Longing for Home: Bolsahay in Diaspora

Sunset over the Bosphorus, Istanbul by Maral Gazellig

 

By Anonymous Contributor

 

Whether at home or abroad, I’ve never considered myself  anything other than Armenian. However, within the fragmented and politically polarizing climate of the diaspora, I’ve come to learn that things are never quite as simple as “just Armenian.”

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My grandparents and I were standing in line to pay for our tomatoes, cucumbers, pastirma and cheese. While we waited, we were speaking in Turkish when I heard the woman behind us tell her young daughter in Armenian: “Be careful, they are Turks.” I couldn’t help but turn around and respond in Armenian: “Don’t be scared! We are Armenians.” Visibly distraught and disgusted, she looked at my 85 and 88-year-old grandparents from head to toe and responded bluntly: “Then speak Armenian.”

 

I am a Bolsahay or an Armenian from Turkey, living in the diaspora. I grew up in Canada, attended an Armenian school for 10 years and have always kept close ties within our community. My maternal and paternal ancestral lineage can be traced back to Anatolia for centuries. Mom grew up in Malatya and dad grew up in Istanbul after leaving Yozgat when he was 4. 

 

As a Bolsahay, I have had several encounters which have put my identity into question, ranging from the one in the supermarket to being labeled a Turk by some of my Armenian peers. Although I can only speak about my own experiences, I believe that Armenians from Turkey face a unique set of challenges when interacting with the Armenian diaspora, but they also offer a perspective that is necessary.

 

It’s estimated that there are roughly 70,000 openly Christian Armenian citizens in Turkey, the majority of which are concentrated in Istanbul. Although the word “Bolsahay” literally means Armenian from Bolis (Istanbul), Armenians from other cities in Turkey are also referred to as Bolsahay in the diaspora. Outside of the Istanbul boroughs in which most Bolsahays reside, there exists a small island that is populated majoritarily by Armenians. Although most residents only spend their summers on Kinali, you will commonly hear Armenian being spoken openly.  Here you can visit the Surp Krikor Lusavoric church as well as the many Armenian owned businesses.

 

Historically, Armenians have occupied important societal ranking throughout the existence of the Ottoman Empire carrying into present day Turkey. From the creation of important palaces, mansions, konaks, kiosks, yalis, mosques, churches, and various public buildings to occupying high positions such as that of Sultan, famous classical composers, successful businessmen, governors and deputies, politicians, skilled craftsman and director of the national bank of Turkey. 

 

But there also exists a subpopulation of hidden Armenians (often called “Crypto-Armenians”), who are of either full or partial Armenian descent. These cryptoarmenians were Islamized and turkified under the threat of either death, displacement, loss of property or a combination of those during the Armenian Genocide. Some hide their identities, while others are not even aware of their ancestral lineage. Although there is not enough data to accurately determine exactly how many Crypto-Armenians exist, estimates range from thousands to millions within Turkey’s actual borders. There have been many documented instances of crypto-Armenians reaching out to the Armenian church and reintegrating in their communities.

 

Spread out across the world from many diverse backgrounds, Diasporan Armenians face challenges of not only maintaining their identity, but sometimes embracing and understanding fellow diasporans who come from different, often complex upbringings that differ from their own.

For Bolsahays interacting with the diaspora, this has taken many forms, including the following:

 

  • Judgement of Armenian fluency: Despite the existence of several Armenian schools in Istanbul, some Armenians do not attend and many Armenians (especially those living in eastern Anatolia) never get the opportunity to. Some Bolsahays are fluent and others only maintain an elemental grasp of our language. Being able to learn and speak Armenian freely is often taken for granted by the diaspora. Bolsahays speaking Turkish is no different than Lebanese Armenians speaking Arabic and American Armenians speaking English. Many diasporans’ ancestors not only spoke little Armenian (or some regional form of it) but often exclusively spoke Turkish. However, they maintained their faith, culture and traditions. Certain members of my immediate family have personally experienced severe narrow mindedness regarding their level of fluency. Were they any less Armenian for not having the resources or freedom to learn their language? 
  • The misconception that we didn't suffer as badly as the diaspora did during in 1915: We all have (great) grandparents who suffered horrific tragedies during the genocide. For any Armenian to say that we somehow don’t share this dark chapter of our history is beyond insulting. 
  • Having to prove our Armenian-ness: Whether it is because we speak the “language of the enemy” or because our last names frequently don’t end in -ian (due to turkification efforts imposed by the government), we often have to prove our Armenianness as if we are some sort of lesser form. The reality is that we don’t need to prove our Armenianness. We’re living it everyday.
  • “Why did you stay?”: Many diaspora Armenians find it inconceivable that Armenians could remain in Turkey. To this I respond, if you could carry on the legacy of your ancestors by remaining in your multi-millenia old homeland, wouldn’t you? Otherwise, why is the diaspora fighting so hard for land reparations?

