When Taleen Babayan’s interview with Ece Temelkuran, the author of Deep Mountain, first began circulating in a somewhat scholarly context, I took a deep breath, or sigh, and said “pass.” But it came back to haunt me.
My immediate readings then and now might touch as many nerves in others as Temelkuran’s own comments touched in me, but so be it for the moment. There will surely come a time when Turkey will graduate from producing books that speak on Armenians’ behalf or reduce them to the usual stereotypes—when the formula “good will + supposed hard work + good connections = (surprise!) success story” will no longer carry the day. On that utopian day, self-proclaimed pioneers will finally stop telling us that, thanks to their “ground breaking” (read: briskly selling) book, the Turkish people has at last faced up to a vital problem and learned how to cope with it for the very first time.
Or are we readers doomed to pick the very same card from the deck every single time?
A word to the editor: Who ever suspected that an allegedly “unpopular” subject would become a popular culture favorite? Soliciting the present response to the Temelkuran interview, dear Editor, will hardly make up for your collaboration in publishing the interview in the first place, small contribution though it was to a relentless industry. Concern for what Turkish writers are up to these days doesn’t justify the absence of editorial commentary. I, at least, do not take promoting freedom of expression to mean providing a forum for an uninhibited, uncritical outpouring of prejudice, dubbed “controversy” in “quality” venues.
The same problem confronts reputable publishers and universities that are increasingly involved with their political environments, from the local to the global. But to do so with an eye to the new status quo—the new conservative consensus—is worse than political disengagement. In the case to hand, it has led distinguished U.S. and European institutions of higher learning to lend embarrassing support to a highly objectionable book, one being peddled across the globe as a revelatory, revolutionary bestseller facilitating Armenian-Turkish rapprochement.
On the academic front, universities can hardly pick between equally qualified experts locked in verbal battle. But where does the university often turn for more urgent sociopolitical issues, especially those concerning certain regions of the world? The pop-speaker. Suddenly relinquished are all intellectual, critical, and ethical criteria. This by now familiar scenario dignifies and normalizes disturbing treatments of important sociopolitical topics by providing them with a veneer of academic credibility. The upshot is that the “popular” university undermines the values that the “scholarly” university exists to defend.
Readers will find, below, my reactions to Temelkuran’s interview, along with some remarks on the book that I was subsequently duty-bound to read. It is important to note that the book itself, as well as some of the knee-jerk responses to it, preempt critics by calling them, in advance, too political, too intellectual, too hostile. I then briefly consider a few quips from yet another Temelkuran interview, brought to us, this time, by BBC-Turkey. Since my own piece is, after all, nothing but words about other people’s words, I conclude by citing the words of another.
The first time I noticed that Temelkuran’s interview was making the rounds, and commanding silent consent in a pseudo-scholarly context, I wondered if I really was the only person alarmed by its infantalization of “the Armenians” trying to bring their history to the world’s attention:
“But the one who he [the Armenian] wants to tell the story to doesn’t want to listen. I think, although the Armenian community is extremely mature, they have this wounded child in them, whatever their ages are. That is the common thread I guess.”
I wondered whether one would have to replace the word “Armenian” with “African-American” or “woman,” for example, to make the tenor of these words clear to others. Imagine someone saying, in a talk at Harvard or a follow-up interview: “Although the African-American community is extremely mature, they have this wounded child in them, whatever their ages are.” Or: “Although women are extremely mature, they have this wounded child in them, whatever their ages are.”
How can a “community” be mature? Are we on some sort of antiquated ladder of evolutionary social psychology? Are some societies still in their infancy, while others shriek in adolescent rebellion, and still others are plagued by midlife crises? The metaphors would make me swoon, were it not for the fact that the same author also “said in [her] book that neither the Turks nor the Armenians are homogeneous.” Temelkuran, obviously, is not the only one to think that uttering a magic formula suffices to make problems go away. It would be very improper to imply that the Turks or Armenians are homogenous. But somehow Temelkuran fails to recognize the case in point when she calls the entire Armenian community “mature…but still a child.”
