04 June 2010
The Civilitas Foundation organized a unique exhibition of postcards, printed and mailed in Turkey, from the collection of Orlando Calumeno. The exhibition is curated and edited by Osman Koker and reflects the reality of life for an integrated community in nearly two dozen cities throughout the Ottoman Empire. The thousands of cards testify to the lives of individuals, businesses, schools, churches and other Armenian institutions living and functioning there
Once upon a time in Turkey
A visual chronicle of Armenians in Turkey 100 years ago
Osman Köker’s personal journey from Marash to Istanbul to Yerevan
by Maria Titizian, October 02, 2009
What story can a collection of a few hundred postcards from a century ago tell? What secrets can be revealed in the faded images of villages, towns, schools, factories, and churches? Individually, they may appear interesting and novel. As a collection they tell the story of the social and economic history of a people who no longer live on their ancestral homeland. They tell the story of the Armenian people.
The exhibition of postcards that were on display in Yerevan's Moscow Cinema from September 22 to 26 were part of a collection of postcards included in Osman Köker's book, Armenians in Turkey 100 Years Ago. Organized by the Civilitas Foundation and sponsored by HayPost, the exhibition created a lot of interest and prompted much discussion in the Armenian capital.
While he was in Yerevan, Osman Köker spoke with the Armenian Reporter about his life, his work, and his mission to publish his book.
The story begins in Marash
Köker was born in the historic Armenian city of Marash, and says that his experiences as a child in his native city helped formulate his understanding of his own country.
Growing up, the only time he would ever hear about the Armenians would be on every February 12, Marash's Liberation Day. "There would be commemorations about the conflict. It was the day that Marash had been liberated from the Armenians who had usurped their land," explains Köker. They only ever spoke about the Armenians except to refer to them as a source of conflict. Later on in life, when he had become a specialist in minorities, he understood that there was a skewed understanding of their own history.
"There was a very important Armenian presence in Marash; they were one third of the population during the Ottoman era," he says. "They had mastered various trades. However, during my childhood there was not a single Armenian left in Marash. There had been ten Armenian churches, two cathedrals and more than ten schools in Marash. Today there is no trace of those buildings. I never saw one building ever made by an Armenian."
An experience from his childhood, one that he understands was unique and helped shape his historical viewpoint, is something he recalls vividly. "I was 9 years old and in those years, people involved in NATO programs would come to Marash and they would teach English," he says. "An American woman who had come to Izmir with the NATO program, was originally from Marash. She told someone that she wanted to go to Marash to visit her family's home. They gave her my father's name and said that he could probably help her." The American woman from Osman's past was Armenian.
"She came to our house as a guest. It was amazing to us because she was speaking Turkish with the Marash dialect," he recalls. "In our family, we didn't even speak the real Marash dialect because my mother was from Istanbul. She was more of a Marashtsi than we were!" Decades later, Osman Köker says that experience helped him to understand that the Armenians were as much citizens of Turkey as the Turks were.
"The history being taught in Turkish schools to Turkish students is from their own particular historical viewpoint. When they generally speak about the Armenians, they say that at one time the Armenians came, created problems and then left," he explains. "If you tell a Turk that you are an Armenian from Van or Civas or Marash, he will ask you, ‘How did you come to be there?'"
This is how history is taught in Turkey even today. "They don't say that Armenians lived there, that they played a very important role in the development of trade and culture, that they were a part of that land," says Köker. "The experience I had as a nine-year old helped me to understand that reality more clearly."
The Armenian-American woman eventually did find her house in Marash.
After graduating from the lycee in Marash, Osman Köker moved to Ankara to pursue his university education. "Even though I am not a historian, my career in journalism and publishing always had a historical direction," he explains. In 1992 he worked at the Human Rights Union in Istanbul where they formed a chapter for minority rights. "It was a very important experience and work for me. We would follow issues and problems affecting minorities," he said, adding that after leaving the union, his principle work in publishing developed in the field of minority rights.
Between 1994 and 2000, he served as editor-in-chief of a journal published by the Social and Economic Historical Institute of Turkey, which he is quick to add, was not a state institution. "This journal was one of the most serious and recognized journals in Turkey," he says.
Osman Köker was also involved in the creation in 1996 of the Turkish-Armenian daily Agos, which is published in Istanbul and Aras Publishing House, the only publishing house which publishes books in Armenian and books translated into Turkish from the Armenian. "I worked with Gevorg Pambukjian, a historian and helped put together a four volume collection of his essays and articles about the Istanbul-Armenian community and Armenians living in Turkey," he says.
"As I said earlier, for ten years, I had been involved in issues facing the Armenian minority [in Turkey], publishing books, conducting studies," Mr. Köker said. "In reality, I was initially working on a very simple book about how the Armenians used to live in Turkey 100 years ago; what role they played in the economy, education, culture, lifestyle, etc." He had spent almost five years working on that "simpler" version when he thought about utilizing some visual aids, like old photographs, that would create a greater impact.
