I had the pleasure of feeling this breeze across my face a week ago when attending a small gathering to meet and interact with Sayat Tekir.
Sayat is one of the half dozen founders of “Nor Zartonk” (new renaissance/rebirth) in Bolis. This small group started as an e-mail discussion group in 2004. For the most part, they had kept a low profile over the last dozen years, letting others be visible as organizers, so Turkish society wouldn’t be able to contend “there they are, the Armenians, they’re at it again” when Nor Zartonk organized activities.
And organize they did. From working with other minority and repressed/oppressed groups (Kurds, Alevis, LGBT, women, etc.) to self-education (they have established a library of Armenian materials), to publishing material in 15 languages and dialects, to participating in other (not necessarily Armenian-related) actions – e.g. Gezi Park… you get the idea.
This low-key approach may be why the breeze took so long to cross the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and reach North America’s Pacific Coast. But it arrived in Los Angeles. On this trip, Sayat will be in New York, Detroit, and Boston as well. In LA and NY, he will speak at events organized by the AYF, in Detroit Nor Zartonk’s work will be recognized at the ANCA-ER banquet, and NAASR will host him in Boston.
This is a very important development. What Armenians are able to do in Turkey today relative to the turn of the century still boggles my mind. But, it takes someone to actually do it, because it is still risky to demand one’s rights in Turkey, especially if the demander is a member of a minority community, and even more so if it is an Armenian or Kurd. There are plenty of fresh graves attesting to this. But this is where Sayat’s framing of the situation was very telling.
His, Nor Zartonk’s, and presumably many others’ position, is that as citizens of Turkey, they are entitled to certain rights, and they WILL take hold of those rights. This notion is what seems to me to underlie the tremendous emphasis on democratization in Turkey. It explains the relative ease with which diverse groups with sometimes competing interests are cooperating. The idea seems to be that without properly functioning democratic, civic, societal systems, everyone in Turkey will be forever subject to the traditional abuse heaped by its governments, Ottoman and Ataturk-Republican, on citizens.
This explains the success of the Camp Armen movement. You’ll recall that this property was established over half a century ago by one of the Protestant Armenian churches where ‘second generation Genocide” orphans were gathered from Turkey’s “interior,” given an education and reconnected to their Armenian roots. It was subsequently illegally confiscated by Turkish authorities and sat unused for a third of a century. Just two weeks ago, it was returned to our community. Sayat specifically stated that without the support of the people of Tuzla, where Camp Armen is located, their sit-in at the partially demolished facility could not have lasted 175 days and achieved the restoration of the camp to its rightful owners. It’s a testament to the bridges Nor Zartonk has built. It’s a testament to the progress being made in Turkey. It’s a testament to the commitment of many right-minded people to do the right thing.
Of course not everything is rosy. With the outcome of the November 1 election in Turkey, there’s no telling what internal-policy-path wanna-be sultan Erdoğan will pursue in Turkey. The liberalization that had been progressing has reversed over the course of the past year or so. Regardless, it seems to me that Nor Zartonk will continue the struggle, and it is past time that we in the rest of the Diaspora start supporting those efforts more strongly.
It was painful to hear Sayat describe a feeling of isolation because they heard very little from us throughout the whole Camp Armen affair. It was particularly poignant to me since I had made contact with him a little over a year ago, then dropped the ball.
Let’s not forget that Bolis is something of an Armenian “capital” too, much like Tiflis. We helped build that city. Remember, a third of the Byzantine emperors were Armenians. Huge tracts of property (some four hundred of them) in that city belong to the Armenian community’s various institutions and must be regained. It is a place that is very visible to the world’s eyes. It is where a lot of crypto-Armenians are emerging from the shadows either by just making contact with other Armenians, seeking baptism by the Patriarchate, or approaching Nor Zartonk looking for relatives.
We have a lot of economic-political-social balls to juggle, and it may seem unwise to add another, but NOT working on issues in Bolis is EVEN MORE unwise. Let’s all get engaged in this aspect of our struggle, too.