Editor Hrant Dink was killed on 19 January 2007. In this interview with Nouritza Matossian, published in Index on Censorship magazine shortly after his death, Dink described his commitment to free expression and reconciliation between Armenians and Turks
In 2004, the Armenian writer Nouritza Matossian began filming a series of conversations with her friend Hrant Dink. They were part of a work in progress and she had not even begun editing them. With Dink’s sudden and shocking murder, the interviews became a fascinating and moving testament to the man. When Matossian showed extracts to an audience that had gathered in his memory in London on 28 February, they revealed a human, humorous, brave individual and made his passing all the more poignant. The extracts which follow are from a conversation filmed in late October 2005 in his office at the AGOS newspaper in Istanbul. Dink had just been sentenced for ‘insulting Turkishness’ under the infamous Article 301, for words taken out of context and misconstrued from an article, urging diaspora Armenians to give up their hatred of Turks. His six month sentence was suspended and he was receiving innumerable death threats. Two other charges against him were still pending, during which time he was forbidden from speaking and writing about his trial. This exchange adds much to our understanding of what motivated him and what he was hoping to achieve. It is also an intimate conversation between two friends.
Nouritza Matossian How did you first get involved in politics?
Hrant Dink (Laughs) By beating teachers at school.
HD They beat us. We were affected by what was going on outside. The ’68 events had started. The left-wing movement. The students had become active in the university. Communism. I got into all the left-wing activities as a student, in illegal groups. At the same time I got married and that marriage in a way saved me from getting deeper into politics.
NM When you were in jail at that time, I’m not asking why, did you occupy yourself with the Armenian question?
HD No. Well, I didn’t. It was the Armenian question which occupied itself with me. In 1980 I took over as the director of the Tuzla children’s camp when Hrant Guzelian, our headmaster, was arrested for teaching Armenian nationalism and was imprisoned. It was the summer camp of our school. We children had built it with our own hands. I worked hard to free him from prison. While he was away, I ran the camp with my wife. We came to the notice of the authorities. I became a target. But we became suspect in the state’s eyes.
There were investigations. Those cross-examinations by the military government authorities were very hard, very hard. Don’t make me say any more. We have borne a lot of pain. There is no need to write this.
NM No need? What do you want me to write?
HD I don’t want you to write this.
NM But someone like you doesn’t suddenly come to this point without a process.
HD Yes, you are right. So I got into left-wing politics. Hrant Dink got his experience in communism, and continued with the defence of Armenian identity.The defence of his people.
NM You don’t want to say anything else?
HD No. I haven’t killed anyone. My hands are clean. I have never been free of troubles.
NM Do you feel a sense of injustice? Is that what drives you?
HD Without question. Always when there has been injustice I jumped to my feet. I shouted. I worked as a children’s camp supervisor. Then I tried to study and earn money, painting houses, photography, then the book trade, the printing press. We still have our printing press with my brothers. Then we started printing AGOS ten years ago.
HD The Armenian community wasn’t political. There were serious issues. We needed a Turkish language paper. Why? We had to defend ourselves. We had such a bad image. There were unjustified accusations made against the Armenians, accusing us of being with ASALA, the Lebanese-based terrorist group, with which we had no involvement. They tried to implicate us in the Kurdish movement. A government minister even announced that the Kurdish leader Ocalan was an Armenian. There was the war in Nagorno Karabakh. One after another they came at us with slanders and accusations. ‘Armenian’ became a swearword. We could not accept it. We had to get out and explain to people, ‘No, Armenians are not as you think. The Kurdish question is the Kurdish one, and you want to pin it on us, but it has nothing to do with us.’ We had other problems with the government which made the life of Armenians very difficult. Minority questions. It was not generally known.
They confiscated our properties, took our land away, the schools had difficulties. We had to make this known to people. They had to be informed.
NM The Turkish public or the Armenian public?
HD In Turkish to the Armenians who did not speak or read Armenian, to Turks who wanted to inform themselves. To everyone. Everyone. Everyone.
Coming out of the ghetto
HD Living in secret, as though in a ghetto, did not ever save us from being worn down and weak, from decreasing in number, losing our young, emigration. We said, ‘Rather than hiding away, let us live openly. Let’s present ourselves before the authorities, with our own identity, and start to struggle.’
NM Before that were you always cautious?
HD The community was always cautious. It was AGOS which raised its voice for the first time. Look around you. Have you ever heard an Armenian voice in this country? Under difficulties, they just left the country. We did not leave. We said, ‘We will open our doors, raise our voices. We will write and speak openly.’
NM When you say ‘we’, were you a group?
HD No, not many, not a group. Just a few people.
NM This was the idea. To open the windows.
HD Yes, to open the windows. Defend ourselves, our rights, our history, and our present rights and our future rights. In the community the number of Armenian speakers had decreased. Writing and reading was on the wane.
NM The reason was?
HD On the one hand, state pressure and on the other, inner psychological pressure. That was more than enough. NM When you say state pressure, did they make the teaching of the Armenian language and history difficult?
