Whore the ancestors of the Armenians

Armenians in Turkey - In the land of stolen mothers

It's a cold Christmas, and actually it's not even Christmas. Around a dozen people sit in a drafty pavilion tent the size of a living room in front of the Saint Giragos Cathedral in Diyarbakir and seek the warming proximity of the small wood stove on which tea and coffee are prepared. The next few days will bring Anatolia the worst onset of winter in half a century. It's January 6th, 2015; On this day, Armenian Christians celebrate the church festival of Epiphany, the "apparition of the Lord". At the same time, they commemorate the birth of Jesus on this day - the Armenian Church does not have its own Christmas festival.

Except that this year no priest from the patriarchate was sent from Istanbul to the eastern Anatolian city. The Saint Giragos Cathedral is the largest Armenian place of worship in the entire Middle East. It was only recently extensively restored after it had been idle for years. But they do not have their own priest in Diyarbakir, and the patriarchate does not have enough staff to hold services on January 6 in all the few cities in the country that have Armenian churches.

"A lot of people called me and asked if something was going on," says Dikran Türkay, one of the church sextons. "It is such a shame that we cannot celebrate this special day appropriately." Most of the Armenian believers in Diyarbakir, he explains, therefore celebrated Christmas together with the Syrian Orthodox Christians on December 25th. The few who come to church today have a few glasses of tea in the tent and then leave. Armenian life in Turkey - it exists, but it is a delicate plant.

Poor Demircian is nonetheless happy. "All of this because of me," he says with a grin that vacillates between enthusiasm and disbelief. A team from "Al-Jazeera Turkey" set up their camera in front of the mighty church to interview him. Demircian is one of the most famous Armenians from Diyarbakir. In one thirty minute he can explain what this day means for him. And what an unusual story led to his being here today - and his name at all, Armen Demircian.

Because the 54-year-old was born quite different: Abdulrahim Zoraslan, son of a Kurdish family from Lice, a small town about 80 kilometers northeast of Diyarbakir. For a long time, Zoraslan's life was regulated: he worked as a driver for the local government for almost half of his life. Until in 1981 he found something that would turn his whole existence upside down. Abdulrahim learned: He is not a Kurd at all - but an Armenian.

People like Abdulrahim Zoraslan are the darkest legacy of the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians, which began a hundred years ago, on April 24, 1915, with a wave of arrests in Istanbul and many bloody months later with - according to highly controversial estimates - up to 1.5 million murdered Armenians ended. In Anatolia, which was to become the Republic of Turkey a short time later, nothing was left of the once flourishing Armenian culture: the survivors of the deportation marches had escaped abroad, all the others were dead. At least that was believed. It took decades before daylight came to light what had always been whispered behind closed doors in the villages and mountains of Anatolia: Many Armenian children had survived the genocide: by being rescued by Turkish or Kurdish families - or robbed, from perspective many Armenians.

This was publicly stated for the first time in 2004, when the Turkish lawyer Fethiye Çetin published her book "Anneannem" ("My Grandmother"). In it she tells the life story of her grandmother Seher, who - as Çetin found out at the end of the 1970s - was actually not a Turkish, but an Armenian: Her real name, which had been hidden for decades, was Heranuş. As a little girl, Heranuş escaped death when a Turkish gendarme snatched her away from her family on a deportation march. He raised her as his adopted daughter, she was given a new name and a Muslim identity.

Çetin's book set off a small avalanche, because it quickly became apparent that her grandmother's story was not an isolated incident: “All of a sudden, young Turks began to write to me who asked themselves: 'My grandmother had no relatives either - why? '”, Says the now 64-year-old. In Van, in Muş, in Diyarbakir: Everywhere people got in touch who had found out that there were Armenians in their family - mostly in the generation of their parents or grandparents. They had been taken from their families during the deportations or had wandered through forests and villages while fleeing until they finally found a new home with some family. In the majority of cases, it was girls and young women who survived in this way - brides kidnapped during the genocide.

Your children and grandchildren live with this legacy in Turkey - the country that categorically denies the existence of genocide to this day and throws all its political weight into the balance in order to prevent the Armenians from recognizing the genocide by third countries. Armenia and Turkey are neighbors - but the border between the two countries has been closed since 1993, and relations are frosty. This is also due to a second emotionally charged topic: the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh - an enclave in Azerbaijan that has been de facto occupied by Armenia for around 20 years. Since Azerbaijan is a close ally of Turkey, the dispute over this piece of land is also poisoning the Turkish-Armenian relationship. The year 2015, the 100th anniversary of the genocide, takes this confrontation to extremes.

Against this background, what does it mean for a country when it turns out that thousands, even millions of its citizens do not even carry the pure Turkish blood, which the state never tires of propagating? But above all: what does it mean for these people themselves?

Certainly more than thirty can be told in a minute.

Armen Demircian is a slim man, a reserved, quiet figure. As a greeting he says “Bonjour”. But his eyes keep flickering restlessly. Demircian is on the lookout: for stories, for relatives, for memories.

