On Sound and Silence, "in a place I’d never been before"

Originally published in Agos (Istanbul), May 2011.

Armenians in the U.S. consistently hear–because so many of us constantly insist–that “Turkey is silent about the Genocide and the Armenians.” Meanwhile, so many of us in the U.S. speak incessantly about the Genocide and Armenians. We become locked in a presumptive binary: silence there, sound here.

During late May and early June of 2010, that lock snapped open when I visited Turkey for the first time–indeed, as the first visitor from my family since my grandfather and his kin were either forced into diaspora or killed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Throughout the three-day Hrant Dink Workshop in Istanbul and a five-day, group trip around eastern Anatolia, the over-familiar “silence there, sound here” binary reversed before my eyes and ears. I became acutely aware of the numbing silence that diaspora-talk about the Genocide and Armenians can produce, as well as unsettlingly informed by current conversations across Turkey about historical and contemporary violence.

Readers of Agos know better than I of the Turkish state’s ongoing efforts to silence critical recognition of its violent pasts and presents. I won’t focus here on that dangerous statist logic, which we might even consider a foundational feature of the modern state itself. Rather, I’ll walk on a more modest and quotidian terrain. In what follows, I offer some episodic reflections on my brief experiences at Istanbul conference panels, Erzincan patios, Tunceli checkpoints, and KAMER centers, experiences characterized by the diverse and ubiquitous recognition of historical and ongoing violence in Turkey.

* * *

Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop, May 27-30. On a panel of Armenian diasporans from the U.S., a graduate student offers a polemical critique of the Apology Campaign.1 She is challenged by some in the audience who comment that, whatever the flaws of the campaign, many activists and signers risked their lives for it. The graduate student responds with a certain politics-by-analogy, saying she is not impressed because she could die any day on the streets of New York.

As I listen to the ensuing argument, I think about this student’s mode of argumentation. Analogies are powerful rhetorical figures; they make claims by foregrounding similarities at the expense of differences. This particular analogy foregrounds the most general of similarities–the possibility of death that any person faces as a mortal being–at the expense of innumerable specific differences. To take just one such difference, compare the dangers activists face in Turkey when they oppose state policy to the unprecedented lack of crime that the privileged face in today’s New York as a result of years of economic growth fueled in large part by financial and real estate speculation, the ever-expanding extraction of surplus value from the periphery, and the often brutal policing of poor and minority communities.

I think suddenly of a moment of irony that had struck me as I got dressed in my hotel room earlier that morning. Putting on my shirt, which I had purchased at a chain store in New York for about $40, I noticed that the label said “Made in Turkey.” In that moment, I thought about how the genocide that led me to be born and to live in the belly of the world’s most powerful empire had somehow led me to “return” to the land of my ancestors literally clothed in privilege, wearing a shirt made cheap for the professional classes in the U.S. by the extraction of surplus value from Turkish workers. Irony, too, is a powerful rhetorical figure; Paul de Man defines it as “the systematic undoing of understanding.”2

* * *

Erzincan, May 31. My grandfather was born here in 1879. This is the first day of a five-day trip organized by Ayşe Gül Altınay and KAMER founder Nebahat Akkoç, and hosted by KAMER activists in and around Erzurum, Erzincan, Tunceli, and Diyarbakir.3 We have driven from Erzurum: Ayşe, Nebahat, Arlene Avakian, her partner Martha Ayres, my partner Josie Saldaña, and our driver. We are invited into the house of Hüsniye Ana, the seventy-three year old mother of a KAMER activist. Over a large meal on a patio, Hüsniye Ana–who is Alevi–speaks and sings tales told to her by her parents.

She mentions that the Armenians were forced to leave Erzincan and many were massacred. She sings of rocks still stained red by the blood of those who were killed. She tells of a curse Armenians left on a village from which they were deported, which has kept the land from being fertile. She describes the ruins of Armenian churches that cover the land. Once, she says, the parents of a sick child were told by neighbors to bring her to one such ruined church and have her walk around, so as to cure her; they did and soon the child was well. She also tells a story we heard a number of times during our trip, of Armenians who came back to the area carrying maps and looking for their ancestors’ gold. The local people welcomed the Armenians, she says, feeding them and serving as their guides. One night, after fifteen days, they flew off in helicopters, leaving large holes in the ground.

