We Are All Oxymorons!

by Ayda Erbal

Seeing Hrant’s lifeless body on a very familiar sidewalk in Istanbul prompted nightmares that every member of the Armenian community in Turkey consciously or unconsciously suppresses for the sake of sanity. For we are the best pretenders in a sea of millions of other pretenders. What unites all of us as Turkish citizens, apart from language, culture, etc. is our pretending. If I may argue, the most revolutionary quote of Mr. Orhan Pamuk regarding the realities of Turkish society is, indeed, not the one that he uttered during his interview with the Swiss magazine Das Bild. As a matter of fact, one of his main protagonists in The Black Book confesses hopelessly: “Nobody can be himself in this country… In the country of the defeated and the sheepish, to exist means to be somebody else.”[1]

Despite being razor-sharp, Pamuk’s observation still needs some qualifiers. The truth is the more you are perceived as a threat to the mainstream values of the republic, the more you have to excel in your denial of yourself. It’s indeed fascinating that the only people that have been accused of taqiyah[2] in Turkish society so far are the adherents of Islamist ideology, whereas only a very small portion of Turkish society—its ruling elite, the intellectuals and the entertainment industry connected to this ruling elite—have the luxury of being themselves without being afraid for their lives. Unfortunately, if there is a kingdom of denial in Turkey, it has a couple of capitals, not just Ankara, and one of these capitals of daily denial is in the heartland of its minority communities.

Contrary to common belief, however, Armenians are not the only ones who have to practice the art of oblivion on a daily basis. If you are a Turkish Jew still adamant on sending your children to the only Jewish school operating in Istanbul, you have to forget that they will be attending school under heavy security measures. If you are an Armenian, you have to be even more prone to oblivion, so that you can send your children to schools whose demands for more security have been declined by the authorities. Now, besides your daily worries, you have to also think about ways for securing your schools. All this, because you are born as a minority in a country where intellectuals think that things got worse only because now they, too, need security guards. I have not heard of any intellectual terribly disturbed by the fact that, for example, Jewish kids have to go to school under heavy security measures or that synagogues have to operate under even tighter precautions since the 2003 synagogue bombing[3] and the assassination of Yasef Yahya.[4] But none of these made it in the discussion circles or the front pages of mainstream newspapers, let alone the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, it could not. We, as members of minority communities, should not talk about the afore-mentioned. And a few intellectuals who can get a spot in the major international newspapers would rather delve shamelessly into the business of PR for themselves and Turkey by framing and reframing Hrant’s assassination.[5]

Still, you have to pretend as if everything is all right, if you want to live in a country where technically speaking you have a right to exist peacefully no less than your Turkish Sunni neighbor. Being an Armenian from Turkey not only means that you have to be a con artist for life, but that you also have to carry an extreme amount of patience so that your forcefully inflicted schizophrenia does not become real.

One way of coping with our miserable fate is to internalize our condition and start loving that which is not lovable under normal psychological conditions. In this situation, our need for and dependence on a political culture that acts pretty much like a hostage-taker may manifest itself as “love,” and since we also believe that this must be love, we may indeed start thinking like our hostage-taker. This is called Stockholm syndrome[6] and this is what the majority of Armenians from Turkey have to suffer from all their lives. All of us, including the late Hrant Dink, suffer from Stockholm syndrome; and we usually tend to think that if we find a proper emotional language, our plight would be understood by the masses, who will maybe one day develop their own Lima syndrome.[7] That’s the ultimate dream of educated Armenians from Turkey who cannot make it elsewhere other than our homeland proper—the one that Hrant was also unable to leave. Either you chose to stay relevant and become politically involved and risk getting killed because of your involvement, or you choose to be reduced to total irrelevancy in another country—which is of course a subtle way of being killed. Especially if you are an intellectual, journalist, artist or writer, this second version of being killed over and over again during all those years of undoing and redoing yourself in different, strange and sometimes hostile cultures, is the only thing that you share with the other lucky (!) Armenians from around the world. Your ability to survive in partial-death situations connects you to your fellow Armenians, especially if they are from the Middle East.

Yet, you slowly become immune until one day, one of you gets assassinated again. Then you start asking yourself, Was he able to explain himself? Will they understand us this time? Were they aware of his and our limitations?

