21 July 2008
Yerevan To Istanbul Trip
The Armenian Community of Istanbul: Confronting New Challenges and Old Realities by Edik Baghdasaryan, Hrant Gadarigian July 21, 2008
During a recent working visit to Istanbul . . . . the Editors of “Hetq” had the opportunity to visit the offices of the “Agos” newspaper founded by the late Hrant Dink. While there we were able to interview Mr. Pakrat Estukyan, the Armenian-language Editor, on a wide-range of topics. Below is a translation of our conversation.
Q - As a result of our meetings with members and organizations of the Bolsahay (Istanbul Armenian) community we’re left with the impression that a certain process of national rejuvenation is taking place. Is this a fair assumption?
A - That would be stretching reality quite a bit. On the contrary, there’s a cloud of uneasiness hanging over the Bolsahay community at present. Especially since it’s over a year now that Hrant Dink was murdered. Since January 19, 2007, the day he was shot down, there’s been a certain lull in community activities. Given this situation one would be hard pressed to speak of rejuvenation but of course such blows inevitably have their own contrary reactions. For example, while speaking on the subject of rejuvenation, I’d like to talk about a new group called “Nor Zartonk” (New Awakening). It’s a collective of young people that stages various events, whether cultural, political, social, etc. But it’s only a drop in the bucket. If we are to speak about the general psychological situation of the community I’d have to confess that, on the contrary, an atmosphere of despondency holds sway rather than any reawakening. Let me cite an example of what I mean. Two weeks ago the Bolsahay community had the unique pleasure of attending a concert given by the Komitas Quartet visiting from Armenia. In an auditorium with a seating capacity of some 600 only 103 seats were filled. It’s my belief that had the Quartet given a concert two years before the place would have been packed. The people are suffering from a certain type of malaise. The murder of Hrant, the ill healthy of the Patriarch and the uncertain political situation in Turkey all contribute to this state of affairs. This is because the political situation in Turkey at the moment is quite tense. There’s a political party that only several decades after its founding was able to garner enough votes to create a government on its own. But there are forces in the country at work today that wish to close this party down and remove it from the field of politics. When I speak of forces I’m referring to the army. Naturally, the army is not a force in and of itself since it enjoys the support of the entire judicial system, law enforcement, the universities and the ideologically chauvinist forces.
Q - Does the threat exist today that these chauvinist forces will come to power?
A - They have the power to do so any time they wish since they have the army behind them. But the army has been cautious up till now. If the officer corps were to intervene, arguing that the parliamentary process is not to their advantage, no one could do anything to stop them. This is a situation that has been played out several times in Turkey. Of course such an event occurs with the backing of foreign powers and here I primarily mean the United States. The officer corps of Turkey is intimately linked to the United States. Thus, if American interests demand that the army intervenes, it will immediately do so. This is exactly what happened in 1971 and 1980.
Q- In your estimation is the United States interested in seeing regime change in Turkey today?
A - I’m really not sure on this one. What would be the benefit for the United States? This government and its adopted economic policies do not oppose American interests. Today, the concept of the free market has been thoroughly integrated in Turkey and the ideology demanded by the pursuit of capital has been fully adopted. The country is subject to policies as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund.
Q - What’s the size of the Armenian community here?
A - There’s no correct number and there never has been. There’s a census every five years. At one time the census requested that people name their mother tongue. Based on this question we could come up with a partial idea about the number. However, we must note that for a segment of the community Armenian is no longer their mother tongue. In any event, this question is no longer included in the census. Perhaps only the country’s state intelligence services know the real number. The current census has no questions regarding one’s ethnicity or national origins. We only have an idea regarding the number based on those are registered in various church rolls. Thus, we estimate the number to be 60,000 to 80,000.
Q - What percentage of this number do you think know Armenian?
A - That’s also hard to say. Today we are going through another unfortunate process. There are those who know Armenian but don’t speak it. There are those who have graduated from Armenian high schools which means that they’ve been taught Armenian for eleven years. These people are capable of speaking Armenian but they say that they don’t know Armenian. A few hours ago I met with an acquaintance that had come to Istanbul from provincial Anatolia years ago. He entered his daughter, who didn’t speak a word of Armenian at the time, into one of the Armenian high schools here. Later on that girl was named as the school’s best speaking Armenian student. This is how I can answer your question - about half know Armenian.
Q - Periodically the Turkish government makes statements regarding the number of Armenians from Armenia residing in Turkey. This last time, in the Parliament, a number of 70,000 was cited.
A - I really think this number is exaggerated because the issue has even reached the halls of the Parliament. The Parliament has demanded information on this matter from the Ministry of the Interior which in turn compiles statistics from the lists showing how many people from Armenia have entered or left the country. These lists reveal that the actual number is much lower than publicly cited. But we still can’t say for certain what the actual number is. Here, there are two categories of individuals from Armenia. There is one segment that has come out of economic necessity, to work here and send money back home. There’s another segment which comes to Turkey and has no intention of ever returning to Armenia. They want to stay here and to become Turkish citizens. Many of them come to Turkey with the hope of eventually making their way to the West. I know a family from Armenia that came to Turkey and then made it all the way to Canada. Naturally, we are saddened by such occurrences.
Q - It seems that Armenians from Armenia don’t interact much with the Bolsahay community, that there’s no contact between the two segments. Is this the case?
A - For the majority there is no contact or interaction. It’s also the result of two differing cultures. In this context we face a series of serious obstacles. When we speak of the Turkish-Armenian community we must realize that we’re talking about the Armenian community of Istanbul. And when we speak of the Armenian community of Istanbul we must understand that we are talking about a certain “petty-bourgeois” lifestyle. This “accepted” lifestyle only wishes to see Armenians who fit the prescribed mould. In other words, to be an Armenian means living in certain neighborhoods, spending ones summer at the Marmara Islands, attending church on a regular basis, etc. Thus, an Armenian must possess these stereotypical attributes that the majority of the community here has come to create for themselves. Any Armenian who runs contrary to this overall picture is usually viewed with a degree of bewilderment and sometimes belittlement. In this category fall Armenians from Armenia and those Istanbul-Armenians who have lived outside the community for long periods and who, whether preserving their identity or losing it, are aware of it today. This segment of Armenians can never fully integrate into the dominant Bolsahay community.
