Turkey and Armenia: A labor of remembrance that has yet to be performed
Nathalie Galesne - 19/04/2007
It is not easy to talk about Turkey without raising the specter of the Armenian genocide, particularly when France has declared 2007 the “Year of Armenia in France” and, a few months ago, passed a bill making it a crime to deny the first genocide of the twentieth century.
And yet, how can one become fully mindful of these hidden, tormented memories without engaging in an honest reckoning of the history of European nations? A history that would also recognize how European colonialism affected both the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the dramas that followed it.
Attempts to reevaluate history can never be taken entirely at face value, however, and can even smack of political maneuvering. Why, for example, did France decide to pass legislation about a genocide that nations around the world have already recognized, and which France itself publicly acknowledged in 2001, in the midst of the delicate negotiations surrounding Turkey’s accession to the EU—and during an election year?
And why such a zeal for denouncing the crimes of others while official French history still cannot deal honestly with Vichy France or with the crime and torture France perpetrated in Algeria, as well as on its own soil, during Algeria’s war of independence?
In Turkey, the Armenian genocide is still largely taboo. Despite ranking among the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, it remains either buried or avoided. But attitudes seem to have changed profoundly—enough that a real labor of remembrance, which has never been undertaken jointly by Turks and Armenians, may finally be possible. On the occasion of Hrant Dink’s funeral, thousands of people took to the streets demanding that the Turkish government repeal article 301, which has had many writers and intellectuals—including Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak—brought up on charges of insulting the nation, and even receiving death threats from ultranationalists.
Although the Year of Armenia has many critics in Turkey, it should at least be applauded for trying to lift the heavy veil that is still shrouds the genocide, including through various cultural works of differing quality that are taking place across France and elsewhere.
IMA recently held a fine exhibition entitled “L’orient des photographes arméniens” [The East through the eyes of Armenian Photographers] (which ended 1 April), and an innovative conference explored relationships between Arabs and Armenians. Other institutions that have also signed onto this cultural Year of Armenia include publishing houses, museums, foundations, and so on.
The Web site www.armenie-mon-amie.com provides some insight into the richness of Armenian culture—from theatre to dance, from painting to photography—and lists the various upcoming initiatives that will be dedicated to it.
April will see the publication in France of Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (recently published in the United States). Shafak traces Turkey’s history through the intertwined stories of two families: a Turkish family in Istanbul and an Armenian-American family in Arizona. The ties that bind them, which she slowly reveals as the novel progresses, arise from that painful chapter of Turkey’s history marked by the deportation and massacre of Armenians in 1915.
Cartoonist Farid Boudjellal deals with the Armenian genocide in his own way: with a homage to his grandmother, Marie Caramanian. Mémé d’Arménie is a marvelous little graphic book that offers a view onto the history of the Armenian people through the window of one family’s history. Last but not least, a film by the Taviani brothers has just been released on the peninsula. The Lark Farm tells the story of an Armenian family that is nearly destroyed; only one woman and her three children survive the deportation to Aleppo thanks to the family’s long-time servants. But this is not the Taviani brothers’ best film. It suffers from a vagueness and a clumsiness that would be easier to forgive if the Armenian genocide had already been documented by a film of the same caliber as The Sorrow and the Pity.