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Identity is not a stereotype

  Standpoint of Armenia

Identity is not a stereotype

Lilit Gasparyan


Lilit Gasparian

Journaliste d'Arménie

Lilit Gasparyan, journalist and Turkologist of Armenia, through her personal and professional experience, explains her vision of the Armenian and Turkish identity. Lilit Gasparyan, after studying Turkology in Paris becomes the correspondent in Istanbul of the Armenian TV channel Yerkir Media. She is currently the correspondent of Agos in Yerevan. 

Identity is the image of the past and the present, which outlines the future. The Armenian identity, perhaps, is one of those rare examples which developed on its own manner in different corners of the world. The most tragic of them are of those "regular", Islamized or hidden Armenians. Each one of them daily struggles for existence.

On the background of historical wounds, Turkey is the terrifying state with which often or almost always antagonism is associated. That is the picture for as long as we have not visited this country. It is not important whether you are an adolescent or a young person, the first visit to this country is a downpour of impressions.

And it is not essential that when I first visited Turkey I was a child. There was only one thought in my head: I was going to the country of the enemy... Who could have imagined that, as a result of that visit, years later I would find myself in Paris to thoroughly study that country and every detail associated with it. And the choice of Paris was not incidental... Turkey was to be heard about from a third place, a neutral zone.

For three years straight, putting aside the national sentiments and the wounds passed on by history, I studied that country. But, after a point, it was not enough to study it from afar... Through the "Erasmus" student exchange program, I arrived in Turkey. The feelings were conflicting, the reality so alien... For my university classmates it was really amusing to interrogate the Armenian citizen from Paris and to talk to her in the same language and almost at the same rhythm. The relationship with the classmates and the faculty were fantastically close, if we disregard one small incident, when in a paper about the Armenian epic my explanation about Sassoon being "located on the territory of Western Armenia" had upset a lot of people…

The first time I thought about identity was after the following incident. During my university years until I went to Istanbul, I would record in my own way every word my Turkish, French and Jewish lecturers would say about the country and especially about its minorities. Everything was new, without any connection to the tragic events written about in history books in Armenia. The picture changed even more when I appeared in that country. Here everything was different, from the perception of nationalism to identity… Everyone and everything non-Turk and non-Turkish was extremely alien…

In Armenia the paradox is different. And this becomes even clearer when you return to Armenia after having lived in Istanbul for several years. Here they consider Armenian those who are there; those living outside are considered Diaspora-Armenians. The stereotype is the same: an Armenian is Christian and speaks Armenian… Even though a large segment of society in Soviet times was not baptized in the Apostolic church or not baptized altogether.

When the real identity becomes a true nightmare or unending searches, the lives of those countless Armenians become comprehensible. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is a serious crisis of identity in Turkey. And that crisis is more clearly outlined on the territories of historic Armenia. It is peculiar that during the last years the sound of silence has caused an active search for national identity. As a result it becomes a habit to look for the Armenian in everyone who passes you by on the street.

Touring what for us Armenians is Western Armenia, what the Turks call Anatolia and what the Kurds view as Kurdistan demands great willpower from each Armenian. I was no exception…

Probably it is most important to find a foothold for relations between Armenians and Turks. In recent years, the conferences and gatherings of Armenian and Turkish journalists were so many that they could be called fashionable. Being a participant of many of those meetings, it became clear to me that what is called dialogue is really important. But, soon disappointment became unavoidable.

I had the opportunity to participate in bus tour of Armenian and Turkish journalists which started in Malatya and finished in Yerevan. When standing at the remnants of the Saint Rigor the Illuminator monasterial complex in Malatya, I asked my Turkish colleague what has moved him most. The response was short and quick: nothing…

I stopped and asked myself: if the fact that nothing remains of a huge monasterial complex moves nothing, no emotions, then what dialogue are we talking about or what can be expected of such a dialogue?

The journey which started in Malatya reminded me that one should be ready for anything and everything. We met an Armenian named Serdar who did not speak Armenian. My colleagues from Armenia were concerned with one issue: why he does not speak Armenian? It was difficult for Serdar to explain all that… Yes, he did not speak Armenian, but he felt more Armenian than a great many Armenians.

During my student years my Turkish lecturers would often repeat that in recent years democracy in Turkey has been advancing greatly. Clearly that is so, but in this country sometimes democracy and freedom of speech are like starts shining in the sky. We see them, admire their brightness, but cannot touch and feel it. Whereas, contrary to this, thousands of Armenians like Serdar are trying to live their true identity, cautiously, fear in their hearts, turning their own lives into distressing confusion and struggle.

The conversation with Serdar continued in a sad place, the Armenian cemetery, which was reconstructed exclusively through the efforts of Armenians and which for a long time had been the target of the local media. The local authorities, finding resemblance to a church, had unsparingly demolished the small worship place built in the cemetery. In this manner, Turkey, which has been praised for its tolerance, could not tolerate the last prayers for the deceased.

At the cemetery the eyes could not miss the Muslim "Ruhuna Fatiha" expression in Turkish. Why is it there? To protect the tombstones from possible attacks.

The necessity to hide one's Armenian or Christian identity in order to defend oneself keeps one question unanswered: Why do people have to convert in order to stay alive? (A few hours before writing these lines I read in the press that in Syria, an Armenian young man named Masis was beheaded for not converting to Islam); why are the almost ruined churches renovated by the state only on the condition that they be turned into libraries or cultural centers?  These are questions to which we do have answers, but can do nothing to change.

During the tour, I was treating those around me as "Turkish colleagues." And I was referring to them as such until one of them said: "I don't like that expression. I am Turkish citizen"… I began to think and was lost in the limitless world of my mind. For a moment I recollected the famous saying: "‘Happy is he who says I am a Turk"… Why are my colleagues not happy? Moreover, why are they avoiding so much being called Turk? There goes another question which warrants a difficult response…

After all, the identity of each nation is conditioned by the historical path it has passed, by the civilizational value system it has created and by its aspirations for a common future. In all three cases the major role belongs to culture. Nonetheless, identity is not a concept set and stereotyped once and for all. Identity, as well as the culture that forms it, are evolving and changing with the times. What is not changed is the power to feel "Armenian," which is constrained neither by religion, nor by language or culture…



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