Finally, Hüsniye Ana tells a story about a village’s spiritual father who knew a snake that would visit him. One day, the snake stopped coming. So the spiritual father asks some children, “what have you done that would have kept the snake from visiting?” They admit that during a recent heavy snow, the dog of a local Armenian had come by their house crying, but they had kicked it away. “We have to remedy this,” says the spiritual father. So he gives the children two dishes of food, one for the Armenian and one for his dog. The children go to the Armenian’s house, say they have come to apologize, deliver the dishes, and kiss the dog’s feet. The Armenian gives them a big sheep in return, but the children say they cannot carry such a sheep through so much snow. The Armenian replies that if their father is a real father, he will help them get the sheep home. They leave without the sheep, but when they arrive at home the sheep is waiting for them at their door. When they tell the father this story, he says “see, this Armenian has more faith than you.”

* * *

A road between Erzincan and Tunceli, May 31. Driving through beautiful hills and mountains, we talk with Nebahat about her political and personal journey from Kurdish nationalism to feminist activism. About how her break from those who dream of nation-states made possible her current work with women who struggle for the end of violence. About how that break also made possible her understanding of the intricate connections among the violence men direct at women, the violence women direct at children, the violence nationalists direct at their critics, the violence the state directs at its people, and the violence against the Armenians that haunts the very landscape and lives of Turks, Kurds, Zazi, and Alevi throughout eastern Turkey–including her own life, and the memory of the Armenian grandparents she only recently learned she had.

We stop to wash our faces in waterfalls and to pick wildflowers, all smiles and giggles, awe and appreciation. We do not know that our driver, who gently rushes us to get back into the van and then begins driving at an alarming speed, has gotten a phone call from a friend in Tunceli warning that there is trouble ahead. We also do not know that the PKK, having just called off a ceasefire, has attacked a nearby police outpost.

As we approach the entrance to Tunceli, we hear a helicopter swoop in over our heads; it begins firing into the hillside above us. “What is happening,” Martha says, more as a statement of incomprehension than as a question. “Those aren’t gunshots, are they?” I ask Josie, who has been in war zones in Mexico and Nicaragua; “yes they are” she says with a calm well out of proportion with what is going on around us. We speed up to a military checkpoint, full of young soldiers with angry, fearful eyes and fingers on the triggers of their automatic weapons. Just before a soldier orders us to stop, Ayşe tells us to give her our passports. As the soldier throws open the door of the van and looks with utter incomprehension at this motley assortment of travelers, Ayşe waves her fistful of American passports and calmly but hurriedly explains that we are just tourists. He apologizes, and urges us to move quickly into the town.

A hundred yards further along, a police checkpoint, more young men with angry and scared eyes and automatic weapons, and at least twenty other men lined up against a wall, spread-eagle. The police officer who stops us here is not as impressed with Ayşe’s fistful of American passports. He orders our driver out of the van, telling him to open the back and take out our bags. The helicopter again fires into the hillside over-head. Everyone ducks, and the soldier turns his attention to the live fire, which our driver takes as a chance to put the bags back and drive quickly away. I look out the back window, seeing the men with guns and the men lined up against the wall.

We arrive at the Tunceli KAMER center, hearts racing, to an uncommonly welcoming group of activists, a table of food, and what would be an evening of talk about feminist organizing, militarism, and Kurdish politics.

* * *

Pilvenk, June 1. The musician Metin Kahraman takes us to sacred Zaza sights outside Tunceli. Along the way, we visit a tiny village where we are welcomed into peoples’ homes, offered freshly made bread, and taken on a walking tour. The last stop is a walnut grove, untended and overgrown, effectively in ruins. “The Armenians tended that grove,” a villager tells us, “but we don’t tend it any more because they are gone. We don’t know how to tend that place.”

The walnut grove: a conquered place that the conqueror avoids, and in that avoidance allows an unruly life to survive. A ruin that lives an un-restored life of stories and ghosts. A place whose ruination is its life.

