Ara Sarafian's Letter to Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture on the Occassion of Initiative to Honor the American-Armenian writer, William Saroyan


By Ara Sarafian

Today's Zaman
Nov 20 2008

Dear Mr. Minister,

I wish to congratulate the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture for its planned initiative to honor the American-Armenian writer, William Saroyan, with a museum dedicated to him in his ancestral town of Bitlis.

Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, but his forefathers came from Bitlis. The proposed museum will be the first time a diaspora Armenian -- a much-maligned category in some quarters in Turkey -- will be recognized as a fellow "Anatolian" of Turkish citizens today. I
hope your initiative will contribute to a more sympathetic discussion of the Armenian cultural heritage of Anatolia (and there are many beautiful examples of this) and the Anatolian roots of Armenians.

You must be aware that your announcement of establishing a Saroyan museum in Bitlis will lead to some obvious questions: If there were Armenians in Bitlis, what were they like and what happened to them? If there are no Armenians left there, why are they not there today?

Allow me to state that on the eve of World War I, the town of Bitlis had an Armenian population consisting of around 1,140 households, and there were over 70 Armenian inhabited villages around the city. Armenians made up over one-third of the population in this province and lived alongside Kurds and Turks. There were four monasteries in or immediately around Bitlis, plus four churches in the city itself. There was also an Armenian Protestant and an Assyrian church. These churches attested to the typical good relations between Muslims and Christians in the city.

Unfortunately most of the Armenians churches that were left behind in 1915, and practically all cemeteries where Christians were buried (such as Saroyan's ancestors), have been desecrated or plowed under the soil. This is also the case outside of the city where grave robbers still dig around to search for "Armenian gold." While it is true that many Turks and Kurds have defended the dignity of such locations, they have not always been successful. I remember reading on a Turkish Internet site how peasants in the village of Duz, near Bitlis, were trying to save an Armenian church. Their muhtar's sentiment was simple and very moving: "In those days we lived like brothers and sisters with Armenians. We went to our mosques and they went to their church. We now do whatever we can to keep the church standing." ("O dönemlerde
Ermeniler'le kardeÅ~_ gibi yaÅ~_ardık. Bizler camilerimize, onlar da kiliseye giderlerdi. Å~^u anda kilisenin ayakta durması icin ne gerekiyorsa yapıyoruz.") I have personally heard such remarks from many ordinary people in Turkey.

I think it is important for Armenians to come and see for themselves that, whatever the problems Armenians faced in 1915 (it makes no difference whether one calls it genocide, massacre or deportation), there is still a lot of good will among ordinary people in Turkey

I am not sure if you will be able to find the Saroyan house in Bitlis today, but as far as I know, there is at least one Armenian church remaining in the city. It is abandoned and used to be used for storage purposes. It is now owned by the British-American Tobacco Company, hardly befitting a cultural treasure in Turkey. Perhaps as minister of culture you will be able to come to an agreement with the tobacco company and save this building from further deterioration and restore it as a cultural treasure in the name of William Saroyan. The projected Saroyan museum could thus become an offering for a happy future, when people love and respect each other and celebrate their differences as fellow human beings and Anatolians. Such a vision would be fitting
to Saroyan's memory.

Ara Sarafian