An Experience Regarding Communication with the Armenian Diaspora in America

In this study, I will mention the events that I experienced regarding the Armenian Question with some Armenians from the Armenian diaspora and American academics during the time period when I was working at the Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence program at the Chatham University in Pittsburgh in the 2010-2011 Academic year.

Within the scope of the above-mentioned program, I was to work at the Global Focus Program, which was in the department of History at Chatham University. This program gave the opportunity to get to know different countries or geographies to university students and members by focusing on a different state or geography each year. At that time, the 2010-2011 academic year had been declared to be “Year of Turkey” at Chatham University. The person who was in charge of the program was Dr. Jean-Jacques Sène. I was to assist him in the studies related to Turkey and the Turkish culture.

Before going to Pittsburgh, I started to correspond with Dr. Jean-Jacques Sène. When he gave information about the program he managed, we had our first contact with the Armenian Question. In the promotion brochure that they had prepared within the scope of the Year of Turkey it was written that the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians and oppressed the Kurds. In addition, there were films such as Calendar and Dol, which were not much related to Turkey or the Turkish culture, among the films that would be shown that year. I objected to these matters. Dr. Sène found my objections justified and instead of these films the following films were shown during the year: Cars of the Revolution (Tolga Örnek), Mommo (Atalay Taşdiken) and Farewell (Zülfü Livaneli).

I went to Pittsburgh in August 2010. I gave a speech at the academic opening of the university. After the ceremony, Dr. Sène asked the positions of Turks and Armenians regarding the Armenian Question in our conversation. I responded by saying, “Turks are very sensitive regarding this issue, and Armenians are prejudiced.” He smiled and said that the same expressions are used by Armenians as well.

My first contact with the Armenian diaspora in Pittsburgh was quite interesting. Ramadan started in August that year. For the last 15 days of Ramadan, the Turks who live in Pittsburght established an Iftar Tent in the garden of “Cathedral of Learning.” Although I could not fast, I went there in the evenings because I missed Turkish food. People sat in a random fashion in the tent. Most of those who came were Turkish students and foreign student who studied in the universities in that area. There were also people who came out of curiousity after seeing the tent and the crowd. As a matter of fact, I met the Calian family, which is of Armenian origin, in this way. They saw the tent and the crowd and they came out of curiousity when they found out that it was a Turkish tent. One evening, I was sitting and waiting for the Iftar time, an old couple sat across from me. We introduced ourselves as a matter of courtesy. When I said that I was the Fulbright professor who came within the scope of the Turkish year at Chatham University, Mrs. Doris Calian said, “my husband will attend the conference at Carnegie Samuelora in February.” As it turned out, we met six months before the conference as its Turkish and Armenian participants. Both the couple and I were quite surprised by this. After this first meeting with the Calian family, we gave each other our business cards. The roots of the Calian family goes back to Ankara, Urfa, and Harput. According to their narrations, both families were victims of the forced relocation.

I invited the Calian family as well to the “Turkish Independence Day Celebration,” which was organized the Festival of the Republic within the scope of the Year of Turkey at the university. At first they were hesitant because they thought that this was an activity for Turks only. However, when I told them the details of the program, they decided to attend. When they came, I met them at the door. We shared the table at which we sat together with the university staff. We chatted together and drank Turkish coffee and tea. Since they knew that I was going to go to Turkey for the Eid al-Adha, which was approaching, Mrs. Doris Cailan prepared some gifts for my mom. One of them was a postcard on which the following were written: “Congratulations that you haves such a wonderful son, Ercan!. Our parents were Armenian and came from Turkey (Ankara, Urfa, Harput). May God forgive the past and lead us all to friendships now and in the future. Sincerely, Sam and Doris.” This made me very happy. When I asked them what they wanted from Turkey, Doris Cailan requested “Turkish coffee” and Samual Cailan requested “Turkish delight.” On my way back, I bought coffee from Kurukahveci Mehmet Effendi for Doris Cailan and I bought double roasted Turkish delight from Koska for Samuel Cailan. In addition, I gave them the CD named “Mosaic of Ottoman: Armenian Composers” as a gift. Also my mom sent hand-made short socks that she had made herself as a response to the kind gesture of Doris Cailan. After I returned to the U.S., I contacted the Cailan family again. I wished them a happy Christmas and new year. Apparently, they found out my birthday from Dr. Sène, who is the person in charge of the Global Focus Program. They invited me to their home to celebrate my birthday. Dr. Calian came to the university with his car on a cold winter day. Since the roads were icy, he kept reminding me to be careful while walking on the road. He even said that, “your aunt Doris told me to watch over you and to protect you”. We went to the home of the Calian family together. There was also a young Armenian family of Lebanese origin there. It was also the birthday of their child. So they had organized a birthday party for both of us. Doris Calian had prepared borek and rice in a way similar to the Turkish cuisine. I had a coversation with the Lebanese youth and we ended up talking about the Fenerbahçe Football Club. He said that a Turk he knew talked about Fenerbahçe all the time. We chatted and had tea. I presented one by one the gifts that I had brought from Turkey. They gave me a tie as a gift and a birthday card. At one point in the conversation, we started to talk about the forced relocation of the Armenians. I said that Turks also experienced many said incidents similar to the ones they mentioned but, “the Armenians paid the big price.” After the birthday celebration finished, Dr. Calian gave me a lift to the university.

