After Richard Hovannisian

After Richard Hovannisian
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Academician Τurkyilmaz wrote about historian Hovannisian, who during his lifetime focused on the Armanian Genocide.

By Zeynep Τurkyilmaz

It is with deep sadness that I learned of the irreplaceable loss of Prof. Richard Hovannisian. In addition to being an advisor to many prominent figures in Armenian studies today and supporting countless scholars who were not his students, especially students at UCLA, where he taught for half a century, he touched the lives of generations of students, introducing them to history and connecting them to witnesses of the events of 1915 through his oral history project beginning in the 1970s. He leaves behind an invaluable body of scholarship and a tireless fight for justice. Our condolences go out to his family, loved ones, friends, and colleagues in Armenian studies, to whom he dedicated his life.

I first met Prof. Hovannisian at the 11th International Oral History Conference [IOHA] hosted by Boğaziçi University in 2000. A few days before the conference, some participating institutions raised objections and heated debates, focusing mainly on Prof. Hovannisian for his "anti-Turkish" rhetoric and alleged "Turcophobia," and demanded that he be prevented from attending the conference. As a new-generation Ph.D. student in the social sciences at the time, I was trying to follow this tension between prominent figures in the field when I suddenly encountered Prof. Hovannisian returning from his morning jog in his easily identifiable white sneakers on the Central Field. He chatted with those who approached him, smiling even in the most tense moments. In contrast to the hysteria surrounding him, and perhaps out of defiance, his calm demeanor was striking. At this conference, from which the History Foundation had withdrawn at the last minute in protest, Prof. Hovannisian delivered his first speech on the Armenian Genocide and the oral testimonies he had been recording since the 1970s to a mostly non-Armenian audience in Turkey. With a poise and intellectual sophistication that made everyone forget the tension, he shared the Armenian experience and memory of 1915. He articulated the stages of coming to terms with trauma and genocide with clarity, perhaps for the first time in 85 years in Istanbul.

My subsequent encounter with Prof. Hovannisian was when I was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. Of course, when I went to meet him, he did not recognize me from Istanbul, and I think he was initially suspicious and distant because I was the first non-Armenian student from Turkey to be accepted. When I arrived, UCLA Middle Eastern Studies was in transition, and the new professors, far from understanding Prof. Hovannisian's contribution to Armenian and genocide studies, sometimes portrayed and categorized him as representing an older generation of nationalist historical narratives. Despite this, Prof. Hovannisian, who had largely and gracefully withdrawn from departmental politics, continued to teach his undergraduate courses on Armenian history, which included an oral history project. But as soon as one entered his office, where he was a regular visitor, one encountered an energetic, hard-working, and passionate intellectual, far beyond the externally imposed image of the old generation of professors. You would find him at his desk, surrounded by stacks of books, preparing for a new conference, editing a book, or working with a student on an oral history project. During this time, he edited and published his conferences on Armenian cities, which he organized one after another as a book in a short period. He also continued to serve as a consultant for the 23rd Conference of Armenian Graduate Students, which he initiated at UCLA and would be held this year. In our brief conversations, while he complained about the language used by the new generations in their writing and their inability to cite references, one could tell that he was closely following the evolving historiography of the region and genocide studies and that he had an insatiable curiosity and hope for them. Perhaps this curiosity and hope, which somehow enabled him to carry the burden of memory that history had placed on his shoulders, made him one of the founding figures of Armenian Studies and one of the pioneers of the post-nationalist field transformation after the 2000s.

The price Hovannisian paid

Prof. Hovannisian graciously accepted my request to attend his undergraduate lectures, but he emphasized that some of them would be oral recordings and in Armenian. Therefore, although I attended his classes, I never became his student, but he followed my academic development with curiosity and interest. When I gave presentations at conferences, he would listen from a corner of the room, sometimes expressing appreciation and sometimes criticism with sincerity, but with the academic seriousness he never lost. When I started teaching in the department, almost all the Armenian students enrolled in my course had taken Prof. Hovannisian's course. Occasionally I would hear reverent, almost awe-inspiring mentions of him from my students, and sometimes Prof. Hovannisian and I would talk and laugh about our mutual students. Most of the professors and students in the department had a hard time understanding our relationship, which, contrary to their expectations, was tension-free, respectful, and even loving. What I took away from his description and what I witnessed was that being Armenian in the American academy and opening a space for Armenian studies came at a price for the children and grandchildren of genocide survivors and that Prof. Hovannisian paid that price in spades. At the same time, the appreciation and gratitude I observed firsthand, especially in the Armenian community of Los Angeles, undoubtedly made that price worth paying.