* * *

Havav, June 2. We drive into a small town in search of the ruins of two old fountains and an Armenian church. Apparently, after reading Fethiye Çetin’s Anneannem, the Kurdish owner of the land on which these ruins lie decided to restore them, as a kind of monument to the region’s violent history.4 After complicated negotiations with residents, who still use the fountains and live amongst the ruins, an agreement was reached to restore the fountains but not the church. Work is scheduled to start during the summer of 2011, with the help of a team of young Istanbul architects and a grant from the Ministry of Culture.

Our driver stops the van alongside an older man and a younger woman near the entrance of the town, and Ayşe asks where the old fountains are. The man says, “Old fountains? There are no old fountains here. What fountains are you looking for?” But the woman jumps in and offers directions, and a bit further down the road a group of children run up to the van asking if we want to see the Armenian church and fountains. Once there, we encounter people using the fountain, and children playing in the field alongside the church.

* * *

On the road between Havav and Harput, June 2. I wonder about the difference between ruins like the Pilvenk walnut grove and the Havav fountains and church, on the one hand, and ruins that have been restored or that people dream of restoring, on the other. Among Armenian-Americans, so much energy and money is put into the restoration of ruins, or the dream of restoring ruins, in Armenia and in eastern Turkey. Indeed, one of the stock images of Armenian diasporic film is of a ruin in one of these places–a church wall covered with crumbling Armenian script and saints, melancholic music overdubbed–about which we are meant to imagine former, un-ruined greatness. But what if ruins left as ruins–as crumbling places around which people continue to live, as ghostly places about which people continue to tell stories–mean more in this world? What if one thought of the ruin as living, local potential, rather than as a discovery to be restored or a treasure to be guarded by international elites who dream of greatness? And how will the people of Havav live amongst the restored fountains and still-ruined church?

* * *

Diyarbakir KAMER center, June 3. Over a meal of lentil kibbeh with KAMER activists and our group of travelers, I am asked about my family history. I blurt out something I have been thinking and feeling for days: I find it ridiculous even to bring up the violence my ancestors experienced 100 years ago, when there are so many more current, pressing issues that KAMER must address. “But you don’t understand,” I am told; “the violence the Armenians suffered is an intimate part of the violence we try to address here at KAMER.” Some of the women–who grew up knowing themselves as Kurds–have recently found out that their grandmothers were Armenians orphaned as girls and taken in by Kurdish families, just as Ayşe’s work has taught us.5 For these activists, the past lives on in the present, as a kind of echo but also as a condition of possibility, in a complex network of relationships, conflicts, and opportunities for change.

* * *

Brooklyn, August. Re-reading the last volume of Samuel R. Delany’s four volume, “sword and sorcery” series of novels Return to Nevèrÿon, I stumble upon a passage that stuns me. It takes us through the rapidly shifting mindset of Gorgik the Emancipator–the revolutionary leader and protagonist of the series–on his return, after many years, to the land where his people were massacred and he was enslaved. Gorgik is speaking to his young “barbarian” lover Udrog, who frankly wishes Gorgik would stop talking and just get in bed with him. But Gorgik talks on, describing his efforts to find the spot where his parents were massacred and the area where he lived as a slave. Ineffably frustrated–“I foundered among these dim speculations, because, within hours, my own wagons, tents, and pavilion would rise there, destroying any hope of an accurate image of the past with their own insistent presence”– Gorgik dismisses his attempt to recapture the past: “I would walk to the new village, I decided suddenly. This nostalgia was absurd. I must see what lay there now.” Despite his best efforts, however, a certain nostalgia returns, though with a difference; the search has begun to pain him in such a way that he becomes unsettled, even estranged from himself: “To think too long on such things is to feel the gut twist, the throat constrict, and the emptiness behind all mirrors swell.” In an ultimately futile effort to banish that estrangement, he imagines himself as a solitary hero, superior to his people’s former antagonists: “But I almost managed to dismiss the ache by telling myself: You have come here as a man victorious at the termination of a great battle. This must be your celebration.” Although Gorgik did lead a movement to emancipate all the slaves in the land, the masculinist narrative he tells himself about that movement fails to reassure him, and he settles on an irony. He garners “a sense” of the past he seeks by understanding the traumatic place he thought he knew as a new and unknown place: “then finally I had a sense of the physical place I’d been–indeed, in a place I’d never been before… .”6