Q - Here we are referring to say, Armenians from the region of Sassoun; correct?
A - Yes; those Armenians who no longer speak the language, who speak Turkish or Kurdish instead and, for instance, those Armenians whose families have partially converted to Islam and who are devout Muslims at that. Naturally, such households face a number of difficulties. There are families in which one of the brothers is a devout Muslim and not for appearance sake alone. Such households not only have problems internal to the family but with other Armenians as well. They are village folk, their hair is dark and their manners unpolished. They have a different lifestyle and are not accustomed to “café society”.
Q - In other words even while being conscious of their Armenian roots…
A - Even while renouncing them. Those roots are a source of shame for the family, a secret to be kept from the outside. It must not be spoken about in order that it is eventually forgotten and not passed down to the next generation. This is one side of the issue. There’s another side that’s just the opposite. Heaven forbid if a girl from another clan is taken as a potential bride. Boys must marry girls from within the same family clan. They believe that they are different and that they mustn’t mix with outsiders. They’re at a loss as to what to call themselves - are we Armenian, are we Christian or are we something else? But they do consider themselves to be different from others. These are the two sides to the story.
Q - How are these Armenians, however they try to pass themselves off as Turks or Kurds, viewed by their real Turkish and Kurdish neighbors?
A - They are never accepted as true Turks or Kurds. They say they come from this or that ‘giavour’ (infidel) village, that they’re Armenians. In the rural areas it’s hard to change perceptions. It’s passed down from one generation to the next that this village is an Armenian one. It’s a whole different story when people move to the cities.
Q - Have any traces of an Armenian culture or lifestyle been preserved amongst those “Armenians” living in the rural interior of Turkey?
A - I wouldn’t think so. It’s the Hamshen Armenians who have preserved the most in terms of lifestyle. First of all they’ve maintained the Armenian language. They are one of the above-mentioned communities in that they are devout Muslims and nationalists. Even whilst speaking Armenian they denied being Armenian. This was the case at least up to ten years ago. Not only are they Armenian-speakers but they’ve also retained some traditions along with the language. In this country it’s the Hamshen Armenians who celebrate the holiday of Vartavar with the most jubilation. It’s a paradox; they celebrate Vartavar but remain Muslim to the core. Today, however, we see signs that a certain transformation is taking place. More and more of them are asking questions regarding their true identity. They travel to Armenia and music CD’s sung in the Hamshen-Armenian dialect have been released. While the majority consider themselves Turks and Muslims there’s a small segment that realize that since they speak Armenian their roots must be Armenian as well.
A Seven Day Dash through the Neighborhoods of Bolis by Hrant Gadarigian July 21, 2008
Istanbul, that pulsating mass of peoples, cultures and paradoxes, molded by conquest and commerce, is just too much to take in if you only have a week to do so. I recently tried and failed. But who’s complaining?
After a somewhat mind-numbing but not too unpleasant 35 hour bus ride from Yerevan the first vista one gets of Istanbul (Constantinople) is from the Asiatic side of the city, the densely populated hillsides gradually giving way to the blue waters of the Marmara Sea below. Our bus slowly makes its way through the evening rush hour traffic through the neighborhoods of Kadikoy, Uskudar until we spot the Bosphorus Bridge spanning the narrows of the same name that separates the continent of Asia from that of Europe. It’s only a short time before we cross our second bridge, the one that takes us over the Golden Horn into the old city of Istanbul, or more appropriately Constantinople. We soon pulled into the bus station located in the neighborhood of Aksaray, a semi-squalid but bustling district full of street vendors, prostitutes, clothing wholesalers and cheap hotels.
I wonder if Hagop Baronian, who chronicled the sights, smells and sounds of Bolis (short for Constantinopolis) over a century ago, would recognize the place today. What follows is not an attempt to analyze the city and its Armenian inhabitants, a la Baronian’s “A Stroll through the Neighborhoods of Bolis”, but rather a random set of initial observations and impressions culled from a somewhat frenzied set of meetings and conversations I had. Thus, readers please take note.
I was traveling to Istanbul with Edik Baghdasaryan, the Chief Editor of “Hetq”, to attend a conclave of reporters and editors mostly from Eastern Europe and some post-Soviet countries sponsored by some well-meaning international organization hell bent on promoting investigative journalism in the hinterlands. But all this is secondary to the tale I want to tell here. It turns out that it was Edik’s first visit to Istanbul and he was particularly interested in meeting Armenians from the ROA who chose to do business and reside there, never expecting to return. Many of these individuals remain illegally and confront a whole different set of problems than the “original” Armenian community. He will be addressing this topic separately elsewhere in the pages of “Hetq”. I had been here before but it was over 25 years since the last time I had a chance to stroll the streets of Beyoglu and Beshiktash. Time and advancing age had taken their toll and my recollections weren’t all that fresh.
We had taken the bus because we wanted to meet Armenians from the ROA who traveled to Istanbul, whether for business, personal or other reasons. What compelled these people to seek their fortunes in a country generally recognized as the “implacable foe”, a neighboring nation with which Armenia has no diplomatic relations and a closed border, or seemingly so? Of course, we were also interested in meeting with the local Armenian community, one of the oldest, which stills clings on today, but about which most Armenians, in the Diaspora and especially in Armenia, know little about apart from general stereotypes and tragic news stories like the murder of Hrant Dink. Luckily, before we departed, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of an Armenian from Istanbul, a member of the Sayat Nova Song Ensemble there, who was visiting Armenia. She proved to be our indefatigable guide to the city and our carte-blanche to the community. I’d just like to thank our dear friend Gayaneh Chalukian, her husband Jan Gavrilof and the other kindhearted Bolsahay’s for making our stay in Istanbul so pleasant and rewarding.
