Interview Houshamadyan

Arlet İncidüzen

Houshamadyan: A Monument That Revives Ottoman Armenian life

The Houshamadyuan website is published in English, Armenian, and Turkish and was established in 2011 with the purpose of maintaining the memory of Ottoman Armenians' social and cultural life across Anatolia. The purpose of the Houshamadyan website is to keep a digital archive of the Armenian presence in Anatolia, which has seen systematic efforts to destroy it and for it to fall out of memory, both of which have been the state policy of the culture of denial since 1915. The website also receives its most visitors from Turkey. Ece Koçak sat down with translator and educator Arlet İncidüzen from the project team to speak about Houshamadyan's mission and methods as well as how the Armenian-determined publishing tradition opens space for the process of confronting the past in Turkey.

Image Huşamadyan tarafından 27 Mart-10 Nisan 2013 tarihlerinde Berlin’de düzenlenen “Mekânsız Hafıza” sergisinden, Fotoğraflar: Vivi Abelson.
From Houshamadyan’s exhibition “Memory without a Place,” held from March 27 to April 10, 2013, in Berlin, Germany; photos: Vivi Abelson.

 

Is the Houshamadyan Association involved in any activities other than growing and developing its website?

Houshamadyan organizes exhibitions and workshops in cities around the world, especially in places with large Armenian diaspora populations. The workshops are mostly aimed at collecting materials, but there are also interviews. Apart from collecting materials, things that pique people's interest can be added or removed from their content. The most recent exhibition was held in Athens, and now it’s due to be exhibited in Berlin for two months. The exhibition contains personal histories and documents held by institutions that we've collected from various parts of the world and other items of that sort. There's our archive—whether a postcard, book, or photograph given to us when we go somewhere; the things we come across one way or another. We also announce a specific place during the workshops—a camp of sorts—where people bring their personal belongings and we record their stories.

Image Huşamadyan tarafından 27 Mart-10 Nisan 2013 tarihlerinde Berlin’de düzenlenen “Mekânsız Hafıza” sergisinden, Fotoğraflar: Vivi Abelson.

Do the workshops have a specific theme or are they more an occasion to meet with Armenians living where they're held?

They’re an opportunity to meet, but we don't expressly say that's why we're there. Houshamadyan often partners with local Armenian associations or media outlets. It's affiliated with the Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul, for example, and with the Armenica Association in Athens. They have their own centers because they're local, and we say, for example, that Houshamadyan will be there for three days. People want to meet but they also want to tell their stories. Interestingly, some are third- or fourth-generation diaspora Armenians whose families have mixed with other ethnicities. There is more mixing in the diaspora, particularly in the Christian societies in the West. They have very little and a weak understanding of being Armenian and of Armenian identity, so we get a lot of interest from them. For instance, they have photographs of their grandmothers that have Armenian writing on the back, but there's no one left in their families who can read it. They come to see us both because of their own journeys and because they're curious and want to understand what the writing says. This is wonderful for us, of course—in fact, it's the effect we strive to create. So really, one of our primary objectives is, rather than saying all of this is the past, to keep the current consciousness of identity and past 

How long has the website been up?

It must be since 2011. It must've been then. There were very few articles in Turkish at first. In addition to me, now there's Nazli Temir Beylerian also translating, and also Sevan Deirmendjian. It's obviously become more balanced now with more Turkish translators. Every piece of content is currently published simultaneously in three languages. Earlier articles were predominantly in Armenian and English, but now with them in Turkish as well, it's greatly opened access to people in Turkey. The website gets the most clicks from Turkey—most visits to the site come from Turkey.

On the one hand, it's not surprising in the least, but then again it really is surprising.

It is surprising. More precisely, it’s what we expected and wanted to happen. The surprising part is that it actually did happen.

Image Pilibos Kazancıyan’ın “Harput ve Köyleri” başlıklı el yazmasından sayfalar.

You mentioned it while talking about the workshop in Athens, but I'd still like to ask more about the methods in detail. There really is quite a lot of material accumulated on the site: musical recordings, recipes, personal letters, etc. I was going to ask if you hold them in a physical collection, but you said you don't, so what method to you use in practice? My first question is what method you use when people want to get something to you. How do you engage with the materials and what's the process? My second question is what kinds of materials do you usually receive from people corresponding with you from Turkey?

We also acquire materials outside the workshops and they actually come in many forms. Let me talk about the workshops first. They're gatherings—we specify the time and place in advance and announce it on our site; then we go there on the date and wait. That's it really. We've had an increase in participation over time. When we started, people were quite hesitant for the reasons I gave before—where would the materials be, would there be political materials or not, or from their own personal fears or apprehensions. I don't know. People come with whatever materials they may have—a fork, a knife, some dentelle, a tablecloth or bedspread, a wedding dress, a nightgown, socks, a ladle, a copper pot, anything. As time passes, of course, then we sometimes see digital materials like digitized film recordings, for example, films shot in the US in the '30s, '40s, and '50s.

