Reconciliation Through The Arts: Armenia and Turkey


By Barney Yates

LOS ANGELES (News Blaze) — The following is a conversation between Barney Yates, an American journalist, and Nora Armani, an international actor, playwright and festival producer, about prospects for healing old wounds between Armenia and Turkey through the “soft diplomacy” of cultural exchange.

Q: There are ongoing negotiations toward protocols for opening the borders between Turkey and Armenia for the first time in a long time. Why has this peaceful development been so difficult to achieve?

A: Well, there are many unresolved issues between Armenians and Turks, the most important of which is the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Opening borders is a wonderful thing, as it is important for all nations under the sun to live peacefully with their neighbors and have normal exchanges on the economic, social and human levels. However, opening up the borders under the conditions Turkey is pushing for would not create the sort of peaceful atmosphere that is so desirable between neighboring countries. It would result in resentment and further mistrust.

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By pressuring Armenia to accept the protocols with conditions attached, and by sliding over the important issue of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, Turkey is not engaging in a peaceful act but an act of denial. It is much like denying the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.

Let’s ask ourselves why these centuries-old neighbors have not been on “talking terms.” If the issue that caused the conflict is not resolved at its root, and amends are not made by Turkey as the perpetrator to its victims of the Genocide and their offspring, you can open as many borders as you want, but that will not create peaceful coexistence.

This is why the Armenian majority in the diaspora (yes, there are more Armenians in the diaspora than in Armenia today) is totally opposed to the protocols. They are not opposed to dialog with Turkey as such, but they are opposed to the way Turkey is approaching the round table of talks. This is not an egalitarian relationship and the gain is totally for Turkey here as Armenia presents a market for Turkish goods, excellent craftsmen/women for Turkish factories, a source of skilled artisans (as it has been in the past, throughout centuries) and more.

There may be individual gains for some Armenians engaged in this commerce, but as a nation the protocols do not do anything but harm to the Armenian nation and the offspring of the survivors of the Genocide as well as to the memory of its victims.

Armenians cannot be blamed for being suspicious about Turkey’s dealings coming from their experience of centuries of duplicity and intrigue in the way Turkey has treated Armenians.

Q: Do you think that the barriers to Turkish acceptance of the Armenian Genocide are more based on ethnic prejudice, or are they more based on financial concerns like reparations, payment of old insurance claims etc?

A: I sincerely believe that the issue here is much more based on economic concerns and the “can of worms” Turkey is afraid to open by accepting responsibility for the deeds of its ancestral government for the harm done to Armenians.

It is true that Armenians and Turks are racially different, but through habits, traditions and even cuisine, their daily lives have much in common. I am not talking about Armenians living in Switzerland compared to Anatolian Turks, but about Armenians living across the border from Turkey and Turks living on ancestral Armenian lands that are currently occupied by Turks. These peoples are more similar than they think. Like Arabs and Jews in Israel and Palestine, Armenians and Turks have shared the same part of the world, the same mountains, they have trod the same earth and have drunk from the same water for centuries. The conflict here is not on the personal human level I think, but on the larger political level.

Q: I know the memory of the 1915 massacre is most alive in Armenia. Is there a corresponding memory in Turkey, Is there a myth?

A: Modern Turkey is the creation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Ataturk was one of the Young Turks at the end of the First World War, when Ottoman Turkey was defeated and breaking up into its respective countries, much like it happened later in the century with the Soviet Union. Ataturk came to power and revolutionized Turkey by trying to modernize it and even went to the extent of changing the Turkish alphabet (Ottoman Turkish used Arabic script) to the Latin alphabet. This is really a huge change. His maxim was (and still is in Turkey today), “How lucky is the one who says I am Turkish.”

It is this nationalistic and elitist attitude that gave the defeated Turks a new identity to forge ahead with. Of course accepting the responsibility of the Armenian Genocide and the ethnic cleansing done to the Armenians (who were Ottoman citizens) would have marred this idealistic take on Turkish identity.

