A new kind of Armenian-Turkish reconciliation
In October 2011, the newly renovated Sourp Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church reopened in Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakir. Among the hundreds gathered to celebrate its first mass in over ninety years were local men and women who had chosen the occasion to be baptized into the Armenian Apostolic Church. Raised as Sunni Muslims, these men and women were the children and grandchildren of Armenians who had converted to Islam to escape persecution in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
Living in a society that glorified cultural homogeneity and in a country that still bore the scars of its Ottoman past, the first generation of converts often kept their Armenian heritage hidden from their children. They integrated into the communities around them and adopted, at least outwardly, a new language, religion, culture, and identity.
Less encumbered by the fear that silenced their parents and grandparents, the grandchildren of these Armenians have recently begun to dig into their family histories and to discuss their backgrounds with a kind of pride uncharacteristic of previous generations.
This growing trend in Turkey that values multicultural identities—and, in the process, exposes the absurdity of purity as a cultural ideal—rails against the Turkish nationalist model of identity that has become familiar to those who follow Turkish politics. But it is not the government that is fostering change; it is members of the civil society who are taking the matter of identity into their own hands.
These themes have been most notably explored through personal accounts of the grandchildren of converted Armenians. In examining the impact that the discovery of Armenian ancestry has had on their own identity construction, the grandchildren attest to the possibility of multiple belongings. This is a concept that unhinges the common adversarial depiction of Armenian and Turkish nationalism advanced by states and leaders and inspires a more fluid, inclusive understanding of identity, where both Turkish and Armenian elements can coexist within an individual.
Crypto-Armenians: Then and Now
While the international community is well acquainted with the plight of Armenians driven from Anatolia in 1915, it has only been in the past decade that attention has been focused on the Armenians who stayed in Turkey—known as “crypto-Armenians,” “Islamicized Armenians,” or, more disparagingly, as “leftovers of the sword.”
Although a small fraction of the pre-1915 Armenian community preserved its language and culture in Istanbul after Turkey’s founding in 1923, most Armenians who remained in Turkey faded into the social fabric of rural towns and villages across Anatolia. But, in recent years, these men and women are being pulled from obscurity with increased momentum, thanks in part to the 2004 publication of Fethiye Çetin’s memoir,Anneannem [My Grandmother].
In this groundbreaking text, Çetin—a Turkish human rights activist and lawyer best known abroad as legal counsel for the family of slain Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink—recounts her grandmother’s personal history. Her grandmother, born Heranoush to an Armenian family, was taken from her mother and siblings by a Turkish gendarme during the death marches in 1915. She was renamed Şeher, was raised as a Turk, and repressed all memory of her Armenian past until the very end of her life.
Çetin’s pioneering account reverberated across Turkey, resonating particularly with families who had uncovered similar stories in their own personal histories. In some cases, My Grandmother prompted these families to discuss their Armenian ancestry openly and without shame, leading to the publication of another unparalleled work, written with Ayşe Gül Altınay, Torunlar [The Grandchildren], published in French as Les petits-enfants.
Les petits-enfants is a series of personal accounts by twenty-five grandchildren of converted Armenians, originally published in Turkish in 2009 and translated into French by Célin Vuraler in 2011. In these interviews, the grandchildren piece together what they know about their grandparents’ childhoods and families, explain how their grandparents were integrated into Sunni or Alevi communities, and describe their relationship with them.
The startling, often brutal way that the grandchildren discovered their grandparents’ Armenian ancestries, rattling whatever clear conception they had of their identities up until that point, is a key feature of each account. For example, one grandchild, the celebrated poet Bedrettin Aykin, remembers first learning of his family’s past unexpectedly when a friend’s mother referred to his mother as “the young infidel,” leading him to question his mother about their origins. Having been treated as a secret within their families and a source of shame within their society, the discovery of Armenian heritage often came as a shock to these grandchildren and forced them to reevaluate the way they understood themselves and their relationships to their communities.
These painful recollections are nevertheless interspersed with bittersweet indications—obvious only in hindsight—of the past their grandparents kept hidden from view. One granddaughter recalls that her grandmother preferred to be called Satenig rather than Süreyya, the Turkish name on her identity card; only when talking about her grandmother to an Armenian friend did she realize that Satenig was, in fact, an Armenian name. Another grandchild remembers coloring eggs with her grandmother every year in the early spring, entirely unaware, at the time, of the insight it gave into her grandmother’s Christian upbringing.
Grappling with Latent Armenian Identity
The grandchildren—raised as Turks, Kurds, or Alevis, speaking Turkish, Kurdish, or Zaza, and practicing, to varying degrees, Sunni Islam or Alevism—reacted to the news of their grandparents’ Armenian heritage in ways representative of the diversity among them. Most took the opportunity to read more about Armenians; a great number of grandchildren cited the work of novelists Migirdiç Margosyan, Elif Shafak, and Kemal Yalçin as fundamental in humanizing an unfamiliar yet vilified group of people. Many also began to read about Ottoman Armenian history, and in the process, challenged the depiction of Armenians as wicked traitors, which had been instilled in them at school and in their larger society from an early age.
Some grandchildren were intrigued by the religious piece of their Armenian ancestry, which prompted them to study the intersections between Christianity and Islam or, like those baptized at Sourp Giragos last October, to convert to the faith in which their grandparents were raised.
Although the conclusions that each grandchild drew from his or her discovery varied considerably, each was compelled to reflect on his or her identity and how this new revelation would impact it. For some, their grandparents’ past had no effect on how they conceived of their identity. One grandchild reflects: “I was born in Turkey. I am Turkish. I am Muslim. Should I, all of a sudden, become Armenian and go to Yerevan?” Or: “Up until today, I have never felt Turkish, Kurdish, or Armenian, even after learning of my family’s history. I don’t identify with any of these nationalities. I don’t want to be attached to anywhere.”
