30 07 2008 - The Armenian Community of Istanbul: Confronting New Challenges and Old Realities
[July 21, 2008]
During a recent working visit to Istanbul the Editors of “Hetq” had the opportunity to visit the offices of the “Agos” newspaper founded by the late Hrant Dink. While there we were able to interview Mr. Pakrat Estukyan, the Armenian-language Editor, on a wide-range of topics. Below is a translation of our conversation.
Q - As a result of our meetings with members and organizations of the Bolsahay (Istanbul Armenian) community we’re left with the impression that a certain process of national rejuvenation is taking place. Is this a fair assumption?
A - That would be stretching reality quite a bit. On the contrary, there’s a cloud of uneasiness hanging over the Bolsahay community at present. Especially since it’s over a year now that Hrant Dink was murdered. Since January 19, 2007, the day he was shot down, there’s been a certain lull in community activities. Given this situation one would be hard pressed to speak of rejuvenation but of course such blows inevitably have their own contrary reactions. For example, while speaking on the subject of rejuvenation, I’d like to talk about a new group called “Nor Zartonk” (New Awakening). It’s a collective of young people that stages various events, whether cultural, political, social, etc. But it’s only a drop in the bucket. If we are to speak about the general psychological situation of the community I’d have to confess that, on the contrary, an atmosphere of despondency holds sway rather than any reawakening. Let me cite an example of what I mean. Two weeks ago the Bolsahay community had the unique pleasure of attending a concert given by the Komitas Quartet visiting from Armenia. In an auditorium with a seating capacity of some 600 only 103 seats were filled. It’s my belief that had the Quartet given a concert two years before the place would have been packed. The people are suffering from a certain type of malaise. The murder of Hrant, the ill healthy of the Patriarch and the uncertain political situation in Turkey all contribute to this state of affairs. This is because the political situation in Turkey at the moment is quite tense. There’s a political party that only several decades after its founding was able to garner enough votes to create a government on its own. But there are forces in the country at work today that wish to close this party down and remove it from the field of politics. When I speak of forces I’m referring to the army. Naturally, the army is not a force in and of itself since it enjoys the support of the entire judicial system, law enforcement, the universities and the ideologically chauvinist forces.
Q - Does the threat exist today that these chauvinist forces will come to power?
A - They have the power to do so any time they wish since they have the army behind them. But the army has been cautious up till now. If the officer corps were to intervene, arguing that the parliamentary process is not to their advantage, no one could do anything to stop them. This is a situation that has been played out several times in Turkey. Of course such an event occurs with the backing of foreign powers and here I primarily mean the United States. The officer corps of Turkey is intimately linked to the United States. Thus, if American interests demand that the army intervenes, it will immediately do so. This is exactly what happened in 1971 and 1980.
Q- In your estimation is the United States interested in seeing regime change in Turkey today?
A - I’m really not sure on this one. What would be the benefit for the United States? This government and its adopted economic policies do not oppose American interests. Today, the concept of the free market has been thoroughly integrated in Turkey and the ideology demanded by the pursuit of capital has been fully adopted. The country is subject to policies as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund.
Q - What’s the size of the Armenian community here?
A - There’s no correct number and there never has been. There’s a census every five years. At one time the census requested that people name their mother tongue. Based on this question we could come up with a partial idea about the number. However, we must note that for a segment of the community Armenian is no longer their mother tongue. In any event, this question is no longer included in the census. Perhaps only the country’s state intelligence services know the real number. The current census has no questions regarding one’s ethnicity or national origins. We only have an idea regarding the number based on those are registered in various church rolls. Thus, we estimate the number to be 60,000 to 80,000.
Q - What percentage of this number do you think know Armenian?