Interestingly, 99% of all the Istanbul-Armenians we met refused to describe themselves as Spyurkahay (Diasporan Armenian) or their community as part of the Spyurk. As they put it Bolis was something different and not to be viewed as another Beirut, Paris or even, dare I mention the name, Greater Los Angeles. To paraphrase the common sentiment we heard; we are living in the country of our forefathers, in a community that stretches back hundreds of years. We haven’t been separated from our roots.” Fair enough, I thought to myself, not wanting to argue the point that this community, ancient and rich as it is, derived from conditions far removed, in the interiors of Anatolia. This reality too is something that Baronian wrote about in his works, of the teeming masses of peasants escaping the harsh socio-economic conditions and political repression in the Armenian vilayets in the east, of Istanbul serving as the gateway for so many Armenians from Western Armenia to the “promised” lands of Europe and beyond. It’s a story I know a little about myself for it’s the road traveled by my family as well. Personally, I prefer to see Bolis as some kind of transition point between our idealized notions of Western Armenia as it once was and the reality of the Diaspora of today. (But this is a topic for another time and place.)
Label it what you will, Constantinople historically served as the intellectual, cultural and political hub for what is called the western half (or more correctly, two-thirds) of the Armenian nation. Sadly, it has long since lost that important and vital function. Gone are the literary iconoclasts of the past, the writers for the periodicals “Mehian” and “Partsravank”. Gone too are the theaters and salons, run by Srpouhi Dusap and others, where the Armenian intelligentsia of day would meet. Then too, gone is the “Yerkir”, the burdened masses and tragic homeland that was the source of inspiration and concern for so many of these individuals and institutions in Bolis, the heart of the Ottoman Empire.
Fortunately, we met numerous dedicated and diligent individuals who are working against all odds to maintain that proud tradition and transform it according to present-day realities.
We had the good fortune to visit the offices of Agos, the newspaper founded by Hrant Dink. Upon entering the building from the street where Hrant was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, the Turkish guard sitting in the vestibule hardly looked up from his cup of tea as we entered. Security cameras and locked doors greet the visitor to the office upstairs. It’s a veritable beehive of activity, with young volunteers manning computers, reporters filing stories, and people streaming in and out of the narrow hallways. We had a chance to talk to Mr. Pakrat Estukyan, the Armenian Editor of the paper, who proved quite forthcoming in his assessment of the situation the community finds itself in today and the challenges it confronts. A veritable storehouse of knowledge when it comes to the history of the community, Mr. Estukyan minced no words when asked about relations between the Turkish-Armenian community and the government of Armenia. Simply put, there are none. It seems that Bolis is far down the list when it comes to official Yerevan recognizing the importance and richness of the Istanbul-Armenian community and its possible strategic importance, especially given the recent pronouncements of President Sargsyan regarding initial steps at normalizing relations between the two countries. Mr. Estukyan held out hopes that if relations on an official level were to improve then the ties between Armenia and its compatriots in Istanbul would improve as well. I just wonder if the new head of the recently created Ministry for Diasporan Affairs even knows the name of the Patriarch of Bolis or has a clue about the number of Armenians still residing there. Perhaps President Sargsyan, in addition to inviting Turkish President Gul to the upcoming Armenian-Turkish football match, can also invite the editors of the three Armenian papers in Bolis (Agos, Marmara and Jamanak) to cover news surrounding the game for readers back home. At least they would know that the new Armenian President is aware of the existence of an Armenian community in a country he’s now outstretching his hand to. A symbolic goodwill gesture, if you will, that I’m sure would be welcomed by the Bolsahay community.
Aras Publishing House is another unique institution of the community we had the opportunity to visit. Run by Mr. Payline Tomasyan, his wife and an energetic staff of Armenians and Turkish colleagues, Aras has published over 150 titles, both in Armenian and Turkish, in its short existence. It is a unique operation, similar to Agos, in that many of its titles are Turkish translations of Armenian and English works of Armenian related subjects. Recently the massive tome by Raymond Kevorkian, a French-Armenian historian, on the Genocide, was painstakingly translated into Turkish and published. The resources required for such projects are immense and mostly financed in house. In fact, this appears to be the case throughout the community. The thirty-five operating Armenian churches, seventeen high schools and numerous cultural and civic organizations are all mostly maintained by the community itself. Quite a massive undertaking if you think about it. No state financing here.
The intention of both Agos and Aras Publishing, by publishing in Turkish, is to introduce the Armenian community, its history and traditions, to the wider Turkish public at large. Some, if not many, both in the Diaspora and Armenia, would say that this is folly and a pipe-dream; that Turkish sentiments regarding Armenians will never change. But small inroads are being made as witnessed by the number of “enlightened Turks” working along side Armenians at Aras. What Hrant Dink proposed and other like minded Istanbul-Armenians are saying is don’t use the issue of the Armenian Genocide as a hammer, but rather as a chisel, to slowly carve away decades of disinformation and distrust. It will surely be a long and arduous process but the alternative is to follow the dead-end policies of traditionalist Armenian hardliners who have had nothing tangible to offer other than hollow and self-serving rhetoric. I say let those who have remained in Istanbul and who are struggling daily for democracy and human rights have the last say-so on what is the best course to adopt.
It was then off to meet Silva Kuyumcuyan, the Principal of the National Gentronagan Varzharan which celebrated its 120th anniversary last year. Located in the Karakoy district, the school was founded by Patriarch Nerses Varzhabedian and its first Principal was the noted intellectual Minas Cheraz. Seated in her office she told us of the difficulties facing the school, the lack of qualified Armenian language instructors and of course various pressures enacted by the Turkish government. As Principal, she has been waging an uphill battle to maintain the educational integrity of this hallowed institution for more than twenty-five years now. Given that diplomatic relations do not exist between Turkey and Armenia instructors at the school cannot attend training sessions held in Yerevan for Armenian language instructors from the Diaspora. Despite all these drawbacks she has been able to expand the school’s classroom facilities and proudly took us on a tour of the newly opened building’s wing. Upon departing, when if there was anything we could do upon our return to Armenia, she merely desired that we spread the word that the Gentronagan High School still survives and hopes for the day that normalized relations between the two countries might pave the way for expanded ties between educators in Armenia and the Bolsahay community.