We meet with the people who bring in items and briefly explain whom they belonged to and what it is; then one of us sits down with them for half an hour or forty minutes and collects all the information there is about it and records it. Then we take high-resolution photos of the items. If the person who brought in an item doesn't want us to keep it, then we return it to them just as they brought it in. We compile the information we've gathered and turn it into an article on a family history. We take down the contact information for those who bring in items and then share the information with them. We look to see if things have been misinterpreted—for example if there's more to the story, who was whose wife or husband or brother can get mixed up. After we've straightened that out, then we send it off to the translators. The articles are generally written in Armenian and then translated into English and Turkish. Once the translations are complete, we prepare the photo captions, which then also get translated. Then it's time to simultaneously publish the articles in the three languages.

Image Temmuz 2012’de Beyrut’taki Burç Hamud’da bulunan Ermeni Protestan Cemaatine ait Şamlıyan-Tatikyan Okulu’nda yürütülen atölye çalışmasından.

We also distinguish the people who come in by country and region headings in the digital archive. This can confuse people—for instance, when we say Argentine, we mean the meetings held in Argentina, but a family from Harput could be there. The lists include interviews, and recording centers; they expand over time and interesting things turn up. For example, by coincidence—I don't remember the specific family now—but we got a story from a family in an interview with a family in the US. It later turned out that they were distant cousins of a family in Marseille and the two families got in touch with each other. Or, for example, there's a photograph—a beautiful photograph, and old. The person who brings it in says they don't know who the people are and there's no writing on the back. We tell them that we can guess the date but there's unfortunately no information about the people. After it gets published, a visitor to the site from elsewhere in the world turns out to also have a copy of that photograph—so a relative—and they do know who the people in it are. Another visitor to the site can see it and specify who the people are and give their names. It has always been a living process.

The number of visitors from Turkey has increased along with the increase in articles in Turkish. Websites have click reports, as you know, and the most clicks on our site come from Turkey, and the rate is increasing. I see to the correspondence in Turkish, which means the emails sent Houshamadyan are forwarded to me and I answer them. I also look at comments on social media. First of all, it's wonderful that we have so many visitors from Turkey because the story we tell is actually Turkey's story. Our subheading is "a project to reconstruct Ottoman Armenian town and village life." So as for our purpose, our primary goal is to illuminate this history—which is mostly oral and has survived as people's personal memories—as well as the country's future, and to see it more clearly. Secondly, the Armenian community is very dispersed around the world. The reasons for this aren't important to me right now—it's what happened and it is what it is. So this is the point we focus on. We don't look at the past right now to say it happened because of this or that or they did this or the other thing. That's not our focus. The diasporization has very interesting implications. Armenian identity is preserved almost everywhere even if the language itself isn't. But identity definitely is preserved in one way or another. And what's more, no matter how you look at it, 7–8 million Armenians around the world have their origins stretching back four or five generations to Anatolia. These bonds and the memories related to them are getting more tenuous and will disappear eventually; they’ll just melt away. We want to recover them and reawaken people's identity and sense of belonging concerning this particular region. That's our primary objective.

We get almost no hate speech in incoming correspondence—it's almost always very positive. People show genuine interest and curiosity. Quite a lot of people doing academic research reach out to us to ask to use the articles and visual material. Our archive is a completely open source. All of the written and visual materials are open to all doing academic research and all other work barring commercial enterprise, provided that they don't remove the logos on the images and provide the source. We're open to commercial undertakings as well so long as we don't find anything in them to be too objectionable and they’re not a subject open to abuse or exploitation.

A lot of people from around the region also visit the site. For example, images of a village in Merzifon emerge from someplace, from families. There are many different kinds of information in the memory vault that is Houshamadyan, and we benefit from it all, but what makes the images interesting is that they’re family photos from personal archives. People visit the site and read about the places where relatives are from and then contact us. There are even people who visit the site, see a photograph, and then take it upon themselves to go take a photograph of the same place and send it to us. Sometimes we don't have any visual materials of a certain region, so we make an open call, again in all three languages, to visitors to our site, saying that we have no photographs of the specific region. For example, maybe a non-Armenian family in Adana has photos of the city from the '50s or the '40s; they send them to us and we use them.

And of course, although rare, there are also treasure hunters. I also correspond with them quite seriously, up to a certain point. They say they're in possession of Armenian artifacts and ask if we're buyers.

Has anything truly valuable turned up so far?

Nothing so far, but I correspond with each of them as if I were a serious buyer. I first ask for high-resolution photos from different angles so we can put them in the archive. If something significant shows up, I report it to the anti-smuggling department of the police [laughs]. Maybe someone's found a cow whistle, for example, or some bell, but there's no indication it's Armenian-made. It might have sloping curves to it and whoever found it is convinced it's Armenian. Then there are the gravestones that emerge from fields and croplands. People send photos and ask what it is. I tell them that it's a gravestone as far as I can tell and tell them to recite a prayer.

I'd also like to ask about the difficulties Houshamadyan has faced. For example, you said you don't receive very much hate speech, which is one such difficulty that comes to mind. Apart from that, have you experienced difficulties more technical or related to your workforce?

