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Turkey’s Hemshinli: a complex identity


Standpoint of Turkey

Turkey’s Hemshinli: a complex identity

Hikmet Akçiçek


Hikmet Akçiçek

Hemshinli artist

Identity is one of the most discussed topics around the world. To be born with an identity or to get an identity… What are the criteria defining peoples’ identity? The language, the religion or the culture one belongs to?  Having an identity is a notion. When we talk of Armenian identity the Hemshinli are the first to come on one’s mind. We have discussed about the Hemshinli and the sensitive points with regards to their identity with Hikmet Akçiçek, the well-known representative of this ancient group in Turkey. Akçiçek admits that it is difficult to say that all people defining themselves as Hemshinli are from the same ethnic origin and offers to look at it with two different perspectives.

Who are the Hemshinli, how do we present them, how should we present them?

We need to have two different perspectives to answer the question. First, we need to look at how the Hemshinli living in Turkey define themselves, and the second is to have the ethnic root perspective.

From the first perspective these people met with Islam centuries ago, they were islamised and became part of the Muslim society and today being Turkish and Muslim is part of their identity. At least that’s what the majority of the Hemshinli living in Turkey think.

From the historical perspective, who is today’s Hemshinli, what is the link to being Armenian?

From this historic perspective, the Hemshinli are described as an islamised Armenian community living in Hemshinli region under the Ottoman Empire in the 1700’s. Of course, nationalists reject this historical information. They claim that the Hemshinli are of Turkic origin and they have some linguistic are cultural convergences due to the fact that they lived on the same territory with Armenians.

Democratic, leftist and socialist Hemshinlis are more fond of the idea that the Hemshinli are an islamised Armenian community. But this is only a historic information for most of them, even for them it is impossible to talk about  Armenian consciousness as a feeling. We might say very few people have this consciousness of being Armenian.

One way or another it is difficult to say that all people calling themselves Hemshinli have the same ethnic root. Both those who settled down due to the Ottoman population policy and other people who settled there before the Ottoman era lived in the region. Although it is said the Hemshinli are of Armenian origin historically and ethnically, it would not be realistic to claim this for all.

There have been for the last twenty years some serious struggle in Turkey for such notions and it is said that it would be more appropriate to say Türkiyeli (Turkey National, from Turkey) rather than Turkish. What is the situation for the Hemshinli? What is your answer when they ask you who you are? Do you say I am Türkiyeli or Hemshinli?

It goes without saying. I say, I am Hemshinli, because referring to your question, what makes me different from other citizens living in the Republc of Turkey is my Hemshinli identity. I am a Turkish citizen, Turkish identity is part of my identity as I was born and live in Turkish and Muslim society. Historically, the thesis that the majority of Hemshinli are an islamised Armenian community seems more realistic to me but I should also mention that as a socialist I don’t have any sense of belonging in terms of ethnicity. On the other hand culturally yes I am Hemshinli and am part of that culture. To me, this is not identifying according to an ethnic belonging. The Türkiyeli notion seems to me like a more general notion that can be used abroad when asked. After such an answer one has also the need to mention the community one comes from. That is when Hemshinli is part of the agenda.

What is the relation of the Hemshinli living in Turkey with other Hemshinli living in Abkhazia, Russia?

We can evaluate the Hemshinli living in Russia and Abkhazia in two groups.

The first group includes the first-degree families of Hemshinli living in Turkey, these are part of Hemshinli from Hopa that stayed on Batumi side when Soviet Unions frontiers were to be fixed. They were deported in 1944 with other Muslim people in Caucasia to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for political reasons such as collaboration with the Germans during the Second World War.

Is there any difference in their lifestyle?

They must be having some characteristics which they acquired as they have been living in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for 40-50 years.

Aren’t they closer to Armenian identity?