HD If they make living difficult, if they take your property from you – the schools ran on the income from their properties – if they take away property, where is the income? If there is no income the schools can’t be run. If the school is not good, the students don’t go there. If the students don’t go, the community weakens. That’s our life. That’s it.
NM There have been cases in the press about Turks who have come forward to say they are Armenians. I talked with your lawyer Fethiye Cetin [author of My Grandmother]. She said many people visit, ask her to lock her office door and confess that they are Armenian too but that she should keep it a secret. What are these people afraid of? What do they fear if they come out and say they are Armenian?
HD If ‘Armenian’ is an object of derision and swearing, abuse, of course it is understandable that they don’t want to come forward. It’s psychological. They have to face it. The more they see that there is no dishonour in Turkey in being an Armenian, then maybe tomorrow they too will come forward. Armenians are banned from certain professions and some of those people hold high rank which they would lose.
There are many like this, who said, ‘I am Armenian’. After the Armenian conference [in September 2005], a very well known mainstream journalist, Bekir Coskun, who’s been writing for 40 years, suddenly wrote, ‘My grandmother was Armenian.’ He found the courage to say it. It’s an important point for me.
Sometimes from the diaspora, Armenian writers make this into a political point. For myself, let me say this, if just one Armenian can emerge in this way, and claim his culture with courage and openness, and talk about it, to me that is more significant than the acceptance of genocide by a hundred parliaments. In the Bible the most important parable was in Christ’s last words: ‘He was lost and is found, he died and he came back to life.’ I don’t want to tell this story again. That last message is very important to me. Here, a person who will be able to confess his Armenian-ness, that is more impressive, it is more human than a hundred conferences.
That is why I say, let us not always talk about the history of the dead, but let’s talk of our story about the living. Let’s see what will emerge. Let’s see what else will come out.
NM Now, Hrant, can you please address non-Armenians? If the Turks actually believe that no genocide took place, in that case why do they hate the Armenian? Why is it a dirty word?
HD The Armenian is hated also as an enemy. He is the worst enemy of this country.
NM What power does the Armenian have?
HD He is very powerful, the most powerful enemy. Turkish identity rises out of the Armenian genocide. Beneath this identity are found the great genocidal events. In the consciousness of the Turk, the Armenian is the ‘other’.
NM You say thousands, millions, of young people don’t even know this history.
HM But they know that the Armenian is their enemy and that’s what they have been taught. For instance, the genocide. That story has been taught contrary to the truth: that the Armenians massacred the Turks. If a young man is taught that, of course they hate the Armenians. When a young man grows up with this, his identity has been based on this. That’s why I say, ‘Do you think the Turks know the truth and deny it?’ No. Using the word denial is premature. The ordinary people only defend what they know. I say it is very wrong to exert pressure from the outside upon ordinary people and say, ‘Admit it.’ It is like doing the same as the Turkish state which says, ‘Deny it.’ Both are misguided movements, pressure on the people. People need neither to admit nor deny. They need to know the truth.
Staying in the homeland
NM And having said that, you really believe that the Armenians here have a future?
HD What does it mean, the Armenians have a future here?
NM What is it that ties you to this country?
HD It is my country, it is the country of my grandparents, the roots are here. Why is the diaspora always looking back here? It is here. The roots are here. Isn’t it our grandparents’ place?
NM But we are not on our grandparents’ homelands. You are not in Malatya. I am not in Anteb.
HD Should I leave too? You are abroad.
NM You are in Istanbul. You are not living on your land.
HD Well, Istanbul was also ours –– we have lived here for 15 centuries.
NM Are you staying here to protect it?
HD What do you want me to do? Shall we leave?
NM I am simply trying to understand you.
HD We are here. We have schools and churches here.
NM It was reported on the news that another church was just destroyed in the city of Diarbekir, no?
HD Yes. They will destroy and we will rebuild. We must learn to understand each other. Just wait. In history, losing places and regaining them is written with one sentence. In history, the passing of one century takes just one sentence. We don’t know what we will live through. (Looks up) God. Oh, God. I am happy to live in my country. I go to Van, I go to Kars, I go to Diarbekir [Armenian cities from which the indigenous Armenians were expelled]. I go everywhere.
NM But when you go there you do not see an Armenian, not a single Armenian.
HD Oh, I see them, I see them. I see Armenians.
NM Like apparitions.
HD Apparitions or real, I see them.
Defining by persecution
NM The pleasure I feel being here, speaking a language which I only spoke with my grandparents, is bitter. I know it is not ours, that I am an unwanted guest here.
HD You are mistaken. You have lived here with people for centuries and they lived with you. When you say it is not ours, what is theirs is yours and what is yours is theirs. When you live with them and hear Turkish you realise that you are Armenian. If I live here and five times a day I hear the muezzin at his prayers, then at least five times a day, I recollect that I am Christian.
NM You mean it is dialectical.