A - That’s also hard to say. Today we are going through another unfortunate process. There are those who know Armenian but don’t speak it. There are those who have graduated from Armenian high schools which means that they’ve been taught Armenian for eleven years. These people are capable of speaking Armenian but they say that they don’t know Armenian. A few hours ago I met with an acquaintance that had come to Istanbul from provincial Anatolia years ago. He entered his daughter, who didn’t speak a word of Armenian at the time, into one of the Armenian high schools here. Later on that girl was named as the school’s best speaking Armenian student. This is how I can answer your question - about half know Armenian.
Q - Periodically the Turkish government makes statements regarding the number of Armenians from Armenia residing in Turkey. This last time, in the Parliament, a number of 70,000 was cited.
A - I really think this number is exaggerated because the issue has even reached the halls of the Parliament. The Parliament has demanded information on this matter from the Ministry of the Interior which in turn compiles statistics from the lists showing how many people from Armenia have entered or left the country. These lists reveal that the actual number is much lower than publicly cited. But we still can’t say for certain what the actual number is. Here, there are two categories of individuals from Armenia. There is one segment that has come out of economic necessity, to work here and send money back home. There’s another segment which comes to Turkey and has no intention of ever returning to Armenia. They want to stay here and to become Turkish citizens. Many of them come to Turkey with the hope of eventually making their way to the West. I know a family from Armenia that came to Turkey and then made it all the way to Canada. Naturally, we are saddened by such occurrences.
Q - It seems that Armenians from Armenia don’t interact much with the Bolsahay community, that there’s no contact between the two segments. Is this the case?
A - For the majority there is no contact or interaction. It’s also the result of two differing cultures. In this context we face a series of serious obstacles. When we speak of the Turkish-Armenian community we must realize that we’re talking about the Armenian community of Istanbul. And when we speak of the Armenian community of Istanbul we must understand that we are talking about a certain “petty-bourgeois” lifestyle. This “accepted” lifestyle only wishes to see Armenians who fit the prescribed mould. In other words, to be an Armenian means living in certain neighborhoods, spending ones summer at the Marmara Islands, attending church on a regular basis, etc. Thus, an Armenian must possess these stereotypical attributes that the majority of the community here has come to create for themselves. Any Armenian who runs contrary to this overall picture is usually viewed with a degree of bewilderment and sometimes belittlement. In this category fall Armenians from Armenia and those Istanbul-Armenians who have lived outside the community for long periods and who, whether preserving their identity or losing it, are aware of it today. This segment of Armenians can never fully integrate into the dominant Bolsahay community.
Q - Here we are referring to say, Armenians from the region of Sassoun; correct?
A - Yes; those Armenians who no longer speak the language, who speak Turkish or Kurdish instead and, for instance, those Armenians whose families have partially converted to Islam and who are devout Muslims at that. Naturally, such households face a number of difficulties. There are families in which one of the brothers is a devout Muslim and not for appearance sake alone. Such households not only have problems internal to the family but with other Armenians as well. They are village folk, their hair is dark and their manners unpolished. They have a different lifestyle and are not accustomed to “café society”.
Q - In other words even while being conscious of their Armenian roots…
A - Even while renouncing them. Those roots are a source of shame for the family, a secret to be kept from the outside. It must not be spoken about in order that it is eventually forgotten and not passed down to the next generation. This is one side of the issue. There’s another side that’s just the opposite. Heaven forbid if a girl from another clan is taken as a potential bride. Boys must marry girls from within the same family clan. They believe that they are different and that they mustn’t mix with outsiders. They’re at a loss as to what to call themselves - are we Armenian, are we Christian or are we something else? But they do consider themselves to be different from others. These are the two sides to the story.
Q - How are these Armenians, however they try to pass themselves off as Turks or Kurds, viewed by their real Turkish and Kurdish neighbors?
A - They are never accepted as true Turks or Kurds. They say they come from this or that ‘giavour’ (infidel) village, that they’re Armenians. In the rural areas it’s hard to change perceptions. It’s passed down from one generation to the next that this village is an Armenian one. It’s a whole different story when people move to the cities.
Q - Have any traces of an Armenian culture or lifestyle been preserved amongst those “Armenians” living in the rural interior of Turkey?
