We need 'tamadas', not historians or lobbyists

Published in Turkish Daily News, 13 December 2007

Re-Published in French by Collectif Van as Nous avons besoin de 'tamadas*', pas d’historiens ni de lobbyistes

You don't need a PhD in rocket science to recognize the complexity of Armenian-Turkish relations and its infinite regress to the samsaric cycles of prejudice, hatred and “you act right first, then I will too” attitudes.

Within this journey to nowhere, there are two dominant voices: Those who think that if they only had more third party countries or groups siding with them, they would “win” the battle of “truth” against the “deniers” and those who think that if only they had more historical research, books and commissions, they would prove the indisputable “truth” to the shame of the revisionists.

Both of these groups presuppose that this bizarre globalized quarrel is exclusively over the “truth” of past. Yet as the dead bodies lie in silence, the ones who are fighting are present tense actors with their present tense narratives, goals, fears or anticipations. In an ironic way, the dead are still victimized by the living, who politicize and utilize their memories just as their biological bodies were politicized and utilized prior to their murders.

So, the main challenge in front of us isn't whose “truth” will get the upper hand in the international circus, but it is how, if ever, we can tease out the present politics (whether that of identity or saving the face) so that we can genuinely mourn for the dead.

No matter what one thinks, “justice” is never really met after mass atrocities, especially historical ones. Notions of retributive justice embodied by tribunals are of no use when perpetrators exist no more. In spite of the aura of “justice” which they spread, the sheer number of victims and perpetrators mean that they have to pursue a symbolic course, often only condemning key actors. Contrary to their own self-perception, they fail hard in breaking cycles of hatred and preventing future atrocities.

Similarly, cultural factors limit the effectiveness of “justice” set in the courts. For example, even though a court in the Middle East may sentence a rapist, there is a high chance that the family of the victim will not find it satisfactory and pursue a sense of a justice by ways of an “honor killing.” For this reason, wise men and women have sought to pursue culturally relevant ways of working toward justice and reconciliation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, combined the African concept of ubuntu with Christian notions of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. Tutu argued that there was no future for South Africa unless blacks and whites lived together in harmony and this could only be achieved through forgiveness.

In Rwanda, the shortcomings of Western perceptions of justice as embodied in the tribunals have been supplemented by the use of Rwandan gacaca trials. In gacaca trials, the perpetrators are reintegrated to their local communities following a traditional ceremony.

What about Armenian-Turkish relations?

There is no court system in the world that can handle this issue. To even suggest a retributive pursuit is laden with serious conceptual faults. No amount of legislation passed in third party countries will move Turks to be open to correct a past wrong doing. No “objective” history book will be able to be the final word, as collective memories, by their very own nature, remain contested and modified along with contemporary demands. So, we are in need of another solution.

Isn't there anything we can find in the Anatolian cultures that can provide us with a much more relevant way? I believe there is, though it would sound naïve to the realist and punitive “adults” reading this article.

In the Armenian culture, there is the tradition of tamadas, who are prominent men managing the procession of toasts made around a table of food and drinks. In both Turkish and Armenian cultures, sitting around a table plays an important role. It symbolizes welcoming, accommodation, fellowship and celebration. Thus, a drinking table is much more suitable for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians than a U.N. committee room.

Drinking and eating draws us together into conviviality and sharing a personal and vulnerable presence, rather than the impersonal battlefield effect of courts, commissions and assemblies. Sitting around a table with a tamada ensures that everybody's voice and wishes are heard and given equal respect.

After the third shot, one recognizes the lovability of the other enough to reach out and kiss away the personal barrier that separates us from the stranger or unwanted. The eventual procession of the toasts to a closure, when the group feels that enough toasts have been made, means that a healthy mourning process reaches freedom from a melancholic sense of loss that poisons the one trapped in the past.

To be sure, this will not satisfy those who want “revenge” or reinstatement of a mythical kingdom or lost glory or maintenance of pure and heroic pasts. Sadly, justice and reconciliation remain patchy, imperfect and limited in our clay earth. What is left to us is our humanity in its raw form.

Whether we can actualize it to the extent that we can lament together and move beyond black and white narratives of victimhood or innocence, depends not on the U.S. House of Representatives or French parliament or a scholar at Cambridge University, but only on us: Turks, Armenians and a bottle of rakı or liqueur with Mount Ararat as the background.