“Repair’s” special correspondant MJM, a French-Armenian journalist, has recently spent two weeks in the current capital of the South Eastearn Anatolia to meet with the past, present and future of the thousands of Armenians who used to live in this city before the 1915 genocide. During his travels, MJM shares with us his many encounters with places, women and men whose story is undeniably related to the Armenians. The 30-year-old freelancer and photographer, MJM, has worked for various newspapers and magazines. His recent work with the Yerkir NGO has permitted him to further develop his views and understanding through photos and documentaries in Armenia and Turkey. An overview of his work is available on his website www.mjm-wordsandpics.com.
Day 1 – Surp Giragos under plastic wrap
Two years after my visit to Diyarbakir, a lot of change has come to Surp Giragos (St Cyriac). I had visited that Armenian church a few months before its official opening, when the building was still under construction. Scaffolding filled up all the space and furniture had not yet arrived. Today, there are rows of brand new benches marked with the initials SG (for Surp Giragos) in the Armenian alphabet, candles have already been lit in the sandpits, and two locked boxes are waiting for donations to renovate what is said to be one of the major
Armenian churches in the Middle East. Near the choir, chairs and a mighty seat are still covered with thick plastic wrap protecting them from dust. Because if all is ready to welcome worshippers, there is still something missing in Surp Giregos – or rather someone: a Priest!
The hitch is that no-one knows when he will come, although the Patriarchate of Istanbul has promised that someone will definitely come some day. With the current vocation crisis, the little community of Armenians in Diyarbakir will still have to wait before the Sunday mass is celebrated here. For the time being the church is still in standby, even though Turkish and foreign visitors do trickle in every day and a second Easter holiday was celebrated this year with choreg (braided brioche bread) and brightly coloured eggs – over 500 of them, according to Kevok, the Armenian teacher who filled in for the missing cleric and animated the ceremony.
Once the heavy church gate shut tight and the tumult of the street left behind, some sort of quiet settles in. Nature is starting to reclaim its rights, and the mulberry tree standing tall in the little courtyard offers its beneficial shade to visitors and its sweet fruit to the passing gourmet. In a corner, a photographic exhibition makes you realize the extent of the renovation work achieved and informs the visitor about turn of the 20th century Armenian Diyarbakir. On both sides of the building, water pumps have been installed and bring a very welcome coolness in this region of Anatolia. As for the cooing pigeons, they have already found refuge near the stately town tower whose heavy bell was brought especially from Russia and reminds us that Surp Giragos is alive and well. “Our town must become an example of multiculturalism. I want to hear the sound of bells again next to calls from minarets”, Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir had said in an interview two years ago. His dream has finally come true…
Day 2: Aram’s Dream
Seckin Aydin, 32, an artist and philosophy professor at Dicle University, was introduced to me the day I arrived in Amed1 at a café called Mona’s. “Sit down, are you hungry? Here, taste this, I won’t be able to eat it all,” he tells me as we introduce one another. He explains that he would soon be in Italy to take part in a contemporary art Biennal. “Do you know Aram Tigran?” he asks me while holding out a slice of bread spread with some ezme. Who doesn’t know Aram Tigran here!? Singing just as well in Armenian and Arabic, Aram Melikyan, by his real name, is considered one of the greatest musicians and singers in the region. Above all, he is the man who connected Kurdish and Armenian cultures, although he is finally little known among Armenians. He died in August 2009 after expressing a wish to be buried in the land of his forefathers, in the Armenian cemetery of Diyarbarkir. But the Turkish Ministry of the Interior refused to deliver such an authorization.
Seckin explains his project to me: “While researching on Aram Tigran, I stumbled upon a quote by him that said: ‘If ever I come back to earth, I’ll take all the tanks and all the firearms and will turn them into musical instruments.’ It was sort of Aram Tigran’s dream, and I decided to make it come true”, the smiling artist tells me candidly. So, after collecting weapons and having them melted, Seckin asked several Diyarbakir artisans to make instruments from them, such as a darbuka (goblet drum) and a daf – a sort of large drum on a metal frame. “I’ve got Kurdish friends who live in Italy and I’ll invite them to play Kurdish music with these instruments!” says Seckin excitedly. He concludes: “As you know, people here have killed Armenians, and there really aren’t any nice stories to tell about relations between Kurds and them. Aram Tigran’s story, whose father was saved and brought up by Kurds and made his son promise to honour them by singing in their language is one such story, and I like it a lot”.