What was so stunning here? Unlike Gorgik, I had never been to the land I had just visited, much less suffered there. But I did know of Turkey mostly as a land of massacres, and I did carry a trace of what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok have described as intergenerational haunting.7) 171, 173, 181.] Though I went determined to leave nostalgia behind and “see what lay there now,” I admit to “dim speculations” about seeking something familiar in the hills and valleys around Erzincan. I also admit to entertaining a certain, fleeting schadenfreude, what Gorgik calls his “celebration,” at two disparate facts linked by genocide, diaspora, and the international division of labor: the shirt I wore at the Hrant Dink conference that was made cheap for me in the U.S. by being “made in Turkey;” the passport that protected me at harried checkpoints outside Tunceli, while so many others were lined up against a wall, made powerful because it was made in the U.S.A.

And yet, seeing so many ruins, hearing so much talk of ruination, listening to women in KAMER centers that dotted the land where my grandfather grew up and from which he had fled amidst so much violence, and learning something of the vigorous, creative, and tenacious life now thriving amongst the ruins … all this dissolved my definitive determinations, dim speculations, and fleeting celebrations.

* * *

The English word “ruin” comes from the Latin ruina, which meant “a fall,” “a rushing down,” and ruere, “to rush,” “to collapse.” Ruina was apparently a synonym for cadere, a word from which the English words cadence, chance, and accident all derive. Ruina could also be a synonym for lapsus, meaning “a slip,” and it could even be used interchangeably or along with clinatus, meaning “inclined,” “bent,” “sunk” (from the Greek klinō, meaning “to make slope”), itself the root of Lucretius’s famous word clinamen, “a swerve” or “a chance turn.”

Silence there, sound here: a lock that snapped open, revealing lives amongst ruins into which I slipped and swerved, unexpectedly. Marc Nichanian has written of how diasporic discourse about the Genocide and Armenians often takes the melancholic form of incessantly trying to prove our own death: “…to enter into the endless game of proving it, to detach ourselves from ourselves in order to come forward as proofs, as so many living proofs of our own death.”8 That sound animates the impossible dream of finally and fully recovering a catastrophic past, like restoring a ruin to an imagined, previously pristine state. But why and to whom must we prove deaths we know happened, we who live on? Why must we restore ruins that are still living places where people dwell with the ghosts of the past?

“Then finally I had a sense of the physical place I’d been…;” a place that overflowed with the sounds of violence past and present. A place alive in ruins, full of struggle; “…a place I’d never been before.”

Cover image of Anatolia courtesy of Flickr user rogiro. 

  1. See http://www.ozurdiliyoruz.com/.
  2. Paul De Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 301.
  3. KAMER is a feminist and women’s rights organization based in eastern and southeastern Turkey, and founded in 1997. See http://www.kamer.org.tr/.
  4. Fethiye Çetin, Anneannem (Metis Yayinlari, 2008); My Grandmother: A Memoir (New York: Verso, 2008).
  5. See Ayşe Gül Altınay, “In Search of Silenced Grandparents: Ottoman Armenian Survivors and Their (Muslim) Grandchildren,” in Hans-Lukas Kieser and Elmar Plozza, eds., Der Völkermord an den Armeniern, die Türkei und Europa / The Armenian Genocide, Turkey and Europe (Zürich: Chronos, 2006), 117-132; and Ebru: Reflections of Cultural Diversity in Turkey (Istanbul: Metis, 2007).
  6. Samuel R. Delany, Return to Nevèrÿon (Wesleyan University Press, 1987) 73-80.
  7. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994 [1978
  8. David Kazanjian and Marc Nichanian, “Between Genocide and Catastrophe,” in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, eds. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 133. See also Nichanian, “Catastrophic Mourning,” in Loss, 99-124, and Nichanian, The Historiographic Perversion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

David Kazanjian