This is an abridged and edited translation of an essay that appears in Sema Kaygusuz’s book of essays The Tree Between Us (Aramızdaki Ağaç), published by Metis Yayinlari in February 2019. Translation by Nicholas Glastonbury.
We will never know the world’s most moral words.
Even if we read every last volume in every last library, including those rescued from fire and destruction, even if we shared in the wisdom of every last sage, dervish, philosopher, poet, and saint, every profound word would waste away in the afterglow of the next, each consumed by the light of the others. Because morality is an ember that burns eternal. Morality stokes reason back to life, finds its tongue anew in those flames. With its heat, morality alters the air it touches, melts iron, gives glass its shape, changes the way you caress another living being. Perhaps this is why we have so little faith in civilization: We will never know the world’s most moral words.
On the other hand, we can all agree on the world’s most immoral utterance, found of course in the Bible. When God asks Cain where his brother Abel is, Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This reply continues to resound into the present, disillusioning those who have dedicated themselves to the task of mending the world. It is not just that Cain killed his brother, there in the presence of a living world that had borne witness to his act. Through his forceful denial, he also gave birth to a new and depraved logic hell-bent on distorting the truth.
The Qur’an speaks not of Cain and Abel but of Adam and Eve’s two sons. Here the emphasis is on the fact that this first murder was fratricide. In this particular rendition, the son who kills his brother can’t even manage to dig a grave, so he leaves his brother’s lifeless body in the dust. Mercifully, a crow lands nearby and begins pecking the ground, showing him how to bury the body. The murderous son is ashamed, realizing that he lacks the humanity of a lowly crow. Indeed, the parable makes clear that it is only with the crow’s help that this murderous brother could conceive of the idea of a grave. Because Abel’s lifeless body left in the dust redounds upon Cain’s own dignity, the idea to bury Abel in a grave serves as a moral injunction to humanize Cain, even for a brief moment, after he has wounded the world by killing his brother.
Graves , with few exceptions, are generally horizontal. The dead are laid to rest in the crust of the earth, upon the water, on the peaks of mountains. Gravestones, however, are vertical. Monuments, pyramids, mountaintop burial sites—even the flames reaching skyward when corpses are ritually burned and set adrift on rivers—are vertical. The memory of those who have passed through this world, their names, their dates of birth and death, even their relationships in life, are held up high for all to see. Graves look up at the sky, but gravestones look into the eyes of the living, that they might continue to speak. Thus, a civilization can be judged by the way it treats its stones. Even if the gravedigger is a crow, anyone who has even the smallest shred of humanity knows to place a stone at the head of the grave. We spend our lives reading these epitaphs: They remind us that while our lives can be taken so long as tyranny exists in the world, our deaths cannot be taken from us. In this way, we do not merely commemorate the dead; we sow the seeds of virtue on their behalf.
In a country like Turkey that has not erected a single stone to commemorate the Armenians slaughtered in 1915—thereby rejecting the most fundamental principle of civilization—it is not hard to estimate the toll that has been taken both on its own people and on the Armenians, who have scattered to the four corners of the earth.
There have been two monuments, as far as I know, one of which was built to commemorate April 11. It is said that this particular monument was erected in the Surp Agop Cemetery—once the property of the Ottoman Armenians—in memory of the tragedy that began with the midnight operations on April 11, 1915, to kidnap Armenian intellectuals from their homes and deport them first to the rural heartlands of Çankırı and Ayaş and then, eventually, to their annihilation. The fate of that moving monument, which we know of only from photographs, remains unknown. Eighty-five acres of that timeworn cemetery, including the Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, were expropriated by the government and demolished.
The gravestones of the Armenians buried there were later used to pave the sidewalks and steps of the present-day Gezi Park, known throughout the world as the site of the uprisings in May and June 2013. The great wave of peaceable protest that spread across Turkey in the Gezi Park Uprisings, then, also included the ghosts etched into those worn stones. Stone does not stay silent. The moment chisel strikes stone, human language is breathed in, until the day comes when it speaks louder than men. With the pain it bears, stone acts as the measure of one person against another. And gravestones are not merely vertical symbols; they gesture toward the infinite, as missives that represent the singular relationship a people has with its dead. If so much as a single gravestone is missing, that means there has been a campaign to erase the memories of those dead.
It would be a stretch to characterize the second monument as a true monument. I’m talking about a statue built in the city of Kars, near the border with Armenia, which made no mention whatsoever of the Armenian Genocide. The statue, known as the Monument to Humanity, was vague and implicit, barely pertaining to the genocide at all. This enormous sculpture, built by Mehmet Aksoy, depicted two human figures face-to-face, one of them lifting its arm toward the other in a gesture of reconciliation, and in fact it was well suited to the land and light where it was built. But it was torn down in 2011 when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Prime Minister, described it as a “monstrosity.” Many journalists in the mainstream media who reported on the statue’s sad tale, as it was dismantled and removed, insisted on portraying the event as evidence of the Prime Minister’s opposition to art. They made no news whatsoever of the nationalist and denialist pressures exerted by political actors who bristled at the thought of commemorating the Armenian Genocide. Yet this statue, dismantled for being a so-called monstrosity, had in fact been removed from sight because of its oblique references to the genocide. Perhaps most unfortunate of all, Aksoy preferred to respond not by defending the Armenian connotations of his monument to humanity but by underscoring the importance of artistic freedom. This was, in my opinion, a craven response, totally ineffectual as a challenge to authority. But one way or another, even when people choose to remain silent, stones continue to speak.