HD It is very dialectical, very dialectical, very much so.
NM So it keeps you alert.
HD Very much. And you, in your reality abroad, in that luxurious freedom where assimilation is very high, do you live there in order to lose your identity? Here, if you don’t want to remain Armenian, the pressure of others forces you to be Armenian. If every day someone curses you, if every day someone insults you, how can you not remain an Armenian? Your heart would burst. The pressure of others itself makes you remain Armenian. I don’t say that the
world should be this way (punches the chair with his fist) . . .
NM What are you saying?
HD It is here. The frontline is here, and I want to be on the frontline. I have tried it before and I did it again. I was the first person to make a serious attempt in Turkey. When I wrote the story of Sabiha Gökçen, Atatürk‘s daughter, saying that she was an Armenian orphan, the country shook. Uninterrupted attacks for 15 days, articles, persecution, blow-for-blow opinions. Even the defence ministry called me in and declared that I was creating problems in the country. The nationalists demonstrated outside the office, they made me a target. I saw how difficult it is to be open among Turks. I thought it was hard to speak about the dead, but it was harder to speak about the living in this country. To learn the truth, you need scientific knowledge, you need freedom of education. We must learn. This people has to learn. After learning the truth they will use their own conscience. If we are suffering today it is because for centuries in Turkey changes only took place from above, imposed upon the people from above.
NM Why did you say you would leave this country?
HD I said that because I was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for insulting my fellow countrymen. Because of the betrayal. A betrayal which for me is the worst of crimes in the world. It is racism. I don’t accept it. That is something I would never do. I would neither have it done, nor do it myself. I never denigrate my fellow countrymen, nor do I allow Armenians to insult them. I thought the judge would use his common sense and acquit me. Now I understand that I am not only face to face with the judge but with the deep state I fought for mutual respect all these years. But if it will be written by legal process against my name that I have insulted the Turks, if this is going to be branded here across my forehead, I find it wrong to live with my dishonoured friends. I would
not do it; I would not be able to do it. I would leave. I would teach them a lesson by leaving, that if you can’t live with others, if you denigrate us, it is better that we don’t live together.
In this country there are laws against denigrating Turks. But there are no laws for insulting Kurds or Armenians. Maybe it will be a lesson to them.
NM That is an interesting point.
HD Every day in this country the Armenians are insulted, the Kurds are insulted but for them there is no charge or punishment. Maybe they will think that what they are doing is disgraceful. We’ll see. Perhaps my departure is a protest. Many Armenians left the country before me, but they did it silently, without trace. If I go, I won’t go silently.
An Armenian unlike the others
NM They silenced your voice. They cut out your tongue.
HD My voice disturbed them. An Armenian appeared who was not like the Armenians they are used to, with his head bowed, who lived in Turkey too but was serious. A man stood up who spoke differently and who also stirred up ideas on both sides, Turkish and Armenian. ‘Yes, this is genocide.’ But he says it in such a way that no one can object to him. He influences people. They are not used to this kind of thing. An Armenian who says, ‘Come let’s not just talk about our own people, let’s talk about the living.’ And he turns the country inside out.
I know what Hrant Dink achieved in this country, in ten years. History has still not written it down. We’ll see when it will get written and how.
NM But this question doesn’t get resolved with the Armenian question. On the contrary.
NM You have turned yourself into a mirror and made them see everything in that mirror.
HD Of course.
NM Human rights, minority rights.
HD Of course, of course! It is that simple. At the same time I am a very good Turkish citizen, a very good Turk. That’s what amazes them. We’ll see. If my breath doesn’t fail at the end.
NM And in spite of the fact that the law forbids you to speak or write about your trial and your sentence, you continue to speak?
HD Of course I do. Why? What am I saying to you now?
NM You got a shock, Hrant?
HD Of course I had a shock.
NM You weren’t expecting it.
HD I wasn’t expecting it. That’s true. After the trial an old man sent me an email, he was a Muslim. ‘My son, Ramadan has started and every day I go to prayers – five times. I also pray for you not to go away.’ I was so moved by his writing that I translated Psalm 24 into Turkish and published it that week in my editorial. I was a naughty child and they used to make me learn psalms to stop me. I grew up but naughtiness did not leave me and now my psalms have become a habit perhaps. I repeat them.
NM Do you say them aloud?
HD Yes, I say them aloud. I confess it, to all my left-wing friends (smiles). It was good. The psalm says: I will send my angels to protect you. You will step on the head of the snake and you will pass. I will prepare a table before you in front of your enemies. Your head will be anointed with oil. My cup is full. Goodness and justice and mercy will flow all the days of your life. I will dwell many days in the house of the Lord – and much more. They give me strength, you know, the psalms. I want to find it and read it for you now. (He takes the Bible from the bookcase and reads out in Armenian. Closes the book. Looks at camera.) Is it finished? (Gets up. Whistles.) Shall we go?
NM Yes, Hrant, let’s go.
HD (Smiles) Merci.