One night, our Armenian friends invited us to an open-air concert along the shores of the Bosphorus. After a short boat ride up the straits, passing the Dolmabahce Palace designed by the Balian family of architects, we reached the venue, a huge amphitheater seating at least five thousand. The crowd, a mix of Turks, Kurds and Armenians, was boisterous in welcoming the performers on stage. The acts, a mix of song and dance, included the Kardes Turkuler, Ruhi Su Dostlar Korusu and Sayat Nova Korosu ensembles. This was one of a series of ongoing joint events to build bridges between the various communities on a cultural level; and from what we saw it seems to be working. The performing arts in Turkey are used as a means of struggle for democratic change in a land where political expression is still repressed. The throngs of mostly young people were up on their feet singing and dancing along with the performers on stage. It was quite a stirring and spontaneous expression of defiance in the face of political realities on the ground, a modest attempt to break down the stereotypes hindering the various communities to cooperate for the achievement of shared goals. Culture, as a weapon for change, is something sorely lacking in Armenia and some of our music producers here should take notice of the fact that popular culture doesn’t have to be the monotone regurgitation of vapid themes and song stylizations now dominating the radio waves and TV shows in Armenia. Later on, we were able to arrange a meeting with one of the performers, Aynur Dogan, a young female Kurdish singer, who also uses her vocal gifts to inspire hope and resistance, not only among Kurds, but Armenians, Turks and others as well. For her efforts, one of her CD’s was banned by a provincial court in Diyarbekir. She confessed that the radio archives of Kurdish national songs housed in Yerevan, and mostly collected during the Soviet era, were a veritable treasure trove of source material for her. When asked if she would ever contemplate a visit to Armenia and a possible performance she replied, most definitely. All it would take would be the backing of some forward thinking producers.
My narrative wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the name of Sarkis “Aghparik” Cherkezian; a man well into his nineties who played a pivotal role in the founding of the Turkish Communist Party. We were taken to the street where he lives, close to the Armenian Patriarchate in Kumkapi, by one of our Armenian guides. Sure enough, as we were told he would be, the old man was sitting at the entrance to his small one room apartment on the narrow alleyway outside. Once heavily populated by Armenians, the district is now mostly the home of Kurds from the provinces whose children run and play unattended into the wee hours of the night. After making our greetings he led us inside his somewhat ramshackle abode. We were also told that he was a poet and that he liked to entertain guests with impromptu recitings of his works. Sure enough, in the lull between our questions, he began his recitations - in perfect literary western Armenian. Most of his creations he keeps stored upstairs, in his still nimble brain. Sadly, only a fragment has been recorded in writing. Sarkis told us about the trips he made to Armenia during the Soviet era and his dismay about what free-market capitalism has wrought there in its wake. This wasn’t the time for a political debate about the merits and drawbacks of liberal economic policy. Reaching to the bookshelf behind him he took out a copy of his biography, published in Turkish, that he gifted to us. Once back outside he sat down on his chair, cigarette in hand, to watch the comings and goings on the street he calls home. We asked our friend why he didn’t move away from this neighborhood where Armenians now longer lived. It seems his tiny apartment is the property of the Patriarchate which rents it to Sarkis at next to nothing. Also, he stays out of his political convictions, to be close to the masses as it were.
Obviously, during our stay we mostly came into contact with a certain segment of the Bolsahay community; the professional strata if you will, working on a variety of cultural, social and political levels. Do these people represent the community as a whole, especially given that most of the individuals cited above possessed what I would call left of center, if not socialist, political leanings; probably not. The artisans, tradesmen and manual laborers of Baronian’s day have all but vanished. We did get to meet some Armenian gold and silversmiths, but it appears that their days are numbered as well, victims of market exigencies and a lack of willing Armenian apprentices. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time or contacts to meet with individuals belonging to the “working and lower middle classes”. It would have been interesting to hear their opinions on the state of the community and domestic Turkish politics as well.
Whatever their socio-economic background I came away with the impression that many in the community view the Democratic Left movement in Turkey, in all its various guises and manifestations, as the only viable opposition to the dominant Kemalist ideology. No wonder that Sarkis Aghparik and many of the Armenians we met in Bolis see themselves as part of this political movement, to greater or lesser degrees. Many still hold out hope that democratic change is possible, in the long-term, through such political and cultural struggle. Folly perhaps, given the tragic experiences of past history and the traditional reluctance of the Turkish left to recognize that there are unresolved issues if Genocide and minority rights, but what is the alternative?
Today’s Istanbul-Armenian community is the inheritor of a rich and proud cultural and historical legacy. It serves as a living link between the “paradise lost” of Western Armenia and the reality of the Diaspora today. It is a resource to be tapped rather than neglected, as is the case today. On the eve of recent feelers put out by the Armenian government to actually meet face to face with their Turkish counterparts, the Istanbul-Armenian community can offer a wealth of information and personal insight into the mindset and motivations of the Turkish state. Then too, shouldn’t the community, its representative religious, cultural and social bodies, at least be incorporated into this unfolding political process of normalization? What are their expectations, concerns and hopes in this regard? While I cannot offer a specific mechanism as to how this might be done, it would be a slap in the face to the community if the possibility isn’t even explored.
Yes, the community is struggling to maintain its collective existence, its institutional life and unique self-identity. I for one cannot question the sincerity of the convictions of those Istanbul-Armenians we met who believe that their future, as individuals and as a community, is inexorably linked to the process of democratization in Turkey and that, in this goal, they share common ground with Turks and Kurds alike who aspire and work for the same thing. The path they take to ultimately achieve this dream is of their own choosing. I found their tenacity and temerity both admirable and inspirational. The very least the rest of us can do is support them in what ever way possible and practical.
P.S. - For more information regarding the Istanbul-Armenian organizations cited above:
1) Aras Publishing: http://www.arasyayincilik.com
2) AGOS: http://www.agos.com.tr
3) Sayat Nova Ensemble: http://www.sayatnova.org
4) Getronagan: email@example.com
5) Aynur Dogan: http://www.aynurdogan.net/haberler.asp
July 12, 2008
The Armenians of Istanbul…Old and New by Edik Baghdasaryan July 21, 2008
At twelve noon the bus with Turkish license plates departed from the center of Yerevan, outside the offices of a the travel agency close to the Opera building, headed for Istanbul. Buses from this location leave for Istanbul twice a week.