As others were glued to their computers and TV screens after the assassination, I struggled with these and many other existentially disturbing questions. Reading the media coverage on Hrant—an editor, among other things, whose newspaper few people took seriously—was a serious challenge, one that even Albert Camus’ characters would have given up earlier.

I am not saying people did not love Hrant, but they loved him for the wrong reasons and with very little information about Hrant, the real man, and about Agos, an initially joint Bolsahye (Istanbul-Armenian) effort in which even the Patriarchate was indirectly involved. I unfortunately cannot demonstrate this, but I know for a fact that even the Turkish Intelligence Service read Agos and Hrant more than his so-called friends who inundated the world and the Turkish media with their crocodile tears. I cannot count 10 prominent Turkish intellectuals who were avid Agos readers for the last 6-7 years. Again, I cannot count 10 prominent Turkish intellectuals who have some organic ties with the Armenian community beyond Agos. It’s not because the Armenian community was hostile or closed, it’s because they did not want to ask real questions about the community; it was convenient for them to be taken up by the friendship and peace discourse partially authored by Hrant himself. Most of them atheists—which in the Turkish context translates to theologically illiterate—they could not have a real talk with the Armenian society without despising them deep down, the way they—and not just the military—secretly despise their own Muslims.

No wonder Hrant Dink, whose companion, lover and wife Rakel chose to wish farewell with a metaphorical speech highly ornamented with Christian symbolism, had to conceal this part of his identity very well. Maybe they were even surprised to learn after his death that he was occasionally visiting the Protestant minister asking him to pray for him (see http://goo.gl/JEgjs ); I do not know many atheist Turkish intellectuals going to an Imam and asking him to pray for them. For those of us who knew Hrant since we were teens, his visit was indeed just normal. Wasn’t he one of the best pupils and friends of a former Istanbul Patriarch? But no, Turkish journalists would rather choose to reduce Hrant, who was a real character, to a type made up of exaggerations and incomplete information, to a type that they came to believe that only they were able to understand and only they were able to love. Even Perihan Magden, who had been tried numerous times because of her unbinding position regarding conscientious objection and whom I respect very much otherwise, could not escape from this fallacy of not being able to understand an Armenian character, and not just any Armenian character but one from Turkey.[8] It seems that these people had not even spent a little time to think about Shakespeare’s King Lear. For most of us, the issue was crystal clear. Just as Albert Camus says, “I love my country too much to be a nationalist,” we—even those of us who criticized him—loved Hrant too much to be a superficial Hrantist. We knew his limitations, we knew what it means to be an orphan always in need of love, because most of us third generation Anatolian Armenians grew up in total or semi-orphaned situations, just like Hrant; we spent enough time to think about denial psychologically and philosophically, not just genocide denial but other more subtle and much more intricate yet still human ways of partial self-denial; we were exposed to the giants of world literature and we knew a thing or two about a real character. Moreover, we understood Rakel’s farewell letter with all its symbols and allegories, not just one freely chosen metaphor over others about “a darkness who is able to create murderers out of babies.”

Only a very small portion of the said newspaper columnists—so little in numbers that one can even remember them by their names—were able to understand what it is to be an Armenian in Turkey, and the reason Hrant, among all other public figures, was chosen as the target: his Armenianness. And not just any Armenianness. In this case, it was an Armenianness that had the courage to challenge the official Turkish historiography, and its semi-official academic and literary variations.

The rest were involved in an almost pornographic account of telling anecdotes about Hrant, trying to get a share from the bounty that was an assassinated Hrant. I could not help but remember a sentence from the introduction of Falih Rifki Atay’s Cankaya, an unconventional biography of Ataturk.[9] In it, Atay, albeit with Orientalist undertones says: “There is no such thing as true character in the East. There is either glorification or vilification. Either the man blinds you and you have to glorify him or he despises you and you have to tear him into pieces in mockery. People will tell you anecdotes about the man but few will spend time to understand the man.” Such had indeed been the fate of Hrant. He and his ever-evolving legacy were recycled ruthlessly and emptied of their substance totally.

