I am going to Istanbul. I am very excited and apprehensive. It is like a trip home that is no longer, actually never was, home. The country was once home to my grandparents. It was where they were born and where countless generations of ancestors were born. It is where I might have been born except for… well it is my April letter.
I am going to Turkey to speak at a conference. It is not on anything Armenian, Turkish, or Armenian-Turkish. I am going to speak at a professional conference on Supply Chain Management.
April 7, 2010: Late last year, I received an e-mail announcing a series of conferences to be held in Istanbul in 2010 and soliciting speakers. It was clear from the tone and style of the e-mail that the conference organizers were casting a wide net and had used the directory of a professional society that I belong to: the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals. I wrote back and inquired. I got a most favorable response and indication that they would pay for the trip and provide a stipend to make it even more enticing.
Before committing I wrote a friend, Nurhayat Ulucan, of mine who I knew at Colgate when she was in NY on a short term assignment. She is no longer with Colgate. She wrote back and said that Boğaziçi Eğitim ve Danışmanlık (Bosphorus Training and Consulting) was a known organization running conferences featuring speakers from Europe and the US. That was good enough for me.
I sent a proposal to give a conference presentation and workshop on Supply Chain Physics my company’s, Cadent Resources Group, approach to Supply Chain Management. They accepted with a caveat that they could cancel within ten days of the conference if registrations were not where they needed to be. That was fair enough.
I have my confirmation for plane and hotel. I am leaving in two days and will land “in the city”, στην Πόλη, stin polis. Istanbul. Bolis to the Armenian’s… simply the city. I am excited and anxious. I want to experience where Armenians had once lived and thrived in great numbers. I want to see the classic sites, the grandeur that was the Ottoman Empire. I want to see the Armenian places that still exist. I want to feel the city, The City – Bolis, that I might have been living in had our history been different.
Istanbul is the fifth largest city in the world with a population of 12.8 million. The population was 2.7 M in 1980, 6.6 M in 1990, and 8.8 M 2000. The city has experienced phenomenal growth. It is interesting to note that in 1914 the population of Bolis was 900K and in 1927 it had dropped to 680K. Were there 220K Armenians and Greeks who “chose” to leave as the empire crumbled and the Republic was born?
But this is not meant to be a lament or a normal April letter. It will still be about Armenians and Turks. It will be about this Armenian, who could have been a citizen of Turkey, visiting a place he has long yearned to go. It is about a businessman going to make a presentation at a conference. It is a mix of this and the first time being in a Moslem country. This is nothing new. I am not the first Armenian to make this kind of trip, this pilgrimage.
It is sure to be the longest letter in this series.
April 22, 2010: April 24, 2010 approaches. It is ninety-five years since the day it all began in 1915 when the Armenian intelligentsia and leadership were arrested in Istanbul the first phase of what Armenians refer to as the Genocide. I have dedicated every April letter since I began this project to this topic. That trend continues this year.
I just returned from a week in Istanbul. I was there from April 10 – 16. I was there to participate in a Supply Chain Summit organized by Bosphorus Conferences. I delivered a short speech on Supply Chain Physics on Wednesday, April 14th and a more extensive half day workshop on the same topic the following. In short, I was there for work.
Well… officially I was there for business. While I was very happy to be there for business, I was delighted to be there period. As my son Aram told me, “Dad, I am glad you are finally able to go to a place that has figured so prominently in life.” He was absolutely correct. Aram was, of course, referring to Turkey including Istanbul and Anatolia and the Armenian Highlands. This trip only took me to Istanbul and for that matter only the European side. That was more than enough, plenty rich enough, for this first visit.
I wrote and posted my impressions and thoughts every day on my blog. Please feel free to read those postings as an extension of this letter. These postings are part of this month’s letter.
http://thissideoffifty.blogspot.com/2010/04/april-11-2010-istanbul.htmlReading and thinking about a place is one thing. Talking to people, watching youtubes, and watching travel logs are bascially the same. They all give one an intellectual feel of a place. They create an impression in one’s mind. That is all good but there is no substitution, whatsoever, for actually going someplace to see things in three dimensions, smell, hear, and experience what you think you might know about the place.
This may sound like a total… duh? It is obvious but a lesson I am reminded of every time I go someplace. I believe this “lesson” is what makes some people want to go and experience the far reaches of the world first hand.
Istanbul and Turkey are no different in this regard. It was no different than going to Buenos Aires, Bogota, or Lima for the first time. I had a perspective before I went and I very different one upon actually seeing the place and interacting with the people… even in the limited capacity afforded by the nature of a business trip.
I had an impression of the place before I left. I have another impression upon having been there. I am certain, if I am fortunate enough to make another trip that the impression will evolve. This is how I view the world.
History books and social commentaries give us the big sweeping picture. They address politics and leaders and the forces of change in those rarified circles. These are the changes that sweep the bulk of the population along whether they care to take the journey or not. Novels try to give us more of a slice of life, but novelists are not normal people and thus their slice of life is often more intense than what one might generally find on their own.
