An Interview with Vahe Tachjian
Historian Vahé Tachjian earned his Ph.D. in history and civilization at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. His research covers the period of the French occupation of Cilicia, Syria, and Lebanon between World War I and World War II; the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire; refugee problems in the Middle East; and Kurdish-Armenian relations. He has carried out extensive research in archives in Paris, Berlin, Nantes, London, Cairo, Beirut, Aleppo, and Yerevan, and is currently the project director and chief editor of www.houshamadyan.org, which was created in 2011 by the Berlin-based Houshamadyan not-for-profit Association, founded in 2010. The website aims is to reconstruct the daily life of the Ottoman-Armenian and his social environment in all its facets. Articles and various materials about the Harput (Kharpert), Palu, and Marash regions have already appeared on the website’s pages. New articles and materials about many other Armenian-populated areas are in preparation.
Tachjian’s publications include La France en Cilicie et en Haute-Mésopotamie. Aux confins de la Turquie, de la Syrie et de l’Irak (Karthala Editions, Paris, 2004, 465 pages); Introduction and Notes to Ohannès Pacha Kouyoumdjian, Le Liban à la veille et au début de la guerre: Mémoires d’un gouverneur, 1913-1915, with co-editors Raymond Kévorkian and Michel Paboudjian (Beirut, 2003); Les Arméniens, 1917-1939. La quête d’un refuge, with co-editors Raymond Kévorkian and Lévon Nordiguian (Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, Beirut, 2006, 320 pages); and The Armenian General Benevolent Union: One Hundred Years of History, volume 1 (1906-40) and volume 2 (1941-2006) (AGBU Central Board of Directors, 447 pages, 2006, Paris). His new book, based on the diaries of two Armenian deportees (1915-18) from Ayntab, is currently in preparation for publication.
Armenian Weekly Editor Khatchig Mouradian recently conducted an interview with Tachjian via e-mail, about the Houshamadyan project.
Khatchig Mouradian—Town and village histories and memory books written by Ottoman-Armenians have long been forgotten by Armenians—except for a small group of history buffs and scholars. In Turkey, they were never part of the discourse and were not incorporated into the historiography. Houshamadyan challenges this status quo. Tell us about the inception of this project and its mission.
Vahe Tachjian—Yes, the histories have been both forgotten and ignored, but for different reasons. It is simply distracting for Turkish official historiography to value Armenian books that, through local history, local culture, local customs, and local characteristics, turn the Ottoman-Armenian into an inseparable part of the Ottoman legacy (although the Armenian authors of these books did not write the histories of their villages, towns, or regions with that aim in mind). In any event, when we use these books as primary sources, it is obvious how much can be learned through them, especially about 19th– and early 20th-century Ottoman social and economic history.
Turkish official historiography ignores Armenian books of this genre, simply because its policy is based on a denial that has, over many decades, seen the names of formerly Armenian-populated towns changed, and Armenian community structures destroyed. Attempts were made—and continue to be made—to obliterate every trace of Armenians in formerly Armenian-populated areas. These books are the proof of a rich and abundant Armenian heritage in the region.
The question is different when seen from the Armenian historiography point of view. For a very long time the focal point of Armenian historiography was the Armenian Genocide. Everything revolved around this date—even the pre-1915 history of Ottoman-Armenians. Thus there is a leaning towards choosing the catastrophic dates in that history, such as 1895-96, the years of the anti-Armenian massacres, or 1909, the date of the Adana massacre. There is also a tendency diametrically opposed to this, which is limited to the heroic acts performed by Ottoman-Armenians, to the revaluing of rebellions against the Ottoman government, and making them the subjects of study. Against this, the Armenian books written about towns and villages present the social life of Ottoman Armenians, local micro-history such as their daily lives and the socio-economic environment that was immediately related to the general Ottoman social context and that, I think, in the final analysis, are important keys to understanding all the other events.
At the same time, we must approach books of this genre carefully. They are often works written by people who were not specialists. They were written by a generation that survived the genocide, and the spirit and concepts of those times are very much evident in them. They are often emotional, and an important part of their text has to be put through a sort of scientific filter before using them. Thus they may be used more as primary sources; it may not be very wise to re-publish them in Armenian and present them to the reading public without critical editions first being prepared. These kinds of re-publications are not only meaningless, but also a waste of money. In the plan that Houshamadyan has adopted, we attempt to put the rich information found in these books into a general Ottoman context, preparing scientific articles based on it (in Armenian and English), and thus making it available to all.
K.M.—How does Houshamadyan operate? How is its content selected and organized?
