Growing up in the Turkish capital, Ankara, 33-year-old Okan Doğan heard the word “Armenian” used as a an insult, just like his peers in Armenia heard the word “Turk” uttered with contempt.
The long shadow of Ottoman Turkey’s World-War-I-era slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Armenians lies at the base of this discord. Turkey strongly denies that the killings were genocide, as claimed by Armenia and 30 other countries. Ankara’s 1991 decision to side with Azerbajan during Baku’s war with Armenia over the region of Nagorno Karabakh and close the Turkish-Armenian border added to this psychological divide.
The differences, though, intrigued Doğan. While an undergraduate, he decided to study the massacres and Armenia’s territorial claims within modern-day Turkey, but his research hit a wall. Both Internet and academic resources were scarce, as is knowledge.
“In Turkey, the lack of information and unawareness [about Armenia] is very severe,” he says. “My friends are mainly academics and most of them know little about the Armenian genocide and, generally, about Armenians.”
“There are people who deny [the genocide] just because the Turkish government rebuffs it,” he continues. “Millions have simply never heard of it, and just don’t have any idea about it. In that sense, I feel, that I have a lot to do in my homeland.”
As a political-science doctoral student at Ankara’s Bilkent University researching how Turkish intellectuals campaign for recognition of the Armenian genocide, he decided he needed to go beyond the official line. And, so, in 2017, he moved to Armenia.
As part of an eight-month Armenian-Turkish exchange program funded by the Istanbul-based Hrant Dink Foundation, Doğan examined how Armenian intellectuals, in turn, consume and disseminate information from Turkey about the two countries’ relations.
Studying Armenian was part of this exploration. Learning the language seemed difficult at first, but he says that it helped him secure people’s trust.
“Linguistics can answer many questions. I often understand a lot in Armenian because the roots of many words are the same [as in Turkish]. The logic of the sentence construction is also the same. One day, I’ve heard someone saying tarsi pes [ “unfortunately” in Armenian.] It sounds the same in Turkish.”
He claims his citizenship never proved a problem. Rather, what Doğan faced more often were curiosity, interest and a strong hope for normal relations between Armenia and Turkey.
“If a taxi driver asks me where I am from, I just answer that I’m a Turk from Turkey, that I came to get acquainted with you, that I learnt Armenian. I always get good feedback. My Armenian friends laugh with me, saying ‘Okan-jan, when you are back in Turkey, tell your people to finally open the border.’”
Doğan believes that doing so “will really unlock . . . reconciliation between the two countries.” In fact, since such trade already exists overland via Georgia, he asks, “why not do it directly?”
In September 2008, then Turkish President Abdullah Gül paid an historic visit to Yerevan to watch, alongside Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, a World Cup qualifier between Turkey and Armenia’s national soccer teams. A year later, the two countries signed a milestone protocol to establish diplomatic relations and re-open their shared border. The accord, however, failed to materialize.
The frontier remains closed and its reason -- Armenia’s unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno Karabakh -- is not close to a solution any time soon.
“I think it will take decades for relations to normalize. There isn’t a single brave politician in Turkey who would stand up and say that these two matters must be considered separately. Until that will happen, we political scientists, journalists, businessmen, and the ordinary people in both countries need to do a lot. We must start acknowledging our identity and history, get to know each other and communicate, so that when the time comes we are already one step closer to each other.”
Now back in Ankara, he says that it’s his exposure to everyday life among Armenians interests his friends -- “what Armenians eat and drink, which music they listen to, what Yerevan looks like, what people say about Turkey or whether I had problems being a Turk in the country.”
But, he believes, this awareness that the two countries have a lot in common is not without value. Based on such ties, he believes, relations can re-start.
“An Armenian friend gave me a book of anecdotes, stories, and jokes about the Black Sea region. I read it and found that the stem of the anecdotes is the same -- we tell the same anecdotes about Turks living along the Black Sea.”
Okan Doğan was doing his fellowship at CRRC-Armenia within the Turkey-Armenia Fellowship Scheme, which in 2017-2019 is implemented by the Hrant Dink Foundation in partnership with Gyumri Youth Initiative Centre with the support of the UK Government's Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.
June 2018, Identity Edition