In 21st-century Turkey, we are witnessing massive social transformations and changes that were inconceivable just years ago. Hrant Dink’s murder ignited the spark of self-recognition and self-assertion, and initiated a campaign of return to ancestral roots among Turkish-Armenians, especially in the Eastern Anatolian provinces. However, of the hundreds of districts and regions these “hidden Armenians” call home, Dersim (Tunceli, in Turkish) has a unique social and cultural environment with an exceptional spirit of rebellion and struggle, the features of which will constitute the bulk of this article. Dink’s assassination may not be the direct cause of this self-recognition in Turkey, but it was surely the spark that initiated the outburst, the desire to reclaim one’s Armenian identity.
Although the brutal massacres of the Kurds in Dersim in 1938 symbolize the epitome of the anti-minorities campaign of the Kemalist regime in the 1920’s and 1930’s, it also overlaps with Armenian grief. Some of the Dersim Alevi, Kizilbash, Zaza, Karabli, Yusufhanli, and Ferhatans that populated the area welcomed the survivors of the Armenian Genocide (mostly of whom came from the Erzinjan area) and provided them with shelter and protection, all the while knowing that it could endanger their own lives or the lives of their loved ones.1
Addressing this point, Max Erwin Von Scheubner-Ritcher, the German vice-consul in Erzurum during World War I, wrote that the “Kurds played a very diverse role. Many allowed themselves to be hired as hangmen for the Armenians, waylaid deportation trains, killed the men, kidnapped the women, and took all valuables with them. Then there were obviously real agreements between the Turks in favor of genocide and the Kurdish tribes. But there was one exception: the Kurds from Dersim, the successors of the historical Kizzylbash, who were not members of the basic Sunnite belief, but rather of a Shiite orientation. These people turned out to be the most important saviors of the persecuted Armenians. They organized regular escape roads to Russia, which, in the following period, particularly in the 30’s, led to their own annihilation by the Turks who now followed Kemal…”2
Despite pressure and constant threats by the Ottoman government, the Dersim Kurds continued to shelter the Armenians. Unfortunately, the governmental response came two decades later, when the Kemalist regime brutally suppressed a “fabricated” Kurdish rebellion in Dersim by killing thousands of Kurds, as well as the sheltered Armenians—with an overall estimate of 70,000 killed. The government claimed this suppression was a punitive measure towards the Zazas, who supposedly treacherously protected the enemies of the state and the nation—that is, the Armenians. Yet, many saw it as a deliberate policy that aimed to disarm the region and expand state control, and, crucially, to empty the region by eradicating the last remnants of the Armenians—thereby finishing what their predecessors had started.
Most of the surviving Armenians, who had already converted and become Alevis, were deported or exiled to Istanbul or other parts of Western Turkey. The killings occurred in a valley called Lesh Dere (Valley of Corpses), whose name attests to the brutality of the massacres of 1938. Some consider this place to be the second Der-Zor, insofar as it is a mourning place for the Armenian people and overlaps with the genocidal policies of the Ottoman state, initiated in 1915.
How is this rebellious spirit of Dersim being revealed now during recent tumultuous events in Turkey? From the bourgeoning days of Kurdish nationalism, Dersim has been the revolutionary and socialist center of the Kurdish fighters. The ubiquitous presence of Turkish military bases surrounding Dersim’s perimeter demonstrates the importance and the danger this area poses to the Turkish government. Antranik Yeritsyan, in his book Dersim: Seyahatname (Dersim: Travels) written in 1900 in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Georgia, wrote, “Every year, bloody and fierce battles take place between the Turkish government and the Dersim Kurds. However, as the Kurds keep their orientation, they are still invincible.” Ironically, some believe that a vast number of the local population of Dersim Alevis are actually converts—Armenians who have embraced the Zaza identity and accepted the Alevi faith under various circumstances. The efforts of a single person—Mihran Prgitch (Mihran the Savior)—opened the path for other “hidden Armenians” to return to their origins.
Mihran and the Union of Dersim Armenians
Mihran was aware of his Armenian origins since the age of 7, but for obvious reasons, was unable to fulfill his dream—to return to his origins—until 43 years later. What compelled him to take this step was the assassination of Hrant Dink, which deeply affected him. After the murder of his friend, Mihran (then called Salaheddin) began forming what is now called the “Dersimi hayerou mioutioun” (Union of Dersim Armenians), also known as “Dersiyad.” This association has now been operational for two years. To finalize his acculturation, in 2010, he converted from Alevism to Christianity through an official baptism and an application to the Armenian religious authorities in Yerevan. He then changed his name from Salaheddin to Mihran.