Should I adopt the same sense of entitlement as the author’s, and suggest that the phrase “neither the Turks nor the Armenians are homogeneous” is in fact too homogenizing? Should I say that surely neither Turks nor Armenians could be so completely homogeneous that all of them escape the quality of being homogenous? Please allow for my non-homogenizing reservation that some Armenians are in fact homogeneous, or that all Armenians are a little bit homogeneous, especially when they turn childlike.
Back to square one, where we find the same child metaphor, this time in the guise of Turkish and Armenian political leaders:
“Behind them were the world leaders, as if these politicians were the children and the leaders of the world were the parents who are guarding them. But this is not real. It’s something artificial. When people don’t feel it within them, it doesn’t matter if diplomatic progress has been made.”
Apparently, “the Armenians” are not the only infants who forever reiterate their desperate, unanswered questions; Turkish and Armenian politicians (local and provincial as they are) are also children, pushed around by current world leaders. It is fortunate that someone is adult enough to notice this rampant childishness.
Consecrating the last-cited assertion of the author’s is, inevitably, the murder of Hrant Dink: “Even the diplomatic progress would be completely impossible without what people felt after Hrant’s death. Bottom line is, Hrant has done more than any world leader or any legislation could do.” Transgressing totem and taboo, may I object: how can the co-murder and martyrdom of an individual citizen be cast as an almost poetic historical necessity? The author claims that the incident is a “tragically ironic…sacrifice,” thus appearing to introduce a critical outlook on that representation, but in fact reinstating it in a perverse logic. Could a post-Dink society have been enabled only by that necessary sacrifice? Could a “post-holocaust” society have been enabled only by holocaust? Or are we here standing history on its head in order to make it look as if a great crime was—rather tragically, of course—the indispensable first step towards a better world?
Tirelessly evoking the emotional pathology among the Turks and Armenians alike, the author explains the commercial success of her work as follows:
“I think it was because of the attitude of the book. In most cases, intellectuals are trying to push and slap this issue into people’s faces. They expect people to feel guilty rather than remember. I tried to make them remember first and then leave it to them to figure out what they feel about it. Most of the people felt not necessarily guilty but touched for the first time, and without even questioning what really happened in 1915, they were eager to understand the humane side of the history. They admitted that they have feelings about Armenians which Turks are taught not to have. I guess, for the first time, Turkish people were trying to put themselves in the place of Armenians.”
What strikes me most about this passage is not what it claims is the subject-matter of the book, but the author’s larger-than-life claims about the transformative power of the book itself. How many fallacies does the author commit therein? “Intellectuals are trying to push and slap this issue.” Is there any way in which an intellectual addressing this issue could escape this blanket judgment? How do we determine the criteria that distinguish “pushing and slapping” from, for instance, critically insisting? Can overwhelming historic issues be framed as problems of “gentleness” in style and method? “They expect people to feel guilty rather than remember.” Is there a schema that allows intellectuals to chart the right feelings to induce? What intellectual would contemplate collective guilt without the least regard for “remembrance” or “responsibility,” fantastically distinct categories as they are made out to be?
In the course of this interview, we learn that, just as the Armenian community is childlike, the Turkish people is apathetic. “Emotions”—unaddressed, denied, desensitized, and, most importantly, undiscovered emotions—take center stage in Turkish-Armenian problems. Here is the transformative power that Temelkuran’s book prescribes: “I tried to make them remember first and then leave it to them to figure out what they feel about it.” I am reminded of the aesthetic concept of “purposiveness”: a roundabout, playful, non-rational process that brings about our experiences of the beautiful and the sublime. The post-genocidal reckoning with the past is nothing short of an aesthetic experience par excellence! Intellectuals, lost in their intellectualisms and fierce battles, can only watch enviously, from a great distance, as these “stories” jerk out emotions without even intending to.
Feelings may be there where you least expect them, but when you set out to inspect them, they are nowhere to be found: “[Armenians] say . . . How come you feel nothing? . . . The book is defending that we should share our stories before labeling the story, and if labeling the story is an obstacle let’s leave it aside and talk our minds.” Two plus two makes something I want to hear. If Turks are short of feeling here, it must be because labels are obstructing them.
