DO YOU KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HOLOCAUST AND A HOLOCAUST? THE ARMENIANS DO - THE INDEPENDENT
12:25 * 02.12.14
By Robert Fisk
What's in a name? Let's start with the Persian Gulf. Or the Arabian
Gulf. Or just the Arab Gulf. I'm indebted to reader (and surgeon)
Ross Farhadieh for complaining to me last week about my use of "The
Gulf" - bland, dull and historically anaemic - in a column on Iran
and its possible return to geopolitical power in the Middle East.
Historically, legally - and in the UN - Ross told me, it should be
called the Persian Gulf. It was Gamal Abdul Nasser's nationalism
which renamed it the "Arabian Gulf".
And Ross is right. And I think I know the background to this slippage
in nomenclature. When I worked in the Middle East for The Times -
long before Murdoch emasculated the paper - we found that whenever
we referred to the Persian Gulf, Arab states would refuse to let the
paper go on sale in Dubai or Cairo. But whenever we called it the
Arabian Gulf, the paper was not allowed into Iran.
So we went for "The Gulf". Maybe this was a bit cowardly - I wasn't
involved in the decision - but many other papers followed suit. The
British press was not going to be censored in the Middle East if
a little historical obfuscation could be built in to our copy. The
Independent, still unborn at the time, referred quite innocently to
The Gulf once it began publication - probably without the slightest
idea of why it didn't carry the Persian or Arabian appellation.
We'd always had a faintly similar problem with Northern Ireland. In
the worst days of the war there, we on The Times often used "Ulster"
as shorthand for the six-county province - only to find that Irish
readers in the Republic took great exception to the name. Ulster,
they rightly pointed out, historically contained nine counties,
which included the three counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan,
which the Protestant seigneurs of the north declined to accept in
Northern Ireland because (of course) these three counties had too
many Catholics. Irish republicans - or just plain Irish citizens -
preferred the "Six Counties" or, at a push, Northern Ireland. They
were right. But since The Times still sold in the Republic, we went
on using Ulster when we felt like it. Indeed, my first book on Irish
history included the word Ulster in the title. And it meant six,
not nine, counties.
I tended to take a harsher view of countries whose titles began with
the words "the People's Democratic Republic of" - mainly because they
invariably belonged to their dictators rather than their people,
and were neither popular nor democratic. Yemen - or the PDRY - for
example. So we called it just Yemen - or Algeria, which also likes
to call itself popular and democratic.
Then we had to acknowledge Father Time. My dad, a veteran of what he
called "The Great War" of 1914-18, went on calling it that long after
the second and even more titanic bloodbath had been fought around the
world. The Brits officially decided to call the Great War the First
World War - in, I think, 1948 - because they had to yield to history.
My dad's war had not proved to be the war to end all wars after all,
and we had to acknowledge that. I still like the epic ring of The
Great War - but by 1945, the Great bit simply didn't work any more.
Other Great War events remain contentious, not least what I always
refer to as the Armenian Holocaust (with a capital "H"), the genocide
of 1.5m Armenian Christians at the hands of the Turkish Ottoman
government in 1915. It was the first industrialised genocide of the
last century - the second being the Jewish Holocaust - and the two
mass acts of slaughter had clear historical connections. The Turks
suffocated thousands of Armenians in caves - by blowing smoke from
bonfires into the cavities where they had imprisoned them in the
Syrian desert - and thus created the first primitive gas chambers.
Armenian men were sometimes taken to their execution in railway
goods wagons. And junior members of the German Kaiser's army who
were training the Turkish army at the time witnessed the genocide;
more importantly, some of the names of these Germans turned up less
than a quarter of a century later as members of Hitler's Wehrmacht in
the Ukraine and Belarus, where they were helping to organise the mass
killing of Jews. There's no doubt where they learned how to do that.
Many years ago, therefore, I used the phrase "Armenian Holocaust"
in The Independent. A sub-editor immediately changed the capital H to
a lower-case h. My phone did not stop ringing. Armenians were outraged.
Why did they not deserve a capital H, they demanded to know? Didn't the
Turks murder enough Armenians to qualify them for a capital H? I wrote
a long memorandum to my then editor, Simon Kelner, explaining that
it was racist to make a distinction between two genocides; we could
not base our definition on the numerical difference between 1,500,000
and 6,000,000. Besides, Israelis (as opposed to the state of Israel,
which doesn't even regard the Armenian catastrophe as a genocide)
refer to the Armenian massacres as the Armenian Shoah - using the
Hebrew word for Holocaust. Kelner later published my memo as an
article in The Independent - and it won the DC Watt journalism award.
But we newspaper folk have poor institutional memories. Earlier this
month, I again referred to the Armenian Holocaust - and a sub-editor,
unfamiliar with the expression, innocently downgraded the poor old
Armenians again. He changed the capital H into h! My phone trilled once
more. The same unanswerable arguments. Didn't the Turks kill enough
of us, my Armenian callers asked again? So of course we sheepishly
upgraded the Armenians on the website version of my report and returned
to them their capital H...
And of course, I haven't even begun to address today the use of
that generic, racist (in its use), pejorative and repulsive word
"terrorist". I only use it in inverted commas for direct quotations.
But what can we do when the masters of the universe - America and
that dreadful chap who's just won a Save the Children award - long
ago embarked on an everlasting "War on Terror"?
Give me the Persian Gulf any day.