Before his death, Aram Tigran had been at last able to see again with his own eyes the place where his parents had lived. He had given a concert in Batman for the Day of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year. He had also travelled to Diyarbakir and the warm welcome he received inspired him to write a song: “Di xewnên şevan de min bawer nedikir (If I had dreamed it, I wouldn’t have believed it)/Bi çavan bibînim bajarê Diyarbekir (Be able to see Diyarbakır)/Rojbaş Diyarbekir je pir bêriya te kir (Hello Diyarbakır, you missed me a lot)/Te derî Li je vekir (You opened your doors to me)/Te je kir de şa (You made us very happy).”
 Kurdish name for Diyarbakir.
Day 3 – Seymus Diken, the Voice of Diyarbakir
Whether you like it or not, the history of Armenians in Diyarbakir and its area is now in the hands of the Kurds. They have unwittingly become the guardians of the memory of the gavurs (Infidels) deported to the exterminations camps of Ras Al Ayn, then death-marched through the Deir ez-Zor desert or of those exiled faraway for decades. Each Kurd you meet here has a story, big or small, to tell about Armenians. One will tell you that he remembers his childhood friend offering him eggs over the Easter holidays, another will explain that Armenians were those working iron or precious metals like no-one else or that such Armenian woman cooked like a goddess. These snippets of memory, often altered by time and which could seem very fragile, are nevertheless the important traces of a bygone past whose memory is forever suspended in the limbos of history.
The person who perhaps best represents Diyarbakir and its past may be writer Seymus Diken. He wrote many books on his hometown and draws from his memories to revive the golden age of Amed, when Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, etc. still lived together in relative harmony. “This town was neither monolingual, nor mono-religious nor mono-identity. It belonged as much to Armenians as to Kurds or to Assyrians. And even is some peoples have been eliminated through the great injustices of the past, what they lived, the places where they stayed and their memories still exist and are still talked about,” says the writer and signatory of the “I apologize” petition of Turkish intellectuals to Armenians for the 1915 massacres. During my interview with him, we discussed an important issue which constantly recurs in my talks with Kurds in the region and elsewhere: that of the tremendous loss caused by the destruction of Armenians followed by the flight of survivors – and, more widely, of Christians – from the area. ”The town got poorer economically but also culturally, intellectually and politically: it became uniform”, Seymus Diken cruelly sums up, then adding an important detail: “The Diyarbakir people are absolutely aware of this”.
Day 4: Özgur: the Warden of the Armenian cemetery
Near the Urfa Gate lies the Armenian cemetery of the town. However, “cemetery” is much too grand a word for what looks more like an abandoned garden with over 450 overturned graves scattered around, stripped of their ornaments and photos of the deceased. All is undoubtedly dead here, even the grass, so dry that it creaks under our feet. A very sad landscape which reminded me of those Armenian graves I caught sight of in a forlorn field in the Arapgir district in the Tunceli province, exposed to erosion and away from people’s eyes.
We are very far from the sometimes absurd lavishness of some Armenian cemeteries such as, for instance, Noraduz, where thousands of khachkars (Armenian cross-stones) are spread over the grounds further than the eye can see and families spend indecent fortunes to offer their dead the most beautiful headstones. This funeral emulation is not in order here, in Diyarbakir, where tombstones were hastily engraved with the name of the deceased. No Armenian alphabet here, and very few family names ending in “ian.” Turkish names are preferred. The Armenian identity is suppressed or rubbed out even in death… It is in this cemetery that the famous Armenian singer and musician Aram Tigran should have been buried according to his last will, But the Ministry of the Interior rules otherwise.
