‘I have begun to understand what it means to be an Armenian in Turkey’

We spoke about Turks, Armenians, Turkey and the Diaspora with Arsinée Khanjian, the Canadian actress who is one of the three jury members of the international ‘Love & Change’ competition of the 14th !f International Film Festival.

This year, the jury for the international ‘Love & Change’ competition of the 14th !f International Film Festival is comprised of three members, the Canadian actress Arsinée Khanjian, activist Pınar Selek and producer Marie Oleson. We meet Khanjian on the morning she arrives in Istanbul and have very little time to talk because she must watch the films taking part in the competition. Pınar Selek, too, somewhere far away, is watching the same films at the same time.

Khanjian is said to always feel tense at first when she arrives in Turkey. So that’s my first question to her. She says she feels intense rather than tense, and that the essence of her feeling has changed. We talk about that change, about Turks, Armenians, Turkey and the Diaspora… In the country where she once thought she would never be able to express herself as she wishes, in a hotel in Taksim, we try to talk about everything in the little time we have. She is now confident that everything she talks about can be published, and I feel the same about asking her about everything, and writing about it… Although that creates a momentary sense that certain things have changed in Turkey, we then remember that Pınar Selek is involved in the same jury, watching the same films, but cannot be here. So for now, we talk with Arsinée Khanjian about the things that have changed. 

You are said to always feel tense at first when you arrive in Turkey, is that the case this time as well?

Coming here conjures up a very intense feeling every time. The intensity has remained the same over the years, but the feeling itself has changed. This is my fifth visit to Turkey, and my third time in Istanbul. My first visit wasn’t planned, and I had never imagined coming here anyway. I stayed away from Turkey because I thought I would feel suffocated, I would not be able to be myself, or express myself. My third visit was the most distinct, most emotional one. We spoke about our Armenian identities with Fethiye Çetin at ‘Climbing the Mountain’, a symposium organized by Anadolu Kültür. That was very important for me because I was meeting, for the first time, a ‘Turk’ questioning her Turkishness by her own will. Turks do not feel to question their Turkishness every morning when they wake up. However, the history of this land is so that an individual should feel the necessity to do this at least once. I know very well that it is a discomforting and difficult experience to question identity, and to go ‘places’ about which we do not have much information. Most people do not want to do this; they do not want to leave their comfort zone. Although stepping beyond the boundaries of the Turkishness defined by the State is such an act, I saw that it could be done.

“The official history is shaped around the denial of the Genocide, people are cut off from its knowledge. So when Turks are confronted with the Armenian Genocide they are confused.”

What has changed since your first visit about your perception of the ‘Turk’?

Here, I had the chance to speak to Turks on an individual basis, and I understood why Turkish society acts in this manner about the Genocide. I realized Turks did not know their own history. The official history is shaped around the denial of the Genocide, people are cut off from its knowledge. So when Turks are confronted with the Armenian Genocide they are confused. I now understand that this is very difficult; you are accused for a past that was related to you in a different way, and in fact, you do not have the slightest clue about that past.

What is your image of the Armenians of Turkey when you view them from Diaspora, and has there been a difference in that image of them now you are here?

I grew up knowing that one could not expect much from the Armenians in Turkey. The Diaspora is aware of the fact that the Armenians in Turkey live in fear. This is such a fear that they cannot do in Turkey what we can do in the Diaspora; their hands are tied, they are under oppression. They have to be the quiet minority. However, the last time I came to Turkey, in 2013, for the April 24 commemorations, I realized something I had never even once thought about. When we keep an account of what we have lost since 1915, we have forgotten to include something very important, namely, contact with the Armenians in Turkey. Although we lost our heritage, our people, our language, our culture and our sense of belonging, we could have retained and sustained our ties with the people who remained in Turkey, who continued to live here. We knew that there were Armenians in Istanbul. The last time I came here, I began to understand what it meant to be an Armenian in a huge city like Istanbul, and in Turkey. I can never say I fully understand, but at least I began to.

“Although we lost our heritage, people, language, culture and sense of belonging, we could have retained our ties with the people who remained in Turkey, who continued to live here.”

What do you think is the main difference between the Diaspora and the Armenians of Turkey?

There is a gap between us. The Diaspora cannot understand this silence in Istanbul, while Istanbul Armenians cannot understand why we put so much effort into this. I’m not sure if what we have done in the Diaspora has had any effect on the lives on Armenians here. But we certainly provoke the fear factor.

So is the Diaspora not afraid at all?

