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Hrant Gadarigian

An Interview with David Leupold, Author of Embattled Dreamlands; The Politics of Contesting Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish Memory

Hetq posed the following questions to David Leupold, author of Embattled Dreamlands; The politics of Contesting Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish Memory, published this year by Routledge.

David Leupold was a 2018-2019 Manoogian post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan and current postdoctoral research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient.  He focuses his research on politics of memory in the post-Ottoman and post-Soviet space.

The book begins with the following preface: “Embattled Dreamlands explores the complex relationship between competing national myths, imagined boundaries and local memories in the threefold-contested geography referred to as Eastern Turkey, Western Armenia or Northern Kurdistan.”

Q - I assume you do not trace your ethnic roots to that contested “space”. If correct, what motivated you to tackle such a complex issue, first as a doctoral dissertation and then in the pages of a book?  What is the book’s underlying premise?

Yes, this is correct. As someone coming of age in the 2000s, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the global-wide popular protest against it proved formative for the development of my political views, as it did certainly for many of my contemporaries. 

Driven by a deep distrust in the belligerent rhetoric of the then US government, which had propagated a holy war against a purported 'axis of evil', I wanted to form my own picture on a region which was presented to us in mainstream media often as a land of evil, a haven of terrorism and a stronghold of barbarity. So, ironically, it was the state of being exposed to this demonizing narrative that raised my curiosity for the culture, history and societies of the Middle East.

As to the specific region in my book (the extended Lake Van region), I knew virtually nothing about this contested region when I graduated high school, and even less about its once complex multi-ethnic composition and the violence that had annihilated it. 

If my own memory does not betray me, my interest in the scarred landscape of Eastern Turkey dates back to an encounter with a fellow Kurdish student back at Ege University Izmir in 2009, with whom I first travelled to Mardin and his native town Batman. There I got to know about the Islamization of many of his family members who had been of Assyrian-Christian and, partially also, Armenian origin.

It was this deafening sound of silence that resonated in the aborted sentences and blank facial expressions of his uncle which left a profound impression on me back then – and urged me to embark on a quest for bringing back the poly-vocality of what Stefan Zweig had called "the world of yesterday". 

If there is an underlying premise to my work it is that this deafening silence – and the far cry it encapsulates – is both a key and an obstacle in coming to terms with genocidal violence that tore asunder the multi-ethnic fabric of the late-Ottoman Empire. Or as Rolf Hosfeld once put it: "Truth and reconciliation are not understood as opposites, but as mutually complementary, indispensable conditions for achieving a sustainable common future." 

Q- Ronald Suny, in his foreword to your book about Ottoman, post-Ottoman and modern Turkish studies writes: “In fields where the narrowness and tendentiousness of nationalism have marred serious scholarship, courageous scholars, both in Turkey and outside, have defied the restrictions of governments and old understandings to break free of histories limited by emphasis on one people or another.”

Why, in your estimation, has in taken so long for such new scholarship to emerge? What has hindered the recognition that the histories of Armenians, Kurds and Turks are intricately linked and inseparable from the actions and fates of the “others”? What challenges remain today for such scholarship to evolve?

This is indeed a difficult question. The historical materialist inside me would argue that thoughts are never free floating in space but tied to actual existing material conditions. I think we should not forget that it has demanded tremendous efforts to build up the infrastructure for the thoughts that inform this new generation of scholarship to circulate. 

Certainly, different scholars and social activists from Armenia, Turkey and beyond have been for a longer period aware of these interdependencies and interlinkages. Yet, it takes actual initiatives and projects to bring these progressive voices together in a very physical sense.

In this regard, we can note the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship (WATS), a pioneering platform founded by Ronald G. Suny and Fatma Müge Göçek in 2000 as well as a series of path-breaking memory projects spearheaded by dvv international (then led by Matthias Klingenberg), which brought scholars from both Armenia and Turkey such as Leyla Neyzi and Hranush Kharatyan-Arakelyan together. 

In times of reactionary tendencies on a global scale, critical voices are once again being raised on both sides that the other side cannot be trusted, suggesting that such a dialogue was tantamount to a betrayal of one's own national interests.

