The Armenian community of Istanbul is the most isolated when it comes to relations with the Republic of Armenia. The Armenians of Turkey hardly feel the presence of Armenia in whatever sector you wish to name. However, the Armenians in Istanbul and in the hundreds of residences throughout Western Armenia have remained Armenian, even without knowing the language, converting to the Muslim faith, changing their names and surnames and professing to be of another nationality.
It’s the same across the board; they have remained Armenian due to the fact that they are labeled as “giavour” (infidel) and their domicile as the “village of the giavour”. Perhaps there will come a time when they can openly profess their identity, I can’t say. Today, however, the reality is otherwise. The Armenian community in Turkey really has no connections, no relations, with their Armenian counterparts in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. In any event, those Armenians coming to Istanbul from the Anatolian provinces attempt to rediscover who they really are. When they go to church they stand off in a corner by themselves, not mingling with the Bolsahay’s. For the most part, the “bourgeoisie” Bolsahay’s don’t even let these provincials approach them. These are the same Bolis Armenians that the great satirist Hagop Baronian described so many years ago and whose bust is located in the courtyard of the Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church in Orta Kyugh (Ortakoy).
It was the last Sunday of June that we found ourselves inside the walls of the Sourp Harutyun Church in Kumkapi. In the courtyard were assembled around ten or so elderly Armenians. Further away a woman of about thirty was seated. Her face and hands were rough and worn and I recognized her to be of village stock. Seated away from the rest, it seemed as if there was an invisible boundary line running down the middle of the courtyard and that she wasn’t permitted to cross it. I later learned that she was an Armenian who had just moved to Istanbul from Sassoun. The woman didn’t speak a word of Armenian. The words uttered by Pakrat Estukyan, the Armenian Editor at Agos, quickly came to mind, “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…Those Armenians who have lived outside the Istanbul 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.”
Sourp Harutyun is a small but charming church that the Bolsahay’s have nicknamed the “Fishermen’s Church”. For hundreds of years the Armenians of Istanbul were engaged as fishermen and fishmongers and their families attended services at this church, which by the way is close to the main fish market in the city. Their descendants continue to call Sourp Harutyun their local parish church
The number of working Armenian churches in Istanbul today stands at 36. However, the number of those attending religious services decreases yearly. On any given Sunday, one would be hard-pressed to see a large number of young people at church.
Baronian, in his masterful work, “A Stroll through the Neighborhoods of Bolis”, described the district of Pera and its inhabitants thusly, “There are four churches in this neighborhood; Sourp Yerrortutyun, Khor Virab, Vosgeperan and Sourp Harutyun. Go to all four and you will not find four pious Christians amongst them.” The issue of finding four pious Christians doesn’t only relate to the Armenians of Istanbul. Today, in Yerevan, there are other “pious” Christians who are building churches. These individuals steal from the people and then build private churches with the ill-gotten proceeds. They then engage in charitable works, giving back mere crumbs to the people they stole from, and are praised on the TV screen and in the papers. The problem of “pious Christians” is one of those seemingly eternal themes that came to my mind, out of the blue, in the land of Baronian.
Baronian continues to write that, “In this neighborhood reside the most famous of wealthy compatriots who in recent years have opened up their money bags in the name of charitable works…but they only contribute to those benevolent works for which their names will be published in the papers and they themselves glorified. They will not give a cent, however, to those good works worthy of national honor and glory, since such contributions will not be covered in the papers. It would be downright stupid for one to give two bucks to the national fund and not get his name in the papers.”
It seemed that all conversations between Bolsahay’s and average Turks soon revolved around the topic of Hrant Dink. One evening, when our taxi driver learnt that we were from Armenia, he told us that he was an Alevi (a branch of Islam whose followers don’t pray in mosques) and that Armenians and Alevis are brothers. Of course I found that brotherhood difficult to believe but the fact remains that Alevis in Turkey are facing repression and Hrant Dink, in addition to everything else, was a champion of minority rights in Turkey. Our Alevi taxi driver stated that his coreligionists were present at Hrant’s funeral procession. “We cried that day, the burly Turk said and continued; there are 30 million Alevis in Turkey, 20 million Kurds and only 20 million actual Turks. We will eventually triumph.”
Hrant Dink forced the average Turk to think and to ask himself questions. Through his TV debates and interviews he made the problems facing Armenians comprehensible for the Turkish populace at large. For Turks, Hrant represented the Armenian community and in a way became the symbolic Armenian. His was a representation that was quite sympathetic and which charmed the Turkish intellectuals and political leaders who seemed to throw in the towel of defeat whenever they debated Hrant. But Hrant also had another mission in mind - to make the Armenian community stand up and listen to what he had to say as well. Armenians were obliged to take notice as well because his views on the Genocide and Armenian-Turkish relations were quite different from the generally accepted viewpoints. And it was hard to come out on top in a debate with Hrant because his sincerity would defeat all comers.
For Turkish national chauvinists, Hrant Dink was the most dangerous Armenian around and thus his murder didn’t happen by chance. We now know that his assassination had been planned quite a while ago. Hrant, however, was also not acceptable to many Armenian circles as well, whether in Istanbul, Armenia or the Diaspora. It’s sufficient to note two facts in this regard - Mesrob Mutafyan, the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, had banned the advertising of any church-related activities in the newspaper Agos and that Hrant was labeled a “spy” throughout much of the Diaspora.
Janet, one of our Bolsahay acquaintances, declared, “Who brought the greatest pressure to bear down on Hrant, the Turkish government or the Armenian Church? Hrant was being attacked from all quarters. And all of us followed the spectacle, like we were seated at a circus, with Hrant in the center ring being fired upon day and night. We kept him at arm’s length, alone and isolated. When they took him to court we didn’t even go to the trials. Hrant also sacrificed himself for us. His voice was silenced because the people started to wake up. He was becoming dangerous.”
As the Bolsahay’s put it, a state of confusion and turmoil reigns within the Agos offices today. It halls and rooms have become the meeting place of choice for progressive Turks and Kurds; the Turkish policeman posted outside constantly monitoring the entrance way.