Turks, Armenians and Azeris: Mirrors and Memories


Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and the Nagorny Karabakh conflict

The failed process between Turkey and Armenia that began with “football diplomacy” in 2008 and stalled in spring 2010 revealed a dangerous intimacy between Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.

Amid bitter recriminations on all sides, it was the Nagorny Karabakh conflict that proved to be the crucial obstacle. Vehement Azerbaijani opposition to Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, leading to fierce polemics about “pre-conditions”, suggested that the two relationships, at this moment in time, could only have a destructive impact on each other.

Yet it was also evident that, leaving the formal political dimension aside, in terms of more informal processes of collective memory and imaginings of history, there are many ways in which Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations are like broken mirrors to each other. While the cracks fall differently, there are mutual reflections of experiences of exile, loss, grievance, revival – and unfulfilled reconciliation. If the separateness of the official processes is acknowledged, are there ways for these two distinct, yet intimately related, relationships to positively influence each other?

Cross-border media initiatives

This question prompted a London-based peacebuilding NGO, Conciliation Resources, to think about whether these questions could be explored through film.

Film is already an established medium for Turkish and Armenian, and Armenian and Azerbaijani societies to speak to one another despite closed borders. In a pioneering collaboration, the Turkish NGO Anadolu Kültür and the Armenian Golden Apricot Film Festival have created the Armenia-Turkey Cinema Platform. Thanks to the support of the United Kingdom’s Conflict Prevention Pool and the European Union, Conciliation Resources has also supported for several years the Dialogue Through Film initiative, which gives young Azerbaijanis and Karabakh Armenians opportunities to meet, make films and speak to each other’s societies.

In the Dialogue Through Film team we already had a small but dedicated team of Armenian and Azerbaijani professionals with several years’ experience of working together. Through Dialogue Through Film partners Internews Azerbaijan and Internews Armenia, CR got in touch with Mehmet Binay, an Istanbul-based film-maker who had directed Whispering Memories, a film documenting legacies of formerly Christian communities in Anatolia. Together with a journalist from the Stepanakert Press Club in Nagorny Karabakh, the team met in Istanbul in October 2010.

By that time the Turkish-Armenian process had failed. We considered the potentially valid argument that the moment had passed for a film making an explicit connection between Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. We felt, however, that the failure of the official process made this film more, not less, significant. Rather than riding a wave of interest and timeliness, which would have been the case had the Turkish-Armenian process been successful, this initiative confronted a far more ambiguous environment. Yet, as Turkish-Armenian civil dialogue has shown, it is when political processes are blocked that initiatives like this can keep some space open for dialogue.

Turkey-Armenia, Armenia-Azerbaijan: parallels or contradictions?

Face-to-face the team found it extremely difficult to settle on a structure for the film. The parallels and the differences in Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations were both too obvious and too elusive.

We had to bear in mind that each team would be filming separately from each other, and would not have much opportunity to coordinate their work with each other. (In an ideal, maybe future world, a team of Turkish, Armenian and Azerbaijani directors could travel together freely across all the relevant locations.) It could also prove difficult to persuade ordinary people to speak openly on controversial themes in ways compatible with the ethos we wanted to explore.

Any cross-conflict collaboration needs to be flexible and ready to adapt, and this was no exception. Initially, the team agreed on the theme of ‘being hostage’ as a common unifying motif. There was consensus in the group that in one way or another all parties are hostage to the status quo. More broadly, events had shown how Turkish-Armenian relations were hostage to the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, and perhaps vice versa as well.

Back home, each team began to research possible stories exploring the impact of these huge themes in ordinary lives. In the event, several stories did not work out. And the theme of being hostage emerged differently to what we had initially imagined, in the form of being hostage to particular kinds of relationship with the past.

The result was Memories Without Borders, a 55-minute long documentary film composed of four chapters, shot in Istanbul, Shusha (or Shushi to Armenians) in Nagorny Karabakh, Baku, and Goris in southern Armenia. Each chapter was filmed independently, although the same team filmed the Shusha and Goris chapters. The chapters are quite different in style and approach, to such an extent that we considered releasing them as four separate short films, rather than a continuous whole. Some viewers have in fact pointed out that this is not one film but four, and that there is no concept holding them together. But in the end, we decided that there was something important in seeing the four segments together that would be completely lost if they were seen individually.

What is this unifying thread, or concept? Perhaps it is that throughout the Turkish-Armenian-Azerbaijani space, communities and individuals are in different ways hostages to certain interpretations of history, idées fixes and institutionalized taboos about the past. Memories Without Borders holds up a mirror to ways in which the past is collectively understood in Turkish, Armenian and Azerbaijani societies, and the impact of closed borders, both geographical and psychological, on the formation of identity. There are no right and wrong ‘answers’ in this mirror, yet choices come with consequences – and, often enough, an unexpected, inverted reflection. And if the film is disjointed, this quality is a metaphor for both the fragmentation of the region and the fractured nature of memory itself.

