My Great Uncle and the Legacy of Hrant Dink (By Garen Chiloyan)

12 Feb

My Great Uncle and the Legacy of Hrant Dink

On Jan. 19, 2014, a coffee hour commemoration was held in St. James Armenian Church by the Friends of Hrant Dink organization to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the assassination of the journalist and human rights activist, Hrant Dink. A group of Turkish students and activists—expatriate supporters of last year’s anti-government protests in Gezi Park—were also present; the majority of the crowd greeted them with “hoşgeldiniz,” meaning “welcome” in Turkish. With such a resounding echo, I must have been the only one in the room to have not known that word. A stirring speech was read by Armenian Weekly Assistant Editor Nanore Barsoumian. Then, Gonca Sonmez-Poole, who leads the Turkish Armenian Women’s Alliance shared her reflections.


I then went to the Watertown library to participate in the second portion of the commemoration. There, the crowd watched two documentaries. The first outlined a timeline of Dink’s assassination and the court proceedings. The second was an interview with Fethiye Çetin, the lawyer for the Dink family, reflecting on the assassination, the trial and its shortcomings, in particular how the upper echelons of the police and gendarmerie were able to evade justice even after the revelation of evidence exposing cooperation between the state and the suspects.

Eric Ozcan, a longtime friend of Hrant Dink, spoke of his courage and dedication to human rights and the truth. He went on to say that Dink would defend a person’s right to speak regardless if that person was a Greek, a Kurd, a Turk, or an Armenian; and, if their statements had some substance to them, he would support them against anyone. Once, Dink was asked a playful question by his friends in the form of, “If you knew you would die tomorrow, what is one dream you would like to come true?” His answer was, “The recognition of human rights of all people in Anatolia.” Sadly, this would be a dream he would not see realized. Even when his dear friend urged him to come live in America, he refused. He said that instead of living on our ancestral lands, we Armenians in America live in (relatively) big, (again, relatively) luxurious houses, and that we have erected “false paradises.” Istanbul was his home and no matter how difficult it became, he refused to live in a false paradise. He would stay and continue to fight for the rights of all humans until his last day.

During her speech, a member of Bostonbullular spoke of parrhesia, the ancient Greek word meaning to speak openly and truthfully. And now, I must partake in this parrhesia.

Many Armenians have been living in the diaspora for more than 100 years. Fortunately, and unfortunately, this has caused our Armenian culture to change and adapt to its surroundings. One example would be the use of Arabic, Turkish, and English words in our vocabulary. Another might be the food we eat—absorbing the cuisine of the various cultures we have surrounded ourselves with for over three centuries. All of these adaptations are simply a natural evolution of a people’s culture. But our experience in the diaspora does not stop there. What also occurs is a slow decay or loss of our culture, an immediate example being the language.

One way to compensate for the decay of culture—and it has by far been the easiest—is to desire to reconnect with the Armenian homeland. This typically comes in the form of visits during summer vacation and sightseeing tours of all the unused churches and monasteries in the sweltering sun. One has a spiritual epiphany in Khor Virap, the pit where St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of the nation, was sent to starve to death by then-Zoroastrian King Drtad more than 1,700 years ago. (St. Gregory was later rehabilitated after he helped bring back King Drtad’s sanity; the latter then declared Christianity to be the official state religion of the Kingdom of Armenia, making it the first nation to declare Christianity as its state religion—a source of great pride to Armenians, even while the rest of the democratic republics of the world have elected to follow the views of the Enlightenment and become secular.) Hotel rooms are reserved with the best view of the great snow-capped peaks of Mt. Ararat that seem just out of reach, and days are spent on the gravel of Lake Sevan (and not a night is spent sober).

