Sunday, October 3, 2010

Can the Akdamar Armenian Church Bring Justice?

"My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a "they" as opposed to a "we" can be identified at all." — Richard Dawkins (A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love)
After 95 years, the Eucharist was celebrated in the Holy Cross Armenian Church in Van,  in eastern Turkey near the border with Armenia. The Church was built by Architect Bishop Manuel in 915-921 and dedicated to the "Holy Cross" and erected during the power of King Gagik I of Vaspurakan. The Church stands on a  hill top overlooking the dazzling blue waters of Lake Van. It is one of the most significant examples of ancient Armenian culture and architecture in eastern Turkey (modern Kurdistan). The Church has been turned into a museum by the Turkish state.

Modern day Van is predominately a Kurdish city. Its large Armenian community was expelled in 1915 during the upheaval that accompanied World War 1 and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. In Van many families of Kurdish heritage are also of Armenian descent, although this a major taboo and is not aired publicly.

The city of Van was briefly taken over by  Armenians  in 1915 after an armed uprising. At the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, following the Ottoman defeat in World War I, the city was awarded to a new Armenian state. However, this was short lived and with the success of the Turkish Republicans under Ataturk the city came underTurkish rule.

 For Armenians across the world, the Church of the Holy Cross, is symbolic of the deportation, displacement, and killings at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The  church has been restored by the Turkish Government and functions as a museum.

Turkey has agreed to open the church for services once a year, for many Armenians this as a small but significant step in addressing a historic wrong. The opening of the Church for service has become a divisive issue amongst Armenians, some sceptical about Turkey’s motives. Many Armenians would like the Church to be opened for service.

Whilst l applaud the opening of the church for service once a year, I believe that such a historical heritage should be preserved and used as a museum, a testament to Armenian cultural and religious heritage. It should serve as a historical representation of a dynamic community that was displaced and experienced historical trauma, and historical injustice.   Having the church as a museum is a powerful opportunity for the  people of Turkey (all ethnic backgrounds) and the Armenian diaspora to discover themselves and to open up to the memory of the past and ensure that such events do not occur again.

I am perhaps a lone voice in the wilderness, and that Turkish and Armenian nationalists would dispute my position. My view is largely based on social evidence that demonstrates that religion does not unite communities but is divisive: religions promote: a "they" as opposed to a "we."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

“My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."

Anthem for Doomed Youth 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,--
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds
I’ve decided that every morning l will walk to work and stop by at my favourite café, Animal Orchestra, for a café au lait (caffè  latte). This café is not only bohemian but only the well-educated bourgeois can be found there. It reminds me of the Left Bank (rive gauche) in Paris. Only you won’t see Anaïs Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Sarte or any of the French Existentialists, for that matter!

I have been trying to walk to work as regularly as possible. This morning l left home at 8am in the morning and rang my colleague, as we had arranged to have a telephone meeting before 9.30am. He was situated in some lavish office in the city while l was brisk walking along Rathdowne Street. Because of school holidays the traffic was mild. The great thing about walking early in the morning is that you can see who the early risers are in Carlton.

I do take exception to the proverb – early to bed and early to rise and you never meet any prominent people. What an absolute fallacy. One thing that you do notice early in the morning in Carlton is the underbelly; all dressed in black, sitting close to their parked   black Mercedes & black BMWs, having a café mocha, in a café along Lygon street.

This morning l was thinking about Wilfred Owen’s poetry.  I was first introduced to his poetry in year 10 at high school. Our English literature teacher was a very erudite and passionate Irish Protestant. In our class we also had an Irish Catholic male student, who was a recent arrival to Australia. We would laugh at their accents as we were naïve and did not understand the content of the fiery diatribes they were firing against each other- fuelled by religious sectarianism and the British occupation in Ireland. She would always break into a thunderous laughter at the tirades hurled at her by what she probably thought was an eighth-rate scrivener, and also because the whole class supported him.

Wilfred Owen’s poetry brings back memories of my father. My father did not have one positive word to say about his compulsory military service experience nor war itself. He saw military service as the bare face of human brutality. Perhaps my longing for Owen’s poetry is fused with my longing for my father who died last year.  

By the time l reach Animal Orchestra my fond memories of my father have been taken over by fury and rage - at Blair’s memoirs - the creative ambiguity he deploys to justify the war in Iraq. Not even the wiles of politicians and their creative ambiguity can disguise the fact that his rational to justify war was proven to be untrue as there were no weapons of mass destruction. The classified records show that the war was based on deception, a deliberate lie. 

The only verse that l can remember from an Owen poem is the one below, as it was an essay topic, that was set, and which terrified me because it contained Latin:

To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie
: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori[1].

