Reflections on April 24

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Now that some time has passed since the commemoration events held in Istanbul, I can finally freely post some photos and also part of the journal I was keeping at the time.

Firstly, I should say that the events planned by Project 2015 were phenomenal. They were brilliantly organized and executed. The organizers were gracious and caring to all the attendees, and they were well prepared for the days’ events. I unfortunately was not in Istanbul to attend the legendary memorial concert on April 22 featuring Onnik and Ara Dinkjian among other fine musicians, but from what I understand it was a moving performance (and apparently is on YouTube).

It was my first trip to Istanbul, and it was without a doubt one of the greatest adventures of my life. As you’ll see in photos I will post soon, Istanbul is a colorful, dynamic city where nothing seems to be impossible. Although I primarily spent all my time there in the Beyoglu district  and also the Golden Horn, I felt a peculiar, indescribable bond with the city, as if I had been away for several decades. For many years I vowed to never set foot in Turkey, not until the government recognized the Armenian Genocide. But some time ago I started getting over that. I realized that regardless of anything, Turkey–Western Armenia–is the home of my ancestors, and whether the Turks acknowledge the genocide or not, my roots are still there. That land is awaiting me.

I did not feel that there was anything relevant for me personally in being in Yerevan for the 24th. Nothing compelled me to march up Tsisternakaberd once again, droopy tulips in hand. The centennial was an event, it was a milestone, and for countless others like me, something had to be done differently this time around. I had heard one argument that by choosing to commemorate the centennial in Istanbul people were looking back in time instead of forward. I disagree. There was no other place on earth more symbolic for holding Armenian Genocide commemoration events than Istanbul.

Below are my notes recorded at the end of that day.

April 24, 2015

The day was an emotional one. It wasn’t depressing for me, however. Perhaps that’s because I was caught up in the shock of being here.

Yesterday as I debarked the airplane at Ataturk Airport a strange thought came to my head — was I home now? This musing was ironic since I had arrived from Yerevan, my home for 10 years. It’s where my children were born. But my roots are in Anatolia, not the South Caucasus. So was I home? Does it matter that I have no family ties to Constantinople? How does my identity as an American factor into this?

This question was reinforced by other feelings, emotions that I wanted to subdue yet they were there, cacophonous in the soul but somehow latent. It started late in the evening and continued this morning. I contemplated that I was looking for a connection with my past in the wrong place all these years. It’s as if I was deceiving myself. My ancestral home is indeed Anatolia. It’s not Yerevan, it’s not anywhere in the Armenian republic. I still feel the need to go home. Yegheki is waiting. Sousoury is waiting. Urfa is waiting. These places are all expecting me, I sense it, I can even taste it. I’m almost there. I’m looking for the right time to go, with the supportive companionship I will undoubtedly need to have. I can’t take that trip home alone, not the first time there.

It was a full day of visiting historic locations from mid-morning to late afternoon, from the site where Gomidas Vartabed once resided in Istanbul (the original building having been raised decades ago), to the jailhouse where the arrested intellectuals were detained (which is now called the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art) to the Haydarpasa train station via ferry from where these same intellectuals were sent by railcar to their doom.

At 6:30 pm I set out for the site that is sanctioned for the protest adjacent to Taksim Square on Istiklal Street, but I decided to bypass it and walk up Tarlabasi Street instead, then left onto Zambak. At the Zambak-Istiklal intersection I met a barricade of police. Men and women in full riot gear were on the sidelines, preparing for the worst. There was a rumbling chant in the distance coming from far down Istiklal Street. What appeared to be hundreds of people (close to 5000 protesters assembled that evening) were already gathered for the protest but there was no way of getting to them; the policeman told me the area was “closed.” I walked all the way around the block via a side street I luckily managed to discover only to be told on Taksim Square that the area was blocked off—the same secure police barrier was there as well. I told a policeman that I wanted to join my friends, that I was an Armenian. He told me to go back to the other side, where I had just been. I rushed back, weaving in and out of the chain of random pedestrians strolling about, clueless of the protest that was about to formally start. When I finally returned the chants were now louder because marchers entered the protest area walking right past me. For a moment I stood in fear thinking that Kemalists had managed to enter the area sanctioned for the protest. Then I saw the placards that people were holding and I was relieved. The signs told us not to forget Sevag Balikci, the soldier serving in the Turkish military who was murdered on April 24, 2011. They demanded that the genocide be admitted. I saw familiar faces, close friends nearby. There was a call and response method to the chanting. The power it transmitted was overpowering, exhilarating. It was unlike any protest I have ever participated in—the emotions, the intensity of the moment, the energy transmitted from person to person as if a rolling wave in a calm sea. The chanting continued for several minutes before the mass sit-in protest officially began. Thousands sat on the brick pavement, listening to speeches being read in Turkish, Armenian and English. Amongst us were Turks, Armenians from Istanbul and across the Diaspora, French, Darfuri. Occasionally recordings of spiritual music performed with modern arrangements were played on the loudspeakers. The mood was solemn; I discerned one woman in particular holding back tears.

I wanted to weep but I couldn’t. The chants of the oppositional anti-Armenian protests in the distance kept breaking the mood to mourn. I yearned to weep for my great-grandfather Nishan Guetchudian, who never watched his daughter Clara grow up. There are no photos of him, no traces. It’s as if he never existed. I wanted to imagine my grandfather Hagop surviving on the streets of Aleppo, compelled to eat weeds, picking through gravel and dirt in search of nails or anything made of metal to sell to a blacksmith so he could buy a loaf of bread—or perhaps two loaves, one being a distraction for the dozens of other starving children hovering around him, begging for a morsel. I wanted to imagine how infant Lusine Mahakian, comforted by her mother and her siblings managed to flee Urfa for Syria, sheltered from time to time by acquaintances. But I can’t. How can anyone possibly fathom having to survive an inferno of devastation, slaughter, rot, famine and filth? How do you begin to imagine it all? It’s not possible. You can stare all you want at the photographs of decapitated heads piled up in pyramids of evil, bewildered women roaming while clutching their babes, the gallows where dozens of devastated men sway, emaciated, decomposing children laid tightly beside one another in rows that never seem to end. It’s simply not possible for us to in any way to visualize that hell as if we were there in the moment. And we are better for that. Our martyrs would not want us to imagine it. One hundred years later they beckon us not to forget them, while imploring us to move on.

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Haydarpasa
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Haydarpasa protest
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Haydarpasa protest
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In front of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, previously known as the gate to hell a century back
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Taksim Square Protest, additional photos below

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