The first time I went to Armenia, my taxi driver told me he had never been to Lake Sevan. He simply couldn’t take time away from his 12-hour work days to go. The desire to reconnect with the homeland has formed a mental image of the Armenian state in our minds, one that envisions a strong Armenia and an ingenious population, and ignores the frailties of a third-world country that is experiencing a population drain and a deteriorating social fabric, a state that ignores rape victims and the needs of its citizenship. All states have enemies; the enemy of the Armenians being, of course, the Turk—who destroyed the Kingdom of Cilicia and implemented the genocide and our cultural destruction—also plays a role in the diasporan psyche. This ignores the fact that Turkish society is not monolithic and is constituted by a diverse set of groups of people and ideas. It also ignores the great strides taken by Turkish revolutionaries in the 1960’s to 1980’s in the struggle against Turkish nationalism. What great changes we are witnessing even today in Turkey in the form of the Gezi park protests. The commemoration of the genocide has become an annual day of mourning.

With the end of the Red Genocide in 1923, the White Genocide began. This is the non-physical aspect of the genocide—the denial of the genocide and subsequent slow destruction of the culture of the victims. The Armenian names of cities and villages were changed to Turkish, and any evidence of an Armenian existence was erased through the destruction of churches, homes, cemeteries, etc. In 1998, the Azeri government was filmed destroying the khatchkars (cross-stones) of the cemetery in Julfa, Nakhichevan. Clearly the Turkish and Azeri states are responsible for this crime. But do we not also play a role in this? Here in America, free from the persecution by Turkish fascism, have we been able to revive our culture? Do we contribute enough to saving our fragmented identity? How many of us have read an Armenian book? And if you haven’t, are the Turks to blame for this?


My maternal grandfather raised his three daughters and two sons in a patriotic Armenian home. He is one of the reasons I can still read, write, and speak Armenian. One day, my great uncle (my grandfather’s brother) sent a letter to my grandfather expressing a desire to reconnect and to meet his nephews and nieces. My great uncle’s letter was written in Turkish, the only language he knew. My grandfather refused to answer this letter. He was not going to have any business with his brother. He was as good as dead to him. I only heard about this story after my grandfather’s passing, and despite the love I have for my grandfather, I do bemoan his decision. Is this not White Genocide perpetrated by and against Armenians? The great William Saroyan said that whenever two Armenians meet, they will create a new Armenia. I will have to respectfully disagree.

Turkish society is no more monolithic than Armenian society. Altough there were many Turks who perpetrated the genocide, there were also many who hid Armenians in their homes, risking their lives to protect their neighbors. As of today, the efforts of these Turkish guardians have not been recognized in any substantial form, a thought that makes me wallow in shame. Neither have the efforts of journalists, human rights activists, or students in Turkey who have fought for genocide recognition, minority rights, or democratizing Turkey, and against nationalism and fascism, been recognized. Sitting in my false paradise I can only hope I might have half the courage they do. We all stand to benefit by emulating them.

Without a democratic Turkey, the recognition of the genocide is completely out of the question. Moreover, the Turks that are alive today did not perpetrate the genocide. I sometimes wonder if we realize this. It is for these reasons that we as Armenians must engage Turks and open dialogue. Recognition and reconciliation will not come in any other form. It will not come in the form of a military victory. It will not come in the form of a piece of paper by western politicians appeasing their constituency. It will not come with economic sanctions or boycotts. It must first come on a basis of working class Armenians making connections with working class Turks.

But even before that, we Armenians need an individual epiphany: that we live in false paradises, that we have a duty to help Turks in their fight for democracy, and that we must bring down the walls of the false images we have of our homeland and fight for an Armenia with a bright future. Hrant Dink was a son of two nations and an inhabitant of this world that he gave so much to. I hope he found his paradise, and I hope we all can see his dream realized.

I am reminded of the final words of the great Turkish revolutionary Deniz Gezmis as he awaited his death at the gallows: “Long live the Turkish and Kurdish peoples’ fight for independence. Damned be imperialism. Long live the workers and the villagers.”

I hope that one day, revolutionaries will call for the unity of all peoples of Anatolia.

And I hope to one day meet my great uncle.


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