The great challenge today is to maintain this infrastructure of exchange and critical dialogue in times when, especially in Turkey, a once favorable political climate conducive to a relatively open dialogue on the troublesome past has given way to reactionary tendencies. Yet recent criticism raised by some scholars in Armenia against collaborative projects with Anadolu Kültür –an organization which is in fact known for its critical stance vis-a-vis official Turkish state rhetoric – shows that this distrust seems to be still deep rooted on both sides.

Q- Fieldwork for the book took you to Turkey, the Republic of Armenia, and even to Georgia, to interview the descendants (mainly Armenians and Yazidis) who trace their lineage  to the Van region and those (mainly Kurds and Turks) presently living in the area. 

You asked them to recount their family histories of past massacres, displacement and discrimination and their interpretation of historical events, including the 1915 Armenian Genocide.  As an interviewer, what challenges did you face as an “outsider” convincing people to trust you as an impartial scholar with no underlying political intentions? I specifically refer to interviews conducted in eastern Turkey, where such topics remain politically sensitive. To what extent did your conversational skills in all three languages facilitate such conversations?

I think, despite my best efforts (and I sincerely believe that it is worthwhile goal), I would never make the claim of being an impartial scholar.

 In particular given the fact that my respondents ranged from sympathizers of the Sunni Islamist militant organization Hizbullah and active supporters of the PKK to nationalists of all colors, as well as an amorphous group of humanist-minded socialists, Sufi mystics and regionalists, the very attempt to approach each and every respondent at an actual emotional distance seemed to be impossible from the very outset.

However, the feeling I tried to convey to every respondent was always that I had a genuine and upright interest in her / his opinion and that it would be reflected in a way as undistorted as possible in the work.

One may claim that the chapter which deals with the entwined narratives of different respondents might have ended up too descriptive for precisely this reason. Yet, I believe that only this somewhat detached mode of representation allows voices – which, in reality, are divided by a militarized border with barbed wired fences – to speak to each other across the pages of the book. 

At this point my language proficiency in Armenian and Turkish – and to a considerably lesser extent Kurmanji Kurdish – proved of course helpful. And in addition to this, being identified as the 'outsider' might have also helped me to assume what Georg Simmel calls the role of the 'wanderer' – the one, who comes today and leaves tomorrow. For there might be some secrets which you feel maybe more comfortable entrusting to someone who did not come to stay but is scheduled to leave the other day – particularly if these secrets are tied to sensitive political issues and/or great emotional pain. 

Q- You write, in the book’s conclusion: “The Turkish state continues to deny the true extent of the crimes committed in 1915 behind the rhetorical smokescreen of a ‘shared pain’.” You then state that given Turkey’s historical responsibility, the first step in any mutual healing must start there by “de-glorifying” the perpetrators and forging a “narrative of resistance” – a retelling of a history of violence and genocide from the perspective of those “forgotten heroes” who refused to carry out mass murder and deportation directives.

Just how realistic is such a new narrative in Turkey given that the perpetrators, are regarded by many in Turkey as laying the foundation for the Turkish nation-state? Can Armenians help forge such a narrative? Despite a few recent examples of Armenians extolling Turkish officials who refused to obey government orders during the Genocide and Turks who aided and abetted their Armenian neighbors, the slogan/perspective “The Turk remains a Turk” perception continues to be voiced by some Armenians. 

Being raised and socialized in Germany where the historical narrative is closely tied to the experience of being the perpetrator of genocidal violence during WWII, I know that the recognition of inhumane crimes is impossible without preserving a certain sense of historical dignity. 

I think that this historical dignity can only be sustained by siding with those who resisted, not those who condoned the crimes.

Ronald G. Suny in his forthcoming book on nationalism tries to unpack this by drawing a quite productive distinction between nationalism and patriotism. While blind nationalism seeks to justify virtually anything for the sake of the imagined nation, critical patriotism openly acknowledges the flaws of the patria – the geography and society one is born into – but empathizes with it and believes that it deserves to be a better social and political order than it is at the moment.