When Demircian - then still Abdulrahim Zoraslan - discovered his Armenian origins in 1981, he could no longer ask his father: he found out about it at his funeral. “When my father died, the names of his parents were not given at the funeral - that was absolutely unusual,” he recalls. Zoraslan knew that his father was an adopted child; nevertheless he was astonished. He went to his uncles and asked them: Who are we anyway? In fact, was the answer, your father was an Armenian.

Not too much is known of the father's story: During the genocide in 1915, he was taken in by a Kurdish tribe; he was five then. The two brothers and their parents must have died near Lice.

“I had heard the word before, but to be honest: I didn't really know what that meant, Armenian,” says Demircian. But apparently it triggered something in him. Today he is one of the few in Diyarbakir - once an important center of Armenian culture - who are open about their Armenian origins.

Many others who learn of the existence of Armenian parents or grandparents remain silent: out of fear of prejudice and discrimination. And out of shame: being an Armenian is nothing honorable in Turkey. On the contrary, the Turkish word for Armenians, “ermeni”, is still a dirty word today. Last summer, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used it in this sense when he railed at an election rally that his opponents had already described him as a lot: as a Georgian, for example - yes, even worse: as an Armenian. "But I am Turkish."

Erdoğan's words clearly show the dilemma: With the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, a nationalism was established that recognizes and accepts minorities only to a very limited extent. The Kurds, for example, figured in the official ideology for decades as “mountain Turks” who allegedly had forgotten their original language (which is related to Turkish) over time. There were still a few Armenians in Turkey - mainly in Istanbul - but since the genocide did not take place in the view of the state, there was correspondingly little talk about them: the Armenians were literally hushed up.

It was the same nationalism that made centrally planned and controlled mass murder possible in the first place. Various factors came together: The idea that one could only survive the disintegration of the Ottoman multi-ethnic state at the beginning of the 20th century with the creation of a national home for the Turks. The fear that the Christian ethnic groups will conspire against the Ottoman Empire together with the European powers. The emergence of a small militant independence movement among the Ottoman Armenians, the majority of which nevertheless remained loyal to the Ottoman state. Finally, the catastrophic Caucasus campaign against the Russian tsarist empire at the beginning of the First World War, in the winter of 1914/1915, when between 50,000 and 80,000 Ottoman soldiers froze to death in the snow and starved to death. In order to cover up the amateurish planning of this campaign, leading politicians circulated a Turkish version of the stab in the back legend: according to which the Armenians had defected to the Russians and fell in the back of the nation.

Shortly afterwards, on the evening of April 24, 1915, the scheduled deportation and murder of Armenian citizens began with the arrest of more than 200 Armenians in the capital, Istanbul. In death marches known as “deportations”, they were driven towards the Syrian desert and were practically outlawed on the way. In many places in Anatolia it was mainly Kurdish tribes who took over the cruel killing. They were driven by greed in this as well as the other world: in addition to the gold of the fleeing Armenians, they had been promised that for seven Armenians killed they would go straight to paradise after death. What should not be forgotten in all this: the German war partners, who were closely linked to the Ottomans militarily and politically, in some cases expressly supported the genocide.

All of this resonates in different levels of consciousness with the proud sentence: “I am a Turk.” Turkey expert Günter Seufert from the Science and Politics Foundation believes that the memory of the Armenians, even if they are part of the public discourse in Turkey practically did not occur, remained under the surface for a long time: “The image of the Armenian as the defeated enemy was central to the self-image of the Turkish nation.” At the same time, Seufert suggests, this image had to be forgotten and through a positive historical and Identity construct should be replaced - after all, Ataturk's young republic did not want to appear before the world as a people of mass murderers.

Perhaps the extraordinary sensitivity of some Turks to genocide stems from the fact that the memory of it subconsciously calls into question the very core of their national identity. The same goes for the existence of the Armenians who survived the genocide as children. For the lawyer and author Fethiye Çetin, they too have to do with the country's self-image: “The so-called 'Armenian question' does not only concern the Armenians, it concerns all of us. Because the official story telling in Turkey is wrong. Actually a completely different story applies to all of us, but it is kept secret. "

If one travels to the south-east of Turkey today, one encounters stories about these survivors everywhere - "Muslim Armenians", as they are called here. Some of them told their children and grandchildren what they had experienced as children - like Fethiye Çetin's grandmother. Others, traumatized and frightened, remained silent all of their lives. Your descendants therefore often have to laboriously reconstruct their own family history.

Few of them show such zeal as Armen Demircian. He seems almost obsessed with finding out more. At the registry office he looked for documents about his father; He discovered that the Turkish state kept a very precise record of which of its citizens were of Armenian descent. Demircian noted that his grandparents are registered as Christians in the family register, their death date is 1915. His father, however, is already registered as a Muslim, name: Abdullah. Demircian now knows his original Armenian name was Habok.

