Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
My grandfather Nazar suffered from dementia during the last stage of his life. Like many survivors of genocides and crimes against humanity, he opted for silence and repression in his interactions with non-survivors throughout his life, for fear of others not grasping the horror and gravity of what he and his family had gone through. The brain affected by dementia tends to recall events and facts more frequently retrieved and used over a lifetime than those encountered at any age. But witnessing and surviving a genocide is no ordinary event. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes: “Trauma is much more than a story about something that happened long ago. The emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during the trauma are experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present.”
As my grandfather’s condition worsened, he became more and more haunted by the ghosts of his past. His cognitive impairment reached its peak when his experiences from the genocide entered his daily routine. Every day, for a few weeks, he would relive two major past events: the self-defense of his hometown Aintab (one of the few places where there was organized Armenian self-defense that prevented a massacre until the French army intervened), and the escape from Aintab to Syria. Ninety years after witnessing these events, in his home in Beirut, he would wake up, eat, prepare for self-defense, fall asleep, wake up again, eat again, prepare for escape, and live under the shadow of terror for a week, two weeks, three weeks, until he wasn’t anymore. Looking back, it seems as though these involuntary reenactments were to make sure we were all witnesses to what he had survived. To make his experiences our memories, his memories ours, before his death. We became witnesses of something we cannot testify to, we attended the Catastrophe of memory. In a way, we became what Derrida calls “the strange witnesses,” “strange” because we are “witnesses who do not know what they are witnessing,” “witnesses to something they are not witness to.”
In Writers of Disasters, literary critic and philosopher Marc Nichanian reflects on the impossibility of narrating accounts of the genocide and insists to use the term “The Catastrophe” instead of “The Genocide.” As he analyzes prominent novelist and activist Zabel Yessayan’s In the ruins, a 1909 testimony of the Adana massacres that took the lives of 30,000 Armenian residents, Nichanian notes the repeated use of the term “ansahmaneli” meaning “undefinable” by Yessayan herself.
The impossibility of bearing witness to the undefinable.
In regional planning, it is common practice to use population growth figures to project how much land should be dedicated for the expansion of a given inhabited area. Accordingly, economic, environmental, and infrastructural assets are analyzed, and provisions are made for the livelihood of future generations. This simple planning tool of quantifying and spatializing a population and its growth, or in the case of the Armenian people its demise, was used (in reverse) by the Young Turk party (Committee of Union and Progress—CUP) and its paramilitary wing, the Special Organization, in charge of the execution of the extermination program, namely the Genocide. As the program was underway, and to ensure the demographic homogenization of Eastern Anatolia/Asia Minor, special ethnographic maps were produced. These maps, which contained economic and geographic data on the emptied Armenian villages and towns, were used to assess the capabilities of absorption of a given locale as Muslim settlers (from the Balkans and Caucasia) were sent to replace Armenian inhabitants in different provinces. The data included the number of Armenian households deported, the size of the land, the number of farms, and a potential number of settler households. This type of information can be found in the very own records of Internal Affairs minister Talaat Pasha: 20,545 buildings, 267,536 acres of land, 76,942 acres of vineyards, 703,491 acres of olive groves, 7,812 acres of gardens, 4,573 acres of mulberry gardens, 97 acres of orange fields, 524,788 planting seeds, 4,390 animals, 2,912 agricultural implements and 5 carts dispossessed from Armenians in 1915.
By 1918, approximately 2,900 Anatolian Armenian settlements (neighborhoods, villages, towns) were depopulated and 1,500,000 people were killed. To permanently end the relationship between possession and ownership, the Law of Abandoned Properties (Emval-i Metruke Kanunları) was issued, initiating the liquidation process of “abandoned” immovable property. These efforts of expropriation robbed Armenians not only of their possessions, but also of the possibilities for refuge, resistance, or future return. And to seal the deal, the CUP began Turkifying place names. On January 5, 1916, Enver Pasha ordered the Turkification of all Armenian (and Greek, among other) place names, including cities, towns, provinces, villages, mountains, and rivers—a revisionist policy to wipe out the geographical imprints of non-Turkish cultures from the territory.
These historical records of mass destruction (the maps, legal decrees, telegrams, and any document produced as part of the program) are the Ottoman Empire’s documents of failure, the non-human “strange witnesses,” that capture the history of unmaking of the Armenian people from their native land. Those who survived and found refuge in neighboring countries including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt attempted to trace and record their memory of the genocide. Some produced hand-made maps depicting their local resistance, such as the self-defense battles of Aintab, Fendedjak, Mousa Ler. Others created mental maps of the Armenian neighborhood they lived in. These mental maps not only highlight public and private buildings belonging to the Armenian community, but in some cases, contain the earliest depictions of the urban fabric of these places (urban maps of towns unlike main cities were not yet produced until decades later). Against the state-produced maps of segregation and destruction are these personal records and maps of necessity, remembrance, mourning, and resistance that have shaped the post-genocide Armenian psyche and collective memory.