The workforce is definitely a challenge no matter how you look at it. We all basically have taken on the project, but we live in six or seven different countries. We've been working together for years, but I was only able to meet Vahé [Tachjian] in person at our workshop in Istanbul. Shogher Margossian is in Beirut and we only happened to chance across one another at a wedding in Armenia. Different countries, and different time zones—they all pose difficulties when it comes to resolving issues. George Aghjayan, for example, is in the US, and there are others in Canada, Spain, Germany, and Turkey. Sevan Deirmendjian is in Jerusalem at the moment. There’s another person in Armenia. It's nearly impossible for us to have a full team meeting. Everyone also has their own personal work. I have my translations, school, there are classes on now at the Hrant Dink Foundation. The time difference between here and the US is already huge, so yes, there are difficulties, but we manage online.

The second challenge is that it's impossible to organize workshops as often as we'd like due to everyone living in different countries. The situations in the countries we go to are also a factor. For example, we were going to hold a workshop in Istanbul recently. A statement was released about the possibility of bombings; the US Consulate released a statement, and the Hrant Dink Foundation pulled out due to that climate. Vahé was going to come, but the event was canceled three days before it was set to happen. We have no idea when it will be able to happen. Personally, I can have problems getting visas when I want to attend a workshop outside of Turkey. Germany rejected my visa application, so I couldn't attend the one in Berlin. So, yes, I'd say that us living all around the world is likely the greatest challenge.

Vahé put together a book, which was then published—it's the only one Houshamadyan has put out. People really want us to publish more. We thought that print was losing popularity and having everything be digital would be better, but that's not the reality. We have so little time for print as well, not to mention the large financing needed to create time so we could sit down and focus only on that without being preoccupied with any other work. And when it's a book, of course, copyrights change, all the correspondence needed, bureaucracy, and all that.

You said a planned workshop for Istanbul was recently canceled due to security concerns, although there had been one in the city in 2018, is that right? How was it?

It went well and attracted quite a bit of attention. It was held over three days, from Thursday to Saturday, if I remember correctly. We held a panel on Thursday and did the workshop on Friday and Saturday. Sevan [Deirmendjian] was also in Istanbul at the time. We made an announcement for it to schools, so word spread quickly. The Agos newspaper wrote about our workshops and people also came because they knew us. We collected some really great materials—I specifically remember some printing plates. Some young people had brought them in—high school students actually. In that sense it really was enjoyable. The second workshop would have been good too, but it fell victim to some suspicious circumstances and nothing came to pass in the end [laughs].

I'd like to talk about the houshamadyan books in the Armenian publishing tradition. Houshamadyan books are a genre unto themselves, right?

They are. They emerged after 1915 and the diasporization, particularly in the '30s and '40s, if I remember correctly. Armenian publishers made a call for everyone to write about their hometowns, to explain those places to future generations. I guess it's because there was still an idea of return somehow, or that’s my interpretation. Let's say that in the '30s and '40s, a man from Diyarbakır went to Marseille, then from there to New York, and then on to California. Of course, some people took this as a concern, so almost every city has books on it like this—Yozgat, Diyarbakır, Kayseri, Sivas.

Houshamadyan is a compound word made up of housh, which means memory, and madyan, which means book or register. The more common word for book is kirk, though, so the compound could have been houshakirk. What's the significance of using the word madyan in houshamadyan?

The word madyan has more of a connotation of memorial.

Does it have a more archaic meaning maybe, like inscription?

It does. It carries a bit of that meaning as well. The word madyan actually has—how should I put this—the meaning of a weighty, serious book. If you refer to a book as madyan, then you know it's not thin. You also know that it's not about a simple subject, even if you don't know what it’s about. If it’s a madyan, you know that it's the product of more arduous labor. But in essence, it means book.

The website refers to them as memorial books. I'd like to ask about the dispositions of those in the diaspora when they were writing about their villages, towns, and wider regions. According to the explanation on the website, there were those who started writing knowing that they would never be able to return, and their style is a bit heavier, pained, and mournful. Some authors idealized their homeland as a paradise on earth, more beautiful than it most likely was. What was the overall trend among houshamadyan authors, and is there a single thread that runs through the genre?

That's where it can change. Some have a more somber or tragic air about them, as you said, but some can be very different. Some are compilations. A publisher would go to an association of people from a certain place, interview the people there, and then write it all down as a collection of their recollections. Every narrator's style is different. A houshamadyan from Diyarbakır isn’t the same as one from Kayseri or from Giresun. Those can be very short, very compact. People from Giresun have included chapter headings and subsequent chapters on economic life, commercial life, foods, children's games, recreation places, and holiday practices.

I remember something interesting about Tomas Karakashian and his houshamadyan. I translated Karakashian's book for Birzamanlar Publishing, but it hasn't been published yet. The book was originally published in Cairo in 1937, and the copyright is still active. We talked to Osman Köker about where we could find Karakashian's wife, friends, relatives; whether it was possible. But how does one go about that? I translated the book and the copyright will expire after 70 years. While we were having these discussions, a dentist attended a workshop Houshamadyan held in Paris. And I later got a life story to translate. The man himself was from Turkey originally. I translated the story, and the photos for the article arrived two days later. There was a couple in one the photographs—a wedding photo. The wedding photo was of the dentist's aunt and uncle, Tomas Karakashian. I sent it off right away to Osman Köker and told him we'd found Karakashian's nephew and that we could write to him concerning the copyright. So, Houshamadyan is an environment that overlaps with my own personal work.

I still have questions about the method used to write the houshamadyans in the 1930s and '40s. For example, how was it determined who from a certain city would write it? Were the author's people who had written before? Where were they published generally?

