Spiritual Rebirth

Return as a Form of Resistance

Author Nancy Kricorian pays tribute to her ancestors in Turkey

Among the many different regions of the world to commemorate the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2015, the centenary was also marked by a series of unprecedented and emotional events in Istanbul, Turkey.  Three years of planning on the part of AGBU Europe led by director Nicolas Tavitian, in coordination with several other human rights and civil society organizations including the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM) and Durde!, resulted in the successful mobilization of thousands of young people from Armenia, Turkey, all over the Europe to honor the victims of the Genocide on the same ground where one of history’s darkest chapters first unfolded. 

Within the space of this past year, I have traveled to Turkey three times. As the granddaughter of Armenian Genocide survivors, these trips were fraught with conflicting emotions. The first visit, in June 2014, was a sixteen-day Armenian Heritage Trip led by Armen Aroyan, an experienced guide who organized the itinerary around the familial places of origin of the twenty people in the group. By plane and bus, we ranged from Marsovan to Marash to Aintab to Kharpert to Ani to Van to Dikranagerd, covering almost a third of the country. Each member of the group was allowed to choose two locations—for me those were Adana, where my grandfather was born, and Mersin, where my grandmother was born—and the entire entourage visited these ancestral sites and heard the individual stories of loss and trauma that had been passed down within each family. Our guide called this voyage a pilgrimage, but for me the return to the birthplace of my ancestors was a form of resistance to erasure and denial. 

I flew to Istanbul again in September 2014 for Columbia University’s Women Mobilizing Memory Conference, a weeklong series of feminist workshops, public presentations, and conversations focused on mass trauma, memorialization and action for redress. The traumas under discussion included The Holocaust, the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government’s dirty war against the Kurds in the 1990’s, among other painful episodes of state violence. It was the first time I had met face-to-face with Turkish academics, activists and students who used the word genocide to refer to what had happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire between 1915-1921. The instinctive defensive posture I had adopted in interactions with Turkish people over most of my adult life, fearing at best the aggressive denial of historical reality and at worst blatant anti-Armenian hostility, was in this context unnecessary.

My third trip to Istanbul was slated for April 2015, on the occasion of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. Building on the experience of the first visit and on the connections I had made during the second, I helped organize, with a coalition calling itself Project 2015, a mass fly-in of Armenians from around the world to Istanbul where we would participate in memorial events that we had been invited to join by civil society groups in Turkey. The Project 2015 board assisted in planning the series of commemorative events, raised money to fund scholarships for student travel, and served as a central information hub for the Armenians who pledged to join us. Many of the participants were traveling to Turkey for the first time, and some of them were worried about their physical safety in a place where their forbearers had been brutalized and killed because of their ethno-religious identity. On the Project 2015 Facebook page, people left comments warning us that we were “going like lambs to the slaughter,” and others suggested that we should be flying to Yerevan, Armenia for the commemoration rather than converging on enemy soil. But I and many others wanted to be in the place where the ordeal had occurred, to stand as witness to the crime, as tribute to our ancestors, and as testament to our continuing connection to that land. 

On April 24, 2015, several hundred Armenians from around the globe gathered in Istanbul for centenary commemorations. At 10 a.m. we joined an event planned by Istanbul Armenians, including community leader and current HDP Parliamentarian Garo Paylan, outside the former homes of three April 24 deportees: Gomidas, a revered Armenian priest, composer, and ethnomusicologist; Doctor Avedis Nakashian; and physician and poet Rupen Sevak. We held laminated medallion photographs of the Armenians who had been arrested on Red Sunday as memorial plaques were laid on the sidewalk. 

In the early afternoon our group boarded a chartered ferry that crossed the Bosphorus and took us to the Haydarpaşa Terminal, from whence the detainees were deported. On the steps of the former train station, hundreds of Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Assyrians and others sat holding photographs—again the medallion images of the notables—and signs with slogans. I had brought for the occasion a large laminated reproduction of a studio photograph taken in 1910 of my grandmother’s family in Mersin. The best sign that I saw said in English, “This building is a crime scene.”

