Nayat Karaköse

"Spaces of memory are places of seeking both truth and justice."

Kemal Taylan Abatan spoke with Nayat Karaköse about the 23.5 Hrant Dink Memory Site, which is a space established by the Hrant Dink Foundation to continue the work of Hrant Dink—who was assassinated on January 18, 2007—in order to contribute to the protection and development of human rights, minority rights and cultural rights; support historical research free of nationalism and racism; and keep Armenian culture and history alive in Turkey. Later on, there came the decision to transform the offices in the Sebat Apartments, which housed Agos newspaper and the Hrant Dink Foundation, into the 23.5 Hrant Dink Memory Site in 2015. Here, Nayat Karaköse explains this process and other issues.

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Why is it important to remember and memorialize grave human rights abuses?

Many places in various countries around the world whose past violent histories were scenes of human rights abuses that inflicted severe wounds to social memory and conscience are now undergoing memorialization and being transformed into memorial sites. Memorialization initiatives and memorial sites have many different functions. One is to remind of the past to counter obfuscation. Remembrance is essentially a form of resistance, a form of activism, because you then keep the issue alive in a way. They’re instrumental in these things not being forgotten and they ensure their memory is passed down to future generations. Another function is to make information accessible. When you look at it, just as Turkey has its official narrative of the past, so too do other countries around the world. The truth and facts remain locked away in archives in some countries. As such, memorial sites and memorialization initiatives make this information accessible and present it to the public, which has been deprived of it. I always give the example from the Roman poet Horace: “Dare to know.” Memorial sites and memorialization activities aren’t only for visitors, as they encourage the target audience to learn of the past and retain knowledge of it. I think this is another of their important functions. Another is to induce reflection, to make us think about questions we haven’t thought about yet, because when we look at both the education system and official ideology in Turkey, the official ideological apparatuses of the state dictate what we should forget and what we shouldn’t remember while always also dictating what we should remember. So, memorialization initiatives are an alternative strategy and a form of resistance against the policies of forgetting and the official ideology. I think it’s quite important in that sense.

Again, one of the most basic things we learned during the whole preparation process is that memorial sites, more than providing answers, make us ask more questions and allow visitors to leave the space with questions. People who come to this space are seeking answers to their questions. In my opinion, one of the basic functions of all memorialization initiatives is to make people question and interrogate. We’re here at the 23.5 Hrant Dink Memory Site. What Rakel Dink said on the day of her husband’s funeral on January 23, is etched into the social memory: “No matter how old they are, 17 or 27. No matter who the murderer is, I know they were babies once. Nothing can be done, my brothers, without questioning the darkness that created a murderer from a baby.” It’s precisely these initiatives that lead to questioning and interrogating. Again, one of the most important functions of memorialization initiatives and memorial sites is that they’re meeting areas. They promote mutual understanding and empathy. They’re very important in this sense as well. They contribute to social transformation with the knowledge they offer while also existing as different types of learning programs or projects. For example, if we think in terms of places, there are dozens of memorial sites and museums that shed light on gross human rights violations from all around the world be it the Holocaust, Apartheid South Africa, the coups in South America, dictatorships, or the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. When you look at it, one of their important aspects is that they not only function as research spaces with archives but also actively engage visitors and guide their imaginations about their future. In this sense, memorial sites are areas of transformation. Therefore, keeping the memory alive of grave human rights abuses and violations of different dimensions through memorialization initiatives and memorial sites won’t offer a solution in the short term, but facing these issues and confronting them is a long process. It’s a process that we need to work on with a little patience and perseverance. These initiatives contribute to social transformation in the long run and are of crucial significance.


How did the idea of creating a memorial site for Hrant Dink come about? Who was involved?

No space or place has a single story. This site was burned into the social memory with the assassination of Hrant Dink on January 19, 2007, in front of this very building. But this isn’t just about that. Hrant Dink isn’t just a murdered journalist, he’s much more than a rights defender, activist or initiator of transformation. This building has a 100-year history. It was built by Rafael Alguadiş in the middle of 1927. It has been witness to many different periods in Istanbul and Turkey. Alguadiş was also the architect of Emek Cinema and one of the many victims of the Wealth Tax. Our story here begins with the relocation of Agos newspaper in 1999, three years after its was founded. This is actually a place of hope and production, where Agos has grown and flourished, an impetus of social transformation, and a place where Armenians and other minorities make their voices heard. This place has such a dimension. Unfortunately, though, Hrant Dink was murdered here on January 19, and this place turned into a crime scene on that day—a place of tragedy. Since that night, we’ve witnessed how this place has turned into a place of conscience. The reaction to his murder was unexpected.