A - I wouldn’t think so. It’s the Hamshen Armenians who have preserved the most in terms of lifestyle. First of all they’ve maintained the Armenian language. They are one of the above-mentioned communities in that they are devout Muslims and nationalists. Even whilst speaking Armenian they denied being Armenian. This was the case at least up to ten years ago. Not only are they Armenian-speakers but they’ve also retained some traditions along with the language. In this country it’s the Hamshen Armenians who celebrate the holiday of Vartavar with the most jubilation. It’s a paradox; they celebrate Vartavar but remain Muslim to the core. Today, however, we see signs that a certain transformation is taking place. More and more of them are asking questions regarding their true identity. They travel to Armenia and music CD’s sung in the Hamshen-Armenian dialect have been released. While the majority consider themselves Turks and Muslims there’s a small segment that realize that since they speak Armenian their roots must be Armenian as well.
Edik Baghdasaryan Hrant Gadarigian
The Armenians of Istanbul…Old and New
[July 21, 2008]
At twelve noon the bus with Turkish license plates departed from the center of Yerevan, outside the offices of a the travel agency close to the Opera building, headed for Istanbul. Buses from this location leave for Istanbul twice a week.
There are also three other agencies whose buses depart from the Central Bus Station in Yerevan to a country with which Armenia has no diplomatic relations. There is also a bus to Turkey that leaves from the town of Vanadzor once a week. Twice weekly, there are flights from Yerevan to Istanbul and back. During the summer holiday season there is also a weekly flight from Yerevan to Antalya, on the southern Turkish coast. During an average month, the number of individuals traveling to Turkey from Armenia reaches 2,500. Yearly, this figure reaches some 30,000.
According to the passport laws existing between Armenia and Turkey, citizens of the Republic of Armenia (ROA) are granted a 30-day tourist visa. There’s no difficulty getting a visa. People traveling to Turkey by bus are issued one at the border and airline passengers get theirs either at the Istanbul or Antalya airport, at a cost of $15.
In October of 2007, Sukru Elekdag, the Deputy President of the Republican People’s Party in Turkey, declared in the Turkish Parliament that, “there are 70,000 illegal immigrants from Armenia working in Turkey.” In response, Besir Atalay, Turkey’s Minister of Internal Affairs, offered up the following numbers - 53,108 individuals entered Turkey from Armenia in 2007 and in the same year 53,359 Armenians left Turkey. He also stated that in 2007, eight Armenian citizens were deported from Turkey as illegals. It’s difficult to say how correct these statistics are. However, during our one week stay in Istanbul, we met many numerous Armenians who have been living illegally in the country for years on end. We also met up with Armenians who had already obtained Turkish citizenship. There is no government body in Armenia that has ever commented on these published numbers.
Many traveling in our bus weren’t even aware of the fact that Armenia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Turkey. I guess it’s because they really have no problem at all entering Turkey. All they have to do is pay their $15 at the border and Turkey opens wide its doors to Armenians. The Georgian border guards are more of a problem to deal with. Before we arrived at the Bagratashen customs house Ali, one of our drivers, called out, “Whoever’s passport isn’t in a normal state needs to hand over $10.” I don’t know how many actually did so but a pretty nice sum was collected by Ali to hand over to the Georgian border guards. I asked a guy from Vanadzor sitting behind me, “What could possibly be the problem with the passports?” and he replied, “Either the pages are wrinkled or the plastic film covering the photo is unraveling.” I quickly checked the pages of my passport and everything looked normal. Ali then collected all our passports and with the money clutched in the other hand he headed off to the border post. Naturally, the payment of this money to the guards might also allow us to quickly pass through the border. After a one hour wait we crossed over into Georgian territory. Several hours later, in the dead of midnight, we once again found ourselves at the Georgian border. This time however it was the Turkish city of Artvin that lay on the other side. Again the Georgian officials kept us waiting. The female Georgian passport control officer was scrutinizing all the passports with a fine tooth comb. She took my passport and started to flip it this way and that, ran her fingernail over a page or two, and then finally stamped it and gave it back to me. Back in the bus I noticed that the plastic strip over my photo was turned up at one corner. A woman from Gyumri, seated next to me on the other aisle, evidently noticed my puzzlement and wryly laughed saying, “She did that in order to get her $10 from you on the way back.” This woman had the answers to practically all of our questions - where we would stop along the way, the times, etc.
