Hetq talks to Salim Aykut Öztürk, working on his PhD in Anthropology at the University College of London on the topic “Armenians between Istanbul and Armenia: An Ethnography of Communal Identity in Transnational Contexts”.
In his introduction to his research topic Öztürk writes:
“It is estimated that 20,000 Armenians from the Republic of Armenia (henceforth the RoA) illegally live and work in Istanbul, where a native Armenian community of 70,000 people already exists. People from the RoA started to come to Turkey after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the number has slowly increased since then. I investigate how the relationships between the Armenian natives and migrants/sojourners from the RoA influence the ways Armenians formulate their communal identities.”
During my conversation with Öztürk, the anthropologist said that there is a big difference between the way Istanbul Armenians think about other Armenians, how they relate to their identity, and what think about Armenian history.
Öztürk said that Istanbul Armenians do not associate themselves with Armenians from the RoA and believe they are quite different from them. He said that relations between the two communities are limited to individual contacts and that the two communities live on parallel but separate planes in Istanbul.
He says that Istanbul Armenians initially welcomed the Armenians from the RoA but that problems arose as the numbers of the latter increased. Öztürk notes that those Istanbul Armenians who hired RoA Armenians as housecleaners and care givers come from the middle and upper classes and that factor must be taken into account when seeking to understand the divisions between them.
Öztürk also mentioned the huge difference in customs and traditions, and that sharing a common language isn’t sufficient for the two communities to bond. He argued that Istanbul Armenians have little knowledge of their Armenian roots and that, in this sense, the Kemalist revolution was successful because these Armenians were Turkified and turned into a Turkish subset.
Öztürk says that the experiences of families were different during the 1915 Genocide. Thus, some Armenian families in Istanbul say that while massacres took place, the events cannot be considered genocide. Many Armenians in Ankara also deny that a genocide took place, he says. Naturally, the Armenian Genocide isn’t taught in Turkish schools. Many are afraid to speak about the subject. Thus, many Armenian children do not learn about the Genocide; neither at school or at home.
Isn’t it true though, that the Istanbul Armenian community is closely linked to the church and that they learn about their history in this way?
The community isn’t all that homogeneous as it may seem. It’s comprised of many different groupings that express different notions of Armenian identity. Religion doesn’t always play a uniting role.
I’ve conducted my research in the middle class that have relatively more western views. Many never attended Armenian schools. They are quite secular and do not attend church. They see their link to their Armenian identity in a different way, without any association to religion or the church.
Armenians from the RoA feel quite at home in Istanbul. They say the Turks treat them better than Istanbul Armenians, especially when they find out that they are Armenian. How would you explain this?
I believe that this attitude is only the case in Istanbul. I wonder what would happen to these RoA Armenians if they went to Trabzon or Moush. Istanbul doesn’t represent Turkey as a whole. Even Istanbul itself is different depending on the neighborhood. In general, there are certain negative and preconceived attitudes regarding Armenians, and it doesn’t matter if you’re an Istanbul-Armenian, an American-Armenian, or one from Armenia.
Armenians from the RoA feel good in certain places and not so good in others. The same holds true for Istanbul Armenians. Turkey is truly changing, but in certain respects it hasn’t changed at all.
I talked to an Armenian from the RoA who was in Turkey for fifteen years. He didn’t feel that good prior to the killing of Hrant Dink. Afterwards, the police started to treat him better. Dink’s killing was a watershed event. Perhaps it was the reason why many feel at ease in Turkey today.
But I want to stress that this change occurred at the volition of the government and not the people. Nevertheless, I can say that the people changed as well, in some respect, given that Fatih Akın’s movie (The Cut) has been shown in Istanbul theaters. Ten years ago, showing such a film would have been impossible.
To what degree have they changed, if at all?
When I meet with Armenians I always proclaim that I am a Turk. My roots are from Adana but I don’t know the family history. It’s possible that I have Armenian roots as well but that doesn’t interest me. My identity is Turkish. I want to make it clearly understood that it is not because I have Armenian roots that I accept the fact of the Genocide.
I say this to show that there are different Turks in Turkey; that not all are monsters and that there are many who are sorry over what happened.
I want to say that when we (Turks-AM) discuss the genocide as a genocide, we truly want to change the country and society to the extent possible.
