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The Critical Corner - 03/10/2008

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Why we should read...

You Rejoice My Heart by Kemal  Yalcin
English translation by Paul  Bessemer

(383pp, 2007, Tekeyan Cultural  Association
in collaboration with Gomidas Institute)
(Distributed by the  Gomidas Institute (http://www.gomidas.org/))

Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

March 10, 2008


`You Rejoice My Heart' by Turkish poet and novelist Kemal Yalcin is a
remarkable record of his journey among Turkey's hidden Armenians.To be
properly appreciated however, in the first instance it must be read
without reference to contemporary conflicts, debates or animosities
that dog Armenian-Turkish relations. Recording and remarking on the
experience Armenians who survived the genocide of 1915 but continued
living in Turkey as hidden Armenians, `You Rejoice My Heart' is a tale
of the human spirit and of the triumph of a vision of a common
humanity. Its relevance is tremendous for all who live in states
marred by national oppression, ethnic animosities and religious
sectarianism.
 
Combining features of the novel, memoir, autobiography and political
history blended together with gripping poetic prose `Rejoice My Heart'
brings together men and women whose lives have been fashioned by fear
of retribution from a state that cultivates hatred for everything
Armenian. Poignantly it measures the emotional and psychological cost
of having to disguise national identity, suppress memories of historic
catastrophes that were experienced as personal tragedies, of having to
pray in the dark of midnight, of having to speak one's own language
behind closed doors or not at all. But most importantly it tells of
the enduring nobility of spirit by those who have had an aspect of
their very essence entombed in dark and debilitating silence.

Kemal Yalcin's stories of his meetings with Armenians and of the
Turkish people who helped arrange these are testimony to the reality
of a common humanity, one that does not however disregard
nationality. They grasp the primacy love of land as the foundation and
source of life's nourishment for all who cultivate it. They speak of
love and laughter, sadness and pain that are comprehensible and can be
shared by all even as they sound to the music, poetry and song of
different cultural traditions and national languages. They tell of the
possibility of national pride that is not sectarian, of national
identity that is not a slogan for demagogic abuse, of a cultural
tradition that is not a political programme for ethnic cleansing, but
are all expressions of different colours of a common humanity. Theirs
are stories of triumph against nationalist, ethnic and religious
hatreds. Throughout these truths emerge not from dry theory or
didactic authorial commentary but from artistically grasped, lived
autobiographical confession.


				  I.

In 1992, together with other Turkish teachers in Germany, Kemal Yalcin
attended a course that was being taught by Meline, an Armenan citizen
of Turkey.  Kemal was enchanted by her charm and her beauty. Noting
that Meline `exposed us to examples of German, Turkish, French - even
Chinese poetry...and...parables' he asks: `But why didn't you ever
give us any examples of Armenian parables, Armenian folk tales,
Armenian poems?

It was Meline's answer that prompted Kemal on his journey:

    `I've waited six years for that question... I have taught as many
    as one hundred and fifty teachers. Not a single one has ever come
    up and said `Meline you're Armenian. You have your own parables,
    folk tales, and poems in your own language.' ...How could I tell
    (one)... when at the beginning of our course, (some) one...
    complained about me... saying `How can an Armenian teach Turkish
    to Turkish teachers?'

Her pain is borne from the silence, the denial and the hostility for
her sense of nationality and her national identity that for her are
not nationalist haughtiness but a part of her very being, the sum of
memories, the collection of stories, songs, poetry and music that has
shaped her being and helped her comprehend everyday life.  Ignoring or
abusing her national identity is akin to ignoring and abusing her
humanity. A part of her remains invisible, as if entombed in a dark
debilitating silence.

Shocked that he `could overlook the mother tongue of my Armenian
teacher from Istanbul' even as he defended `the right of everyone in
the world to learn their mother tongue' Kemal travels through Turkey
and discovers some most remarkable men and women, Armenian and Turkish
- people such as Ohan Ozan, Baba Yusuf, Vahram Karabents, Zakarya,
Jale, Safiye and others.  As if to compensate for the silence they
have suffered he amplifies their memories in writing that can reduce
one to tears and shows us humanity that endures beyond all the abuse,
humiliation and degradation that is the toxic debris of national
chauvinist projects.

Safiye's mother, an Armenian from Amasya, survives the `Deportations'
of 1915. But she and her family still are its victims. If her Armenian
religion, songs and tradition was the soil that nurtured her spirit,
these are now torn away from her. She lives among Turks who are not
unfriendly. But she cannot live as herself. She cannot live as an
Armenian. She must act as if the Genocide never happened. She has
memories, terrible stories yet she cannot tell. `Until today' says
Safiye `I've never told anyone about those bitter days, about that
calamity... about how my mother was left all alone with no one in the
world.' (p58) Responding to Kemal's questions Armenian Ohan Ozant says
`You should have come here ten or fifteen years ago!  There were many
(hidden Armenians). But back then not a single Turk ever knocked my
door. You are the first.  But you're late. Everyone has since passed
away.' (p106)

Surrounded by silence and worse, survivors like Safiye's mother have
no hope healing their emotional wounds. Safiye remembers that `those
(of her mother's family) who were sent away never came back, you
couldn't ask what had happened to them and they never found out a
thing.'  Her mother`never heard another thing about her father or
mother.' (p59) The sharpness of lasting pain is felt also by Vahram
Karabent who was only 10 during the Genocide:

    `What was the weather like on the day they took my father,
    grandfather and uncles away? What season was it? I can't remember.
    But I can still clearly see in my mind like it was yesterday, the
    way they tore my father from my mother's arms. I still see it in
    my dreams.  I'm more than ninety now, but I still dream about
    those days.  (p118)