I think that while this yearning for regaining historical dignity through a recognition of the past might not be reflected on a current political level, it is a sentiment deeply shared by many of the younger generations in Turkey. Likewise, I hardly encountered the idea that "The Turk remains the Turk" among many of my younger respondents in Armenia. 

Currently we are working with the Yerevan office of Heinrich-Böll Foundation on an Armenian translation of the book. This would offer a unique opportunity to establish a more direct dialogue on these questions with a wider Armenian audience. 

Q- You write about “victimizer-victim” narratives and how, over time, such self-identification has become institutionalized by all three peoples, impacting how they view history and their current political perspectives.

Here, in terms of inherited memory and forgetting, you ask: “How to reconcile the moral obligation to remember the victims of the past, on the one hand, and avoid being shackled and chained by one’s own vindictive and self-traumatizing narratives on it, on the other hand?”

Examining the Armenian context, specifically in terms of Genocide remembrance, when does the need to “remember” morph into a self-fulfilling prophecy of continual victimhood at the expense of creating new narratives that challenge those inherited from the past? Are you arguing that April 24 commemorations facilitate such self-traumatization?

I would not go so far. Yet, I think it is crucial to look at how commemoration is not only linked to the past but also to a set of possible futurities.

I remember that when I interviewed a Yerevan-based female musician in 2018 she told me with exhilaration that she had spent the happiest April 24 of her life that year – as the date had coincided with the final stages of what went down in history as the Armenian Revolution of 2018. 

She said that for the first time in her life she felt not subdued but empowered on that day as it had symbolized how Armenia had overcome the burden of the past and embraced a new tomorrow. I think that this personal account shows very illustratively the varied forms of how different humans under different conditions can relate to the commemoration – which may transcend the more repetitive official protocol.

 I think it is important to be open to these personal appropriations of the commemoration and not condemn them in favor of a well-orchestrated procession firmly rooted in the narrative of collective victimhood. I think the way how many Jews relate to the Shoah on a personal level have shown us that to mourn death and celebrate life do not always contradict each other. Instead, they complement each other. 

Q- You conclude the book by quoting the following five lines of a Nazim Hikmet poem, published in 1950, that had been censored until 2000.

“The lights of Karapet’s convenience store were still burning / He, this Armenian citizen, has not forgiven / That his father was massacred in the Kurdish mountains / But he loves you because you also have not forgiven / Those who brought shame on the Turkish people”.

You preface the quote by arguing that a revisited understanding of history (of that space) is essential, one that “allows us to embrace the quest for historical justice as a joined cause that unites rather than divides the descendants of victim and perpetrator”. Is that what Hikmet alluded to in the above lines? 

Yes, to my understanding at least.

I think there is such a rich texture condensed into a few lines which only a writer as gifted as Nazim Hikmet might have been able to produce.

In addition to the more obvious meaning, my attention was drawn to his quite unusual phrasing of the "Armenian citizen" (Ermeni vatandaş), instead of merely putting "Armenian" (Ermeni).

 It seems as if he particularly wanted to put an emphasis that an essential prerequisite for true reconciliation is also to rethink the 'Armenian' again as the 'vatandaş' – literally the one with whom you share your homeland (vatan). 

To what degree is the Turkey of today a country where not only Armenians, but also Kurds, Jews, Laz or Arabs can call their shared home? 

The deplorable state of non-Turkish cultural heritage scattered around the vast landscapes of Anatolia, the marginalization (and partially demonization) of minority groups in Turkish school text books and the pejorative usage of the word 'Armenian' or 'Georgian' at the highest echelon of politics suggest otherwise.

Yet, I think that this is not solely an 'Armenian matter'. Hrant Dink has reminded us that while both Armenian and Turkish societies are 'chronically ill', they can be only cured by each other.

Only a shared homeland in which 'the Armenian' can again feel at home can be a homeland in which 'the Turk' can be truly at home with all of his impersonations, his Kurdish-ness, Laz-ness, Zaza-ness, Assyrian-ness, Jewish-ness – and Armenian-ness.

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