The writers were those who picked up a pen and sat down to do it. They collected stories from people in disparate ways or, like Tomas Karakashian, they were already involved in publishing and wrote whatever they remembered. He also had images since he was a postcard editor. In one of them, you find a village coffee house conversation. He also described some of the tools he remembered and drew them as well, both of which are very valuable, describing them as something they used for digging or cutting—that kind of thing. Some of the books are as long as encyclopedias, but the information in them consists of around 10 or 15 pages. The rest is memories, recollections like so-and-so's daughter did this, went there. Some others though are thick and packed with information. This type was usually published in Beirut and Aleppo. Very few of them were published in the US and Egypt.

The fact that they're written in Armenian means that they aren't accessible to most people. The biggest impact the Houshamadyan website has had is that it produces Turkish translations. It's ridiculous to expect everyone in a whole country to learn Armenian and understand your troubles—I've been saying this for years, both in speeches I've given in Armenia and elsewhere. The thing we have to accept is that these things were shrouded and hidden from people for quite a while, so many people don't know about them. And as for those who don't know about it all, I don't know what they'll think when they do learn about it, but we do know that many people don't know about it. I was saying this 15 years ago. There are so many people who don't know. And as you can see, you can't get anything done if you ignore Turkish. On top of that, there are many Armenians in Turkey who don't know Armenian and only speak Turkish, so we would be ignoring them as well. The establishment of the Agos newspaper changed the situation for the better in that sense. Houshamadyan's inclusion of Turkish on its website—as an organization and project founded in the diaspora—was also a game-changer.

Has Houshamadyan received any negative reaction from the diaspora because of its inclusion of Turkish?

I've never talked to Vahé about it, but I don't think he's seen any negative reaction. Turkish was included on the site quite late really. When I started translating for Houshamadyan, if there were, say, 50 articles, 45 of them hadn't been translated into Turkish yet. We've reached a good level now though, as I said, now that all of our content is published simultaneously in three languages. Quite a large amount of Armenians around the world also can read Turkish.

You said at the panel held at the Hrant Dink Foundation in 2018 that Houshamadyan experienced an explosion of interest from Turkey when population and ancestry information was included on the government of Turkey's e-devlet website. I'd like to ask about your observations of that and, as you said before, that many people don't know about these things. There's no doubt that many people would still deny it all even if they did know. Yet, even for people who accept that the Armenian Genocide happened, there's a great lack of information on how extensive a presence Armenians had in Anatolia, how ancient Armenian history is there, and there's also a perception that Armenians only lived in Istanbul.

I still get asked when I came to Turkey and still get told that my Turkish is very clear. Although among the people I encounter, very few are uninformed due to the environment I'm in.

One of Houshamadyan's objectives is to break this perception and show that it's not the case. Have you seen a decrease in this perception since you joined the Houshamadyan team? Have there been moments when, apart from Armenians who wonder about their origins and seek out information on it, you've observed that wider Turkish society has begun to better understand this history?

After we put up the articles in Turkish, people from regions where there’s no longer any trace of Armenian identity sent emails and thanked us. And they still do. Some took it upon themselves to further spread the information, telling us that while they aren't actually Armenian, they know there used to be Armenians where they live and that they want to spread the knowledge. I sometimes also receive emails that I think have ulterior motives and aren't necessarily well-intentioned. For example, one says they know there was a church or something there, they want to rebuild it, and that they'll get EU funding for it and they ask for information on how to go about doing that. Or another says that there's a certain Mrs. Mari in their village who is of some relation or another to their grandfather and they ask for help searching for relatives. They may be well-intentioned, but they come across to me as having bad intentions at first because now that people know that Armenians descended from those areas still own property there, and some still have the title deeds, I'm a little oversuspicious. I mean, why are they looking for this Mari now? They give no last name or anything. Their grandfather was called the Red Priest, can we find them—that sort of thing. So we do get emails the purpose and intent of which I don't fully understand, but I respond to those as well. There's the Dzakumnapanutyun Armenian Genealogy group that has a Facebook group, and I refer these people to that. It's a group of people searching for Armenian ancestry. There are people there from our team too, and there are a lot of people who find relatives through ships' logs. For example, someone knows that their great-aunt immigrated to New York. From there, someone goes through the logs and finds which ship she disembarked at New York Harbor and where she was sent to quarantine. Houshamadyan also provides that type of encouragement.

Of course, there was an increase in this when the log records were opened—a surge really—and the click-through graph from Turkey is continually on the rise. People who learn they have Armenian ancestry write from Turkey and naturally ask for help, but the information they have is so sparse, and it isn’t our mission to begin with. As an example, someone sees in the records that their great-grandfather's name is Kirkor. No one knows what Kirkor's real last name was. But Kirkor never went by Kirkor, he went by Kâmil. Now his great-grandchild wants to learn about him and come to terms with it. One wants to recreate themselves in that culture, but we can't tell them anything; we can't offer solutions. We tell them that it likely happened this way or that way, that their great-grandfather was probably left with a family and was raised that way for his own safety according to the conditions of the time. This awakening in people later leads to other things though. Young people in particular want to study it as a subject and they shape their lives around it. I think this will have a ripple effect. A person now is at loose ends, asking how is it that they are Armenian, but in the long run, after 10–15 years, the number of people researching these issues, the number of those who publish on them, and explain and disseminate the information will increase, and I think we'll see the positive effects of it in 10–15 years.