The Hrant Dink Foundation was established following his assassination. Agos and the foundation shared this space to make Hrant Dink’s dreams a reality. Increasing staff and projects made it so we couldn’t all fit anymore and with that, questions of moving. Of course, the question we asked ourselves and that others raised with us was of what we were going to do with the space after we moved. After all, this place has a symbolic significance—it has a special place in social memory and the public conscience. Of course, we would leave, but we wouldn’t leave this place. It was at this moment that the idea to turn it into a memorial site emerged. We had to go through a learning process, though, as this would be the first example of its kind in Turkey. We had an extensive preparation process consisting of three pillars. The first was visiting museums and memorial sites around the world that confront difficult pasts and violent histories. They weren’t passive visits either, and reached out to all we could— directors, curators, artists, educational program directors. If we liked the architecture of a site, we went to the architecture office responsible for it. The process was very collective. We invited those experts to Turkey. When this was the old Agos office, we sat around a table and asked everyone for their ideas. More than 50 museums, memorialization professionals, academics and people working in the field of memorialization from different parts of the world came to Istanbul on our invitation. We also gathered people from different age groups, professions and identities here to form the Turkish branch and asked them for their opinions. It was very participatory and inclusive, as we had seen that the sites that affected us the most were those that were established through participatory, democratic and inclusive processes. We started construction after two or two-and-a-half years of the design stage.

Arat Dink was the architect and Sera Dink was the designer involved in the construction process. Artists Sena Başöz and Neslihan Koyuncu joined our team as well. Delal Dink, the team and I also worked with the artists Sarkis, Andreas Knitz and Horst Hoheisel. There wasn’t only a core team—we also established an advisory board for collective advice. We constantly sought opinions from people such as Ayşe Gül Altınay, Sibel Asna, Füsun Eczacıbaşı, Erdağ Aksel, Tuba Çandar and Defne Ayas. It was a fully inclusive process. We all established this place together in terms of both content and design. We wanted to consult the knowledge of as many people as possible. And we didn’t just limit it to Istanbul—we consulted more than 150 people in Mardin, Yerevan and Ankara. In the dialogue meetings we held, we asked them questions like what three words or a sentence would be that this place reminds them of and what they would name the site. All of this was a manifestation of our vision. Then we published a report describing the preparation process. We tried to share the report with those interested in memorialization and tried to conduct the process as inclusively and democratically as possible.


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Source: “Look, this is where Hrant Dink’s memory is alive.”


How would you describe the impact—political, social and personal—that you expect these remembrance initiatives and processes of memorialization to create? Whom do you think it addresses and who wants to be addressed?

This site isn’t to convince people of something—we want it to give them the key to a door. It’s an invitation, because that’s the type of person Hrant Dink was—inviting and embracing. He cared a lot about young people. The people, like the 17-year-old university student with no relation to Armenian culture whom he invited to come and do something at Agos, have achieved quite a lot. He believed in them. We shed light on Hrant Dink’s life here. We don’t limit it to only when he was a journalist—his time as an activist, his years at Kamp Armen in Tuzla and the establishment of Agos during one of Turkey’s darkest times all explain different aspects of the man. Indeed, there was a time when Armenians were targeted more than any other group and people, even government ministers, spoke of “Armenian spawn.” This is the gloomy atmosphere in which Agos was founded when people had reached the limits of despair. We attempt to present Agos’ story here. Its archives are also housed here and contain very significant information on minorities in Turkey. Those who want to research Turkey’s minority policies can come and do so here. News that would never be published in other newspapers is published here because Agos is independent. Hrant Dink was never only concerned with Armenians. He concerned himself with the suffering the Kurds and of covered women. He fought for them too. He was on the side of all marginalized people and always said that if Armenians alone are given their rights in Turkey, it would mean nothing because we want full democracy for all. He emphasized this often. At the same time, Hrant Dink didn’t just voice issues, he was an activist who offered solutions and labored for their implementation—he was an actor of social transformation. Yes, a very painful event took place here, but at the same time, this place also holds hope for the future. He always told visitors that they could also be drivers of transformation. It’s necessary to encourage people for this transformation to become a reality.

