Bearing Witness in the Aftermath of the Armenian Genocide

Bearing Witness in the Aftermath of the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Weekly Magazine
April 2016

Scholars have long noted that genocide is not just the physical killing of human beings but encompasses the systematic destruction of the cultural artifacts of victim groups. Such destruction began in the early stages of the Armenian Genocide and has continued unabated for 100 years. The perpetrators or their heirs attempt to minimize their crimes by wiping the landscape clean of any reminders of their victims. Great time and effort go into engineering a collective amnesia. The erasure of memory lays the groundwork for a manufactured national narrative that justifies and glorifies the actions of the perpetrators. My work is devoted to reversing this erasure through the art of photography. My ancestors were skilled photographers whose archive survived the killings and deportations. I have employed these images to tell the Armenian story in an attempt to chip away at the collective amnesia of Turkey.

A woman walks through the exhibition hall in Istanbul.

Projects to combat genocide denial are underway through the joint efforts of Armenians and Turks within Turkey. One such initiative undertaken by myself in partnership with Anadolu Kültür, a Turkish NGO, has been a series of photography exhibitions and publications that tell the story of my extended Armenian family, the Dildilians, in Ottoman Turkey from the 1870’s to their expulsion in 1922. The Dildilians documented their lives and their community with photographs and with extensive written and oral memoirs. My family’s photography and writings bear witness to their suffering as an oppressed minority in Turkey. For the most part, these photographs do not directly depict the suffering, though some do. What they do bear witness to is the loss of the once-vibrant and culturally advanced Armenian nation.

A scene from the exhibition in Istanbul

The exhibition designer, Kirkor Sahakoglu, created a darkened space, set off from the main exhibition, for people to light memorial candles.

“Bearing witness” was central to my family’s efforts a century ago and to my efforts today. When one bears witness one addresses an audience who is in need of the truth of testimony. My family’s early efforts to bear witness were primarily directed at their descendants. But our project has an important new audience: the citizens of the current Republic of Turkey. While inevitably controversial, this project is intended to have a positive impact on the highly contested arena of memory politics within Turkey.

The contested arena is the collective memory of the Turkish people. Collective memory is a form of remembering together, an activity common to groups and central to the creation of personal identity. Whether it is the shared memories of family members at a family reunion or the communal activities of ethnic groups who come together to memorialize historic wrongs, these conjoint activities both reflect and socially construct collective memory. Such memories often have a broad reach and long endurance. Collective memory does not require the personal first-hand experience of the event recalled. Often through symbolic, artistic, or literary re-enactments of the trauma of others, one may personally have an emotional response that is not significantly different from the response felt in recollecting a painful personal event. The goal of our memory work is to engender an empathetic community of memory by engaging our audiences in the stories and images of the Armenians who once inhabited Turkey.

School groups, primarily from the Armenian schools of Istanbul, attended the exhibition.

Understanding the nature of our audience has been crucial. If we are to succeed in positively affecting Turkish historical consciousness, then we must be nuanced in our approach. Our exhibitions have been open and inviting. Great care has been taken in crafting the witness testimony. Avoiding stereotypes, crude or vulgar language, and over-generalizations in the accompanying narrative is crucial. This is especially important because we are often quoting directly from witnesses whose memoirs serve as the basis of the narrative. Stigmatizing a whole population on the basis of the actions of the actual perpetrators and their leadership must be avoided. General claims—such as, “Turks did this…” or “Armenians were…”—need to be qualified. Yet, the witnessing testimony must not sanitize to the point where it does not reflect how the witness experienced the suffering.

The exhibit in Merzifan

Unlike other forms of remembrance, witness testimony can be reparative of the mental well-being of the witness as well as the audience. When the trauma of loss and suffering is passed down to future generations, the witnessing can take on a memorializing function that continues to have this healing effect. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, the trauma has in some cases become multi-generational. For Armenians living in Turkey, the fact that generations of survivors could not grieve in public adds an extra salience to the healing effect of our memory projects. Turkish Armenians have often come up to me with tears in their eyes to express their gratitude: “We can honor our ancestors for who they really were, not who the state tells us they were.”

The exhibition held at Diyarbakir’s Surp Giragos Armenian Church

This is the restorative aspect of bearing witness. I use restorative not in any material sense since victims can never be fully restored to their former state. What is symbolically restored is the moral order and the ethical norms that were violated in the wrongdoing. Thus bearing witness symbolically asserts the moral status of the victims and their membership in the moral community by giving them and their suffering a voice. When we heed that voice, we reaffirm that moral status, however belatedly. The victim’s voice may have been silenced in the past, but now there is someone who speaks for them and the suffering they endured.

A major component of our memory project has been the photography exhibition, “Bearing Witness to the Lost History of an Armenian Family Through the Lens of the Dildilian Brothers, 1872-1923.” The exhibition opened at the Depo gallery, a converted tobacco warehouse in Istanbul’s Tophane neighborhood on April 25, 2013. The date of the opening was chosen to roughly coincide with the April 24th commemorations that had recently begun to be held in Istanbul. The exhibition drew large numbers over the course of two months. More than 150 photographs were reproduced in panels and wall displays across the gallery’s two floors. A Turkish narrative text, richly illustrated with photographs and drawings, covered the walls. A talented Turkish-Armenian writer, Anna Turay, divided the narrative into 27 illustrated vignettes beginning with the family’s early years in the 1870’s in their ancestral home of Sebastia and concluding with their forced exile to Greece in 1923. A free booklet containing the English translation for non-Turkish speakers was also available.

‘The victim’s voice may have been silenced in the past, but now there is someone who speaks for them and the suffering they endured.’

Our goal was to place the events of the genocide within the larger context of the life of the family and the Armenian community. The emphasis was on the loss not the violence of 1915. We made the conscious choice to use the word “genocide” (in Turkish, “soykırım”) sparingly in the main exhibition narrative. For those who wanted to explore further, detailed informational panels were created for the gallery’s second floor. We did not avoid the “genocide” word here, but it was sparingly used within the section titled, “Date of Death: 1915.” The second floor was also devoted to thematic displays that provided more information and photos portraying different aspects of Armenian community life. A section highlighting the Armenian role in the development of photography and examples of the studio work were displayed. There were also many photos of orphans after the war; the family founded an orphanage and helped the American-led humanitarian efforts in the region.

A conscious effort was made to provide spaces for people to sit and reflect on their experience. The exhibition designer, Kirkor Sahakoglu, created a darkened space, set off from the main exhibition, for people to light memorial candles. The room contained dozens of portraits of family members who did not survive. Large group photos of Armenian intellectuals and educators who perished in 1915 were also displayed. A musical soundscape created from the Armenian liturgical requiem softly played in the background.

Another vital component of the exhibition was the direct testimony of family survivors through the use of audio and video recordings. Decades earlier my uncle and mother had recorded such testimony, which we subtitled and played in the gallery space. My uncle provided an emotionally upsetting account of watching his neighbors being deported by oxcart, while in contrast, my mother describes happy memories of her childhood in the warm and loving family home in Marsovan. A leading Turkish newspaper, Radikal, and Hürriyet TV posted the videos on the internet, and both have been viewed thousands of times. The media coverage was extensive both in terms of the mainstream media and more progressive outlets. School groups, primarily from the Armenian schools of Istanbul, attended.

In October 2013, we opened a redesigned exhibition in Merzifon (Marsovan), my family’s hometown. It was the town where they survived the genocide because, as photographers essential to the army’s war effort and the local government, the family was exempted from the deportation. Yet, they were still required to “convert” to Islam and given Turkish names and identify papers. During those years, they heroically rescued and hid young men and women in their homes. Merzifon today is an ethnically Turkish town with little reminders of its once-large and vibrant Armenian population. Unlike Istanbul, it is more religiously conservative and nationalistic. Yet even here, I met progressive Turks who worked with us to bring the exhibition to a recently restored 16th century Taşhan (inn) in their city. The local chamber of commerce surprisingly agreed to provide financial support. There were many interesting stories related to this “homecoming” that I have written about elsewhere.

A scene from the exhibition in Ankara

Additional exhibitions were held in Diyarbakir and in Ankara. We hope to hold more in the future but the political and security climate has deteriorated since the summer of 2015 necessitating a pause in our work. The Diyarbakir exhibition held on the grounds of the Surp Giragos Church in spring 2014 was especially symbolic because we were now on the grounds of a beautifully restored Armenian cultural artifact that survived erasure. It was not a museum but a live space where people of different faiths and ethnicities could gather to generate new threads in the collective fabric of memory that had once been the multi-ethnic city of Dikranagerd-Diyarbakir.

In November 2015, our most recent exhibition opened at the Çankaya Municipality Contemporary Art Center, located in the center of Ankara near the parliament and important government ministries. This was ground-breaking for it was in a public, government-owned space. In both Diyarbakir and Ankara, as a symbolic act of reversal we added an introductory panel in the Armenian language. While much of the response of those who attended was overwhelmingly positive, there was inevitable criticism in the nationalist press, mostly directed at the mayor for allowing such an exhibition to take place.

Space does not allow me to detail two other components of our project, the publications and the memory sites. Turkish-language catalog booklets are distributed free at the venues, while PDFs can be downloaded from the web. My book, Fragments of a Lost Homeland: Remembering Armenia, a highly readable family history, has been translated into Turkish. Dildilian Brothers – Memories of a Lost Armenian Home: Photography and the Story of an Armenian Family in Anatolia, 1888-1923, a bilingual Turkish-English photography book that includes 272 photos, has also been published. Copies have been distributed to libraries in Turkey and around the world.

A chapel in the ruins of the Sourp Asdvadzadzin Monastery in the Armenian village of Körköy (now Yolüstü) outside of Merzifan. It is now used as a barn.

The final component of our project grows out of many visits to the Merzifon-Sivas region where the Dildilians find their roots. Important locations in the family narrative have been identified. While much has been destroyed, some remnants of the Armenian presence remain. Our goal is to make these sites more visible both to the local population and to Armenian visitors who in recent years have been making “pilgrimages” to historic Armenia. In partnership with locals, attempts are being made for preservation and proper identification.

It is hard to gauge the progress we have made with our memory work, but the work continues with the hope that incremental change has and will continue to take place. No one, especially my partners, underestimates the obstacles that face us. Collective memory is difficult to change even in more open societies. Despite inevitable setbacks, an opening has been made into a closed past—a past once opened that can never be fully closed again.

Source: Armenian Weekly Mid-West