There are also three other agencies whose buses depart from the Central Bus Station in Yerevan to a country with which Armenia has no diplomatic relations. There is also a bus to Turkey that leaves from the town of Vanadzor once a week. Twice weekly, there are flights from Yerevan to Istanbul and back. During the summer holiday season there is also a weekly flight from Yerevan to Antalya, on the southern Turkish coast. During an average month, the number of individuals traveling to Turkey from Armenia reaches 2,500. Yearly, this figure reaches some 30,000.
According to the passport laws existing between Armenia and Turkey, citizens of the Republic of Armenia (ROA) are granted a 30-day tourist visa. There’s no difficulty getting a visa. People traveling to Turkey by bus are issued one at the border and airline passengers get theirs either at the Istanbul or Antalya airport, at a cost of $15.
In October of 2007, Sukru Elekdag, the Deputy President of the Republican People’s Party in Turkey, declared in the Turkish Parliament that, “there are 70,000 illegal immigrants from Armenia working in Turkey.” In response, Besir Atalay, Turkey’s Minister of Internal Affairs, offered up the following numbers - 53,108 individuals entered Turkey from Armenia in 2007 and in the same year 53,359 Armenians left Turkey. He also stated that in 2007, eight Armenian citizens were deported from Turkey as illegals. It’s difficult to say how correct these statistics are. However, during our one week stay in Istanbul, we met many numerous Armenians who have been living illegally in the country for years on end. We also met up with Armenians who had already obtained Turkish citizenship. There is no government body in Armenia that has ever commented on these published numbers.
Many traveling in our bus weren’t even aware of the fact that Armenia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Turkey. I guess it’s because they really have no problem at all entering Turkey. All they have to do is pay their $15 at the border and Turkey opens wide its doors to Armenians. The Georgian border guards are more of a problem to deal with. Before we arrived at the Bagratashen customs house Ali, one of our drivers, called out, “Whoever’s passport isn’t in a normal state needs to hand over $10.” I don’t know how many actually did so but a pretty nice sum was collected by Ali to hand over to the Georgian border guards. I asked a guy from Vanadzor sitting behind me, “What could possibly be the problem with the passports?” and he replied, “Either the pages are wrinkled or the plastic film covering the photo is unraveling.” I quickly checked the pages of my passport and everything looked normal. Ali then collected all our passports and with the money clutched in the other hand he headed off to the border post. Naturally, the payment of this money to the guards might also allow us to quickly pass through the border. After a one hour wait we crossed over into Georgian territory. Several hours later, in the dead of midnight, we once again found ourselves at the Georgian border. This time however it was the Turkish city of Artvin that lay on the other side. Again the Georgian officials kept us waiting. The female Georgian passport control officer was scrutinizing all the passports with a fine tooth comb. She took my passport and started to flip it this way and that, ran her fingernail over a page or two, and then finally stamped it and gave it back to me. Back in the bus I noticed that the plastic strip over my photo was turned up at one corner. A woman from Gyumri, seated next to me on the other aisle, evidently noticed my puzzlement and wryly laughed saying, “She did that in order to get her $10 from you on the way back.” This woman had the answers to practically all of our questions - where we would stop along the way, the times, etc.
After the bus passed through the town of Spitak in Armenia it stopped to pick up six more passengers that were waiting along the roadside. A woman of about 50 got in and immediately exclaimed, “Oh, so this Ali fellow has changed the seat cushions...” It seemed that everybody in the bus knew Ali and went to him to discuss this or that matter.
The woman from Gyumri was giving advice to a couple from Vanadzor, sitting a row behind her, who was traveling to Istanbul for the first time. “Without realizing it those people will take you for all you’ve got” she told them with a smirk on her lips. “My young man, I’ve been traveling back and for 16 years now” she told the attentive man from Vanadzor. I did the calculation in my head; she’s been going to Turkey since 1992. That’s when Armenians first started to travel to Turkey, to bring goods back. “Now everybody makes the trip. Oh, what times they were. Back then they used to call me the “kozhi printsesa” (leather princess). I was the only one transporting leather back. Everybody knew me and would beat a path to my door to get some. Today, those big stores have strangled us. They have the money to bring huge quantities back. It’s no longer profitable for us any longer” said the woman with a look of regret. “You see this guy Hamlet here? I was the one who took him to Istanbul for the first time and showed him the ropes. Now he thinks he’s some big shot or something, the way he talks and all. Later on I pulled him aside and told him, so you’ve forgotten all that, you’ve got selective amnesia or something? Don’t you feel embarrassed?” she went on and on. These were the types of discussions that went on for 36 hours in various parts of the bus. People were at ease, as if they were oblivious to the long ride. This was their daily routine.
“Sen gal ma, gyal ma sen” (Don’t you come, don’t you come) - this blaring refrain of a Turkish song, that went on and on, had already sawed my brain into pieces. The words echo in my head even today. The only respite from the Turkish music played by the drivers once we headed out of Yerevan was when we stopped at the border crossings. We were seated in the second row behind the driver so our view in front was unobstructed. This didn’t prove much of a benefit in light of the continuous musical racket hitting our eardrums. Turkish music would have pretty much accompanied us all the way to Istanbul had I not suggested we watch a movie or two. Here too we didn’t have much luck. All we could chose from were some Chinese chop-socky action flics or some soft-porn that somehow sneaked onto the screen. We all turned away and snorted when some of the more erotic scenes appeared. My God, there were some kids as young as 10 watching as well. Suffice it to say our 36 hour trip was chock-full of such pleasantries; Turkish music, stupid movies, some snacks and other questionable odors. What do you expect? The bus is the cheapest way of getting to Istanbul at a price tag of $80.
Hamlet and his wife have been living in Istanbul for 8 years now. He said, “I nail on the soles in a shoe factory.” They send back goods via cargo to their relatives in Armenia who in turn sell the stuff. Hamlet told us that he intends to return to Armenia this August. At the time I believed him. In the days to come, after meeting and talking with other Armenians from the ROA, I realized that while they all talk about returning they continue to stay.
“The Police know about all of us, where we live, etc. If they wanted to they could round us all up in one night and deport us”. This is how Hamlet responded when I asked him about the dangers if caught as an illegal in Turkey. I didn’t understand why Hamlet specifically noted the word ‘night’. Was it perhaps to overly dramatize the danger or was it that the Police had already visited him one night. A few days later however, after meeting with a 21 year-old guy from Yerevan, I realized that their days are filled with anxiety.