Ozgür, the 35 year-old warden, an amateur footballer and taekwondo practitioner, does not really know the history of the cemetery but he explains to us that his family has been looking after it for at least three generations. “We managed to get along with no-one in this neighborhood except the owners of this place, Armenians who showed understanding. All the Muslim insulted and rejected us,” explains the man whose grand-father has built the walls protecting the cemetery. “The place was much bigger than this before, but it never stopped shrinking*, and today there is only what you see that’s left,” Özgur explains, insisting that some clergy would like to see it replaced. “All those hash smokers or liquor drinkers come here and no-one but me could stand up to them and manage keep up the place,” he asserts as his young son whistles off a kid who tries
to enter the cemetery. When asked if he wouldn’t by any chance have Armenian origins – which would explain how hard it is for his family to fit in – he says that yes, he does. “Whatever happens, you never forget your roots,” concludes this strongman who lifts a magnificently engraved 300 pounds stone right under my eyes. “If it was less heavy, it’d have been stolen long ago!” he says in jest.
*From 20,000 to 1,000 square meters.
Day 5 – Like paying tribute
Every day or so, my hosts Berat and Kenan tell me of their dream of owning a certain ancient house in Old Diyarbakir and turning it into a café. “Houses like those we’re looking for are few and prices never stop rising,” explains Berat, worried that his dream might never materialize. Indeed, the beautiful houses located in the old Diyarbakir have been lately attracting greedy attention. Some hold high hopes about the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish state, anticipating the financial boon from the possible development of tourism in that magnificent region. In the last three years, renovation of buildings have multiplied, gradually changing the centre surrounded by medieval walls said to be the second largest after the Great Wall of China, as Osman Baydemir and Abduallah Demirbas like to repeat.
One afternoon, we visited two houses for sale. The aspiring entrepreneurs were not impressed by the first one – plain and poorly located. Unlike the second one, with its elegant arches, beautiful engraved motifs on the balustrade, its intriguing bas-reliefs at the top of one of the wells and its stone basin right in the middle of the courtyard which excited my curiosity. I naively asked who used to own it. The answer of the current owner in Turkish contained one word that jolted me: “Ermeni.” So the house used to belong to Armenians. That explained it… In halting English, Berat tried to translate for me the words of the Kurdish landlord: “Those Armenians and his grandparents were friends in the 1980s*. That Armenian family had to flee from Diyarbakir. People attacked them and because of the pressure of government and the population, they left,” he summed up. Unfortunately I would not know more about it, but the idea that an old Armenian house could be turned into a café perplexed me. Who would be stirred by this story once the house renovated and turned into a trap for tourists attracted by the pseudo-authenticity of the place, The next day, when I asked Kenan whether they had already decided how they would call their venue if they were granted a loan, his answer surprised me a little: “If
we choose the house of the Armenians, we’ll research to find out how the family was called, who they were, what were their occupations. And our café will bear their name,” he assured me. Like a tribute…
*The guerrilla between members of the PKK and the Turkish State started in 1984.
Day 6 – Armen a.k.a. Abdurrahim
I had heard about Armen, a.k.a. Abdurrahim through the indispensable book by Guillaume Perrier and Laure Marchand, La Turquie et le fantôme arménien (Turkey and the Armenian Ghost), and was curious about meeting in flesh and blood this “ wiry little man” who was fascinated by everything Armenian. This former driver from Liçe, now 52, only learned about his Armenian origins at 25, upon his father’s death. A Kurdish uncle told him the truth. “I was very surprised, it came as a shock to me. I had grown up as a Kurd, and at 25 they tell me I am Armenian… I was overwhelmed,” confesses the man who, since then, has struggled to locate relatives, scattered around the world from Holland to the United States.
“As an Armenian, I want to learn everything that has to do with Armenianess. That’s why I’ve been going to Armenian courses in the last two years. I want to learn my culture and my language,” exclaims Armen, who subscribed to five Armenian TV channels and keeps up regularly with Armenian news, even from Hayastan. For five months, he has been doing voluntary work in Surp Giregos, “our ancestors’ legacy,” for the Armenian foundation that administrates the place. In the last five years, he has also been selling the Agos newspaper in Diyarbakir. “I managed to get a hundred or so people to subscribe here!” he says proudly.