The process leading up to the Hrant Dink’s assassination is also presented here. How the course of events leading to his assassination developed in the three years since the Sabiha Gökçen news is documented here—the day of the assassination, its aftermath, and commemorations. One of the things we try to do, though, is to not only look at the different phases of Hrant Dink’s life and his inspiring work but also address the values he advocated, such as democracy, justice, peace, coexistence and dialogue, to present them to new audiences and younger generations. This isn’t possible only with exhibitions either. We try to do it through education programs and workshops. This is also where annual commemorations take place every January 19. Thousands of people gather in front of this building. Every year, a human rights activist or someone who’s lost a loved one in political murders speaks to the crowd from this window and talks about the period we are going through or human rights violations. This is also a platform for expression and solidarity—a pulpit—it’s a place for seeking justice. We want those who come here to think about these concepts. If a visitor here starts to transform beginning with their own family, that’s an achievement. This isn’t something that will happen right away, of course. It’s a long process that requires patience.


How would you evaluate the conditions for remembrance and memorialization in Turkey? What have been and are the difficulties you’ve encountered and what has been easier?

When we look at it, memorialization initiatives have gained momentum over the past 20 years. And Turkey has a lot of truths to face. There are a great many events that have yet to be confronted despite so much time having passed—incidents we’ve forgotten to face. Much valuable work has been done over the past 20 years, particularly by civil society. Valuable work was done under very difficult conditions too. Some exhibitions could be held and books were published even in the 1990s. Then, of course, with the EU accession process, reforms and the reconciliation process, work in memorialization picked up steam. Maybe we saw that things that were more difficult to do were done more quickly from 2005 to 2012. Of course, the reconciliation process was also very effective here. Exhibitions were held, books were published, films were made on taboo issues, which can’t be easily done today. Civil society organizations played a very important role in this process throughout, and their work continues to reach the younger generations.

They’ve actually changed academics’ perspective on various events and encouraged them as well. We’ve also seen collaborations between civil society and academia. Some media outlets and journalists have been supportive, but in what we’re in right now, the conditions aren’t as easy as they used to be. We’re talking about a contraction of civic space, academia and media. Maybe working locally isn’t as easy as it used to be. For a time, it was more flexible. But there’s something else that makes me hopeful—younger generations in particular show a lot of interest in the field of memorialization. Students write dissertations on memory, space and memorialization. We receive requests from student groups and we hold workshops with them. We ask them what their 23.5 would be, what they would like to memorialize and what kind of site they would create. The answers they give are both expected and unexpected. One of the most prominent is the Sivas Massacre at the Madımak Hotel, and there is also much interest in the Istanbul Pogrom of September 6–7, because many hadn’t ever heard of it before. Forced migration is always one of their responses. The murder of Uğur Kaymaz and the Roboskî massacre are a couple of the many incidents younger people today always think about and are willing to make the effort for their remembrance. The Wealth Tax is another, as is the Dersim massacre. Monuments were built for the Roboskî victims and Uğur Kaymaz, but they were demolished. They’re very painful experiences. Just because something is destroyed, though, doesn’t mean it won’t be rebuilt or memorialized. I think that here, it’s very important to have solidarity and reasoning in order to be able to act together with civil society. We hope that the 23.5 Memorial Site will inspire many people in this field and spur an increase in the number of memorial sites.


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Source: “Look, this is where Hrant Dink’s memory is alive.”


How would you evaluate the relationship between the search for justice and the efforts for remembrance and memorialization? Could such efforts play a role in ensuring justice? If so, could you explain?

I see a strong connection between the 23.5 Hrant Dink Memory Site and the pursuit of justice for his assassination. Memory spaces are spaces that seek both truth and justice. Hrant Dink’s murder trial concluded last year. But you see what is written here: “It’s not over until we say it’s over.” Our search for justice in this case will continue both on legal grounds and through social means. People gather here every January 19. People come together not only to commemorate Hrant Dink but also to demand justice. Every speech voices this demand for justice. There are copies of the files of the Hrant Dink murder case at 23.5, and we’re trying to contribute to the search for justice and truth by opening the archive.