To the contrary, they are far from it; as a matter of fact they are reactive to it. Most of them are like this, just like Turkish nationalists. These are the first category. That is the twist of fate (or we might say twist of history), after the collapse of Soviet Union, a majority of these Hemshinli worried of Kazakh and Kyrgyz nationalist policies, migrated to Russian regions, Krasnodar, Voronezh and Rostov where they are now neighbors with the second category, Christian Hemshinli.

This second category of Hemshinli living in Russia and Abkhazia concerns those who migrated between 1600-1800’s from Hemshin to Trabzon, Ordu and Samsun (there are different opinions on this migration reasons) and who during this period starting with 1850’s and ending with the Armenian genocide in 1914 migrated (this is the period where there were Muslim migration/exile from Caucasia to Anatolia and Christian migration/exile from Anatolia to Caucasia) to the opposite shore of the Black Sea, to Sochi-Krasnodar region in Russia and to Abkhazia.

Is there any data for the figures?

They are talking of 300-400 thousand, but this might be a little bit exaggerated. These people call themselves Hemshin Armenians, like Kars or Diyabakir Armenians but they are also aware that they are somehow different. They mostly speak the Hemshin dialect as their language. For example I can understand only twenty per cent of Eastern Armenian and a little bit more of Western Armenian whereas I understand sixty to seventy per cent of what Hemshin Armenians speak in Sochi. As they get education in Armenian schools and churches they started to use more Armenian words, so it is easier for them to make sentences when they talk Hemshin language.

What is your relation with Christian Hemshinli? Are you  aware of each others presence?

Our relationship with Christian Hemshinli started via cultural, social and even touristic activities such as the concerts of the group Vova and the creation of HADIG, Hemshin Cultureal Research and Preservation Association, these activities allowed us to become aware of one and other.

Vova for instance organized two concerts in 2012, one in Moscow and one in Sochi. Both concerts were organised by the Christian Hemshinli. Although we cannot talk of an important dialogue, we cannot say either there is a total rupture. In short we are aware of each other.

Isn’t this going beyond the memory of a genetic connection…?

Having lived in the same geography or speaking the same language means you are either the same or neighbors or something…

When we look at historic reality and considering that they belonged to Armenian identity before they were islamised, what is the reason of this rupture and denial?

We need to mention this first; the thesis defending the idea that ethnically Hemshinli are of Turkish origin and that they don’t have any other connection than having lived in the same region with Armenians has a considerable effect among the Hemshinli.

Geography also has an important impact on the identity. Even if Hemshinli is admitted to be of Armenian origin ethnically, Hemshinli is a Black Sea person, in that framework we consider ourselves closer to the Laz. On the other hand,

we might not have the same affinity with Armenians of Armenia who seem to be closer geographically and culturally to Turkey’s Eastern and Southeastern people’s characteristics. Likewise, I might say we have a similar affinity with Hemshinli from Sochi. I speak of an affinity based on geographical characteristics otherwise, other linguistic, religious, political and ideological position based affinity or distance is permanent.

Religion has also a huge impact. 100-150 years ago religion was an important determinant of identity. You were one thing if you were Muslim and something else if you were Christian. Religions sort of command this too. If you have accepted Islam then you need to leave behind things that belong to Christianity, they are the sins you need to redeem, they are the others. This was valid for the Armenian Apostolic Church in those days. If you leave the Armenian Apostolic Church, even if you were Protestant or Catholic, you would be treated like half Armenian; that is the feeling I have of what I have read. Being a Muslim in such a situation was unacceptable to the church.

When you add the impact of Turkey’s religious, nationalist approaches as well as denialist assimilation policies rejecting the differences to the big massacre at the beginning of the past century and the state of mind created on both societies, the result is not surprising.

I thought a lot about this issue too, and I came up with the following; identity cannot be fit in one pattern, religion or language cannot determine alone the identity… It is more related to a feeling…

Yes, identity is something that is created, changed and transformed during historic process. It is not related to one factor, it can be impacted from many things. Historic factors, geography, religion you belong to, the religion, language, culture etc you’re neighbor to, they all come into the identity… Hemshinli identity has also been impacted by all of these.