Before going to the home of the Calian family, I also had a chat with another Armenian. A woman named Heather H. Smith was studying for a masters degree in “Counseling Psychology Program” and her essay “Focus on Turkey” had earned 3rd place in the “Global Focus Art Work and Writing Competition.” This competition had taken place when I was in Turkey. When I read Heather’s essay, I realized that she was Armenian. I wrote an e-mail and congratulated her on her success and invited her to my office to talk. She accepted my invitation and we met at my office after a few days. When she came, I offered her from the Turkish delights that I had brought from Turkey and we had tea while talking. I realized this during our conversation with Heather: the information she had was based on the stories that had been told to her by her elders. I realized that she knew almost nothing about the Ottoman-Turkish-Armenian history from the fact that she could not answer the questions I asked her. I said that the great powers of the period used the Armenians to destroy the Ottoman Empire by implementing a policy of divide and conquer. I talked about some of the pashas, ministers, and high level bureaucrats who served in the top administration of the Ottoman Empire. I mentioned that the Turks also paid a high price in the same period and that similar stories have also been told to Turkish children by their elders. I told her that I could also understand the bad incidents that the Armenians experienced. I emphasized that policies that aim at creating conflict between the Turks and Armenians are still being pursued. I noted that this sensitive and serious issue between the two nations can only be resolved by the two societies. I talked about the friendship between the Calian family and myself and I showed the gifts that I had brought. Our conversation ended in this way. A few days later, I came across Lindsey Peck Scherloum, who was from among the assistants of the Global Focus Program, at the office of Dr. Sène. She said, “Dr. Karakoç, my classmate from the masters program, Heather, said that she met you and she was really pleased with the conversation she had with you.” I told Dr. Sène about our meeting and said, “I told her the same things that I tell you about this issue.” Dr. Sène was pleased with this and he said that one of the most important goals of the Global Focus Program was the societies getting to know each other and added, “Dr. Karakoç, you put this into practice.” I invited Heather to the conference in February where we were to address the Armenian Question. She attended the conference and when I asked her what she thought of the conference, she said that she was pleased with the topics that were discussed.

Our next meeting with the Calian family took place at the conference titled “Turkey, Armenia and Principles of International Dispute Resolution.” Among the participants of the conference were Ronald H. Linden from Pittsburgh University, Samuel Calian, and Ergun Kırlıkovalı, who was the head of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations of that period. One week before the conference, an email was sent to those people who were involved in the conference by Sean Coleman, who was the private secretary of the university president Esther Barazzone. In the email he said that, “an anonymous caller had called the president and accused Ergun Kırlıkovalı, who was one of the conference participants, of serious matters.” Suddenly, a discussion started in the correspondence among the people about the conference and Ergun Kırlıkovalı. I realized that we were face-to-face with a classic game of the Armenians. They did not want to let the Turks speak. They did not comment about me because they did not know me enough and because I was a Fulbright scholar. As a result, I decided to write an enlightening email to the group. I talked to Dr. Sène about this. He said that I could do that. I prepared an email that included 9 points and sent it to the relevant people. In the end, the day of the conference arrived. There were Turks, Armenians, students, and both the academic and administrative staff of the university among the audience. The university president Dr. Barazzone started the conference by giving a speech.

At first everybody was a bit tense. However, the conference ended without any problems. At the end of the session Mrs. Calian asked for my sides and I gave them to her.

I started to run across Heather, who had thought of protesting me during the Opening Convocation saying that I was a “genocide denier,” at the university campus, library and the cafeteria. We shared the same tables. Our conversations continued and increased. I also continue to correspond with the Calian family, with whom I met in a very interesting way. They often travel by ship and they wil visit me when they visit Istanbul. I am still in touch with Dr. Sène.

What I have narrated here is entirely based on my own experiences and observations in Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, I wrote about my experiences in order to record them in history. I still keep all the correspondence that was made, the postcards that were given, the notices and programs in these experiences, and the relevant links are shown in the bibliography. In conclusion, both societies should keep the lines of communication open, should try to understand each other, have empathy, and should tolerate each other. The events that were experienced in the last century after a coexistence of about a thousand years, no matter how painful, and the history and geography are leading the two nations to understand each other and to share each other’s pains.

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