Realising the Turkish tapestry

IT SEEMS THAT IN some circles at least there is increasing acknowledgement of cultural diversity within Turkish society and state. In the last week, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arınç, has restated the government’s commitment to uphold the rights of minorities, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Foreign Minister, has visited Turkey’s non-Muslim leaders.

Such moves will perhaps go some way to reversing the earlier status quo, where Turkey was regarded solely as the domain of Turks, thus shutting out a range of groups – Kurds, Laz, Yezidis, Armenians, Anatolian Greeks, Syriacs – that have for centuries been resident within the bounds of what is now Turkey. Such moves would have been unthinkable not that long ago in Turkey.

There was a time when the very existence of minorities was denied, and the thought of extending rights to any (non-existent) minorities was considered an outrage. I recall reading, during my time living in İzmir in 1994-5, of a politician declaring that the speaking of Kurdish could never be countenanced in the Turkish republic because “that’s separatism”; meanwhile Christopher de Bellaigue in his thought-provoking Rebel Land recounts meeting an army officer who bluntly asserted that there were no such things as minorities in Turkey.

These were the officially sanctioned positions of Turkish nationalists who aimed to stamp out any expression or manifestation of otherness in an effort to reinforce the unsullied, incorruptible, all-encompassing “Turkishness” of Turkey. These were measures aimed at defending Turkey against fragmentation, a result of a mindset that harks back to the twilight of the Ottoman era when Greece and the various Balkan states peeled away to become separate states.

Whether there was ever any likelihood of other states arising out of formerly Ottoman/currently Turkish territory is a moot point, but to my mind, allowing minorities to express themselves within the national framework is a sign that a nation state is vigorous. A robust and open nation should not see ethnic groups other than the dominant one expressing or celebrating their identity as a threat. Diversity within a nation need not automatically lead to fragmentation, indeed it may be seen as an indication of the nation’s strength.

All that aside, there now appears to be a shift from earlier stubbornly held nationalist positions. TRT, the Turkish government broadcasting service, now hosts a Kurdish-language channel; in 2010 officially sanctioned church services were allowed in the Greek Orthodox Sumela Monastery near Trabzon, at the Armenian Cathedral on Akdamar Island in Lake Van and in the Syriac churches near Mardin for the first time in decades.  Even the military, long a bastion of unbending mono-ethnic nationalism, appears to be softening its position, with Chief of General Staff, General İlker Başbuğ, in 2009, talking of “Turkiye halkı” (the people of Turkey), rather than “Turk halkı” (Turkish people).

An exhibition currently running in İstanbul brings to light a wealth of photos that illustrate some of that multi-ethnic fabric. Entitled “Cultural Diversity in old Diyarbakır”, the exhibition was curated by the most admirable Bir Zamanlar (Once Upon a Time) publishing house, who in recent years have published a range of books detailing Turkey’s multicultural history and legacy. The photos document the family lives and civic contributions of Diyarbakır’s non-Muslim communities in the early years of the 20th century.

You can read more about the exhibition here, and can click through to some of the images. It is a melancholy irony that with their fezzes and dark brows the Armenians and others captured in the photographs are nigh-on indistinguishable from Turks (or indeed of French dandies at the time when you see some of the twirled and waxed moustachios on exhibition). This somehow makes the internecine massacres of the 1910s, where horrors were visited on various populations of Anatolia, all the more poignant – and pointless.

There is still a tiny Armenian community in Diyarbakır, or at least there still was when I visited in 1992. I was led by local youths through the back streets to meet someone they called “Father Joseph”, a wizened man, with a moustache and a key to a church. In a dark corridor he opened a heavy iron door and revealed an ill-lit, rather sombre chamber. It was down at heel and neglected but somehow pulsating with spirituality; it was apparent that those who attended the church – the few remaining Armenians – drew incredible strength from their faith.

Finding an Armenian church here was a revelation to me, as indeed had been a visit some weeks earlier to Nemrut Dağı. Passing through several mountain villages en route to see the monumental stone heads the bus driver had gestured at local people and casually remarked, “Kurdish”. In fact, it was Kurdish youths who led the way to “Father Joseph” and to other churches in Diyarbakır.

It was these experiences that illuminated Turkey for me, making it not just another country, but somewhere with richness and depth, somewhere with so much to be discovered. It’s easy to say as an outside observer, but for me part of the appeal of Turkey is that it is *not* solely Turkish. The very fact that a diversity of peoples have contributed to the fabric of modern Turkey makes it all the more fascinating.

And it makes the country pertinent to or relevant to – indeed part of the family histories of – many peoples other than just the Turks. In 2008, en route to Iran, I visited the Armenian cathedral at Akdamar in Lake Van. I was the sole “Westerner” there; I was surrounded by a crowd of visitors from Iran. I can’t help but wonder if some of them were Armenians resident in Iran who were coming to investigate their own history. (Tellingly, amongst them were several families of Iranian Azeris, too.)

Whether the Armenians I met in 1992 still remain in Diyarbakır I don’t know, but the very fact that politicians, an exhibition and a publishing house can call to the attention of modern Turks an aspect of a previously overlooked, forgotten, repudiated or denied intercommunal history has to be a good thing.

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