In the past, a connection between Hemshinli and Armenians would not receive any reaction, what has changed?

Implicitly most of Hemshinli are aware of such a connection, whether they accept it or not is another thing. Whether our elderly say it or not, people around us consider us like that. In daily life, your Laz or Kurdish friend call you “What’s up Armenian”. It’s all about accepting it or not. We have that information, but I do not have any information about the past relations, it might be less problematic. What has changed this is probably the historic process I mentioned.

That is exactly what I implied when I asked about the impact of geography. Black Sea region is famous with its nationalist discourse. So let us try to answer the question as follows, would the situation be the same if Hemshinli lived in the Mediterranean, Eastern or Aegean region?

The atmosphere is generally the same all around Turkey…

It is claimed that islamised Armenians accepted Islam generally to protect themselves, and to survive and; within time, with they overbearing fear it is assumed that they continued their lives as a more fervent Muslim than real Muslims. Is this also valid for Hemshinli?

Let me first say that, Hemshinli of Turkey describe themselves as Hemshinli and not as islamised Armenians and Armenian from Hemshin.

There are different discourses about islamisation of Hemshinli whether they volunteered or not. Armenian academicians, based on some documents, claim this process was a forced one. Others claim that this was not forced but a voluntary process. I am not an expert on that matter but I can say that no one change their religion joyfully. Although we cannot claim this was based on violence or force, we might speak of serious possibility of a change of conditions where people felt obliged.

Independent from this, we can say for the Hemshin in Turkey that the islamisation process of Hemshinli is a completed one. Most of Hemshinli reject anything related with Armenian belonging and this denial is not due to the nationalist discourse in Turkey. Even those believing in the possibility of a historical link with being Armenian, there is considerable number of Hemshinli today that would abstain from saying this due to Turkey’s social, cultural, political, historical conditions. They are conscious of such a historical information but would not talk about it.

Ignoring the bridges created by the culture language, music and songs… is this due to the fear?

Along with the historical, cultural and religious reality I mentioned above, there is also an avoidance linked to the fear. Mentioning a historical causality could alone bring reactions, treason or espionage accusations. We, the well-educated, intellectual people of the society face this situation. Therefore those living in Hopa, Hemshin who are less equipped, make huge efforts and pay attention not to find themselves in that situation and this is normal. This defensive reflex is valid for other people too. Armenians living in Turkey don’t talk if not necessary about their Armenian identity.

What kinds of problems do The Hemshinli have today as a society?

The Hemshinli are not a monolithic society, therefore they do not present a unified behavior. There are various types of Hemshinli such as; socialists, nationalists, liberals, social democrats, conservative right wing supporters. There are those who speak Hemshinli language such as the Hemshinli of Hopa region or there are also others such as the ones in Rize Hemshin/ Çamlıhemshin region who do not speak the Hemshinli language, either because they forgot it or because they do not use it at all. However, we can speak of the existence of a common reflex shown towards the protection and preservation of the language, culture and identity. As an Hemshinli who is struggling for the preservation of our culture and identity, I personally believe that Turkey becoming a more democratic country is a need and a problem. A democratic Turkey, in which all the cultural, religious and other various types of differences within the borders of this country are treated, accepted and owned as shared values of this society is a very important need for the Hemshinli and all the other communities. Especially in the atmosphere of the recent years that are increasingly becoming more fanatical, with rising Islamic and nationalist pressure, we need democratization just as we need fresh air.

How do the Hemshinli position themselves with regards to history and Armenian identity?

It is extremely objectionable to treat the Hemshinli with regards to the Turkish-Armenian dilemma, and it is even destructive and dangerous to approach the issue as a political element of the relations between Turkey and Armenia.

Why so?

