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Being an Armenian today in Turkey


Standpoint of Turkey

Being an Armenian today in Turkey

Yetvart Tomasyan


Yetvart Tomasyan

Founder of Aras Publishing

Interview with Yetvart Tomasyan, the founder of Aras Publishing, about being Armenian in Turkey, changes observed in the identity definition in recent years, relations with “church” and “school”, uniques places for the expression of identity, debates on Islamized Armenians and “to start life as defeated with the score of 2-0”.

REPAIR : Is there any difference in the identity definition of Turkey Armenians, of Diaspora Armenians and in Armenia?

Yetvart Tomasyan : Armenians in Turkey express and identify themselves in a different way, because they are living on their own territory, on territory of their grandparents and of grand grandparents.  Armenians in Diaspora immigrated in both 19th and 20th centuries due to several reasons. They left their territory as immigrant and went for exemple to Paris, New York and make a great effort in order to keep their heads above water. They try to hold on to life. Or we are on our territory; we don’t have such an effort. It is a very striking example : William Saroyan was in Fresno but he could not feel himself belonging to that territory. He wrote this in one of his stories, too.  When his uncle died, they buried him in the graveyard and came home, he said at the table that “Now, we become Americans”. We buried our own funerals under these territories for 1000 years. We could frame the identity of Armenians living in Turkey in such way.

In this definition, are there any changes occurred in recent years ?

No, I dont think so. But, of course, way of self-expression may be changes. Today, our identity is more apparent, we are more visible,  comparing with previous years. The more visible you live, the more restful and peaceful you are. Otherwise, you suppress your identity. And it is very hard.

In this very point, is there any damages on identity due to years that must be suppressed?

Of course, we could talk about damages on identity. People immigrated due to this pressure. The society is damaged both in terms of quality and quantity.  Those, who immigrate, could not realize their qualities because they must put their hearts and souls into holding the life.

How is the relationship of this identity with its different components, such as language or religion?

Of course, it is hard. For example, marriage of an Armenian with a Turkish or of a Turkish with an Armenian was very difficult. It was a very big problem when I was young. In fact, it is also a problem today. But, at least, you can propose and discuss with your family even they are opposed . In the past, you could not say anything to your family. But, this was not only about being Muslim. When I was young, marriage with a Greek was not approved, too.  It was an attitude in order to protect the identity.

Was it thought to be melted? Was it thought that Armenian identity shall not continue in children?

Yes. Anyway, the government does not make any effort for you to use, protect, keep, develop or bring up your identity, does not provide you any convenience. The name of “convenience” is not really a good word. Why it should be convenience? The government does not do what it must do. Then, you are alone with yourself. When you are alone, you do not have anything to do other than becoming introverted. Only the door of the church and the door of the school is left open. In fact, the door of the school is not really open, you are living under the supervision, guidance and even wardership of a Turkish Deputy Principal. He put a name label on his desk on which “Turkish Deputy Principal” is written. Then, I have to write “Armenian Deputy Manager”, haven’t I? What an abuse!

These organizations, the church and school, shape the identity, don’t they?

There is no other cultural or social possibility for you to develop your identity, because the government and the system do not allow you to do so.

Yes, that is true. More precisely, I shall not allow my children to be baptized. We have our children baptized when they are very very little, when they are only one year old.  Why should I decide if my child shall be Christian, Atheist, Budist or else? That is nonsense and none of my business. But, when I live in this country, I am doing this as a reaction to the pressure of the system, to all of these; because the system does not want to see my identity. Then, I would like to use my identity in every place under any conditions that I could express it, even though I do not believe. You could only live your identity in two places : in the church and in the school. Thus, I think all efforts must be made in order to keep those two doors opened, and I do so.

Such a worry could be seen commonly in the Armenian society. 