After the bus passed through the town of Spitak in Armenia it stopped to pick up six more passengers that were waiting along the roadside. A woman of about 50 got in and immediately exclaimed, “Oh, so this Ali fellow has changed the seat cushions...” It seemed that everybody in the bus knew Ali and went to him to discuss this or that matter.
The woman from Gyumri was giving advice to a couple from Vanadzor, sitting a row behind her, who was traveling to Istanbul for the first time. “Without realizing it those people will take you for all you’ve got” she told them with a smirk on her lips. “My young man, I’ve been traveling back and for 16 years now” she told the attentive man from Vanadzor. I did the calculation in my head; she’s been going to Turkey since 1992. That’s when Armenians first started to travel to Turkey, to bring goods back. “Now everybody makes the trip. Oh, what times they were. Back then they used to call me the “kozhi printsesa” (leather princess). I was the only one transporting leather back. Everybody knew me and would beat a path to my door to get some. Today, those big stores have strangled us. They have the money to bring huge quantities back. It’s no longer profitable for us any longer” said the woman with a look of regret. “You see this guy Hamlet here? I was the one who took him to Istanbul for the first time and showed him the ropes. Now he thinks he’s some big shot or something, the way he talks and all. Later on I pulled him aside and told him, so you’ve forgotten all that, you’ve got selective amnesia or something? Don’t you feel embarrassed?” she went on and on. These were the types of discussions that went on for 36 hours in various parts of the bus. People were at ease, as if they were oblivious to the long ride. This was their daily routine.
“Sen gal ma, gyal ma sen” (Don’t you come, don’t you come) - this blaring refrain of a Turkish song, that went on and on, had already sawed my brain into pieces. The words echo in my head even today. The only respite from the Turkish music played by the drivers once we headed out of Yerevan was when we stopped at the border crossings. We were seated in the second row behind the driver so our view in front was unobstructed. This didn’t prove much of a benefit in light of the continuous musical racket hitting our eardrums. Turkish music would have pretty much accompanied us all the way to Istanbul had I not suggested we watch a movie or two. Here too we didn’t have much luck. All we could chose from were some Chinese chop-socky action flics or some soft-porn that somehow sneaked onto the screen. We all turned away and snorted when some of the more erotic scenes appeared. My God, there were some kids as young as 10 watching as well. Suffice it to say our 36 hour trip was chock-full of such pleasantries; Turkish music, stupid movies, some snacks and other questionable odors. What do you expect? The bus is the cheapest way of getting to Istanbul at a price tag of $80.
Hamlet and his wife have been living in Istanbul for 8 years now. He said, “I nail on the soles in a shoe factory.” They send back goods via cargo to their relatives in Armenia who in turn sell the stuff. Hamlet told us that he intends to return to Armenia this August. At the time I believed him. In the days to come, after meeting and talking with other Armenians from the ROA, I realized that while they all talk about returning they continue to stay.
“The Police know about all of us, where we live, etc. If they wanted to they could round us all up in one night and deport us”. This is how Hamlet responded when I asked him about the dangers if caught as an illegal in Turkey. I didn’t understand why Hamlet specifically noted the word ‘night’. Was it perhaps to overly dramatize the danger or was it that the Police had already visited him one night. A few days later however, after meeting with a 21 year-old guy from Yerevan, I realized that their days are filled with anxiety.