In some historical processes, ethnic issues have provocative and destructive features regardless of the good intentioned approaches of individuals. In this regard, The Hemshinli are a society that should be taken into consideration from a cultural and not a political point of view. The reason being that, such a small society cannot withstand such heavy weight of political pressure. The road to preventing such risks is paved by democracy. Only in a democratic country, everybody can express himself and there is place for differences. Only when identities are lived freely can everyone express what they really feel about their identities.

What kind of connections they have with Armenia?

The Hemshinli of Hopa region used to have herds of sheep that are now replaced by herds of lorries, so to speak. There are a considerable number of lorry transportation companies in Hopa and a considerable amount of these belong to the Hemshinli. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a considerable part of the commercial transportation from Turkey to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia were done by the Hemshinli lorry owners. So, there are such commercial relations established at those times.  In the recent years, some cultural and touristic visits are also taking place.

One of the major problems of the Armenian community of Turkey is the danger of slow erosion. Does such a similar danger of erosion and assimilation also exist for the Hemshinli who have managed to survive as a community due to forced or self-imposed change of religion?

It was possible to talk about the existence of a vivid Hemshinli identity until the 1960’s, 70’s and even as far as the 80’s. It was not Armenian or not Christian but there was an identity that came to mind when one mentioned ‘’ Hemshinli ‘’. This was also true for the other communities of Turkey. However, after that period serious erosion started.

What was the reason for the start of this erosion?

Even the ‘’ Citizen, speak Turkish ‘’ campaign or all the other assimilation policies imposed onto small communities like us have not done as big an erosion as the urbanization and the globalization processes that took place after the 80’s. The collapse of the economical system after the 80’s and the migration of a considerable part of the population to the cities that followed created bigger erosion. Television entering to every household, the increasing number of working family members are also factors adding to the speed of this process of erosion. This is not only valid for the Hemshinli, it is also true for all the other small linguistic, ethnical or cultural groups. People can, more or less, live their own identities in their own original cities and environments however once they move to the big city, it all gets diluted and mixed and people start to hide or suppress their own identities to blend in with the crowd of the big city. For example, someone from Hemshin can speak the Hemshin language in daily life when he is in his native city of Hopa, however when he comes to Istanbul his daily language becomes Turkish, he speaks less and less in his own Hemshin language. Also who knows with whom he is going to get married, maybe he will get married with someone who is not an Hemshinli and so the losses start. And when such losses start, a reflex for protection and preservation is triggered. For example, all the activities which I took part in, such as making the Vova album, being within the founding members of HADİG association, participating in the publishing of the GOR magazine are all initiated by my fear for the extinction of Hemshin language, culture and identity.

The Hemshin language is slowly being forgotten even in Hopa. The kids understand but cannot speak it, because before it was only the Hemshin language spoken in the household but things changed with television entering in every house. Turkish is increasingly becoming the daily language. Families are discouraging their children to speak the Hemshin language for the fear that they might face discrimination. Even if this does not happen, speaking Hemshin might cause the kids to have Black Sea accent in their Turkish and this may cause the kids’ friends to make fun and thereby hurt the feelings of the child. These and many other such factors are contributing to the tendency to hide and not express the identity that is causing the erosion. Maybe the 1940’s and 50’s were more oppressive years however the closed economical structure of those times better preserved the language and the culture in comparison to what we are experiencing today. Today we are undergoing huge erosion.

What does the tomorrow of Hemshinli community look like?

I cannot be very hopeful when I assess the issue from a linguistic and cultural perspective. On one side, we are struggling hard to document and pass the language and culture to the next generations by artistic and academic activities and on the other side we are also struggling to keep the language and the culture alive by producing new cultural and artistic works. However, erosion is inevitable. It again comes back to the issue of a developed democracy. In a democratic country, again maybe the erosion can not be all together prevented but at least people will own up to the ethnic language and the culture and thereby educational, cultural and artistic policies can be developed with the target to preserve and keep them alive.





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