Empathy Project (II): tales from Armenia and Diyarbakır

A diverse group of storytellers, mostly from the old world and the global south, came together for the Empathy Project to demonstrate through their stories that they could feel the pain experienced around the world. This collection of works of fiction is their attempt at understanding the other and explaining themselves, at empathy.

The stories Ahval is featuring are either set in Turkey, depict Turkey’s diverse cultures or have another connection to the country. Some explore their polar opposites, as did the tale of a young woman, who chose to don the hijab when she wrote about how others are oppressed by it.

The third story is from Dr. Ewout Klei, historian, biographer, journalist and editor.

My name is Armine Mardiganian. I come from the Republic of Artsakh, which you probably know as Nagorno-Karabakh. I had two elder brothers, but they were killed in the war with Azerbaijan. My heart cries when I think of them.

My father, my sister and I live in a one-room flat in Yerevan. We had to leave our beautiful house, because otherwise my father would have been murdered by Azeri soldiers, and my sister and I raped.

It was a long journey from our home to the Armenian capital, where my father's sister lives. Fortunately, we were able to hitch a lift with a young couple from our village who owned a station wagon.

We were in significantly better conditions, yet we felt like our great great grandparents and great-great-aunts and uncles in 1915, when they were chased from their homes and exiled to the unknown - victims of an earlier ethnic cleansing.

We call it the Armenian Genocide. Turkey doesn’t.

It is a good thing that more and more civilised countries are recognising this genocide, the biggest crime against humanity in world history second only to the Holocaust. But why did those civilised countries not do anything for my people when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - this new Talaat Pasha, this new Hitler - invaded Artsakh with his drones and jihadists? When he helped that pathetic puppet Aliyev to expel us?

We were abandoned again, just as we had been in 1915 when Russia and the West did too little to stop the mass murder of our people.

I do not hate the Turks. As a young girl, I was secretly in love with Tarkan, the handsome Turkish singer that all the women in the world are in love with. My sister and I used to dance to his music in my bedroom. How I longed for a kiss from him! But when my father heard the sound of his voice coming from our room he got very angry with me, and I never dared to listen to “filthy” Turkish music again.

Yes, the Turks. Somehow I feel sorry for them. Many Turks think that Erdoğan will make Turkey great again, but he is leading Turkey to ruin, like Hitler did to Germany. He is a dictator, he has muzzled the free press, he is trying to turn Turkey into a one-party state, and last but not least, he has an evil moustache.

But Europe must wake up. Stop appeasing him. No peace for our time.

France and England could have stopped Hitler in 1936, our history teacher told us, when we learned about the rise of the Third Reich and World War II. In the first few years of Hitler coming to power, Germany was not that strong. Three years later, it was too late. Hitler could conquer almost all of Europe and exterminate millions of Jews, Gypsies and other so called Untermenschen. But in the end, he turned Germany into smoking rubble.

I am afraid that what happened to us in Artsakh is foreshadowing what is yet to come. Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Libya, Iraq, the Balkans - the same fate may await them if Europe does not take action.

It was a bleak winter in Yerevan at our aunt's house. I wanted to see my best friend Tato again, who fortunately had also fled safely from Artsakh, but my aunt thinks we should avoid contact with others as much as possible. She is the boss of the house. My father does not say much and reads a lot. He reads the Bible, but also history books about Armenia that he brought from our old home. By losing himself in the distant past, I think he can contextualise the pain of what recently happened to our family. And this way he doesn't have to worry about the future, which for the time being offers us no prospects.

I want to read books too, but about love and romance. I want to find refuge in my own fantasy.

Last night I had a very strange dream. Azeri soldiers were in our apartment. They had just killed my father and aunt, and were moving towards me and my sister, with the intention to rape us. Still wearing my pyjamas, I took my sister and ran outside barefoot.

Then I saw him, standing there. Tarkan.

What should we do? We were very afraid. Tarkan suddenly took out a gun and fired two shots. The Azeri soldiers fell to the ground. And then my sister disappeared, and so did all other people in the city. I stood alone, facing Tarkan. I wanted to say something to him, but I couldn't speak. Tarkan approached me. His lips came closer and closer to mine.

“Mwah! Mwah!” he gesticulated, as in his famous song.

Maybe there is hope for both of our peoples.

Now for the fourth story, in which Iraqi Kurdish journalist Hezha Dishad shares the tale of a filmmaker who was imprisoned for her work.

Gulistan... Kurdistan

My name is Gulistan. It means ‘rose garden’. I am a Kurd from Turkey.

This name was given to me by my father, but he wished he could have named me ‘Kurdistan’. He couldn’t, as Kurdish names and names related to Kurdishness are still banned in Turkey. I was born in Diyarbakır, and my family is from this Kurdish city, which also had a Kurdish name once: Amed.

I make films, and I write. I have wanted to make a film about our Kurdish culture in Turkey, but how could I? Too much of our culture is banned. I couldn’t express it freely.

A few years ago, I was arrested for a screenplay I wrote. For some pieces of paper with words about Kurdish culture on them.

I had hard time in the prisons I was transferred to. In the end, I was sentenced to 10 years. I still don’t fully understand why. I had been thinking of leaving, leaving my city and my country, to go somewhere else, so I could continue my work and make films. I can’t do it here.

I wrote more of my screenplays every day I was in prison. I wrote about the films of my dreams. I want to make my Kurdish films so much, but I can’t.

One day, I hope I can publish these stories as a book. In the end I wrote my stories in Turkish, because I couldn’t have kept them if they had been in Kurdish. It would mean risking more time in prison.

Mine is one story out of thousands in Turkey. We are the Kurdish people. We are human beings, too. We are entitled to rights in our communities. We must fight to protect our future.

The greatest Kurdish filmmaker I know is Yılmaz Güney, who made 116 films and won a Palme D’Or in 1982. He was a brave man. He went to prison three times.

He was only an actor and a director, but the Turkish regime decided to jail him. After he was finally out of prison, he went to Europe to continue his films and speak about the Kurdish plight. He passed away in 1984.

Today, 40 years after Güney died, we still can’t make our own films. In this country, we are not allowed to make films to showcase Kurdish language and culture.

One day I hope we will.


The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.