Published in Turkish Daily News, 15 September
The 20th century is full of things that we wish never happened, but they happened and nothing can undo them. Even though both Plato and Nietzsche urged us to start tabula rasa with a mighty and necessary lie that will enable the youth to forget the past completely, we know all too well that what is left in oblivion is always more present than we would ever want it to be. Forgetting is not an option, if not impossible, but mere remembering alone does not guarantee that things will happen “never again.” The battle we need to fight is not only against “too much forgetting” and “too much remembering,” both of which destroy the present and any chance of a better future, but also against how and what we remember.
I don't remember at what age I first came to learn about the Holocaust, but I vividly remember what I felt when I read each page Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl wrote. As my academic interests took me deeper into genocides and ethnic violence, my realization that normal people like me had turned out to be mass murderers has shaken my trust completely in my own and human beings' goodness. However, it was also within the same darkness that I have come to find hope in the deep and profound human potential to love and sacrifice for the other.
Hanna Arendt recounted the story of a German soldier, Anton Schmid, who disobeyed his orders and helped the rescue of 250 Jews till his execution by the Nazis. In his last letter to his wife, Schmid told her that he “merely behaved as a human being” when he risked his own life. After sharing the effect of listening to the story of Schmid during the Eichmann trial, Arendt noted; “How utterly different everything would have been in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told."
This is exactly what Holocaust memorials have tried to do. With the Jewish concept of ‘Righteous Gentiles', Jews have found the moral backbone to not only remember the destruction and brutality but also the great courage and virtue that has been showed by non-Jews in risking their own lives to save their Jewish neighbors. There is a section dedicated to them in memorial sites, and Holocaust movies almost always include helpful Gentile characters.
While remembering the human truth in all of its beauty and darkness at the same time, the memory of the Holocaust has moved from being exclusively a Jewish memory. It is now the memory of our old race, the memory of the moment that humanity failed, not just Nazi Germany. It's because it has shifted from being exclusively a memory of ‘perpetrator Nazis' killing ‘Jews', both Jews and Germans and all of us can mourn together for what has happened.
I similarly don't remember when I first came to hear about massacres of Armenians, but I remember how I cried in the memorial in Yerevan for hours for all that has happened. I still shiver with pain each time I see pictures and hear stories of families scattered around the world. However, as I continued to read and reflect on memorial practices and sites, I have come to be increasingly worried that there were hardly any mention of ‘righteous Turks'- Turks who risked their lives to save their Armenian friends or even complete strangers – in the literature and commemorations. This is disturbing, given that a significant portion of Armenians who survived deportations would testify to the roles played by such Turkish friends in their escapes.
Failure to acknowledge the presence of these people not only betrays the truthfulness of the recollected accounts, but also reduces a historical event to its darkest moment without showing us all of its complexities. This failure automatically prepares the ground for dehumanization and stereotyping, which would have us believe the opposite of what we all know about the human condition: the line separating good and evil goes through the heart of each individual and given the right set of conditions we - regardless of race, nationality, gender, education, class and religion – are all vulnerable to commit the most grotesque violence against our neighbors.
For this reason, I have personally begun a web-based initiative, named Project Common Humanity, or PCH, to gather the untold stories of courage, virtue and sacrifice. My humble and limited attempt is in no way meant to undermine the suffering of the victims or even getting involved in debates on whether or not what happened was genocide. My only desire is that as we remember not only the pain but also the human beauty, we will come to see what happened under the broken shadow of Ararat not in terms of ‘Armenians' and ‘Turks', but as ‘our story'.
So if you know any such story, published or not, please consider sharing it with all of us. Visit PCH's amateurish blog and send your stories in Turkish or English. And join me to celebrate what unites us in an age that is obsessed with fixing what separates us.
Monday, 15 September 2008
Monday, 1 September 2008
Published in Turkish Daily News, 1 September
I still remember the inquisitive looks of the Chinese students who listened carefully to a presentation I gave on Turkey while I was doing a course at a university in central China. Following a few relatively legitimate questions, one postgraduate student left me answerless (if there is such a word in English). With confidence and a heavy accent he asked; “what are the Chinese influences in Turkey?”
