The war Armenia found itself in with Azerbaijan and Turkey was a gruesome 44 days that felt like it had no end in sight. We all questioned many aspects of our lives and indeed our identity as Armenians. But this war was not only a violent altercation between these two countries, but an internal conflict within each and every Armenian. Every Armenian underwent a unique brand of soul searching as he or she digested the news coming out of Artsakh. But there was a lesser known group of Armenians, the ones from Turkey, who had a peculiar conflict of their own. This conflict was by all means not new, but never felt so pronounced in their recent history. Their voices were never heard because they were never uttered. Their deafening silence was one of the untold stories of the war. Yet, it’s worthy to explain the story of Turkish Armenians, both inside and outside of Turkey, because it’s a story each and every one of us can relate to.
Armenians throughout the world were horrified by the silence of the international community as we cried out for help. Nevertheless, it was quite moving to see so many Armenians posting, sharing, donating, commenting and coalescing behind a cause that meant so much for them. From Beirut and Paris to Yerevan and Los Angeles, each and every Armenian declared their support for their brethren in Artsakh. However, there was a community whose silence was deafening. Turkish Armenians were essentially muzzled during this time, while watching the influx of videos from Armenia and the Diaspora. Worse yet, they knew they were watching the horrific images of a world that could possibly occur even in their own lives if they themselves had cried for help. They too began to see what life could have been for them if they broke out of their shell and supported Artsakh’s self-determination efforts. Even something as simple as posting the flag of Artsakh or Armenia on social media in solidarity could put their lives at risk. And how about donating to Artsakh? Don’t even think about it.
And just as the Armenians in Turkey were feeling uncomfortable expressing themselves in public, so were Bolsahyes outside of Turkey in many ways. Most were discomforted by their associations with Turkey and felt conflicted about how much they’ve incorporated that country into their own lives. Many Bolsahyes outside of Turkey grew up listening to Turkish music, watching Turkish TV shows, speaking Turkish and vacationing in Turkey while making many fond memories with friends and family who live in the area. These aspects of their lives shaped them as individuals, regardless of their association with an “adversarial” nation; it was still a part of them and something they couldn’t deny.
This paradox of being “too Armenian” in Turkey and “too Turkish” in the Armenian Diaspora never held this much weight in my daily life.
As the war dragged on, many moral questions started surfacing in Bolsahye circles. Should we hope for Turkey to fall and the lira to collapse while our friends, family and loved ones live there? How could we look them in the eye while at the same time wishing the worst for them? Should we ever visit them again? Should we write, speak and watch Turkish? But the underlying issues weren’t these questions at all. It was the fact that many Armenians in Turkey have left Turkey to escape from the very same uneasiness that we are now facing today. Whatever affinity they feel for Turkey as their home, they ultimately suffer in a forced state of silence. Moreover, the conversations we were having in my household outside of Turkey were the very same conversations my Armenian friends and family were having within Turkey. While we were questioning whether we should continue to openly associate with Turkey, they were questioning whether they should openly associate with Armenia. It was the opposite spectrum of values, but the same underlying sentiment. This paradox of being “too Armenian” in Turkey and “too Turkish” in the Armenian Diaspora never held this much weight in my daily life.
In late October, Hrant Dink’s daughter Delal wrote an article on Agos entitled “Day by Day, Hour by Hour, We Are Suffocating,” which was probably the only publicized indicator of how Armenians in Turkey felt during the war. Given that it was translated into English, it was widely republished and read across the international community. In a nutshell, Dink wrote about how she felt more and more stifled by her identity in a society growing with intense passions and stigmatizations. However, the strange thing about Dink’s article was that it resonated with me as well. True, it was about the Armenians living in Turkey today, but I couldn’t help but feel the same way during the conflict as well. The suffocation that Turkish Armenians felt seemed universal. We too were suffocating in a pool of intense passions and stigmatizations. We screamed, yelled and cried for help, and yet, we were left unheard. We were all drowning within the echoes of our own voices. Like our ancestors who cried for help as they were marched to the Syrian deserts, we too felt all the hopelessness of their generation. We too were asphyxiated by our own fate.
