My Armenian journey

I have been writing for years about the Armenian Genocide. The issue is of great emotional as much as ethical and historical significance to me. But for reasons I will explain for the first time, 1915 is also a very personal matter for me. No, not because I suddenly discovered I am of Armenian descent, but mainly because 1915 is the main reason my career took a turn toward academia rather than diplomacy.

I did not join the Foreign Service because I was detained almost 20 years ago, when I was a 25-year-old tour guide. The reason? I dared to answer a couple of questions about 1915 from a group of American tourists visiting the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. That day changed my life. I’m not naïve; I knew answering their question in public would be risky. And I would have probably refrained from doing so had they not asked me first whether there is freedom of speech in Turkey. Trying to make light of it, I quipped: “Yes, there is freedom of speech, but freedom after speech can get tricky.” I did not know my joke would turn into self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shortly after explaining to my group why the term “genocide” is problematic for Turkish officialdom, I was arrested by guards in the museum, taken to a police station and interrogated for five hours. This unexpected encounter with Turkish law enforcement convinced me about a couple of things. First, I realized how difficult life in Turkey would be if I were of Armenian descent. “Are you Armenian?” was the first question I was asked in the police station. When I said “No,” the police officer laughed and said I was not the first Turkish traitor they had interrogated. To this day, I wonder how life in Turkey would be if my name was Onik instead of Ömer.

Second, I was also convinced that I no longer wanted to become a diplomat. As a diplomat, I knew you turn into a defense attorney for your country. I also knew that in the larger scheme of things, what happened to me that day was not tragic or even very consequential. But the idea of defending a country that arrests a tour guide for speaking about what happened 100 years ago turned me off intellectually and emotionally. All of a sudden, Turkey’s predicament had gained a disturbingly personal dimension in my eyes and thoughts. I remember having a conversation the night I was arrested with my father, a Turkish diplomat himself and in disbelief about my lack of situational awareness. “Do you think you think you live in Sweden?” he asked me with sarcasm and some anger. Anyway, the case was closed for me. I now had a police detention record. And this was enough to disqualify me from the Foreign Ministry exam.

Since the Turkish Foreign Service had now lost a brilliant (!) future diplomat, I turned my gaze to academia and decided to continue my seditious activities in the United States by writing a dissertation on Turkey’s identity problem. My focus was on the interplay between Kemalism, the official ideology of the republic and the Kurdish question and political Islam. Ever since I started working in academia and think-tanks, I made an involuntary reputation for myself as a public intellectual with pro-Kurdish, pro-Islamic, pro-Armenian tendencies. I guess that’s a small price to pay for trying to be a liberal in today’s Turkey. The alternative would have been a life in Turkish diplomacy talking about the “so-called Armenian Genocide,” the separatist-terrorist organization called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and various “coup” attempts against the sacred Turkish state during the Gezi protests and the corruption investigations.

At the end of day, my arrest 20 years ago was a blessing in disguise. I’m happy my Armenian journey took me where I am.

This article was originally published in
Today’s Zaman