Fall 2010 | Online Exclusives

Turkey and the Armenian Diaspora: When ‘We’ Don’t Want to Know About ‘Them’

A lot happened after a Turkish journalist set out to tell people in her country about those who belong to the Armenian diaspora.

By Afsin Yurdakul

The Turkish edition of Newsweek broke new ground with a cover story about the Armenian diaspora.
I was not surprised to hear the question: “Have your editors in Istanbul ever changed the meaning of anything you wrote in the past?” a prominent Armenian-American source asked me when I reached him by phone for the first time.

“Of course not,” I replied.

Here I was in the midst of trying to explain my intent with the story I was calling about, and what I thought were reassuring words weren’t working. What I wanted to do was offer Turkish readers the opportunity to hear directly from people in the Armenian diaspora about the tensions between these two communities.

Predictably, a long, awkward silence ensued. After connecting by phone with Armenian-Americans who live in Glendale, California, I was growing accustomed to enduring these pauses in conversation. As a Turkish journalist, I wasn’t someone who they would feel comfortable about opening up to until some sense of trust was established between us.

“I will have to decline your request because of the sensitivity of the issue,” this person told me.

While I was disheartened by another rejection, in his voice I heard a faint opening. His “no” sounded more like a “yes,” albeit a half-hearted one. Even better, our conversation continued. Why, he wondered, would a Turkish journalist choose to write about the diaspora? And could a Turkish journalist ever write fairly about it?

Each question he tossed my way spoke to the lack of contact between “us” and “them.” As I carefully considered my responses, I knew he would weigh my words and listen to the tone of my voice. He seemed to be testing whether I was someone he could trust. If so, perhaps he would keep talking with me.

It took nearly an hour but we finally reached that juncture when I could tell he felt he could say things to me. He told me that he had not spoken to a Turkish or an Armenian journalist in more than a decade. Why? Because he fears being misquoted. With me, my attitude has somehow convinced him that he can go on the record.

Our rough start led to one of my most honest and heartfelt interviews.

Pushing Past Speculation

I had pitched the idea of writing an in-depth piece about the Armenian diaspora to my editor, Semin Gumusel, in October 2009, right after Turkey and Armenia signed protocols for the normalization of ties. She worked in Istanbul for Newsweek Türkiye, the edition of the magazine published there; I reported from Washington, D.C. At that time, the Turkish media were flooded with news about the diaspora Armenians from Paris to New York protesting the accords. In Turkey, what little was known about this far-flung community was fed by a narrative that rarely stretched beyond political paranoia.

My proposal was to expand the arc of this worn-out narrative by reporting a story with a different goal—a desire to demystify the diaspora. Once Gumusel gave my idea the go-ahead, this article, which would be published as a cover story, embroiled me in more than four months of reporting. From Istanbul, Gumusel oversaw the story’s progress and Richard Giragosian, another correspondent, contributed reporting from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Over the course of editing this story, we exchanged hundreds of e-mails, and in them we discussed with utmost sensitivity how we thought readers of various political slants would perceive our tone and even our usage of words.

Throughout the process, we were acutely aware of the intellectual responsibility resting on our shoulders, given the enduring forces of division and fear that stood ready to politicize our effort. In my role as the lead reporter reaching out to Armenian-American sources, my experiences taught me a lot about dealing with frustrations that were simply a part of trying to untie a knot that had grown only tighter as the 20th century moved on.

First, I had to come to terms with the inevitability of being misunderstood by Turks and Armenian-Americans. Some Armenian-Americans doubted that I could or would represent their voices fairly. No matter how much I tried to assure them about my journalistic standards, the fact that I am Turkish overrode anything I could possibly say. From Turkish readers came concerns, too, as some questioned the magazine’s editorial judgment. To publish this piece with the prominence of a cover story meant too much attention was being paid to Armenian perspectives at the expense of drowning out Turkish voices on these issues of historic and contemporary importance.

My view was that our editorial decision was to spur a new dialogue that didn’t bear the residue of the old one with its impulse to debase or glorify one of the two sides. Within my reporting, I wanted to search for common ground and thereby push the discussion past conventional boundaries. The usual two-sided narrative fed on clashing loyalties the Turks and Armenians have nurtured for decades, but I hoped this one would create fresh appetites for new exploration. Focusing on opposing perspectives leaves little room for empathy. This story would be different.

It was published in the Turkish edition of Newsweek during the week in March when the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution to recognize the 1915 killings of Armenians as genocide. Following this vote, Turkey withdrew its U.S. ambassador, and any hope of proceeding with the protocols between Ankara and Yerevan was dim at best. Amid this political turmoil, the article achieved its original goal, which was to challenge perceptions that Turks and Armenians have about one another.

Returning to My Sources

For my Armenian-American sources, the idea of a Turkish journalist reaching out to listen to their stories with genuine interest was relatively new and partly surprising. Yet when they felt convinced that I would tell their story as I heard them tell it to me, they shared their views openly. In return, I did all I could to make certain they felt comfortable with the material I would use in my story. Numerous times I went over the paragraphs with my sources—both the original transcripts of my interviews and my Turkish translations. I suggested that they consult with other Turkish speakers whom they knew so that they wouldn’t rely solely on me. These conversations helped me to establish and build trust with my sources, despite the initial skepticism that I encountered.  

For most Turkish readers too, it was an unusual experience to be exposed to a sensibly written article about the Armenian diaspora. What they read shook deep-rooted assumptions they held. For example, my reporting shed light on the amount of money Turks assumed Armenian organizations spent in Washington for lobbying. I hadn’t found any substantial reporting done on this topic in Turkey, yet speculation on the street was that the spending was in the millions of dollars.

In researching this question, I was able to document that one prominent Armenian group spent less than $300,000 in 2009, and this amount turned out not to be significantly higher than what was spent in the preceding years. It turned out that the Turkish government spent more than ethnic Armenian organizations on its lobbying efforts. Before our story appeared, this wasn’t known in Turkey, and revealing it launched a discussion about how Turkey imagines the diaspora’s influence in Washington.

There are reasons why our article was received well in contemporary Turkey whereas a decade ago this probably would not have been so. Posing and contemplating difficult questions is part of the societal change under way in Turkey today, just as the magazine’s initiative is part of a new wave in Turkish journalism in which space is opened up for informed and critical debate. Recently Newsweek Türkiye’s Editor in Chief Selcuk Tepeli let me know that thoughtful and sensible news reporting is becoming more important as Turkey finds itself squarely in the midst of a rapidly changing political environment.

This story about the Armenian diaspora as well as Giragosian’s piece calling for keeping the channels of dialogue open prompted high-ranking diplomats to get in touch with my editors. The foreign ministry had taken notice of the debate that Newsweek Türkiye’s cover story stirred in the media and offered assurances that such calls for dialogue wouldn’t be stymied. And despite concerns and criticism voiced by some readers, the magazine’s sales increased by almost 25 percent that week.

This was the first in-depth article written about the Armenian diaspora in the Turkish press, and it remained among the most-read articles on the magazine’s Web site in the weeks that followed. Such sustained interest—and watching how it sparked conversation—convinced me that when fairness is a cornerstone of storytelling, words have the power to transform, even when the political picture looks grim. By placing human beings at the hub of complex political issues, spaces previously sealed off from such conversation can be found.

Afsin Yurdakul is a New York City-based correspondent for Newsweek’s Turkish edition. Her articles have appeared on MSNBC.com and PBS’s Tehranbureau.com.

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