Special for the Armenian Weekly
It was the evening of April 24, 2015, and I was sitting on the street in Istanbul, right near where Istiklal Avenue starts off from Taksim Square. The area had been closed off especially for us—a part of town usually bustling (bursting, really) with people. Those around me were holding placards, mostly of the Armenians who had been placed under arrest that day 100 years earlier. I got a placard with one Hagop Terzian on it. “I must look him up,” I thought, somewhat ashamed of the fact that I had not heard of him before, one of the many whose memory was being honored that evening.
The atmosphere was that of a quiet crowd. There was some music, some speeches. I thought it odd that my feet were crossed on the ground next to the tracks over which the tramway ferries tourists and locals from one end of this long, touristy shopping street to the other. The tramway incessantly rings its bell as a warning because, again, Istiklal Avenue is always teeming with people. (I had earlier noticed a favorite game of one of the unfortunate newcomers to this part of the world—young refugee children from Syria, hopping on and off the protruding parts of the tramway wagon. No ringing bell ever dissuades them.) I made a mental note of exactly where I was on the street, trying to figure out a line joining the track to the shops and buildings around me. Someday I would show off the specific spot where I was on the 24th of April, 2015.
Then came the chanting, at first far off and unclear, but, as it got closer, it sounded more and more aggressive. I was not sure what was going on. People began to get up. I noticed that the woman sitting next to me stayed where she was. So did I. She spoke English, so I struck up a conversation with her. The group that was coming was not one of the two anti-Armenian protests that were being held not too far away earlier that day. (“We shall uproot the lie of the ‘Armenian Genocide’!” one of the banner advertisements for it proclaimed. I later saw Syrian children dismantle the wreath that the group had placed on the monument at Taksim Square in order to sell the flowers from it.) Instead, the people marching held up placards that said, in Armenian and Turkish, “We are here!”
The woman sitting next to me was not very pleased. She said that the commemorations for the Armenian Genocide being held in Turkey since 2010 were meant to be solemn remembrances of the lives that were lost. Yes, she agreed, she too goes out on the street and chants slogans for some cause or other, when warranted. But not on April 24. The impression I got was that she felt it wrong to politicize the Armenian Genocide in the same way, at least on that day.
Many Armenians of Istanbul would agree, it turned out. Again, on that very day, but 50 years earlier, a delegation of Armenians of Turkey led by a former member of parliament, Berç Turan, placed a wreath on the monument at Taksim Square. The monument commemorates the Turkish Republic and in particular its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Armenians of Turkey in 1965 did not wish to bring up the bad memories of the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. The passage of the resolution by the parliament of Uruguay, the demonstrations in Lebanon, in Soviet Armenia, and elsewhere, and the tensions at the time with regards to Cyprus all made for an uncomfortable atmosphere in the 1960’s. Not only were the memories of the deportations and massacres relatively fresh back then, the more recent pogroms in Istanbul against Christians (mostly Greeks) of 1955, not to mention the impossible wealth tax imposed on non-Muslims in 1942, added to the strong sense of insecurity.
That sense still exists in Turkey today. Many Bolsahays stayed at home on April 24. Many were undoubtedly, though cautiously, pleased with the mass celebrated by the acting patriarch, one in which a Turkish minister took part—and one in which the word “genocide” was not uttered, of course. The acting patriarch mentioned at a separate event that, although he knew what April 24 was all about, expectations of quick changes and angry reactions to slow ones were misplaced. Patience, he exhorted.
To say that any of the changes that have been taking place in Turkey in recent years are not historic would be unfair. But one must recognize the gap within the country in reacting to those changes, the various layers of both Armenians in Turkey as well as civil society taken more broadly there.
The commemorations of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey are not, in fact, Armenian initiatives, but largely those of Turkish human rights and democratization activists. Actually, the woman sitting next to me on Istiklal Avenue said that she did not like to call herself “Turkish,” but rather “from Turkey.” Yes, many individuals who would readily call themselves “Armenian” are certainly part and parcel of those movements for change in the country. But it would yet be accurate to say that the Turkish-Armenian community as a whole is not.
One hundred years ago—even more, during the decades prior to 1915—there was something not entirely different going on. There were individuals who were vying for change, people who saw that there were problems in the Ottoman Empire. The non-Muslims were getting a bad deal. Land reforms were high on the agenda. National, ethnic, cultural, religious rights were being invoked more and more. Many Armenians were very much at the forefront of all that, while very few took to violent nationalism and separatism. Some were politicians or officials within the Ottoman government. Most Armenians, however, were simple peasants, craftsmen, or homemakers, eager to get on with quiet, productive lives. The Armenian Church remained, of course, a conservative institution: no need to rock the boat. As for the reformers and the revolutionaries, many of their activities were “criminal” from the perspective of Ottoman law.
Instead of pursuing the “criminals,” instead of thinking about negotiating with the other side, even after the reformist Young Turks came to power in 1908, the entire non-Muslim populations of Anatolia and Asia Minor were targeted. It is impossible to justify that act. The Armenian Genocide, the massacres and deportations of the Greeks, Syriac peoples, Yezidis… This was both a sin and a crime.
I wonder, then, about today. What is the lesson from history? Is there one? Once again, there are those who are rocking the boat. Once again, the church is not too keen on it. Once again, there are different degrees of activism and aims and methods that do not always match. The multi-cultural, pluralistic “Ottomanism” of the past has become the “from Turkey” of the present. Krikor Zohrab said back then, “Our religions are diverse, but our belief is one. We are all co-believers in freedom.” What would he say today?
The changes that Turkey has undergone over the past decade are truly profound and remarkable. Those who downplay the public statements by the Turkish leadership on the Armenian Genocide because they do not mention the word “genocide” or they do not list any concrete steps to be taken in that regard are ignoring the significance of the very fact of such statements, which were impossible to even imagine just a few years ago.
Of course, the very same Erdogan who expressed condolences to Armenians in April 2014 felt insulted to be called a Georgian or, “even uglier,” an Armenian, in August 2014. And therein lies the real concern: The country is simply unpredictable. Since 1923, the Republic of Turkey has undergone anywhere from between four to six coups d’état or changes in regime, depending on what criteria one chooses to count. This is not a stable state. On the 24th of April, 2015, there were thousands commemorating the Armenian Genocide on Istiklal Avenue near Taksim Square. On the 24th of April, 2016, one cannot know what might happen, if anything, where, and how. This is the real reason why so many Bolsahays stay at home. That, I think, has been the lesson of the past 100 years for most Armenians of Turkey.
And so this situation makes me wonder about those in Turkey who do not stay at home. Are they courageous warriors for a cause? Or are they foolhardy adventurers out to make trouble not just for themselves, but for the entire Armenian (and civil society) community? I think that was a valid question at the beginning of the 20th century, and it remains so at the beginning of the 21st.