First Meetings

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By Gonca Sönmez-Poole

Turkish-Armenian relations have “complicated” written all over them. For starters, I must say that I am careful about choosing which nationality to begin with when I use Armenian and Turkish in the same breath. Should I say Armenian-Turkish, Turkish-Armenian, Armeno-Turkish?

I remember dealing with this conundrum six years ago while assisting with a particular rapprochement among the two communities led by a third party. I recall that some participants were uneasy about the sequencing of nationalities.

But fast-forward a few years: when I picked the acronym TAWA (Turkish-Armenian Women’s Alliance) several months ago for the women’s group I started, there wasn’t a peep from anyone. Maybe because I told them it was a play on the word tava (Turkish for “pan”), and because we have more than a few foodies in the group, TAWA was easy to swallow. Or maybe, just maybe these relations I’m referring to have been changing for the better, thanks to a new wave of thinkers and doers, leading the way for a starkly different and more positive future.

That said, a solid future can be built only on the shared trust of those who strive for it. And trust is not easy to come by in the sphere of Armenian-Turkish relations. Having dealt with the issue of trust in my earlier efforts within the Armenian and Turkish communities, I decided to inquire about the TAWA women’s first encounter with an Armenian or a Turkish person.

Here is a sample of their answers:

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Ayşe Kaya Fırat said, “There was this micro-economy class that I was taking, and during the first class I had this lady sitting next to me … and we had this real nice connection from the beginning, and when in the first class our professor told us that he wanted a group project, she was the only person that I knew in the class, and I thought of her right away…when we came to the second class in the same week, we started talking more about ourselves, obviously, and I remember the time she learned about me and my nationality, that was the last time she spoke to me in class; she said ‘I’m American-Armenian,’ and I said ‘I’m Turkish,’ and I thought it would go beyond that and we would ask other questions, but her facial expression was so different than I ever imagined — I had a hard time to understand what was going on…I asked a few questions, she didn’t respond; she just sat and then left the classroom afterwards…[it was a] striking experience.”

Tsoleen Sarian said, “I went to Merrimack College and I played volleyball; one of the basketball players was a Turkish boy from Turkey…so I hadn’t really talked to him, so I emailed him, and I was like ‘Oh hi, I’m Armenian,’ and he just had this awful response… basically it was like ‘This Turkish-Armenian question is all propaganda,’ and I was like… ‘Okay…just saying hi, but okay’…It was sad…and you know it was such an Irish Catholic school, so to have someone that’s not Irish and not Catholic and, you know, a little exotic — it wasn’t like I had gone to a very diverse school, so I wanted to have this conversation, and he just wasn’t interested.”

Zeren Earls said, “This began at a cocktail party. The conference — I don’t know what it was about, but it had nothing to do with Turks and Armenians. I was just wearing a nametag. A young woman came, saw my tag, and said, ‘What kind of a name is that?’

and I said ‘Turkish,’ so that opened the floodgates and I said, ‘Hold it, why are you attacking me for something that happened so many years ago? I wasn’t even around.’ He said, ‘Look at the Jews: they make sure that the Holocaust is never forgotten’… so I have these stories, you know; I don’t sit and dwell on them, but that’s what has made me cautious.”

Laura Bilazarian-Purutyan, who grew up in central Massachusetts, said she had never met a Turkish person until her college roommate from Switzerland mentioned a girl she knew named Dilek, a common Turkish name. Laura went on to say, “This Swiss girl, who knew that if [Dilek is] Turkish and I’m Armenian maybe we’re gonna have an issue here she told me, ‘Dilek is really worried that you’ll hate her.’ I probably regret not having confronted or engaged [Dilek] — I should say on some meaningful level — ’cause the interesting thing was that it was up to me. It was up to me to do it, and I didn’t do it and it didn’t get done.”

Picking up on that last point of “getting it done,” I think that we, as the women of TAWA, have actually started to get it done. The question is, what is “it”? If it means engaging with each other, we certainly have started that. If it means finding a definable shared purpose and working on a collaborative project, we’re not quite there yet. And if it means agreeing on certain basic facts about our shared history, that’s a bit trickier.

It needs to be handled gingerly, with both eyes open and away from the shenanigans of doom-saying, hate-mongering and knee-jerking of all sorts and sizes. If we can avoid falling victim to such trappings, I believe we can find ways to make small yet substantial inroads into what those naysayers keep calling an “intractable” conflict.

(A graduate of the Fletcher school’s mid-career MA program, Gonca Sönmez-

Poole is TV producer, filmmaker and writer. She has spent two decades working

for WCVB-TV’s “Chronicle” program, followed by 13 years managing her own

non-profit organization, Mediation Way, Inc. For the past seven years, she has

dedicated her free time to Armenian-Turkish dialogue work around Boston.)