11 August 2007
By Khajag Mgrditchian
ISTANBUL, Turkey (A.W.)—The Armenian genocide depleted Western Armenia of its Armenian population. Istanbul, however, was spared from most of the large-scale massacres and deportations, and a sizeable number of Armenians remained there—in a city that has played an important role in Armenian history and literature during the last century and a half.
For years and years, the words “Western Armenian” and “Turkish-Armenian” have been taken out of our communal vocabulary and replaced by “Istanbul-Armenians,” with the assumption that Armenians in Turkey live exclusively in Istanbul.
It was later discovered that Armenians continue to live under the shadow of Musa Dagh, in the village of Vakif. And in the last few years, pockets of Armenians have been “discovered” throughout the different regions of Western Armenia, living in hiding and keeping their identity a secret, fearful of reprisals if they assert themselves as Armenians. Many have converted to Islam. Apart from these Armenians, there are also the Hemshin Armenians, who themselves discovered their Armenians roots only after the Republic of Armenia gained independence and they met others who spoke Armenian for the first time.
The French television station “France 24” recently broadcast a program about Armenians in Turkey who have had to hide their ethnic origins. The reporter preparing the program stated that the number of Armenians currently living in Turkey is significantly more than the 60,000 that is declared, since that figure only represents the Armenians living in Istanbul.
Hemshin Armenians are gradually becoming more aware of their roots, and the thousands of Armenians who have immigrated to Belgium, France, Holland, Germany and other European countries from Turkey are evidence of the relatively large Armenian population still in the regions of Western Armenia. International experts and media outlets also confirm the presence of a large number of Armenians living in Western Armenia.
Thus, the label of “Istanbul-Armenians” has once again come to define the Armenian population of one specific city, while the label of “Turkish-Armenian” now applies to a much larger constituency. The use of these words is not just a matter of semantics, it is a matter of our fundamental approach to Armenian communities and our acceptance of the presence of a very large community.
Without discussing the above-mentioned issues, we talked to some Istanbul-Armenians regarding the use of these words. Sarkis Seropian, editor of the Armenian section of the Agos newspaper agreed that the label of “Turkish-Armenian” has a more inclusive connotation, and it would be wrong to limit ourselves to the use of “Istanbul-Armenians.” But, he said, “We are used to it. Sometimes I make that mistake as well. For example, the Patriarch is the Patriarch of all Turkish-Armenians, at least for now he is thus named. But, given that 99 percent of the Armenian population in Turkey is concentrated in Istanbul, and that every year the Armenian population in Anatolia decreases due to migration to Istanbul or elsewhere, the use of the term “Istanbul-Armenian” is not that inappropriate, in my opinion. Aside from the Vakif village, which has an Armenian community, there are no other villages or cities with considerable Armenian populations. Thirty to forty years ago there were some, but their numbers have and still continue to decrease every day.”
Let us open a parenthesis here and expand on the village of Vakif. Seropian said that “Vakif is the only village where Armenians live and are still the majority. Unfortunately, the youth there are leaving the village, though at least in the summers, they visit the village from abroad or from Istanbul. The village is very unique, and it received some exposure in the Turkish press and television ads. Some people have opened businesses there to produce organic, clean vegetables and fruits. The tourism sector is also developing in the village, and some old buildings have been renovated and turned into hotels. The Church has also been renovated,” he added.
Robert Haddejian, editor of the Marmara daily newspaper, is not opposed to the use of the label “Turkish-Armenian” because for him, “Turkish-Armenians have symbolically been fused with Istanbul-Armenians.” He continued, “Before anything else, we must protect ourselves and what we have. When I talk about what we have I am referring to a treasure that we have, which is not small or insignificant. It is quite large, vast and historic. What Istanbul-Armenians have is a huge treasure, it is historic, it is living, it is above and underneath the soil. We are the protectors of all that, and by staying here we are that treasure’s loyal protectors. I have always believed that our brothers and sisters living abroad, those who have Armenian consciousness, should thank us for having stayed and protecting our wealth here. And we will always protect it.”
We are naturally proud of Istanbul-Armenians who are guarding our heritage and of course, we thank them for guarding our history despite the unfavorable conditions. However, our gratitude must not stop us from expanding the sphere of those who are aware of the treasures still in Western Armenia. We saw some of those treasures when we visited the Patriarchate and were welcomed graciously, and were guided through the Patriarchate museum. In this museum, however, almost all of the exhibited relics and objects were gathered from Istanbul or from the immediate proximity of the city. There was only one object from Western Armenia, which belonged to a church in Van. We would have been glad to see the history of Western Armenia exhibited where it belongs and not in a museum, but the fact is the treasures of Western Armenia have disappeared.
The label of “Turkish-Armenian,” should be adopted first and foremost by Istanbul Armenians themselves. They must realize that they are the protectors of all the cultural and historical treasures of Armenians in Turkey and not just Istanbul. They should open their doors wide to those who come to Istanbul Kurdified or Islamized, yet nevertheless aware of their Armenian roots. Because it isn’t just the Istanbul Armenian community that’s ours, but the thousands, if not millions of Armenians all over Turkey whose identity was assailed by the genocide and Turkish government policies.
This call to change our mentality also applies to the different areas of the diaspora, and especially to the “Istanbul Armenian Unions” active in Northern America. They should become “Unions of Turkish-Armenians,” not just in name but in spirit.
Kindly Forwarded by Meltem Birkegren