[1] it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country

U2 Dancing in Istanbul

I am listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed;
I am listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed;
Just then birds fly by;
High up, in huge flocks, screaming.
Fishing nets are being drawn out of the water;
The water touches a woman's toes;
I am listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed;
I am listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed;
The cool covered bazaar;
The crowded Mahmutpasa market;
Pigeon filled courtyards.
I am listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed;
I am listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed.

Paul David Hewson, Bono, vocalist of the Dublin-based rock band U2 was captivated by the beauty of Istanbul. I have not been to Istanbul but its mystique is captured in the poetry that my father would recite to me as a child. I grew up listening to my father recite: 'I am listening to Istanbul' by Orhan Veli.
As part of its 360º tour U2 finally delivered a concert in Istanbul to an audience of 50,000 people. This was the first time that U2 had visited Turkey and indeed performed live for a Turkish audience. As is typical of U2 they managed to meet and greet the echelons of power and the political establishment who  not only is extremely conservative but were quite sluggish in their interactions with Bono. It was like leaving the Pope in a room full of homosexuals. How imprudent! But Bono managed to get a giggle out the Turkish Prime Minister when he handed him a present, a red iPod Nano, which he said would benefit the Global Fund to Fight Against AIDS. Later, PM - Erdoğan spoke at a rally held for a referendum campaign in İstanbul and he talked about his meeting with U2. Bono asked the Turkish Prime Minister why he was jailed: "When I said it was because of a poem, Bono burst into laughter," he said. The poem that the Prime Minister recited included the following verse: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”  Hardly an upbeat peaceful vision!

But Bono this is no laughing matter!- we have already had the British  "lyrical terrorist" case where Miss Malik, 24, was given a nine-month jail sentence suspended for 18 months at the Old Bailey in December 2009, under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 for posting a series of poems on websites across the internet about killing non-believers, pursuing martyrdom and raising children to be holy fighters. 

I am generally a warm and generous person but l sound so grumpy, its not because U2 a favourite band of mine met with the cleavages of political power but because the Turkish audience was so pathetic in its reception of U2 in particular when Bono raised the issue of Fehmi Tosun, a victim of the politically motivated disappearances in Turkey. And Zulfu Livaneli who inspired a generation of left wing political activism appeared on stage with Bono looking like a political neophyte:  out of place and awkward. And he was criticised by Fehmi's wife, Hanim Tosun for being disrespectful towards her husband and other disappeared victims. Neither the audience nor Livaneli was overwhelmed by the emotions of Bono who was trying to get them to chant Fehmi Tosun's name. One wonders why people should be concerned and care about each other, other's suffering. Is it as Rousseau saw it: "They don't know how to love themselves; they only know how to hate what is not themselves."

Mothers Of The Disappeared lyrics
Midnight, our sons and daughters
Were cut down and taken from us
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

In the wind we hear their laughter
In the rain we see their tears
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

Night hangs like a prisoner
Stretched over black and blue
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

In the trees our sons stand naked
Through the walls our daughters cry
See their tears in the rainfall

Please Comment

Sunday, September 12, 2010

If, as … and Stranger in the Corridor.

If, as … and Stranger in the Corridor.

Yesterday, I went and saw two short plays by Mammad Aidani. Directed and Designed by Lloyd Jones, at  La Mama Theatre, Melbourne. 

These two short plays currently on at La Mama  (until 19 September) are written by Mammad Aidani, Iranian born playwright and academic. While critics like, Geoffrey Williams, have lucidly reviewed these plays l believe that there is a strong assumption that it is about the 'the refugee experience.' For me these two plays are about the displacement of the subject, of difference and sameness. We are forced to recognise something that is unrecognisable - the precarious self.  It is about how violence, (self inflicted or otherwise) , trauma, oppression, and war undermine our subjectivity and make it impossible for us to move towards recognition of the Other. It is this misrecognition that structures our fears in our encounters with the other and with our own unconsciouse.

The director, Llyod Jones' V-shaped corridor powerfully brings the intensity of the emotions evoked in the performance. The enclosed corridor does not bring us any closer to recognition of the other or even a closeness with the other.  This is the paradox: close proximity does not bring recognition or any real closeness or familiarity with the other. It is not the subjectivity of the other that brings recognition but rather recognition of our own motives, fears and an authentic encounter with our unconscious - this is how affective recognition and compassion of the other can be approached.

There are many ways of interpreting and seeing this play. This is the power of theatre and Aidani's text is powerful and complex to tease our intellect and imagination.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Armenian Genocide - Fact or Fiction?