In the late afternoon we gathered near Taksim Square at the top of Istiklal Avenue outside the French consulate for the Wishing Tree public art ritual that would precede a large commemorative gathering at the same location. Osman Kavala of the Istanbul-based arts organization Anadolu Kultur had commissioned artist Hale Tenger to create a tree sculpture and we had asked Project 2015 members to bring pieces of cloth and ribbon to tie to the tree. Anadolu Kultur had also set up a table with additional ribbons and fabric markers so that others could participate. Because I had proposed the Wishing Tree concept to the organizing committee, that afternoon I was invited to open the ritual by adding the first strip of cloth to the sculpture. I tied the waistband of one of my grandmother’s old aprons to the tree; on one end I had written my grandparents’ names, Mariam Kodjababian and Levon Kricorian, and on the other I had written Mersin and Adana. Despite the jostling crowd, and waiting in line for one’s turn, everyone later reported that the individual gesture of tying the cloth to the tree was a profoundly moving experience. 

While the art ritual was continuing, we started hearing chants approaching from the other end of Istiklal towards Galatasaray Square, which we were told was where the Turkish police held back anti-Armenian counter-demonstrators. The chants grew louder, but from a distance no one could make out the words. Someone said that the right-wing haters were coming towards us. Because of the police presence and the Turkish government’s desire to avoid an international incident, I didn’t believe that the counter-demonstrators would actually succeed in getting close enough to hurt us, but the idea of a sea of hate approaching made me scared and terribly sad. I started crying and a number of Armenian women nearby also began to weep. A Turkish woman from Anadolu Kultur who was handing out ribbons for the Wishing Tree said to me, “Don’t worry. Nothing will happen.” 

My friend Arsinee Khanjian, an Armenian-Canadian actor and producer, was enraged rather than saddened, and she rushed towards the sound of the chanting as though to do battle. I grabbed the hem of her coat and said, “Arsinee, please don’t go!” but she continued pushing forward. Suddenly she turned back towards me and shouted, “They are with us!” We could now see their signs: Menk Hos Enk (“We Are Here” in Armenian). It was a coalition of mostly young people carrying signs that bore the name of Nor Zartonk (New Renaissance), an Armenian-led activist group. One of the chants was “We are together,” and the marchers included Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Assyrians, Greeks and others. Many of us were weeping with happiness and relief. We Armenians are still here and we people of all ethnicities and religions are here together. 

At this point there were somewhere between five and ten thousand people assembled outside the French consulate for the vigil. When the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD) had organized the first outdoor commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Istanbul in 2010, around two hundred people had attended, so the thousands who had come to join the centenary event were testament to a growing civil society movement and a shift in public perception, at least among progressive forces in the country. 

The day after the Istiklal commemoration, I and a few other Armenians joined the Saturday Mothers for their weekly vigil at Galatasaray Square. Each week Kurdish mothers and their supporters gather to hold large laminated photos of their loved ones who were disappeared in the 90’s by the Turkish state and to call for justice. On Saturday, April 25, 2015, in recognition of the Armenian Genocide Centenary, the weekly vigil was devoted to the lives of the Armenian notables detained in 1915. I was invited to sit on the pavement in the front row among the Kurdish mothers and was handed a medallion photo of Kegham Parseghian, journalist, editor and writer arrested on Red Sunday. Seated on the ground next to me was a Kurdish woman holding in one hand a photo of her missing son and in the other hand a photo of Yervant Srmakeshhanlyan, an Armenian teacher and translator arrested on Red Sunday. This moment of solidarity filled me with hope. Even as the past lives on in us, the time to act for the future is always now. 

Nancy Kricorian is an American poet, author and activist whose novels Zabelle (1990), Dreams of Bread and Fire (2003) and All the Light There Was (2013) explore with various aspects of the Armenian Diaspora experience.

Originally published in the 2015-09-01​ issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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