Armenia–Turkey conflict put on the table

Armenian chef Natalie Griffith and Turkish chef Gulay Cay in the kitchenLast month during the Talking Peace Festival, we brought together chefs from Armenia and Turkey for three nights of fantastic food for our Conflict Café series. The event was part of our project called Recipes for Peace, which promotes the shared culinary traditions of Armenia and Turkey as a way of helping to promote peace.

Between 30 September and 3 October, we served a feast jointly prepared by Armenian chef Natalie Griffith and Turkish chef Gulay Cay. While diners enjoyed delicious food, Alert’s partners from Armenia and Turkey took them through the history of the conflict, the current context and our work on using food to bring together the isolated communities of the Shirak and Kars regions, in Armenia and Turkey respectively.

Our partner from the Kars region, Ihsan Karayazi (pictured below), introduced diners to the conflict context. He explained that Armenian–Turkish relations have been soured by historical conflict, troubled political relations and the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh.

“The relations are strained over the memory of mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915, which the Armenians call genocide,” said Ihsan. “It is further worsened due to Turkish solidarity with Azerbaijan on the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, as the result of which Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in 1993. Today, the border between the two countries remains closed and communities across the border are isolated from one another … Negative stereotypes are reinforced by the closed borders and the perpetuation of the ‘enemy’ image hampers prospects of reconciliation.”

Recipes for Peace demonstrates that studying culinary culture provides a great opportunity to bring together communities divided by the closed borders. It can be an entry point for sensitively raising and discussing conflict issues, and facilitating dialogue to promote change in attitudes towards restoring peaceful relations.

During the Conflict Café, our partner from the Shirak region, Armine Avetisyan, introduced diners to Recipes for Peace, which brought together homemakers from the bordering communities in the Shirak and Kars regions. She highlighted how the name of the project in Armenian and Turkish essentially means ‘you cannot betray those you had bread and salt with’.

“This initiative has shown that cuisine does not have nationality,” said Armine. “During this process, women from both sides of the conflict came together and cooked in one kitchen. In our context, accepting each other in their kitchens is a powerful symbol of reconciliation … [The] kitchen provided a space where women could communicate even without a commonly spoken language; cooking was accompanied by songs, jokes and fortune telling on coffee cups, which is a common tradition both in Armenia and Turkey.”

As one of the food ethnographers from Armenia explained during the project, kitchens are a place where women want peace and harmony. It is the space where issues are tranquilly discussed and stories are shared. Recipes for Peace has demonstrated women’s role in sharing positive stories from the past related to the food they make, especially to the younger members of the family, which is crucial in preventing future generations from engaging in conflicts with neighboring communities.

Diners enjoy the Armenian and Turkish food at Conflict CaféFood is undeniably emotional and channeling emotions into something positive can contribute to long-lasting reconciliation. Unfortunately, we more often hear about these emotions being diverted into something negative and used to strengthen positions in a conflict. For instance, the 'Hummus war’ between Lebanon and Israel, the great halloumi cheese debate within Cyprus, or the dolma dispute between Armenia and Turkey.

Yet, Recipes for Peace has shown that culinary similarities can make conflicting sides reflect on their regional, historical and customary links. Food can overcome barriers, offer a way to eliminate differences, and create an atmosphere where pressing conflict issues can be discussed in a spirit of sharing and understanding.

We are producing a documentary film to highlight the peacebuilding message of this cross-conflict culinary initiative to the wider Turkish and Armenian public. During Conflict Café we shared a teaser of the film, which you can watch here.

Read more about the Recipes for Peace project here.

Photos: © Phil Kirk for International Alert