I was standing under Halogen spot lights spoking the white walls of a chic art gallery on Istiktal Street in Istanbul, a bustling pedestrian avenue of boutiques and restaurants, as I shook hands with three young Turkish fiction writers. Their publicist from their publishing house Yapi Kredir, led us to the table where we each had a small microphone and a name card in front of us, which for me was a kind of identity card. Three Americans, three Turks, all were writers of fiction but me. We had English translations of our Turkish colleagues’ works, and I felt the silence in the room grow as we moved between Turkish and English.
I was here in Istanbul in late October of 2014 to read in public for the first time. I agreed to join a group of American writers organized by the poet Christopher Merrill who directs the Iowa Writers International School at the University of Iowa. The project was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy as a cultural reading tour to Turkey and Armenia. The underlying concept was to foster some kind of dialogue between Armenians and Turks on the eve of the centennial of the Armenian genocide. When Chris called me I pushed out of mind for a moment the fear I was feeling about going to Turkey to do something public. I had friends and colleagues who had spoken publicly in Turkey about the Armenian genocide, and at worst they had been publically harassed but still returned to tell of a rewarding time. Still, the impasse between Turkey and the Armenian global diaspora and Republic over the destruction of the Armenians and their indigenous culture of 2,500 years in 1915 was so deep that going to do a public event was never simple. And, we were all haunted by the assassination in 2007 of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink for his public speaking about the Armenian past.
When it was my turn, I read a segment from my memoir Black Dog of Fate, about my family’s history in Istanbul before the city’s name was changed from Constantinople in 1922. I noted that my great grandfather Murat Panosyan’s large Queen Anne style house had been in the Uskudar section of the city and that he had a prosperous coal business in Istanbul and owned mines in the Zonguldak region along the Black Sea. My father was born on the island of Kanali, where Armenians vacationed, a few miles off the coast of the city in the Sea of Marmara, in September of 1920. I noted that my grandmother had graduated from the Constantinople College for Women (as had 2 of her sisters)–then part of the famous Robert College, now Bogazici University – in 1904. When I noted that she had been a good friend of the celebrated feminist writer Halide Edibe when they were school mates I saw the faces of my audience kind of hunker down on me–the gallery had gotten more silent.
After I read, there was a general applause for all of us, and some questions, a couple for me concerning my family in Istanbul. The Turkish writers were cordial and shook our hands and everyone said good night as we drifted out onto crowded Istiktal Street.
The next evening, the public affairs director at the U.S. Embassy threw a party for us and to our surprise not only did the writers from the previous night come, but a dozen other writers, editors, journalists had traveled from as far as London and Ankara, turning the whole event into a bit of a gala. As we drank wine and ate sarmas and lemajunes each of the writers who read the night before approached me and began talking with a fervidness that was surprising. One said, “it has been acknowledged by my parents that that I have an Armenian grandmother, but she is no longer living. When I ask more questions about her, they tell me to go away. I know it’s true, but no one will give me more clues, and I want to write about it.” Another writer said: “in his home town in central Turkey, our family’s best friend was an Armenian, but he kept his ethnic identity secret. But, we all knew he was Armenian,” he said, “and that is how I first heard about the genocide.” When he used the word genocide I did a double take–since the word was normally taboo in Turkey.
The first writer became emotional and I could see it wasn’t just the wine. I could see the idea of the Armenian grandmother in her family past was gripping her, and she kept talking to me in fragments in her very good English about how this had changed her sense of self and her relationship to the mainstream world of Turkey.
She was part of a new awakening in Turkey about the long hidden Armenian past; of the hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of Turkish grandchildren with an Armenian grandparent, a result of Armenian women or girls who had been abducted by Turks or Kurds during the massacres and forced marches of 1915.
Ever since Fetiye Cetin’s memoir My Grandmother about her grandmother’s death bed confession of being Armenian, became a sensation in Turkey in 2004, the awareness among Turks of the Armenian past has come to haunt a large part of the population. At a conference on Islamized Armenians held in Istanbul in 2013, it became clear that the grandchildren of the Armenian grandmothers confront a complex reality of pain and sorrow, anxiety, and also sometimes liberation as they try to square their family histories with the official position of the Turkish state on the Armenian past, one in which official school textbooks vilify the Armenians and blame them for their fate.
After midnight, we exchanged warm wishes, signed each other’s books and said we’d keep in touch. Coming face to face, writer to writer had made a difference; we were part of some common past–chopped, hacked, repressed, disconnected as it was across the great gaping tortured impasse of history between Turkey and the Armenian people. An hour later, I found myself on my hotel balcony as a waiter named Murat brought me tea in a vase shaped glass. I sat sipping the sweet, bark colored tea as I looked across the light glittered Bosphorous to the eastern side of the city where my family lived a hundred years ago, just before the killing started; it was a part of the city where Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Bulgarians, Turks, and others had lived side by side for centuries. Maybe the revelation of the hidden Armenian grandmothers would bring back some of the lost past of multi-cultural Turkey and a truth reckoning about the Armenian genocide and its legacy for Turks as well as Armenians. After a century of silence the grandmothers have returned.
Peter Balakian is the author of 7 books of poems as well as The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (A New York Times Notable Book and a New York Times Best Seller), Black Dog of Fate, winner of the PEN/Albrand Prize and New York Times Notable Book. He is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University. Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyrical Imagination, Poetry, Art and Culture, (forthcoming University of Chicago Press) features essays on major Armenian writers and artists and the Armenian Genocide.
In this era when it’s so easy to get cynical about what can be accomplished by individuals engaging in conversation about haunted socio-political subjects, this article offers much-needed hope for a process of significant social change led by precisely such conversations among enlightened writers. Can we import this process to the U.S. and confront our similarly haunted socio-political realities including, for instance, the school-to-prison pipeline and the reality that climate change and unconscionable levels of wealth inequality are inextricably linked? I have to believe we could. Thanks so much for the inspiration.