Aziz Gökdemir's Archive | The People's History Project
William Saroyan amidst Armenian ruins
Pain lines across his face: William Saroyan in Bitlis, his Armenian family's hometown, where their house lies in ruins. Photograph by Fikret Otyam, May 17, 1964. Used by permission.
spaceThe People's History Project

This is to be an archive within the archive. I'll gradually build it into a resource of nonviolent, left-wing (mostly) opinion, human rights-related documents, and eyewitness history from the Balkans to the Caucasus with a Turkish focus -- which isn't the same thing as a Turkish point of view. The main point of undertaking something like this, I suppose, is trying to beat the clan mentality where one's people can do no wrong. History shows that only good comes (but it certainly doesn't come easy or without growing pains) out of people liberating themselves from positions that are rooted in what they are and thus unavoidably non-objective.

When people listen to personal histories, (those of their own as well as of "the other") something wonderful happens: the history they glossed over in the most volatile years of adolescence and just kind of constructed shabbily with a mix of half-heard truths, half-baked ideas and nonchalant prejudice, comes back to life. With a level of understanding that just doesn't compare to the old version.

Well, at least that's what happened to me.

Out of Macedonia: My grandmother, growing up in Turkey after the exodus of Muslims following the 1912 Balkan War
Out of Macedonia: My grandmother, growing up in Turkey after the exodus of Muslims following the 1912 Balkan War
spaceAcross the wide region (from the Balkans to the Caucasus, from the Black Sea to Iraq) that members of my family and I grew up in, and which continues to hold my interest, history has been less than kind, to put it mildly. People in such trouble spots may seem to live together and get along just fine, but when old wounds have been gathering pus beneath the surface, sometimes for centuries, a spark is all that's needed to bring about something so ugly that the whole world reacts in horror (and then, eventually, resigned, it turns away and moves on to the latest crisis, or sometimes the ball game).

And then sometimes there's no legitimate beef, just plain hatred that erupts out of ignorance. A good example is the Alevi (Alawite) minority in Turkey -- a religious group whose tolerant views are perhaps akin to those of the Unitarian Church in the U.S. (for lack of a better American anology) -- whose members were massacred by a right-wing mob in 1978, and whose 37 folk singers and poets were burned alive in a hotel in 1993.

People naturally want to turn away from this sort of thing, we all do, and it's no doubt counter-productive to constantly "dwell in the past," but forgetting is the other end of the extreme, one that I think we gravitate toward very easily because, you know, life goes on. Especially on the Internet, life goes on very fast, we "instant message" one another and read snarky recaps of TV shows. You don't remember what you scarfed down for lunch in the ten minutes you had set aside between checking your favorite Web site for the eleventh time that day and that all-important meeting; how are you supposed to remember what happened a hundred, a couple hundred years ago?

When we have a loss of memory, all we can manage is the empty platitude, "Can't we all get along?" which, it appears, is not good enough. There's a reason why people can't get along; disregard that, and insurgencies appear to emerge out of thin air, "terrorists" and "guerillas" seem to have come from Mars, military campaigns are green blips on TV screens, and history is a mere distraction. With an attention span that can barely take in one day at a time, and with a perpective rarely venturing beyond the scope of a self-help book, I'm afraid as a global society we'll end up losing much of our past, and thus repeat it on and on.

Dissidents' voices and eyewitness accounts are often our first line of defense against this slide, and photographs are a bonus. Certainly there's no shortage in terms of the material available from Balkan, Caucasian, Anatolian, Middle Eastern sources (particularly Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Greek). The difficulty will be in choosing wisely, paying attention to the scale or enormity of events and their relative presentation, and revering memories while avoiding the tendency to fetishize them. We'll see how it goes.


War in Chechnya. The Economist, October 9, 1999.
Even as reconciliation tries to gain a foothold in other areas, the conflict in Chechnya heats up, promising more hell for Chechen civilians and Russian conscripts.
Photo: The Economist, October 9, 1999.


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