The reading advertised in the window at Gabo Kitchen (photo Lynn Derderian)

Balakian’s Diyarbakir Visit Seems Like a Dream Now

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WATERTOWN — Peter Balakian, Pulitzer Prize winning author of eight books of poetry and four of prose, continues to explore the Armenian past and future. In May 2015 he went to Diyarbakir, Turkey, the Dikranagerd of the Armenians, to give a reading from his works. This was the city where his grandmother was born, and where her family was massacred in August 1915. This was an unusual visit; it fell in a small window of time where it was possible for an Armenian to speak in a public event there. The two sponsors of the event today remain either in prison (Osman Kavala) or exile (Kawa Nemir).

Balakian looked back at the significance of this event and his visit in an article published last fall, 2023, in AGNI magazine (no. 98), simply titled “A Poetry Reading in Diyarbakir.” Several paragraphs from the article are excerpted below, followed by some further thoughts by Balakian in response to questions from the Mirror-Spectator.

“I was too caught up in the euphoria of the moment to imagine that the two men who hosted my poetry reading in Diyarbakir would be in exile or prison two years later, and that the entire old quarter of the city would be destroyed only months after our departure. May 2015 was a spirited time to be in Diyarbakir, the Kurdish center of Turkey in the southeast. It was a moment of hope for democracy in Turkey and for Kurdish rights after decades of violence and suppression. My visit to Diyarbakir to give a reading with the Kurdish poet Kawa Nemir in the centennial year of the Armenian Genocide meant that I would read and discuss the story of my family’s mass murder and expulsion from their historic homeland. A few years earlier such an idea would have been absurd, especially given the laws and taboos in Turkey. And the 2007 assassination of Armenian human rights activist and journalist Hrant Dink midday in downtown Istanbul still hovered. But that spring, traveling with my family on a pilgrimage to historic Armenia in eastern Turkey, I felt hopeful about the new winds of democracy.

“There was a cultural revolution happening here — in a country where in the first years of the twenty-first century it was still illegal to use the word Kurdish in public; where Kurdish dress, schools, and radio had been outlawed. There were fifteen million Kurds, a quarter of the population of Turkey, the largest ethnic minority in the country and the largest stateless ethnic group in the world, and they were forced by law to call themselves “mountain Turks.” As a result of decades of Kurdish civil rights struggle, some liberalizing forces in Turkey, and pressure from Europe in the wake of Turkey’s then-hoped-for admission to the EU, President Recep Erdogan and his government assented to legalizing the Kurdish language, radio, and traditional dress. But amid this new energy in the streets — the Turkish state was ubiquitous. Army jeeps, soldiers with automatic rifles, police on street corners. And the green metal fence of the military base just a few yards from our hotel driveway seemed to stretch for miles. In this tinderbox, the Kurds that we met greeted us with a mix of delight and desperation, as if to say, Glad to see you — and don’t leave us here alone.

….

“In the hotel lobby, the poet Kawa Nemir sat waiting for me. A hip-looking guy around forty with a dark beard and thick black hair, he had mentioned the day before that he’d translated a couple of dozen British and American poets into Kurdish. I thought he meant a couple of dozen poems. But from his satchel he pulled a stack of bilingual editions of his Kurdish translations of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Stephen Crane, Sara Teasdale, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and more. I felt buoyed up by Nemir’s books, his knowledge, his immersion in poetry. Finding a fellow poet 8,000 miles from home reminded me that the fellowship of literature is universal. Nemir put the books in my hands. ‘Please, they’re for you.’

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“Ten feet from the window of the popular Gabo Kitchen, the only vegan café in the city, I was jolted by a large poster announcing the reading with my face and Nemir’s. Was this the city where my grandmother’s family was massacred a hundred years ago? Were these the streets of blood and screams and death? We walked into the café, with its espresso bar and glass cases of pastry and sandwiches, and it could have been Greenwich Village. Reality and dream floating into each other. I felt out of place and time. The café was packed with young and old in jeans and T-shirts, scarves and bandanas, drinking espresso and beer, eating sandwiches. Journalists with tape recorders stood along one wall. Osman Kavala, tall and thin with a bushy beard and a head of curly hair, was leaning quietly against the bar, as if to be as invisible as possible. A protector of peace, a lover of community, he was there to make sure everything would go smoothly.

“In the photos I’m looking at to reconstruct the evening, I see Nemir in a tan polo shirt and khaki chinos, his hair glistening in the overhead light. I’m in a black silk short-sleeve and black jeans, leaning over the reading table with a mike. On the wall behind us is a huge photograph of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a chair, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Nemir and I decided I would read half a dozen poems — he would translate every two stanzas — and he would close with a few of his own.”