But, a short step later, we learn how the author herself became involved in this issue:
“Through Hrant. Even when you are exposed to it, somehow you don’t see it. It’s in front of your eyes and you don’t see it. Somehow when it comes to Armenians, you just stop thinking. And if you don’t want to really get involved in the subject, you don’t have to because you can’t find information about Armenians. It’s not easy to blame Turkish people about not knowing about 1915 because there are no sources that are out there and legal in Turkey.”
I am confused. I thought the Turks’ problem was that they had no feelings for something in plain sight. Yet it turns out that it is because they had no idea that there existed something for them to have feelings about in the first place, precisely “because there are no sources that are out there and legal in Turkey.”
But had we not just established that legal labels only obstruct the true emotional “story”; that, “tragically and ironically,” an individual’s martyrdom can “do more than any world leader or any legislation could do”? Interesting. Should we deduce from this juxtaposition that:
a) Legality is ineffective and even irrelevant. The work is better undertaken by martyrs. Or, rather, that:
b) When the law is not our groundwork and option, tragedy ensues.
If a “Turkish” lack of emotions is to be our chief concern, it is worth paying attention to the kinds of feelings the Turks are most hospitable to, in Temelkuran’s version of the aesthetic encounter with story-telling. What we have, again, is the author’s self-proclaimed sovereignty: “Speaking to the readers in Turkey, I can say that Deep Mountain has changed the image of the diaspora in Turkey in every sense.” Juicy details precede that assertion:
“Most of all, seeing that all those ‘furious Diaspora Armenians’ were actually the ones were most easy to talk to made me think about the “heart of the Armenians.” I thought about this especially when I talked to Ara Toranian in Paris. Over all, I never knew that the Armenians, even those whose fathers were born in the U.S., missed Anatolia with such passion. I think the Turkish audience was most touched by this reality.”
I am touched indeed. The starting point for facing up to our communal past is the recognition, not only that “the Armenian community” is a desperate child with a tearful question glued to its lips, but also that the (non-homogeneous) “heart of the Armenians” is filled with profound nostalgia for Anatolia.
How could I fail to be emotionally moved? I feel an urgent parental protectiveness vis-a-vis this poor Armenian child; I am deeply flattered that s/he, of course, misses my country—that superior, beautiful land that just happens to be mine. Such noble feelings would in fact constitute a sound basis for the Turks’ rapprochement with Armenians.
But perhaps the Armenian heart will spare the Turkish people the ordeal of facing anything at all: “As for Armenia, I observed an eagerness to ‘forgive’ Turks, even though there has been no apology. I even heard a couple of Armenians in Yerevan saying this: ‘It wasn’t the Turks, it was Jews who killed the Armenians.’” No further reflection inflects this heavy “reported speech,” or puts it in a critical light. Speaking of feelings: there is nothing like a common enemy to make best friends.
Offering more in the same vein down to its last pages, Deep Mountain itself gives the impression that the burden is on Armenians to speak of the right pain at the right time in the right way to the right people. This, to me, indicates better than anything else how much Temelkuran’s supposed step forward toward “the other” is, in fact, a great leap backwards.
The characterization of the Armenian individuals in this book is, for all its heart-wrenching emotionality, strikingly one-dimensional. There are at least four possibilities as to why. Are “Armenians” in general one-dimensional? Does the author have a special penchant for one-dimensional Armenians? Does she prefer to represent Armenians as one-dimensional? Or does she approach Armenians in her capacity as one-dimensional inquisitor, ignoring wider horizons because she has neither the time nor space to consider them?
In this book’s representational scheme, there are two categories of Armenians. In Category 1 are those Armenians who are obsessed with the genocide, comically nationalistic, and yet disconnected from real, present-day “Anatolia” and Armenia. Those in this category tend to be hostile to Turks, close-minded, (passive-)aggressive, consistently rude, relentlessly calculating, materialistic, emotionally dysfunctional, heartless, and mechanical.