The formation of such an association can be seen as one of the rebellious features of Dersim, which manifests itself through numerous cultural events and articles published in the Union’s official newspaper, Dersiyad. The paper condemns the assimilative policies adopted by the Turkish government and the lack of cultural, ethnic, and religious freedom in the country. The issue of the “hidden Armenians” in the eastern provinces has thus been politicized, partly thanks to these articles that placed this problem on Turkey’s political scene and continued to call upon the issues first raised by Hrant Dink.
The creation of such a union and the return to Armenian identity is seen by these once-hidden Armenians as a step forward in their struggle for a more tolerant policy, defined by cultural, ethnic, and religious freedoms, as well as a respect for basic human rights. Thus far, an estimated 34 households in the Dersim region explicitly acknowledge their Armenian roots. According to Mihran, the current president of the Union, 85 percent of the local population in Dersim can claim Armenian origin in their ancestral chain, whether pure or hybrid. This claim is supported by Diran Lokmakyozyan, who in an article published on Akunq.net writes, “It is very hard to find a ‘Dersim-ian’ who is not the child of a returned-one.”3 (The expression “returned-one” is a reference to the exiled Armenians who returned to Dersim after the 1947 amnesty.4)
Expressions and identity
Another important aspect that characterizes this area and, especially, the “hidden Armenians” in it can be traced in the dialect and linguistic expressions used among the people at the local level. Closer scrutiny of their expressions—such as, “Alevi Muslim”—reveals that whereas most of them are aware of their ancestral origins, they refuse to accept it openly, especially to outsiders. (The reasons for this refusal constitute another essential topic interwoven with the issue of “hidden Armenians” in Turkey, yet it does not fall in the scope of this analysis.) According to Andranik Ispiryan, a Turkology professor at Yerevan State University, an Alevi does not say that he is an “Alevi Muslim.” Although “Alevism” was first derived from Islam, throughout the centuries it has diverted significantly from the orthodox Muslim faith. Concerning this issue, Captain Molyneux L. Seel wrote the following in 1914: “The Dersimli are styled by the Turks ‘Kezelbash,’ which means ‘red-head,’ a term of opprobrium which they apply also to the Persians and to other unorthodox Mohammedans. But a native, if he be asked what is his religion, will say that he is a ‘yol oushaghi,’ a picturesque term which might perhaps be best translated as ‘a child of the True Path.’ The sect called Kezelbash, though themselves repudiating the term Islam…”5
The “Alevi Muslim” expression could be a kind of defense strategy, since Alevis are still persecuted in Turkey. Or, it could contain a hidden message; the interlocutor may deliberately use it in order to show his/her Armenian identity.
In his article, Lokmakyozyan tells a story that reveals how language can unfold hidden identities. On his way to YesilYaz in Dersim, an area known for the residents’ open acknowledgment of being Armenian, he, along with Mihran and some friends, encounter an old woman—mamig or dadi—on the bus. Mihran attempts to persuade her that the bus is not a local, public one. After a few minutes of discussion, it turns out that she is in one of the families who openly acknowledge their Armenian identity, and is heading to the same place as Mihran and his friends. Yet, no matter how hard they try to get her to admit her Armenian identity, the woman abruptly states, “I’m an Alevi Muslim.” Interestingly, even though the mamig refused to openly accept her Armenian identity, her four sons had no fear of explicitly saying that “she, as well as we, are Armenians.”
The deliberate usage of the “Alevi Muslim” parlance does show that the old woman considers herself neither Muslim nor Alevi, but is acting only out of a fear of outsiders. The underlying fear overshadows her tendency toward an open acknowledgment of an Armenian identity. However, interestingly enough, this does not curb her intimate rapprochement with Lokmakyozyan and his friends, as far as hospitality is concerned. It was “as if we were surrounded by our brothers and sisters,” he writes.
According to Ispiryan, although non-Armenian Alevis might use the “Alevi Muslim” expression as a defensive measure, the case is different when it comes to Dersim. The hidden message in the dialect of the old woman is decoded once we encounter other family members of the second generation, whose explicit acknowledgment of their true identity unearths the hidden denotation of the “Alevi Muslim” expression, when it comes to the usage by the first generation. Further research on the relationship between expressions and political/national psyche and identity might inform us on how “hidden Armenians” oppose the Islamic policies of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party by rejecting their Islamic identity mostly through the voice of the second generation—in this case, her sons. This refutation does not simply imply that they consider themselves Christians; it is a negation of the “Islamization”—and subsequently the “Turkification”—process that has been taking place since 1915.