The young man I refer to returns home from work and never leaves till the following morning. Home is a bare-bones 8 square meter cell-like room. The day of our visit even the electricity wasn’t working. His Armenian neighbors, a mother and her son from Yerevan, are the only comfort he has. Armenians from the ROA essentially reside in the Bayazit neighborhood, along the streets of Tiyatro, Gedikpasha and the narrow alleyways of Kumkapi, in the old city. It’s in this area where most of your shoe, clothing and leather plants are and also where the Armenian Patriarchate and the Armenian Protestant Sourp Hovahannes Church are located. The Armenian presence is palpable here everywhere you look. You even come across signs in the shop windows advertising telephone call rates to Armenia. Perhaps these Armenians congregated in the streets surrounding the Patriarchate out of some inner instinct. I can’t say. Or maybe it was some inner fear that drove them to seek out the Armenian Mother Church of Istanbul. Then too, it could be because the factories are here with their wholesale outlets and one can rent apartments here on the cheap.
Gypsies and Kurds from the provinces live on these streets alongside Armenians. Outside the cheap hotels, that are a dime a dozen here, you’ll see young women plying the world’s oldest trade. There also an abundance of night clubs and discos with guys standing on the street outside inviting unsuspecting passers-by inside.
Police cars are constantly patrolling these streets. Also located here is the building housing the Police Department’s detention center for illegal aliens and related matters. From the bars on the windows you can see the shirts and underwear of the detainees hanging out to dry. From behind some of the barred windows you can even glimpse a face or two. Across the way from this imposing structure are rows upon rows of restaurants where live music can be heard along with the laughter of passing merry-makers. A ten minute walk from here and you’re looking upon the Sea of Marmara.
In essence, the majority of ROA Armenians live here illegally. After their 30 day visa is up they’re obliged to leave the country. “Yeah, we’re illegal. If they wanted to they could deport the lot of us. But they don’t. If we’re grabbed we slip them $10 or $20 and they let us go” says the 21 year-old from Yerevan who’s works as a jewelry maker.
Hamlet says, “We left our country and wound up in this mess.” I knew he was saying this merely to justify his actions but I wouldn’t say anything to him about it. These Armenians, like those in Los Angeles, suffer from a certain complex. They all constantly try to justify the reasons why they are here. Hamlet mentions that he views Armenian H1 TV by satellite. I ask another Armenian if his kids go to school here in Turkey and she answers, “What school, there is no school. Let the kids work as well and bring home a few bucks. Better than doing nothing, right? There are many Armenian families from the ROA in Istanbul whose kids are being deprived of an education. Even if the parents want them to attend classes they can’t because Turkish law prohibits children of non-citizens from attending school.
Bolsahay Gayaneh says that, “Kumkapi is again being inhabited by Armenians, who would have known?” She was our guide while in Istanbul, showing us the Armenian neighborhoods of the city and the churches. At the turn of the last century Kumkapi was an Armenian populated neighborhood. Today, due to the influx of ROA Armenians, it is becoming so again.
Gayaneh tells us that, “Once, we were afraid to speak Armenian outside the house. We only spoke Turkish. One day I spotted two women in the tramway speaking Armenian out loud in front of all, without a care in the world. I realized then the sense of fear we grew up and lived with. Slowly but surely we too started to speak Armenian out in public. I’m talking about my nervous generation, the remnants of those after the Genocide who somehow managed to remain Armenian here.”
After returning to Yerevan I remember how we always invariably walked down to the street where the Patriarchate was, where the Armenians lived. For the life of me I couldn’t understand why we walked along those streets, those Armenian-inhabited streets.
Armenians from the ROA are Finding Work in Turkey
[July 28, 2008]
While walking the narrow streets in the vicinity of the Armenian Patriarchate one can hear Eastern Armenian being spoken. Pasted on the windows of the numerous internet telephone call centers in the area, one even eyes Armenian notices advertising the per-minute rates for calling Yerevan and Vanadzor.
There are about 3-5 thousand Armenians from the ROA residing in the vicinity of the Patriarchate. This was the number noted by several Armenians from Bolis active in community affairs.
