BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
The ANCA Grassroots Conference last weekend was very interesting in multiple ways. I “re-met” people I hadn’t seen in a long time. I bought books. I noticed the far younger crowd in attendance than at the first of these events (held four years ago). I am still considering Eric Boghosian’s comments regarding some of the worrisome turns-of-a-phrase in his book about Operation Nemesis. Naturally, I did some learning from the panels, all of which were filled with speakers who could hold your attention (which is not always the case, as I’m sure you know). But most of all, I was held rapt by the discussion of crypto-Armenians in Turkey, the topic covered by the first panel.
As usual, the presenters, whose articles I also read consistently, brought tears to my eyes. I have yet to figure out exactly why this issue moves me so much. But one particular item has become extremely important in my mind. A short timeago, and effectively by accident, a scandal struck Turkey. When a parent wanted to register a child in an Armenian school, initially, the request was denied because in Turkey, only minority children are allowed to attend minority schools. But then, the decision changed. A bit of probing revealed that the Turkish government tracks the original nationality of it citizens (though this term may be giving too much credit for the standing of people in Turkey). It turns out that if you were a Greek, for instance, and forcibly converted to Islam a century ago, your progeny is still marked as Greek, with the number 1; Armenians— 2, Jews— 3, Syriacs— 4, and other non-Muslims— 5.
This brings up a host of questions. Some answers are already being posited. For instance this “ancestry coding” may explain why minorities never got far in the Turkish military or public service sector in general, if they got to serve at all. But for me, the most interesting thing to learn is how far back this coding goes. Is it only a feature of Ataturk’s chauvinist “republic”? Does it extend to Ottoman times?
Either way, this despicable system might contain a kernel of something Turkey can do to just barely begin to atone for its countless crimes against humanity. Release the ancestry code records, all of them, unedited, raw. Let people learn the truth about themselves. Let Armenians have the opportunity to reconnect with lost relatives. The beauty of this for Turkey is that it can take a step in the right direction for its own society, for Armenians and other minorities, and for its standing in the world, without having to fess-up to the Genocide.
There is a VERY fresh precedent for this type of act. Ankara arranged for the current “owner” of Camp Armen to return the property to its rightful owner, the Protestant Armenian community. This action was completed just days ago. But it came with strings attached. The “owner” is claiming the property will revert to him if the property is not used for orphans and that Armenians must drop all formal, legal, proceedings against the government that are already under way to regain the property. Ankara doesn’t want to set a legal, procedural, precedent for the restoration of property to rightful owners. That would open the floodgates for Armenians’ and others’ claims. Releasing the ancestry codes would be a similar, half-baked, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, action. It would be much like everything else Turkey is living through as its society and government grapple with becoming truly civilized.
Another interesting discussion I had that emerged from the same panel. An African acquaintance attended the conference. He noted that the Black community in the U.S. has issues reminiscent of what the crypto-Armenians face, who hide their true identity to avoid discrimination and persecution. In the U.S., being “passable” (as “white”) is something that is used to avoid discrimination and persecution. The commonality of issues is heartening, since it allows for the building of bridges and cooperation.
What say ye? Isn’t it time to target and demand specific, albeit tiny, steps from the government of Turkey that will ever-so-slowly lead to full restitution? How does “Announce Our Ancestry” sound as a slogan?