This was some 7 years ago and there were hardly any Chinese present in Turkey, only a handful of odd Chinese restaurants in the big cities. When I explained that we did consume Chinese products, but that there is really no tangible Chinese influence or involvement in Turkey, his tone turned sharper and more aggressive. He said; “surely there are Chinese communities, towns, businessmen and Chinese government investments in Turkey.” And subjected me to a tiresome mini-lecture on Chinese civilization and what great inspiration it has been for people in the world. Having been almost beaten up by two drunk Chinese men the night before, who thought I was an American, I humbly accepted that China rules!
What the Olympics showed:
All throughout the Beijing 2008 Olympics, I kept thinking about that postgraduate student. What did he make of the Olympics? Or more importantly, what do the millions of educated and increasingly dangerous patriotic Chinese youth see the international legacy of the Beijing Olympics to be? Has the world bowed down in front of the raising Dragon? Has the Middle-Kingdom (literal translation of the Chinese word for China; Zhonguo) finally assumed the central position it has always thought itself to deserve? Yes and No, but mostly No!
China has showed us that it can deliver the cookies, meet the deadlines and meet all expected infrastructure standards to a good quality. Great Britain, still haunted with the memories of Wembley Stadium and the Millennium Dome, will struggle to match the Chinese success on this front.
China has showed us that it has a remarkable amount of money it can dispose of for an event. That's one thing the UK will never be able to do, as the British public will never accept their government spending 25 billion pounds on an ego boost. It is already struggling to justify its humble 9 billion pound budget, which is higher than the initial estimations.
China has showed us that is has a remarkable amount of human resources it can dispose of with great control. Zhang Yimou, the artistic mind behind the opening and closing ceremonies, noted rather proudly that after North Korea, only the Chinese had the skills to perform such mass choreographies that we saw. According to the renowned director, Westerners lack the necessary discipline. I am not sure if it can ever be a point of pride to declare that only the country who can top China with its social management skills is a country with work (read death) camps and absolute totalitarian brutality.
Behind the scenes:
China showed us that it can be, or at least attempt to be, trendy, cool and warm, in its own way and with its own charm. But China has also inevitably showed us the face behind the mask. The computer animated fireworks and the cute girl lip-syncing the next-door-neighbors-kid's voice are the simplest confirmations that short term beautifying projects can't wipe away long-term ugliness.
Before, during and after the Olympic Games, the Chinese police detained, harassed, ‘cracked down' on, and forcefully removed from their homes those subversive people who stubbornly continued to insist on being treated as human beings. Others were banned from entering Beijing all together. The Chinese activists, religious leaders, and victims, who gave interviews to international media, disappeared after the interviews. The Tibet issue has always been the sexiest of the human rights issues in China, yet so much suffering was airbrushed over during the Olympics.
China's horrible domestic human rights track record, extremely dark and aggressive involvement in Africa and the dodgy backing of all possible dodgy countries of the world remain unshaken. So, after all that has been said and done, the arguments that the Olympics might bring an improvement on the human rights situation and force a maverick country into genuine relationship with the rest of the world have been washed away with that famous itsy-bitsy spider.
The outcome of the other main argument, that the Olympics and the number of foreign visitors to the country will help in opening the eyes of the Chinese society, has yet to prove itself true or be declared hallow. Given the internet terror launched by patriotic Chinese hackers and the self-gratification that the completion of the games without any major glitch gave birth to, it seems that none of the reactions against the Olympic torch or concerns of the international community have gone deeply under the skin.
The global public opinion, which has an extremely short memory span, will mainly remember the amazing World Records we witnessed, and then every now and then the magnificent opening ceremony. It is the sport - athletes and athletic achievements that makes the Olympics what it is, not the excess of narcissism maintenance efforts of its temporary host. To that extent, the legacy of the Beijing Olympics will always be remembered as ‘that Olympics where we have seen the super-human beings who ran and swam way faster than we could have imagined.