I am, of course, not implying that there should have been nothing written on Hrant.[10] But there were instances of high drama which at least some of us Istanbul-Armenians had a hard time believing in. A Turkish novelist, for example, tried to convince her audience in Turkish that she dried up after she heard about the assassination, that she could not longer think straight and write; but the same person was able to write a very rationally calculated piece for the Wall Street Journal the same day, as if going through a checklist of sorts, whose last item after her PR campaign for Turkey was to campaign for her own book. The same person would turn her own NPR segments to a locus of further, shameless PR campaigns full of some romantic and then unsubstantiated ramble about “who indeed the real Turkey was.” She was trying to convince the world audience that the real Turkey is not that who killed Hrant Dink but those 100,000 people who filled the streets of Istanbul (which reminded us one more time that most, if not all, of the intellectuals in Turkey are indeed gatekeepers no matter how post-nationalist they think they are). Hrant did not have another choice, yet these people, who are technically the owners of Turkey, could have been more unfeeling in their critique. But no, in all the international coverage they rather chose to behave like a peasant who has a hard time accepting that his yogurt is indeed sour.

Among other shocking things most probably written with good intentions, almost 95 percent of the coverage after Hrant’s death could not help but refer to Hrant’s being more patriotic than even themselves. In other words, while on the one hand every one of them was amazed by the fact that an Armenian could love those lands more than they, on the other hand, they, not so discreetly, alluded to the proper ways of behaving for their minorities. As if everybody was trying to prove something to the Turkish right: “See you do not even know who you killed, you killed the greatest patriots of all times. Stupid you Ogun Samast and friends!” Almost all of them sounded as if it was a bigger sin to kill a Turkish Armenian who was able to finally prove his patriotism during his lifetime than a regular Turkish Armenian who did not feel it necessary to do so just to be heard.

These were the same people who did not even know how to defend freedom of speech against the likes of Kemal Kerincsiz or the mainstream Turkish center and center right. I do not remember a single soul who had the guts to hypothetically ask: “So what, let’s say he denigrated Turkishness. What’s the big deal?” As if freedom of speech meant freedom of being interpreted correctly. The sad thing is that whoever tried to stand by Hrant did so by pointing at “misinterpreting judges.” The same is true of Elif Shafak who instead of standing by her freedom of expression, generously used her freedom of escapism by saying “I did not say those words, my characters did.” The only person who was able to show true intellectual courage was Taner Akcam, whose case that involved using the term genocide was recently dropped.

This narrative on patriotism was blended with an equally disturbing narrative of pitting Hrant against the Diaspora, based on a couple of writings, as if Hrant could have been an independent and unconstrained thinker in a country where Turkish Sunni Muslim intellectuals are afraid of their own shadows and have many trepidations about the subject being discussed, as if there really is a way for a Turkish Armenian to be, in this case, himself. Indeed, the sad thing is that a single week does not go by where there is not a meeting of intellectuals in which the ritual of the day is bashing the Diaspora…

Only one Turkish journalist—Yildirim Turker—seemed to be aware of Hrant’s limitations, though he was not inquisitive about them. Indeed nobody, other than the few Bolsahyes who were aware of his limitations as a journalist, activist and as a man de plume would dare to make a fuss about it… The rest would rather choose to not connect the dots, and immerse themselves in a euphoria that will die down as years pass. A euphoria indeed that most of us who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s and witnessed one too many political assassinations (including the Sivas catastrophe that claimed 37 lives) are totally indifferent to and unimpressed by. For me, the seeds of their future performance are ingrained in their skewed perception of today’s Armenian Diaspora, or rather their inability and unwillingness to grasp what the Armenian Diaspora is all about: a couple of million of stubborn individuals who on average had 7-8 Hrants in their own immediate families. My impression is that just like they want the evil and obsessed Diaspora to bow down to bait and switch policies that they are packaging in fancy words and discourses which did not work and dead elsewhere—i.e., a wishy-washy reconciliation discourse (let’s open the borders and let’s call it off)—they will probably be ready to forget the chain of dark relations that killed Hrant for a brighter Turkish-Armenian future. As if such friendship based on shaky bait and switch grounds could ever happen. Unfortunately, they are the ones who would not mind killing a young child for a brighter future for all of us, a tough dilemma that Ivan Karamazov of the Karamazov Brothers leaves us alone with. They are trying to turn Hrant in a sense to that innocent child. But neither Hrant was an innocent child or angel—as none of us grown ups can indeed be— nor is it OK to expect goodness out of a murder.

