TORONTO — On January 19, the Toronto Armenian community gathered together to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink. More than 500 people filled the Armenian General Benevolent Union Centre to capacity, with standing room only. The keynote speaker was renowned and influential Turkish journalist author Hasan Çemal, who also happens to be the grandson of Çemal Pasha, one of the three leaders of the Union Progress Party (Ittihat Terakki), which planned and perpetrated the Armenian Genocide in 1915.
Mgrditch Mgrditchian was the master of ceremonies of the event. After a beautiful rendition of Sari Aghchig and Cilicia songs by young soprano Lynn Anoush Isnar, one of Hrant Dink’s friends, Raffi Bedrosyan, introduced Hasan Çemal. Bedrosyan explained that Hasan Çemal worked for many years as the Editor-in-Chief of Cumhuriyet daily until 1992, the official mouthpiece of the Kemalist state and the defender of the denialist official version of history related to the 1915 events. Hasan Çemal then moved on to Sabah as editor until 1998, the largest circulation newspaper at that time, and then to Milliyet until March 2013, when he had to resign under pressure from Prime Minister Erdogan for criticizing the state. At present, he writes for the independent web portal t24.com, with still the highest readership for his articles.
In recent years, Çemal got influenced by the writings of journalist Hrant Dink and historian Taner Akçam, and started questioning the veracity of the state version of history. As a result, he went through a gradual intellectual transformation, until he reached the conclusion that those events were indeed a genocide. In 2008, the year after Dink was assassinated, he went to Armenia and visited the Genocide Memorial, placing flowers there. In 2012, he wrote a book titled 1915: Armenian Genocide in Turkish, which remained at the top of the bestseller list for months, explaining his personal evolution, as well as openly acknowledging and apologizing for the Genocide.
In his moving speech, Çemal stressed the need to separate personal family history from general history. He gave examples as to how he had to distinguish between his grandfather’s actions versus his stand against the Genocide, and his dramatic meeting in Yerevan with the grandson of one of the planners of Çemal Pasha’s assassination in Tbilisi in 1922.
Çemal also explained the long journey he had to go through from having a “captive” mind, based on the state version of history, to an “emancipated” or “liberated” mind, after seeking and finding the facts and truth about the 1915 events. He stated that a small but growing segment of the Turkish civil society has already started to acknowledge the truth about the Genocide and urged the Turkish state also to face its past and acknowledge and apologize for the 1915 events. After his speech, there was a short discussion session among Çemal and two Zoryan Institute representatives, President Kurken Sarkissian and Executive Director George Shirinian, moderated by Bedrosyan, about the significance of building a “common body of knowledge” regarding the historic facts of 1915, in order to be able to have meaningful and constructive dialogue toward reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.