The Armenian Tragedy: A Commemorative Symposium.
1:30pm – 8:45pm, Thursday, 29th October 2015, Grand Parade, University of Brighton
After words of welcome by Prof Graham Dawson and a brief introduction by Prof Edward Timms (University of Sussex), Prof Bob Brecher provided a conceptual framework for the symposium by addressing the question ‘What is it that matters so much about genocide?’ He argued that ‘genocide’ denotes the mass murder of an ethnic group not for anything they have done but because of characteristics that are alleged to make them unalterably different.
This was followed by an illustrated lecture by Prof. Armen T. Marsoobian (Southern Connecticut State University), ‘Fragments of a Lost Armenian Homeland: Bearing Witness to a Silenced Past’. Drawing on the collection of photographs and biographical testimonies created by his members of his family, the Dilldilians, he gave a compelling account of Armenian life in the historic Anatolian homelands before the catastrophe of 1915-1923. He went on to explain how – through exhibitions, publications and outreach projects – he has established ‘sites of memory’ for new generations in Turkey, as well as the wider world.
After the tea break, Ara Sarafian (Gomidas Institute, London) described ‘The Destruction of Armenians in the Kharpert Plain, 1915-17’. He showed that Kharpert (Harput) provides a test case because the range of eyewitness testimony, especially from international missionary sources, is so compelling. He also shared with us a range of historical photographs showing how the once flourishing Armenian community has now been completely erased.
The focus of the following paper by Ari Sekeryan (Oxford University), ‘The Armenian Community at the End of the Ottoman Empire: Reflections in the Armenian Press, 1918-1923’, was on the ordeals of Armenian survivors. Reports cited from the Armenian press reflected the desperate situation that followed the armistice and the occupation of Istanbul and parts of Anatolia by Allied troops. This documentation highlighted the ordeals of survivors, stranded in Anatolia, and the campaign to protect Armenian orphans.
The papers that followed a break for early evening refreshments focused on further modes of commemoration. Dr Helin Anahit (of Middlesex University), who was born in Turkey and now lives in London, spoke on ‘Navigating a Way out of Trauma through Art’. Combining the gifts of visual artist and life-history researcher, she presented images of her artwork that incorporate personal and family memories.
In the concluding paper, Vatche Simonian (London) shared with us the 'Personal Experiences of a First Generation Diaspora Armenian'. His paternal grandfather was ordained as a married priest before the First World War to serve Armenian villages near Van and reclaim monasteries appropriated by tribal chiefs. He also accepted the return of Islamised Armenians into the folds of the Armenian Church. In the aftermath of the massacres his primary duty was to protect Armenian orphans and lead them to safety in Iran, Iraq and Jerusalem. Some of them later became leaders of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem. But as a diaspora Armenian committed to a teaching career, Vatche explained, he himself had never had a settled home, being pressurized by events to move first to Cyprus, later to Lebanon, and finally to England.
This symposium, which attracted an audience of over sixty participants from differing age groups and cultural backgrounds, stimulated lively discussions. The visual qualities of PowerPoint presentations are reflected in the video recordings made of several of the papers. The event was hosted by the University of Brighton Centre for Research in Memory, Narrative and Histories; funding to cover travel expenses and accommodation for speakers, as well as refreshments for all participants, was generously provided by members of the Brighton Turkish community; and the event was coordinated by Saime Göksu, Jackie Stimpson and Edward Timms, supported by the resourceful organizing abilities of Dr Sam Carroll.