Reconciliation Through The Arts: Armenia and Turkey

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.

ararat mt
Mount Ararat seen from Armenia with the church of Khor Virab one of the nearest points to the Turkish border.

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.

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.

Family portrait of a survivor couple. The Basmadjians restarts a family in Cairo, Egypt after WW I Armenian Genocide. The little girl is Nora Armani’s mother. Photo by: London Photo Studio, Cairo, Egypt.

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 1880’s and 90’s 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 Moslem women were not allowed on stage), in other areas, the famous Architects Balian built of 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 Vialyets (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 for 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.

Conflict 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 Masters Degree 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.

Armenian mass grave discovered after WW I in Syria. (Arabic/ Ottoman Turkish letters say: Armenian Mass Grave.)

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 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 mass 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 Par-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. This ‘minor’ obstacle could be handled through Genocide. The bigger obstacle was Communism and that is what really decapitated the Turks and put an end to their Imperial dreams.

Armenian ideals of independence did not exit during the Hamidian era. They were a much more rencent 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 agression 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 attainging the levels of violence characteristic of any Genocide.

Armenian Theatre Company in Istanbul, c.1919

If we were to ask whether this could have been foreseen and prevented, let me respond by ask whether the Jewish Holocause could have been foreseen and prevented. You know that Adolf Hitler, on the eve of his Invasion of Poland said, “I have given orders to my Death Units to exterminate, without mercy or pity men, women and children belonging to the Polish speaking race. It only in this manner that we can acquire the vital territory which we need. After all who remembers today the extermination of the Armenians?”

It is only by remembering and doing something about it that Genocides and Holocausts can actually be prevented. Not by ‘eradicating the causes,’ and certainly not by denying them or covering up for the denialists for whatever reason and regardless for what gain.

Actress Azniv Hrachya, the Armenian Sarah Bernhardt

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 (a style) is Dikran Tchouhadjian Armenian composer 1860 c. 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.

Armenian composer Dirkan Tchouhadjian c. 1860

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.

Q: Is there any discussion of cultural exchange in the negotiations leading to the protocols for opening the borders?

A: Personally for me, I find it hard to imagine negotiations, any negotiations, between nations without accompanying cultural exchange. The Soviets were really good at this and they infiltrated into the Western World (almost) in a way through Russian (and to a lesser extent Soviet) art. The US does the same thing through its cinema. Why do you think the whole world is dying to come to the US and believes in the American dream? What they see in the movies makes them think that this is the land of milk and honey. Of course, you and I know the difference between normal American life and a Hollywood film set!!!

How Hor
Benglian Armenian Theatre Company in Istanbul dressed for a production of Hor Hor the chickpea Vendor by Dikran Tchouhadjian.

A: I don’t know about Turks, but myself included, most Diaspora Armenians specially those who come from Turkey (or whose ancestors do) speak Turkish already. Maybe it’s a bit antiquated and Ottoman, but it’s Turkish. Let me tell you an anecdote. I was being interviewed on Turkish radio RFI (‘Radio France Internationale’ in Paris) and I was speaking such good Turkish that the host was surprised and asked how come. I said I had learned it from my grandmother, who was, of course, 100% Armenian. She spoke Armenian normally and only spoke Turkish when she needed to say something the children were not supposed to understand. Of course, the children ended up learning it. We then coined an interesting term, “grandmother tongue.” So, I can say my mother tongue is Armenian, and my “grandmother tongue” (symbolically, of course, as she came from Turkey) is Turkish!!!

Mihran Damadian, ‘one day’ president of Armenia, in Cilica. Photo by Photo London, Cairo, Egypt.

Q: What kinds of Turkish art are Armenian people exposed to now?

A: As I mentioned earlier, throughout the centuries Armenians have had a major influence on the development of art and culture in Turkey. But as a result of the Genocide, this development was interrupted. Unfortunately, the lack of proper channels of artistic communication at the present day, go both ways. Armenians are not exposed to the best of Turkish art, and all they get is pop music and the B-grade TV series that they can pick up due to the proximity of the border. A dialogue of the cultural kind should be engaged in two ways. I am sure there are a lot of good writers, such as Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize winning author of “Snow.” Another incident comes to mind: I was reading “Snow” and was amazed how the descriptions of Kars in Eastern Turkey, the town where the main part of the action takes place, resembles the villages and towns right across the border in Armenia. It was inevitable to see that the traditions and life styles (minus of course the Moslem elements, as Armenians are Christian) were so very similar between the two peoples.

But there is a certain degree of ignorance even among most educated Armenians. I was visiting with friends in Los Angeles, who are originally from Armenia and intellectuals, and they were so dismissive; they could not accept that there is a similarity. To go even further, they were surprised that I was even reading a Turkish author. But Orhan Pamuk is not a Turkish author in the narrow sense, just like our play in not an Armenian play, but one with a universal message. Pamuk’s work is universal, and in fact he is even persecuted in Turkey for having spoken against the Turkish identity in 2005 and for saying a million Armenians had died. In his novel, “Snow” Pamuk mentions the pre-Genocide Armenian presence in Kars indirectly every time he gets an opportunity to describe the Armenian craftsmanship in the architecture and ironworks, etc. There has to be a mutual interest of knowing more about the other. When I met Orhan Pamuk at PEN, he asked me about the Armenian Diaspora. On the intellectuals’ level there is more proximity than we think. Other Turkish intellectual, who defend the cause of the Recognition of the Armenian Genocide, are Taner Akcam and Ragip Zarakolu. One of the first Turks to break the taboo was the historian Halil Berktay. Fethiye Cetin, the Turkish lawyer talks about her grandmother’s Armenian identity in My Grandmother openly. I am not mentioning the Armenian intellectuals, because they are far too many to cite.

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.

Forms of political art that are too crude can be polarizing. You can fall into a trap of fundamentalism and extremism; before you know it, polarization is created. Neutral is not good either, because it is sitting on the fence, neither here nor there. I think political art, if it is to be really effective, should have a healing and instructional (educating) effect on the audiences. The strength of “Sojourn at Ararat” lies in the fact that it is based on poetry, which in itself is an art form with much healing capacity. Then the way these poems are put together brings forward messages that have healing effects particular to specific themes and issues.

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 have credibility in Turkey or vise versa. Would you expect Turkish literature to have credibility in Armenia?

Nora Armani and Gerald Papasian visit Armenian poet Gevorg Emin at his home in Yerevan 1987.

Yes, the credibility is very easy to establish once the two sides hear about their respective literatures because deep inside they are soooooooo 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. Photo by Levon Parian.

Armani is also author-performer of a one woman show, “On the Couch with Nora Armani,” which also deals with issues of Armenian history though grandmother’s story. See: