The Armenian community in Turkey consists of about fifty thousand souls. It’s not easy to keep such a small community alive. Especially not for Armenians who live outside the strong Armenian community in Istanbul. A special report.
Cemil and Gülestan have been married now for twenty one years. But when you see them sitting together with their sons in their house in the village of Sason in eastern Turkey, it looks more as if grandfather is visiting: Cemil is 71, Gülestan 35. The problem was that there were not too many prospective husbands for Gülestan, and when widower Cemil asked Gülestan’s father for her hand, the deal was quickly done. Gülestan: ‘My father thought Cemil would be a good husband, but it was also important that he has the same roots as my family. There are not many like that in our region.’
The same roots, by that she means: Cemil’s family was once, like Gülestan’s, Christian and Armenian. Right after the mass killings of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, their ancestors converted to Islam out of necessity and chose a Turkish name. They integrated into Turkish and Islamic life, but never forgot their former identity, and also never lost touch with families who were hit by the same fate. They married among each other, and they still do.
Gülestan: ‘In Sason there are only three families like ours, and of course that’s not enough to keep this community alive. We know families like ours in all the surrounding villages, and there is a whole network spread over a big area, so there is always a marriage candidate available somewhere.’ Marrying a ‘pure Muslim’, as Gülestan describes the Turks who were always Turk and Muslim, is out of the question.
Gülestan has a medical condition in her hips, which made her father, a widower, fear that the marriage market for his daughter was even smaller. That’s why he took the first chance to marry his daughter off. Gülestan: ‘I was okay with it, what with my childish mind.’ She quickly adds: ‘I had my first child when I was eighteen. The first few years of the marriage, I shared a bed with my mother-in-law and Cemil didn’t touch me.’
Schools and churches, dance groups and choirs
The Armenian community in Turkey numbers about fifty thousand souls. They mainly live in Istanbul, and small groups live in Ankara, on the Black Sea coast and in the east and south east of the country. Families like Cemil and Gülestan’s are not included in the statistics about Armenians: they are officially Turks and Muslims now. Many Armenians converted to Islam to protect themselves after the mass killings. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the main thing was to be not only Muslim, but also a Turk, and many Armenians decided to henceforth live under a Turkish name.
The attitude towards Armenians didn’t change a lot in the following decades . There were discriminating tax laws, and there were violent riots against Greeks and Armenians in the nineteen fifties. Three years ago, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who pleaded for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, and who made the Armenian community more visible and self-confident than ever, was killed by a young nationalist man.
The Armenian community in Turkey has turned inward upon itself because of events over the past century. Most of them haven’t really dared to show themselves as Armenians: being Armenian was more something to be ashamed of than to be proud of. They hardly mingled with Islamic Turks, and could, at least in Istanbul, easily do that because of laws that allowed them to found their own schools and churches. Besides schools and churches, in Istanbul there are Armenian hospitals, dance groups, choirs, boarding schools, theatre groups, and so on. Big groups of Armenian children in Istanbul hardly have any contact with non-Armenians till they reach adolescence, and meet their first Muslims only when they go to university or start working.
Especially for the young people there are a lot of organised activities, and all these choirs, sports clubs, dance and theatre groups function as a marriage market. Aris Nalci, deputy editor-in-chief at the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos (of which Hrant Dink was the founder and first editor-in- chief): ‘For generations now Armenians have married Armenians, and especially for older Armenians that is still very important. They are afraid that marriages with non-Armenians will eventually lead to the disappearance of the Armenian community in Turkey.’
But, he says, the youth is changing: ‘Sowly there are more and more young people who have no problem with a mixed marriage. Within the community, that is difficult, especially when it concerns an Armenian girl. In a marriage situation the religion of the man is more often followed, so an Armenian girl who marries a Muslim, is probably not able to raise her children as Armenian and Christian. Such a girl is considered in a way ‘lost’ to the Armenian community.’
Victims of feudal traditions
Ten years ago, Anni (34) moved with her family to Istanbul from the province of Batman (the same province where Cemil and Gülestan live in the village of Sason). Her ancestors never converted to Islam, but could not really practice their religion and their Armenian traditions because in Batman there are no Armenian churches, schools or clubs. You might say the family found refuge in Istanbul: they were victims of feudal traditions in the south east of Turkey, and twice were unable to prevent their daughters being married off to Muslims, against the will of both the daughters and their families. Because of the marriages, the girls could not stay in touch with their Armenian family any more. When a third daughter was also about to be forcefully taken in marriage, the family packed their bags.
The family history is important to understand why Anni’s family, after arriving in Istanbul and living there for a few years, couldn’t cope with the secret marriage of one of their daughters, Cemine, to a Muslim. They knew about the relationship between Cemine and this young man, tried to convince her with arguments that marriage was not a good idea, but suddenly she came to visit with a ring on her finger. Anni: ‘It was like a slap in the face for my family, after everything that had happened in Batman. In Istanbul we finally got the chance to be openly Armenian. We could go to church, we were all learning Armenian, trying to get integrated into the community here, to get to know other Armenians. Including Cemine. She would never marry a Muslim, she was very strict on that point.’
After the marriage, relations with Cemine, who was 26 when she married, were broken off without mercy. Anni is devastated, but there is no other way, she says. Maybe they would have permitted a marriage if Cemine had brought her love home to be introduced, if the family knew more about him, had a chance to get to know him. Anni wonders why her sister chose to just ignore the deep, painful scars that not only the family history, but also the history of Armenians in Turkey still showed signs of. Love? Maybe, but doesn’t history mean anything then?
Anni continues her story, and it turns out that all the misery that befell her family is directly connected to the mass killings on Armenians in 1915. Batman is, like the whole of the southeast of Turkey, in fact ruled by so called ağa’s, large landowners. They control social life and politics, and their wish is law. Just as it was in 1915. Anni’s ancestors survived the mass killings thanks to the protection of their ağa.
The protection they received in those days means that they still owe the descendants of the ağa, who still represent an important family. Anni: ‘The ağa can stand up for ‘his’ Armenian family if he wants to, but if he doesn’t want to, then as a family you have no power at all. My father tried to protect his daughters from marriages they didn’t want, but the families who married my sisters were powerful and had good connections with the ağa. We had no prestige, so our ağa didn’t stand up for us. My father would be beaten up mercilessly if he resisted; he could do nothing, absolutely nothing. Can you understand how painful the secret marriage of my sister is? After all the pain and fear of generations, now that we can finally be ourselves in Istanbul?’
Pure Muslim boys
In Sason, Gülestan and her adolescent sons openly talk about choosing a partner – Cemil hardly interferes in the conversation, he is sitting on a cushion on the floor chewing tobacco, smiles amiably and later disappears to the tea house. ‘Our generation’, says one of the sons, ‘is not ashamed any more of having Armenian blood, like generations before us were. I am a Muslim, but not a real pure Muslim,, and I want to marry a girl with the same background as me.’
By the way, it’s not the case that the children don’t have any choice: ‘pure Muslims’ do want the young men and women with Armenian roots as marriage partners. ‘Especially the women’, smiles Gülestan. ‘Our families are known as dependable, honest, clean and stable, and quite a few pure Muslim boys ask for the hand of our girls in marriage. But such a request is usually turned down, unless the girl really wants to marry the boy. Because, you know, even though we have been Muslims for generations now and are at peace with that, everybody knows that we have Armenian blood and were once Christians,. When there is trouble in a marriage, your background is used against you, that’s how it goes. ‘You are, when all is said and done, an Armenian’. That way of looking down on our background, we don’t want that anymore. That’s why it is best to keep the marriages just between ourselves.’