The Other Side of the Mountain

Published by the Institute for Global Engagement, Washington D.C., 7 October 2005

For me, there were two boundaries; in the West there was the deep blue of the Aegean, and in the East the shy face of Mt. Ararat smiling behind a veil of mist. Beyond these two borders there were "the others," whose names we never knew and from whom we have been separated a long time ago. Few of us really knew why or when they became the "others," even though there were many traces of them in our country, Turkey. We walked by their empty church buildings and forgotten cemeteries. Every now and then we would hear about them and what they wanted us to hear, but life was too busy and their names were so different that it would take only few seconds to forget it all.

So it was the curiosity fueled by years of mystery that pushed me to join Baroness Caroline Cox — a member of U.K. House of Lords and renowned Christian human rights activist — on a recent trip to Armenia and Karabakh. How did the mountain look from the East? Who were my neighbors, these people so close and so far away in the same time? Would I be welcomed if I were to go to their houses?

Indeed, I discovered that the mountain looked as beautiful as she looked from the West. Much to my surprise, I learned that my dignified nose, which I believed marked me as a Turk, is also an easy-to-recognize trademark among my neighbors. Our foods have much the same names and tastes and our songs carry similar tunes. (Thus there is one more competitor — the Armenians — in the never ending fight between Turks and Greeks about the origins of baklava and dolma!)

As they shared their vodka and bread with me, opened their houses for me to stay and hosted me with genuine warmth, and as I learned their names, heard their stories, and saw their pain, isolation and dreams, their voices became real. My assumptions about Armenians as "others" from a near but faraway land melted away and my ears were finally tuned into their long suffering and hopeful whispers.

The issues that surround the mountain are very complicated indeed. First of all there are the never ending arguments about the sad deaths of many innocent people during the chaotic times that followed the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Should it be called a genocide or massacre or mere collateral damage? From the Turkish point of view acceptance of the word "genocide" or even the number of people killed seems impossible. For the Armenians who still feel its immense pain as a nation, official acceptance of those deaths by Turkey seems to be the only way to forgive the past and find healing. What's more, this historic problem is an ever growing diplomatic tension for Turkey's international status and desire to be a member of the EU.

The problem has been further exacerbated by the closing of the border between Turkey and Armenia, owing to the clash between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh. When the USSR collapsed, its policies of interdependence and relocation of various groups collapsed as well. The green and lush lands of Karabakh thereby became vulnerable in the face of newly rising Central Asian nations. The result of this for the people of Karabakh, Azerian and Armenian alike, was the loss of their homes, sons, and neighbors. The ambitious campaigns led to a war and an eventual, if not several thousand deaths late, truce. With Armenia invading a portion of Azerbaijan in order to establish a link with Karabakh, and Nagorno Karabakh establishing its own government (which had not been recognized internationally), the truce remains fragile.

While sipping slowly a hot cup of coffee (which to the west of the mountain was called Turkish and Armenian east of it), the issues seemed to me to be unsolvable. Yet the pain, ignorance, prejudice, and alienation was so imminent and real, like the bitter taste of the strong coffee in my mouth, that it was an imperative to face them. We simply cannot wait till these issues are fully resolved at the political level, since the contemporary political problems find their source in these ongoing social realities, thus creating a vicious cycle.

"Can there ever be a way to break this cycle?" I asked myself in a church that survived the war in Karabakh. The only answer that found me at that moment was the colorless tear that slowly slid down my face and landed on the dust. I wondered how many refugees, widows, and mothers cried in the same church for a miracle. Did I really have the faith to ask this mountain of prejudice, pain and hatred to move away and drown itself in the deepest ocean?

As many other questions joined more tears, I sensed a gentle hand on my shoulder. My new Armenian friend spoke of God's love and concern and power. We sat there in front of the cross holding hands; one Turkish and one Armenian Christian, who both felt uncomfortable at each others company in the beginning. The beautiful Armenian cross poured Water of Life from its center. Life came from the very symbol of human misery, wretchedness, hatred, pain and shame. That life brought reconciliation between God and human. Once the human being was forgiven and her relationship with the source of life was restored, she too was able to offer a caring hand to her neighbor, realizing the same need of forgiveness she shared with him.

During the evening I raised my toast in the proper Armenian way to my gracious and kind hosts. With the same forgiveness I found from that Water, I asked for forgiveness — forgiveness for not knowing, not paying attention, not caring and not running to their pain. What burnt my chest was not the vodka, but the tears of my new Armenian friends which sealed my prayer: no matter what the past was, through forgiveness and love there would be a future for us to be together again.

As for the mountain, it still stands as glorious as it has always been since Noah's days, but now I know who lives on the other side. Now, when I think of its snow capped summit, the sky does not end there for me. I know that I share that summit with millions of broken but hopeful people. And now in the sacredness of my room I pray daily; "Father, give me faith, so big that it would blush the face of the proud mustard seed!"