Turkish historian Ümit Kurt recalls how he first heard in his early 20s of the Armenian historical presence in his country – a presence the Turkish government has spent decades trying to erase.
After entering an old house that had been turned into a cafe in the city of Aintab, Kurt said, “I saw some weird letters, and I thought they were Arabic or Persian letters because my historic consciousness went back that far – as if there was no Greeks, there was no Armenians, there was no Jews who had lived in this land.”
After questioning the owner of the cafe about the history of the building, Kurt was told that it once belonged to Armenians.
Since that experience, Kurt has often written about the appropriation of Armenian land and property by Turks.
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Fresno State’s monument to the Armenian genocide was unveiled last April. On Wednesday night, Kurt gave a lecture attended by dozens that probed why Turkey still denies that the event happened.
In Turkish society, this (lost) sense of reality is most obvious in the case of denying, or not acknowledging, the Armenian genocide.
Turkish historian Ümit Kurt
The free lecture, held at Fresno State’s Alice Peters Auditorium, was organized by the Armenian Studies Program. This was the third lecture hosted by the program during the spring 2016 semester.
Some societies are capable of openly discussing their history, Kurt said. Others struggle “because their past and present is intertwined in a way that causes them to lose their sense of reality,” Kurt said. “In Turkish society, this (lost) sense of reality is most obvious in the case of denying, or not acknowledging, the Armenian genocide.
“Confronting the past is a societal problem, rather than an individual one,” Kurt said.
Armenian studies professor Sergio La Porta said that because Kurt was raised in Turkey, he had an interesting perspective on Turkish denialism.
During 1915, the Ottoman Turkish army committed massacres of Armenians, Kurt said, and deported many under harsh circumstances that constituted an intentional effort to rid the country of Armenians.
Around 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been killed in the genocide.
After the events of World War I, the modern Turkish republic wanted to create a new national identity, Kurt said. In the creation of that new identity, government leaders sought to forget the past and construct a new past, in which “we Turks did not murder Armenians – Armenians murdered us,” Kurt said.
This erasure of Armenian history in Turkey occurs from an early age, with textbooks and school curriculum teaching that the genocide – referred to as the “Armenian matter” – is a lie, Kurt said.
“Because Turkey founded its existence on the absence of ‘the other,’ every conversation on its existence inspires fear and anxiety,” Kurt said. “The chief difficulty in speaking on the Armenian issue in Turkey lies in this existence-absence dilemma.”
800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians are estimated to have been killed in the genocide.
Because the events that happened to Armenians in 1915 are rarely, if ever, taught in Turkey, Kurt said many Turks are genuinely ignorant of the genocide.
Kurt added that the government of Turkey is also afraid of the reparations and restitution they would have to pay if they accepted that the Turkey’s actions in 1915 constituted a genocide.
In response to an audience question, Kurt said it was unlikely the government of Turkey would ever admit to the genocide. “Of course, I hope I’m wrong,” he said.
Kurt is a doctoral candidate at Clark University in Massachusetts and was a Kazan Research Scholar at Fresno State during the fall 2015 semester.