In the more recent years, as a form of self-defense, against the increasing acceptance and recognition of the Armenian Genocide by many governments of the world, Turkey began to react by spreading the rumor that Turks too were killed during the 1914-1918 war and that it was the Armenians who massacred the Turks and not the other way round. But how could this happen when it was a known fact that Armenians living under Ottoman rule were not allowed to bear arms, and at the onset of WW I, they were stripped of all ammunition and weapons and were left completely helpless and easy to prey on?

Q: Is the animosity between Turks and Armenians ancient or modern?

A: The animosity itself goes very far back with constant marauding crowds and raids on Armenian villages and farmers by Turkish and Kurdish tribes. However, it was not on the organized Government level until later in the 19th century going back to Sultan Hamid II, the Red Sultan, who in the late 1880s and ’90s, started sanctioning the freedoms that Armenians had as citizens of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians up to that point were highly respected members of the community and had contributed in many positive ways to the development of Turkey. In fact, it is mentioned even in Turkish encyclopedias, that Armenians lay the foundations of Modern Turkish theatre, that Armenian actresses were the first to start an acting tradition for women (as Muslim women were not allowed on stage), in other areas, the famous Balian family of architects built many of the beautiful mosques and palaces of the Ottoman Sultans. Another name that comes to mind is Sinan, whose Armenian identity is documented extensively, in the music department we have Dikran Tchouhadjian whose operettas were huge hits and are in the cultural tradition of Turkey even to this day. The most important interpreters and high officials in the Porte were Armenians for long centuries.

The beginning of the 20th century, and the deterioration of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of its power in the world through ethnic resurgences (Balkans, Egypt, etc.) and the separation of its many Vilayets (the Governorates), coincided with its changing politics towards the Armenians who were also at that time concerned about gaining independence as a nation and liberating the occupied Armenian lands in Eastern Turkey.

My paternal great-grandmother, feeling unsafe for her four daughters and herself following the death of my great-grandfather (from an infection to his tailbone as a result of traveling on horseback for days on end from Egypt to Kaisri — Ceasaria — in central Turkey) sold everything and following her husband’s footsteps moved to Egypt. She was spared the 1915 Genocide. However, my maternal grandmother, who was the daughter of a priest in Kaiseri, was deported together with her three sisters and mother, after my great-grandfather was hanged.

Up until the point when Sultan Abdul Hamid II (the Red Sultan) started sanctioning their freedoms, Armenians were highly respected Ottoman subjects. They were the best craftsmen, architects, intellectuals, merchants, politicians and interpreters for the Sultans and the Sublime Porte (The Ottoman Empire).

The inherent conflict was always present, resulting from jealousies, economic and social inequalities, marauding Turkish and Kurdish tribes in the Eastern Provinces where the life of the local Armenian population had become more and more unbearable over the centuries.

Conflicting theories of sociology postulate that any society has an inherent degree of conflict even in the most peaceful of times. In fact, such conflict is even a healthy ingredient for the well being and functionality of any society.

In my master’s thesis, using the conflict model of social theory that postulates that conflict is an inherent and even a necessary ingredient to any healthy social structure, I argue that there are certain conditions under which otherwise harmless conflict levels can escalate to potentially violent levels giving way to Genocide, civil war and other extreme forms of expression of conflict. Some of these conditions are economic inequality, some are political instability, and in the case of Ottoman Turkey and the Armenian Genocide, there is a certain degree of both.

In my thesis I draw the parallels between the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust in the light of the conflict theories. In both cases the minority that was victimized was one of high visibility, success, a certain economic stability, even in the villages as in the case of the Armenians. This type of situation triggers jealousy, envy and frustration, which when released turns into anger and aggression. Add to that the wonderful opportunity of the backdrop of a war, and you have the perfect ingredients for conflict to escalate and turn into Genocidal violence, specially that in these situations it is often “legitimized” through orders by the powers that be. Suffice it for the threatened ruling elite to “give the order” legitimizing the act, that you have the spark needed to start a major Genocide. The examples are abundant in the ethnic cleansing that characterized Eastern Europe in more recent decades. The parallels here can be stretched further to cover the situation in Rwanda as well, where one group is victimized by the other and such victimization was somehow legitimized through orders coming from “above.”

