Ece Temelkuran – Deep Mountain; Fethiye Çetin – My Grandmother (book review)
May 24, 2012
[I’ve started writing book reviews for the Hürriyet Daily News blog. I’ll be able to post them here a couple of weeks after they first appear on there (contractual yawn). This one went up on May 5, and can be found in original form here: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/literary-reflections-on-the-armenian-issue.aspx?pageID=500&eid=16]
Ece Temelkuran – Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide, Verso, 2010, 288pp
Fethiye Çetin – My Grandmother, Verso, 2008, 144pp
There’s a book, quite easily found in any reasonably-sized Istanbul bookshop, its name written in block capitals along the spine: ‘Ermeni Dosyası’ (The Armenian Dossier). Written by former Turkish diplomat Kamuran Gurun, and ominously subtitled ‘The Myth of Innocence Exposed’, it has been popular amongst Turkish readers ever since first being published in1983. Packed with imposing-looking graphs and statistics, its main thesis can be summarised thus: The numbers claimed by the Armenians as killed in the ‘events’ of 1915 is far too high and, in fact, Ottoman soldiers were themselves also killed in large numbers at the same time. In any case, the Armenian population was far from innocent, with large numbers rebelling against the empire and often colluding with the advancing Russian forces on the eastern Anatolian frontier. Essentially, the book implies, the Armenians got what they had coming to them. If you’re interested, a new English-language print run of the book came out only two months ago. I haven’t read it, nor do I ever intend to make that sacrifice, but – however questionable its scholarship – ‘The Armenian Dossier’ is unquestionably significant, if only because it represents what has been the official Turkish narrative for almost 100 years.
Encouragingly however, this isn’t the only story on the shelves any more. While they still may not attract the sales figures of more flattering histories, voices dissenting from the official line are being increasingly heard in today’s Turkey. Ece Temelkuran was once a columnist with daily newspaper Habertürk (ironically enough one of the mouthpieces of the nationalist establishment) and her ‘Deep Mountain’, published in English in 2010, is part of this new, questioning tendency.
Temelkuran set herself the ostensibly simple task of meeting Armenians, talking to them, listening to them, and reporting back for the Turkish audience. Eschewing the directly political, she preferred ‘to write about Armenians, not necessarily what happened in 1915’, and while this may seem like a modest undertaking to an outsider, in Turkey it was a brave and taboo-shaking exercise. Quite how perilous the path was can be judgedfrom the example ofthe Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, to whom Temelkuran dedicates the book. Dink decried the politics of megaphone slogans and foreign parliamentary writs on the issue, and instead spent years trying to get the two sides talking to each other honestly about their shared history and common trauma. He was assassinated for his troubles in 2007 by an ultra-nationalist Turkish gang, outside the Istanbul office of his newspaper. Dink’s killing could have acted as either a spur to writing, or a warning against it, so – first and foremost – ‘Deep Mountain’ should be applauded as an act of bravery.
The book is divided into three parts, the first detailing Temelkuran’s encounters with the Armenians of Armenia itself, and the other two her meetings with the Armenian Diaspora communities in Franceand the United States. The picture painted of Armenian capital Yerevan is of a cultured but impoverished city of feeble opportunities and feeble ambitions, still yet to recover from the end of the Soviet Union and now crippled by the closed (since 1993) border with Turkey. Whilst bitter enmity for Turks exists, the Armenian Armenians are perhaps most concerned with the practical matter of getting the border open again, and with it securing an economic lifeline. The French and American Armenians, however, have come to adopt the genocide as the essential, irreducible feature of what it means to be ‘Armenian’. Meeting numerous community leaders, academics, artists, and businesspeople, Temelkuran describes the trajectory that emerges again and again in the Diaspora: How the first generation of Armenian migrants to Europe and America were most concerned with ‘getting on’ and fitting into the adopted culture, and how it is only with the second and third generation – threatened by the identity-engulfing vortex of a new homeland – that the genocide has been revisited and latched on to as an unshakable, almost pathological core.
