16 July 2007

1812) An Interview With Etyen Mahcupyan By David Barsamian


The following interview with Agos editor Etyen Mahcupyan was conducted in Istanbul in late June.

David Barsamian-Tell me about Agos.

Etyen Mahcupyan-Agos has a history of 10 years and it is the paper of the [Turkish-Armenian] community. It began with the aim of opening up the windows and doors of the community to the public at large, and bringing the Turkish public into the community-understanding its problems and becoming familiar with how an Armenian and a non-Muslim live in Turkey. I think that goal has been mostly achieved in the past decade, when Hrant was here. In fact, he was thinking of making Agos more like a Turkish newspaper, that is, liberating it from the communitarian bonds. This is what we are trying to do right now. The changes in the newspaper were already conceived by Hrant and myself through several discussions last year. But we were thinking of making those changes in the autumn, because this is an election year and we have several problems. But fate led us to make all those changes in February.

D.B.-How many Armenians are there in Istanbul and Turkey as a whole?

E.M.-Well, most are in Istanbul now, and they number about 60,000-70,000. No one knows the exact figure because the polls and other surveys don't often ask those questions. Also, the Church does not have all the data about the Armenians. But it seems there are about 60,000-70,000 Armenians in Turkey, about 95 percent of whom are in Istanbul. And of course there are Muslim Armenians, who converted during, before or after 1915.

D.B.-How many people read the newspaper? Do you depend on subscriptions or kiosk sales?

E.M.-Half of it comes from subscriptions and the other half from kiosk sales. We sell about 5,000-6,000 now. The problem is that each issue is shared and read by maybe 8, 10 or 12 people. We know that sometimes two or three families buy the paper together and share it during the week.

D.B.-Tell me about Hrant Dink, who was a colleague and a close friend of yours.
E.M.-Well, it's still very difficult for me to talk about Hrant. He was a very, very close friend. Not only did we share political views but we also saw each other as family and friends. We used to talk six or seven times every day, on politics or other subjects. He had incredible energy. He was a politician, genetically I would say, because he didn't forget anyone he met. He remembered everyone by name. Although he may not have seen someone for 10 years, he would immediately remember their name and talk to them.

He was a soft-hearted and warm-hearted person. He made connections with nearly everyone-with people who shared his views and people who did not. He was a typical Armenian, I would say. That is, he was a very humble person. He enjoyed the daily details of life. From time to time, I used to think that he was forced to be involved in politics. He was such a rich person at heart. I think a better way of life for him would have been maybe being at the head of a school or a children's camp. He was that kind of person.

D.B.-Why was he assassinated?

E.M.-Well, the main reason is the political situation in Turkey and how the political situation triggers Turkish nationalism in such a way that young people without any real beliefs and with fears in life are easily converted into assassins. Hrant is not the only one who was killed in the last 5-10 years, and almost all the killers came from a nationalistic background and ideology. This shows how nationalism works and how it's manipulated in Turkey. Of course, another reason is that he was an Armenian. Otherwise, he would have been protected, at least. We know that the people that were thinking of killing him were planning for almost a year, and that the police and the military knew about it.

There were many reports going to Ankara, but they did not do anything. So this forces us to ask the question, "If Hrant Dink was a Turkish person, would he still be alive?" I don't know the answer.

D.B.-He used to compare himself to a dove. Please explain that.

E.M.-Well, the dove can fly, but does not want to fly too far, you know. It flies and then it comes back to the same place because it is accustomed to that place. That's why there are many doves in yards, around churches, mosques, etc. It gives the impression that those doves, and not us, own the place. So this is a good metaphor for Hrant, because he really owned this place. He owned it in his heart and in his brain. He cared so much about Turkey, about the Turkish people and Armenians in Turkey that in this sense he was also the dove of the yard. He never wanted to fly away because his life was in danger. Everyone knew the threat to his life, but every time we were out somewhere in Europe or in the United States, after two or three days he would say, 'What are we doing here? We have to go back where we belong.'

D.B.-His assassination triggered a very interesting response here in Istanbul. Many non-Armenians-Turks, Kurds, Christians-demonstrated and had signs saying 'We are all Armenians, We are all Hrant.' Did that surprise you?

E.M.-The number of people is what surprised me. Otherwise, I knew that the sentiment was there because there is a huge change in Turkey. The problem with the Turkish public is that they change but do not know how to make this change felt in politics. So you don't hear them as political figures and you don't see them in the streets. But when you talk to them or you go out to Anatolia, you see that there is a huge change in the mentality of the people. I knew that many millions would mourn and cry for Hrant, but I didn't expect so many people to gather immediately after his death. When his death was heard, there were 10,000 people in Taksim.

D.B-Do you feel the taboo about speaking about the genocide is gradually being broken? Many writers, for example the Noble Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak and others, are now speaking about it. It's out in the open.

