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