When asked how he manages to handle this double Kurdish and Armenian identity, he explains serenely that the two parts coexist at once but that, in the future, he would like to see the word “Armenian” mentioned on his identity card. “Within me, the Armenian identity is dominant,” he stresses, and in the course of the conversation we learn that his father has started a procedure to become officially Christian again… only to change his mind at the last moment, feeling that it would be a betrayal of the Kurdish family who had rescued and raised him. “I tell everyone I’m Armenian, I’m not afraid to say it. I’m tranquil,” assures Abdurrahim who nevertheless has himself called Armen only among Armenian or Armenian-friendly circles. According to him, “there’s around a family in five in Diyarbakir with Armenians in it.” And at lease fifteen families with who he shares precious
times: “We go to weddings together, to the cemetery, we go picnicking, we call each other…” listsArmen, to whom these families have somewhat become another set of siblings.
 Actes Sud, 2013
Day 7 – Lunch in Surp Giragos
Sunday, 10 a.m.: the Surp Giregos church is bustling. Ten or so people are busy in what made do as a church when the place was still the property of the Turkish state and was used as a warehouse. Dozens of dishes brought by community members are set on a table that is lengthened as they arrive. Beuregs, salads, cheeses, tahina, biscuits and cakes are added gradually while children start a football march next to it. Before starting to eat, each one joins his hands in a prayer improvised by Armenian teacher Kevrok. Then writer Migirdiç Margosyan, passing through Diyarbakir, takes the stand: “The present day should be lived without the past being a burden. We must be proud to be Armenians, and proud to be human being. We are neither above nor below anyone. To cry over the ruins of the past is useless”, he says. “There was a habit here – collecting money for the poor. I still remember the tingling of coins. It is thanks to that solidarity that this church is here today. Solidarity is paramount,” adds the writer.
It is raining that day, but so what. To me, it is slightly unbelievable to find myself there, in the middle of Armenians, for a time of pure sharing. Surp Giregos is indeed the nervous centre of that little community which is trying to rebuild itself after years of forced sleep. And it doesn’t matter if the vast majority of people gather here grant little only importance to religion. “People gather here regularly, just to meet and be together,” says Sino, a young English-speaking man who has been working there only for a few weeks.
“Sit down and eat!” the ladies gently order me while rushing around, bringing tea and preparing plates for the late-comers and the passing strangers. “There are still many people who are scared and will never come here. They haven’t found the courage. But I decided to stand where the truth is,” explains 58 year-old Halide, from Elazig who he tells us in the hubbub that she had never been in contact with Armenians until now. The faces I see on that day seem strangely familiar to me, and even though communication is difficult, a simple smile is
often enough to understand each other. So much so that when the muezzin of the opposite mosque makes his adhan, just after noon, no-one seems to pay attention. The Surp Giregos microclimate, no doubt…
Day 8 – At Sarkis and Bayzar’s
After lunch at Surp Giregos, some diners meet again at the Assyrian church of the Virgin Mary. It is home to Sarkis and Bayzar, 83 and 85, the oldest couple of Armenians in the city. During my meeting with Abdullah Demirbas, Mayor of the Sur municipality, he had explained to me that, “at the start of my first mandate, only two people in Diyarbakir would openly say that they were Armenian.” This brazen pair is no other than Sarkis and Bayzar, whom the Assyrian community settled in their church after the last members of the community left 26 years ago. Since them, they have been tending to this place of worship. The couple married 64 years ago in Surp Giregos, in the little church adjoining the main building which, at the time, belonged to the state. It was one of the last weddings celebrated in that church.
In the room, we are fifteen or so people gathered to have coffee. The warm and relaxed atmosphere is conducive to conversation, and personal stories are told more easily. Amidst the rumble of discussions starting here and there, a woman born in Silvan, who came with her mother, is quietly crying while telling about the death of her husband, killed by Hezbollah in 1992. “In Silvan, there still are some dolmes homes, and even today we are blamed for being non-Muslims. People live there on my land at the moment, but what can I do about it? My husband’s grave is there, everything is there. I can’t leave,” the lady says in a strange, very soft voice and later, in a burst of anger, she will call the Kurds all kinds of names.