Geography, of course, was destiny, and our relationship would continue to intersect with life-changing events. The first was the arrest of my brother Yektan in 2005 after his archival work in Armenia. I believe he received the news from Raffi Hovannisian, the opposition leader in Armenia at the time, and he did his best to ensure that the trial was completed without delay. But in addition to the fear that Raffi might be harmed, he was deeply disappointed by the opposition in this case. In a phone call that I have never forgotten from that time, which I remember with shame, anger, and gratitude, he said to me, "Zeynep, I'm very sorry, I can't do anything, but I apologize to your family, to your mother, for everything that happened. Everything we went through was ridiculous, and I was so sad and angry, but this apology crushed me. Who could apologize to whom, for what, and how? For the noble and big-hearted Prof. Hovannisian, trauma was certainly not just a field of study but a way of knowing and living.

January 19 commemoration in Los Angeles

Then, in 2007, on January 19, the day of Hrant Dink's assassination, a day that cut the lives of many of us in half, as I walked around the campus in confusion, the first, perhaps the only person I could talk to was Prof. Hovannisian, who was working in his office. That day we immediately decided to organize a memorial service together, and on that occasion, he introduced me to my dear friend Edvin Minassian, whom we lost a year and a half ago, gave him to me as a gift. The funeral in Turkey, which alleviated some of the pain in our hearts, the subsequent commemoration with Turkish students in Los Angeles, and the mourning together, perhaps made him carry the hopes and the burden of Hrant Dink. After this period, his relations with Turkish academics intensified, and his visits to Turkey, especially to Armenian cities and memorial sites where he organized conferences, became more frequent. He opened his doors with incredible generosity, goodwill, curiosity, and perhaps favoritism, especially to the younger generation of Turkish scholars working on Armenian history in 1915. The post-nationalist studies that emerged were, on the one hand, building on the Armenian studies that Hovannisian had established at high cost and, on the other hand, shaking up and rebuilding the field with his involvement and support. I don't think there is a word of praise that can be said for the academic community, where egos are sharper than swords. I want to comment on Prof. Hovannisian's "hostility toward Turkey." Especially during this period, while our Armenian colleagues were subjected to Prof. Hovannisian's often harsh warnings about what he expected of them, especially in terms of diligence and discipline, many Turkish academics were the recipients of his level of care, respect, love, concern, and sometimes over-indulgence and generosity.

The last time I saw Prof. Hovannisian was in Thessaloniki in 2019. His sharp mind and calm academic demeanor were still imposing, but his movements had slowed down. We hugged again, I introduced him to my one-year-old daughter, and we chatted briefly about mutual acquaintances. He was aware that there was little time left, but at the same time, his commitment to work until the last moment, to lighten his burden, to fight for the justice he hoped for, was strikingly evident. It was with deep sadness that I received the news of his death. Memories of shared times, places, and friends are in my mind. Yes, Prof. Hovannisian was indeed the representative of a generation.

Contrary to the attitudes that can be generalized about that generation, especially male academics, he was also a great person who did not hinder those who came from behind, but on the contrary, paved the way, embraced them with generosity and compassion, listened to criticism, transcended himself and opened his heart. The countless books, articles, reviews, conferences he organized, the undergraduate and graduate students he trained, as well as the stories and words of Armenian witnesses that he recorded with great foresight from the 1970s onward and which are now included in the Shoah Archive, left a legacy to be remembered with gratitude and appreciation. Following his retirement in 2011, the Richard Hovannisian Chair in Armenian History, established in his name in the UCLA Department of History, now strives to carry on his legacy and train students and scholars who will surpass him.

Behind a prolific scholar who lived a whole life, paid the price, and did not shy away from the struggle, I can only thank him for the inspiration and support with which we crossed paths. I hope that his wife Vartiteh, his father, and his grandmother are now in the highlands of Harput, and perhaps they will meet Edvin there. I hope they have all found some peace and justice. With love, respect, and gratitude for his life and all he contributed to my life, my condolences to his family, Raffi, and all his loved ones. May his memory and legacy be forever us.

*The article was first published in the Agos newspaper on July 14, 2023.

The photo belongs to the UCLA