Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Mr Ara Sarafian (Gomidas Institute)
Chair: Adham Smart (Programme of Armenian Studies)
Ubiquitous greetings of ‘parev, pari yegav’ alongside ‘merhaba, hoşgeldiniz’ were heard upon arrival as over thirty people assembled for the event. This evening was the fourth in the Towards 2015 lecture series, hosted by the Programme of Armenian Studies in the run-up to the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.
The chair gave an elegant welcome in Western Armenian and (after apologising for an unexpected fire alarm that sent everyone back out into the cold night) introduced the writer and historian, Ara Sarafian. His work focuses on late Ottoman and modern Armenian history, and has been conducted in a number of archives across the world, including in the Ottoman Archives of the Prime Minister’s Office in Istanbul. In fact Sarafian is a frequent visitor to Turkey, where he works with Turkish civil society organisations.
Tonight, Sarafian presented a handwritten report found in Talaat Pasha’s private papers after his assassination in 1921, and argued that it constituted a detailed report on the Armenian Genocide. The report was based on a survey Talaat Pasha himself had commissioned, showing that between 1914 and 1917, 1.2 million Armenians had gone missing, and several hundred thousand had been distributed amongst Muslim communities for assimilation.
The title of the talk, Sarafian explained, was deliberately provocative, not only to the audience but also to himself who, as an academic, is expected to be able to convince an audience of his theories. Aware that history writing can be a political act, he invited the audience to question his own standing and challenge the authority of his theories.
Sarafian’s theory work stands contrary to the writings of Murat Bardakçı, who claimed that Talaat Pasha’s report on the events of 1915 didn’t constitute premeditated genocide. Sarafian picked apart this opinion with logical and thorough analysis of the same diary, in particular by highlighting that the numbers and figures in Talaat Pasha’s original report should be read with a 30% leeway added to them.
Sarafian also presented a second handwritten report discovered among Talaat’s papers that recorded the Islamisation and Turkification of Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace between 1878 and 1917. Well-presented slides visualised the numbers involved in deportation of ethnic Armenians across Anatolia in the course of the Genocide.
The difficult nature of Sarafian’s research and the notable effort he makes to avoid bias became clear during the question and answer session that followed his talk. He was quizzed by a well-read audience on his approach to genocide denial, on attempted joint commissions with Turkish historians, and on the value (or lack thereof) of comparing the Armenian Genocide with other historical and current massacres.
Mentioned in the discussion was the British journalist Robert Fisk, who proposed that it was important to recognise and praise those Ottoman officials who refused deportation orders. Sarafian stated there were many such examples of compassion, and that building them into the factual history of the Genocide would help to highlight the Genocide as a question of morality and immorality and not a national or ethnic conflict.
Having travelled and conducted research in Diyabekir, Bitlis, Erzurum and Van, Sarafian went on to describe how very few people in eastern Turkey actually deny the occurrence of the Genocide. Furthermore, Kurds in eastern Anatolia hold Armenians in high esteem, with many Armenian stories being stored and transmitted in the form of Kurdish songs, and vice versa. But any suspicion towards Armenians among these Turks and Kurds (whose ancestors may have also been refugees of war) is choreographed by the government, who spout that if the Genocide is recognised, they will be driven from their land by marauding Armenians.
Sarafian’s voice of reason reminded the audience that that justice for Armenians would also mean justice for all Anatolians.