One thing we’ve experienced is that many memory sites have turned into places of seeking justice in countries around the world, such as in Argentina and Chile, because the cases regarding unsolved murders and disappearances are still ongoing. Although these places function as memory sites, they collect evidence regarding the cases. This affected me a lot. For example, there is the Museum and Site of Memory (ESMA) in Buenos Aires. It’s an old naval school that had been used as a torture and detention center during the coup and dictatorship there. People were brought there blindfolded and were imprisoned. Today, survivors’ cases regarding the discovery of the perpetrators are still ongoing and evidence is still being collected at the ESMA. Different complexes at the ESMA are allocated to institutions working in many fields of human rights. There are places like this elsewhere across South America as well as in other regions. The aim here is not only memorialization but to make a collective call for justice, to demand justice and to fight for the real perpetrators to be found. In this sense, I can say that memory sites are directly related to the search for justice.


When you look at examples from Turkey or around the world, how are efforts for both collective memory and memorialization considered today? What’s your opinion about the future of the field?

We’ve seen so many examples. We’ve seen and experienced different memory sites in Cambodia, South Africa and elsewhere. While there, we met and were inspired by incredible people who are victims of the past but are the actors of transformation today. There are reflections of the learning process we experienced at 23.5. We were inspired by all of them and tried to learn by including experts and thinking collectively. Museum professionals tell us that the 23.5 Hrant Dink Memory Site has qualities that distinguish it from other places, that the narrator is Hrant Dink directly. There are many museums in the world dedicated to artists or political figures, but whoever the narrator is, usually it’s a third party that tells the story. Here, however, we left the floor entirely to Hrant Dink, which we could do because we have a large video archive. Here, every video starts with a question and Hrant Dink answers it. You’ll see very little written text here. The narrative belongs entirely to perhaps the best storyteller you’ll ever come across in your life. Many experts tell us that Hrant Dink had his own way of speaking, that it’s very original, inclusive and dialogue-based, and they tell us to keep up what we’re doing. This type of feedback inspired us so much that we wanted it to keep it this way. The discourse of a space is actually the foundation, the basic building block. No matter how you design the discourse, the space can change the whole experience. Our biggest stroke of luck here was that Hrant Dink is the main narrator. When you look at the feedback from museum professionals, the 23.5 Hrant Dink Memory Site is perhaps the first example of its kind in the world.


You recently brought the 23.5 Hrant Dink Memory Site to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. What was the effect you observed there? What kind of responses did you get?

We have a big dream and want to bring 23.5 to many countries. Of course, our starting point would be Yerevan. It would’ve been much sooner too had the pandemic not intervened. It opened in Yerevan under the name “Hrant Dink Here and Now.” It’s been 15 years since Hrant Dink was killed, but Hrant Dink is in Yerevan and he is here. What Hrant Dink said and the values he defended aren’t limited to Turkey. He had a universal vision that speaks to every country, and what he said is echoed in Yerevan today. What he said is also valid in Europe, the Americas, Africa and South America—his vision and words really speak to many different societies and their troubles. The fact that he was a true democrat and rights defender makes him universal. He also offers solutions. I admire this feature of his the most while reading his articles. Sometimes you just make the problems visible, but we also produce a solution for every one of them, and we see that he always attached great importance to solution-oriented thinking and being an actor for transformation.

We’re getting very positive feedback from Yerevan. The visitors are very attentive and listen closely to everything. We made the windows there Hrant Dink’s eyes. He looks both into the space and out to Yerevan. Visitors are looking at him too. But they don’t just look at him, they see his vision, the values he defended, what kind of person he was. At the same time, we’re building a bridge between Yerevan and Istanbul. There’s a screen here where visitors in Yerevan and Istanbul can communicate, chat and wave to each other. We’re opening a door and engaging people. Hrant Dink had a saying: “Dialogue is our only prescription.” He cared a lot about reaching people. Although governments and states are important actors in normalization, he cared most about interpersonal relationships and dialogue. He always emphasized the importance of mutual understanding, efforts to understand each other and dialogue. We’re trying to continue his approach both with 23.5, in Yerevan and with the work of the Hrant Dink Foundation.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022