V.T.—Houshamadyan has, at present, one full-time researcher: me. I write articles, edit others, take part in the search for pictures and photographs that illustrate our website pages, and assist in the preparation of maps, etc. Houshamadyan has a designer, Silvina Der-Megerditchian, who is responsible for the layout of the pages and the website’s visual content. We also have writers, who provide articles in return for honorariums. The articles are usually written in Armenian and translated into English. All the articles are first read by two people belonging to the editorial board; it is then decided whether they are worthy of being included in the website, or if they should be amended, or simply refused. The subjects of our articles are related to multiple themes and cover a wide geographical area. Thus our plan has in view all the provinces of the Ottoman Empire where Armenian community life existed until the beginning of the 20th century. In other words, we have not restricted ourselves to just the area of historic Armenia, but have encompassed places that are far to the west, such as Konya, Bardizag, Yozgat, and even places in the Ottoman-Arab provinces, such as Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Aleppo. So, if our sources allow, it is our plan to reflect the villagers’ daily life, the social and economic history in all these areas until 1915. We don’t have a special way of choosing subjects or places. We leave that to the preferences of our article writers.
K.M.—Who is Houshamadyan’s target audience?
V.T.—When over a year ago we began the Houshamadyan project, it was our aim to create a trilingual website—in English, Armenian, and Turkish. At present we only have the Armenian and English versions. It may be said that the articles are aimed at the Turkish and Armenian public. On the one hand, without provocations and by retaining a scientific style, we are attempting to reflect on a vast, rich, and abundant life—that of the Ottoman-Armenians. Without including the genocide phase in our plan, we aim to show the many colorful aspects of this rich life, and attempt to revitalize various different microcosms in villages and towns. We are convinced that the more emphasis is placed on their life, ways of living, on local histories, the more we will show how great the absence is of all that, the emptiness—demographic and cultural—that is still noticeable, especially in eastern Anatolia. What’s lacking, of course, is the Ottoman-Armenian, who is present on our website with his culture, customs, trades, personal histories, photographs, etc. The reason for the absence is 1915, with all of its atrocity.
On the other hand, we are trying, on our website, to present the Ottoman-Armenian in the most authentic way possible. It becomes obvious how close this same Armenian is, in terms of culture, customs, and traditions, to the “Other,” in other words to his Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, Greek, or Assyrian neighbor. But this resemblance is often forgotten by Armenians. The emphasis is often placed on the differences. The reason is simple: Armenian identity is, in many respects, one that has been reconstructed after the genocide. Much of the rich Ottoman legacy and characteristics that were, in the years following the genocide, considered to be Turkish-Ottoman, and therefore unacceptable in the Armenian’s “new,” reconstructed identity, have been thrown away. We are therefore convinced that for both today’s Armenians and the inhabitants of Turkey, the contents of our website will contain many new insights.
K.M.—What material do you seek to acquire for the website? How can readers contribute material and content?
V.T.—First, of course, is the work we carry out, what we do to bring together the hundreds of written Armenian sources about these villages and towns. They are, very often, rare books that are very difficult to obtain. We therefore often work on digitized versions of them. Collecting photographs is also a major task. Fortunately, we have friends who have large collections of Ottoman-Armenian photographs and, at the same time, believe in the importance of our work and have opened their rich collections to us. We also turn to those around us, asking them if they have any old family archives. We do the same every time we visit other countries. The marvelous thing is that visitors to our website take part in this kind of activity; Houshamadyan has become a structure that is being built collectively. We often receive digitized photographs, especially from the United States, as well as sound recorded testimony, songs, films, and books. We feel that our readers are gradually giving more importance to our work, especially when people, who are totally unknown to us, send materials to our address and make small donations through PayPal. It is this kind of collaboration and assistance that inspires us. It is they who infuse enthusiasm in our tiring and breathless work.
K.M.—If you were to describe the Houshamadyan website as you would like to see it, say, in five years, what would it look like in terms of its content and scope?
V.T.—We hope that by then, through all the articles on the website, we will have studied an important percentage of the Armenian-populated areas in this vast geographical area. Then we will be the owners of a huge wealth of information. Once we have succeeded in achieving this, it will be possible, using these materials, to create publications. For example, it might be possible, taking only crafts as the subject, to publish a book in which the crafts carried on in different Armenian-populated areas are shown with all their individual characteristics. Many examples like this could be cited. We are also thinking of holding exhibitions in the future using our materials. And hope that by then we will have succeeded in creating Podcasts using our materials. We find their presence important in terms of providing our website with extra vitality. We also hope that by then, we will have attracted new donors, allowing us to speed up the rhythm of our development. And finally, we are hopeful that we will succeed in having a version of our website in Turkish, something that has always been one of our priorities, but that for financial reasons we have not yet been able to realize.
The Houshamadyan website uses various multi-media tools, such as musical recordings of historic value, oral history recordings, old photographs, pictures, old film footage, and maps. For this reason a part of our work is collecting and preserving cultural artifacts of all kinds produced by the Ottoman Armenians.Readers can help in reconstructing this rich legacy by sending Houshamadyan various materials, including:
– old or family photographs from the Ottoman period;
– books about Armenian-populated villages or towns;
– sound recordings of music;
– testimonies (either written, audio, or video)
Readers can also help develop and continue the project by donating to Houshamadyan e.V., Berliner str. 101, 13189 Berlin, Germany.
For more information, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.houshamadyan.org.