There is no doubt that the identity-building process of Turkish-Armenians is complicated, multidimensional and volatile; it is also under the heavy influence of other dynamics.The impact of the political change Turkey is going through on the shaping of the internal dynamics of the Armenian community cannot be ignored.
Bold, anxious, repressed or hypocritical, and most of the time cautious and balanced, the attitudes of the different segments of Turkish-Armenians provide important clues for understanding the process.
During his speech at a workshop on relations between Turkey and Armenia held by the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), sociologist Ferhat Kentel gave a few examples of discrimination against Armenians in Turkey. At the meeting hall, an Armenian woman (I did not have the opportunity to ask how she defined herself, but most likely she would prefer Turk of Armenian origin as her identity) strongly opposed Kentel’s arguments, saying: “You don’t have the right to speak on behalf of us. We do not have any problem in this country. You are saying we cannot become civil servants or military officers, so what? We are happy with our current status.” I think this excerpt does not suffice to summarize the above statement, but it sure makes you think about how to define the process.
I felt the same way while reading the book, “Ermenistan’da bir Türkiyeli.” (A Turk in Armenia) by Bercuhi Berberyan. Even though I abandoned my intention of buying the book when I noticed its back cover, featuring an attitude of obsession over a homeland and the pursuit of help from others in the identification of a homeland, as reflected in the sentence that reads, “A Turkish-Armenian who is not considered a citizen in a place that she considers a homeland and does not see the place considered her homeland as her home,” I finally decided to read about the person from Turkey who got confused after her short stay in Armenia. While reading the travel notes from a 10-day trip in this country, it was possible for me to notice the strong and pathological state of mind of some of the members of the Armenian community in Turkey.
What am I doing here when I had the opportunity to lead a life in Europe?
Armenians in Turkey rely on religion and language to preserve their identity. The uneasiness of the Armenians after the promotion of the Turkish language and the strong emphasis on the use of Turkish symbols in 1950s and ’60s and the fear caused by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) attacks took a whole different form after the 1990s. The Armenian community came to the conclusion that they should be supportive of Turkey’s EU bid and its democratization in order to preserve their fundamental rights; with the spread of this conviction, Armenians agreed to fight like authentic citizens instead of acting like outsiders in this country. The nationalistic discourse that gained momentum almost concurrently was accompanied by violent actions, and this re-emerged in the chronic habit of calling minorities foreigners. Surely, the people were enjoying a process in which they were less scared when they call themselves Armenians. This process was shaped by diverse internal and external dynamics. The murder of Hrant Dink dramatically affected the process and caused the past fears of repression and defeat to resurface, but the process is still alive.
Armenia’s independence during this period of fluctuations and its promising relations with Turkey have a special place in the lives of Turkish-Armenians even though they are not aware of it. While they become self-confident when the president of Turkey, where they live as citizens, pays a visit to Armenia to see a soccer game, the same fact makes others resistant and opposed to such moves.
The book I referred to above as the author who is unable to find her homeland and the woman who argued at the meeting that she was pretty happy living in Turkey are simple examples of this. While the concept of “homeland,” a concept that we love and adore so dearly, refers to the place where a person was born or lives, it has gained a political dimension since 1860 in parallel to a French word, patrie. In other words, there is no problem with calling a place where we are born, live or ethnically belong to as homeland. That said, you may have problems when it comes to citizens’ rights. The book in which Berberyan publicizes her memoirs starts with her testing herself. The suspicion outlined in the sentence, “I could have headed to Europe with such a great amount of money; why did I choose Armenia?” emphasizes the core theme that Armenia is not a special place for her and the author is not attached to this country. Berberyan does not particularly like anything about Armenia, including the coffee and the olives. She often misses İstanbul; she misses everything about İstanbul. She argues that the spoken version of the Armenian language (eastern Armenian, pretty different from the western form) is vague and rude. She counts the days left until her return to İstanbul. In the meantime, she criticizes everything about Armenia. Actually, this style is supposed to provoke an idea of a proper Turkish citizen in the eyes of the readers; however, I feel pity and sorrow for her because I simply observe an effort to stress that she is a Turkish citizen who cannot have any ties with Armenia. It is just like what the woman said in the meeting where the sociologist wanted to talk about the problems of an ethnic minority in Turkey.
Anything unlike them is just wrong
Why do some Armenians hold such ideas? Do not get me wrong; they do not renounce their Armenian identity. They just choose not to send their kids to their community schools because they simply think that they should act pragmatically; the Armenian language will be of no help or use in their lives, so private school is a better option. Some of them are not willing to see that the Armenian language is fading away, but they are concerned about the disappearance of Native Americans; in other words, this is a sign of general sensitivity and all about being a world citizen. The Armenian community’s relations with the diaspora are strained. Some of their unease is related to the diaspora’s accusation that they have converted to Turks, but actually, this is an accurate accusation; everything about them says they have become just like Turks. Not holding positive sentiments about the country to which they should be attached because of their ethnic orientation, not speaking its language and reiterating their loyalty on every occasion to the country where they are legally citizens actually says they are concerned about expressing themselves accurately. Undoubtedly, everyone is free to identify their homeland, the schools where they will study and pursue their degrees, the languages they will speak and the newspapers they will read; however, unfortunately, as a result of the assimilation policy pursued by the Turkish state as well as improper modernization, the Armenian community has come to the conclusion that everything that is not like them is wrong and dangerous.
The twisted elitism that Berberyan is suffering from reinforces her idea of a unique and single model of Armenian-ness. This different Armenian just cannot stand another Armenian identity; she complains that their language and customs have been eroded, and she presents this as an absolute truth instead of the outcome of her subjective approach.
True, many things in Armenia are different from what is in Turkey’s İstanbul. The eastern Armenian language is different from western Armenian. The smiles of girls that Berberyan dislikes are different from the smiles of girls in İstanbul, but this is not a problem at all. Quite the contrary, the idea suggesting that everyone should be the same is dangerous. Armenians in Armenia bury their dead fellows to the sound of the duduk — a regional flute-like instrument — instead of church ceremonies. But I am sure that they are as sorry as Turkish-Armenians when they lose a relative. This growing intolerance reminds me of opera lovers who hate hearing folk songs, the professors who do not admit covered students into their classes, the woman who refused to accept an Alevi girl as her daughter-in-law, the man who dislikes Bulgarian migrants because he feels they are not Turkish enough and the mindset that defines the ability of people from diverse religions and ethnic origins to live together peacefully as “tolerance.” This small society is excessively affected and influenced by the larger one.
August 16, 2009, Sunday