You could say this awakening became visible with the publication of Fethiye Çetin's book, Anneannem (My Grandmother). Do people who are majority Muslim and Turkish, who find out that their grandmother or some other family member was an Armenian orphan sometimes receive any negative reactions from the Armenian community even though those people are open to accepting that identity?

They do, and not sometimes, but most of the time. Armenians are still very prejudiced when it comes to this issue. There's a common discourse that really irritates me. Some of those who enroll in Western Armenian language courses start out this way with an interest in people who have a familial connection to Armenians. They do so for this reason or another because they learn somehow through the records that a member of their family was Armenian and, in my opinion, sincerely want to take it on themselves. The Armenian language isn't a walk in the park to learn either; it requires a truly genuine effort. For these people, for instance, it can be said that everyone is Armenian, everyone has an Armenian grandfather, and that everyone has some facet of their family that's Armenian. I've recently begun to really resent such people. I asked them wasn't it them who for years had been saying among themselves that everyone in this country is Armenian anyway and if they were to accept it they would act differently. But then they do accept it and these people have such a negative reaction. Then there's silence and they change the subject.

Armenian society needs to move away from the view that intertwines itself with Christianity. Christianity is a very important part of Armenian identity, and whether or not the people themselves believe or are religious, Armenians around the world attend the church where they live and know of the functions there. They go even if they're atheists because the strongest bond to identity among the Armenian community is the church. Churches finance schools, so they're always there. It's the same in Turkey and elsewhere. All the Armenian schools in Turkey are church foundation schools. So there already is this very sticky bond, but we now have to focus on its cultural basis as opposed to the religious one; we need to think about its functionality and break away from the religious focus because there's a problem: people who find out they have Armenian ancestry then want to send their children to Armenian schools because they themselves were deprived of it. There's this great feeling of emptiness. They reach out to Houshamadyan over social media; they're distressed, they want to explain their position and they want to gain acceptance.

For instance, a researcher—a history teacher to be specific—was recently doing a study on Armenians around Şebinkarahisar. He'd been working for five years and found a book that needed to be translated. I took a look at the book—it wasn't anything that would be of any use to him, but we spoke for two or three hours as I explained to him that he'd get no benefit from it. He said that he still wanted it translated, so I told him to leave it with me—I couldn’t give him a timeline—and I'd translate it somehow despite having no time to do so and reiterated that there was nothing related to his research in it, that he shouldn't wait up for the translation, and should get on with his research. He gave me his phone number, name, and last name, and said that the loneliest Armenian is behind the writing. This is the feeling. People knew that he had Armenian roots in that town, but he was never accepted. He came to Istanbul and wanted to get in with the Armenian community, but was accepted by very few. He feels he's Armenian, but also feels very lonely. I told him I shouldn’t write like that, but he said that I should, that way I’d remember him. I said that I would remember him and repeated myself. And he said that’s the way I should write. That’s how he got his name registered with me over the phone.

In recent years we've seen people on social media attack those who want to claim their Armenian identity after they learn that a family member of theirs was Armenian. The attacks have come from both Turks and Armenians. For example, it became common in academic circles to accuse these people of trying to increase their cachet by recognizing their Armenian identity, as if it were something that bestows great privilege or as if these people were trying to increase their prestige with it.

Think of it—increasing one's cachet or prestige based on Armenian identity, and in Turkey of all places. One could try, but so what? There are many good responses to these accusations though. Is this why we're proud of the singer Cher, because she's 15 percent Armenian? Or because a tennis player is 3 percent Armenian? Then, you find yourself to be 1 percent Armenian when it suits you and use that to create some cool identity for yourself, but what about when it's the other way around? And moreover, if a person feels they’re Armenian and feels close to Armenian culture, it's not anyone else's place to say otherwise, regardless of genetics or any other link. There are Yezidis born and raised in Armenia. Are these people not Armenian? No one has to prove some genetic legitimacy.

In academic studies on minorities in Turkey, and especially those on the non-Muslim minorities, the sincerity of academics who aren’t from the people who are the subject of the research can be questioned and elicit negative reactions. As you just said, there will be more academic research in the coming 15–20 years—maybe entirely new fields of study will emerge—but I wonder if the criteria of credibility and sincerity will remain. For instance, do you think Turks would still view researchers focused on Armenians and Armenian issues with suspicion? 

It has been abused a lot, there have been studies conducted for years with malicious intent but that appear well-intentioned. The fact that studies continue, though, shows that something is going on there. That's my point of view anyway. In general, I try to help everyone who contacts me as much as I can because most people's hands are tied. We produced all material in Armenian and we hadn't taught Armenian to non-Armenians, so when people only used Western sources in their research, we get into ridiculous arguments about how there are so many Armenian sources but that they aren't taken into account at all. It was like that for 30 or 40 years, but it isn't anymore. People can do academic research now that there are Western Armenian studies in both Europe and Turkey. For example, if a sociologist is going to do research on Armenians, then they'll need to learn Armenian and naturally will do so. But then the question is where— where can they learn? To what extent can they include Armenian-language sources in their research? This is what will really change in the next 15–20 years.