The room is suddenly filled with great emotion when Armine tells us about her father – a man she seems to love more than anything in the world and who passed on his armenianess to her. “Shortly before his death in 2007, Dad started forgetting the Turkish language, then he forgot the Kurdish… In the end, he only spoke Armenian. He asked us for bread in a language we didn’t understand,” tearfully tells this woman in her forties who regularly attends Kevork’s Armenian lessons. “We couldn’t even answer him. So now, a letter, or a word that I learn, I repeat it a thousand times. I really want to learn Armenian,” stresses the woman, who had her
daughter secretly baptised at Surp Giregos in 1984. It was the very baptism that took place in the church before its renovation. Incidentally, Armine was one of the first persons baptised in 2012, and her son was the first one to get married in the renovated church with… a hayastantsi (Armenian woman from Armenia.)  Christians converted to Islam.  The name was changed.
Day 9 – The Bridge of death… or almost
At dusk, and after gobbling up a çiger, a specialty from the area, Azad, a young Kurd met in Amed, wishes to take us to a place he particularly loves: the On Gôzlü Bridge or “Bridge with ten eyes.” The place reminds him of his comrades who took to the mountains to join the PKK guerrillas. One of them died a martyr while the other ones are still held in Turkish gaols. But before we get there, he must find a photocopier for the letters by sick prisoners that he carries with him and whose copies he must send to various organizations in charge of solidarity actions.
After buying a snack and drinks, we reach the famous bridge. The light is getting increasingly low and, when I hear in the conversation that Armenians were thrown from this bridge which enables strollers to cross the Tigris, my first reaction is to take out my camera and shoot away before night falls for good over Amed. Watching the river, thoughts rush through my mind and emerge from my memory – typical stories of Armenians being tied up by twos and fours before being thrown from the top of a bridge or a cliff. So, I am standing in front of what must be the last landscape that these poor innocent people would have seen before being thrown from the bridge… I visualize the scene in great detail in my mind – a real film. Only the sound of duduk is missing to accompany the pictures running through my head. I am already thinking of the text I will write to caption my photo of the threatening river.
A few days later, however, when I ask Kevork, the Armenian teacher, for more information about that bridge from which Armenians fell to their death, his answer instantly cancels what I could imagine a couple of days earlier. No Armenian was ever thrown from that bridge… “They were indeed made to cross the monument, but only to be taken to die much further away…” – far from the eyes of a population which was not to witness the tragedy that was unfolding.
My photograph is now meaningless and my story literally sunk…
Day 10 – Back to school
For two years now, Armenian classes have been taking place at the Cegerxwin Kültür Ve Sanat Centre in Diyarbakir. They are given by Kevork, an Armenian born in Sason who settled in Istanbul, and attract over sixty people, Armenian Muslims for the most part. “Some Kurds did try to attend a couple of sessions, but they never came after that. They said it was much too difficult,” comments the teacher in a laugh.
“Parev, inchpesses? Lave es? (Hello, how are you? Are you well?)”. It is already 6.40 pm, and the first students are gathering around Kevork, who wears a neat simple suit and silver glasses. Three times a week he teaches his class in the huge centre. Today, there are only fifteen people there. Young and older, they actively take part in the class, shooting back answers at the teacher’s questions, reading sentence in Armenian that Kevork writes on the blackboard in the Mesrop Mashtots alphabet, then switching back to Turkish to ask for more information on a particular point. Language has always been a pillar of the Armenian culture and identity, and watching these people – most of them descendants of Armenians islamized by force – reconnect with their armenianess has a very moving and symbolic significance. Isn’t it the first and most important step towards reviving the Armenian identity? How many Armenians in the Diaspora and elsewhere are sorry not to be able the speak their language and develop the motivation to take lessons and fill this void?
The next step towards this “re-Armenizing” will then be a trip to Hayastan (Armenia), as is the strong wish of Gafür Türkay, one of the staff running the Diyarbakir Armenian Foundation. “I’ve been wanting for a year to take the students of the Armenian class to Armenia. It is very important that they should be able to go there and discover that country,” he explains. “Unfortunately, we are too low on funds to undertake such a trip,” he adds – a hint to understanding and generous souls out there!
