Sevan Nisanyan, the owner of Nisanyan Hotels, and a linguist, columnist, academic, and outspoken critic, is facing a demolition order on his hotels throughout Turkey. In a country packed with illegal constructions, the targeting of the Nisanyan Hotels speaks volumes about Turkey’s persecution of its minority citizens who dare to raise their voice against the government or its denialist policies.
The Nisanyan Hotels are located in Sirince, Izmir, a village of around 600 inhabitants in the Aegean hills. Nisanyan moved there 15 years ago, and almost single handedly turned this small village with a dying agriculture into a booming tourist spot.
“I have been active in preserving the historic heritage of the village. It was mostly through my activities that Sirince has now become a well-known tourist destination,” he told the Armenian Weekly.
Nisanyan purchased and renovated many houses in Sirince, using traditional methods of building and preserving the aesthetics of the area. He then converted those house into what today is known as the Nisanyan Hotels.
“As far as I know, this is the first—and I think only—commercial establishment in the history of the Turkish Republic that carries an openly Armenian name,” he said.
Nisanyan is certainly a passionate and persistent man, and a stickler for justice when it comes to saving his “babies,” as he calls his houses. “The local bureaucracy regarded my activities with hostility from day one. I was harassed constantly, permissions were either denied or delayed by 10 years or more, I had to face more than 30 court cases, was fined repeatedly, arrested, jailed, and so on. I persevered, and my perseverance made them even angrier.”
His battle has been going on for 15 years, and now he may lose all that he has built. “They have passed a decision to demolish every single house I have built in 15 years. The governor of Izmir is behind the decision. He is a man notorious as the former governor of a Kurdish province where army-run assassination squads operated freely.”
“It is an act of mad vandalism,” he continued, “but I doubt very much that they will be able to carry it out.”
Nisanyan noted that to date, 16 criminal charges—carrying a 50-year prison sentence—have been brought against him, and all are related to “unauthorized construction,” “unauthorized repair work,” and “defying government orders.” Five cases have concluded, serving him with a total of 10.5 years in prison. His appeals are pending.
Add to those the demolition order, the court cases following his views that are often deemed as “insulting Turkishness,” and the threats he receives from individuals with ultra-nationalist mindsets, and a bleak reality emerges for the Armenian population of Turkey.
“Although there is much willingness now among the Turkish elite to revise Turkey’s traditional attitude toward minorities, the old habits die hard in the bureaucracy. There is instinctive hostility toward an Armenian. It turns rabid when that Armenian is also an outspoken critic of the Turkish system,” Nisanyan told the Weekly.
Nisanyan, who was awarded the 2004 Freedom of Thought Award by the Human Rights Association of Turkey, has often voiced views that are controversial in the tightly censored Turkish society. He has spoken publically about the Armenian Genocide, winning him more than a few enemies. His most recent comments, made during a Turkish television debate program, resulted in the punishment of the airing station by Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), who claimed Nisanyan’s comments were excessively critical and that they “humiliated the Republic of Turkey.”
However, Nisanyan does hold on to a ray of optimism, and views this current obstacle as an opportunity for Turkey’s authorities to turn a new page in upholding and protecting minority rights.
“I believe this is a test case for the Erdogan government’s willingness to improve minority rights in Turkey. I believe it is also a test case that will show if Armenians can go on living freely and securely in this country, or whether the old system of state thuggery will go on unchanged,” he said.
Nisanyan Hotels and Sirince
Sevan Nisanyan and his wife, Mujde—after renovating Mujde’s “donkey shed” and turning it into their residence—bought and rebuilt a handful of other houses near ruin. Around the same time, Nisanyan published a guidebook to small hotels in Turkey, which turned out to be a big hit. The Nisanyans soon after decided that they, too, would operate a small hotel—and that they would do it right.
“At first they did not know what to do with their collection of refurbished donkey sheds. Then they concluded that, as the most dreaded hotel critics in the land, they might as well put their hand under the millstone—as they say in Turkish—and learn how to run an inn themselves. Nisanyan Houses were born in August 1999,” explains the blurb on their hotel website.
The hotels were a success, and they soon bought the main hotel building. It was an “ugly apartment building that some big shots from Ankara had started building years ago,” but had left incomplete. It was a huge eyesore—an “abomination”—and the largest construction in town (though only three stories tall). While renovating this main building, the authorities tried to put a stop to it, but Nisanyan refused to give in. The dispute went to court, and Nisanyan won on a technicality.
Nine more cases were filed against him. He won all but one. “They turned it into a lynching campaign,” he told the Planning Report in an interview.
Nisanyan eventually went to jail for a wall he had built in his own garden.
What is surprising is that the authorities would go to such lengths to stop a man who seems to be in love with this small village, with its historic Greek houses, and has exerted much time and effort in building and protecting it.
To remain true to the architectural heritage of Sirince, Nisanyan and his builders pulled apart ruined houses to study the materials, modes of construction, and intricacies of the earlier builders. He published this information in a booklet—a sort of hand manual—for builders in Sirince, written in a simple language, in an effort to continue the time-honored cultural and building traditions.
The village was declared a historic site in 1984, and no constructions or renovations were to take place in it. Many, however, went on with their business, building on and renovating their own properties. According to Nisanyan, there are at least 90 illegal building constructions in the village.
“When a place is declared a historical site, by law they have to produce a [zoning] plan for the village within a year. It actually took 23 years to produce the plan. It came into effect, finally, last year. Throughout this period, it was entirely impossible to build anything legally in the village,” Nisanyan told the Planning Report.
The long overdue plan is catastrophic, according to Nisanyan. The traditional structures in the building have basic mathematical proportions and a style that are entirely overlooked by the drafters of the plan. While the traditional village houses were made of stone and timber, the new plan allows the use of cement and permits 250 new houses in the village. For Nisanyan, the new zoning plan spells disaster for the village. And so he chose to defy it.
This unyielding campaign against Nisanyan and his hotels has made headlines before. In 2004, Hakan Ataman, in an article for Radikal, wrote: “There are 40,000 illegal buildings waiting to be demolished in Izmir; 70 percent of the buildings in Istanbul are illegal; 80 percent of [touristic] facilities in Olimpos are illegal; all of the buildings in Sirince are illegal. Turkey is a paradise of illegal buildings. Yet for some reason the Nisanyan houses are targeted.”
The reason, however, seems to have far less to do with the legality of the constructions than with the tolerability of Nisanyan within Turkish society. For a state so adamant in censoring all who dare to be critical of its policies—whether leaders of other sovereign states, or Google and its YouTube—a Turkish-Armenian who refuses to bend and parrot official Turkish discourse must seem like an insufferable thorn.
In Nisanyan’s own words to the Weekly, “’The Armenian who openly defies the Turkish state is something they cannot tolerate.”