Customs and rituals
A certain awareness is also seen at the two springs of Anahid in Dersim, a sanctuary viewed as a fountain of hope for the local population. The myth surrounding the springs tells the story of the Goddess Anahid, who has nurtured the Zaza and the Armenians, establishing a mutual love and friendship between them. The two springs symbolize the two breasts of the goddess. What is important for us is not the myth, but rather the rituals or the ceremonies held at the site. In the Islamic or Alevi culture, the usage of candles as religious symbols or items is absent. However, we see in Dersim—which is supposedly an Alevi-populated district—that each person who approaches the mentioned sanctuary kindles some candles with an accompanying prayer.
I visited the area a month ago. Once the locals knew that our group was made up of Armenians, a local jumped ahead and started playing Armenian songs on the radio. I believe this was an expression of intimacy and friendship, and perhaps a way to demonstrate to “visiting Armenians” that they, too, are Armenian. There was a mutual connection and closeness. Had it not been for the Armenian spirit that has prevailed since the formation of the Union, this act would probably not have taken place. This incident demonstrates the extent to which rituals are manifestations of underlying or hidden identities. This idea of a “prevailing spirit” is crucial; for, in stark contrast to Dersim, in other regions of Turkey similarly comprised of “hidden Armenians”—such as Van or other conservative regions—this scenario is not repeated. There, converted Armenians try to hide themselves as soon as they become aware of the “other visiting Armenians.”
Festivals and attire
Given the Islamic proclivities of the AK Party, the expression of anti-government sentiments can be traced in the way women dress. Unlike most women in rural Turkey, the majority of those in Dersim are unveiled. The absence of veils or headscarves hints at the rebellious, revolutionary spirit of Dersim. For, it is a refutation of the imposed Islamic veneer.
Furthermore, every year during the month of August, the region hosts a three-day festival where various cultural, folk, and artistic groups take the stage, and when, interestingly, the pictures of Che Guevara, Mao, and Kurdish martyrs, such as Sheikh Said, occupy the main square of the town. This appeal to communist and socialist leaders gives us a glimpse into the prevailing spirit in the region.
The language also plays a vital role here; the usage of Armenian scripts as well as Kurdish ones shows to what extent the area is semi-autonomous, given the strict prohibition on the usage of Kurdish in Turkey. The Union has its own stand during the festival, and young Armenians sell books on General Antranik and other revolutionary figures, as well as various leftist newspapers.
This “rebellion” by Dersim’s Armenians is more symbolic than it is an outright struggle. What the stories and examples above share are the symbols they employ, and the signs of a rebellious and revolutionary mentality. It is through the analysis and interpretation of these symbols that one can grasp the mindset of the region. They constitute the various pieces of the same puzzle—incomprehensible, unless one puts together the different pieces, the symbols. The Dersim Armenians should be viewed through various perspectives of social, cultural, political, and contemporary history, in order to understand the implications for the other “hidden Armenians” in the Anatolian provinces. This symbolism is a continuation of the pioneering call for freedom that Dersim was—and still is—famous for in the pages of history. Although the struggle of the “hidden Armenians” in Dersim may largely be a modest and silent one, its implications on the transforming cultural and social environment of 21st-century Turkey are truly significant. Even if such transformations are occurring in Turkey because of its aspirations to join the European Union, the courageousness of the Alevi Kurds and the “hidden Armenians” of Dersim should not be overlooked.
The return to their ancestral and Armenian origins is one of the facets of this “silent revolution” that is attempting to revitalize the spirit of social reform and freedom, not by armed struggle (in the Armenians’ case) but by a courageous yet tacit rejection of what is deliberately being served—Turkish assimilation.
1) This group should be differentiated from the Zazaki-speaking Sunni Kurds, which were complicit in the brutal massacres of the Armenians in 1915.
2) The Armenian Genocide 1915/1916: Documents from the Political Archives of the German Foreign Office.
3) See http://akunq.net/am/?p=12582.
4) This significant number of Armenians is likely due to the amnesty granted by the government in 1947, when the “Dersim issue” was considered solved. By that time, most of the Armenians who had escaped the massacres of 1938 had already converted to Alevism. Thus, they were categorized as “Alevis” or “Muslims” and were granted the right to return to Dersim.
5) Molyneux L. Seel, “A Journey in Dersim,” The Geographical Journal 44/1 (July 1914): p. 51.