Dr. Tarek Mitri’s Book Review Address, at the launching ceremony of Towards Golgotha, Friday, September 9, 2011, at Haigazian University

Dear Friends,

I am very pleased indeed to be here at Haigazian College (Haigazian University) and join you in celebrating not just the launching of Dr. Ekmekji’s book but also Haigazian University Press.

Serpazan, Excellencies, dear friends, there are times when reading memoires is like a visit to a museum, enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and an incentive towards a more sustained learning process.

But reading Hagop Arsenian’s memoire is far more engaging than a visit to a museum. It is, at times, emotionally intensive. It is a visit of a century old memory crafted into a social biography, where the personal itinerary is inextricably and consistently tied to the trials of the Armenian people. In other words, his personal memory informs the Armenian collective memory but is at the same time conditioned and shaped by its powerful impact on Armenian self understanding.

Arsenian’s narration of historical events is not a construct scaffolded in the way many narratives are. I dare say, it’s kind of normal, normal in the sense that it is not engineered, it is not an engineered act of remembrance. It’s a normal act of remembrance. And notwithstanding the pain that reveals, it is offered to us as a candid account of a singular life experience. These memoires are not only about what they disclose but they are also about what the author chose to dissimulate, let alone refrain from retrieving.

In general, we readers of memoires ask ourselves or the authors questions about the muted, the allusive and all the allusive parts of the narration. We also venture in our own interpretation, an interpretation that rises to appease our questions, while it does not quench our thirst for more. But the curiosity to know more is never dissipated no matter how detailed could be the memoires we examine. Our curiosity may sometimes be focused on the non-said (le non-dit), whether purposefully ignored, implicit, subliminal, or overshadowed by what should be forcefully affirmed.

In her preface, Dr. Arda Arsenian Ekmekji calls upon our sensitivity to her grandfather’s discretion. To be sure his reasons for being selectively discrete are typically Armenian, let me say, for they are shared by many of his compatriots, who partook in the communion of agony, lived and relived by this great nation. Yet, they should not be taken for granted in every case. For each Armenian has, his or her own motivations, hesitations, and most importantly reservations. During a conversation Arda had with her grandfather, his eyes would freeze, probably evoking painful memories, of which nothing was betrayed or ever relayed to us, to the family.

Her translated and annotated text, may have told us in a written form what was under embargo in family conversation. But we don’t know. We don’t know how much of that unfolds in the book we have. Conversely, we are pretty sure that Hagop Arsenian’s memory are not reinvented. I said a while ago they are not engineered. And here I suggest they are not reinvented, but I am not using the word reinvented in any derogatory sense. For all of us reinvent our memories or at least reconstruct our memories, or reorganize our memories. No matter how legitimate this can be, Arsenian seems immune to the temptation. He doesn’t want to engineer, nor reinvent nor organize. Well, he organizes places and dates. He chooses chronology as an order for his material. Yet his memoires are ordered, as I said not only chronologically, but by his intention to instill among his children and grandchildren the desire for boldness and intelligence, strengthening their self confidence as well as sharpening their sense of caution and foresightedness.

I would like to add humor, remember his reference to an honest thief he had met. But I also would like to make reference, more importantly perhaps, to his daring theology. I am in Haigazian, in the presence of Sayyidnah (His Eminence), I would dwell a little on Arsenian’s daring theology. In times of horror, he feels abandoned by GOD. Therefore, he could not complain or pray to HIM. Further, it seems to him that GOD was also an accomplice to the tragedy. Needless to say, that this is not blasphemy. Some people might think it is. It is not. It’s a cry of anger, somehow prophetic anger against GOD. And those of you who know the literature of the prophets, know that they were often angry. And this GOD of his who turned away HIS face and is a spectator in the conspiracy, refusing to punish those he called the Cannibals, is a benevolent GOD. But he continues to be in an angry conversation with HIM. He does not complain to HIM but is in an angry conversation. “What are you waiting, he says, to inflict your eternal justice and punishment upon evil doers?” He could not reconcile this reality with the promises GOD makes in the Old Testament. Although, he knows fairly well that the other face of biblical promises becomes visible when in desperate moments he wonders on behalf of his people, whether they have been such a terrible nation so that GOD has chosen the Ittihadi, the members of the Ittihad and Tarrakki, the party of Anwar and Talaat, who’s responsible for the Armenian genocide, to manifest HIS anger and inflict HIS punishment through methods that are unfamiliar. He reiterates, Mutatis-Mutandis, the questions about the purpose of GOD that were with many Christians that lived in the Ottoman times. Christians that questioned GOD when he allowed the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and said to themselves we have done something wrong to GOD so that HE allowed this to happen to us.

What I am trying to say, is that Arsenian wrestles with GOD like Jacob but never divorces from GOD. He strives to find meaning for suffering. And there is suffering, but realizes that faith is in striving, probably more, than in finding.

These memoires will contribute no doubt through appropriation of the Armenian memory to its healing. But we also know that while Armenian memory could heal, we know that much of the past in modern Turkey has been silenced. But the silence has been challenged substantially in recent years. Yet there is a culture of opacity that remains resilient. Memory work is hampered by denial, secrets, taboos and even lies. But there are now people, authors, like Orhan Pamuk, many of us know; Nedim Gursel, who writes in French not in Turkish; Elif Shafak, who writes in Turkish, French and English; Rajib Zara-Oglu; and others that audaciously work in integrating the narrative onto their readings of Turkish history. For them the tragedy of the Armenians is part of their history. And that is extremely important.

Let me end this short presentation with a personal note. A late and very very dear friend of mine, respected and cherished (cherishable) friend, Yasin El Hafez, a Syrian intellectual whose ideas inspire today all those young men and women who struggle against oppression and against the bloody suppression by the dictatorial regime in Syria. This man, Yassin El Hafez, venerated his mother and he often spoke to me about his mother until there was a time when he told me that you know my mother was Armenian and she is from Deir E-Zor. And the more I knew him, the more he talked to me about his Armenian mother. He said, one of the things she never did is crossing the bridge, that is the bridge of Deir E-Zor.

Hagop Arsenian refers to the advice he received not to cross the Deir E-Zor bridge at any cost, because the Slaughter house of the Armenians was beyond the bridge. In a way, the story of Abou Noubar is the Story of Um Yassin, at least to me. I, therefore, I would like to thank Dr. Arda Arsenian Ekmekji for sharing a story with people that may say, that people having read Hagop Arsenian’s memoirs may say, your story is my story, or his story, or her story, and in saying this they do not only remember but they write history.

For the book order of Towards Golgotha, you are kindly requested to visit the Haigazian University Press (HUPress) homepage, and the Bookstores section above.