E.M.-Well, everyone knows about Elif Shafak and Pamuk but there are many people in Turkey, especially historians, who are writing about those issues. If we go to the sciences, it's not a taboo anymore. If we go to the people, it's not a taboo anymore. When I went to Anatolia 10 years ago, people were irritated and hesitant to talk about it. Now if you go there, they are eager to tell you stories about what they heard from their grandfathers. So there is no such taboo anymore sociologically.

But politically, in regards to what the state or political parties can and cannot do, there is this pseudo-taboo because of the nationalistic atmosphere. And the nationalistic atmosphere is using the "Armenian Question" or the Armenian genocide as a tool. Because the main problem is the issue of European Union accession. And in a world where Turkey is part of the EU, those subjects will not be taboo anymore. So the people who don't want Turkey to be in the European Union are using the Armenian genocide and the Armenian issue at large to mobilize the nationalistic atmosphere and stop the accession process.

D.B.-So it's become, as we say in American English, "political football."

E.M.-Yes.

D.B.-Tell me about this Article 301 of the Turkish penal code.

E.M.-First of all, I have to say it is not the only article [causing problems]. But it is a very conjectural thing that the state or the bureaucratic apparatus picks up one of the items in the penal code and works on it and everyone says, "What is this problem? We need to change it." And they change it and move to another article. So you cannot change Turkey's legal atmosphere by abolishing 301. But 301 has its own special problems because it does not differentiate between an insult and a more normal argumentation and analysis.

So every time you pick up a topic that is related to Turkishness, loosely connected to Turkishness, or maybe some historical event that can be considered as an insult to Turkishness, Article 301 can be used against you. This is the problem with 301 and lately all those people that were taken to court were taken by this article.

But I have to stress again, this is not the only culprit here. The whole penal code is full of such articles. In fact, one of the NGOs who works on those problems cited 10 or 12 articles like that-that can be used if the need arises.

D.B.-"Insulting Turkishness" seems like an interesting concept. For example, if I say that lahmejun or doner kebab is very bad food, would that be considered insulting Turkish identity?

E.M.-Well, this is I think showing that you are on the edge of insulting Turkish identity, and you are picking up the soft issues now. So the reaction would be, "We don't know what you will say tomorrow, so we'd better keep an eye on you."

D.B.-You want to advance Agos and to reach a larger audience. How are you going to do that?

E.M.-Well, we have the online English version now. We have great hopes for that although the subscriptions are still very low. But we will continue tp work on that and try and see if the Diaspora is really interested in Turkey. Because, of course, to be interested in Agos means to be interested in Turkey. Otherwise, Agos becomes only a sentimental issue for you.

So this is the main outlet that we have. Otherwise, you have to know Turkish to understand the paper. Our surveys show that at the kiosks, 70-80 percent of the paper are bought by Muslim Turks. So in the last year or so, Agos has become viewed a newspaper promoting democracy, instead of just an Armenian newspaper.

As Hrant would say, we prefer the Armenian democrats and Turkish democrats to be our subscribers, rather than just the Armenian community. Because we know, and many Armenians have realized, that without the democratization of Turkey, it's impossible to solve the problems of the Armenian community today in Turkey. And it is impossible to solve all the problems related to history.

D.B.-What are those problems in terms of civil rights and human rights? Does an Armenian citizen of Turkey have the same rights legally as a Turkish citizen?

E.M.-On paper, most of the rights are the same. But when it comes to practice, you don't see any public officer who is Armenian, for example. This is an accepted rule in the bureaucracy. You cannot even become a postman.

And why? Maybe because he wears a uniform. The ones who wear uniforms, who are not doing their military service for one year or six months or so should be ethnic Turks. This is not written anywhere, but this is the practice. Though if we were to ask the Armenians if they are against this rule or not, I don't suppose they would be very interested because no one wants to be a postman or a general. But our main problem is with the properties we have that were confiscated during the last 30 years by the state, and the state now does everything not to give them back.

D.B.-What properties were these? In Istanbul?

E.M.-Yes, mostly in Istanbul. They belong to Armenian foundations. And one has to realize that 30-35 percent of the inhabitants of Istanbul were Armenians. Those properties were mostly in central parts of the city and were hence very valuable.

Those properties belonged to one or two million Armenians and now, of course, there are only 60,000. Such wealth belonging to such a small community. So the state tries to bring new blockades to prevent the community from making use of those properties, and they use several tactics. One of the rules, for example, is that if the foundation does not have a board of directors then it belongs to the state. But there's another rule that says that in order to be elected to that board of directors, you have to live in that district. Now, with 60,000 Armenians all living in different districts, what about the districts where Armenians no longer live? What happens after some period of time-10 years for example? It automatically becomes state property.

The community is now trying to get those properties back, and has filed two cases with the European Court of Justice.

So as I see it, with these big European processes, the Armenian community has started to look for its own rights.

D.B.-Now if I lived here and were a citizen of Turkey, could I buy a building or an apartment?