Until we spend some real effort to understand why Hrant really got killed, my friends, we are all impossibilities, we are all oxymorons…

(Editors’ note: This piece was originally published in Armenian Weekly’s April 24, 2008 special issue)

(Author’s note: There are a number of issues -particularly the segment re: Stockholm Syndrome, about which I changed my mind later. I think the entire situation of Istanbul Armenians can be better explained by political expediency -itself a result of a survival strategy, rather than a generally inflicted syndrome. It does not mean the psychological does not have any effect, it only means that the effect of the political is overarching the rest and much more meaningful. This claim obviously requires a much more substantiated longitudinal comparative analysis that goes well beyond this short introductory attempt.)

[1] My translation.

[2] Precautionary denial of religious belief in the face of potential persecution. Stressed by Shii Muslims, who have been subject to periodic persecution by the Sunni majority. The concept is based on Quran 3:28 and 16:106 as well as hadith, tafsir literature and juridical commentaries. Oxford Dictionary of Islam. John L. Esposito, ed. Oxford University Press Inc. 2003. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.

[3] Public and private security personnel, even before the bombings, were in charge of protecting the synagogues, the Jewish community centers and the only Jewish school of Turkey. After the 2003 bombing their security got tighter.

[4] Yasef Yahya was a Jewish dentist in Istanbul who was assassinated in August 2003. The only thing that was missing from his dental office was his address book full of names and addresses of prominent Jews. Indeed a similar address and data confiscation happened right after Hrant’s death and this time from the Sisli Municipality, a municipality heavily populated by Armenians and Jews. Whereas the mainstream media spent only a paragraph or two on the event, the municipality itself pretended as if there was nothing to get alarmed over, and simply stated that the data was scrambled and password protected. As if we are not living in a world where hacking data is the next thing nerdy kids learn after—or sometimes even before—calculus.

[5] One exception was Selcan Hacaoglu’s more critical Associated Press coverage.

[6] “Psychological response sometimes seen in an abducted hostage, in which the hostage can show signs of having feelings of loyalty to the hostage-taker, regardless of the danger (or at least risk) in which the hostage has been placed. Stockholm syndrome is also sometimes discussed in reference to other situations with similar tensions, such as battered person syndrome, rape cases, child abuse cases, and bride kidnapping. The syndrome is named after the Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm, Sweden, in which the bank robbers held bank employees hostage from August 23 to August 28 in 1973. In this case, the victims became emotionally attached to their victimizers, and even defended their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal. The term Stockholm syndrome was coined by the criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, who assisted the police during the robbery and referred to the syndrome in a news broadcast.” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_syndrome.

[7] “Unlike Stockholm syndrome, where hostages develop sympathy for their abductor, Lima syndrome is the result of the abductor/kidnapper sympathizing with his hostages. Occurred in the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis of 1996, when members of a militant movement took hostage hundreds of people attending a party in the official residence of Japan’s ambassador to Peru. Within a few days, they set free most of the hostages, including the most valuable ones.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Lima+syndrome.

[8] http://www.radikal.com.tr/haber.php?haberno=210592 , “Ermeni cemaatindekiler seni begenmediler, Patrikhanedekiler seni begenmediler, Diyasporadaki kokozlar seni begenmediler.” (“The ones from the Armenian community [Istanbul] did not like you, the ones from the Patriarchate [Armenian] did not like you, the kokoz (slang) of the Diaspora did not like you.”)

[9] Falih Rifki Atay was one of Ataturk’s biographers, besides being a journalist and Bolu and Ankara deputy in the second Turkish parliament.

[10] Indeed one such journalist, Nuray Mert of Radikal, solemnly chose not to write and instead put a picture of Hrant and herself at a dinner with a brief note saying she was indeed speechless. However, in another piece written on January 30, 2007, she would go back to her own ways of denialism and superficial explanations regarding 1915: Some totally unsubstantial and one dimensional “Usual Suspects” discourse, where the blame is put on the “Imperialists” and almost total amnesty is given to local actors or political conditions. http://www.radikal.com.tr/haber.php?haberno=211601. (I thank Mr. Rıfat Bali for pointing out this article.)

4 Responses to “We Are All Oxymorons!”

  1. Paylaşım İçin Teşekkürler.

  2. Thank you for the reposting of this article Ayda.. your filigreed approach is inspiring and informative.. our task remains to refresh our hearts and minds.. thanks to Rifat Bali as well.. appreciating the Azad Alik venue.. Arpine Konyalian Grenier


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