I think Armenian society needs to change its perspective as well. That transformation has begun in Europe. Dr. Nazlı Temir Beyleryan has a study in this field—it hasn't been published yet, or maybe I missed it, but it's a field study on the diaspora's perception of Armenian identity. She explained her findings on Aris Nalcı's program Gamurç. One of the focuses of field studies on diaspora Armenians is how young people define Armenian identity and who they consider Armenian. Beyleryan asked the same question—could a Muslim be considered Armenian? She explained that in general respondents said it wasn't for them to question someone else's Armenian identity. The attitude has started to shift to the perspective that if people express themselves that way, then that's how it is. This shift in perspective also needs to come to Turkey.

People who gain acceptance as being Armenian in Turkey are expected to convert to Christianity. There's that underlying pressure. I don't like this at all. If a person was born and grew up in a Muslim culture and is assimilated into it, they don't have to become Christian just because their grandparents were. Those grandparents' great-great-grandparents were Zoroastrians; does that mean we should become Zoroastrians too? First of all, faith is a very private thing and, if you ask me, no one has the right to pry into it so much. People also shut down the topic, saying that there are so few students at our schools, our troubles are great, and the schools will close. I work at Kalfayan and there are only three or four students in each grade, so it is that bad. But by closing the door on it, you undermine your own future; otherwise, it’s like opening a vein.

While Houshamadyan's mission is to reconstruct, record, and promote Ottoman Armenian life, it doesn't directly deal with the genocide and what happened in 1915, is that so?

That's true, and it's because it's a discourse that would hamper our progress. It's open to manipulation, it becomes a target for hate speech, and it's a topic approached with direct prejudice without even a glance regardless of what you say. You then become unable to explain the points you want to make or your intent if the title focuses on this. We don't have these concerns though, since we're not trying to prove or disprove anything. In my writing, I don't say someone survived the disaster or the calamity, I say they survived the Armenian Genocide. So in this sense, it's not a subject open to debate for us. But it's also not my intent to put across the message that it is necessary to call it the Armenian Genocide.

A question that a lot of people have for example would be, if there had been that many Armenians in Giresun in 1912, then what? They look at a postcard that was printed there—Giresun just came to mind—there should be a huge cathedral there below Giresun Castle, and next to it the mausoleum of the beloved mayor Yorgo Pasha. That area now is just empty. So if there's a postcard, photograph, or other visual material in one of our articles by happenstance, someone who reads it doesn't need to have anything to do with the subject. For example, it could be a history student who lives there and so takes a look. People have that question in mind, and then they ask if that was the case and then begin to question. This is something that will overshadow the denial in the long run. For instance, I'm publishing an Ottoman census—nothing more than that; just publishing the Ottoman document. The Ottomans conducted a census in 1910 that says there were 12,000 Armenians and 5,000 Muslims in Zara, Sivas. If you look at the first year after the founding of the Republic of Turkey, the Armenian population dropped to 1,000. Mindful people see this and logically ask what happened to the other 11,000.

There’s a discourse that the Ottoman Empire had a very primitive society in its final years. Houshamadyan contradicts those who produce this discourse because the Armenian components thought of themselves as Ottoman components at the time, so the fact that such a highly educated group existed within the Ottoman Empire shows that Ottoman society was not necessarily underdeveloped and backward. There were instances when the Balyans' machinery received patents from the Manchester fairs, and there was the time silk produced in Trabzon received first prize at the Manchester Textile Fair. These were both in the early 1900s, all before 1915. It wasn't such a backward society, really—the Ottoman Empire wasn't that dilapidated and behind the times.

When I was thinking about talking about Houshamadyan, I had in mind what Marc Nichanian mentions in his book, The Historiographic Perversion. What he terms "genocidal will" is based on the destruction of all witnesses to violence and them being deprived of being able to tell their stories. He says that survivor testimonies are also documented evidence available to historians that show the genocide did, in fact, take place, but that this way of seeing it submits to genocidal will, and he suggests that's it's necessary to do away with this perspective. Nichanian says how incredibly destructive it can be for people who put themselves forward as evidence of their existence and who strive to prove that they experienced violence and reveal what they were made to live through. Houshamadyan also holds this idea that people don't continuously need to prove themselves to history, doesn’t it?

We do, and it's relieving, because it’s exhausting for one’s mental health to always have to provide evidence. It's something that always gets a reaction and something that you always have to push back against. We're not pushing against anything here. Most of the articles on the site are academic anyway. They explain folkloric frameworks and schools. For example, which schools there were, which one someone went to, how many students there were, things like that—educational life. We cover everything from folk healers' remedies to superstitions and old wives' tales. Or, for instance, how holidays were celebrated. What we're telling is purely how people lived and what was happening in one region or another. There's no worry about covering anything up or refusing to talk about a subject. If something in the Open Digital Archive calls it the 1915 Armenian Genocide, then that's how we write it. Now, we don't personally refer to it as deportations, but if the author does, then that's how I translate it; if they call it genocide, then I translate it that way. It's the same in all the versions—Armenian, Turkish, and English. We don't censor anything. The only thing is if there's something in an article's language that's more harsh or aggressive—something that goes against our mission—we would ask the author to change it. Our authors understand us though, and we haven't come across such a thing. That’s why people in Turkey can read the content without being disturbed. People can read without coming across accusations saying something like, "You conducted a genocide, and look, you killed me." People can read without feeling guilt or responsibility for the past. They don't have to stress about what if they had a grandfather who took part and what will be criticized of them personally now. I think that's why there are so many readers and why we receive so little hate speech.