Day 11 – The white genocide goes on
Apart from Surp Giregos, there are still at least two Armenian churches standing in Diyarbakir. They are the property of the state, which turned them into teaching centres for children, devoid of Armenian identity. On the old town map given out at the Tourist office, they are only mentioned as “church”, without their original names – unlike Surop Giregos, which proudly bears the official title of “Armenian church.” “We have had Surp Giregos renovated, in contrast with the State, which has turned Armenian churches into carpet museums,” stressed Abdullah Demirbas, Mayor of Sur, when we met him.
On the plaque of the Protestant Armenian church, it is indeed written in black and white that the features of the building indicate that it is absolutely not an Armenian church (why then mention it?!) Inside, we discover that the place has been turned into a workshop where very young girls and older one weave scarves for the staggering salary of 100 liras per month (less than 50 euros.) As the resigned workers tell us, these scarves will of course be sold again for ten times their cost on the town markets or beyond. There is a name for such a situation: exploitation.
In another nearby place of worship, it is almost the same except that it is hard to hide the Armenian character of the place, which looks like a smaller Surp Giregos in spite of its very damaged choir that seems to have been battered with a huge hammer. This does not seem to disturb the children working there as “apprentices.” Engraving for boys and carpet weaving for girls, who are physically separated by a makeshift wall. Left to themselves, they talk, play and walk around the rundown church without supervision. In the ambulatory, a hidden staircase leads to a little room whose function I don’t immediately understand. Looking up, I can see the belfry, without its bell, standing a little further. A rope was probably used to ring from precisely the place where I am standing today. But unlike Surp Giregos, there is no rope or bell in sight. Maybe one day
Day 12 – Mustafa and Çakir: a prettified memory
Burçin, a journalist friend who helped me a lot to prepare my stay in Amed, had advised me to go and see the old metal smiths working not far from the four-legged minaret in Old Diyarbakir. It is where we meet Mustafa, 58, a hardware shopkeeper who almost seemed to expect our visit. After explaining our purpose, he has us seated on patched up chairs and calls a passing çay vendor from the street. No need to ask him questions, he delivers his memories bit by bit and at high speed. “On Friday were religion classes and some teachers told the pupils who didn’t want to attend to go home,” recalls Mustafa. Half of the class vanished. It means that they were Christians, he concludes, swallowing his tea in one gulp. We understood that women were Christian just by looking at their way of wearing their scarf. Between the eyes and the lower forehead, four fingers up for Armenians, two for other Christians,” he explains while a young worker is sharpening a blade close to us. Later in the conversation, he remembers an old friend who, he says, was around Armenians a lot in the neighbourhood. He offers that we meet him.
Two days later, we meet the famous Çakir, sporting cream pyjamas and a greying moustache, who welcomes us in his tiny apartment where he lives with his wife. We are hardly seated before – surprise – this former shoemaker of 83 starts asking me questions… in Armenian: “I speak Armenian better than Armenians!” declares the man who learnt Mesrop’s tongue with his shoemaker boss. Unfortunately, after suffering a stroke, the old man has trouble remembering the old days, and the scraps of his spotty memory yield only little information on the time when Armenians and Kurds lived together. “We gave them some turchu (marinated vegetables), and they gave us basturma (cold cuts), kawarma (meat confit), all kinds of things! We shared foods, there was a lot of solidarity in those days. We all played money games, no-one spoke Turkish, we all spoke Armenian. There was no unfriendliness between us,” insists the old man, whose memories have certainly sweetened over time. However, we also read in his few reminiscences an indication that many Kurds retain
good memories of gavurs*,“very honest and fair in business, with a great sense of honour and probity,” according to Mustafa. The words “solidarity, cosmopolitan” and “harmony” that he uses to describe bygone Diyarbakir leave me no less perplexed than pensive.
Day 13: “The diaspora must understand Turkey and Armenians from Turkey.