In Category 2 are Armenians who have gotten over the genocide “qua” genocide and are almost viscerally in touch with their narrative memory. These individuals demonstrate a robust imaginary commitment to, and nostalgia for, life in “Anatolia,” are careful to put forward no real-life demands, and love to commiserate with their “Anatolian” brothers and sisters in archaic/rural Turkish, or in such non-discursive ways as showing photographs, eating, drinking, complimenting each other (particularly the author’s “beauty,” frequently evoked in the book), shedding a tear or two, and singing.
If you consider yourself an Armenian in Category 2, this book is for you. If you consider yourself an Armenian in Category 1, the author has long since sacrificed you “textually.” Category 1 Armenians further suffer from the incurable flaw of “not being like Hrant” (216, Turkish edition). Yet, curiously, other combinations of the qualities in Categories 1 and 2, or attempts at representing personhood, are hard to come by in this book, despite its claims on the power of the narrative.
Most telling is the image of the “Armenian sister” featured at the beginning and end of the text. Coming full narrative circle, the image shows just how transparent and objectified “the other” appears to the omniscient author. Upon hearing a song from the motherland, “the Armenian sister” is overcome by a series of conflicting stormy emotions in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice Beach, and teeters helplessly on the edge of each emotional stage: “You could read each and every one of her emotions off of her face.” No less transparent, helpless, and objectified at the end of the book (309) than at the beginning (18), this “Armenian sister” underwrites the sovereign position of the author.
The presumed quest for a “third” language beyond politics thus frames (107)—as is always the case in such quests—representations that are extremely political in their nature and function. From a sovereign position, the author again declares that it is “brave” to state that both the killer and the killed suffer the same pain (122). I only hope that the metaphysical goodwill involved would make us all candidates for taking upon our shoulders, equally, the collective guilt of the entire human race. But coming from this author in her relentless representation of any Armenian political investment as excessive or psychologically suspect, this has the curious effect of placing the pain and guilt of the perpetrator on the shoulders of the victim. The point of the mystical notion of “universal guilt” would be to take upon ourselves the guilt for crimes that we have not personally committed, even if they are completely distant in time and place. Here, we have the convenient opposite: the opportunity to disown the guilt in our very midst by diffusing it throughout an entire region, or, preferably, the world over.
Among the disturbing images in the book, my favorites include that of the “carpets of suffering,” as the Turkish and Armenian nationalists “equally” market their suffering to the (Orientalist) West (181), thus desecrating the “equal” historic pain of their peoples (239). Again, there is the picturesque imagery of Turkish and Armenian “sisters” tearfully brushing their hair together in order to disentangle painful knots (201). If the guilty pleasure induced by such heart-wrenching romanticism were not so dismaying, it might be enjoyed for its comical value. For those who have the least doubt about whether aestheticization can really go beyond politics, or about the question of marketing, these should serve as textbook examples.
The flippantly indulgent coda of the book swirls the reader into its only tangible core—a profound sense of self-gratification, and the entitlement to moralize according to that feeling. This flourish, several pages long, spans a vast moral trajectory that would do Chateaubriand proud: false equivalences (we should not debate whether 1915 was a genocide or not; whatever happened, happened to us all); a perpetual state of exception (our case can’t be compared to the Holocaust, South African apartheid, the fate of aboriginals, colonialism, etc.); the claim that both Turkish denialism and Armenian obstinacy are predicated on “pride” at the expense of “honor”; the condescension, rather than obligation, to connect; the shunning of “strangers” (who do not “look like us”) on the grounds that they are not privy to the discussion; and the false-affirmation that “I do not want you to prove that you died once upon a time. I want my country to remember that you lived in these lands once upon a time” (pp. 299, 309, 311, 312).
Most arresting is the author’s frequently displayed “immediate empathy” with the Armenians, which overcomes her whenever she feels a bit gloomy at her writing desk at Oxford. Her feeling of uprootedness suffices, we are told, to make her understand the plight of the Armenians (displacement being, for the author, “much worse” than death). For the reader who endured the subplot of a romantic relationship in this book, the author’s ego thus continues to loom large. Not the condition of nationless immigrant workers; nor that of the mother who leaves her children to the care of domestic nannies while she herself leaves for the West to work as a nanny; not even that of the student who spends endless years abroad, studying in near-poverty—but a temporary writing fellowship at Oxford isdeclared in this book to provide a basis for empathy with Armenians, who were tortured, massacred, and expelled from their native country. I emphasize “declared in this book,” since I in fact believe that the human capacity for empathy cannot be measured. A poet once said that a little boy at the back the classroom, feeling excluded and lonely, is in a position to empathize with much suffering in this world. And yet, and yet… the Oxford fellow’s homesickness and the Armenian Genocide!
