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Vahe Sarukhanyan

Istanbul Diary: Taksim Square, April 24

Young people in Turkey are quite active politically. As we walked down Istiklal Street of April 23, groups of young people had assembled chanting various slogans and clapping their hands.

Turns out they were calling on the ruling party and Erdogan to promise educational reforms as a part of their campaign platform.

That same day our escort Sousaye introduced us to her friends - Mustafa, her boyfriend, and a colleague named Ibrahim, whose great-great grandmother was an Armenian from Van. Ibrahim was born and raised in Cilicia. He now lives and works in Istanbul.

Ibrahim visited Yerevan this past February and says it was OK. He plans to return next month to shoot a film about Ararat. In contrast to Mustafa, Ibrahim was pretty open in expressing his views.

I was a bit surprised when he started to discuss Turkish women with me. Mustafa had invited our little group to a local beer garden when he popped the question – so what do you think about the women here? Smiling, I diplomatically replied, "Yeah, they’re nice." Mustafa was more forthcoming and answered, "They bore me."

"They only find you interesting if you have money, a car," was his explanation when I asked for a bit more detail.

"I know where you’re coming from," I said. "We have girls like that back in Yerevan. But not all are like that."

"I really like the Scandinavians. They’re easy to talk to. That’s a problem with Turkish women," continued Mustafa.

Sousaye and Mustafa make an interesting couple. Ibrahim joked that Sousaye has learnt to speak better Turkish in the two years she’s been in the country than Mustafa knows English.

A bit later we were joined by Matevos, an American-Armenian from Clevland who’s been working at a few magazines in Istanbul for the past eight months. Matevos traces his roots go back to western Armenia as well and says that he plans to come to Armenia to improve his language skills.

I’ve met many Armenians since arriving in Turkey, and I can honestly say that they all seem to be good people. Let’s hope my initial positive impressions bear out down the road.

On April 24, a vigil commemorating the victims of the 1915 Genocide was scheduled to be held in Istanbul, just like last year. It was to be the main event of my week.

For reasons totally understandable, the Armenian community if Istanbul doesn’t commemorate the anniversary in as open a fashion as do others in the diaspora. This was born out at the Taksim Square vigil, where I saw none of the Armenians I had so far met while in Istanbul.

There were 200 or so people at the Taksim Square commemoration. Young and old alike, they lit candles in the shape of pomegranates and sat down in silence while douduk music gently played in the background.

It was also the first time I remember hearing the Muslim call to prayer echo from a nearby mosque. Soon afterwards, a group carrying a banner depicting the likenesses of Ataturk and Lenin also assembled in the Square. They started to chant anti-imperialist and anti-Armenian slogans. Police quickly stepped in to divide the two groups.

This small rabid group, with its chants and whistling, seemed bent on drowning out any trace of the plaintive douduk music in the square and the voices of those reading out the names of prominent Armenians rounded up and murdered 96 years ago to the day.

The silent vigil continued for about 30-40 minutes. Soon after the participants left, I saw groups of protestors carrying Azerbaijani flags enter Taksim. They held their hands aloft, making the famous sign of the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves (Bozkurtlar) organization.

They were chanting anti-Armenians slogans and carrying similar banners. These guys put were even more rabid than the other Armenian haters.

But all the bravado and bluster of these Turkish chauvinists cannot erase the fact that in Turkey the Genocide taboo has been broken and that slowly more and more are saying – yes, something terrible did happen.