Over time, Demircian found relatives in Istanbul, New York, and the Netherlands. He led Armenian visitors from the diaspora through the Saint Giragos Cathedral. He started learning Armenian and traveled to Yerevan. He says: “I am an Armenian and a Kurd at the same time, but now I want to live as an Armenian - like my father couldn't.” He says that this unusual way of dealing with family inheritance drew the attention of numerous Turkish media to him . Because: “I want the topic to be on the agenda. Turkey must finally confess to genocide. And the Armenians should also know that we are here. "

He's even changed his name: eight years ago, Abdulrahim Zoraslan became Armen Demircian. Such a name change is still a very complex procedure in Turkey. In general, however, the situation of the approximately 80,000 Armenians in the country - and also of the countless "rediscovered Armenians" - has improved in recent years. The murder of Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish journalist and editor of the weekly "Agos", in early 2007 was a wake-up call for the country. Added to this was the long-term moderate minority and religious policy of the ruling AKP party in the course of the EU accession process. "Ten years ago, Armenians and Kurds could not express themselves openly in this country," says Demircian. “It's different today.” In 2015, Turkey cannot be reduced to a country of genocide deniers, even if this is undoubtedly the attitude of the state.

At the same time, prejudices and stereotypes of a conservative society persist, especially in rural areas. And a change of religion is very problematic in Islamic societies. In view of this, too, the mania with which Armen Demircian works to become an Armenian is irritating. He says he is not afraid of negative consequences - even if his family does not necessarily approve of his development, as he explains with a stoic smile.

Two days later: on the way to Lice, Demircian's birthplace. In view of the prospect of bringing guests to his brothers' house, he is quieter than usual. A visit to his wife, he had made it clear beforehand, is completely out of the question - she is a devout Muslim. What does she think of his idea of ​​being baptized and moving to Armenia? Demircian raises his eyebrows and makes a gesture that says: It would cut my throat.

Lice is in the heart of the Turkish part of Kurdistan, it is PKK country. The first congress of the “Kurdistan Workers' Party” took place here in 1978, says the young mayor Rezan Zuğurlı, herself a pro-Kurdish politician who was imprisoned until shortly before her election as head of the city in 2014 - she had taken part in an illegal demonstration. Since a severe earthquake in 1975, part of the city has consisted of container houses. The Zoraslan family also lives in such a container house. Talhat, one of Armen Demircian's four older brothers, has lived here with his family since his father's death; Brother Akif is also there. When we enter, he jokes: "Are these Armenian relatives you brought with you?"

As a greeting, Demircian hands out Armenian magnetic stickers that he has brought from the church; his brothers take it rather unmoved. Otherwise the atmosphere is relaxed. "For us, he will always be Abdulrahim," says 63-year-old Talhat Zoraslan. “But his conversion is not a problem for us.” Sometimes, he reports, the brothers also go to church with poor people; and sometimes - everyone starts to laugh - "he tries to get us with Christianity".

The older Zoraslan brothers already knew as children that they were “different” - they were sometimes called “unbelievers” on the street. And this despite the fact that her father Abdullah was completely absorbed in his Muslim identity: "He prayed, he fasted, he even made a pilgrimage to Mecca," recalls Akif Zoraslan. On the other hand, he never wanted to talk about family stories. Talhat believes: "Our father knew exactly what had happened to his family, but he was afraid to talk about it." Many Muslim Armenians reacted in this way: by following the Islamic faith all the more decisively and otherwise burying the past.

Obviously, Talhat and Akif Zoraslan mean little to their Armenian origins - unlike their little brother Abdulrahim alias Armen. But when Talhat says: “I am a Kurd,” his son Çiya interrupts him: “By God, I say: I am an Armenian!” Since he has learned about his Armenian origins, he has wanted to find out more about his ancestors 22 year old serious. “That's why I never had any problems with my friends.” Çiya spends a lot of time on social forums on the Internet to get into conversation with other Armenians - he meets numerous young Turks who, like himself, are officially Muslims, but feel that they are Armenians . His uncle Armen estimates that there are around five million descendants of Muslim Armenians in Turkey today.

Stories like that of Armen Demircian and his family raise questions about identity and belonging. Are you Kurds or Armenians? Or Kurdish Armenians? Is it a question of ethnicity and ethnicity or a personal choice? Many, especially younger, people in Turkey are interested in what happened back then, and many ask about the displaced Armenian heritage - some of which they are discovering within themselves. If it turns out that many Turks are also a bit Armenian, that might not be the worst news for the country.

A completely different question is how each individual deals with their inheritance. Armen Demircian is still pondering whether he should be baptized. “Maybe I'll do it in secret, in Armenia,” he says thoughtfully; he did not want to alienate himself further from his wife and family. A moment later he grins again and proudly points to the sticker of St. Giragos Cathedral on his mobile phone.

Christian H. Meier and Andy Spyra's research was supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation's Grenzgänger grant.