The expropriation of Armenian property was a crucial economic tool for the CUP and its successor, the Turkish Republic. On the one hand, it financed the operations of destruction, by funding the military and different government agencies (including the transformation of Armenian and non-Muslim properties into highly visible governmental offices). On the other hand, it forged a national economy by assigning Armenian lands, properties, bank accounts, businesses to the then practically nonexistent and nascent Turkish middle-class. The Çankaya Mansion in Ankara, the official residence of previous presidents of the Turkish Republic, including that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (founding father of the Republic), is an eerie example of an expropriated vineyard belonging to the Ottoman Armenian Kasabian family.
In 2013, among those protesting the urban development plans on Istanbul’s Gezi Park, was Nor Zartonk (“The New Awakening”), an Armenian youth group founded after prominent Armenian-Turkish journalist and editor Hrant Dink’s assassination in 2007. Nor Zartonk took part in the protest and set up a makeshift gravestone that read: “You took our cemetery; you won’t have our park!” The cemetery they were referring to is the Surp Hagop Armenian cemetery which was there from 1551 to 1939, within a larger Armenian Vakif (a charitable organization). The Vakif had been a gift to the community by Sultan Suleyman and seized by the state in the 1930s. The Taksim Promenade, which includes Gezi Park, was created in 1936 as part of a project to construct Western-style public spaces in Istanbul. The stones from the cemetery that were not claimed and removed by family members were used to build the stairs of Gezi Park and surrounding area. Prior to the Gezi protests, and as initial construction works began on site in preparation for the new mixed-use development, the gravestones rose to the surface revealing traces of the cemetery. In its attempt to redesign Istanbul’s urban space this time under neoliberal terms, the state apparatus had just unearthed its history of dispossession.
At Gezi Park and in various public and government-owned spaces in Turkey, ethnic (Sunni/Turkish) privilege continues to haunt their “public” character. In addition to their anti-capitalist stance, and with an understanding that the privatization of public assets is the ultimate “accumulation by dispossession,” the Armenian youth called for deeper analysis: what are the origins of this property? How did it become public? And to whom does its reclaiming bring justice? Beyond the protection of the park as a green public space, they shed light on this precondition: that these spaces, including Gezi park, have come to exist at the expense of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians and other minorities. It is in this context that they presented additional demands urging the state to remove and/or rename places in Turkey named after Talaat and Enver Pasha (the masterminds of the genocide); and to bring back the original names of villages, towns, and cities that were forcefully changed to Turkish in 1916. On April 25, 2022 and a few weeks before the 9th anniversary marking the start of the protests, Osman Kavala, a philanthropist, advocate for the country’s indigenious minorities and founder of Anadolu Kültür, was sentenced to aggravated life sentence for “attempting to overthrow the government”, while co-defendants filmmaker and producer Cigdem Mater, architect Mücella Yapıcı, Yiğit Ekmekçi, Mine Özerden, Hakan Altınay, Tayfun Kahraman, and Can Atalay were sentenced to 18 years in prison for “aiding” Kavala. This highly controversial Gezi park trial’s verdict comes as no surprise, given the AKP regime’s continuous silencing and imprisonment of any dissident voice in the country.
French Urbanist Henri Prost, responsible for the design of Taksim Promenade and Gezi Park, designated the area where the remains of the Surp Hagop cemetery lay as “old and derelict.” His claim that the area is in a state of ruin was used by the government then to legitimize the forceful transfer of the property and to proceed with the planned works.
My first visit to what is known as Turkey today was at the end of summer 2013, as the Gezi Park protests were dying down. We drove through Garin (Erzurum), Van, Mush (Muş), Dikranagerd (Diyarbakır), Kharpert (Harput), Palu (Elazığ), Agn (Ağın), Hamshen (Hemşin), and these ghostly places we call home. Those that exist more so in our diasporic imaginaries than our physical realities. The urban transformation of these neighborhoods, towns, and cities all bear witness to the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Armenian, Yazidi, Assyrian, Greek, and other minorities. In Mush, there could not be a louder witness than the walls of ordinary homes built with pieces of the demolished Surp Garabed Monastery whose foundations were laid as early as the 4th century—an uncanny constellation of stones, that collide the past, present, and future in a spatially inscribed object. Walter Benjamin suggests a reading of the city as a place in which “monuments of the bourgeoisie” can be recognized as ruins before they have crumbled. Here, they embody past and future ruins. The ruins of imagined Armenian futures, of stolen dreams and unrealized memories. Claiming that the status-quo of every place in Turkey is the ruin, is the Catastrophe, is to recognize a set of conditions, experiences, and limitations. A revolutionary space in the fight for the oppressed past, grounded in critique and open to speculative possibilities. Ones in which archeological findings of ethnic minorities are not stolen, neutralized and monetized as national heritage, where sites of collective memory are protected and taken care of, where denial is no longer a state policy and restorative justice and reparations are possible.