Polar opposites

Commentary, From the vaults

Things turn nasty at the unveiling of an Armenian genocide memorial in Wales

Armenian memorialMemorials don’t tend to be particularly exciting. They are superficial things: grand, but instantial; attractive, but symbolic. They don’t do anything. Their role is just to sit and be an aide-mémoire.

The trouble with symbolism is that it makes for an easy target, and target practice was exactly what fifty-or-so Turks were doing when they gathered outside the Temple of Peace in Cardiff. They were there to protest the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to the victims of what so many call an Armenian genocide.

It was meant to be a sombre, religious affair. The idea was for the Armenian ambassador and Welsh presiding officer to unveil the memorial (a “khatchkar“), to have Britain’s leading Armenian bishop bless it, and to celebrate the burgeoning Welsh-Armenian relationship. Then everyone would be happy: the Welsh would celebrate a rare moment of internationalism, the Armenians would have something bearing the word “genocide” on British public land. All very symbolic.

Turkish protesters in Cardiff

Turkish protesters in Cardiff

The Turks did not ruin the event (the khatchkar was blessed, as was this blogger, a sole recipient of holy water on the nose) but they certainly made their voice heard. “What is the Armenian genocide? Pack of lies” was the dominant chant of the day, others called it a “monument of shame”. One thoughtful banner read: “Armenian genocide: fact or fiction?” But there was no incursion into the temple, nor any attempt to reach or deface the memorial. The Welsh police contingent, about 10 officers strong, seemed almost unnecessary. Everyone was so well behaved.

Armenian khatchkar blessingBut things did appear ugly, particularly when a Turkish camera operator was confronted shortly before the unveiling. “Would you please not speak in Turkish?” she was asked. “This is our place at the moment, okay?” The event organisers were then alerted and a brief squabble broke out. It ended only when a police officer came to escort not just the camera operator, but all the Turkish journalists away from the memorial. They co-operated, but were not happy. One Anatolia news agency reporter said she would complain to Britain’s National Union of Journalists.
It was embarrassing for all, not least Stephen Thomas, the director of the Temple of Peace. It went against all the messages of peace and sincerity that had been given just moments before. There was a definite anti-Turkish feeling in the air: one visitor pointed to my t-shirt (which read “Polskie Morze byc najlepsze”, purchased in Poland) and said that it was Turkish, and that I must be a Turk. There are only so many times you can say “gift from my mother” at the unveiling of a memorial before you draw the crowd’s attention.

The eviction of Turkish journalists was despicable. It was also symbolic: it showed how clearly the lines are drawn, how far apart the sides have become. It is not the existence of a memorial that is controversial, it is that Wales has picked a side. And it is not the word “genocide” that is so sacred to Armenians and so taboo to Turks, it is the consequences of accepting that word.

This plain piece of Welsh stone symbolises the gulf between Turkey and Armenia. Yesterday went to show that it will not be bridged any time soon.

Last modified: Tuesday 21 April 2015

14 Responses to :
Polar opposites

  1. artmika says:

    Any attempt of restricting media work deserves strong condemnation. I also condemn displays of hate from whatever side they come.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Its khachkar (with a second k) which is an elaborate cross carved out of stone and which you find all over Armenia.

  3. Bad tyrpist says:

    As far as I can work out, your T-shirt means “Poland is best by sea”, clearly an inflammatory, anti Armenian slogan…

    An excellent, insightful article, James, much appreciated this morning alongside my toast and coffee.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Interesting to read.

    I can tell you I was at the door when at least one Turkish jurnalist and one Turkish student asked and were let in to the temple of peace during the event.

    The said jurnalist who was escorted away had previously been asked to leave the event when she failed to show her press badge. I personally heard her say “it’s not with me, I’ll show you later”. Press?

  5. Oz Kanka says:

    Do journalists need press cards to attend events in Wales?

  6. Phantom says:

    Armenians and Turks are not polar opposites. Armenians and Genocide Deniers are polar opposites. Since there are many righteous Turks who acknowledge the Genocide and have written scholarly works regarding that topic, one can conclude that the problem is with Genocide Deniers and not Turks in general.

  7. I could not help wondering who organised the Turkish protest and whether the journalists you mention were really just there to report?
    Why should ordinaery Turkish people living in Wales feel responsible for the actions of some Turks – quite possibly foreign-led – in 1915?
    If a demonstration was organised denying that the Armenian Holocaust occurred (incidentally that’s the first time the word Holocaust was used to describe such killing) shouldn’t the protest organisers bear some responsibility for stirring up the hostility?
    Perhaps that was their intention.
    One can only wonder about their motives. Could it be related to politics in Turkey today? Sadly, it would not be the first time that diasporic communities have been manipulated this way.

  8. Lana says:

    James you are so pathetic. Standing there you weren’t as brave and critical as you are here. You didn’t have enough courage to say – No, I am not Armenian.
    What about restricting media work – I am sorry to disappoint you, but those media representatives who came officially instead of sneaking as a snake received the full support of organizers.
    You call it – “picking the sides” – to my knowledge a lot of countries has already picked the side of the truth.
    Turks were shouting there – Monument of shame, monument of shame! – Absoultely! I totally agree with it! Shame on you, Turks!

  9. James says:

    The Turkish reporters did not need a press card to attend Saturday’s unveiling any more than I did – but, for the record, they were all accredited by the NUJ. As am I.

    I am certainly not someone who subscribes to the Turkish state’s position on the events of 1915, but I do think that “genocide deniers” is just as coloured a phrase as “pack of lies”.

    In response to Charlie – the Turkish protest had been in the works for weeks. There were a series of visits by Turkish groups to Cardiff to urge it all to be called off. It wasn’t an ad-hoc protest.

    And you’re quite right about the Turkish share responsibility for the tension – I think that might not have quite come across in my piece, but I was trying to convey how much anger there was on both sides. It was blind anger – how else do you explain an eight-year-old boy, Turkish flag in hand, pointing at Armenian memorialgoers with the other, bellowing “pack of lies”? Most adults don’t understand the full scope of the issue – I don’t see how I child could. It was all very upsetting.

    There’s very little I can say to Lana. Your opinion is your own, but I wouldn’t describe my actions as pathetic. A journalist is meant to watch, not get involved.

  10. Anonymous says:

    In response to Charlie Pottins’ comment, there were people shouting ‘England must not be racist’ which didn’t go down well with the Welsh (not Armenian) people attending the event. Their not so polite response to that was ‘This is NOT England, this is Wales, so please go away’.

    I don’t think this was just about the Turkish community in Wales, but an organised effort to disrupt the event, sadly but understandably.

    If you’re press and NUJ, it’s a wise idea to have your press card with you. The two reporters (from what I personally witnessed) were regretfully there to disrupt.

    As for the eight year old you mentioned James, it’s is an absolute shame to see the conditioning that goes on at both sides of camp – for a child to be taught to hate Armenians at that age and vice versa.

  11. Barbara says:

    Hey James! You’ve been tagged! Don’t worry — it’s a good thing. Check out http://www.turkishmuse.com to figure out what you have to do next!

  12. mirdifderya says:

    Good point James:)

    Last anonymous comment, well written, I agree what you say.

    I have read so many articles, books on both sides, still do, what I can understand, Leave it to historians and let them talk talk, then politicians should get involve. Easy to brainwash the new generation that they haven’t went trough those years. There is so many controversies.

  13. R says:

    It didnt take long – the Welsh genocide memorial was vandalized over the weekend.


  14. James says:

    Very upsetting news, that. Doesn’t look like anyone will be caught.

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