“You are happy, you have Ararat,” says Istanbul-based Armenian Janet Petrosoglu
“In Armenia I felt that I would keep on living with an internal split. Turkish-Armenians are identified with Turks here; and we are still confined to living between three fires: in Turkey we are not treated as full-right citizens, because we are Armenians; in Armenia we are not treated as full-right Armenians because we are citizens of Turkey; and we are chastised by the Diaspora, because we do not voice the issue of the Armenian Genocide,” she says.
“Nobody understands us,” says 28-year-old Janet, with a choked feeling of anger and looks at Mount Ararat. “You are happy, you have Ararat,” she says bluntly, and then smiles, as the contradiction in the statement she just made dawns at her (as, in fact, the biblical mountain is on Turkish soil). Many Turkish-Armenians live with the pain caused by their peculiar identity and the lack of understanding of their motives and lifestyle. Keeping silence has very often been a means of survival, and Hrant Dink (editor-in-chief of Istanbul-based Agos daily, assassinated in front of his office in 2007) who broke that silence paid with his life. And the same Dink suffered from the dual attitude: called a traitor by Turkey, and a spy by Diaspora. The majority of about 50,000 Turkish-Armenians currently lives in Istanbul; there are also Islamized Armenians (estimated 200,000) residing in various parts of the country. Armenia-based specialists in Turkish Studies presented these figures based on archives data, according to which some 100,000 women and children were forced to convert to Islam in 1915, and the approximate number of their offspring is 200,000. “Armenians are the biggest yet the most ignored Christian ethnic minority in Turkey,” says Özge Genç, Program Officer at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), regretting that the great potential of Armenians is being wasted. “The main problem of Armenians remains to be the fact that they are not perceived as true citizens of Turkey. Armenians are treated with distrust much more than the other Christian minorities here,” Genç told ArmeniaNow. Many of the fearful and cautious Armenian community members still have Turkish surnames and even now, as they confess, often refrain from speaking Armenian in public and have, traditionally, never voiced their issues. “Recently, my ear caught some Armenian words at an Istanbul underground station. Surprised, I turned around and saw that it was Armenia-based Armenians speaking. Only then it hit me full-strength the extent of fear we had been living in for many years, afraid to speak Armenian in public, afraid to speak Armenian even at church. I am not sure if we can ever fully overcome this fear,” says Janet. Fear eventually turned into a habit, and as Arus Yumul, renowned Istanbul-Armenian sociologist from Istanbul Bilgi University, says “the language has become important only symbolically; it is not used but is preserved as a value.” Even the sermon that follows the liturgy in about 36 churches functioning in Istanbul is preached in Turkish, so that it is fully comprehensible to everybody. Many do not even hide that they pray in Turkish, justifying it by the fact that it’s their ‘everyday language’. This is an almost impossible-to-overcome controversy for Turkish-Armenians: they pray in a language the carriers of which massacred them for praying to that very God they are praying to today; indeed, an irony of fate. Controversies are plentiful, but the biggest criticism against Turkish-Armenians is related to their silent and in some cases even denialist posture when it comes to the Armenian Genocide. “The Turkish-Armenians’ silence is often unacceptable to Armenia-based Armenians, but for years it has been our survival strategy,” Yumul told ArmeniaNow. “But this status is hard for us too: to the Diaspora we are like a lost sheep, an outsider; strangers both at home and outside.” Silence stopped being a survival strategy in the 1990s and Hrant Dink’s assassination became the biggest breakthrough. “It’s like Hrant’s death woke everyone up and made them remember their identity again and drop their fear of being Armenian,” says Yumul. However many Istanbul-Armenians stress that there is still a long way to go before they can reconcile the irreconcilable concept of being an Armenian citizen of Turkey. “When a year ago, during one of his meetings with the Diaspora, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan said ‘a good Armenian is a good citizen of the country of his/her residence’, it was a real riddle to us: we can never meet that criteria,” says Janet, half-jokingly, and pattering like a tongue twister: “If we are good citizens of Turkey, we will look bad to the Diaspora, and if we try to be good Armenians, we cannot be good citizens of Turkey”.