It's not our mission to produce a narrative of evidence—there are many institutions and people who’ve been doing that and adding to it for years. But, for example, so few of the printed houshamadyans remain, and those that do are in libraries. They need to be compiled and summarized with a contemporary eye in a way that people can read quickly without taking days or weeks to do so. Armenians don't sit down and read them all. When would I have time to read a 1,000-page houshamadyan on Diyarbakır?

For example, Hagop (Siruni) Djololian's book, Polis ew ir Deré (Constantinople and its Role), is I don't know how many volumes—seven maybe, or around that. I ask everyone I know who goes to Beirut to get me a volume, but I still haven't been able to get them all. When will I read them all though? My father is from Yozgat. I had someone bring me the houshamadyan about there—it's as big as an encyclopedia. When exactly am I going to read it? And where will I find what I'm looking for among all the scattered narration? Some things I find easily, but others not so much. We include all of them though. It happens often that someone sees a book among our sources and asks about it. We tell them that we wrote about it here and that it’s in Armenian. Then they say that they're working on that area and ask us to translate it. I tell them it’s just not possible. They say they can pay for it, but I have to tell them that I just don't have any time for it. I would love to, but I can't. It's not about money.

We want to open the way for people working in this field. We know it's not easy to use every resource held at every university—people need to make arrangements for certain things according to their own institutions. In this sense, Houshamadyan has reached a certain level of reliability in Turkey, among Armenians, and in the West. Because of that, when people cite Houshamadyan as a source, it eliminates some of the prejudices that could come their way. They recognize that it's from Houshamadyan and so maybe give a little support. I think we make things a bit easier for people in this sense.

You said earlier that you use the printed houshamadyans as sources, but to what level is the structural connection between them and the website? Is there any significant compilation being done of these sources?

We have academic writers who look, and if there's a houshamadyan on the region they're writing on, they take the information pertinent to the topic of the article they have in mind, but they don't compile complete books or summarize them into an article. There are also a lot of other materials on the side. When talking about a region, there may be a houshamadyan on it, but it's not the only source, it's only one reference for an article.

You could say that these houshamadyans are too antiquated and unwieldy for most. The times have changed too; it's digital now. So there's also that, and it's difficult to get them. Someone will have it, you have them make a PDF of it, and they send it to you. The dynamic and mobilized character of the Houshamadyan website is a wonderful thing. Imagine you're working; you can take your computer with you when you go on vacation, but you wouldn't be able to bring four books the size of encyclopedia volumes.

Considering what's come to pass since the establishment of Aras Publishing and the Agos newspaper in the '90s, what kind of transformation do you think the translations into Turkish of Armenian writers' works have created in society in Turkey? As we discussed earlier, Armenians' ancient culture is sometimes unknown in Turkey, even to those who are well-intentioned and accept that the genocide happened. Now they can read the writings of a writer who was born and raised in that land that describes what happened. How do you think the Armenian publishing tradition, which has persevered to this day, has been an impetus for the process of confronting the past in Turkey and what kind of space has it opened? The garden also starts to bloom, so to speak, with the Islamized Armenians you optimistically mentioned earlier and their realizing of their Armenian identity and starting to work on it. Considering these two things together, how far has Turkey come in confronting its past in the last 30 years and how do you foresee it moving forward?

The establishment of Aras and Agos one after the other was something that should have happened and was something that primarily the Armenian community needed apart from the larger society. This is because the use of Armenian in daily life—outside of schools—is nearly nonexistent. Very few people use it and we have to accept that. And as long as there wasn't any production in Turkish, that link to Armenian identity was at risk in the country. Aras received negative reactions due to its decision to publish in Turkish—Agos got the same as well in the beginning. But then as the link to Armenian identity strengthened, which actually happened through the use of Turkish, Aras, and Agos made great contributions to the Armenian language. In that sense, I attach great importance to both of them and it shows how appropriate and astute a decision it was for Houshamadyan to publish in Armenian, Turkish, and English.

As I said at the beginning, we produce a huge amount of Armenian-language material. Then, waiting for this group or society to learn Armenian, read the material, and appreciate it is a dream now. This is the importance of translation for me, and it's the mission I've set for myself. My thinking is that I need to open the path for people and help them along the way. I attach great importance to translation from Armenian in that sense because it has to be done correctly and, unfortunately, there are way too many erroneous translations full of mistakes. This undermines the discourse, so we need to be careful about it.