The young man I refer to returns home from work and never leaves till the following morning. Home is a bare-bones 8 square meter cell-like room. The day of our visit even the electricity wasn’t working. His Armenian neighbors, a mother and her son from Yerevan, are the only comfort he has. Armenians from the ROA essentially reside in the Bayazit neighborhood, along the streets of Tiyatro, Gedikpasha and the narrow alleyways of Kumkapi, in the old city. It’s in this area where most of your shoe, clothing and leather plants are and also where the Armenian Patriarchate and the Armenian Protestant Sourp Hovahannes Church are located. The Armenian presence is palpable here everywhere you look. You even come across signs in the shop windows advertising telephone call rates to Armenia. Perhaps these Armenians congregated in the streets surrounding the Patriarchate out of some inner instinct. I can’t say. Or maybe it was some inner fear that drove them to seek out the Armenian Mother Church of Istanbul. Then too, it could be because the factories are here with their wholesale outlets and one can rent apartments here on the cheap.
Gypsies and Kurds from the provinces live on these streets alongside Armenians. Outside the cheap hotels, that are a dime a dozen here, you’ll see young women plying the world’s oldest trade. There also an abundance of night clubs and discos with guys standing on the street outside inviting unsuspecting passers-by inside.
Police cars are constantly patrolling these streets. Also located here is the building housing the Police Department’s detention center for illegal aliens and related matters. From the bars on the windows you can see the shirts and underwear of the detainees hanging out to dry. From behind some of the barred windows you can even glimpse a face or two. Across the way from this imposing structure are rows upon rows of restaurants where live music can be heard along with the laughter of passing merry-makers. A ten minute walk from here and you’re looking upon the Sea of Marmara.
In essence, the majority of ROA Armenians live here illegally. After their 30 day visa is up they’re obliged to leave the country. “Yeah, we’re illegal. If they wanted to they could deport the lot of us. But they don’t. If we’re grabbed we slip them $10 or $20 and they let us go” says the 21 year-old from Yerevan who’s works as a jewelry maker.
Hamlet says, “We left our country and wound up in this mess.” I knew he was saying this merely to justify his actions but I wouldn’t say anything to him about it. These Armenians, like those in Los Angeles, suffer from a certain complex. They all constantly try to justify the reasons why they are here. Hamlet mentions that he views Armenian H1 TV by satellite. I ask another Armenian if his kids go to school here in Turkey and she answers, “What school, there is no school. Let the kids work as well and bring home a few bucks. Better than doing nothing, right? There are many Armenian families from the ROA in Istanbul whose kids are being deprived of an education. Even if the parents want them to attend classes they can’t because Turkish law prohibits children of non-citizens from attending school.
Bolsahay Gayaneh says that, “Kumkapi is again being inhabited by Armenians, who would have known?” She was our guide while in Istanbul, showing us the Armenian neighborhoods of the city and the churches. At the turn of the last century Kumkapi was an Armenian populated neighborhood. Today, due to the influx of ROA Armenians, it is becoming so again.
Gayaneh tells us that, “Once, we were afraid to speak Armenian outside the house. We only spoke Turkish. One day I spotted two women in the tramway speaking Armenian out loud in front of all, without a care in the world. I realized then the sense of fear we grew up and lived with. Slowly but surely we too started to speak Armenian out in public. I’m talking about my nervous generation, the remnants of those after the Genocide who somehow managed to remain Armenian here.”
After returning to Yerevan I remember how we always invariably walked down to the street where the Patriarchate was, where the Armenians lived. For the life of me I couldn’t understand why we walked along those streets, those Armenian-inhabited streets.
Armenians from the ROA are Finding Work in Turkey
While walking the narrow streets in the vicinity of the Armenian Patriarchate one can hear Eastern Armenian being spoken. Pasted on the windows of the numerous internet telephone call centers in the area, one even eyes Armenian notices advertising the per-minute rates for calling Yerevan and Vanadzor.
There are about 3-5 thousand Armenians from the ROA residing in the vicinity of the Patriarchate. This was the number noted by several Armenians from Bolis active in community affairs.
These ROA Armenians rarely attend church services, most likely out of fear of being videotaped by the surveillance cameras mounted at church entrances. The comings and goings in all likelihood are monitored by the security services of the state. The Patriarchate itself is under heavy surveillance, a small police unit being posted on the street out in front with a series of video cameras strategically placed.
Armenians from the ROA started coming to Turkey as of 1992. In those early days they brought different electronic gadgets, gift items, crystal chandeliers, and cognac and food items along with them. Our Bolsahay acquaintances said that during those initial years they would purchase these items as a way of assisting their compatriots. Haroutiun, one of the reporters at the Agos newspaper, said that, “Later we realized we really had no need for this stuff so we stopped purchasing it.” He recounted the time when two ladies from Armenia had brought two overstuffed suitcases full of Armenian books to Bolis, thinking that Armenian books weren’t to be found there. When Armenians from the ROA saw that the merchandise they were bringing wasn’t selling in Bolis they began transporting Turkish goods back to Armenia. At the time none were entertaining the notion of staying in Turkey. They were fearful of doing so.
“At first we warmly welcomed these Armenians. We invited them to our homes and found work for them. Istanbul-Armenians don’t really have extravagant drinking toasts so when we heard the toasts of these Armenians at New Year’s gatherings we got all emotional and patriotic. They would say - your house is like a second home for us, a bit of the country we left behind. I believed they would work, amass some money, and then return to Armenia. But exactly the opposite happened. They got married and settled down. They even married Turks and Kurds. Then we found out something that really amazed us. We would find work for them but they’d then distribute these jobs to one another on a commission basis. They would take the passport of the job seeker as collateral, threatening not to return it if payment wasn’t made for services rendered. We only found out about this scheme two years after the fact.” recounts Bolsahay Gayaneh, our guide in Istanbul.
