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Lost in Commemoration: The Armenian Genocide in Memory and Identity

Date: Thursday 9 May 2013
Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Dr Uğur Ümit Üngör (Utrecht University)
Chair: Ara Sarafian (Gomidas Institute)

The second instalment in the Programme of Armenian Studies’ Towards 2015 series ― a programme of lectures and other events commemorating the Armenian Genocide ― saw Dr Uğur Ümit Üngör of Utrecht University deliver a lecture on the issue of the Genocide in memory. The guests were greeted warmly as they entered by the Programme of Armenian Studies’ founder and director, Dr Krikor Moskofian, and after an impressive introduction by Ara Sarafian, Dr Üngör launched into the lecture.

Specifically, Dr Üngör was addressing the discrepancy between the official history touted by the Turkish state and the personal memories of those Turks, Kurds and Armenians who were alive at the time, and those to whom they have told their stories. He started by saying that the ‘memory wars’ ― the intellectual battles between those who would expose the genocide and those who would rather forget it ― that characterise the relationship between Armenia and Turkey were reminiscent of those between Bosnia and Serbia, and were an essential characteristic of all genocides. The animated Dr Üngör then proceeded to make a swift analysis of the Turkish state’s policy of denial; from the destruction of architecture, books and forensic evidence on one hand, to the construction of (false) official histories in school textbooks and academic institutions, it is clear that the control of memory is crucial in the promotion of the denialist agenda. The gist of Dr Üngör’s talk, however, was that in order to get to the truth of the events of 1915, we must look to oral history, to the first- and second-hand accounts of those who remember what happened, be they perpetrators, survivors or witnesses.

When Mr Sarafian opened the floor for questions, there were, predictably, many members of the audience who wanted to share their own memories and experiences. The questions, when they were finally asked, were relevant, but because of the preamble and anecdotes that preceded them each time, the Q&A session ended up lasting longer than lecture itself. Personally, I found it frustrating that some people apparently preferred to listen at length to their own voices than have their questions answered by the speaker, but to his credit, Dr Üngör listened patiently and answered all the questions enthusiastically, including a question from Mr Sarafian. It was a privilege to hear these two experts discussing history so eloquently, and I’m sure that everyone who attended Dr Üngör’s talk is looking forward to the next enlightening event to be held by the Programme of Armenian Studies.

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