As usual there is always a number of events that attract my attention at the Melbourne Writers' Festival.
This year I was particularly drawn to the sessions hosting writer Fethiye Cetin, whom l had not heard of until l read an article about her book, My Grandmother,  in The Australian newspaper. After reading the article l decided to go to my local bookshop, Readings, to purchase the book. They only had one copy and l was delighted that it was mine. I went home with the book clenched in my hand and immediately threw myself on the sofa. My husband made me a delicious cup of coffee and l was in the shoes of the storyteller. I read the book in almost 3 hours and left it on the coffee table. My husband demanded to know if the book was 'any good.' I was speechless. I could not comment on the literary merits of the book as its not that type of book but rather its an autobiography. A story about a secret that lingers in the lives of a family. The secret held tightly by the grandmother, an Armenian child taken away  ferociously from the arms of her mother by a Turkish gendarme, while on their way to the death camps. The book is an antidote for  the forgotten standpoint of the victims.

Rather than talk to my husband about the story l rang my mother and explained to her what l had just read. She listened intently and a sadness fell upon us- a sadness that was mixed with the horrendous experience of the grandmother and her suffering. We reflected on the stories my father told us, before he died,  about the Armenians who were forcefully displaced and taken away from their Anatolian villages. And recently my mother brought back photos from her own village, photos of Armenian grave stones. What more evidence, than a grave stone,  does one need to show that the Armenians were tightly knitted into the rich and ancient  Anatolian cultural landscape. The pain of the story of the grandmother was haunting me and l was fortunate that l had an escape, l was flying out of Melbourne to New Zealand for a 4 day conference.

But this was to no avail. There l was in cold and miserable Wellington talking continuously about Fethiye's book to nerdy scientists and other academics. And texting my friends back in Melbourne to make sure that they went to listen to Fethiye speak.

After arriving back in Melbourne l went with my mother to the first conversation with Fethiye in the Turkish language. It was facilitated by aTurkish man who was basically hopeless - moving the conversation into the current political landscape in Turkey rather than dealing with the human tragedy captured by Fethiye in her book. The only interesting thing the facilitator said at the session was that he acknowledged the indigenous people on whose land we had gathered. While this is now very à la mode in the broader Australian community, its resonance is quite new in other ethnic Australian communities. I was bored and tired, considering l had only 7 hours sleep after my flight back from New Zealand. The other issue that really incensed and made me livid was that the facilitator was dominating the questions which revolved around the court case on the murder of Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist shot dead by a Turkish nationalist. I managed to squeeze in a question: 1) why is the Armenian story amongst Turkish people such a psychological taboo. I explained to Fethiye that in the West we are educated very strongly around the Holocaust and the writings of Primo Levi and it is in this context that her book will be read in the English speaking Western world.

 The session was only for an hour and we were quickly moved out of the room as another session was to take place. I managed to have my book signed and my mother was given a personal copy by Fethiye. My mother and l walked down Bourke street and we had a coffee at the Gallery cafe. We chatted about how pathetic the session was and l psychologised about Turks - that is how inadequate they are to deal with suffering and real people preferring to choose  abstract and tortuous, long- winded analysis.  My mother pointed out that there was actually about 3 people who were Turkish and the remainder were Armenians. There was about 15 people in the session. This is a symptom of the pathology of oppression that Turkish people suffer - they are not open to the suffering of others.

On the second day l went with a friend. The panel was made up of: journalist- Jonathan Watts, Writer-Raimond Gaita, and Fethiye Cetin (with an interpreter). The panel was chaired by the ever provocative intellectual  Julian Burnside. Julian asked why we in the West know about the holocaust but not about the Armenian genocide. Raimond Gaita talked about the moral minefield of Gaza and Israel: questioning whether Israel is a moral free zone.  Jonathan Watts was asked questions about journalistic representations of human misery. He recounted an experience where he was was in a war torn country had  only 10 minutes to interview someone and take a photo shot of 'human misery.' He called out to the villagers: Is there anyone who speaks English and has been raped? Julian asked if we should have such representations or no representations at all? Should the world know through a weak story or not know at all?
Fethiye was eloquent and spoke about her own dilemmas of writing her grandmother's story. She explained that she is not a writer but a lawyer and that its not an easy transition from one to the other. Representation can come only by respecting the dignity of the individual through compassion. We recognise others only when we see something familiar in them.

Overall, I came home half satisfied for what l had paid for. Fethiye is an elegant speaker in Turkish and neither the facilitator nor her interpreter were able to bring her story to life. But the  truth of the past can only be told and  imagined by others through stories. We need more stories.