 

Trailer for Hrant Dink documentary: Heart of Two Nations

 

  • Bolsahay community centers: Many, if not most Bolsahays do not identify with the various political factions that exist in the diaspora. Therefore, out of necessity for an apolitical community center where bolsahays could openly speak Turkish without being judged, Istanbul Armenian community centers exist in Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto and many other major cities. Here, we have regular dinner nights, receive various Armenian guest speakers who discuss diverse topics, host concerts and other community events. 

On the other side, Armenians also have to deal with many different kinds of pressure within Turkey. Although there was a time where things were starting to look up after the assassination of Hrant Dink, Turkey has regressed and tightened its grasp on what you can and cannot say. For example, you cannot openly say that the Armenian Genocide is a historical fact because it would be considered “insulting Turkishness” under article 301 of the Turkish penal code. In fact, it is not uncommon for schools to teach students that the opposite occurred.

 

Also, most Turkish citizens do not know the role of Armenians in their own history. For example, they have an Armenian to thank for changing the way the entire country would write by adopting Latin letters instead of Arabic letters. They have an Armenian to thank for co-composing the Turkish national anthem. They have Armenians to thank for designing many of Turkey’s most important architectural marvels such as Topkapi and Dolmabahçe palaces. The list is very extensive and long. But Turks, like Armenians, are an extremely proud people. Therefore, one must ask themselves; do regular Turks know the truth and deny it or do they simply defend what they’ve been taught? Although the record on the Armenian Genocide being a historical fact is quite clear and unanimous in most of the western world, the Turkish government is very careful in voraciously denying the genocide. It is likely that they will never abandon these policies. However, this does not mean that the people cannot change. If they know the truth, I am confident that they can use their conscience.

 

It is no secret that life in Turkey is not easy, especially as an Armenian. Some Armenian parents seek to shield their children from the history of their people so as to protect their children from the social complications that the knowledge of our pain and injustices bring. Like countless other families, mine left our homeland for hopes of a better life, more opportunities, security and to escape the discrimination we faced in Turkey. In truth, you learn to brush off being a victim of subtle and blatant racism in Turkey due to policies of homogenization and turkification. For some, veiling Armenian identity has been a form of protection against racism for over a hundred years. However, escaping the discrimination in Turkey only to be viewed as an outsider from your own people is somehow more painful.

In the same way that diaspora communities adopt societal and cultural characteristics of their host countries, most Bolsahays are comfortable speaking Turkish and identify with many cultural aspects of Turkey. Bolsahays have managed to become important cultural, political, socio-economic figures throughout our shared history despite our often troubled relationship to one another and not-so-infrequent mistreatment of minority groups in Turkey. Bolsahays are faced with the responsibility of keeping Armenian influence alive through our schools, newspapers, publishing houses, businesses, architecture, art, churches and cemeteries. If they do not do it, who will? This is why it is so important for the diaspora to help support Armenians from Turkey rather than to ostracize them.

 

Yes, Bolsahays grow up listening to Turkish music, watching Turkish tv or football matches and consuming Turkish products. Yes, we are more tolerant towards ordinary Turkish people. We don’t have the luxury to hate. We know first hand that they are not necessarily “bad people”. Having grown up amongst them, we know that many of them are extremely open, hospitable and friendly. Associating with them or the culture is not an endorsement of the government and its actions, the people who partook in the genocide, those who benefited from our pain or those who continue to deny historical facts. We know who our oppressors are. But we also know that our millenia long history is intertwined.

These experiences have granted Armenians from Turkey a unique perspective. And the diaspora stands to gain - not lose - by understanding and engaging with them.