But what if you consider yourself a Turkish beginner in things Armenian? For, the argument goes, “for a Turkish audience” this book can be good. I deduce from this argument, as some of its proponents openly suggest, that social and political progress proceeds along a linear track to be covered in baby steps, each and every one of which is to be overseen by guardians. This is the only translation of the persistent double bind that:
1) It is “the people” (and not intellectuals) who are going to accomplish the work of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, but
2) the Turkish people are not ready to hear certain things. They need to be acclimatized to the discussion, prepared gradually and emotionally, won over, by “intellectuals.”
This double-bind clearly charts the way to an infantilizing and yet populistic view of “the people,” pitting the political role of the intellectual against the jingly ringtones of the pop-speaker.
I further deduce, as, again, some openly insist, that being “Turkish” is something altogether different from belonging to any other people on the face of the earth. The argument has been made that this book has value because it speaks the language of the public and thus can shape it, as an antidote to extreme nationalism, hatred, and violence. By the same token, criticizing such works too severely is “too political,” whereas the antidote to hateful nationalism can only be an apolitical, aesthetic story of sisterhood. Yet the same argument concedes that the sixty thousand or so people who have bought a copy of the book are mostly White Turks who, despite their profound nationalist inclinations, enjoy confronting tough problems every now and then, especially if they are served up once over easy or sunny-side up (to adopt the nutritional obsession in the book). Am I wrong to detect a double-bind similar to the one analyzed above? In any case, it seems to me that this book and whatever is “moderate” or “human” in it is not going to reach extreme nationalists (except for those, perhaps, who take it as a target). As for the rest: Isn’t it telling them exactly what they want to hear?
People of any background, occupation, political investment or non-investment can be deeply disturbed about the way a book represents a group of people. It is no improvement to represent “the other” in polished stereotypes, instead of plainly hateful ones. It would be an improvement to overcome this entitlement to represent the other, how the other feels or what the other thinks—let alone what the other should feel or think. Constantly appealing to “the heart” is the best way to avoid the heart of the problem.
In her recent interview on BBC-Turkey, Ece Temelkuran reasserted her role as a “pioneer” in talking about Turkish-Armenian issues in “some other way.” She also claimed to be mirroring the Armenians back to themselves, taking Armenian stories and retelling them to Armenians. To me this is indicative of the major drive in this book, which purports to re-humanize the Armenians for a Turkish readership, and to effect a rapprochement in the form of sisterhood. Temelkuran implies exasperation by academic conferences even as she proudly declares that her work has demonstrated “academic acceptability,” which, so generously accorded by reputable institutions of the West, seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for her. For when an old Armenian woman welcomes Temelkuran in her home with heartfelt words—in Turkish, of course—everything is “wiped away,” everything changes meaning for Temelkuran. This, for Temelkuran, is the acceptable image of ‘the other’: waiting, with open arms, somewhere over the rainbow, and speaking in Temelkuran’s own tongue.
Let me, in closing, lend an ear to Edward Said who, in the essay “Representations of the Intellectual,” reminds us that “politics is everywhere; there can be no escape into the realms of pure art and thought, or, for that matter, into the realm of disinterested objectivity or transcendental theory.” He adds a few cautionary notes, less about what an intellectual is than about what an intellectual is not:
“…Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his/her audiences feel good […] The intellectual’s representations, his or her articulations of a cause or idea to society, are not meant primarily to fortify ego or celebrate status. Nor are they principally intended for service within powerful bureaucracies and generous employers. Intellectual representations are the activity itself, dependent on a kind of consciousness that is skeptical, engaged, unremittingly devoted to rational investigation and moral judgment […] At bottom, the intellectual in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do.”
This review was published by Armenian Weekly. Check the following link to follow the discussions @ the Armenian Weekly page