CELEBRATING HRANT DINK; AN AFTERNOON WITH HASAN CEMAL -
By Dr. Nadia Injeyan-Tatikian
On Sunday, January 19, members of Toronto’s Armenian Community gathered at the AGBU Centre to commemorate the life of Hrant Dink on the seventh anniversary of his assassination. This year’s program seemed especially compelling and yet I was feeling somewhat apprehensive. The source of my mixed feelings was the identity of the keynote speaker, Hasan Cemal. Many Turkish academics have acknowledged and written books on the Armenian Genocide. What makes this speaker’s message particularly compelling is that he is the grandson of the notorious Cemal Pasha, one of the chief architects of the Armenian Genocide. As a descendant of a powerful ruling family, he is influential among the Kemalist elite. His career in journalism included prominent positions such as chief editor of Turkish papers ComHurriyet and Sabah and as columnist for Milliyet. Hasan Cemal is also the author of “1915 Ermeni Soykirimi” a book which chronicles his journey and personal transformation in accepting the Armenian Genocide. He wrote this book in response to Hrant Dink’s murder and it was published in 2012. It is on the best seller list in Turkey and can apparently be found on the shelves at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
My apprehension arises from the fact that I have trouble with trust. As an Armenian, I see and feel the emotional drain on our collective psyches in the endless battle against Turkey’s unrelenting and vicious revisionist policies; the pain of being denied justice. I have not yet heard Hasan Cemal’s message but I am reflexively cynical. His prominence and popularity must have made this book a very difficult pill to swallow for Genocide denialists in Turkey. So how did Hasan Cemal write such a controversial book and escape being threatened or arrested for violation of the famous Article 301? Did he get lucky…or is he part of a Turkish government agenda we have yet to decipher?
“Change is in the air!” people point out. The Armenian Genocide is no longer taboo in Turkey; books like Hassan’s are no longer automatically destroyed; death threats and arrests no longer a given. Last year large rallies commemorating April 24 took place in Istanbul complete with police protection; a few confiscated church properties were returned. “It is encouraging”, I nod. And yet……………I think about the Turkish government’s recent deceptions regarding the failed protocols; the significant pressure it is placing on the TDSB to remove the Armenian Genocide from the High School Genocide Studies course; the recent statement by Erdogan on the upcoming “Centennial 2015” where he vows to “stand firmly against the Armenian campaign to distort historical reality” It is blatantly clear that, although there is an increased latitude allowing Turkish society to debate the Genocide, we would be foolish to expect any real change on official government positions.
I swallow my misgivings and come to listen. The hall is filled to capacity. I listen to the speeches and video presentations given by M.C. Migirdic Migirdicyan and guest speaker Raffi Bedrosyan. I discern with warm pleasure that Hrant’s influence on both Turkish and Armenian citizens of Turkey, far from fading over time, is increasing. His murder, instead of permanently silencing his call for activism and dialogue, has caused Hrant’s message to reverberate even deeper in Turkey and the response is gaining momentum.
Hasan Cemal is invited to the podium where he begins to speak about his deep friendship with Hrant Dink and how much he valued Hrant’s sincerity and honesty. He reflects upon his earlier years as a journalist when he believed the Genocide never happened and how Hrant helped “open his eyes”. He began to understand that “state official history is based on invented lies” and “no one is permitted to step outside of history as presented”. He states, “In Turkey, coming to grips with history is always a political fight”.
His describes his visit to Yerevan in 2008 where he visits Dzizernagapert to lay carnations in honor of Hrant Dink and has a startling encounter with the grandson of the man who killed Cemal Pasha. He talks about reading his grandfather’s diary and coming to terms with his crimes. He reads a few translated pages from his own book describing the difficult morning he experienced the day of his well-known Los-Angeles speech in 2011; how he stood in his hotel room, crossing and re-crossing the word “Genocide” several times before making the final pivotal decision to leave it in.
After his speech, Mr. Cemal, along with Raffi Bedrosyan and the Zoryan Institute’s President Kourken Sarkissian and Executive Director George Shirinian formed a panel to discuss the importance of supporting research and education efforts on the facts of 1915.They considered that Turkey cannot be forced to face its past; the change had to come from within. This change could be encouraged through the education of the masses and the support of Turkish intellectuals such as Hasan Cemal. They then invited questions from the audience.
When asked what Hasan Cemal felt Turkey should do, he responded by saying Turkey should recognize the Genocide and apologize. When asked about compensation, he stated our borders should be re-opened without pre-conditions and citizenship with financial assistance offered to Armenians wishing to repatriate to their motherlands. When asked about land and wealth compensation, he was clear that there could be no such restitution. As an example, he discussed the house that was given to his grandfather which belonged to an Armenian family and was resold thirty two years later. It would be difficult to retrieve and return such properties, he felt.
Mr. Cemal’s journey leading to the acceptance of the Armenian Genocide and of his own grandfather’s crimes could not have been easy. I am waiting for the English translation of his book, but have heard from trusted reviewers that it is a brave and candid novel.
However, certain things that Hasan Cemal said or did not say bothered me.
- He stated three times that he visited Yerevan and laid carnations in memory of his dear friend Hrant Dink. He did not mention once that he laid flowers for the 1.5 million victims of the Genocide.
- He stated twice that his grandfather was killed in 1922 by a “gang” in Tiflis. The use of this word suggests random delinquent behavior and, in this context, is highly offensive. Its use by Hasan Cemal suggests he is still unable to view the events of 1915 through an objective lens. Cemal Pasha was not killed randomly. He was killed for the chief role he played as an orchestrator and perpetrator of these heinous crimes. He was killed when it became apparent he was going to remain unpunished. He was killed by traumatized survivors, not “gangsters”, who took it upon themselves to avenge the death of their people.
- His position on compensation is disappointing and offered nothing new. In fact, everything he suggested had already been proposed verbatim by prominent Turkish diplomat Volkan Vural during a 2008 interview with Taraf. I was hoping for something more meaningful. Citizenship? Passports? Of what use is this token PR gesture that few Armenians could take up. Open borders? This should be a given among neighbors. An apology? They are asking us to accept an apology on the condition we renounce monetary and land compensation and accept the present illegal borders. Hasan asks us, the victims, to be sensitive to the fact that coming to terms with the Genocide is difficult for Turkey. We have been sensitive - and patient. Ninety eight years and counting. Hasan must understand that without meaningful restitution, friendship and trust can never truly be restored.
I applaud Hasan Cemal for recognizing the Armenian Genocide and for his courage in disseminating his views through his book. He knows well the ostracization and threats experienced by other brave Turkish historians and academics. His good friend Hrant Dink paid with his life. I do hope, however, that Mr. Cemal’s journey doesn’t end with the publication of his book. His continued participation in encouraging Turkey to recognize the Genocide and forge a meaningful restitution that ensures the viability and well-being of Armenia is vital. It would be the most fitting tribute to the legacy of Hrant Dink.