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Observer: They say ‘incident’. To me it’s genocide

There is a Turkish
saying: ‘A sword won’t cut without inspiration from the pen.’

Orhan
Pamuk, wielder of Turkey’s finest pen, has spoken and cut a swath
through his country’s conscience. His most recent novel Snow was set in
Kars and peppered with references to the Armenian culture of that
formerly Armenian city. Brilliant novelist, translated in 20 languages,
winner of international prizes, he has become a hate figure.

His
crime was one sentence in an interview with the Swiss newspaper
Tagesanzeiger this month. ‘Thirty thousand Kurds and a million
Armenians were killed in Turkey. Almost no one dares speak but me, and
the nationalists hate me for that.’ All hell broke loose. The press
attacked him for dishonouring the Turkish state and incitement to
racial violence. He has been called a liar, ‘a miserable creature’ and
a ‘black writer’ in the daily Hurriyet. Professor Hikmet Ozdemir, head
of the Armenian studies department at the Turkish Union of Historians,
rejected his statement as a ‘great lie’.

A
lone voice, Halil Berktay, professor at Sabanci University, supported
Pamuk: ‘In 1915-16 about 800,000 or one million Armenians were killed
for sure.’

Mehmet
Üçok, an attorney, filed charges at the Kayseri public
prosecutor’s
office. Another charge was filed by Kayseri Bar Association attorney
Orhan Pekmezci: ‘Pamuk has made groundless claims against the Turkish
identity, the Turkish military and Turkey as a whole. He should be
punished for violating Articles 159 and 312 of the Turkish penal code.
He made a statement provoking the people to hatred and animosity
through the media, which is defined as a crime in Article 312.’

I
find this ironic. My mother’s family was deported from the historic
Armenian city of Kayseri, leaving their murdered menfolk behind.

I
was recently in Istanbul lecturing on my biography of Armenian-American
artist Arshile Gorky, the basis for the controversial genocide movie
Ararat. Official permission for my talk required me not to utter the
word ‘genocide’ to refer to the Ottoman empire’s systematic
deportations, tortures and killings of two million Armenians which
Gorky witnessed. I might refer to those ‘incidents’. The crime has
never been acknowledged by successive Turkish governments, Britain or
the United States.

Recent
discussions of Turkey’s possible entry into the EU were dominated by
France and other countries demanding that Turkey first admit the
Armenian genocide. What if Britain had a law forbidding criticism of
its history, identity, or the armed forces? Turkey has far to go to
reach the legal standards of EU members, with their humane and
non-discriminatory laws aiming at standards of truth and reason. So
much hatred. So much anger. What does Turkey have to hide?

‘Pamuk
has always defended freedom of speech and thought, the rights of
minorities,’ writes Hrant Dink, owner of the Armenian Turkish-language
weekly Agos . ‘For 90 years we Armenians have been abused, insulted and
discriminated against. We cannot enter certain professions, we
Turkified our names. We have learnt to survive and endure without
protest. Maybe it is time that the Turkish people also learnt tolerance
and endurance from us.’

In
London, a thinly veiled propaganda exercise at the Royal Academy
trumpets Turkish empires, making far-reaching claims about the origins
of the ‘Turkic peoples’. Echoes of master-race ideology. Pamuk himself
writes in the Academy journal: ‘Turks gripped by romantic myths of
nationalism are keen to establish that we come from Mongolia or central
Asia… scholars have come no closer to offering definitive or
convincing evidence to link us with a particular time and place.’

In
the show the contributions of other nationals in the Ottoman empire –
Armenians, Greeks and Jews – are not credited. Yet their handiwork is
everywhere, in architecture, pottery, carpets, manuscripts.

Britain colludes in
this travesty for the sake of oil interests in Azerbaijan, Turkey’s
closest ally.

Akin
Birdal, vice-president of the International Federation of Human Rights
Leagues, emphasises: ‘No matter we have come to the 90th year of
“incidents” Orhan Pamuk talked about, these will of course be discussed
on domestic and international platforms. The aggressions carried out
against Pamuk are those which have been carried out against thought.
Pamuk is not alone.’ Pamuk has cut the Gordian knot. He has become the
hero of every right-thinking person in Turkey and every Armenian
worldwide.

·Nouritza
Matossian is author of ‘Black Angel, A Life of Arshile Gorky’ .

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