By Lusine Grigorian
Gayane had mixed feelings as she set out for Turkey to attend the first-ever Turkish-Armenian summer school for university students earlier this month. She had never socialized with any Turks before and her perceptions of the neighboring nation were shaped by its government’s continuing denial of the Armenian genocide.
“I was worried that the discussions will be tense and mutually hostile,” explains the 20-year-old political science student at Yerevan State University.
But those fears proved misplaced as soon as she and ten other young Armenians met fellow students from Turkey. “Right from the beginning everyone put their stereotypes aside because they found people like themselves on the opposite side: joyful and smart students. And I soon realized that we will find here people with whom we can cooperate and have a dialogue on any issue.”
The remarks sum up the mood that reigned at the course that brought together 24 students from Armenia and Turkey in the southeastern Turkish city of Antakya from August 8-19. The participants, including this correspondent, were surprised to discover that their countries have many similarities despite remaining deeply divided by a troubled history and geopolitical rivalry. They sang and danced together, taught each other Turkish and Armenian phrases and compared their essentially identical national cuisines.
The ten-day school was organized by the Turkish chapter of the Helsinki Civil Assembly, an international human rights organization, and financed by the Council of Europe. It combined academic coursework with debates on Turkish-Armenian relations and joint cultural activities.
“We expected young people from the two countries to lay the groundwork for further bilateral discussions and I think we succeeded in achieving that,” Emel Kurma of the Turkish Helsinki Civic Assembly told RFE/RL. “How can we look to the future without forgetting the past? I think this was the main thrust of the discussions. We did not aim to make scholarly discoveries. The idea was to let young people got to know each other.”
“They have lot of information about Armenia and Armenians,” another organizer, journalist Sinan Gokcek, said, speaking about the Turkish youth. “But it is one-sided and reflects the official point of view. They don’t have a chance to compare different views. I think the situation is similar in Armenia.”
Melih, a student from Istanbul, showed interest in a people that had for centuries played a major role in her country’s economic and cultural life even before the summer school. The principal source of her Armenian-related knowledge was professor Murat Belge of Istanbul’s Bilgi University, one of the few Turkish academics who openly challenge official Ankara’s view on the 1915-1918 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Belge was one of the mostly Turkish lecturers at the Antakya course.
“I was never taught any lessons on the Armenia problem in school,” Melih said. “So I asked Murat Belge to tell us about it. I will now also try to find and read some books.”
Most of the other Turkish participants shared her critical take on their government’s strong denial of the genocide. One of them, Mehmet Ali, surprised the Armenians even more when he sang an Armenian folk song. “‘Kanchum em, ari, ari’ means ‘I’m calling you, come, come,” he said, translating the opening words of the love song.
“I knew that we will have a great time with Armenians. They are great people,” added the 21-year-old.
“It’s hard to describe my feelings,” agreed Talar, an Istanbul student of Armenian descent. “I now have friends from Armenia, which means a lot to me.”
The organizers hope that such events will become regular and will help to break the ice in Turkish-Armenian relations. Their most immediate objective is to hold the next summer school in Armenia.
Celil, an ethnic Kurd from the eastern Turkish city of Diarbekir, backed the idea but at the same time cautioned: “We have to be realistic. There are fewer than 30 of us here and we are not representing the majority of Turks and Armenians … All we can do now is just to give an idea to the rest of our countries.”