The Armenian Question

Alberto Manguel

A few years ago, I delivered the first Hrant Dink talk at Ankara University. Hrant Dink was a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was murdered by a Turkish nationalist in 2007. His death provoked a wave of indignation in Turkey. Reading Hrant Dink to research my talk, I was moved by how conciliatory his tone was in his political and journalistic writings, never asking for revenge, never mentioning the word genocide. Some people, while acknowledging that atrocities were committed by the Turkish government against the Armenians, refuse to use the word genocide, alleging an unproven intent. However, in most countries in the world today, say “Armenian” and the word genocide follows almost instantaneously.

Recently, the International Court of Justice ruled that Serbia and Croatia were not guilty of genocide against each other’s people during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The Slovakian judge Peter Tomka declared in his verdict that in spite of the killing of civilians and the widespread destruction committed by forces from both sides, the large-scale operations to displace people in the two countries did not meet the criteria for genocide. “Genocide requires the intent to destroy a group,” he said, “not to inflict damage on it or to remove the population.”

“Man’s innate casuistry!” complained Karl Marx (as quoted by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State). “To change things by changing their names!”

Last January, I went to Turkey to take up residency at Bogazici University in Istanbul. Strolling through the city, I discovered, in the middle of a red-light district on Sakizagaci Caddesi, the Asvazoni Armenian Church of the “Seated” Virgin. The area was inhabited by Christian Armenians in Ottoman times, and the Sultan did not think it necessary to dislodge the prostitutes from a neighbourhood of unbelievers, so even today they continue to offer their services next to the church.

As I stood by the door of the church, a black Honda Civic pulled up and the porter rushed out to open the door. A wizened old man climbed out and was helped into a wheelchair. As he was taken into the church, a friend explained that he was the patriarch of the Armenian Church. Speaking in elegant French, the old man granted me permission to enter. In the courtyard, two memorials, decorated with bas-reliefs of a pyramid and palm trees, list in Armenian script the names of the donors. Inside, the church itself is a nondescript empire-style nineteenth-century construction, decorated with commonplace religious scenes. The place was empty.

I recalled seeing a photo exhibition in the Archaeology Museum in Erzurum that tried to prove that it was the Armenians who massacred the Turks during World War I. Archaeologists dug up skulls in 1986 that (according to the caption to the photos) “told the true story.” In Don Quixote, Cervantes says that history is the mother of truth. That is to say, the story we tell is the story we call true. Our faith in words is astonishing.

Sometimes, in politics or history, certain words, certain names are sufficient unto themselves: it is as if there were names that once pronounced require no further telling. Perhaps this is the sense of Adorno’s famous “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”: once hell is known to exist as a material place on earth, it may seem useless to prolong its hideous descriptions. And yet, we need to insist on the fact that hell was there, rooted in blood, in Auschwitz or the gulags, in the prisons of the Argentinian military dictatorship, or in the suffering of the Armenian people (whatever name we give it), because it is all too easy to slip into forgetfulness and rely on monuments to remember for us. We feel that by and large, the story has already been told; that in fact the single account of one of its victims suffices to echo the accounts of millions of others. We must remember, however—we must insist on remembering—that we need all the stories, and that even then they will not render the picture complete. Every tragedy, as Adorno warned, risks becoming mere literature, even the tragedy of the Armenian people. But we must continue to tell.

And yet, perhaps there is among Armenians a delicacy of vocabulary toward their past suffering. In Argentina, where many of the Armenian diaspora settled, the year I worked as a writer for a newspaper I shared a desk with an Armenian colleague, a superb criminal reporter. Whenever he spoke of the Armenian tragedy he referred to it as “the Great Silence.” He invited me often to his place to drink Turkish coffee, which, at the time, I didn’t like. But I was then in my early twenties and he was nearing seventy, so I drank it. Maybe it was for me an unconscious way of acknowledging the underlying meaning in his words. I hope that is how he understood my gesture. “Witnessing,” Hrant Dink once said, “as all the most significant human activities, also has its rituals.”

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at


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