In a tweet fired off earlier this month, Turkish sociologist Yahya Mustafa Keskin from Abant Izzet Baysal University took aim at journalist Hayko Bagdat — who has Armenian roots — by mockingly referring to him as the “remains of the sword.” This might seem cryptic for the average English speaker, but Keskin was insulting Bagdat’s family as the lucky ones who managed to survive the 1915 Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks. Keskin then drove his point home by saying that Turks have never committed any genocides.
Author Jason Stanley argues in his recent book How Fascism Works that fascist regimes, especially ones with a history of atrocities, always emphasize a mythical narrative that portrays its own past as morally pure and free of tarnish. Today’s Turkey not only denies its role in the Armenian Genocide, but is in the midst of carrying out atrocities against its own citizens, according to many academics and politicians. Today’s victims are Turkey’s marginalized dissidents: liberals, leftists, Kurds and, most notably, participants of the Gulen Movement (GM), or Hizmet.
Members of Hizmet were once accepted as legitimate players in Turkey’s complex body politic until the movement ran afoul of current Turkish President Erdogan, who now refers to them as terrorists. Hizmet members are publicly demonized, have their assets and wealth confiscated, and their passports revoked. Many have been and are tortured, abducted and even murdered.
While participants of the GM are enduring these heinous atrocities in Turkey, GM participants active at the Colorado-based non-profit Multicultural Mosaic Foundation made a historically meaningful and courageous gesture last month by screening the film “The Other Side of Home.”
Made by the award-winning filmmaker Naré Mkrtchyan, the movie center on a Turkish woman named Maya, who discovers that her great-grandmother was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Maya embodies the conflict. Her turbulent, mixed emotions represent opposite poles of the debate in Turkey regarding the crime: one that suffers and the other that denies. She goes to Armenia to participate in the 100th year commemoration of the genocide and to explore her conflicted identity. Aside from being a universal story involving identity and conflict, and the film explores how the genocide’s effects ripple down the generations for both Armenians and Turks.
Historically, Hizmet participants would either support the Turkish state’s narrative of denial or stay quiet about the topic. Discussing the issue publicly was taboo. But Erdogan’s brutal witch-hunt against the movement in Turkey has led many participants to question state narratives on various issues, including the Armenian Genocide. A growing number of participants now fully recognize that the crime did actually happen. Many are even courageous enough to say so out loud in public.
Back to the film screening…
More than 80 people, including many Turkish-Americans, packed the film screening at the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation. One could observe in the audience many surprised faces and expressions. Other even teared up as the film moved them.
Mkrtchyan herself was also in the audience and stayed for a Q&A following the screening. The noted filmmaker was nervous at first about showing such a film to an audience with many Turkish-Americans, but was welcomed on stage with immense applause. She acknowledged that despite many screenings of the film across many countries, this was the first time it’s been shown to an audience with so many Turks. Many questions were directed to Mkrtchyan about her feelings when she landed in Turkey and how she was treated there.
She said she was puzzled and uncertain when she arrived there for the first time. She felt as if she had, “I am Armenian” labelled on her forehead. She was especially surprised when someone referred to her in Turkish as “yavrum,” or honey, the same way her grandmother would call her.
One highlight of the evening was when a woman in the audience who identified herself as Turkish admitted that she recently discovered that her ancestors were Armenian. Her parents made her believe growing up that she was either Turkish and Kurdish.
The audience also noted that the film promoted understanding for the narratives and realities on both sides. It shows the levels of denial on the Turkish side, borne out of ignorance, convenience, or fear of retaliation by the Turkish government. On the Armenian side, the film illustrates the pain and trauma that Armenians are still suffering through today as a nation.
The heinous witch-hunt in Turkey against participants of the Gulen Movement are experiencing the pains of murder and oppression first-hand. The film screening was simply a first step in trying to heal very old wounds. It’s a symbolical gesture, statement, and opening by participants of Hizmet.
There’s a lot more work to be done by members of the movement and beyond.
This article was published in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator on December 20th, 2018.