Letter from Istanbul

Hagop Dedekian – his name and profession have been duly changed for reasons you will soon understand – is a well-to-do carpet merchant in the bazaar of Istanbul. He comes from an old Armenian family who has lived in Turkey for several generations. He also collects stamps. «See this one,» he says, pointing to a stamp in his small but valuable collection. «It costs a fortune!» He tells me the reason why he has such an impure interest in the philatelic. «You can easily hide stamps in a book or in a corner of your bag, you know,» he says. «No customs officer could ever notice their value. You can easily export fortunes this way. Being an Armenian in Turkey you have to be prepared.» A second-generation Armenian, he carries a Turkish passport and counts in his family several victims of the atrocities committed against the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Of the two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire just before the First World War, 1.5 million are said to have perished in a massacre. «Thank God my son and daughter are now third generation,» he says. «They are growing up at a time when difference is a matter to be celebrated. They have rediscovered their Armenian past and want others to rediscover it as well. Nothing wrong in this, is there?» He continues by saying that 20 or 30 years ago Armenian militants killed Turkish diplomats and bombed Turkish targets. «Today’s objective is not to take revenge on Turks but rather to turn them toward a fundamental revision of their ideas of their own past,» he says. But defining is a treacherous business. The «G» word is still a prohibited expression in Turkey, where genocides are called «incidents.» But the word has been on everybody’s lips lately. Hagop see himself as part of a people who were almost destroyed but whose plight was never fully acknowledged – at least not in his own country. Of course, Great Britain and the United States do not recognize the genocide either. But Washington knew about the plight of the Armenians from the very beginning. Henry Morgenthau Sr, US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, wrote: «I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.» Furthermore, on May 11, 1918, in a letter to philanthropist Cleveland Hoadley Dodge, former US President Theodore Roosevelt said «the Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and the failure to act against Turkey is to condone it… the failure to deal radically with the Turkish horror means that all talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world is mischievous nonsense.» Of course, Turkey itself has its own outspoken voices, at least on this issue. Author Orhan Pamuk, whose work has been translated into 40 languages, was prosecuted last year for «denigrating Turkishness,» which means he dared to mention the Armenian genocide in World War I and the killing of the Kurds in the past decade. Other journalists and writers were also prosecuted for this act of free speech, for this simple stating of history. On Thursday in France, the French National Assembly is expected to start debating the draft law that would make it a crime – and even draw prison time – for those who deny that the tragedy which befell the Ottoman Armenians from 1915 to 1916 was a genocide. If the law is enacted, France will become the second country after Switzerland to impose prison sentences on those who do not agree to the «Armenian genocide» claim. A denial of the so-called Armenian genocide would result in a fine of 45,000 euros and up to five years’ imprisonment. «France should better start with its role in Algeria and Rwanda,» advised Ara Sarafian, who calls himself a British historian of Armenian origin, in an interview published last Friday in the Turkish daily Zaman. Sarafian predicts that «if the prospective French law is passed, it could lead to a souring of relations between Turkey and the EU, as well as a right-wing backlash within Turkey and its own democratization process.» He discovers an unexpectedly original kind of drama: «Perhaps the real tragedy is that the current Turkish government has taken important steps to resolve the Armenian issue. After all, it has ‘uncensored’ the Armenian debate in Turkey by allowing it to be discussed openly, letting Turkish nationalist institutions, such as the Turkish Historical Society, fend for themselves in the open arena.» Sarafian claimed he never received any money from Turkey. One argument often heard in Turkey is the argument is that the Armenian massacre was not genocide as the Turks then had no intention of exterminating the whole Armenian race. According to Article II of the Genocide Convention of 1948, «intent to destroy» is a precondition of genocide. A large number of dead alone is not sufficient. Turkey is adamant that the figures named are exaggerated, and that those who died were just some of the many victims of the geostrategic turbulence of the period around World War I. Well, if this is the case, what has happened in Kosovo was no genocide either. Sure, it was cruel ethnic cleansing – but not genocide. The Serb authorities could not possibly be trying to delete their entire Albanian population. Or could they? As a wave of fury sweeps through Turkey’s press, Ankara has once again threatened economic and diplomatic reprisals against France. But we do not yet know the fate of France’s law recognizing the genocide and punishing those who don’t. If the majority votes against the parliamentary investigation, the bill will automatically be left off the agenda. By week’s end, we may have an idea of where this statement will go. Meanwhile, 10 years ago in Greece, Parliament established a bill «for the establishment of April 24 as the day of commemoration of the genocide of Armenians by Turkey.» It was a belated move, but the government was obliged to make it.