The first lesson, of the first hour, of every Turkish student's first day of first grade should run like this. Teachers, take notes. First, write "Welcome to the First Day of the Rest of Your Life" on the board. Draw hearts over the i's instead of dots. Pass out cookies, fibrous bran cookies. Wait a few hours. Then, take each child aside and have them shit into a plastic bag. Now tape the plastic bag around their mouth and nose and ask them, point blank, "Does it stink?" Record each answer carefully. Video tape it, and then play it every day at the beginning of class. You'll be arrested for insulting Turkishness, but that's okay.
So this is a rather graphic illustration of an old English bit of verbal repartee, "You act as if your shit don't stink." Au contraire, you may say, my turds smell like a heady blend of mint and gumdrops. Some people even act as if they don't shit at all. Waste comes out of them in showers of family love and hospitality (each takes the form of rainbow colored sparkle-dust)
An incident with an alcoholic uncle comes to mind. We were all watching TV in the family room one night when he comes lumbering out of the bedroom, pulls his pants down in the hallway, and proceeds to take a big dump. As every good family of an alcoholic knows, you pretend that this sort of thing isn't happening. No one is crapping in the hallway. That big brown dump in the middle of the carpet is not there. That smell wafting through the air could not possibly be real. Well, like many countries, mine included, Turkey has taken a big dump on history, and like my drunken uncle, they're hoping that other countries and their own people will pretend that pile of shit isn't sitting on their expensive Turkish carpet.
I'm talking about the Armenian Genocide. Not the so-called genocide, or the alleged genocide, or the "genocide", but the Genocide. And normally I don't touch on this rather contentious issue (The only reaction you get is screaming, red faced denial. There's no hope really.)
Today, in class, one of my students told me he was too angry to study today. I asked why. "We just watched a film called Hiroshima," he explained. "It explained the atomic bomb and how evil America is. God, I hate America! And I hate President Truman. He was an evil monster! It was America's genocide against the Japanese." While I am no supporter of the atomic bombing, I also bristle at this sweeping generalization of the Americans being the source of some evil incomprehensible to the rest of God's children. And I might have left that alone, but for the next sentence out of his mouth. "How could America do something so horrible? I mean, we didn't kill one million Armenians." Don't let your brain explode. This does read a little bit like a Zen koan. The absence of logical flow is baffling--something along the lines of "How could that man have tried to bomb Times Square? After all, my mother gave my dad a birthday gift." But even more galling was the poster board hanging behind him that said, "Genocides of History" with the first one being "The Armenian Genocide Against the Turks". That's right folks, though Armenians have been nearly completely erased from Anatolia and Istanbul--it was the Turks who were exterminated.
I was conciliatory at first. "Well, Hiroshima was a monstrous thing to do, but it didn't just happen for no reason. There was a context. You can't just say 'they were evil' and hope to understand. And no country has a monopoly on evil. Every country has done something to hurt others, even Turkey."
"No," was the unequivocal answer. "What has Turkey done? We never killed any Armenians. They killed us. Just like the Kurds."
And I couldn't stop staring at that ugly poster.
More galling is my Australian bosses towing of the line. Her husband is a Turkish nationalist so I suppose she's legally obligated to agree with every asinine thing she's told. "There was never a genocide," she pish poshes to wide-eyed new teachers who want to know what all the screaming protesters on Rihtm Avenue were on about. She then delivers the three pronged trident of logic defying bullshit, the trinity of verbal trapezedom that the Turkish government unleashes under the name 'history'. "First, Turkey never massacred anyone. They just exiled them. And then not that many were killed anyway." (But no one was massacred in part one of the answer) "Second, there was lots of killing on both sides because it was a war, and in any case there simply weren't many Armenians in Turkey" (Then whence the mass killings on both sides?) and third, even if some Armenians were killed, it was because they were plotting against the Ottomans and had turned traitor and so the government was defending itself. (Against whom? There weren't that many Armenians in Turkey, right? And in any case no one was killed. So the defense must have been entirely symbolic, like a fierce game of backgammon or something. Winner take Kars.)
So I have a few questions. If there never was an Armenian genocide, then why can any tourist go to Syria's Der Zor and pick Armenian bones out of mass graves in the sand dunes, and why was Armenian journalist Hrant Dink assassinated by Turkish nationalists and why is it such a chore to have his murderer prosecuted and why when he was assassinated did vandals write death threats on the walls of the Armenian churches? And where are the Armenians who used to inhabit the ruined village above my friend's village in Tunceli? And why does Taner Akcam, noted Turkish historian of the genocide, get regular death threats from Turks trying to prove their ancestors were not murderers. (If you say my great grandfather was a murderer I'll kill you to prove we do not kill!!) And why does a Turkish historian, Hilda Potuoglu merit a fifteen year jail sentence for insulting Turkey because she wrote a footnote in an Encyclopedia that said "Cilicia was under the dominion of Armenians during the Crusades?" And why does my girlfriend have a great aunt who once was an Armenian but pretended to be a Kurd after the Turkish gendarmes massacred her village? I told this to my Turkish teacher who said, "Oh I know lots of people with hidden Armenian relatives." Well why did they have to hide? What were they running from? And why have they not been able to come out and say who they are? And why do Turks keep talking about the cultural richness of Istanbul--all the different communities and peoples--and yet draw a blank when asked to point out one of these largely vanished communities. (Oh yes, there are stragglers--but Kadikoy used to be filled with Greeks). And why do traces of this community keep popping up around me, in anecdotes, in ruins, in biographies of favorite authors, and yet official accounts deny their existence? Why can author William Dalrymple write about a graveyard with mixed Ottoman, Greek, and Armenian graves one year, and then go back the next to find all the Armenian graves gone; only to ask the locals about what happened and have them deny that they were ever there in the first place? Why were ancient churches in Kars destroyed with bombs and yet Selcuk mosques meticulously preserved? And what was Kemal Ataturk referring to when he called what was done against the Armenians as "a shameful act." And all this is just the circumstantial evidence. There's tons of official evidence (though a gaggle of revisionists deny every last piece of it with the aforementioned holy trinity of excuses) A few of which feels worth mentioning because they illustrate how badly the government is betraying its citizens by denying them access to their true heroes. Celal Pasha of Aleppo. Why was Celal Pasha dismissed from duty for not deporting elderly women and children from Zeytun? Or Mazhar Bey, who was removed from governorship of Ankara when he pretended not to understand the orders he was given. "Then one day," he said in his testimony at the Istanbul trials, "Arif Bey came to me and orally conveyed the minister's orders that the Armenians were to be murdered during the deportation. I said I am a governor, not a bandit. I cannot do this." Or Reshit Pasha of Kastamonu who was fired after he refused, quote, "to stain my hands with blood." Or any of the hundreds of people who hid Armenian children to protect them.
The craven, mendacious crap that passes for a history class at my high school is the true insult to Turkish people. It denies them the right to find their own better natures. It puts shit in their face and tells them to call it a rose and then punishes them if they don't.
I'm not trying to be uppity or holier than thou. I've been to Hiroshima. I've felt the sting of a kind of national shame. I've stared horrified at the bomb dome as little children came up to ask "Why did America do this?" And I've believed bullshit about my own history. But there's just something about that kid earnestly trying to grapple with world-shaking, historical tragedies, trying to find a moral voice, while sitting under a poster that makes the perpetrators of the first modern genocide sound like the victims, that in effect robs him of the ability to have any true moral voice, ever, because it teaches him to never take responsibility for past wrongs. And it made me sorry for him. Sorry for everyone in that doomed, wretched class.