In Discussion Later with the Mirror-Spectator

When asked whether there was any opportunism he sensed in the welcome of the Kurds — who no longer fear Armenians returning  to reclaim their lost properties and who may benefit politically from Armenian support — Balakian answered by recalling the welcome he got from them: “I found the Kurdish warmth and welcome to be as sincere as you could imagine given that we were tourists and they were our hosts in that context. Their responses to us were pleasantly shocking given the cold shoulder we got in Kars or Elazig or other places in the east. You could feel a vulnerability, too, in their warmth.”

On the other hand, he noted that no one spoke directly about their own ancestors’ role in the killing of the Armenians. Balakian said, “In fact, anyone of them could have had grandparents who killed my grandmother’s and grandfather’s family.” Despite this, he continued, “They were certainly sympathetic to us for what happened in the Armenian Genocide.

In his AGNI essay Balakian described his mother’s complex evasiveness when she was asked some questions by Kurdish journalists after the reading. He speculated that her very silence was itself a message. She carried, in Balakian’s words, “a silence transmitted to her by deeply traumatized parents.” Queried now as to whether she had said anything further about her feelings and the trip after her return to the US, Balakian replied that she did not have anything to say.

Balakian ruminated on the role of poetry and art concerning historical crimes and their victims, when material factors appear to be predominant. He said, “Poetry and other art forms have a great capacity to focus history — to bring a sharp lens or angle of vision, to probe the event. And this involves a fresh representation of the event as it plays out in the artist’s mind years after the factual event. Artists bring images, narrative, complexity of human encounter, emotion, vision, insight in ways that are different from, say, scholarship or journalism – both of which are vitally important, of course.”

In other words, he continued, “Works of art can serve (this is not a requirement_ as embodiments for change, consciousness raising, and bridges to social justice. Works of art create community across borders and distances. ‘We live on images,’ as the psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton writes, and so art has a long life. We still read Sophocles and Homer and Shakespeare.”  Armenians, he said, “around the world are united, in part, by works they identify with — the paintings of [Arshile] Gorky, [Martiros] Saryan, [Hovhannes/Ivan] Aivazovsky, the music of Gomidas [Vartabed] or the Armenian Navy Band, and poets like [Yeghishe] Charents, [Vahan] Tekeyan. You can fill in the blanks.”

In the current situation, with more recent tragedies such as the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh and the seemingly precarious status of the Republic of Armenia itself urgently clamoring for attention and remedy, some readers might wonder whether Armenians and others should still devote time and energy to recalling the events in Western Armenia of over a century ago.

Balakian observed: “Armenia’s struggles are all connected in one longer complex history. No one can understand Armenia’s present dilemmas and serious problems without understanding the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath. Everything emanates from that epic event of the early 20th century. In the wake of that catastrophe, anyone who studies history should see that Armenians are a tenacious, high achieving, Christian culture, wedged in a difficult part of the world, where their efforts to create an independent state on as much of their historic homeland as possible, has been smashed and thwarted by their more powerful conquerors and neighbors — the Ottoman Turkish Empire, later the Turkish Republic, and Azerbaijan, the Turkic nation to the east. Armenia also has been dependent on the whims, self-interest, and sometimes support of powerful nations. Armenia needs support and protection from reliable powerful nations that appreciate Armenia’s contributions to civilization over the millennia, and appreciate Armenia’s example as a nation that has survived Genocide — a nation of resilience and creativity in the face of great odds.”

The Mirror-Spectator asked Balakian if he still believes in the significance of individual Armenian ties to their ancestral cities or villages in Western Armenia for future generations. He said, “As long as our community is well educated about Armenian history and culture, as long as we as a culture and community transmit the history and culture of Armenia and its long and significant past to future generations, Armenians will feel connected to their homeland in Western Armenia. And, that of course means maintaining a solid knowledge of the Armenian Genocide — the event that expelled Armenians from Anatolia/Western Armenia, what is today Turkey. There is no substitute

for education and a serious knowledge of history.”

As to what reactions or feedback Balakian has received from Kurdish and Turkish readers, as well as others, Balakian declared, “I’ve had a lot of responses from Armenian and American readers, but I think my essay needs to get around more before I get responses from the others.”

Copies of Balakian’s original article may be obtained for $13.95 from AGNI Magazine, Boston University, 236 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215 or online at https://agnionline.bu.edu/order/issues/?product=agni98.

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