Afterwards, Armenians began exploring all possible ways to stay in Turkey. The fact remains that at the border only a 30 day visa is issued to all comers. Some return to the Georgian border when the 30 days are up, only to reenter Turkey for another 30 day period. A certain segment of women have actually married local citizens, but it’s only a small percentage that has married a Bolsahay. The rest have entered into marriages with Turks and Kurds and have thus obtained Turkish citizenship. Other schemes have also been tried. For instance, certain women have “separated” from their Armenian husbands and have married either Turks or Kurds. After a year or two they divorce their new husbands and remarry their former ones who are now eligible for Turkish citizenship as well. We weren’t able to find out what such a scheme costs to execute. While in Istanbul we met a woman from Yerevan who was able to obtain citizenship papers in this way. Today, her husband and two children are also Turkish citizens. Since there have been no studies or research on the matter it’s truly difficult to say how many Armenians from the ROA have obtained Turkish citizenship.
Most of the ROA Armenians living in Turkey reside in the cities of Istanbul and Trabizon. As to the question, what kind of work do they do in Istanbul, the simple answer would be, whatever they want. Furthermore, the majority of the bread-winners are women. Below is a list of the basic job sectors they’re employed in.
1. Home Care Attendants - These women care for the elderly and children at an average monthly salary of $600-700. Armenians covet such type of work since no documents are required and there’s a low-risk of being caught. In addition, their room and board is taken care of by the family or individuals who employ them. There’s no need to pay rent or money for meals. If the family is well-off the monthly wage can rise to $1,000.
2. House Cleaning - A substantial segment of women are employed in this sector. Such work is also deemed to be desirable with average monthly wages in the $300-500 range, depending on the generosity and resources of the individual employer. Some of the women work both for Bolsahay households and in Turkish ones as well, where the pay is higher. After learning the basics of the language many of the women go off to seek work in well-to-do Turkish households.
3. Commerce and the Service Industry - Women in these fields are employed in commercial shops, wholesale retail establishments, hotels and restaurants.
4. Sex Trade - Some women have also found work in this sector of the economy as well. They mainly are located on the port city of Trabizon and other resort towns along the coast. There are no statistics as to the number of women so engaged. Back when the human trafficking investigations were taking place in Armenia one frequently met the victims of this trade, those who willingly participated and those who were deceived into it. There are a number of well-known pimps who have been on the run from Armenian law enforcement and Interpol for years. Most of them permanently reside in Turkey. One of them, a woman from Ijevan called Gohar, married a Turk and changed her last name. In Trabizon, she’s the major player in getting Armenian women from the ROA involved in prostitution there. This, however, is a separate issue all together and one that “Hetq” will certainly cover at a later date.
As Armenian women became the main wage earners, shouldering most of the family responsibilities, many started to divorce their husbands later on. Bolsahay Gayaneh offers the following explanation for the high divorce rate, “Those who came here got divorced. The husbands would sit at home while the women worked. These wives found a certain freedom and they had every right to. They were out there earning a living while the men folk did absolutely nothing.”
It is much harder for the men to find work. They cannot be legally employed in any firm or company. Mostly, they find jobs in factories or in construction as laborers. A few have even found work in the jewelry trade. In the factories they mostly are shoemakers, tailors or porters. If they are caught as illegal workers it can translate into a whole lot of trouble for their employers. This is why many Bolsahays are quite wary of hiring ROA Armenians. Those caught illegally residing in Turkey are fined $1,500, their wages confiscated and summarily deported. It is not clear how many, if any, such Armenians are being detained in Turkish jails. One Bolsahay put it this way, “There aren’t any because no one is concerned enough to delve into the matter. In other words, there is no information.”
Why doesn’t the Turkish government deport Armenians illegally residing and working in the country? First and foremost, they are a political card to be played when deemed appropriate and the Turkish authorities don’t hesitate to raise the matter from official podiums at such times. Also, the Turkish economy needs cheap labor and these Armenians fill this gap to a small extent.
Bolsahay Gayaneh related to us what a police acquaintance of hers said on the matter, “When I spoke to this policeman he stated that they didn’t want to round up the Armenians because there’s no Armenian Embassy here. If we round them up we’d have to take care of them. The government would have to foot the bill of housing and feeding them in the jails. But the police know exactly who lives where.”
Why then do Armenians from the ROA travel to Turkey? After all, every Armenian knows the history of the Genocide and thus subconsciously the Turk is to be considered enemy #1. Turkey is the closest country to Armenia where one can travel to at minimal cost. For $100 one can reach Trabizon or, better yet, Istanbul. The second reason is that it’s safer than say, Russia. In addition, living costs, that’s to say apartment rentals, are cheaper too. Ideal conditions for trade and commerce exist as well. You can buy goods and immediately ship them anywhere you like. On the streets of Istanbul you can see Azeris, Georgians, Moldovans and of course Russians as well. A working knowledge of Russian is considered an asset when applying for a job in a restaurant or store. In a word, the city of Istanbul not only entices one with its blue straits and seas, it historical monuments and temperate climate, but also as a center of commerce, where meals are cheap and there’s an abundance of inexpensive hotels and the people, on the whole, hospitable.
When I asked Bolsahay Gayaneh about the Armenian community in Turkey she swiftly countered, “Please don’t call us a kaghout.” (The Armenian for “colony”, a word mainly used to describe Diaspora Armenian communities) In fact, it would be absurd to describe an Armenian still living in Sassoun as being part of the Armenian kaghout in Turkey. That individual is living in his native home, where he was born and where Armenians have lived for consecutive millennia.
Jan Gavrilof, another Bolsahay acquaintance, put it this way, “Our community is really the most misfortunate of all. Are we a colony or not? Yes, we are a colony in the sense that Istanbul isn’t historic Armenian land. But, we are not a colony since Istanbul is in Turkey, where my fatherland once existed. I was born here. So were my father and grandfather. We Armenians have been here for thousands of years.”
After the deportations Jan’s grandfather, not able to make a go of it in Russia, returned to Turkey in 1920. At the border when asked his nationality he told them, I’m a Russian and my last name is Gavrilof.
“Hrant was our Sacrifice as Well” - Claims Janet from Bolis
Edik Baghdasaryan August 04, 2008
The Armenian community of Istanbul is the most isolated when it comes to relations with the Republic of Armenia. The Armenians of Turkey hardly feel the presence of Armenia in whatever sector you wish to name. However, the Armenians in Istanbul and in the hundreds of residences throughout Western Armenia have remained Armenian, even without knowing the language, converting to the Muslim faith, changing their names and surnames and professing to be of another nationality.