For many diasporan Armenians, the Turk of today is the same Turk they left in 1915. Therefore, there exists an intergenerational labeling of the Turk as the enemy. Although Bolsahays have gone through an equally tragic past, they recognize that a Turk of today is not personally responsible for the crimes of their ancestors. 

Despite the many positive achievements of Armenian diasporan political organizations, they sometimes engage in behavior that - whether intentional or not - exacerbates the divisions between Armenians and Turks, rather than creating a platform that fosters dialogue between them.

 

Why dialogue? Dialogue, democratization and free speech being established in Turkey is more important for the Armenian cause than many would believe. It is true that the powers that be and the Kemalist/nationalist opposition parties (such as MHP and IYI Parti) will likely not abandon their denialist policies. Therefore, if there is ever going to be a fundamental shift for democratization in Turkey, that movement will come from within Turkey, from the people as well as from the top down. This multi-phasic approach is what Garo Paylan, a Turkish-Armenian lawmaker from the Peoples’ Democratic Party is fighting for. He strongly condemns Turkey’s aggressive policy and its military intervention in neighboring sovereign states, particularly military actions in Iraq and Syria. Today, he is one of the few people who has taken the responsibility to protect the human rights of ethnic minorities of the region.

 

Inter-hostility: Being provoked, provoking or getting involved in hostile arguments with deniers in person and over the internet is tempting but often causes more harm than good. There is a way to discuss diplomatically with people who are willing to do so. There is no point in fiercely arguing with people who are not willing to listen. We must be willing to listen. Of course recognition of the Armenian genocide is vital because it is a matter of human rights, historical factitude and the inevitable consequences could be tremendous. However, countries besides Turkey and Armenia are not just now learning about the past. They use our pain for their own political interests. Obviously there isn't a single Armenian who doesn't want the Turkish government to accept its history and teach it to its people, but we realize that this shift can only come from within Turkey.

Turkey’s Armenians offer a window into the diaspora’s past. They are in the best position to pave the way for dialog and reconciliation with Turks seeing as they share the culture and are in direct contact with them. A popular journalist by the name of Hasan Cemal was a staunch denialist in the 1980’s. Today, Hasan Cemal has openly acknowledged, commemorated and apologized for the Genocide. Hasan Cemal is the grandson of Cemal Pasha: one of the 3 main organizers of the Armenian Genocide.

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I'm by no means a representative for all Bolsahays who often have differing views on some of the matters discussed. But in truth, I often fear for my family in Turkey. I fear for their safety. Yet I long for my homeland. I yearn to be able to visit our ancient cities; not like some sort of museum but to be able to live freely where we have always lived. I last visited my family in Malatya over 15 years ago and the taste of home has never left my mouth. Life is certainly easier out here in the diaspora but you can’t help but feel like you don’t quite belong when you’ve been cut off from your roots. As for having to prove my Armenianness to anyone; I know my history. I don’t want to stop speaking Turkish in addition to Armenian. I don’t want to abandon the culture we helped create. I don’t want to dissociate from everything related to Turkey because doing so would put the final nail in the coffin of us ever coexisting peacefully again. Much to the chagrin of many, we are more similar than we are different both genetically and culturally.


21 comments

  • MA

    I am married to a Bolsahye and the article outlines several issues encountered by Bolsahyes that I have witnessed as well. However, there are some criticisms of Bolsahyes from the diaspora that are fair in some cases. First I want to echo the author’s argument that Bolsahyes have a very unique experience in their relationship with Turkish people and culture. I gained an appreciation for this when I was exposed to the community, which helped change my myopic view of Turkish people and culture. I began to see how Bolsahye relationships with Turkish people goes beyond the politics between the two cultures and highlights the humanity of both people, especially of Turkish people for diaspora Armenians like me.

    I think the issue that the author and some Bolsahyes fail to understand from the perspective of diaspora Armenians revolves around language. The fluency of Armenian is not as much of an issue as the choice to communicate in Turkish when the speakers are both fluent in Armenian. This is not the case for all Bolsahyes, but I have witnessed it before on more than one occasion. I realize that it’s inevitable that the Armenian spoken will be peppered by Turkish words and sentences, but entire conversations in Turkish are what throw off many diasporans. This is especially the case for Armenians who originate from other diasporas like Lebanon or Iran, where my family comes from. While diasporans from these backgrounds may occasionally communicate in Arabic or Farsi, rarely do they choose these languages as their main form of communication. I understand that there are individuals who think in Turkish, making it easier to speak in Turkish, but there’s also a lack of willingness to switch to Armenian by some who have the fluency.