Naturally, but of course, if we compare it with the muslim society, I observe that our society uses church more in cultural, folkloric means today. In other words, not because of their beliefs. For example, if we go to our churches in the day, or Sundays, churches are empty. But if we go there in Easter, we see people in their best dresses. This people don't go to churches in other days.

Didn’t Armenians enter into churches by closing their hairs with a headgear like in Muslims, did they?

Of course, my mother and my mother-in-law did not go to church without a head scarf in the past.  This changed in 40 years. My mother opened her hair but my mother-in-law, did not go to church without a head scarf even when she was 80-90 years old.

We may mention other factors that could have an impact on identy, like associations or newspapers today? 

Yes. Of course, where we stand now is very different. There are two newspapers. There was a newspaper called “Nor Or” published by leftist people in 50s. All writers, journalists, columnist and illustrators with left tendency were disturbed in some way.  They were interrogated in the police office, they were arrested, put into jails and they left this country until the middle 60s. There is one or two of them stayed.

Newspapers other than this, could survive by giving ordinary news from daily life. I do not mention impiously but, I mention as an assessment. If my Armenian language is good, I owe this to the fact that I had constructed my internal discipline by reading those newspapers, news in the newspapers again and again in Armenian language. Turkish newspapers were translated into Armenian literally. But, there were no other news in those newspapers. Some other thing had been happened in 50s but they were interrogated; accordingly they were frightened, and left the country.

We know that "some other thing” started with Aras Publishing.

Yes, this time, 20 years ago, I studied Armenian Language and Literature and wanted to work as a teacher.  Association of Armenian Teachers of Turkey, which survives today, pressurized school administrations about me for not to be employed as a teacher in schools due to my left opinions.

Really ?

Yes, really. I was graduated from the Department of Classical Philology, but I could not do. Then, you have to continue your life in any way. My father was a diamond setter. I chose that profession too, after the age of 33-35. Anyhow, some time passed, we founded the publishing house after we overcame financial possibilities and the struggle to make a living. Today, we try to succeed in what they could not do. We published 150 books for 20 years. We try to publish nearly 7 books in a year. This is very little, we try to increase this number to 15 or 20.

Are those, who interrupted you, today among readers of Aras? 

Of course, it is the life. If you want, I would give another example for this. A little while ago,  I was interested in music and dance. At Tibrevank Association, we were making traditional Anatolian folk-dances. I bought a piano. It was 70s, when the leftist discourse was the most strict. My best friends criticized me, they said “Why did you bought this bourgeois’ instrument?”.

You are always referred guilty, whether bourgeois or leftist.

I tried to explain them. If we shall make music, this is the fundamental musical instrument. Even we shall not use it in our performances, but we must train our music over this fundamental instrument. I was approved unwillingly. Then, those friends were married and had children, they bought piano for their houses, they took their children to piano lessons.

Where does Armenia stand in a Turkey Armenian's identity?

For a long time, Armenians in Turkey had to keep a distance to Armenia, member of Soviet Union, both Turkey is the member of NATO and people in Turkey yelled as “Who is bored must go to Moscow”, if you expressed yourself here, it meant you have to leave Turkey and go Moscow.

Consequently, it is was an inaccessible place.

Due to two reasons : because of being Armenian, and this was Armenia and Armenia was communist. For a long time, we cut a wide swathe as two bad things, both as Armenian and communist. Besides, Armenia also saw you and accused you with the same. They thought;  “If you were there, you lived with those people, you became Turkish. If you were a good person, you could not live with these bad people. As you live with them, you must be in a cooperation with “bad” Turks, you must have a blood union”.

And there is a the“blood union“ issue…

I told about what I had between me and my relatives, companions.  It is not a dream, I told what I lived. When it is the case, relationships were again within the frame of church. Only people who work in church went there rarely. I tried for three years in order to take one of my relative from Soviet Armenian Republic. You went to Police Office, you gave petitions, the petition was examined for months, police came to your house, control it and decided if your visitor could come or not. As the same, documents were been waited in any department of Ministry of Internal Affairs in Armenia. In other words; while you could not go Armenia freely, you also could not get out of Armenia. It took at least 2 years for these transactions to start and for your visitor to come. For me, it took 3 years. Mihran was just born, they asked me how many children I have, they asked so many things such as if they know Armenian or not? You had a slight interrogation. Those are all suffering. But this is mentioned not only for Turkey, but also for Armenia.