As one of the Los Angeles Armenians revealingly says: ‘you need to create an identity, something to hold on to both culturally and individually. Turkey’s refusal to recognise the genocide is what binds those of us in the Diaspora. Were the genocide to be recognized, it would probably be the end of us’. Pain has become ‘the pillar propping up the home’, and to release that pillar means oblivion. Similarly, many Turks – afraid of losing their country and seeing recognition as threatening their own oblivion – cling just as fast to their own selective amnesia. In a striking phrase, the author at one point describes it as a ‘huge industry. Not just politics and money; a psychological industry too, for both sides. An industry of anguish’. The most sympathetic portraits in the book are thus reserved for those who are able to understand this identity paralysis and rise above such acrimony, recognising the absurdity of an official political ‘debate’ that doesn’t go much deeper than one side screaming ‘It was genocide!’ while the other responds ‘No it wasn’t!’
Perhaps inevitably, the book occasionally lapses into worthiness,though not nearly as often as you fear when you read the following meaningless fluff early on: ‘If an Armenian were to lose their way one day anywhere in the world, they’d be able to locate the capital of Armenia by consulting the map of their heart. They would navigate toward it by reference to the coordinates of pride and fear, of mourning and loss’. Worse, when she moves on to Los Angeles, Temelkuran can’t help butoffer a steady stream of unhelpful anti-American swipes. These come off as stale, predictable, and not a little immature (constant sneering about cigars and McDonalds, really?!) But these are minor criticisms, and should not detract from the more important qualities of a book that is sensitive, honest and ‘engaged’ in the best sense of the word.
Another modern voice with little time for the official Turkish narrative is Fethiye Çetin, a human rights lawyer currently representing the deceased’s family in the grimly ongoing Hrant Dink case. Çetin spent her whole youth believing she was of ‘pure’ Turkish stock, until one day her aging grandmother, Seher, took her aside. Seher revealed that she had been born an Armenian Christian, originally named Heranuş, and was plucked from a death march in 1915 by a Turkish gendarme commander, who went on to raise her with his wife as a Muslim Turk. Translated into English in 2008, ‘My Grandmother’ is Çetin’s elegiac description of this story.
The first section of the book contents itself with gentle, sepia-tinged descriptions of a rural upbringing with her family in the eastern Turkish province of Elazığ: her beautiful sisters; her grandfather, whose mood always depended on how full his stomach was; her grandmother, the charismatic matriarch of the family, powerful but taciturn, somehow never able to bring herself to sing, as if always harbouring the secret that would one day be revealed to Fethiye. The central revelation doesn’t come until midway through the book, but when it does Çetin writes that what she heard ‘did not fit with anything I knew. It turned the known world on its head, smashing my values into a thousand pieces’. Seher, or Heranuş, was one of the kılıç artığı, the ‘leftovers of the sword’ of that traumatic period; only one of her sisters was also spared, while the rest of the family – including uncles, aunts, cousins, and her mother – was killed. The second part of the novel consists of Çetin trying to digest this heritage, and also trying to forge a reunion of the two sides of a family which now – like so many Armenian families – is ‘scattered like pomegranate seeds’ across the world.
It’s a quietly powerful book, modest but courageous. There are no unnecessary fireworks or forced emotions. In a way, it could be seen as a manifestation of the very thing Temelkuran advocates in ‘Deep Mountain’, a kind of picking up of the baton. There’s little in the way of direct politics and no recriminations: I don’t think the word ‘genocide’ is mentioned once in the entire book (and that’s not because of Turkish laws against these things). It’s simply a human story, told in an unshowy, humane way.
Both Temelkuran and Çetin manage to address the vexed Armenian issue with admirable clarity, concerning themselves with the personal and the human as a kind of riposte to the debilitating rancour of the official, political dispute. Both try to chart a precipitous course between two entrenched sides that long ago stopped listening to each another; neither condemn anything other than this wilful deafness. In the years to come, one can only hope there are more books published like these two, and less like ‘The Armenian Dossier’.