The Diaspora was formed from the ashes of the ones who barely survived. The women and children, who somehow managed to make it to the Middle East, established the Diaspora upon the ashes of the ones who died and perished. They overcame the fear factor, so from then on; fear could mean nothing to us. It was survival that we needed to work on. And in order to work on survival, you have to believe you are strong enough to do whatever you need to do, even if you are not strong. My grandfather who arrived at the orphanage in Lebanon at the age of 5 was not a strong child. A child who had carried his father’s chopped-off head in his hands, this is not a strong child. But the ethos was; we survived fear, now is the time to be strong. Fearlessness is a notion transmitted from generation to generation in the Diaspora. Fear is unacceptable.

“If for Armenians in Turkey, you are supposed to be quiet and low-key in order to keep harmony in your life, then for us the way to live and survive is to say that we exist. Otherwise we disappear. We did not want to disappear in the Diaspora, we did not think we had the right to disappear.”

This fearless discourse of the Diaspora causes tension in Armenians of Istanbul. They feel as if they will pay for what the Diaspora is doing…

Yes. At the symposium we attended together with Fethiye Çetin, a comment from the audience was from an Armenian: “In the Diaspora, you do all these things, and every time you do something, we are the ones who pay the price.” My first reaction was a feeling of being completely insulted, especially since the comment had come from an Armenian. But over time, I realized that this was the reality for Armenians in Turkey; trying not to be too vocal, and not to disturb the balance and harmony of life. As for the Diaspora, we do what we are supposed to do. If for Armenians in Turkey, you are supposed to be quiet and low-key in order to keep harmony in your life, then for us the way to live and survive is to say that we exist. Otherwise we disappear. We did not want to disappear in the Diaspora, we did not think we had the right to disappear. Because we are the ones who survived.

Do you nevertheless not feel afraid simply because of the possibility?

Let me tell you a story. It was around the time when we were preparing to begin the shooting of ‘Ararat’ when we received a letter from the Turkish Canadian Cultural Association (TCCA). The TCCA is one of many cultural associations in Canada. When they heard about the ‘Ararat’ project, they sent a letter asking to read the script. Unheard of! Anyone other than the funding organizations or those who are working on the project never asks for such a thing. Atom first ignored them, but after much persistence I told Atom we had to meet them and we did. The president of the association told us that it was very important for them to know what was in the script so as not to harm history. Atom told them that he was a filmmaker, that he had made films before, and that it dealt with the question of identity.

He added, “I have no reason to feel that I may hurt you, since I have not hurt my other subjects. I have freedom of expression in this country, and I don’t need anyone’s approval.” The president realized we were not going to give him the script to read and approve said that we should know and not forget that there are Armenians in Turkey, and if he did not read and approve the script, he could not guarantee that Turkey would protect those Armenians if the film were to create upset and tension among Turkish audiences.

Now you have to imagine, we are sitting there as Diaspora Armenians, and we are being told that if we take this step, something is going to happen to Armenians in Turkey. But we took the decision not to show him the script, and go ahead with the project in the face of this threat, because I don’t accept that anyone can scare me. Did we do the wrong thing, or the right thing? I don’t think that’s the question. We did what we thought needed to be done.

How do you see the post-centennial period for Armenians?

We commemorate the centennial to keep history alive. We will on the same when the 101st anniversary comes, we will continue to work. The centennial is only a reference, because we perceive history in segments of decades or centuries. We have finally come to a point where we can actually communicate with civilian society in Turkey. 50 years ago, it was a deadly situation; no one was talking about the Genocide. There wasn’t even a refusal or a denial, it was not there. But it’s not like that anymore. That is why I find commemorations important.

‘We expect an iconic Genocide film. It is an impossible task’

One of the criticisms aimed at ‘The Cut’ was that it failed to sufficiently impart the Genocide. What kind of a film could satisfy the Armenian audience?

It seems an impossible project to satisfy the expectations of Armenian audiences with any film about the Genocide. The silence regarding the Genocide has lasted for so long, and the frustration of not being able to speak about it has expanded to such a point that the Armenian audience itself does not know what it wants to see in the cinema. They want a Genocide film to tell everything, but even they do not know everything. Even if Spielberg were to make an Armenian Genocide film, it’s not going to be a ‘Schindler’s List’. From the end of the Holocaust on, very soon after, its stories were told. Jews did not need a film reflecting history, because history was being told anyway. People didn’t accumulate an incredible expectation and frustration stemming from not being represented. Armenians did not pass through a natural process where we could tell our stories from different perspectives. And now we are looking for an iconic Genocide film that will bring all the stories together. It is an impossible task. And every director making a film on the Armenian Genocide has to take that into consideration. 

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Lora Sarı