Today, this is not like this, isn’t it?

Now, you could go and come relatively more comfortably and freely. Of course, the attitude in Armenia has been changed. But, sometimes they defy and say “We shall dismiss those 70 thousand people, then they will go away!”. But here, people are living as illegal fugitives. If you go Kumkapı, there are more Armenians from Armenia than local ones. If you go to church on Sundays, you could not see one of Armenians from Istanbul, all of them are Armenians who came from Armenia in order to work here, they are praying in the church.  

Now, children of fugitive Armenians are accepted for schools but they could not award a diploma. They only receive education. The state gave them a such strange "right".

Recently, the Muslim Armenian's identity became visible. And there is a probleme of acceptance of this identity.

My social circle is mostly from Sasoon, I received education in Tibrevank. After my graduation, I lived with my friends from Sasoon. They are from Siirt, Muş and Bitlis.

I distinguished Islamized Armenians very early, since I got inside of them as a foreigner. For example, he said “My aunt shall come”, his aunt came and went to bedroom and prayed when Muslim prayer time came.  I was very surprised but realized very early this subject. Of course they are living in a self-enclosed manner. Afterwards, I asked people who came from abroad "There are such people, what shall we do, how could we accept them, who are they, and what is the relationship between us?"

Same questions are still asked, aren’t they?

Yes, they were also surprised and looking at my face as they were slapped. I asked consciously but they could not answer. Then, I told “They are our sisters and brothers”. Then, some of them were getting more nervous, some of them became relaxed.  Not so many things has been changed from that day. Those questions are still asked.

Here, the biggest problem – it is also like to be solved – Armenian church has a national character. In an Ecumenical church; there are people from every nations. But Armenians never touch with any other nations within the frame of church. They never pray with an African, a Polish or any other nations. It is very hard to make to accept persons form another religion as their brother. But, the Head Patriarch in Yerevan, although still I don’t like him, made a declaration and said “They are our brothers and sisters”. This is a very important and right declaration. I could not believe that he said such a word, but it was very important.

But, the Patriarchate in Istanbul did not make such a declaration.

No, the General Vicar of Armenian Patriarch didn’t. Besides, half of his relatives are Muslim. He does not hide this truth. To explain, declare, say such a thing make those people more relaxed and happy.

One of the biggest problems of Muslim Armenians is that when they want to identify themselves as Armenians, Patriarchate says them “Then, become Christians”. But, for most of them, being an Armenian is not identified with religious belief.

For Patriarchate, there is such a situation that “A person could not be Armenian without being Christian”, since, the Church has a national identity.  In Diaspora, people built churches after they survive and find a shelter. School is built afterwards. For this person, the church is a must. Now, how could you say that “This man is both Armenian and Muslim”?

Though the Turkish state thinks everything and made a “solution” for this issue by coding ethnic origins. If course it is a joke. Is it possible to make an application by saying “I would like to know my code of ethnic origin”?  

Boyacıköy Church Board of Trustees made an application and said “Give us the list of people under the code of 02, the code of Armenians, who lives in Boyacıköy district, then I would prepare my register of electors”. Because, you vote in the church of the district to where you live.

Could they receive an answer, or not?

I guess they could not receive an answer. Apparently they said that they had no such information. But the church is very important for Armenians. Because people could not think that an Armenian could be an atheist, or Muslim.

Though, there are Catholic Armenians.