In Diyarbekir `crypto Armenians' survived by publicly converted to
Islam.  However they fear imminent violence and brutalisation if ever
their Armenian identity were to surface. It distorts their entire
being. `We were all alone!'  says Haci Ibrahim.  `We lived in constant
fear, but nobody said a thing... Throughout my youth I suffered the
pain of this humiliation a great deal. I would eat myself up inside
every time I experienced such injustices or humiliations... These
fears made me close up and turn inward. I developed a fear of
conflicts and would run from all fights every time people came to
blows. (p305)

In these autobiographies Kemal Yalcin also salvages valuable primary
sources for a history of Armenian-Turkish relations in the 20th
century. Questions of detail aside their testimony is in accord with
the any rigorous investigations of the 1915 Genocide. Beyond this they
also register that for those who escaped death, many with assistance
from Turkish and Kurdish neighbours, post-1923 Republican Turkey, of
which Armenians were supposedly citizens, proved another sort of
nightmare. Armenian lands were not returned and settled instead by
Turkish refugees from Greece. Interestingly the lion's share went not
to ordinary Turks but to the elite.  Laws restricted the public use of
Armenian and enforced the Turkification of Armenian names. Armenian
history was banned from school curricula and Armenians were prohibited
from taking posts in higher education or the civil service.

>From a psychoanalytical point of view one could argue that the Turkish
elite's unyielding animosity for all and anything Armenian suggests a
terrible guilt complex, a fear of the consequences of their crime
against humanity being exposed.


				  II

More persuasively than any book of political theory Kemal Yalcin's
`You Rejoice My Heart' shows that life itself, lived experience,
asserts the possibility of a universal humanism above all nationality,
race or religion. Despite living distorted and twisted lives the men
and women he meets still transform their suffering and pain into
hope. They still dream of a world in which all nationalities and
religions can coexist.

Battling against her Armenian family's hostility Safiye surmounts all
obstacles to marry the Turkish man she loves. Turkish communist Jale
tells of her love for left-wing Armenian Zakarya and of how they defied
so-called `comrades' who were incensed that a Turk would marry an
Armenian. `What sort of leftist movement was this' she exclaims that
`singing and shouting about all persons being equal' `were warning me
that `Zakarya's an Armenian. You can't marry him.' Human solidarity
across national boundaries is the dream even of those whose experience
of national oppression is most bitter. Krikor Ceyhan forced to adopt a
Turkish name and the age of 8 and feeling the `measure of the great
sorrows of the past embedded in his flesh and bones' still says that
he does not `love a person simply because he or she is Armenian, but
because he is good and intelligent... There are both tame and wild
dogs in the world. There are Kurds, Turks, Armenians and Greeks'

Left wing Zakarya resents the fact that `it was officially forbidden
for Armenian children to learn their own history' and that his
identity card does not name his nationality. But still he dreams of

    `a world, a country in which I could live freely and as a human
    being...  These ideas of freedom, brotherhood and equality-made me
    who I was.'  (p220)

Sultan Bakircigil forced to live as a Muslim, called an `infidel ant'
who feels the `bitterness of having to hide one's origins' does not:

    `...at all blame all Kurds and Turks for what happened. My grief,
    my pain is with those who planned this disaster... I don't harbour
    any enmity, either towards Turks or Kurds... I just want peace of
    mind! I don't want to be humiliated by people calling me `convert'
    or `infidel'; I don't want to have to act like a Muslim when I
    don't believe in Islam. I don't what to have to hide the fact that
    I'm Armenian, neither in Germany nor in Adryaman. I want to be
    seen as who I am, and I want to be as I am seen.' (p341)

The same humanity echoes when Kemal opens the memories of ordinary
Turkish people. At the outset of his journey within his very wary
family his mother supports his venture insisting `aren't the Armenians
also God's servants? Baba Yusuf from Askale rebels against the silence
about the abuse of Armenians tells of the deadly labour camps reserved
for Armenians and other Christians who failed to pay tax demands
designed to eliminate them from the economy:

    `It's a shame what happened to those men! Everyone knows what was
    done to them... But they wont' open their mouths out of fear.
    We've all been silent, haven't said a word... But how long should
    we remain silent... What you'd like to know, ask! Turn on your
    tape recorder, take a picture of me. Even write down my
    name... Let the whole nation know!'  (p86)

Kemal Yalcin has let the nation and the world know! In opposition to
the Turkish elite's pervasive hatred for Armenians and their denial
and abuse of Armenians and their national identity he has shown the
ordinary Turkish man and woman. He has also shown that the elite's
denial and destruction of Armenian history and reality, its abuse and
humiliation of Armenian people is also denial and abuse of Turkish
history and culture to which Armenians have made their invaluable
contribution.

`You Rejoice My Heart' addresses all human beings with a proclamation
that all men and women of all nationalities, ethnicities and religions
are of the same human race.

Yet even as he bolsters hope for the future, we cannot escape, it is
impossible to escape the deeply tragic, the painfully sad dimension of
`Your Rejoice My Heart'. For it is the story also of the final stages
of the elimination of Armenians from their historic homes. As Ara
Sarafian notes `Your Rejoice My Heart' shows the extent to which
`Turkish chauvinism has defined what it is to be Armenian and
Christian in Turkey' and that Turkish chauvinism has almost `led to
the end of Armenians in modern Turkey, in our own lifetime.'

Hats off then to Kemal Yalcin who, when recording the pain and the
hope of hidden Armenians, passionately protests against the price they
paid and are still paying for the triumph of Turkish nationalist
chauvinism. His book may help perhaps in the efforts to halt the
process.

For those who wish to obtain copies please contact: the Gomidas
Institute at http://www.gomidas.org/


--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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