Grandson of Cemal Pasha Makes Overture to Armenian Community


From left, Taner Akçam, Hasan Cemal and Asbed Kotchikian

From left, Taner Akçam, Hasan Cemal and Asbed Kotchikian

By Alin K. Gregorian
WATERTOWN, Mass. — The Armenian Cultural and Education Center on Tuesday, November 17, was packed by Armenian-Americans eager to hear the grandson of one of the three architects of the Armenian Genocide apologize for the sins of his grandfather and to reach out a hand to the community.

If Turkish journalist and grandson of Cemal Pasha, Hasan Cemal, expected a big, warm embrace, he was mistaken. However, the audience members were certainly interested in what he was saying.

He opened his comments with the phrase “Barev harkeli barekamner” (hello esteemed friends), to the surprise of many. “I came here tonight to hear you, to understand you. I came here to open my heart to your suffering, pains and sorrows — pains coming from your history, coming from Anatolia,” he said. “I am not here to compare or to equate your suffering. I am here to understand them. I came here because my dear friend Hrant Dink said, ‘first let us understand each others’ pain.”

He repeated the phrase, as well as the Armenian greeting, several times.

“My conscience does not accept the denial of the grand catastrophe which Armenians were subjected to in 1915. In the memory of Hrant Dink, I reject this injustice,” he added. “To make excuses for such a crime is to collude in it.”

Hasan Cemal’s grandfather, Cemal Pasha, one of the three leaders of the Young Turks who had masterminded the Armenian Genocide, was assassinated on July 21, 1922, in Tbilisi, Georgia. The younger Cemal met a few years ago with the grandson of his grandfather’s assassin.

Cemal explained that he had initially learned about the Armenian Genocide from Dink, later to be educated by the books of fellow panelist Taner Akçam. “He touched my heart, and my friend Taner Akçam has touched my mind,” he noted.

His following comment, to a certain extent equating the sufferings of Turks and Armenians, as well as tying the comments to the recently-signed protocols between Armenia and Turkey, disconcerted some members of the audience. “We should not become prisoners or captives of our pains and suffering. We should not forget the past,” he said, but should go on in life.

He added, “It is a very interesting period between Turkey and Armenia. The normalization process could start with the establishment of diplomatic processes. For the sake of peace, it is better not to be a captive of the past. The Turks endured suffering, too, in Anatolia. The Kurds suffered, too, in the denial of their language and identity.”

Again, he changed his tone to say, “I know pain such as this cannot be compared or equated.”

His comments perplexed some members of the audience.

However, fellow panelist Akçam was able to get to the heart of the matter. “This is a very emotional moment,” he said, adding, that with his intimate knowledge of both communities, he realizes problem arise because the two sides do not understand each other.

“The first time you met a Turk, you think of them as someone who murdered your ancestors and supports the policy of denial,” he said. “For Turks, Armenians are traitors who killed innocent diplomats.”

Akçam, the chair of Armenian Studies at Clark University in Worcester, said Turks tend to view Armenians as a single bloc that focuses on the Genocide exclusively. Any Turks who break from their pack and try to embrace the Armenians, he said, is regarded with suspicion in the Armenian community. “In 1999, 2000, in the eyes of most of you, I was not an average Turk. Some thought I am in the secret police or an agent. We viewed each other through a prism. Now we are becoming more like individuals.”

He added that Turks and Armenians have different views when it comes to their perception of time. “For you the past is present and lives today. The Turks built it up with denial. When I say there are positive changes, you say ‘we’ve heard it before.’ The Turks have no sense of history. Our youth have no idea what happened in 1908.”

He summarized, “One side is frozen in a tunnel of history, whereas the other side is completely unaware of it. This meeting is part of getting past it.”

The third panelist, Asbed Kotchikian, who focused on the diasporan experience, related his first experience interacting with a Turk, a fellow college student in Beirut. While he said they never became close friends, they talked enough to break down some of the stereotypes with which they had grown up. “Opening of hearts and souls is not enough; we have to open minds,” he noted.

Kotchikian, who teaches at Bentley College in Waltham, noted that increased dealings in civil society — including gatherings such as this — add to the two sides’ understanding of each other.

Kotchikian noted that Turkey seems to have changed tremendously. “Is Turkey the same Turkey as 100 years ago? Twenty years ago? For me, the transformation, even cosmetic, on [their position on] the Kurds is monumental.”

The question-and-answer session that followed gave Cemal an opportunity again to pay tribute to Hrant Dink, suggesting, “Hrant placed so much importance on establishing diplomatic relations and opening the border. It is very, very important.”

Asked about the protocols that were signed in October by the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers, Cemal said, “Armenian-Americans should attach importance to those protocols. It is a very important turning point. It could change the whole picture.”

Akçam suggested that perhaps a commission could be formed in Turkey to examine Turkish textbooks and to restore them to contain the correct version of history. “Changing public perception is very important,” he stressed.

The program was organized by the Friends of Hrant Dink.

Sossi Aroyan of the Friends of Hrant Dink introduced the panelists and acted as moderator.