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.


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