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The Armenian Community of Istanbul: Confronting new challenges and old realities

Edik BAGHDASARYAN and Hrant GADARIGIAN
Azad-Hye Middle East Armenian Portal

During a recent working visit to Istanbul the Editors of ”Hetq” (Edik Baghdasaryan and Hrant Gadarigian) had the opportunity to visit the offices of the ”Agos” newspaper founded by the late Hrant Dink. While there we were able to interview Pakrat Estukyan, the Armenian-language Editor, on a wide-range of topics. Below is a translation of the conversation.

As a result of our meetings with members and organizations of the Bolsahay (Istanbul Armenian) community we’re left with the impression that a certain process of national rejuvenation is taking place. Is this a fair assumption?

That would be stretching reality quite a bit. On the contrary, there’s a cloud of uneasiness hanging over the Bolsahay community at present. Especially since it’s over a year now that Hrant Dink was murdered. Since January 19, 2007, the day he was shot down, there’s been a certain lull in community activities. Given this situation one would be hard pressed to speak of rejuvenation but of course such blows inevitably have their own contrary reactions. For example, while speaking on the subject of rejuvenation, I’d like to talk about a new group called ”Nor Zartonk” (New Awakening). It’s a collective of young people that stages various events, whether cultural, political, social, etc. But it’s only a drop in the bucket. If we are to speak about the general psychological situation of the community I’d have to confess that, on the contrary, an atmosphere of despondency holds sway rather than any reawakening. Let me cite an example of what I mean. Two weeks ago the Bolsahay community had the unique pleasure of attending a concert given by the Komitas Quartet visiting from Armenia. In an auditorium with a seating capacity of some 600 only 103 seats were filled. It’s my belief that had the Quartet given a concert two years before the place would have been packed. The people are suffering from a certain type of malaise. The murder of Hrant, the ill healthy of the Patriarch and the uncertain political situation in Turkey all contribute to this state of affairs. This is because the political situation in Turkey at the moment is quite tense. There’s a political party that only several decades after its founding was able to garner enough votes to create a government on its own. But there are forces in the country at work today that wish to close this party down and remove it from the field of politics. When I speak of forces I’m referring to the army. Naturally, the army is not a force in and of itself since it enjoys the support of the entire judicial system, law enforcement, the universities and the ideologically chauvinist forces.

Does the threat exist today that these chauvinist forces will come to power?

They have the power to do so any time they wish since they have the army behind them. But the army has been cautious up till now. If the officer corps were to intervene, arguing that the parliamentary process is not to their advantage, no one could do anything to stop them. This is a situation that has been played out several times in Turkey. Of course such an event occurs with the backing of foreign powers and here I primarily mean the United States. The officer corps of Turkey is intimately linked to the United States. Thus, if American interests demand that the army intervenes, it will immediately do so. This is exactly what happened in 1971 and 1980.

In your estimation is the United States interested in seeing regime change in Turkey today?

I’m really not sure on this one. What would be the benefit for the United States? This government and its adopted economic policies do not oppose American interests. Today, the concept of the free market has been thoroughly integrated in Turkey and the ideology demanded by the pursuit of capital has been fully adopted. The country is subject to policies as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund.

What’s the size of the Armenian community here?

There’s no correct number and there never has been. There’s a census every five years. At one time the census requested that people name their mother tongue. Based on this question we could come up with a partial idea about the number. However, we must note that for a segment of the community Armenian is no longer their mother tongue. In any event, this question is no longer included in the census. Perhaps only the country’s state intelligence services know the real number. The current census has no questions regarding one’s ethnicity or national origins. We only have an idea regarding the number based on those are registered in various church rolls. Thus, we estimate the number to be 60,000 to 80,000.

What percentage of this number do you think know Armenian?

That’s also hard to say. Today we are going through another unfortunate process. There are those who know Armenian but don’t speak it. There are those who have graduated from Armenian high schools which means that they’ve been taught Armenian for eleven years. These people are capable of speaking Armenian but they say that they don’t know Armenian. A few hours ago I met with an acquaintance that had come to Istanbul from provincial Anatolia years ago. He entered his daughter, who didn’t speak a word of Armenian at the time, into one of the Armenian high schools here. Later on that girl was named as the school’s best speaking Armenian student. This is how I can answer your question – about half know Armenian.

Periodically the Turkish government makes statements regarding the number of Armenians from Armenia residing in Turkey. This last time, in the Parliament, a number of 70,000 was cited.

