It was in the course of that conversation that I was to invent a phrase to describe my own sentiments on matters of faith: "secular trinitarianism." By that I meant that while my own views on religion would put me in the secular camp, I did acknowledge that the number three has a mystical quality. Journalists, for example, always explain things in "threes." Whether it be the spread of disease, the loss of an election or the collapse of the economy, reporters always manage to find causality in a trinity: the obvious, the less obvious and the mysterious. This, I allowed, is something akin to the Holy Trinity, which is a big part of Doug’s life.
He seemed to like this line of argument. And so this was not to be the last of many conversations in the ensuing years, and this man of God who has been friends with every American president since Dwight Eisenhower was always full of insight. That he could find time for a secular trinitarian always impressed me. In a later chat on the matter of peace-making and reconciliation in regions as far-flung as Somalia and Kashmir, Doug offered a further bit of wisdom.
"You know," he said. "It seems to me that part of the problem is that when people reach the conclusion that, for example, Christians and Jews don’t seem to understand one another well enough, they always want to go out and set up a new organization with a name like, ’The Foundation for Christian-Jewish Dialogue.’ Wouldn’t it be a whole lot simpler if the Christian just went and had a dialogue with the Jew or the Jew went and had lunch with the Christian?"
Never one big on labels and categories, I have used Doug’s argument many times since with those who are fond of such. For me, the empty rhetoric of the recent Alliance of Civilizations summit in Istanbul reaffirmed this argument anew.
We lab specimens in the cross-pollinated cultural petri dish called the Daily News all certainly reached that conclusion.
His point is one I have thought of again in recent days as Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan have moved fitfully toward reconciliation on so many issues. As readers know, this knot of frozen Caucasus conflicts is one to which we have devoted endless energy. As if to prove the source of Doug’s frustration, last year we won an international reporting reward for our work on Turkish-Armenian reconciliation from the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for Dialogue Between Cultures.
But as if to prove his notion about just getting back to basics, last week at one point I had one reporter in Baku, two in Yerevan and another in the border city of Kars. I know that soon I will be summoned before some internal tribunal to answer for the plane tickets and hotels involved. I will hold up our recent newspapers as defense.
With much of my own newsroom thus distributed across the Caucasus last Friday, and in the face of ever more intense diplomatic traffic and nuance on border openings (or lack thereof), I received an interesting phone call from a colleague at our sister newspaper Milliyet. She was just back from Yerevan herself and was inviting me to a Friday night dinner and a Saturday of discussion organized by Germany’s Fredrich Naumann Foundation. The guests were all to be visiting Armenian academics and journalists in town to discuss developments with Turkish counterparts. To save space I’ll skip a long list of important names from both sides of the border.
Needless to say, the fallacy of "inter-" as a prefix to the cultural context was a theme; Turks, Azeris and Armenians are united by far more than that which separates them. We covered all the familiar notes of regional history as well as some that were not familiar. To my mind, however, the most important turned on just how this still-evolving rapprochement came to pass. One long-involved NGO chief voiced her frustration that despite years of exchanges, journalist site visits, academic parleys and other meetings, the pace of reconciliation is painfully slow. Our German host countered that this really gives too little credit to those who have worked behind the scenes in recent years. It is on this that I will wholeheartedly agree.
At this point we don’t really know the details of the new Turkish-Armenian "framework agreement" that is locked up tighter than some of the archives that remain a source of dispute. We don’t know just how Azerbaijan will play its role, as is the case with Russia. Just what promises American diplomats were making as they shuttled between three capitals all week is subject to conjecture. We still have little idea just how the Swiss got involved, or what they did. As I write this column, we don’t know which nouns and which adjectives were to be chosen by American President Barack Obama on yesterday’s symbolic April 24.
We do know, however, that this all points to what our German host called a "paradigm shift in the Caucasus." A shift of mood to extract this troubled region from so many historic and current grievances and get down to real issues of development, education and enablement of democracy is evolving before our eyes. With all due credit, this is occurring not because two presidents went together to a football match last year.
That football match, and all that has ensued since, has occurred because hundreds if not thousands of volunteers, activists, human rights lawyers, academics, artists, novelists, musicians and others have struggled valiantly in recent years to understand one another. That among them have also been scores of journalists from all three societies is beyond dispute. That among them was a handful from the Daily News is a point of pride.
Doug Coe was right. Yes, we’ll be hearing much more about frameworks, protocols and platforms in the coming days; trios, quartets and quintets of ministers will hold more press conferences and issue communiqus. We certainly welcome that. But it will be happening because a few people of goodwill decided to have lunch.
David Judson is editor-in-chief of the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.