By Nicolas Cheviron, Agence France Presse
(AFP) - While an exhibition in Istanbul devoted to the daily life of the Armenians in Anatolia at the start of the 20th century is breaking attendance records, Turkish society is beginning to reflect on the Armenian question, erased from official history for the past 90 years.
The exhibition "my dear brother", which opened on January 8, has attracted 6,000 visitors in 12 days according to organizers, a record for local galleries. Through 500 postcards from the period, the exhibition endeavors to show, city by city and with supporting figures, how omnipresent Armenian communities were across the Ottoman territory and their role in society.
"In Turkey, history has always been taught about one people -- the Turks, as if there had never been any other people on the territory. When we speak of Armenians, they are not described as an integral group of society but as a source of problems," explained Osman Koker, exhibition director.
"It's to fill this void, because I have an 11-year-old daughter who is getting this kind of education at school, that I have decided to publish a book and put on this exhibition," said Koker, an historian turned editor.
"Without this realization, it will remain impossible to discuss the events of 1915," he said, referring to the Armenian massacres committed between 1915 and 1917 by the Ottoman armies.
Convinced of Turkish society's growing curiosity about its past, Koker, nonetheless acknowledges that any change in mentality will take time. "A majority of the public, especially in the country areas, consider the simple word 'Armenian' an insult," he said.
Even if a handful of academics and amateur historians have attempted to re-examine Turkish history, it is not easy to break the deep taboo which has been deeply ingrained in the general consciousness by official history.
"Until 1980, Turkish school textbooks quite simply didn't mention the Armenian massacre," explained Fabio Salomoni, author of a book on the Turkish education system. "With the first acknowledgements of 'genocide' by Western governments and the increasing number of attacks by Asala (an Armenian activist organization), a paragraph was then added excluding all Turkish responsibility for the deaths of Armenians, explaining in the context of a war.”
Even if Turkey acknowledges the massacres, it objects to the term 'genocide' and the figures of 1.2 to 1.3 million killed, as claimed by the Armenians, estimating the number of victims at between 250,000 to 300,000.
Even though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently opened an Armenian museum in Istanbul - just before the European summit in Brussels which gave a date to Ankara to start negotiations for joining the European Union - there is no question of overturning the existing orthodoxy concerning the Armenians.Several state-subsidized organizations continue to conduct research aimed at showing that if there was a genocide, it was more likely committed by Armenians against the Turks.
"We can't talk of a major change at the level of the state," said Tarin Karakasli, of the Armenian newspaper Agos. Even though "an evolution has occurred amongst the elite intellectuals who are starting to openly discuss the subject and to encourage the publication of alternative books".
Karakasli congratulated the EU and the role it has played in "breaking the Armenian taboo" by encouraging the democratization of Turkey but criticized the position of France, which has sought to make acknowledgement of the genocide a precondition for joining the EU. "These pressures will achieve nothing, the question can only be resolved by internal dynamics," she said.
"The Turkish population has still not fully acknowledged the problem; in this context, imposing a solution can only provoke hostile reactions," said Etyen Mahcupyan, an Armenian from Istanbul and writer for the daily newspaper Zaman.