Forget books, documentaries, photo albums: If we turn our ears to stones, to abandoned houses, to church ruins, we can hear, clearly, that the genocide is not just an incident left in the distant past. No, the genocide endures in the very fiber of the Turkish state, in the fabric of Turkish society. Hrant Dink, for example, a journalist who dedicated himself fully to telling this truth, was killed for being Armenian, as all of Turkey knows all too well, and the stones in the sidewalk where he fell proclaim this truth too.
Let the officials insist on their official denials. What matters to me is why, three generations on, challenges to state paternalism remain so fainthearted and, furthermore, why the fear of offending the sensitivities of the majority remains so pervasive. What I mean here is the exceedingly naive humanism that overlooks the genocide, with its clear victims, and transfigures it into a victimless human tragedy. No matter how striking a work of art like Aksoy’s may be, so long as it remains in thrall to the sensitivity of its subject, so long as it refuses to offend its primary audience, it will fail to tell the truth. Such universalizing and humanist overtures about the many kinds of racism and oppression—as if there were no moral responsibility in the wake of so many genocides—normalizes the substance of such inhumane tragedies. This is an ethical dilemma through and through. To put it more bluntly, then: We cannot shirk the specific responsibility that the people of Turkey, who have yet to own up to the Armenian genocide, need to assume.
First, everyone must face up to their ancestors. To shy away from assailing the ossified attitudes of fathers and grandfathers, and to hold all of humanity accountable instead, is taking the easy way out. Real virtue begins by asking whether your grandfather lived humanely. If you listen to the stories told behind closed doors all across Anatolia, you’ll hear about how almost everyone’s grandfather was a hero. You’ll hear about how these grandfathers hid their Armenian neighbors in their basements, how they saved the children from the death marches by adopting them as their own. Be that as it may, if we want to bring to light the heroic stories of their principled grandfathers who stood up to authority, we first have to recognize the heart-wrenching atrocities that were the condition for that heroism. If we want to boast of those who acted honorably amid the slaughtering—of Celal Bey, the governor of Konya, who refused to allow the Armenians in the surrounding regions to be sent to the deserts of Syria and was discharged from office because of it, or of Faik Ali Ozansoy, the governor of Kütahya, who offered refuge to the exiled Armenians—then we must also speak of Dr. Nazım Bey and Behaeddin Şakir, members of the Central Commission of the Committee of Union and Progress who went from prison to prison rounding up convicts in order to form battalions to brutally massacre the exiles. We simply cannot leave their indignities out of the picture. The heroes of that time may have emerged from a nesting doll of tyrants, but they are still part and parcel of the same history.
Fathers will remain silent. They will say nothing, will remain in submission to their own fathers, who were just following orders without any sense of right and wrong, their own fathers who capitulated to authority as well. They will say nothing about their founding ancestors, whom they would have to forsake as soon as the guilt crept in. The crime of the genocide itself has been divvied up into so many thousands of pieces anyway that it has been diminished to the point of invisibility. Nobody can remember who was guilty of what anymore. But we know that the handful of cruel commanders who made the decision to exterminate a people must have needed tens of thousands of accomplices to get the job done. Some did the capturing; others did the locking up; still others ransacked their homes, while the most brutal did the murdering; those who did nothing simply watched. Everyone was complicit, but nobody spoke up, and the victims, terrified in the face of violence, have since been plunged into a silence that becomes stone.
It is their grandchildren who now live upon the memory that emanates from those stones. They will realize the impossibility of forgiveness, as when, for example, the gravestone of Garabet Balyan—architect of so many of Istanbul’s most elegant buildings, including the historical palaces and mosques that are the pride of Turkey—appeared, by happenstance, in a construction site. When they learn that the Armenian exiles, along with the Yezidis, who have suffered at least 17 massacres in recent history, have set down their roots in Kobanî, blooming like a flower amid the flames in Syria, they will see that those who were oppressed in the last century are returning now as a force of resistance. Even though the administered campaign of forgetting may have prevented these grandchildren from ever knowing the names of those who once upon a time created the various delicacies they eat in taverns, designed the tilework in old houses, built the fountains in city squares, they will still sense in themselves the traces of a lost society. They will grow uneasy, walking among the ruins of churches overgrown with grass, or stepping upon the gravestones that have been paved into sidewalks. When they learn that many of Atatürk’s homes, which have been turned into museums today, once belonged to Armenians, they will feel the contradiction deep in their bones. They may not grieve, but they will find themselves in darkness. Even if they deny, they will live among so many stones that speak. Sooner or later, they’ll realize that the Armenian alphabet still breathes, alive, on the facades of the old homes that fill their neighborhoods. The familiar Armenian they’ve buried inside themselves will simply not go away. The weight of time has a way of cutting to the bone.
The day will come when these descendants will be forced to ask questions. Once upon a time, there was an Armenian statesman named Amira Dadyan. Where are his descendants? In which neighborhood did Ananiye live, that Armenian apothecary renowned for the salves she made? I am innocent, they will say to themselves, and my father is innocent, but I don’t know about my grandfather. Humming along to the tune of a Turkified Armenian folk song, they will pause for a moment, afflicted by anxiety. The day will come when they will feel, deep in their bones, that the genocide is not in fact frozen deep in the past, and that this calamity continues to color the present and the future. Every individual is responsible not merely for their own ancestors but for the mountains that witnessed those hellish days, for the valleys and rivers through which train tracks even now trace the routes of the exiled, and for the centuries-old oak trees with roots that crack through the asphalt.
The day will come when these descendants will apologize without asking forgiveness. They will abandon their fathers. They will gravely accept the secret that burns as an ember in the flames of nonforgiveness. In time, it will no longer be enough to say, “We are responsible.” Some will say, “I am more responsible than others. Though I may live among so many Cains who know not what to do with their brothers’ corpses, I am here, ahparig—I am here, brother. I am my brother’s keeper.”