I reject the official Turkish version of history. However, when I visit Armenia (15 times-AM), I see that the Armenian version of history is the exact opposite of the Turkish one. I understood that in this regard Armenians are like the Turks because they too do not approach official history critically and do not take a critical view of their past. Rather, they accept the official version.
I am a Turk and cannot ask such a question of Armenians. But, I believe that Armenians should be able to ask it of themselves and find answers. The question is – what made the Genocide possible?
The Armenian public perception of the Turkish ethnos revolves around the saying that “A Turk remains a Turk”, with all its negative connotations. What’s your attitude towards this perception?
Of course, it’s problematic and unacceptable because I can ask what is meant by saying a Turk and what Turks are we talking about.
The Turk of today differs from that of the start of the 20th century and from the Middle Ages. There is no universal or unified conception of being Turkish. Today, a vast portion of Turkey is comprised of a mix of migrants from other countries. Turkey is a huge and heterogeneous country. Thus, I cannot generalize and place all Turks in one category.
On the other hand, the Turkish state has well-crafted practices of pressure in order to change society as it sees fit. Throughout history it has employed such practices in various ways.
But we shouldn’t equate the ruling nationalist elites over the past two hundred years that utilized those practices with those people who created this society. They are totally different things. Of course, I would say it is good not to trust the national state because it has its agenda and policies. But why shouldn’t I trust people walking in the street? We have changed. I come from a Turkish speaking family that will never recognize the 1915 events as genocide. We have never discussed that issue in our family.
I was around fifteen when I first heard debates about the Armenian question on television related to France recognizing the Genocide. Our new outlets conveyed conspiratorial theories that the Armenians hated us and wanted to slander Turkey’s reputation in international forums. I thought it was an Armenian trap. I only knew that we hated one another, that the Armenians left Turkey, but that they had threatened to kill us, etc.
When I enrolled in university I began to take a more critical approach to the matter and wanted to hear differing opinions. I’m thirty now and have completely changed. My transformation is the answer to your original question.
Today, one section of the Armenian public believes that recognition of the Genocide isn’t enough and that Turkey must pay compensation. As someone who recognizes the Genocide, are you ready to see the borders of Turkey changed?
To be sincere, I must say that I have never given it any thought. But I can say that whether or not the borders change doesn’t interest me. If such a decision is reached, I’d have no problem with it. But what will become of the people who now live in Kars or Ardahan? They are people who comprise an important component of Turkish society.
At the same time, I believe such a thing will never happen. I mean to say that I will never exert energy or time to force Turkey to give back Armenian lands. It’s because I believe there are other directions in which people like me can work towards.
I believe that recognizing the genocide and apologizing for it isn’t sufficient and that there must be justice. Otherwise, I wouldn’t believe in its sincerity and merely view it as a political move.
I don't know how the government can quantify compensation but it must happen because not only did people die, but those who survived lost their property and lands. Thus, the lands seized must be returned to the descendants of the victims. If the descendants can’t be located, compensation should go to Armenian foundations.
If I were prime minister, I’d grant citizenship to all those individuals. Such a move would give them an historical link to their history.
What do you mean by historical link? Armenian-Turkish history is replete with bloody passages.
We have different conceptions of history. We must look deeper and understand the nuances.
I am not one of those who believe that Armenians and Turks always coexisted well. I’d be naive to think otherwise. But I also do not believe that Armenians and Turks were always enemies. History isn’t like that. There have been different eras and relations between the ruling elites and Armenians. Another problem is that until the 1920s many Turkish speaking Muslims didn’t call themselves Turks. Consequently, the question arises, what Turks are Armenians talking about?
There is a generation of young historians who, studying the art history of the Ottoman Empire, found that the first Ottoman novel was written by an Armenian and that Armenians were an important component of the empire and due to whom we have the architecture that we have today, that we have the Istanbul and Turkey of today.
We cannot relate to our past as a celebration because the Genocide took place. But I wouldn’t want to reject our mutual history. That’s to say we can take two parallel paths –recognizing the genocide while remembering what we have reached together.
Perhaps, we have not achieved great things together, but there was a huge multi-cultural society that failed. It failed due to Turkish chauvinism. But that’s another story.