These ROA Armenians rarely attend church services, most likely out of fear of being videotaped by the surveillance cameras mounted at church entrances. The comings and goings in all likelihood are monitored by the security services of the state. The Patriarchate itself is under heavy surveillance, a small police unit being posted on the street out in front with a series of video cameras strategically placed.
Armenians from the ROA started coming to Turkey as of 1992. In those early days they brought different electronic gadgets, gift items, crystal chandeliers, and cognac and food items along with them. Our Bolsahay acquaintances said that during those initial years they would purchase these items as a way of assisting their compatriots. Haroutiun, one of the reporters at the Agos newspaper, said that, “Later we realized we really had no need for this stuff so we stopped purchasing it.” He recounted the time when two ladies from Armenia had brought two overstuffed suitcases full of Armenian books to Bolis, thinking that Armenian books weren’t to be found there. When Armenians from the ROA saw that the merchandise they were bringing wasn’t selling in Bolis they began transporting Turkish goods back to Armenia. At the time none were entertaining the notion of staying in Turkey. They were fearful of doing so.
“At first we warmly welcomed these Armenians. We invited them to our homes and found work for them. Istanbul-Armenians don’t really have extravagant drinking toasts so when we heard the toasts of these Armenians at New Year’s gatherings we got all emotional and patriotic. They would say - your house is like a second home for us, a bit of the country we left behind. I believed they would work, amass some money, and then return to Armenia. But exactly the opposite happened. They got married and settled down. They even married Turks and Kurds. Then we found out something that really amazed us. We would find work for them but they’d then distribute these jobs to one another on a commission basis. They would take the passport of the job seeker as collateral, threatening not to return it if payment wasn’t made for services rendered. We only found out about this scheme two years after the fact.” recounts Bolsahay Gayaneh, our guide in Istanbul.
Afterwards, Armenians began exploring all possible ways to stay in Turkey. The fact remains that at the border only a 30 day visa is issued to all comers. Some return to the Georgian border when the 30 days are up, only to reenter Turkey for another 30 day period. A certain segment of women have actually married local citizens, but it’s only a small percentage that has married a Bolsahay. The rest have entered into marriages with Turks and Kurds and have thus obtained Turkish citizenship. Other schemes have also been tried. For instance, certain women have “separated” from their Armenian husbands and have married either Turks or Kurds. After a year or two they divorce their new husbands and remarry their former ones who are now eligible for Turkish citizenship as well. We weren’t able to find out what such a scheme costs to execute. While in Istanbul we met a woman from Yerevan who was able to obtain citizenship papers in this way. Today, her husband and two children are also Turkish citizens. Since there have been no studies or research on the matter it’s truly difficult to say how many Armenians from the ROA have obtained Turkish citizenship.
Most of the ROA Armenians living in Turkey reside in the cities of Istanbul and Trabizon. As to the question, what kind of work do they do in Istanbul, the simple answer would be, whatever they want. Furthermore, the majority of the bread-winners are women. Below is a list of the basic job sectors they’re employed in.
1. Home Care Attendants - These women care for the elderly and children at an average monthly salary of $600-700. Armenians covet such type of work since no documents are required and there’s a low-risk of being caught. In addition, their room and board is taken care of by the family or individuals who employ them. There’s no need to pay rent or money for meals. If the family is well-off the monthly wage can rise to $1,000.
2. House Cleaning - A substantial segment of women are employed in this sector. Such work is also deemed to be desirable with average monthly wages in the $300-500 range, depending on the generosity and resources of the individual employer. Some of the women work both for Bolsahay households and in Turkish ones as well, where the pay is higher. After learning the basics of the language many of the women go off to seek work in well-to-do Turkish households.
3. Commerce and the Service Industry - Women in these fields are employed in commercial shops, wholesale retail establishments, hotels and restaurants.