"I was looking for photos when I heard that there was a postcard collection in Turkey, about the different cities in Turkey," he explains. "Of course that collection wasn't about the Armenians."
The collection belonged to Orlando Calumeno. "He is the son of a family from the Levant - that's how we call them in Turkey - whose roots are from Italy, but have been living in Turkey for 200-300 years," he said. "When I studied the collection, I saw that the majority of them were portraying Armenian towns, villages, buildings, factories, people. Some of them were sent by Armenians, some had Armenian stamps on them. That was evidence that Armenians lived in those towns and villages." And that is when the format for his book changed and had to be changed into an album.
"Because my ‘simple' book grew to be an album, it became very expensive and not everyone could afford to buy it. Therefore I thought it would be a good idea to put together an exhibition, so that it could be accessible to everyone to see the postcards and it would also serve as advertising for the book," he explains.
The first exhibition took place in January 2005 in Istanbul.
With the new version of his book completed, Osman Köker realized that there were few publishers in Turkey who could publish such a large book with the best quality that he wanted for it. "The publishers I visited either wanted to make changes, or they didn't believe that the book would be successful or they just didn't believe in the work," he recalls. "I thought, in that case, I can't trust this book to any publisher, therefore I opened my own publishing house called Birzamanlar."
Birzamanlar, means once upon a time in Turkish. And that's how he formulated the mission of his publishing house: "...the cultural riches and treasure that existed once upon a time in Turkey, and how we lost it."
The message and the mission
"When I was working in the field of minorities, I was always interested in them as a Turk and I tried to explain this to other Turks," he says. "It is not only about the Armenians - there is a problem of minorities in Turkey - Kurds, Greeks or Gypsies. The state's position is the problem including the lack of knowledge about minorities among Turks."
He explains that his studies are directed to find an answer to the problem. "I always say, there is no Armenian issue, Greek issue or Kurdish issue in Turkey. In Turkey there is the Turkish issue," he says. He firmly believes that knowledge and understanding can help resolve many issues. "I think if people, look outside themselves and look to other people, to minorities and learn about them, then they can have peace and be free of wars."
He is careful not to emphasize specific historical cases or political situations. His emphasis has been on the history of the cities of Turkey and "when I present this history to the people living in those cities, then they can look at the Armenians differently and not as an enemy."
Osman Köker is sensitive to the pain and tragedy that the Armenian people feel. "They [the Armenians] approach the issue from their own perspective. I respect that and it is a very normal process," he says. "But all those issues, everything that happened during the first world war - the deportations and massacres - is at the same time our pain. In reality, the Turks lost their best neighbor."
He explains that following the First World War, the economy in eastern Turkey collapsed. "We can say, very strongly, that the cultural life declined; a whole bunch of cities and villages were wiped off the map," he admits. "If you go to Kharpert or to Istanos, which is near Ankara, there is nothing left there but they were at one time very vibrant cities. These are also our losses."
He recalls that during his youth, the political situation was very active in Turkey and there were a lot of discussions about the lack of development in the eastern regions of the country. "Sociologists came up with a lot of theories but none of them said anything about the time when the Armenians lived in those regions - whether they were developed at that time or not. In other words, our one-sided view of minorities, even affects how important scientists look at history - through their own biased prism."
Osman Köker has devoted many years of study and work to ensure the realization of his book, Armenians in Turkey 100 Years Ago. "The reason I am involved in this is because I place importance on Turkey and on the Turkish people," he explained.
And what has reaction in Turkey been? "No one usually does something like this without state permission," he says. "I just rented an exhibition hall and organized the exhibition." The exhibition received relatively good coverage in the media.
Over 600 people came on the opening day of the exhibition. "About one third of them were Armenians from Turkey and the rest were Turks," he recalls. "Everyone was very surprised when they saw the exhibition; no one knew about the existence of these post cards."
The owner of the exhibition hall was originally from the city of Adarbazar. When he saw that there were postcards from Adarbazar featuring Armenians, including an Armenian neighborhood, photographers, etc. he was surprised. He never knew that Armenians had once lived there.
"The exhibition was organized city by city, villayet by villayet. Everyone was looking for their own cities among the postcards," he says. "We wanted to show the Turks that Armenians lived there and we wanted to convince them. The Armenians who were at the exhibition, were also looking for the cities where they came from. So, we told the Turks, ‘Not only have you found your city, but here is an Armenian from that city!"
Perhaps Osman Köker's greatest mission, encouraging dialogue between two people who share a common history, began with that exhibition in Istanbul. "There were acquaintances being made [between Armenians and Turks], people were actively telling stories, conversations were taking place..." he says and smiles.