The absence of a single, dominant identity and the significance of multiculturalism are themes repeated in a significant number of accounts. After an initial period of crisis and uncertainty, many of the grandchildren came to value belonging to an eclectic mix of communities: “I have Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkish cultures. I know all of them well and I am the product of what they represent. But I don’t know how to respond when one asks me if I am Turkish, Kurdish, or Armenian. I am a bit of all three.” This emphasis on multiple affiliations illustrates a flexible, more inclusive understanding of identity—a break with the prevailing nationalist conceptualization that so often attempts to place people into neat categories that do not represent reality.
There is something hopeful to be said about a generation that can see beyond artificial constructs of nationhood and has the confidence to formulate identities based on its own individual experiences. After successful attempts by their grandparents to assimilate into the dominant culture, and desperate attempts by their parents to conceal any suggestion of their otherness, these grandchildren are bravely rejecting their society’s taboos by acknowledging and, in many cases, embracing their Armenian ancestry. In his interview, one grandchild eloquently comments on the dangers of identity suppression so common in past generations:
I don’t wish for anyone to hide their true identity or to mask past errors. I think that people become much more extremist when they hide their pasts and protect themselves by diverting attention. [Bülent] Ecevit, wanting to erase his Kurdish origins, became a Turkish nationalist politician; my uncle, hoping to make people forget his Armenian ancestry, immersed himself fervently in Islam. People who are sure of themselves would not exist in such contradiction.
The shift towards self-acceptance is promising because it indicates that identities no longer need to be understood as mutually exclusive. One granddaughter, who considers herself a devout Muslim and has chosen to wear hijab, celebrates the fact that she is not a “pure Turk” and credits her converted Armenian grandmother with teaching her about the faith. She shows us that a variety of seemingly irreconcilable identities can coexist harmoniously with one another.
We see this emphasis on coexistence again in the accounts of grandchildren with extended families whose members belong to communities often understood to be in perpetual conflict with one another:
I like this diversity very much because my two families, Armenian and Kurdish, mutually respect each other. For example, when my mother visited my Armenian family, we would always make them a prayer rug. And my mother, during Christian holidays, would always make a meal for the occasion. This proves that it’s completely possible for the two cultures to cohabitate. Communication and common ground is all that is needed.
Another grandchild shared a similar experience:
In our family, there are Syriacs, Armenians, and Muslims. My aunts—my mother’s sisters—married Syriacs and live as Syriacs. My sister married an Armenian. As for my maternal grandparents, they are still Muslim and pray five times a day. It is a mix of different lifestyles.
These stories are models of exceptionally productive understandings of identity. Rather than being used as a way to create divisions among people, these families see identity as a personal code that provides comfort and a sense of belonging, but that resists politicization and spurns the idea of boundaries and limitations.
Implications for the Armenian Diaspora
The struggle to formulate identity is not foreign to Armenians living in the diaspora, who are also exposed to a variety of different cultures and identities from which to choose. The accounts of these grandchildren are in fact quite relevant to diasporic experiences and provide an alternative approach to Armenian identity construction, which encourages a kind of inclusivity that does not often characterize Armenian communities.
The Armenian diaspora today is composed of descendants of Ottoman Armenians who, despite having lived in exile for almost a century, still feel a close connection to their heritage; in some cases, they continue to speak Western Armenian, a linguistic branch distinct from the one spoken in the Republic of Armenia today. Scattered in large part across Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas, the people who comprise the Armenian diaspora have, to varying degrees, retained aspects of their ancestral culture while at the same time participating in the societies in which they were raised.
Despite what seems to be fertile ground for the development of dual identities, Armenians in the diaspora have internalized the idea that identity fusion makes their Armenian experience somehow inauthentic. A hierarchy of “Armenianness”— based on the degree to which a person adheres to a perceived, yet undefined paragon of ethnic perfection—is born from these feelings of inauthenticity. This hierarchy is dangerous because there is no ideal way to understand identity or the factors that influence it; the sole requirement is for it to have value to the individual. For some, language may be the most important building block; for others, it may be food, religion, or music.
Identity is personal, but it becomes public when people create an environment welcome only to those who subscribe to the same brand of identity. General feelings of exclusion from the Armenian community are illustrated in a comment from Behçet Avci, one of the grandchildren baptized at Sourp Giragos last October: “We have been ostracized by both Sunni Muslims and Armenians. It is a very emotional moment for me and I’m a bit upset because unfortunately we do not belong to either side.”
Understanding that identity is not static, but rather that it is evolving—constantly being defined and redefined—would encourage others to see the value in multiple belongings, ease feelings of alienation, and eliminate the idea that there is a certain kind of ideal Armenian identity for which to strive.
The accounts of the grandchildren in Les petits-enfants can teach the diaspora that hybrid identities are not corrosive or threatening; they enrich one another and, most importantly, they represent reality. Egyptian-Armenian, American-Armenian, French-Armenian, Syrian-Armenian, Argentinean-Armenian: hyphenated identities describe lived experiences and should be appreciated rather than tinged with guilt.
The accounts in Les petits-enfants also implicitly encourage readers to view each person as an individual with his or her own complex identity, and not as a representative of a country or a culture. They show us that prejudices wear away with personal contact, with time, and most importantly, with knowledge. The grandchildren were forced to come to this realization abruptly, but by learning from their stories, both Turks and Armenians can come to this realization more gradually by transcending the hostility fueled by the nationalist rhetoric on both sides and seeing one another as individuals above all else.