grandchildren are unaware today of their own mixed heritage.
All this activity has triggered a nationalist backlash. That should
be expected -- but organizers of the Conference on Ottoman Armenians
were nevertheless surprised last week by a crafty, last-minute
maneuver: a court order to postpone the conference pending the
investigation of hardliners' charges that it was unfairly biased
against Turkey. The cynicism of this order was clear when we learned
that the three-judge panel actually made its decision on Monday; it
was not made public until late Thursday, only hours before the
conference was to begin.
Organizers said they would try to regroup by moving the site from
Bosphorus University, a public institution, to one of the two private
universities that are co-sponsors. We were encouraged by the
immediate public reaction: Not only did some normally mainstream
media voices denounce the court order, but Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan, in televised interviews, repeatedly criticized it as
"unacceptable." "You may not like the expression of an opinion," he
said, "but you can't stop it like this." Foreign Minister Gul, in New
York, lamented what effect this would have on Turkey's quest to join
the European Union: "There's no one better at hurting themselves than
us," he said.
Whatever happens with the conference, I believe one thing remains
true: Through the collective efforts of academics, journalists,
writers and media correspondents, 1915 is being opened to discussion
in my homeland as never before. The process is not an easy one and
will disturb many vested interests. I know how hard it is -- most
children from diplomatic families, confronting negative images of
Turkey abroad, develop a sort of defensive nationalism, and it's
especially true among those of us who lived through the years of
Armenian terrorism. But I also know that the journey from denial to
recognition is one that can be made.
Author's e-mail: elifshafak @ yahoo.com
Elif Shafak is a novelist and a professor of Near Eastern Studies at
the University of Arizona. She commutes between Tucson and Istanbul.
[[Category:Armenian Individuals|Safak, Elif]]

Revision as of 10:44, 13 October 2005

Turkish Daily News
Sept 25 2005

Istanbul conference on Ottoman Armenians
Sunday, September 25, 2005

Opinion by Elif ŞAFAK

On May 23, 2005, I arrived in Istanbul from Berlin to participate in an event that was going to happen for the first time in Turkey: A conference on the Ottoman Armenians. Having thus arrived at Istanbul airport, I grabbed my bags and hailed the first cab waiting in line.

`Look at this mess! Traitors!' remarked the cab driver as soon as we took off. He was listening to national radio and when he realized I had no idea what he was talking about he turned the volume up. All of a sudden a fuming voice thundered inside the cab that belonged to Cemil Çiçek, Turkey's justice minister. He was delivering a speech about the upcoming conference. I flinched in my seat as I heard him declare that such a malevolent gathering could not possibly be permitted since it was tantamount to "treason." Then he added: `These so-called intellectuals are stabbing our nation in the back. If only I had the authority to prosecute them I would do so without any hesitation whatsoever. I urge the Turkish nation to watch the conference proceedings closely...'

`Could you please turn that thing down,' I asked the cabdriver when I could muster my courage and voice. `Actually, why don't you turn it off completely? The minister is talking nonsense.'

The driver, a young, hefty man with astute eyes looked at me in the rear view mirror from which a glittering Turkish flag, a miniature Koran and the picture of his baby boy were dangling side by side. His face was marred with incredulity and disappointment. `How would you know? You just walked off the plane?'

`I know because I am one of those traitors he just mentioned,' I heard myself mutter, as if that needed to be revealed. A deep silence ensued in the cab as we inched our way through the snaky side streets of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. For more than 10 minutes we did not exchange a single word. I sat there uncomfortably fearing being kicked out of the cab with my suitcases.

Finally, at a red light, he said to me: `You guys are playing with fire. What you are doing is detrimental to the interests of the Turkish state. If you accomplish this meeting it will mean you accept the Armenians' allegations of genocide. Is that what you want? You guys are educated thanks to our tax money. We expect you to help this nation. However, what do you do instead? You ruin it!'

He uttered these words as effortlessly and easily as if we were having a chat about the weather. It took me some extra seconds to fully sense the fury buried within.

`We want to organize this conference because we believe it is essential for the development of Turkish democracy,' I replied, trying not to sound either patronizing or enervated but failing in both, adding: `What does the minister know about this conference? We never circulated our papers. I myself do not know what the other participants are going to say. How can you call something a crime that has not as yet even occurred? Why is it such a taboo to talk about the deportation and killing of Armenians in 1915? Did it not happen?'

The driver softened a bit. `Look, you intellectuals are famous for being naïve. You live in your books. Nevertheless, the real world is different. You will be exploited by the great powers, the capitalist media, the CIA and all that,' he said.

It was precisely then that I received a call on my mobile phone. It was from a colleague in the conference organizing committee. The cab driver became all ears without even pretending not to overhear. `We should all draft a petition to protest at this infamous attack on academic and intellectual freedom,' my colleague and I agreed before I hung up.

`Intellectual freedom! I'll tell you what boils my blood,' the cab driver said, adding: `You are free to say whatever you want as long as you say it here in your motherland. However, our writers and scholars always do the exact opposite. They keep quiet here in Turkey and talk a blue streak abroad. Why is that?'

`Well, if that's what you think then isn't it better that we have this conference here in the heart of Istanbul,' I asked as we pulled aside, having arrived at the address.

There came no answer. I reached out for my purse getting ready to pay.

`I have decided I am not going to take your money,' the driver said calmly.

The rest is history. As everyone interested in the subject now knows, the conference was postponed.


On Sept. 23, I came to Istanbul again. On the same day at 5:00 p.m. we learned about a legal maneuver to stop the conference. Back to square one! As in every state mechanism within the Turkish state, there is a reactionary line against every endeavor that might disturb the status quo. Challenging the official historiogr