I really think this number is exaggerated because the issue has even reached the halls of the Parliament. The Parliament has demanded information on this matter from the Ministry of the Interior which in turn compiles statistics from the lists showing how many people from Armenia have entered or left the country. These lists reveal that the actual number is much lower than publicly cited. But we still can’t say for certain what the actual number is. Here, there are two categories of individuals from Armenia. There is one segment that has come out of economic necessity, to work here and send money back home. There’s another segment which comes to Turkey and has no intention of ever returning to Armenia. They want to stay here and to become Turkish citizens. Many of them come to Turkey with the hope of eventually making their way to the West. I know a family from Armenia that came to Turkey and then made it all the way to Canada. Naturally, we are saddened by such occurrences.

It seems that Armenians from Armenia don’t interact much with the Bolsahay community, that there’s no contact between the two segments. Is this the case?

For the majority there is no contact or interaction. It’s also the result of two differing cultures. In this context we face a series of serious obstacles. When we speak of the Turkish-Armenian community we must realize that we’re talking about the Armenian community of Istanbul. And when we speak of the Armenian community of Istanbul we must understand that we are talking about a certain ”petty-bourgeois” lifestyle. This ”accepted” lifestyle only wishes to see Armenians who fit the prescribed mould. In other words, to be an Armenian means living in certain neighborhoods, spending ones summer at the Marmara Islands, attending church on a regular basis, etc. Thus, an Armenian must possess these stereotypical attributes that the majority of the community here has come to create for themselves. Any Armenian who runs contrary to this overall picture is usually viewed with a degree of bewilderment and sometimes belittlement. In this category fall Armenians from Armenia and those Istanbul-Armenians who have lived outside the community for long periods and who, whether preserving their identity or losing it, are aware of it today. This segment of Armenians can never fully integrate into the dominant Bolsahay community.

Here we are referring to say, Armenians from the region of Sassoun; correct?

Yes; those Armenians who no longer speak the language, who speak Turkish or Kurdish instead and, for instance, those Armenians whose families have partially converted to Islam and who are devout Muslims at that. Naturally, such households face a number of difficulties. There are families in which one of the brothers is a devout Muslim and not for appearance sake alone. Such households not only have problems internal to the family but with other Armenians as well. They are village folk, their hair is dark and their manners unpolished. They have a different lifestyle and are not accustomed to ”cafй society”.

In other words even while being conscious of their Armenian roots…

Even while renouncing them. Those roots are a source of shame for the family, a secret to be kept from the outside. It must not be spoken about in order that it is eventually forgotten and not passed down to the next generation. This is one side of the issue. There’s another side that’s just the opposite. Heaven forbid if a girl from another clan is taken as a potential bride. Boys must marry girls from within the same family clan. They believe that they are different and that they mustn’t mix with outsiders. They’re at a loss as to what to call themselves – are we Armenian, are we Christian or are we something else? But they do consider themselves to be different from others. These are the two sides to the story.

How are these Armenians, however they try to pass themselves off as Turks or Kurds, viewed by their real Turkish and Kurdish neighbors?

They are never accepted as true Turks or Kurds. They say they come from this or that ‘giavour’ (infidel) village, that they’re Armenians. In the rural areas it’s hard to change perceptions. It’s passed down from one generation to the next that this village is an Armenian one. It’s a whole different story when people move to the cities.

Have any traces of an Armenian culture or lifestyle been preserved amongst those ”Armenians” living in the rural interior of Turkey?

I wouldn’t think so. It’s the Hamshen Armenians who have preserved the most in terms of lifestyle. First of all they’ve maintained the Armenian language. They are one of the above-mentioned communities in that they are devout Muslims and nationalists. Even whilst speaking Armenian they denied being Armenian. This was the case at least up to ten years ago. Not only are they Armenian-speakers but they’ve also retained some traditions along with the language. In this country it’s the Hamshen Armenians who celebrate the holiday of Vartavar with the most jubilation. It’s a paradox; they celebrate Vartavar but remain Muslim to the core. Today, however, we see signs that a certain transformation is taking place. More and more of them are asking questions regarding their true identity. They travel to Armenia and music CD’s sung in the Hamshen-Armenian dialect have been released. While the majority consider themselves Turks and Muslims there’s a small segment that realize that since they speak Armenian their roots must be Armenian as well.

For more information regarding the Istanbul-Armenian organizations:

1) Aras Publishing: http://www.arasyayincilik.com
2) AGOS: http://www.agos.com.tr
3) Sayat Nova Ensemble: http://www.sayatnova.org
4) Getronagan: gentronagan@superonline.com

Source: “Hetq”, Yerevan, 21 July 2008