The Armenian Genocide in Conversation

Summer 2012

I first learned about the Armenian Genocide in university, but the first exposure I had to the controversy it is the centre of in Turkey and the Caucasus came a year later, when I found myself a student at a summer program in France.

For a reason unbeknownst to me, the group of fifteen classmates had come to include four Turkish women, two of whom spoke a very approximate  French and one of whom provided little evidence that she knew any French at all. Her name was Deniz.

One day after class, about ten of the group members decided to go out for a beer, including Deniz, the Turkish girl who didn’t talk. We sat down, and I asked the unsmiling waitress which of the beer selection was her favourite. In true French waitress fashion, she shrugged non-committally. I pointed out a white beer of middling price. “What about this one?”

“Bof,” she said. “People know it.”

“I’ll have that one then,” I said, mentally making a note to tip the next North American waitress I would meet extra for at least bothering to pretend to have an opinion on beer.

A few minutes later, the aforementioned unsmiling waitress returned with the alcohol, and the tongues loosened as we put our middling French to use.

I don’t remember how long it was into the conversation, but at some point somebody mentioned the Armenian genocide. A few minutes passed as we spoke about the genocide; I can no longer remember in what context we were discussing it, but the point is we were discussing it on more or less the same terms. Nobody was questioning its historical veracity.

Well, not nobody. As everybody paused to catch their breath, Deniz’s voice mumbled from the end of the table. “It didn’t happen.”

There was a long and awkward silence.

Summer 2014

I was talking to Kerem, a Turkish academic I’d met online, about my distaste for Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize Winning Novelist and (in my opinion), self-indulgent bore.

“There are some people that think he won the Nobel Prize for political reasons,” he said. “Because he came out in public and talked about the Armenian genocide without denying it.”

“That could explain why somebody who writes such boring novels about himself could have won the Nobel Prize I guess,” I said.

“Maybe,” said Kerem.

September 2015

I was back in Turkey for a few days, staying in the home of an erstwhile friend. She was a university educated woman – a teacher, in fact – and absurdly liberal. So I made the mistake of assuming she believed in the Armenian genocide and mentioned it casually when talking about something related.

She did not.

“You want to know what I think?” she retorted. “I think that Armenians are powerful and have a lot of money and influence, and because they are all around the world their story got very popular, but that’s not the truth. It was a war. Lots of people died and I don’t know why Armenians spread this story.”

A few days later I had drinks with another friend, an academic. “Why are Turkish people so defensive about the Armenian genocide?” I asked. “Well, Turks are very nationalistic,” she said. “But to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. You know, actually a lot of the Armenian genocide was actually perpetrated by Kurds, but they are usually more willing to accept responsibility.”

October 2015

I took the train to Armenia. It was the centenary of the Armenian genocide, and Yerevan was decked out in commemorative material. I met a Polish guy at the hostel I was staying at. He knew more about Armenia than I did.

“You know,” he said. “Of course I believe in the Armenian genocide, but I think Armenians need to stop making it a big deal on the international stage. Armenia has so few friends – their borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed. All they really have is Russia. If they just made peace with everybody, they might have some chances to develop, but as it is….”

The Next Day

I met a woman at the post office who invited me to her house for dinner. I accepted. We spoke about her children, both adults, both successful. She was proud of them. We spoke about her divorce. She was proud of that too. We spoke about her vacation to Turkey. “You went to Turkey?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “But when people asked where I was from, I told them I was Russian, not Armenian. You know history? They are our enemies.”

“Huh,” I said.

A Few Days Later

I made my way to the Armenian Genocide museum in Yerevan. I hate genocide museums, but I felt like I had to go. The museum was up on a hill; the way up was flanked by commemorative posters, including one that portrayed an eraser erasing Armenian words and a pencil replacing them with Turkish. The woman at the museum front desk suggested I join a tour that had just started. I was clearly the only person participating who was not Armenian.

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The tour guide had a monotone voice and unconsciously blasé attitude towards showing very graphic content. “The Ottomans liked to decapitate their victims” she intoned. “Here is a photograph of some Ottoman officials posing with a disembodied head in Macedonia.”

A few minutes later she showed us photographs of a starving woman, ribs sticking from her torso, clearly close to death. One of the women in the group broke into loud sobs.

The guide continued without seeming to register. “Some Armenians were even crucified. Look, here are some pictures of Armenians that were given face tattoos brought into harems.”

November 2015

I was in Azerbaijan. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at war over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory which used to have a mixed population of Azeris and Armenians. After the territory was granted to Azerbaijan, Armenia claimed it; as a result of this Armenia now counts next to no Azeris and vice versa due to refugees flowing both ways. Refugees to Azerbaijan from Nagorno-Karabakh were not well taken care of, and there is a lot of resentment and hatred towards Armenia among Azerbaijanis.

According to the owner of a bookstore I went to in Baku, Azeris are not great readers, but Azerbaijan does have a national novel, a romance called Ali and Nino. The book is about the Caucasus in the early 20th century, as exemplified through Ali, an Azeri youth, and his Georgian love Nino. Unfortunately for Ali, there is also an Armenian fellow with his eye on Nino, and Ali exacts his revenge by killing him when Ali believes that Nino has been kidnapped by him.

I met an Azerbaijani while I was staying in Baku, and mentioned I was reading the book to him.

“Oh,” he said, “I read half of it but never finished. What happened at the end?”

“Well,” I said, “The Armenian guy dies and—“

“Good,” he said.

Baku by night.

Baku by night.

A Few Days Later

I was staying at an AirBnB in Baku, home to a wonderfully hospitable family and an exchange student with whom I spent every evening. This particular evening, the extended family had been invited over. One of them mentioned the Armenian genocide. Needless to say, I was surprised.

“You believe in the Armenian genocide?” I asked.

He seemed taken aback, but quickly recovered himself.

“No!” he said. “Armenians are – Armenians are, well it was a war, and lots of people died. Turks died, Armenians died. The same number of Armenians and Turks died, that’s it. Same number, same number.”


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