This is not to say we are begging to speak Turkish at Armenian gatherings or out in public among our Armenian friends. I’m sure most, if not all, of my Bolsahye friends understand the sensitivities concerning that language and how it can be easily associated with such a grisly history for Armenians. Even as I write this article, I know there are boundaries I shouldn’t cross and sensitivities that should be taken into consideration. And while these attitudes toward Bolsahyes may indeed exist, the Armenian community does not threaten their freedom and lives in the same way that the current regime in Turkey does. However, there’s a stark difference to be acknowledged by those who do not have any association with Turkey as opposed to those who do. That is to say that those who didn’t have such a connection have the possibility of ignoring it, while those who do, have the impossibility of suppressing it. The thought of my life being stifled by things we used to take for granted or made us happy was painful for me and many of my friends. This push and pull was an ongoing internal conflict among many of my Bolsahye friends who were disgruntled by, for example, Turkish singers they knew and loved stepping outside of their neutral non-political stances and speaking openly in support of Azerbaijan. Some, like Ajda Pekkan, even posted pictures of a map where Armenia was wiped off. Others, like Tarkan, who was a signatory of the “I’m sorry” campaign back in 2008, posted on Instagram his full support of Azerbaijan in their war against a “malicious” attack by Armenians. These were known names throughout our childhood and are to this day. Now they are calling for the eradication of Armenians as a people. Were we surprised? In some ways we were not, but in many other ways we were. How can one reconcile with the saying that “music is life” and that it’s a “universal language” when a singer advocates genocide? Shouldn’t that be the example that a musician should set and not the listener? How can any one of us remove ourselves from such thoughts?
Regardless of how much the Bolsahye community outside of Turkey wanted Turkey to fail in its endeavors, we knew in the back of our minds that many of our friends and family live there. Should they suffer as well? It is often said that those Armenians who live in Turkey should leave immediately, but contrary to popular opinion, many of them are satisfied with their living situation. But more importantly, many of them desire to continue to live on those lands so as to not surrender to those who want to eradicate them. They know that if they leave Turkey, they’ll be no different than their ancestors who were forced to leave their homeland and thereby settle in an unknown world. So then what? Should we keep pressing for their relocation? Keep insisting that they repatriate to Armenia or another country across the Armenian Diaspora?
I always found the recent supposed respect and love for Bolsahyes (after Hrant Dink’s murder) quite interesting. There has been a growing sense of admiration for Bolsahyes, but I have noticed that even this admiration has its limits. Many respond to my opinions as someone who has been influenced by Turkey. They say they respect me and my family for living through tough times in Turkey, but when it comes to expressing our opinions on these matters, we are met with the “don’t mind him, he just thinks that way because he’s from there.” As if we are inflicted with some kind of disease, we receive retorts that “cancel” our thoughts and feelings when perhaps they’re among the more significant ones. When we speak on matters, we often have realist approaches toward solving the divide between Turks and Armenians. When we express our opinions, we are always told that our opinions are respected but that we live in Turkey and do not understand the perspectives of Armenians in Armenia and across our Diaspora.
All of this is duly troubling considering that Bolsahyes are instrumental in providing some sort of remedy between Turks, Azeris and Armenians since they know full well what it means to live with them. They are the ones who are most familiar with Turkey, its inner politics, societal issues and all its intricacies to boot. They’re told to remain silent even though they have so much to say and hence be a critical contributor to a dialogue between people that can help mitigate these communities’ anger and resentment with one another.
I don’t know if there’s a solution to the predicament of the Armenians from Turkey, both outside or within Turkey, but I do know one thing: all human beings who are allowed to speak up owe it to those who are forced to remain silent. It is imperative for all Armenians who have a voice to be advocates for all Armenians across the world who are forced to remain silent. This moral imperative rings true for every single Armenian whether they are living in Artsakh, Armenia, the Diaspora and Turkey alike. And in this case, the silence is not only deafening, it’s deadly.