Ece Temelkuran’s passion for storytelling is clear in the first few minutes of meeting her. But, as a Turkish woman, some stories are dangerous for her to tell. Mary Pole reports
At the turn of the 20th century, more than a million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were systematically killed through a series of deportations and massacres. These events are known in Armenian as the Great Crime and are an integral part of Armenian national identity. The state of Turkey, successor of the Ottoman Empire, has never acknowledged responsibility for the genocide and continues to perpetuate a national identity that denies its Armenian heritage.
In 2007, Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist and close friend of Ece Temelkuran’s, was shot dead outside his apartment block for his reconciliation initiatives. She decided to take on his work and tell the stories of Armenians. The goal of the book that resulted, Deep Mountain, was to deconstruct the identity and national myths that obstruct dialogue between the two sides, by interviewing Armenians from a wide range of backgrounds, both in Armenia and in the diaspora. The majority of these interviews were set up by Hrant Dink before his death.
“The word reconciliation is too over-rated. It’s always storytelling,” Ece says. “You tell your stories and then you either forgive the other side or you don’t. But it starts with the storytelling, which sounds naïve, but it’s not, it’s the hardest thing on earth. My suggestion is that we tell the stories truthfully, openly and genuinely. As Turks we need to listen to the stories of Armenians because they’ve been keeping that story in for such a long time.”
The same woman that sits in front of me sipping on a herbal tea started off storytelling in the male-dominated media industry in the Turkish capital, Ankara, when she was just 19. Since then her career has taken her to the war zones of Southern Lebanon and Iraq, where she has re-defined her womanhood and has discovered different facets of her gendered identity. “I’ve undergone a professional deformation. In some places you have to become like a man or you can’t survive. You learn to develop a double personality. When you need to be a man you become one.”
Through cursing at her fixers, learning to be strict and telling men what to do, Ece adds another facet to her identity. “Normally women in all walks of life learn how to make their way around by changing their behaviour. They become the little sister, the mother, the lover or the flirtatious woman. To be in journalism you have to go via men so you change yourself according to your job. They don’t teach you this in journalism school.” Her attitude has raised eyebrows, but has ensured that she reaches her end goal successfully: getting the stories.
“In some places men have been shocked by my behaviour. One evening a photojournalist friend and I got lost between Arbil and Sulemaniyah [in Iraqi Kurdistan]. There were no lights, we were lost and petrified. We filmed each other saying goodbye as we thought we wouldn’t make it. When we found a pedestrian I found myself shouting at him aggressively to show us the way. He was surprised to find a young woman shouting at him in the middle of the night on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. But to act otherwise would have been too dangerous. I guess sometimes you find yourself stronger than you thought you were.”
Despite the flexibility of Ece’s approach to gendered behaviour, Deep Mountain adheres clearly to a framework based on gender. “I think its women’s job to tell stories,” Ece says, “Their stories keep a completely different record of history to that of men’s stories, which are the stories that end up creating national memory. They are more compassionate towards history and more embracing when it comes to humankind. In my perspective their words count more than men. Reconciliation must be feminised. Maybe its already seen as a weak, feminine, activity, but women must be brought into the process and engaged in it for it to be successful.”
The three sections in the book end with the stories of women. In the first section the reader is acquainted with 84-year-old Silva Gabudikian, the oldest female poet in Armenia, who is resilient and hospitable, offering cognac to her guests. Ece’s visit to the Armenian diaspora in Paris ends with a meeting with Helene Piralian, psychoanalyst and author of Genocide et Transmission, and the final section is concluded by reflections from a clinical psychologist Maral Yeranossian Babian on the role of storytelling in belonging.
“I needed these women’s stories to structure the book,” Ece explains. “The book needed to be in their own words. In any conflict, terminology creates obstacles so that we become obsessed with it and cannot get to the memories. To get to the stories you have to go beyond the terminology. Each and every section ends with a woman for that reason. They bring a different perspective to the conflict. All these women know that the personal is political.”
The book begins and ends with a fictional dialogue between Ece and her Armenian sister, a stranger who signifies the intertwining of Armenians and Turks with a shared history and shared dependence on each other for the formation of national identity.
“I wanted to personalise the conflict. I put myself as a Turk in the book. A Turk going around the world meeting Armenians.” The Armenian sister Ece meets on the beach presents the opportunity to “choose to speak to an Armenian woman, a sister, as equals with different questions about the past. The genocide is a male issue. Men are always talking about it and shouting at each other. Women are more humane in the way they discuss, share emotion and level with each other.”
Ece pushes her tea forward on the table and tells me about Servanoush, an elderly Armenian lady she met while publicising her book. “I met her in Boston when I went to speak at Harvard University. She knew old Anatolian Turkish and was living in the US because of what happened in 1915.” This year marked the peak of attempts to destroy the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, and the founding of many Armenian diaspora communities across the globe.
