Forget the Elephant, Just Look around the Room


By Gonca Sönmez-Poole

Do you know the expression “the elephant in the room?” Of course you do. We have all used it. In fact, the last time I used it myself was in an article in this newspaper about a year ago.

Whether we call it dialogue, rapprochement, “track-two work” or any other method of conflict resolution relating to Armenian-Turkish relations, we have all used and abused this poor elephant, albeit for perfectly valid reasons. That is because up until the last few years, the consensus — too easily dictated to us all — was this: it is nearly impossible for these two sides (I hate that word “sides”) to come to terms in this intractable (I hate that word, too) conflict unless the Turkish government were to officially acknowledge the Armenian Genocide (and I hate the word “genocide” more than any other word.)

Well, I humbly suggest the following scenario for all of those holding or participating in

any meeting between any number of Turkish and Armenian people: acknowledge each

other.

I have been meeting with a Turkish and Armenian group for the past eight months and the more I talk to them and the more they talk to each other, the more I realize that we do not have to speak about the “elephant” in order to reach beyond the barriers of communication.

We simply have to acknowledge each other. We have to acknowledge each and everyone in the room, be curious about each other and want to know something about what makes us all who we are.

And so, at the expense of alienating a few players out there whose job it is to make or break high-level meetings at the top, I want to advocate for what I believe has the most power to move us along: connecting one person at a time. I would like to put forward a whole new mantra and that is to forget the elephant and look around the room. And no, I do not mean forget the Armenian Genocide or the events of 1915 — but I believe that no fictional symbol elephantine can come close to representing what genocide is. So let’s forget the tired elephant phrase.

Instead, what I am suggesting is simply another tool, not among historians, not among diplomats and certainly not among politicians. I suggest the simple tool of asking for each other’s stories and listening to them.

I am appealing for all of us in the vast arena of Armenian-Turkish relations to extend a listening ear and to hear as many stories as we can about each other. I believe it is through those stories that we will learn what makes each of us the unique product of our backgrounds, our upbringings, our educations and our social environments.

To make my case, I would like to share with you a few snippets of the interviews I have conducted with some of the participants in the group I started last September.

Following our first meeting, I asked members of Turkish-Armenian Women’s Alliance (TAWA) about their future expectations regarding our group.

Please note that no recording device was used during the off-record meetings with this group. The separate interviews were conducted with a partial group of participants on a voluntary basis. The quotes used are from those interviewed who have agreed to sign a release form, permitting the author to make their words public.

Participant Tsoleen Sarian said, “You know, just the fact that we’re here is so worthwhile to me, just the fact that I’ve gotten this far is excellent. I am so content and happy and anything is like a bonus, you know because I have now met people and be able to sit around a table and I’ve never done that before, I’ve never even considered I wanted to do that before…I can’t change other people’s minds, I can’t explain centuries of history. I can’t do that, but if I can learn myself a little bit more and if I can grow in my understanding, then excellent.”

Participant Zeren Earls said, “It seems like an interesting group of women, progressive thinkers from different walks of life and creates interesting conversation; and to this point, I haven’t really made an effort to get to know Armenian people, just because I’m not near them usually, and this gives an opportunity to find out who they are and what they’re doing in an environment that I feel would be useful to spend time with.”

Another woman, Ayse Kaya Firat said, “I can’t just say ignore the past, you know, jump into the future and experience new things; that is not what I’m saying, but I believe we can be [a] great example for many other controversies, you know, between other nations…so if that was the goal, a lot of good, a lot of goodness can come out of that, right? I’m going beyond Armenians and Turks for God’s sake, let’s go to Africa together…let’s change lives there.”

These comments came at the outset of this journey that TAWA began in September 2012, and it hasn’t been smooth sailing ever since. As the person in the middle of the process, I needed to not only keep track of the availability of a dozen busy women, but I had to listen and recognize their concerns and their sensitivities between meetings. And most important, I had to keep track and assess the mood and atmosphere of the group during and in between our gatherings.

We did lose one participant due to her heavy work schedule, but twelve of us are still getting together, determined to carry on.

I will leave you with some words from participant, Laura Bilazarian-Purutyan: “I’m an Armenian, I’m a granddaughter of survivors and I’m coming here. I am coming here as the granddaughter of survivors, and if I understand too deeply your perspective, do I give up something of my experience? I’m trying to hold on to their experience and honor it, but there is a problem on the table: you know it’s an ongoing problem of lack of recognition, and the communities, the Armenian community is not grappling with it and the two nations are not grappling with it. Am I at risk of losing something in this conversation…honoring my grandparents?”

(A TV producer, filmmaker and writer, Gonca Sönmez-Poole spent two decades working for WCVB-TV’s Chronicle program, followed by 13 years managing her own nonprofit organization. For the past seven years, she has dedicated her free time to Armenian-Turkish dialogue work around Boston.  She can be reached through her personal website www.goncasp.net.)