Paying a visit to the Diyarbakir Book Fair, my attention is drawn to three stands: the publisher Belge, the newspaper Agos, and of the Aras publishing house where the very condescending (to be polite) Migirdiç Margosyan is signing his latest book. The opportunity for me to ask a few questions to the famous Diyarbakir-born writer confirms that it is very hard to interview a man of letters when you haven’t read any of his books and when he answers grudgingly and so very scornfully. So, skipping my unsuccessful interview of Margosyan, I’ll move on directly to my meeting with Yedvart Tomasyan, manager of Aras, with big black eyebrows, a thick beard and sparkly eyes. He assures us that the Turkish civil society is definitely changing on the subject of the Armenian Genocide, but that you also have to be patient: “All the new ideas come from intellectuals – it’s the case in all societies. First, the truth is told by poets then, forty years later, society repeats what the poets had said. Still now, most people only know what the state has told them in the last hundred years. You have to wait until Turkey is democratic, but also struggle for a real democracy to happen her. I, as an Armenian, must be active so that democracy comes to Turkey. I must be in the fight because it’s not by waiting in my corner that it will happen,” explains Tomasyan. He adds that he understands the relative silence and lack of political commitment of the Armenian community of Istanbul: “For a while, Armenians in Istanbul have been saying: Let’s not speak up, let’s keep quiet or something will happen to us. I understand that. They are scared for their lives and their properties because, in this country, something happens to Armenians every ten years,” the publisher concludes.
At the end of our improvised talk, I ask him how the Diaspora can accompany current changes in Turkey. “We don’t care about the Diaspora, that it should accompany us or not, it comes to the same!” he says laughingly. Then, grasping my arm affectionately, he adds, as in confidence: “The Diaspora must understand Turkey and the Armenians of Turkey. There should be people like you who come and meet us, talk with us. That’s how we’ll be able to understand one another. We need this kind of contact,” he adds, with a light pressure on my shoulder. “We need to meet each other, and look at each other’s eyes. From faraway, it’s too complicated.”
Day 14: Why not?
Here is a more positive example of what a Diyarbakir house that has belonged to an Armenian family can become. This one, built in 1919, is located in the Ali Pasa neighbourhood – mostly made of old houses and gecekondu* – used to belong to a couple without children who had struck a sort of deal with some Kurds : the latter were looking after them until their death and, once they passed away, the house of the Armenian couple would go to the Kurds. We unfortunately know nothing of this couple, and their memory disappeared with the happy Kurdish landlords who finally sold the house again and left town.
Today, it belongs to the community group Suluku Han. This group of twenty or so intellectual friends projects to renovate the place and turn it into a sort of Youth Centre, a unique place in Diyarbakir which will host sixty or so young people from the neighbourhood. “At first, we intended for instance to give philosophy classes to young people, this kind of thing. But they are youngsters who sell drugs or use them, who hold knives in their hands,” explains Gülder, a 24-year-old French-speaking woman architect who works on the projects. “You can’t break their habits at once, but maybe we can transform that knife into some other instrument. Turn it into a sculpting tool for instance,” says the young woman, who dreams of seeing their organization help children turn their lives around.
“In Turkey, people say of Armenians that they have the art of the hand. I think it is in their genes: they have chiselled real jewels, practiced their art on stone, on basalt, When you see all these ornamental details in the house, you think of them,” stresses Gülder, who conducts renovation work on the house. She deplores all the hasty restoring done in Diyarbakir, using heaps of reinforced concrete without any respect for traditional building standards, a far cry from her work, thought out by architects concerned with the history of the building.
A few workers are busy here and there on the site. The roof is almost finished and a huge hole for the foundations of a new building has been dug on the street side. The end of works is scheduled for September but, in the meantime, the group works every day including Sundays to be ready on time. “Last winter, we had made a fire and were digging through the night,” says Gülder. She already has her own idea for the name she would like to give to this unusual place. “We haven’t decided on a name yet, but I thought of calling it ‘Why not?’ Because we never think of these youngsters as being able to be productive and benefit from an education… Although, why not?” * Turkish for slums, meaning litterally “it landed last night.”
“REPAIR – Armenian-Turkish platform”
is a project conducted by the French-Armenian NGO Yerkir Europe in partnership with the Turkish foundation Anadolu Kültür.
This project aims to debate the Armenian-Turkish issues by allowing various players in the Turkish, Armenian and Armenian Diaspora civil societies to voice their standpoints.
On the eve of commemorating the centenary of the 1915 genocide of Armenians, relations between Armenia and Turkey are in an impasse. The issue is a complex one, inasmuch as it comprises historical, identity, social, geopolitical and economic parameters.