It’s the same across the board; they have remained Armenian due to the fact that they are labeled as “giavour” (infidel) and their domicile as the “village of the giavour”. Perhaps there will come a time when they can openly profess their identity, I can’t say. Today, however, the reality is otherwise. The Armenian community in Turkey really has no connections, no relations, with their Armenian counterparts in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. In any event, those Armenians coming to Istanbul from the Anatolian provinces attempt to rediscover who they really are. When they go to church they stand off in a corner by themselves, not mingling with the Bolsahay’s. For the most part, the “bourgeoisie” Bolsahay’s don’t even let these provincials approach them. These are the same Bolis Armenians that the great satirist Hagop Baronian described so many years ago and whose bust is located in the courtyard of the Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church in Orta Kyugh (Ortakoy).
It was the last Sunday of June that we found ourselves inside the walls of the Sourp Harutyun Church in Kumkapi. In the courtyard were assembled around ten or so elderly Armenians. Further away a woman of about thirty was seated. Her face and hands were rough and worn and I recognized her to be of village stock. Seated away from the rest, it seemed as if there was an invisible boundary line running down the middle of the courtyard and that she wasn’t permitted to cross it. I later learned that she was an Armenian who had just moved to Istanbul from Sassoun. The woman didn’t speak a word of Armenian. The words uttered by Pakrat Estukyan, the Armenian Editor at Agos, quickly came to mind, “And when we speak of the Armenian community of Istanbul we must understand that we are talking about a certain “petty-bourgeois” lifestyle. This “accepted” lifestyle only wishes to see Armenians who fit the prescribed mould…Those Armenians who have lived outside the Istanbul community for long periods and who, whether preserving their identity or losing it, are aware of it today. This segment of Armenians can never fully integrate into the dominant Bolsahay community.”
Sourp Harutyun is a small but charming church that the Bolsahay’s have nicknamed the “Fishermen’s Church”. For hundreds of years the Armenians of Istanbul were engaged as fishermen and fishmongers and their families attended services at this church, which by the way is close to the main fish market in the city. Their descendants continue to call Sourp Harutyun their local parish church
The number of working Armenian churches in Istanbul today stands at 36. However, the number of those attending religious services decreases yearly. On any given Sunday, one would be hard-pressed to see a large number of young people at church.
Baronian, in his masterful work, “A Stroll through the Neighborhoods of Bolis”, described the district of Pera and its inhabitants thusly, “There are four churches in this neighborhood; Sourp Yerrortutyun, Khor Virab, Vosgeperan and Sourp Harutyun. Go to all four and you will not find four pious Christians amongst them.” The issue of finding four pious Christians doesn’t only relate to the Armenians of Istanbul. Today, in Yerevan, there are other “pious” Christians who are building churches. These individuals steal from the people and then build private churches with the ill-gotten proceeds. They then engage in charitable works, giving back mere crumbs to the people they stole from, and are praised on the TV screen and in the papers. The problem of “pious Christians” is one of those seemingly eternal themes that came to my mind, out of the blue, in the land of Baronian.
Baronian continues to write that, “In this neighborhood reside the most famous of wealthy compatriots who in recent years have opened up their money bags in the name of charitable works…but they only contribute to those benevolent works for which their names will be published in the papers and they themselves glorified. They will not give a cent, however, to those good works worthy of national honor and glory, since such contributions will not be covered in the papers. It would be downright stupid for one to give two bucks to the national fund and not get his name in the papers.”
It seemed that all conversations between Bolsahay’s and average Turks soon revolved around the topic of Hrant Dink. One evening, when our taxi driver learnt that we were from Armenia, he told us that he was an Alevi (a branch of Islam whose followers don’t pray in mosques) and that Armenians and Alevis are brothers. Of course I found that brotherhood difficult to believe but the fact remains that Alevis in Turkey are facing repression and Hrant Dink, in addition to everything else, was a champion of minority rights in Turkey. Our Alevi taxi driver stated that his coreligionists were present at Hrant’s funeral procession. “We cried that day, the burly Turk said and continued; there are 30 million Alevis in Turkey, 20 million Kurds and only 20 million actual Turks. We will eventually triumph.”
Hrant Dink forced the average Turk to think and to ask himself questions. Through his TV debates and interviews he made the problems facing Armenians comprehensible for the Turkish populace at large. For Turks, Hrant represented the Armenian community and in a way became the symbolic Armenian. His was a representation that was quite sympathetic and which charmed the Turkish intellectuals and political leaders who seemed to throw in the towel of defeat whenever they debated Hrant. But Hrant also had another mission in mind - to make the Armenian community stand up and listen to what he had to say as well. Armenians were obliged to take notice as well because his views on the Genocide and Armenian-Turkish relations were quite different from the generally accepted viewpoints. And it was hard to come out on top in a debate with Hrant because his sincerity would defeat all comers.
For Turkish national chauvinists, Hrant Dink was the most dangerous Armenian around and thus his murder didn’t happen by chance. We now know that his assassination had been planned quite a while ago. Hrant, however, was also not acceptable to many Armenian circles as well, whether in Istanbul, Armenia or the Diaspora. It’s sufficient to note two facts in this regard - Mesrob Mutafyan, the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, had banned the advertising of any church-related activities in the newspaper Agos and that Hrant was labeled a “spy” throughout much of the Diaspora.
Janet, one of our Bolsahay acquaintances, declared, “Who brought the greatest pressure to bear down on Hrant, the Turkish government or the Armenian Church? Hrant was being attacked from all quarters. And all of us followed the spectacle, like we were seated at a circus, with Hrant in the center ring being fired upon day and night. We kept him at arm’s length, alone and isolated. When they took him to court we didn’t even go to the trials. Hrant also sacrificed himself for us. His voice was silenced because the people started to wake up. He was becoming dangerous.”
As the Bolsahay’s put it, a state of confusion and turmoil reigns within the Agos offices today. It halls and rooms have become the meeting place of choice for progressive Turks and Kurds; the Turkish policeman posted outside constantly monitoring the entrance way.
Edik Baghdasaryan August 4, 2008
Source: Hetq Online