Why this long preamble? I am not exactly sure, but with apologies to all of you, I am not stopping here.
I am a US citizen. I am an Armenian American. Am I more American than Armenian? It is a relative term. To some Americans, colleagues I have worked with, they are amazed that I cling to so much of the heritage. They are baffled. In the Republic of Armenia, I met Armenians who literally viewed me as a foreigner… which I was and was not. These perceptions that one has of themselves and the degree to which others agree or disagree affect how a place, a new place, is viewed.
I felt very at home in Istanbul. I am pretty convinced that part of the feeling at home there is the constant realization that it is a lot less an Armenian or Greek city than it ever was and part of a country whose policies, while in a state of flux, are not entirely inclusive of Armenians.
April 23, 2010: I am glad yesterday has past. I am not sure what exactly I was writing about. I do believe I was under the influence of one Orhan Pamuk. I have been reading his novel Snow. While, through Ka we meandered about Kars trying to make sense of the forces of change in Turkey. It is indeed a society in a state of flux struggling with the Republicans, the Islamists, and the Kurds. I am sure I have totally oversimplified this. There are no doubt other factions and sub-factions within the three groups I mentioned.
The novel started off slow. But Pamuk did not win the Nobel Prize for nothing. The man can weave an intricate tale which soon entangled me in its alluring web. Pamuk set the story in Kars, a town that borders Armenia and is close to the ruins of the ancient Armenian captical of Ani. Pamuk notes the Armenian heritage of the city but only in noting that this building or that was owned by an Armenian merchant.
Armenians call the city Khars. When we first went to Armenia in 2001, our driver assigned by the Menua tours was a wonderful gregarious fellow named Manvel. His family was from Khars. He lives in Yerevan a mere 125 miles from Khars. I asked him if he ever wanted to move to the US, as lots of Armenians were leaving Armenia for LA at the time. Manvel immediately answered, “This is where I am from, my heritage is Khars… why would I ever leave.” I felt proud, inspired, and sad all at the same time. Khars could have been part of Armenia as countries were being drawn up at the end of World War I. It, obviously, did not work out that way.
Over the past few weeks I have read some very interesting Op Ed pieces coming from the Turkish press. These pieces were circulated through the University of Michigan Armenian ListServ which has been featured in more than a few of my April e-letters. I read moving pieces by Ahmet Altan, Erol Özkoray, and Cengiz Aktar. When I was in Istanbul, I read editorials in the English language Today’s Zamaan as both Erdoğan and Sarkisian were in Washington, DC. The topic is in the open and openly debatable… by those that care to debate it.
I do not agree with everything that I read. What impresses me is that the topic is being discussed in Turkey. That is a change. Certainly, there are a wide variety of agendas both among Turks and Armenians. It will be amazing if, one, a solution is ever reached and, two, if everyone is happy with it.
I posted the links to my travel blog on the Armenian ListServ. Immediately, two editors one Armenian and one Turkish wrote and asked that I let them know the next time I go to Turkey. It was a great offer and I do plan to keep in contact with both. I may well end up visiting Istanbul again in September.
The past few days were also very strange day on the University of Michigan ArmenianListserv. There has been a lot of controversy over the editorial by Cengiz Aktar. The debate became intense and turned personal. It was pretty ugly and depressing to have a scholarly forum look more like a teenage chatroom. It was tough to read petty personal attacks so close to day of commemoration.
April 24, 2010: It is the day. On April 24, 1915, it all began. Whether the ‘it’ was genocide, ethnic cleansing, deportations, massacres, or atrocities, it all began that day. This was the day that that accord to the LA Times:
Every important Armenian leader in Istanbul — writers, poets, intellectuals, scholars, you name it — [the Turks] arrested them and killed them. The Turks were thinking, "Once we kill off the leaders, the rest are sheep without the shepherd.''I do believe that is exactly what happened.
I get a daily mailing from the History Channel. It gives the historical highlights of the day. For today, there was nary a word about the Armenian Genocide. I did learn, however, the Easter Rebellion began in Dublin in 1916, Winston Churchill was knighted in 1953, the Library of Congress was established in 1800, and in 1982… Jane Fonda released her workout video. Hmmm…. The Jane Fonda Video. I am sure this will come up every year from now on. It will help me put things in perspective.
Another way of putting things in perspective is as through personal contacts and friendships. In the opening of this letter, I wrote about my friend Nurhayat. She drove an hour each way to meet me at the Supply Chain Summit. She was supposed to come for lunch but her own work made her time short. She could have called and said she could not make it. Instead, she still fought Istanbul traffic to see an old friend, to say hello. I appreciated that so much. It also puts into perspective the relationships of Armenians and Turks. We can be friends, we can agree, we can agree to disagree at least on personal levels. State wise… who knows.
Here is a link to watch a video summary from the commemoration ceremonies held earlier today at the Genocide Memorial, Dzidzernagaperd, in Yerevan.