A Turkish teacher from Izmir who lived at the hotel where I was staying showed me pictures of old Armenian grave stones which he pulled up on his iPhone and which he said were from somewhere nearby, but he wasn’t sure where. An employee at the hotel said he knew, and would take me there at 2:00pm when his shift ended. So there I was at 2:00pm, and he wasn’t. So I sat and drank tea with the teacher while listening to Aerosmith and Bob Marley on his laptop. He drank beer that he kept out of sight on the seat next to him, smoking cigarettes and fingering his prayer beads.
The hotel desk clerk, with little else to do, wandered over and joined us. He was a man of about 60, with tobacco-stained teeth, and he was Kurdish, as is just about everyone else in this town who doesn’t work for the government. The teacher asked him if he knew where the old Armenian tombs were. No, he didn’t, but he did know what happened to the Armenians. He rattled off his story, accompanied by much smiling and chuckling, about his mother’s father and his father’s father and how they had killed the Armenians. I looked puzzled, wondering if I had misunderstood, and looked at the teacher. He laughed and drew his finger across his throat in a cutting motion. I turned back to the desk clerk, and asked: “Why?” The teacher answered for him and said: “Because they were dangerous.” I turned back to the desk clerk and asked again, “Why?” So he started explaining about how the Kurds and the Turks and the Armenians and the “Rum” (an old term for Greek) all lived peacefully together. But then the war — World War I — came and the Russian Army took Bitlis and the city was largely destroyed. The Armenians, fellow Orthodox Christians with the Russians, started fighting on the side of the Russians. And so the Kurds, including his grandfathers, began killing the Armenians. “And are there any Armenians left around here anymore?” “Oh yes”, they both assured me, but now they’re Muslims. “Why?”, I asked yet again. “Because they were afraid”, said the teacher, as his friend mimed the act of pointing a rifle.
Just then an old man with a cane came into the hotel and asked for money. The two men I was sitting with immediately reached for their pockets, but I was faster, and gave the old man a couple of coins. He thanked me, and started to leave. One of the men with me called out and said “You know this man here is Christian, right?” The old man gravely thanked me again, and left.
I believe that my brain, already spinning, began to get dizzy at this point.
The Turkish government still remains unwilling to admit to much of this, over than that “it was war” and there was killing on both sides. What makes this very strange is that these events took place a century ago, they happened under the rule of the Ottoman Empire which is no more, and a good deal of the killing seems to have been done by Kurds. Within the current borders of Turkey, Armenians once lived in much of the same territory as Kurds. In today’s Turkey, of course, it is the Kurds who are the oppressed.
So, the Turkish government has several ways to, if they chose, put distance between themselves and responsibility for these long-ago wartime massacres of Armenians while admitting nonetheless that they happened — but chooses not to. Turkish schools teach the children a very one-sided version of events, while focusing mainly on the Turks killed by Armenians, while Turkish museums tell a similar story, as in the museums in Erzurum and Van. This of course infuriates the Armenians in Armenia and throughout their world-wide diaspora, and has done so throughout the history of the Turkish Republic.
Nationalism can take many strange and twisted forms and it’s hard to see much good in it. In this part of the world, as with everywhere else humans live and have ever lived, tribe goes to war against tribe. As they do, yesterday’s oppressors often become the oppressed, and vice-versa.