  • pungul

    Tevin Polatian – I think it is the “mother tongue” issue. If it is the language you speak since you were born, your brain doesn’t differentiate it from your identity and you think in that language. It would be a torture for anyone to be forbidden or be frowned upon to speak the language that they think in if they are not raised as bilingual. Even though Armenians in Turkey are still discriminated unfortunately, they probably don’t associate the language with that pain but rather they associate it as the language that is spoken at home, the language that their aunts, grandparents gossip etc. You describe it as a choice. Unfortunately it is not a choice. It can be called as a result of “nationalism” policies of Turkey yes, that cause many Kurdish, zaza, suryani people loose their language as well. But it cannot be called a personal choice. You don’t decide what language to speak, internalize, establish your identity with since you are born. It just happens. You can criticize turkish policies but there is no use of blaming Armenians who live in Turkey. You just put an extra pressure on them. You don’t have to agree with the view point of “ we have to start a communication with turks. So armenians in turkey can be helpful in that”. But at least don’t judge people. Forcing yourself not to speak in a language you think in must feel like a torture, like a constant brain surgery. I think the main thing to understand that even though armenians in turkey see still racism from some turks, they don’t necessarily associate the language that they speak at home as the enemy. Then, you can question why not speaking armeian at home. Well, probably it started in the very old time to help their children to be assimilated in the society and not to be discriminated maybe. Or maybe in the early ottoman time, when there is no genocide yet, they already adopted turkish language by speaking with their neighbours, friends. We don’t know how this started unless an historian researches about it. But the current situation is turkish is their mother tongue. Apparently, that was not the case in Lebanon and they were lucky to be raised as bilingual. Hence they can naturally without any force switch to armenian. But it may not be the case for everyone. Rather than superficially condemning people, trying to understand them is a better way.

    by the way, I am from Turkey with zaza, kurdish and turkoman roots. our people, Zazas and kurds were slaughtered by turkish army in 1930s in Dersim. Our grand grand parents were exiled in different part of turkey as well. The situation is not as bad as armenians’ situation but it is still bad. But I cannot associate the language that I think in my brain with that. You may call me brainwashed and stupid but it is how it is. The language is a very delicate thing. I feel to forbid myself to speak the language I think in is the same as dying. Well, but of course I criticize the turkish policies of “one language”. I feel culturally belong to Turkey because it is where I was born and raised. You can also condemn that badly but it is how it is. However I am not “nationalist” and I personally feel bad about the pain of armenian people have due to genocide. To be honest, Hrant Drink helped me a lot to understand armenian point of view in this topic. I wish he was alive. I think he would make more and more people to understand it if he was alive which was another reason why he was killed I guess.

  • Arpi

    Tevin Polatian, What if one’s is not confident In their Armenian? Should two Armenians not speak at all instead of speak Turkish? You grew up with the luxury of speaking Armenian from a young age, many people learned later and are not as comfortable as you are. All Armenians have the same suffering in their blood. You do not have to constantly rehash “slaughter”. We are talking about two people and their most comfortable means of communication. We have to rise up as a group and move forward to affect change. Picking old wounds only worsens the scars. You speaking Armenian while someone else speaks turkish doesn’t diminish their being Armenian. The language they speak is their choice. Don’t judge someone based on your life experience.

  • Nicolai

    Freedom of speech is very important, please let’s find the balance in the three RRR’s. Recognition, Rehabilitation, Reconciliation.

  • Tevin Polatian

    Arpi – I see you chose to read what you wished to. I don’t see an issue speaking English with my Armenian friends. Like you said, a common language brings Armenians together, no? And the common language I choose to speak other than Armenian with my Armenian friends, in this case being English, wasn’t the language of those who slaughtered my ancestors, so I’m comfortable with that choice.

    My qualm is not with modern day Turks. It’s with Turkish-speaking Armenians who prefer/choose to speak Turkish with one another instead when they know Armenian as though their ancestors weren’t marched through deserts with orders shouted in Turkish.


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