The silence of others

All of the four segments in Memories Without Borders speak powerfully of the relationship between borders and forgetting. All modern citizens face pressures to accept national histories that commemorate both the glorious moments and tragedies from the national past. It is much harder to accept that so often this selection of historic moments involves the obliteration of others’ experiences – be they a nation, a minority, an individual – so that an act of commemoration is often simultaneously an act of forgetting.

There’s nothing new in observing the dualistic nature of national memory. French philosopher Ernest Renan observed in the late nineteenth century that “forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation”. Yet even if this is not new, it is perhaps difficult to find a context where this dichotomy finds more convoluted expression than in the Turkish-Armenian-Azerbaijani triangle.

Turks, Armenians and Azeris can all point to the silence that covers their experiences across a border in a former homeland, now a ‘foreign’ state or under ‘foreign’ control. There are many examples across Turkish, Armenian and Azerbaijani communities that have faced the deep contradiction between anger and yearning for a homeland that has rejected them and maintains silence on their trauma.

In some cases, such as the Armenians of Anatolia, this silence has been founded on the physical destruction of the community and its heritage. In others, such as Balkan Muslims who were given no choice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but to leave their homelands and become Turks in what was to them a foreign land in Anatolia, or the Azeris of Nagorny Karabakh, the community may have survived but in a state of permanent dislocation from its homeland.

What emerges, then, is the violence in this silence: the deep traumas of uprooted communities and survivors, relocated across a border, are shrouded in silence, omission and denial. ‘Silence’ therefore becomes an accusation, symbolic of the crimes committed by others against the community, and indeed the renewal, through denial, of those crimes by the descendants of their perpetrators.

The silence within

Yet just as striking in the Turkish-Armenian-Azerbaijani triangle is the powerful dichotomy between silence as an outwardly directed accusation, and silence as an internally directed injunction to keep quiet. All communities in this triangle inherit not only traumatized histories of displacement and dispossession, but, at specific times in their history and through the identities of specific individuals and groups, violent histories of displacing and dispossessing others. Silence is no longer a crime to be denounced, but a duty to be fulfilled as an affirmation of national identity, loyalty and pride.

Those who challenge this obligation, by speaking openly about historical taboos and responsibility, are branded as ‘traitors’ and persecuted. Through this process a cloak of silence covers both the experience as victim across a border, and the experience as perpetrator within borders.

As a result, dates and locations iconic in one national narrative, such as Sumgait, 27-29 February 1988, and Khojaly, 26 February 1992, are absent in the mirroring narrative across a border. This deep, festering legacy of unrecognised suffering across all communities is institutionalized and transmitted from one generation to the next, closing off for each new generation the possibility of a reckoning with history – and reconciliation.

There are many objections that can and will be raised at this point: that this discussion draws a false equivalence between events involving dozens, hundreds, thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people; between acts in peacetime and in wartime; between acts committed by civilians and national armed forces, by ordinary populations and by governments; between spontaneous and pre-meditated violence… and so on.

However, the point of Memories Without Borders is, emphatically, not to draw a veil of relativity over multiple tragedies of human suffering, but to begin to argue that no community is free for as long as it lives by a partial narrative of history, especially its own.

Reactions to Memories Without Borders

In October 2012 the first public screenings of Memories Without Borders took place across the Caucasus and Turkey. These were, to be sure, small audiences generally under 50 persons, and largely (though not exclusively) composed of those already open to peacebuilding activity. How did these audiences across the region react to the film? Reactions reflected the different moods across societies affected by Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Not surprisingly, the strongest reactions came from Armenian and Azerbaijani audiences, reacting to the segments filmed in Baku and Nagorny Karabakh respectively.

The rawness and unresolved nature of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict results in a ‘win-lose’ approach to cross-conflict film-making: Armenian or Azerbaijani audiences come to collaborative films anxious to see their position and experience vindicated and that of the other side discredited. This attitude can account for some of the reactions to the segments shot in Karabakh and Baku. Some Armenian viewers felt it was inappropriate to portray the story of Azerbaijani refugees in the film without symmetrical treatment of Armenian refugees. This was felt to unfairly emphasize Azerbaijani experiences as victims without due acknowledgment of corresponding Armenian experiences of displacement. In this sense, it was clear that some perceived the film as benefiting an Azerbaijani reading of the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijani viewers, by contrast, felt that the film plays to an Armenian reading of the conflict, by seemingly comparing the Azerbaijani trauma of defeat in the Karabakh war with the Armenian trauma of 1915, a comparison that was felt to be ‘unwinnable’.

These zero-sum readings of the film are indications of the wider zero-sum approaches to Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, according to which there can only be one winner, whose victory must be as total as the other’s defeat. What came across strongly was the extent to which many viewers in the Caucasus approached the film through very narrow prisms, in which questions of format, style and symmetry were often more important than the substance of the film. Perhaps more than anything else, what seemed to matter most for many Armenian and Azerbaijani viewers was the question of which side would ‘win’ in the eyes of third-party viewers of the film. The lingering sense that third-party adjudication is more important than internal or bilateral dialogue is an enduring, insidious feature of South Caucasian politics, and is a critical hurdle that all those engaged in peacebuilding in the region must overcome.

