Eat Thai, talk Turkish, think Armenian: an encounter

By Harry Hagopian
4 Nov 2012

On 31 May 2010, when the Armenia-Turkey Protocols of 2009 were still very much the buzz of many Armenian and Turkish blogospheres, I wrote a short personal reflection entitled ‘An Armenian-Turkish encounter in Germany’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/12373). It described a fortuitous encounter I had with Ajlan, a thirty-something Turkish man living in Frankfurt and working for a German security firm, who kindly guided me from the airport to the ICE train station that eventually took me to Erfurt University.

I concluded my piece at the time with the following pause for thought:

Is Ajlan a righteous Turk, as Robert Fisk writes 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 chat despite their sensitivities over real history? Germany was a compass point for me, where our deeper humanity - with its redeeming points - overtook our separate fears, angers and doubts. We were just two men in a train - one helpful, the other grateful.

Fast forward to early September, when I invited a colleague of mine to Busaba Eathai, a Thai eatery in London, that serves delicious meals and fragrant teas in a cosy and pseudo-ethnic atmosphere. The headwaiter who showed us to our table was certainly not Thai let alone Oriental, and something in my ear whispered to me that he could well be Turkish.

Although my colleague pooh-poohed the idea and suggested it was the Armenian gene in me drawing this conclusion, the inevitable happened as it often does when two people meet and strike a conversation. Where are you from, and where am I from, and suddenly here was an Armenian talking to a Turk. Once our ethnic identities were clarified, I could sense a certain uncertainty in him too: we were both thinking whether this will be an awkward moment or, worse, an unsuccessful meal? So I broke the ice by telling the headwaiter Selman, “Well, we have quite a history as two peoples, some of it very painful, very unjust and very bloody, but we both also enjoy our cuisine, so let’s see if this Thai meal could be as good as an Armenian or Turkish one?” He smiled broadly and added, “No way, this is good but it does not outmatch either Armenian or Turkish cuisine”! And throughout our whole succulent meal, Selman kept coming over to ensure we were both enjoying ourselves. He even recommended a Turkish restaurant that he claimed to be the best in central London.

Does our interaction mean at all that we have both forgotten our own histories and backgrounds? Or more to the point, will I have somehow forsaken my own proud history as a descendant of the Armenian genocide during WWI? Did I forget that we Armenians - whether in the Diaspora or in a young and struggling republic - have grave issues with Turkey let alone proxy ones with Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that it claims as its own since 1994? Had I shown acute insensitivity in the case of an Azeri military officer, Lieutenant Ramil Safarov, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary for murdering Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian of Armenia during a NATO course in 2004 and sent back to his homeland on the basis of the 1983 Strasbourg Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons to serve out his sentence in Baku only to be callously pardoned and freed by the Azeri authorities - bosom allies of Turkey? Most certainly not!

But I also feel it is important for us Armenians nearing the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in 2015 to start distinguishing ordinary Turkish men and women from Turkish officialdom or many of its politicised institutions, let alone from Turkey and Azerbaijan. In fact, whether in the case of Armenians and Turks, or elsewhere in the world where sectarian and ethnic conflicts and animosities abound, would we simply not be more faithful to ourselves if we did not export a bilious hatred against ordinary people simply because we hold a valid grudge against their policies or authorities? Should all Israelis be the enemies of all Palestinians? Should all Japanese be enemies with all Chinese, or all Armenians enemies of all Turks? Do we not have the inner faithful resilience to begin our own process of transitional justice by distinguishing between ideas that are crowned with a human value from others that are insulted by political conflicts?

My colleague and I enjoyed our Thai meal. But did Selman honestly enjoy our banter? Perhaps yes, or perhaps no, but that is not the real question that I would ask myself today. Mind you, I am not advocating an ex nihilo omnia conversion, and any academic analysis of this topic is better addressed by experienced institutions such as the Regional Studies Centre (RSC) in Armenia. Besides, one could easily dismiss this episode as merely another fluke encounter, just like the one I had at Frankfurt airport in 2010. Moreover, it is quite likely that many Turks let alone Armenians would not overcome their identity issues in such instances but project instead their mottled opinions about my encounter or even question its intent.

Yet, does such a chance encounter not perhaps carry with it a clear message? Could one not eat Thai, talk Turkish and still think Armenian? Could we not initiate this catharsis without necessarily waiting for a quid pro quo from Turks? Would it prove to be treacherous, inexcusable or worse, naïve, or would it be a hard test that evinces an inner strength to lift up our strong moral fibre? After all, and at the end, was it not Martin Luther King, Jr, who challenged us all that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that? Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”?

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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