We have to remember that the Ottoman Empire was already deteriorating during the Hamidian Massacres, during the 1906 Adana Massacres and during the 1915-18 Genocide, and the only way the Turks could see a redemption for themselves and a preservation of their power, was the substitution of their multi-ethnic and culturally diverse Empire with one based on relative ethnic and cultural unity, therefore their Pan-Turanistic Ideals of a Turkic Empire Extending from the Bosphorus all the way to the Central Asian Turkic Republics was nourished.

Of course, there were many obstacles to such a plan, one such “minor” obstacle being the Armenians who were in the middle of it, and who in turn had begin to entertain ideas of independence.

Armenian ideals of independence did not exit during the Hamidian era. They were a much more recent culminating of reactions to the unbearable conditions of the Armenian peasants in the Eastern Turkish provinces and an inevitable necessity to securing better living conditions. But Turkey had a war to fight, a deteriorating Empire to patch up, and a new Pan-Turanistic dream to chase. In all respects Armenians were in the way.

And since fear breeds aggression as is widely postulated in the body of sociopsychological theories, the fear of defeat and loss caused the escalation of the inherent levels of conflict attaining the levels of violence characteristic of any Genocide.

Q: How can cultural exchange between Turkey and Armenia be facilitated?

A: Over the last few years, more than ever before, it has become common to see Armenian films, film makers and prizes at Turkish film festivals, and vice versa. The same is also happening in the fields of music and theatre. This is a natural process because, as I explained above, there is more in common between these peoples than not.

One of the most well known figures of Turkish Operettas is Dikran Tchouhadjian Armenian composer (c. 1860) whose first opera, “Arsace II,” had a world premiere 130 years after its composition, at the San Francisco Opera in 2001, to a great extent thanks to Gerald Papasian’s efforts. Tchouhadjian’s other operetta, “Leblebidji Hor Hor” (Hor Hor the chick pea vendor) was so successful that it has infiltrated the Turkish repertory and even today, you find older actors or artists who remember some of these tunes. Currently, Gerald is working on a French version of this operetta and collaboration with Turkish theatres around this project is not impossible.

I would love to take the theater piece I developed with Gerald Papasian, “Sojourn at Ararat,” or my one-woman show, “On the Couch with Nora Armani,” to Turkey in the near future. An Armenian colleague from France has already taken his one-man show to Diarbekir (predominantly Kurdish populated town in Turkey). Now this is possible even more than before.

I think the two countries should make an effort to facilitate this type of exchange before even thinking of the border issues or the protocols. It is only through mutual acquaintance that conflict issues may be resolved.

In another historical incident, Gerald Papasian’s maternal great-grandfather was Mihran Damadian, who was the “one-day president” of the French Mandated Armenia in Cilicia (Southern Turkey) right after the First World War. The French had promised Armenians a homeland (much like the British did for Israel) so in 1919, many Armenians picked up and went to Adana to establish the new home rule under the French mandate. Gerald’s grandmother was 17 at the time and accompanied her father. In her eyewitness account, she used to tell us how overnight the Turkish local merchants had learned Armenian sentences to cater for the newly returning Armenian population.

Q: When the soft diplomacy of cultural engagement is carried on in foreign capitals, does it have any effect on the home countries of Armenia and Turkey?

A: Of course. In today’s world, heavily governed by communications, it is inevitable that the effects of one rub off on the other. So the more there are efforts of rapprochement on the cultural and artistic levels, the more the effects of this are felt both in the two homelands and in the respective diasporas.

Q: Wallace Shawn writes “Artists who create works of art that inspire sympathy and good values do not change the life of the poor.” Will political art be polarizing, neutral or healing in this context?

A: I do not know much about radical and militant political art, because that is not what I do. Militancy usually preaches to the converted and is marginalized by the mainstream. I am not interested in preaching to converts. Otherwise, I would perform in Armenian for Armenians. I am quite well known in Armenia, having done may films and plays there as well as TV appearances. It is so easy for me to spread a message there, but who would I be telling these things to? To people who already know it and are in agreement with me. The trick is to reach uninitiated people and change the way they think.

I think what Wallace Shawn is saying, if I am not mistaken (and taken out of context this sentence can be interpreted in many ways), is that the change comes not from sympathy but from actual knowledge and wanting to do something about a situation. Although, I must confess that sympathy and good values are a beginning. Because if we are not sympathetic to a cause we are not even inclined to listen to it, let alone do anything about it.

Q: Your show “Sojourn At Ararat” seems to make great works of literature speak for themselves, but that raises another issue. Why would we expect Armenian literature to have credibility in Turkey or vise versa. Would you expect Turkish literature to have credibility in Armenia?

A: Yes, the credibility is very easy to establish once the two sides hear about their respective literatures because deep inside they are so similar! In another show called “Nannto Nannto” (the last line from a Japanese Haiku), I have used works from Nazim Hikmet, one of the (if not the) greatest Turkish poet of the 20th century, and juxtaposed it with Gevork Emin’s work. He is a poet from Soviet Armenia who died recently. The particular poems were called “Memleketim” (My country in the case of Hikmet) and “Yes Hay Em” (I am Armenian). In the case of Emin, and when you hear his descriptive passages, you would think either it is the continuation of a Hikmet poem, or at best that both poets were inspired and wrote about the same thing, place… their homeland! It was eerie!

Q: Don’t events of today sort of “call the question” of this play?

A: Of course, now more than ever it is time to hear this play out. The play is an answer to the negationists in Turkey and its allies (even here), those who would deny the very fact of the Armenian Genocide, just as there are those who would deny the World War II Holocaust against the Jews.

But the sad truth is that Armenians have not yet had their Nuremburg. Turkey owes Armenians an apology, in order for normal relations to be established and survive. Turkey needs to apologize for its own peace of mind and for the well being of the future generations. There are lots of young progressive Turks and slightly older progressive intellectuals in Turkey as I mentioned earlier who favor rapprochement on the human and intellectual level. These people are all severely persecuted in Turkey and even killed, as was the case with the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink a couple of years ago. He was gunned down in mid-day in front of his office. There is a whole generation in Turkey that is conscious of the burden of the Genocide and wants to get rid of it by coming out and accepting responsibility for it, by making amends and proceeding to a peaceful existence. It is the powers that be, and the dirty political considerations that are in the way of all this. Also, it is not easy to reverse decades of denial and suddenly say, “OK, OK we did it!” Although when you owe a person an apology, sometimes the simplest thing to do is just to say, “I am sorry.”

Just as “Schindler’s List” speaks eloquently against denial of the Jewish Holocaust, we hope that plays like ours can deflect denial of the Armenian Genocide now, at this crucial time, when normalization of relations between Turks and Armenians seems a real possibility. The more the world is educated, the more it is difficult to feed it lies and at some point or another the truth has to emerge.

(Nora Armani is an actor and playwright who has represented the Ministry of Culture of Armenia in Cinema (from 1991-93). She and Gerald Papasian are the authors and performers of “Sojourn to Ararat.”  In additional to previously-announced dates in New York, “Sojurn” will be performed in New York on January 21 at 8 p.m. at The Studio theater/Lehman Stages (, at Lehman College, City University New York, for students, faculty (and friends), 250 Bedford Park Blvd. West Bronx, NY and January 28, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, Department of Armenian Studies. For further information, email:

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