Aras's decision to publish in Turkish was criticized initially. And it was Armenians who were doing it. It received a very good response from Turkish readers though. Aras was founded in 1993, and I worked there from 1997 to 2002, so I saw the positive response. Mıgırdiç Margosyan had already created a mass readership very quickly due to his language use and what we could call his warm personality from Diyarbakır. He would get a visitor almost every day when I was working there. People who came to Istanbul from Diyarbakır would come without a second thought as if they somehow knew him really well. He would chat with them all as if they were old friends. It was enough for them that he was from Diyarbakır. They'd chat and then he'd send them on their way. Margosyan was like a locomotive. His novel, Gâvur Mahallesi (The Neighborhood of Infidels) received a lot of positive responses because he told the story in such a beautiful way without hurting anyone, without lowering the guillotine, and without casting dark shadows, but also without denying anything. He also had a close bond with the Kurdish community there and didn't write anything for them to take offense, so it was particularly good for Kurdish readers. I think they felt they were accounted for and included. The novel contains Kurdish, incidents involving Kurds are mentioned openly, and there aren't any accusations, overdramatization, or abuse. Aras later attracted the attention of readers of good literature as its translations increased, particularly with Zaven Biberyan. People who read Margosyan are also into good literature, of course, but Aras attracted the attention of readers and literary critics more interested in style, artistic currents, and form rather than subject.

Image Aras Yayıncılık tarafından hazırlanan Memleket Edebiyatı seti: Güvercinim Harput’ta Kaldı, Söyle Margos Nerelisen, Seferberlik Türküleriyle Büyüdüm, Kapandı Kirve Kapıları, Aşiq û Maşûq

Aras maintained a connection with the general public, with the wider society not concerned with academic research, because it translated wonderful examples of Armenian literature—provincial literature—Hagop Mıntzuri and Hamasdeğ. The provincial literature by these authors was already the literature of the people, so it's no different in Turkish; it tells the stories of ordinary people. Since Turkey was unfortunately unable to bring about a major change in the villages in Anatolia after the founding of the republic, and the same thing happened to the village Hamasdeğ describes in the late 1890s, people naturally saw their own villages in the books. This brought people closer to Aras, and the closer they became, the more they got to know Armenians and modernity. People would get to know Margosyan and then make the connection that he was also writing a column for Agos, so they would get to know Agos. He’s had a long-term impact as well.

We're waiting for acceptance, and for acceptance, there needs to be understanding; people need to know of it because there have been concerted efforts to wipe it all clean. Places where there should be buildings and things like that are all empty—entire villages, cemeteries. A quintessential example would be Boğazlıyan—my father's hometown. He was born in Boğazlıyan, Yozgat in 1944 and came to Istanbul in '47 or '48. His mother stayed in Boğazlıyan and died, after which his father remarried. I went there in 2007 and there was nothing of what my father had told me. There was no cemetery. Where was my grandmother’s grave? Armenians had been erased from the town's history, which you can see because the strongest evidence for their presence there would have been the cemetery. If there's a cemetery, then that's evidence of them having lived there. Maybe it's an oxymoron, but death is evidence of life in a place.

There's this concept of erasing a people from a town or city. I was born and raised in the İcadiye neighborhood of Üsküdar. The Nersesyan Yermonyan Armenian Elementary School was there. My mother graduated from it, I graduated from it—it was our neighborhood school. We lived right across from it. When my childhood friends from the neighborhood would describe where some place was, they would say that it's just down from Nersesyan—even those who lived further away would say something like it's just around the corner from the Armenian school. Nersesyan was closed with the introduction of the law stipulating eight years of uninterrupted education because the building couldn't physically hold eight different grades. The building itself remained vacant for years afterward. About six or seven years ago I was on my way to my mother's house and saw the silhouette of a person inside the building. I shouted at them to leave immediately, that it's private property, and I was going to call the police. Then 14 kids came out and ran out of the grounds. They were neighborhood kids. But if someone had killed someone and buried them there, no one would’ve known. The caretaker would go there once a month to look after it. Since it was affiliated with the church in Kuzguncuk, I called the ecclesiarch and told him to put up signs that said private property, no trespassing, or else he could find himself in trouble. The man came to the school and saw that the windows had been broken, fire extinguishers set off, the roof was caving in, the place was filled with pigeons and infested with fleas. We called my mother since she was still right there across the street. She'd also been a teacher there. We decided to call the municipality to get the building cleaned.

The Üsküdar Municipality sent a team to clean the building and said they wanted to rent it. They completely renovated the building. Before that, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had denied all applications to do so. Many things were suggested for what to do with it—a kindergarten for Armenian children, for ZİBEÇ (Helping Hand for Children with Mental and Physical Disabilities) to move there, have it be a neighborhood study center or children's library, open up the grounds to the public. We told the municipality that the ministry isn't willing to let anyone do anything with it. The municipality said that they'd rent it anyway and they did. Three days later they came and put up a sign that read: “Ensar Foundation Girls' Dormitory.” They'd donated the building to the Ensar Foundation. A dormitory for female university students is very nice, but now when children in the neighborhood give directions, they say it's behind the Ensar Foundation, not Nersesyan or the Armenian school. I always say that no school should be shut down, even if there are only five students left. Closing a school erases its existence in the neighborhood. If no one writes about it and explains it, how can we explain to children born and raised there 20 years later that İcadiye is a very old Armenian neighborhood? All of the street names were already changed—for example, Sıvacı Garabed Street became Sıvacı Ferhat Street. İcadiye is an Armenian neighborhood though, all the way down to its street names, and even most of that has already been squeezed out. You get erased from the city. Keeping the memory alive is the only way to prevent this from happening.

Thursday, April 19, 2023