The underlying question of ‘why a film linking Turks, Armenians and Azeris?’ also lingered for some Armenian and Azerbaijani viewers as a seemingly self-evident denial of the raison d’être for the film. (In this context it is interesting to note that looking at Georgia’s conflicts in wider regional contexts, including, for example, Russia or the North Caucasus, is not usually questioned). This may be a reflection of the lived reality of closed borders, and the resulting narrowing of horizons that closed borders entail, and at the same time the perennial temptations of conspiracy theory in the Caucasus. Why would a film make a connection with an external context, if not to suggest that local politics should be resolved through outsider agendas?

These reactions are interesting to compare with those in Turkey. An open, reflective, and self-critical discussion followed the screening in Istanbul, hosted by Anadolu Kültür. The audience included an Azeri with roots in Shusha, who commented on the sadness that the film inspired in her, while affirming her desire for a peaceful accommodation of Armenian and Azerbaijani needs. Comments from a visiting Armenian journalist from Yerevan echoed this desire. It seemed as though things could be said in this context that could not be said at home. Turks in the audience, accustomed to an impressive array of reconciliation initiatives with Armenians, such as those carried out under the auspices of the Hrant Dink Foundation, received the film with enthusiasm. For them, there seemed to be no intrinsic taboo about a film that transcended local (closed) borders.

It seemed to me that one of the lessons of this initiative was that while of course Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani processes are different and the case for linking them is divisive, the significance of lessons learnt from Turkish-Armenian dialogue should not be ignored for advocates of Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue. Borders are closed in both situations; it is people-to-people contacts that have made – and can make – the difference.

In Tbilisi both Georgian viewers and a high proportion of foreigners, engaged in different kinds of development and conflict resolution work, expressed interest in how the method behind Memories Without Borders could be used in the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetian contexts. These suggestions opened up an appealing, if utopian, vision of a regional environment where institutionalized taboos might be challenged, silences filled, and mirroring narratives of human loss might meet each other.

Turks, Armenians, Azeris: reconciling memory and oblivion

Memories Without Borders provides real-life examples of the choices that Turks, Armenians and Azeris confront, whether these are to speak out about a secret ancestry or keep silent; to accept or reject violence in the present as justice for violence in the past; to relive and institutionalize, or forget and obliterate, experiences as victims and as perpetrators.

While the film reflects very different moods in societies in Turkey, Nagorny Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia, it also reflects a powerful implication that the quest for the recognition of past wrongs cannot be ‘privatised’ by national community. It can only be universal. Memories Without Borders represents an aspiration to a future state when Turkish, Armenian and Azerbaijani memories will be more complete, when narratives of victimhood are balanced with acknowledgement that all parties have been perpetrators too, and emblematic events of national suffering are learnt about alongside even-handed treatment of the suffering of others.

This idealistic agenda does not assume that all differences between Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis will be ‘resolved’ by more acknowledgement of the past. It will take much more than a revitalization of critical history to bring Turks and Armenians, and Armenians and Azerbaijanis, closer to reconciliation. Debates will doubtless continue long into the future regarding the relative categorisation of different historical episodes of mass murder, deportation and expropriation. Other debates will undoubtedly follow, as they have in France and elsewhere, about freedom of expression and whether particular categories should be ‘enforced’ by national legislation.

However, this messy but free debate must be preferable to the alternative, which is especially threatening in the Armenian-Azerbaijani context. This is an intellectual climate where complex historical realities are increasingly reduced to lobby-friendly bullet points, where scholarship abdicates responsibility and one-sided commemoration becomes an industry. New generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis are at risk of being raised in complete seclusion from critical history – and memories of each other.

There is much to be learnt from the Turkish-Armenian context, where cross-border civic activism and the courage of writers, journalists, film-makers and scholars have opened up new spaces for Turkish-Armenian dialogue. Rather than any clumsy or mechanical links between Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani issues, perhaps the main lesson one can draw from Memories Without Borders is that societies need to be enabled to interact directly with one another. This is the only way to prevent the displacement of memory by ideology.

In a world of memories without borders, Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis will no longer be hostage to broken, selective reflections of each other – and themselves. Without these borders, they might be closer to closure.



Laurence Broers is Caucasus Projects Manager at Conciliation Resources.  For more information about Conciliation Resources, please visit:  www.c-r.org

(A short summary of this article is also published on the website of Conciliation Resources at http://www.c-r.org/comment/turks-armenians-and-azerbaijanis-mirrors-and-memories)

Memories Without Borders is an initiative supported by the European Union, through the framework of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Resolution of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK). The views expressed in the film or this article cannot be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

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