I recently defied the tantalising challenges of the volcanic ash from Iceland and flew into Frankfurt airport on my way to Erfurt University in what was formerly East Germany. Aware not only of my ignorance of Germany and its language, but also of my enduring lack of any sense of direction, the programme organisers had assured me that a fast ICE train would take me directly from the airport terminal to my destination. Even for my internal compass, this was plain sailing.
However, standing in front of the travel agent at the airport, I was told not without a modicum of glee that my timetable and information were inaccurate. I could not take the direct train from the airport since it was Pentecost Sunday, a public holiday in Germany, and trains did not run from the airport terminal. I had to change three trains in different parts of the city before I reached Erfurt. Now, it will have been pointless to start quibbling with him, as we all know bureaucrats who seem to love love to “rub it in”! There was no point in resorting to cabs either since my €-budget would not have allowed it.
So it was crunch time. And the only decision was to buy the ticket and … well, I suppose, pray for the best!
As I was heading out of the travel agency and seeking with some trepidation the first of my three stations, I spotted a man in his mid-thirties standing in front of the screen for train departures and looking at his watch. He did not appear particularly Teutonic - whatever that really means today - but I thought it was worth approaching him for some practical assistance with directions since he seemed to blend well into the hustle-bustle of the environment.
The young man, Ajlan was his name as I later found out, hailed from Turkey and worked for a well-known security firm in Frankfurt. When he asked me where I came from, I told him that I had flown in from England and that I was ethnically Armenian. He looked at me for a fleeting moment longer than necessary and then wondered out loud whether I as an Armenian would still trust him, a Turk, with directions. I smilingly confirmed to him that I would be quite happy to do so, and he suddenly suggested that he would accompany me personally rather than try to explain to me the intricacies of station-hopping and train-spotting since he was travelling in the same direction too!
Being in an alien country, faced with an ethno-political situation to boot, there is always a frisson of anxiety when someone goes out of his / her way with unexpected kindness. After all, this is the 21st century and there are such things as ‘freak accidents’. But I somehow felt fine with Ajlan and so our fifty-minute travelling adventure began there and then.
But what do you say to a Turk once he has identified you as an Armenian? Do you talk about the unattainable spiritual draw of Mount Ararat? Do you discuss the Turkey-Armenia frozen protocols or even the history of the two peoples in the context of a heinous genocide? Do you mention Azerbaidjan and Nagorny-Karabagh? Or do you perhaps exhibit liberal open-mindedness and discuss the beauty of Istanbul or even rate the Armenian or Turkish chances at the Eurovision Song Contest – which was about to burst onto our television screens at the time.
It was quite clear to me that Ajlan was harbouring those same thoughts. So funnily enough, once we had covered the Turkish hamams, as well as our respective cuisines and his rather large family in Turkey (whereby his stories about his grandfather singularly reminded me of mine), our conversation drifted toward politics.
He started by commenting about his disapproval of the present AKP government and his admiration for Atatürk, and I returned the favour by talking about the post-independence realities of our Armenian republic and my last visit there. Then, he broached the recent Turkish government decree allowing for better protection of the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities in Turkey, and I thought that this is when the tension would creep in about the G-word. So I was mentally urging the train to go faster, when he looked at me and said that he knew full well we had disagreements about the genocide, but that they are not as radical as we might both think them to be, and so could we shelve this topic and enjoy the banter in the last fifteen minutes before we parted ways? I was happy to oblige and the rest of the time flew away with uneventful nimbleness.
So what is my point in this reflection? Is Ajlan a “righteous Turk”, as commentator and journalist Robert Fisk puts it at times in his articles? Is he a genocide denialist, or pretty much ignorant of his own history? Was he too clever by far, or imperceptive? In the final analysis, did it matter that much when an Armenian and a Turk met awhile in Germany and had a good chat despite their sensitivities about real history?
The answer, such as it is, is that Germany was a compass point for me, where our humanity - with all its redeeming points - overtook our separate fears, angers and doubts. We were just two men in a train - one helpful, the other grateful. A fluke encounter? You could say so. But so is much of life. Armenians and Turks hold mottled opinions, but I saw our common humanity connect with Ajlan in that chance meeting.
© Harry Hagopian is a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Church. As well as advising the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on Middle East and inter-faith questions, Dr Hagopian is involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/) and has also written extensively on the Armenian Genocide of 1915-23. His own website is Epektasis (http://www.epektasis.net/) and his regular contributions to Ekklesia - including five recent Easter podcasts on Christians in the Middle East - are aggregated here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian