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12 09 2008 - : If only Hrant were here, too
If only Hrant were here, too
Hrant Dink would be very happy about the whole thing. If he was still alive, he would hug me with a big smile in the middle of the square. I can hear his deep voice: "Yavuz, we managed, didn't we? Look at these people talking to each other, beginning to make peace with history. We defeated the borders of hate."
How one wishes, at such a moment, in Yerevan, to joke and laugh with him.
Without the slightest doubt, in the sweltering, dry heat of Yerevan, the "football encounters" between Turks and Armenians were significant. The temporary lifting of visa restrictions also meant a psychological release for two peoples, facing each other on the street, being friendly. On that end, "the match" was a great success. Native Armenians demonstrated peacefully and returned to their homes after the defeat singing. Turks and Kurds defied the border and traveled long hours to Yerevan via Georgia. Families from Turkey's Armenian minority went by airplane (mostly supporting the Armenian team) and even people from the diaspora in the US were visible, all to celebrate the occasion.
After the match, at around midnight, I was greeted by seven or eight Armenians, all speaking perfect, İstanbul Turkish. They flew in from New York City, they say. One of them notes, "You notice we are all men." "So?" I ask. "Because we came via İstanbul and left our wives there -- for shopping." I ask about their background. Two of them were from Moda, one of İstanbul's more posh districts. Three are from Kayseri, another is from the Kumkapı neighborhood in İstanbul and the last one was from Bitlis. What did they think about the new dialogue? "It is a new dawn," one said.
Standing not far from me, my colleague Cengiz Çandar is in an excited conversation with some fans. When I come closer I realize they are Kurds from the Turkish province of Ardahan. He tells us that they had to travel 12 hours to get to the match. "Look," he says, pointing to himself and his friends, "We Kurds came all the way to support our [Turkish] team, and those nationalists [referring to right-wing Turks] who grunt about this or that at home didn't dare show up here!" As we listen in amazement, he goes on: "Let them open this border. Enough! I tell you, if they don't, we will have to go and join the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] in the mountains or emigrate to İstanbul and take your work!" He is referring, naturally, to the unemployment and poverty in the eastern provinces of Turkey.
Another colleague tells about his conversation with a member of the Armenian nationalist Dashnaksutiun party. At the beginning of the match, the Dashnaks opened a huge banner, with "recognition, reparation, restitution" written on it. When they chatted after the match, my colleague asked him whether it was necessary to bring history to the stadium. "If we Dashnaks do not do it," he responded, "We would have to shut down the party." They laughed together and agreed that dialogue will resolve many issues and help everyone to talk -- even about history. Around noon, at a distance, you are greeted by what a colleague of mine calls "the great natural monument in Armenia" -- Mount Ararat. Inside Turkey's borders with its sister, Little Ararat, it overwhelms you, symbolizing the long-held historical sentiments of the Armenians about the territory and their very existence, filled with tragedy.
After a brief journey, I come much closer to the giant. On a visit to a historic monastery, it rises before you, separating and uniting the common history of two Anatolian peoples. Below the small hill where the monastery is located, extends the plain, with the river Arax in the middle, you can see Armenian peasants and even Turks beyond it, working in the fields.
Under normal circumstances, it would take you only half an hour to pass a border and enter Turkey on that plain. The closed border mystifies both countries before each other. It adds to the myths, mostly in a bad sense.
Just above the "sunken" stadium, in the heart of Yerevan, lies the "Monument of the Armenian Genocide," facing Ararat. It is a serene site, with heart-wrenching music and quiet visitors. I go there, as I always do, to pay my respects to those who perished due to inhuman folly and sheer madness during late Ottoman rule. Once upon a time, our ancestors were the citizens of the same land, though many of them had their share of tragedy, when visiting the "Genocide Museum," it is clear who paid the highest price. As Hrant Dink used to tell me, "Understanding, only understanding, will help us overcome denial."
Toward evening, we notice how little we talk of football. For us, in our group of colleagues, it is part of daily life, with jokes, stories and teasing. It does not come as a surprise when we tell each other how overwhelmed one can be to pass the border and plunge into history and memory, to listen to the problems of today waiting to be solved.
In the evening, tired, we go to one of my favorite spots in Yerevan, Artush Babayan's restaurant, The Real Armenian Kitchen. His origins from "Smyrna" (İzmir) help him speak some rough Anatolian Turkish when he enthusiastically welcomes us. As he serves one delicious meal after another, we raise our glass of apricot vodka in memory of Hrant, many of us in tears. One of our colleagues reminds us at the table, "After all, it is his memory that brought us here." Soccer has been a pretext. But we know how happy we all would have been to watch this match together with Hrant.

Annette Meliokian

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