“She was living there as an old American woman. When she saw me, as a Turk and a perpetrator she grabbed my hand and in five minutes became my grandmother. She wanted to speak Turkish, old Turkish, and she wouldn’t let me go because I was the only person she could speak it with. This is womanhood. We are not only perpetrator and victim but we are human beings, such a rich concept. Women are more aware of this.”
She pauses and adds, “It’s not women who write the narrative of national identity. Their stories somehow disturb or harm to some degree the national identity narrative which has always been written by men.”
This, to Ece, is where the value lies in sharing their stories.
In Deep Mountain, the hope for reconciliation for the Turkish-Armenia conflict comes from storytelling, listening and understanding, between individuals and on a personal basis, rather than through momentous political agreements. Ece is passionate about breaking down male-crafted national identities and weaving separate truths together to find a shared and cohesive narrative. She believes that this approach to reconciliation can also be transferred to other conflicts.
“The stories are always the same. There are the stories of the perpetrators and the stories of the oppressed. Merging the stories is my ultimate goal so that each side knows the story of the other. The oppressed always want to tell their stories even though they are often very afraid to do so, and in telling their stories to the perpetrator they often find healing. Just in knowing they are being listened to. The word reconciliation has become an industry, a diplomatic industry, but on the other side there are common people suffering from conflict who are not an expert in ‘reconciliation’ so they are not engaged with it. My motive was to call them into this storytelling, to tell their own stories and engage in the process of reconciliation.”
It is the human aspect of Deep Mountain that made it a best seller in Turkey, despite its contentious topic of Armenian-Turkish relations. “The death of Hrant touched the nation’s heart. There was a feeling of guilt that had never been released and his murder forced people to deal with the emotion,” Ece says.
“Before his death issues related to Armenia were extremely dehumanised, and his death touched people and humanised the subject. People wanted to make peace with their latent guilt – to ask questions. Most people are told to be indifferent, not even curious. We don’t know anything about 1915, the big massacres, so Hrant’s death and this book written in his memory ushered in a new phase of thinking about Armenians. Turks were told they don’t have to kill themselves with guilt but simply come and listen to the story of Armenians. The book is about memory, not historical facts. I put myself in the book as a Turk listening to these stories to show the Armenians how a Turk feels about it, how we feel nothing, and how we don’t know anything about it. Its not personal cruelty, we simply don’t know. We are told to be this way.”
When researching for Deep Mountain, Ece came across the assumption amongst Armenians that Turks felt nothing about the events of 1915, a denial and apathy which was even more painful to them than the massacres themselves. Ece reports one of the interviewees as saying: “Every Armenian is afraid of meeting a Turk, not that they are afraid of Turks but that they are afraid of their own feelings.”
She adds herself: “Will they catch their breath while talking? Will they talk at all? They save many feeling that start early in their childhood about Turks, and then they see a Turk and he or she becomes ‘The Turk’ they have to face. Its tiring and overwhelming for an Armenian to meet a Turk.”
As a result, in telling the stories Ece believes she has contributed to healing and to reconciliation. “These are the stories of Armenians. I told these stories to Turks and now, in English, I’m re-telling them to the Armenian Diaspora. Having a Turk understand their stories and being willing to listen has meant so much to those I’ve talked with, because the perpetrator never listens. He talks and talks, but never listens. It’s a gift to them that a Turk, some Turks, are willing to listen. Willing to listen with feeling and try to connect.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women have responded differently to Ece’s book than men. The publicity tour for Deep Mountain took Ece to the US: Harvard, Tufts and a public library in an area of New York she describes as an Armenian neighbourhood. In all these places “women were more touched by what I shared, more eager to talk about the book and about their own feelings. I remember a few women leaving the venues in tears: it was a healing process for them and for me. In engaging with the stories, women paved the way for men to come and engage too.”
To Ece, the success of the approach to reconciliation that Deep Mountain propagates – mutual understanding, listening and a merging of collective remembrances – depends on the extent to which women are prepared to share their stories and to listen to one another. “If I can make women believe in the storytelling approach to reconciliation, then men will follow,” she says. The future for reconciliation lies in female hands.
In writing Deep Mountain, Ece has forced herself to confront assumptions about her own national identity and has gained a deeper understanding of the ways in which collective remembrance is gendered. Through the process of exploring the stories and journeys of others, she has discovered more of herself and the ways in which she has redefined her womanhood according to a necessary professional identity. In many ways the book is about her as a Turkish woman as much as it is about Armenians.
Having listened to Ece talk, its hard to imagine her as having ever been apathetic towards the Armenian-Turkish conflict but she says that Deep Mountain has taken her on a journey: “Reconciliation is always thought to be a concept which needs two parties but I think it starts in oneself. For me it started in losing my own indifference.”