Tension, Emotion at Harvard Turkish-Armenian Forum

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By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Something unprecedented happened at Harvard University’s Tsai Auditorium on the night of Monday, November 16. A capacity audience of 200 that included, among others, members of the Armenian community, Turkish students and Henry Morgenthau, the grandson of US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire of the same name, heard Hasan Cemal, the grandson of Cemal Pasha, one of the three architects of the Armenian Genocide, acknowledge the Armenian Genocide.

The forum, titled “Armenian-Turkish Reconciliation: Routes through Empowerment,” was moderated by Pamela Steiner (great-granddaughter of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau), senior fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and Eileen Babbitt, professor of practice in international conflict management, at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University.

In addition to Cemal, the speakers included Asbed Kotchikian of Bentley University and Yektan Turkyilmaz of Duke University. The event was co-sponsored by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the University Committee on Human Rights Study and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Taner Akçam, professor of Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University, joined the panel for the question-and-answer period. Jennifer Leaning introduced the program.

Tension and emotion were palpable as the audience, in total silence, heard Cemal, whose grandfather ordered the killing of thousands of Armenians, detail his journey towards recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Detailing his family background, Cemal reviewed his family roots. His grandfather was born on the island of Lesbos and his grandmother came from Greek Macedonia. On his mother’s side, his grandfather was Circassian and his grandmother was from Georgia. His father was born in Salonika, and Cemal himself was born in Istanbul in 1944.

“Cemal Pasha was the story in our family,” said Cemal. “We heard about the First World War and how the Armenians cooperated with the enemy. They had to be deported. The same story was circulated not only in the family, but in the schools.”

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Hasan Cemal studied political science at Ankara University but stated he ‘“learned nothing about 1915, nothing about the Kurds or the Alewites or the Armenians. We learned nothing about these terrible pages of history.”

When Hasan Cemal became a journalist, he was warned not to travel to Lebanon without a bodyguard, and for the past six years, and especially since the assassination of his friend Hrant Dink, the founding editor and publisher of Agos, a Turkish-Armenian newspaper, he has worn protective gear.

It was Taner Akçam’s book, published in 1991, which helped to stimulate Hasan Cemal’s curiosity about what happened in 1915. “For the first time, Akçam called it a genocide….This was the beginning of the end of living in lies and living in truth. Akçam opened our hearts to a tragic past. A new process started in 2000. Turkey began to want harmony with the European Union,” he said.

Both Akçam and Cemal have been called traitors.

In 1996, when Dink began to publish Agos, it became another step in Hasan Cemal’s education about the Genocide.

The first conference on the issue of the Genocide was scheduled to take place in Istanbul in 2005, but the high court banned it. Since then, said Cemal, conferences have been held in Turkey, the most recent on the massacre in Adana, just this month.

After Dink’s funeral, Cemal reminded his audience, “One hundred thousand Turks marched in Istanbul, shouting “‘We are all Armenians.’”

Further, said Cemal, 30,000 Turks, signed a petition of apology for what happened in 1915.

“I changed altogether my view of what happened in 1915. I even met with the grandson of the man who assassinated my grandfather in 1922. I invited him to Istanbul. He had been an Armenian nationalist, but he began to understand the other side of the story.“

Cemal traveled to Armenia in 2006 and visited the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. Later, “deeply affected by Hrant Dink’s death, Cemal wrote a column for the Turkish paper, Milliyet, titled, “First Let Us Respect Each Other’s Pain.”

Said Cemal, “It is impossible to escape history, how pointless it is to deny history, and how pointless it is to be the victim of one’s own suffering.”

In conclusion, Hasan Cemal said, “Let us understand each other’s pain. Good things will come of this. The road to recognition is through democracy.”

The next speaker, Turkyilmaz, who is of Kurdish descent, said, “It is no easy task to challenge the perceived version of history. For example, for Armenians it is taboo to admit the murders they committed in the 1970s. What we need to do is place our memories of the past side by side, and we should not ignore the sufferings of Turkish Muslims.”

Concerning the recent protocols signed by Armenia and Turkey regarding the opening of the borders, Turkyilmaz said he supported the creation of an historic commission to study the archives but that it should be independent of government control and not “repeat the old dog fight.”

Next, Kotchikian noted that there are two issues that are separate from one another: normalization and reconciliation. “Normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia is an issue for the states. Reconciliation cannot occur between states. There is a difference between Turkey-Armenia, and Turks and Armenians. Reconciliation has to include all aspects of both nations and the Armenian Diaspora.” And Kotchikian noted that there are many diasporas, yet all are united around the issue of the denial of the Genocide.

He also responded to the question of whether Armenians in Armenia care about the Genocide. “There are no posters, no slogans, but 50 to 60 percent of the population in Armenia are descendants of the victims of the Genocide. Armenia’s Armenians may not talk a lot about it, but they commemorate it.”

“Finally,” said Kotchikian, “we need to recognize that Turkey is not the same as it was 100 years ago. There is a small, civil society, a sort of fifth branch of the government. It is time for Armenians to realize that changes have taken place in Turkey and time to re-evaluate the world of the last two decades. We should not allow genocide victimhood to pervade everything.”

The question-and-answer period unleashed some raw emotions on the parts of both Turks and Armenians in the audience. One elderly Armenian man, who spoke in Turkish, thanked Hasan Cemal for his comments and later shook his hand. One Turkish man questioned why the term “genocide” had to be used at all, and seemed not to recognize that the word, coined by Raphael Lemkin, was invented to apply specifically to the Armenian Genocide. Poignantly, a young Turkish student, now at Northeastern University, asked, “Well what am I supposed to do? What do you want from me? Cemal’s remarks seemed a fitting conclusion to the evening. “We must empathize and share,” he said. “We should open our hearts before we open the borders.”

Certainly, this forum was significant for the presence of Hasan Cemal, an imposing man in his mid 60s, a Turk, who acknowledged the Genocide to a partly Armenian audience.

A second forum, featuring mostly the same speakers, took place Tuesday, November 17, at the Armenian Cultural and Educational Association (ACEC) in Watertown, sponsored by the Friends of Hrant Dink. Coverage of that event will appear in next week’s issue.