40-50 years ago, when I was a child, it was deemed a shame if Orthodox Armenians who were members of Orthodox church were married with Catholic Armenians who were members of Catholic Church. There are very rude jokes, anecdotes about Catholics were told in houses of Orthodox Armenian families, jokes which are likely insults were made towards Catholic Armenians. Anyway, if you were brought up in such an environment, as a girl, you could never mention about marriage with a Catholic Armenian boy to your family. But today, people make an effort in this manner. When boards of trustee of foundations make meetings in Patriarchate or in other places, they also invite Catholic Armenians’ Foundations.

And there are also identities of city or region of origin. Regional identities. We could see this very clear in Diaspora. Is this also weighted in Turkey ? For example, you said "I am Thracian"?

Of course, it is. Recently, one of our relatives from Thrace was died. I saw that old generation were always married with a person from the same region. But today, it is not such that. But, long time ago, I gave an example from our house again; for example Armenians from Tokat or Kayseri were seen as “Kavaretsi” in other words “Anatolians”, “villagers”. It was used in insulting, pejorative manner. Today, it is very strict in America or Canada. For example, an Armenian who came from Tokat and immigrated to Canada, does not accept if his daughter wants to marry with an Armenian from Egypt. It’s incredible! Besides that he does not accept, he thinks himself superior. Of course he does not say “Dirty Arab”, but he implies.

How are interactions with other identities such as Turks, "from Turkey" and Kurdish?

If there was no Kurdish Reality happened in Turkey in last 30 years, we, as Armenians, could not express ourselves in such a comfortable manner. We had also the ease and comfort of expressing our ideas, ability to publish, breath more comfortably as Armenians, besides Kurdish people. If this reality didn't exist, we would have been still living as "crushed" or "out of breath".

The term of "being from Turkey” was occurred after this process, I guess.

This is true, we could not deny it, we have to accept and built, concrete our future on this foundation of truth. Of course, Kurdish community has to evaluate those issues in a true manner. Recently, what Bese Hozat said, and those which were said before, are not nice at all.

Is the problem which was occurred due to the declaration of Bese Hozat solved?

No. In the letter from Öcalan, there are paragraphs for everybody, you will become comfortable or uncomfortable after you read this letter. It has no integrity. He does not say “wrong” for the declaration of Bese, he repeats that. He clearly states that 1915 is a genocide. I could not make a political analysis but, I guess, he intends to say to the government that “Let’s make an agreement as soon as possible, there is only one year left to 2015, and I have a trump in my hand".

Recently, Mücahit Bilici wrote an article in his column in Taraf newspaper about the Kurdish and Armenian identity. Bilici says; “Armenians may feel themselves as a sugar that could not be melt in a glass of tea in Turkey. But they want to be melt and accepted by the generality of society. But the society traps them in their identity. Thus, they feel themselves that they have to even must be a very good person, then may be in such a way, they could be accepted by the society”. Is “Being an Armenian in Turkey a situation of obligation to be known as a good person”?

I'll give you an example from the life. My sister lives in Kurtuluş, where narrow streets allow only one car. There was a car that enters the opposite lane, the driver said me to going backwards and I accepted! But the one who was on the opposite lane was him! Could I explain right?

But, I guess, this is not a specific movement for you only. I guess, it is not very easy to say “You must go!” to that man as an Armenian from Turkey?

Of course, it is difficult. Because, we are 2nd class citizens in this country. Even, we are not citizens, we are foreigners. We are still foreigners and even, "foreigners who could make cooperation with the enemy"! In such conditions, you start your life as being beaten with the score of 2-0. You sit in your car and you have to give the way to the man who enters in the wrong lane. This is such that, if we are talking about me, I live in that manner. Sometimes, I think that if I play for Pollyanna?

Does an Armenian in Turkey have any problems with being himself?

Of course he does. You feel this problem at night because you think about the whole day. For example, I also want to live like my son Mihran, who is a dancer, it is also in my nature. Then, you think at night that if I did so, this should have been so, etc. This condition than makes you sweat! It is difficult for you.



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