4. Sex Trade - Some women have also found work in this sector of the economy as well. They mainly are located on the port city of Trabizon and other resort towns along the coast. There are no statistics as to the number of women so engaged. Back when the human trafficking investigations were taking place in Armenia one frequently met the victims of this trade, those who willingly participated and those who were deceived into it. There are a number of well-known pimps who have been on the run from Armenian law enforcement and Interpol for years. Most of them permanently reside in Turkey. One of them, a woman from Ijevan called Gohar, married a Turk and changed her last name. In Trabizon, she’s the major player in getting Armenian women from the ROA involved in prostitution there. This, however, is a separate issue all together and one that “Hetq” will certainly cover at a later date.
As Armenian women became the main wage earners, shouldering most of the family responsibilities, many started to divorce their husbands later on. Bolsahay Gayaneh offers the following explanation for the high divorce rate, “Those who came here got divorced. The husbands would sit at home while the women worked. These wives found a certain freedom and they had every right to. They were out there earning a living while the men folk did absolutely nothing.”
It is much harder for the men to find work. They cannot be legally employed in any firm or company. Mostly, they find jobs in factories or in construction as laborers. A few have even found work in the jewelry trade. In the factories they mostly are shoemakers, tailors or porters. If they are caught as illegal workers it can translate into a whole lot of trouble for their employers. This is why many Bolsahays are quite wary of hiring ROA Armenians. Those caught illegally residing in Turkey are fined $1,500, their wages confiscated and summarily deported. It is not clear how many, if any, such Armenians are being detained in Turkish jails. One Bolsahay put it this way, “There aren’t any because no one is concerned enough to delve into the matter. In other words, there is no information.”
Why doesn’t the Turkish government deport Armenians illegally residing and working in the country? First and foremost, they are a political card to be played when deemed appropriate and the Turkish authorities don’t hesitate to raise the matter from official podiums at such times. Also, the Turkish economy needs cheap labor and these Armenians fill this gap to a small extent.
Bolsahay Gayaneh related to us what a police acquaintance of hers said on the matter, “When I spoke to this policeman he stated that they didn’t want to round up the Armenians because there’s no Armenian Embassy here. If we round them up we’d have to take care of them. The government would have to foot the bill of housing and feeding them in the jails. But the police know exactly who lives where.”
Why then do Armenians from the ROA travel to Turkey? After all, every Armenian knows the history of the Genocide and thus subconsciously the Turk is to be considered enemy #1. Turkey is the closest country to Armenia where one can travel to at minimal cost. For $100 one can reach Trabizon or, better yet, Istanbul. The second reason is that it’s safer than say, Russia. In addition, living costs, that’s to say apartment rentals, are cheaper too. Ideal conditions for trade and commerce exist as well. You can buy goods and immediately ship them anywhere you like. On the streets of Istanbul you can see Azeris, Georgians, Moldovans and of course Russians as well. A working knowledge of Russian is considered an asset when applying for a job in a restaurant or store. In a word, the city of Istanbul not only entices one with its blue straits and seas, it historical monuments and temperate climate, but also as a center of commerce, where meals are cheap and there’s an abundance of inexpensive hotels and the people, on the whole, hospitable.
When I asked Bolsahay Gayaneh about the Armenian community in Turkey she swiftly countered, “Please don’t call us a kaghout.” (The Armenian for “colony”, a word mainly used to describe Diaspora Armenian communities) In fact, it would be absurd to describe an Armenian still living in Sassoun as being part of the Armenian kaghout in Turkey. That individual is living in his native home, where he was born and where Armenians have lived for consecutive millennia.
Jan Gavrilof, another Bolsahay acquaintance, put it this way, “Our community is really the most misfortunate of all. Are we a colony or not? Yes, we are a colony in the sense that Istanbul isn’t historic Armenian land. But, we are not a colony since Istanbul is in Turkey, where my fatherland once existed. I was born here. So were my father and grandfather. We Armenians have been here for thousands of years.”
After the deportations Jan’s grandfather, not able to make a go of it in Russia, returned to Turkey in 1920. At the border when asked his nationality he told them, I’m a Russian and my last name is Gavrilof.
Istanbul - Yerevan