WATERTOWN, Mass.—A grassroots initiative is prompting local Armenian grocers to re-evaluate their inventory amid Turkey’s outright support of Azerbaijan’s ongoing attacks on the Republics of Artsakh and Armenia.
“It’s really quite embarrassing when you go into an Armenian store and you see a box and it says on the box, ‘Turkish Delight,’” said Watertown resident Martin Haroutunian. “When I think of Turkish Delight, I think of a massacre…not sweets or pastries.” Haroutunian is at the helm of the social media campaign “Make Watertown a Turkish Product Free Zone,” and it’s putting pressure on at least four neighborhood grocery stores to pull Turkish products from their shelves.
Watertown’s Massis Bakery and Belmont’s Eastern Lamejun issued formal statements on Wednesday pledging their commitment to joining the Turkish Product Free Zone after Haroutunian said he met with the owners last week. “We never wanted to sell Turkish products to begin with,” said Massis Bakery co-owner Sarkis Ourfalian, who said that disarray in Lebanon and Syria lend to the challenge of securing vendors and suppliers that carry products designed for the Middle Eastern kitchen. “We realize now it’s impossible for us to even think about supporting the government of Turkey in any way, shape or form,” he continued.
Just a short walk down Mount Auburn Street at Arax Market, store owners say they are busy clearing their shelves of Turkish products after sharing an image of the beginning stages on Instagram. “It’s the right thing to do,” said owner Betty Bassmajian Dimitian, who referred to Turkey as the “China of the Middle East.” “But it can’t be done in a day. I have to fill it up with stuff too. I can’t leave my shelves empty.” Store owners say they are scrambling to find other sources to substitute commodities like the ever popular pepper paste, which is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Next door at Sevan Bakery, owners are conflicted. “We’re trying our best,” said Nuran Chavusian, who told the Weekly on Thursday that his family-run business will try to answer these community-wide calls. Until then, they say they will be donating a day’s worth of proceeds to the Armenia Fund. “I agree with everybody, but it’s very tough at the moment. We’ve got a lot of product,” explained Chavusian. Haroutunian says that’s an admirable gesture, but it’s not enough. “They have to stop selling Turkish products—no if’s, and’s or but’s,” he stressed.
Considering Turkey’s denial of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, its brotherly relationship and military alliance with Azerbaijan, and its egregious record on human rights, Armenian business owners and consumers alike are being urged to become economic activists and instead find products that are made in Armenia. “Be aware of where your money is going,” Haroutunian warned. “Every cent that goes to Turkey goes to buying munitions or bullets that eventually hit our people.”
The US and Turkey have long maintained healthy trade relations. According to the most recent data from the Office of the United States Trade Representative, trade with Turkey totaled $24 billion in 2017 ($11.2 billion in imports). The US State Department considers these figures “modest,” noting a 2019 agreement between President Trump and President Erdogan to increase bilateral trade to $100 billion a year.
“We want to encourage businesses to sell products from Armenia,” said Haroutunian of the boycott movement that has been imported from southern California, where hundreds of Armenian and non-Armenian businesses have been branded as ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’ by a stealthy team of volunteer shoppers. Haroutunian, who created the Facebook group back in late July when Azerbaijan launched a round of attacks on the Armenian region of Tavush, says his intention is not to put anyone out of business or shame them for their business practices, but rather to educate and empower consumers and raise awareness to help break the distribution chain. Customer Nanor Karagozian says she was surprised to discover her favorite Armenian grocery stores carried so many Turkish products and is pleased to see these changes taking place. “This is not the work of just one person,” said Haroutunian, urging consumers to check the labels. “This is the work of the entire community. Vigilance is required.”
For Bedig Dervartanian of Eastern Lahmejun, which has been a part of the community since 1942 and was the first to announce the boycott, this is more than just business—it’s personal. “I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself knowing that my friends and their sons are dying on the battlefield for Armenia and Artsakh, while I’m here marketing the products of the enemy.”