Some hardened beliefs in people’s mindsets generate systematic antagonism. Three protagonists – functioning very differently – are most often involved: Turkey, Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora. Although they are making progress on the issues, these civil societies live in mutual ignorance of one another.
Internationalization of the Armenian-Turkish question
The Armenian-Turkish issue has become a prominent international issue largely because of the geographical location of the Republics of Armenia and Turkey. At the crossroads of Europe, the Middle-East and Asia, this geostrategic area is a knot of political and economic interests.
However, the Armenian-Turkish issue cannot be explained solely in terms of international relations: it initially derives from identity and historical features pertaining to each of the civil societies of Turkey, Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora.
These identity, memorial and societal aspects automatically echo into the French and European debates because of the presence of large communities of Armenian descent among them.
The unacknowledged Armenian component of Turkish society
In the last years, the Turkish civil society has been facing identity and historical issues. There was a surge of debates casting light on taboos smothered for almost a century under the tight lid of the “military nationalist” doctrine (in particular around Kurdish, Alevi, Greek, Armenian and Assyrian issues). Something new is that these debates are no longer confined to the intellectual circles of Istanbul but involve whole sections of the society, who rediscover their origins.
Locked up in the trauma of genocide and the systematic opposition to its recognition, the Armenians find it hard to invest this field of reflection in Turkey and establish a dialogue which, however, is indispensable. This distrust is all the more understandable that, since 1991, Turkey has been imposing an economic blockade on the Republic of Armenia while pursuing an intense international policy of revisionism denying the reality of the 1915 Genocide.
“Two close people, two distant neighbors”
The difficulty for Armenians in accepting the communication with the Turks, is arisen from the reaction towards the negation of a crime against humanity. Traditional dominance of nationalist ideology constrains Turks from establishing a sincere dialogue. Thus, one should work at helping changes in attitudes to heal these rifts. Only dialogue, within a jointly established setup, can lead to breakthroughs.
Recognition of Armenian genocide
Unless the genocide is recognized by Turkey, Armenians are suspicious of dialogue and rapprochements attempts. They think that those steps are the one of the ways which Turkish government tries in order to prevent the recognition of genocide. However it is important not to confuse the state with the Turkish civil society, who has started a work of introspection on these matters.
There are some hopeful movements in Turkey: the recognition of the Genocide by personalities and 24th April ceremonies, the call for forgiveness by intellectuals, the multiplication of books and articles on this subject all bear witness to the fact that the wall of denial is cracked from the inside.
Although some circles handle the subject with an utilitarian approach and manners on this issue sometimes reveals unsteadiness; this question is gradually being discussed by greater parts of the society in Turkey. This circumstance is pleasing and satisfactory for some Armenians, while it is qualified as a new form of denial for others.
Nevertheless, artistic and scholarly initiatives between Armenians and Turks are many and keep on multiplying. They contribute to the intuitive realizations that there is a common heritage. These must be encouraged, but the path towards the heart of civil societies remains full of obstacles.
Indeed, the countless statements by intellectuals, opinion leaders, politicians, etc. remain mostly confined to their own sphere of influence. Although the debate is present in Turkey, in Armenia and within the Diaspora, there is almost no direct interaction between these three civil societies.
Repair -Repairing the Future
The goal of this project is thus to overcome this situation by creating an environment conducive to dialogue so as to build bridges between these civil societies and face the various roots of the issue commonly. Obstacles should be circumscribed in order to reach solutions together that might resolve the existing conflicts.
The “Repair” project is dedicated to supporting the efforts of the civil societies of Turkey, Armenian and the Armenian Diaspora in their mutations by trying to synchronize the positive dynamics currently plagued by mutual misconceptions. It was thus necessary to create a framework of reflection by organizing exchanges between players in these civil societies.
The medium of the “Repair” project is this website where will be launched debates on themes connected with Armenian-Turkish issues. We’ll give the floor to the experts, opinion makers, journalists, politicians and organization executives from the civil societies of Armenia, Turkey and the Armenian Diaspora, as well as to international figures.
The goal is to let each civil society discover the opinions coming from these debates within them and make it possible for Armenians to speak to Turks and vice versa.