E.M.-As an individual, yes. But in the case of foundations, we are talking about huge properties. In the old days when there was a church, all the buildings around the church were called vakfiye, because the church would live on the income of all those properties. So wherever there is a church, at least a few hundred kilometers belongs to that community and not only the church but also the schools, hospitals, cemeteries. All of these are foundations and all of these have properties that are 5 or 10 times larger than the land on which they were founded.

D. B.-And what about historical places like Ahktamar in Van, Surp Giragos in Diyarbakir, or Ani?

E.M.- Well, these are simpler problems because they have symbolic value, but they don't belong to any foundation. They become museums and so on. So they are not part of the Armenian wealth in Turkey, but are symbols of the Armenian past.

So there is a political side to it, but it is also an easier problem to solve because, as I said, those buildings will become museums and would be governed by the state.

D.B.- But are they properly identified as historically Armenian or are they called "Byzantine" or "ancient"?

E.M.-The bureaucracy does everything not to call them Armenian. They change the words, the letters, etc., trying to make it sound like a Turkish word and so on. But it is getting more and more difficult. On the other end, we have to realize that in 1915 there were about 400 or 500 churches on this land, and today we only have around 35. Many are in ruins now, and perhaps we cannot do much with those, but there are around 300 that can be renovated.

This is a huge job for the state, and it is very hard for a nationalist Turk to accept that those ruins belong to the Armenians because that would be accepting that all those people once lived here. And then one would ask, "What happened to those people?"

So the renovation is going very, very slowly. What makes one optimistic, however, is the initiative taken by some Muslim Turks in Anatolia who have gotten together and said, "There's a church here. It's an Armenian church. We want to keep that church. We want to renovate that church."

In many places, the Muslim Turks are trying to at least allow that historical land site to be recovered and used again.

D.B.- What did Hrant Dink think and what do you think about some diaspora Armenians who may have very sharp opinions about what you should be doing here inside Turkey?

E.M.-It shows that people are still maintaining their identity as a community when they are thinking and saying what the others should do. I think one must understand the feelings and sentiments of those people, but we always thought that politically they are not doing the right thing.

D.B.-Explain how.

E.M.-Politically, if the genocide is the main thing and Turkey has to accept the Armenian genocide, it's obvious that a Turkey that's in the European Union would be in a position to accept the Armenian genocide more than a Turkey that is out of the EU. So one would expect the diaspora to be for Turkey's EU membership. But what we see in some circles of the diaspora is an approach to punish Turkey. Of course they are right, and I understand those feelings, but punishment of the state means the punishment of the society as well. But the society has changed and is no longer the society of 1915. There are parts that haven't changed, of course, like those people who killed Hrant, but the majority is different.

And you cannot defend the Armenian Cause by punishing another society. The state is something else. You can go against the state because it's a deliberate actor. If the state is acting unethically-and most states are always acting unethically-then there is a point there, and you can do politics on that level. But as soon as you divert your energy and try to punish the society as well, it brings a backlash, and it's absurd, and it makes the lives of Armenians here much more difficult and much more meaningless.

D.B.-So it's easier for someone sitting in New York or Los Angeles to talk.

E.M.-Always! Just as it's easier for us here to talk about New York. We know that the diaspora had a difficult life in those lands because they went from Turkey, and in Turkey the community was based on a religious authoritarian understanding. There was a patriarch, and the patriarch still in Turkey is supposed to be the leader of community. But when you go to Europe and to the States, you are in a very secular country. Of course, there are still patriarchs, but they don't have the same influence on the public anymore. So you need something else to keep the community together. So the Armenian genocide is a workable tool in that respect. Also we have to realize that if you build the community on a secular historical issue like this, then you create a power relation within the community. You create a hierarchy within the community.

And that power relation and that hierarchy takes the community farther away from being a democratic community. And what Hrant was after was forming democratic Armenian communities all over the world.

D.B.-And what are your relations with the Republic of Armenia, beyond language and culture?

E.M.-In our daily lives, we don't have much of a relation really. But all Armenians are becoming more and more interested in what is happening in Armenia. Of course, with Armenia so close to us, we have a feeling of.

D.B.-Comfort?

E.M.-Confidence maybe. It is very difficult to pinpoint those feelings because there are no surveys on that. But as far as I see from Agos, the Turkish-Armenian community is really interested in the news items concerning Armenia.

I think that with the EU process and the relations that were established in 2006 between the EU and Armenia, everyone is realizing that in 10 or 15 years, we will have Armenia and Turkey in the same package. This may happen. If Turkey is a bit late in the accession, the probability of such a scenario becomes higher. So, what is happening in Armenia will be very important for the Armenian community here, just as what is happening in Turkey is important.

D.B.-Right now, the border is closed, isn't it?

E.M.-The border is closed if you go by car. But if you want to fly, it's open. There are several flights every week. I think the Turkish government wants to solve that problem, but with the election this year and the nationalists, it seems they are waiting for the right conjuncture to take that step.

David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio (www.alternativeradio.org).

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