BY DORIS K. MELKONIAN
Passing through the security gates of the historic Bogazici University, the former Robert College, I was struck by the beauty and serenity of the campus as we meandered through a drive paralleling the breathtaking Bosphorus on the right. The contrast of the bustling touristic Sultanahmet and Taksim districts to the tranquil campus was undeniable. While absorbing the beauty of my surroundings, I was reminded of my friend, Steve, a native of Istanbul, who described his student days here at the university with such passion. His love for this institution was evident in his voice as he instructed me to walk by the Bosphorus and “breathe in the air” for him. As I was following his explicit instructions, I was sadly reminded of other young Armenian men who attended this institution a century ago with hopes and dreams for a brighter future. Unlike my friend, Steve, their goals and dreams were never to be realized as the Genocide robbed them of a golden future. Their stories flooding my mind, created an inner conflict as I was forced to reconcile this dark past with the present-day beauty of magnificent stone buildings of Bogazici University.
A range of emotions colliding within me, I made my way through a courtyard teeming with Armenian and non-Armenian attendees, to encounter yet additional security checks and a metal detector, prior to entering Albert Long Hall where the conference was to take place. The hall, with remnants of years gone by, showcased a massive pipe organ that dominated one end and a choir loft, the other end.
The audience, exceeding 500, had assembled into this majestic hall. As I gazed at the sea of attendees, I was struck by how different the audience looked compared to United States audiences. What was immediately noticeable were women, young and middle-aged, with head coverings, quietly seated, listening attentively.
As speaker after speaker provided historical accounts, analyses, vignettes, and narratives of ordeals endured by survivors both during and after the Genocide, a sense of sorrow permeated the proceedings for me. My heart ached not only for the loss of precious Armenian lives during the Genocide but for the tragic fate endured by the fragment of the Armenian population who had been left behind.
In the diaspora, we mourn the 1.5 million who perished during the Genocide. We seldom remember the remnants of the Armenian community who couldn’t leave and were forced to assimilate. They experienced a different kind of death – a living death, suffering in silence and isolation. While presenting my paper, I remembered my maternal grandfather, Natan, who was taken into a Muslim household as a little boy. Had he not escaped, he would have suffered the same fate as many Islamized Armenians.
The conference concluded with grandchildren of Islamized Armenians describing the sting of rejection by the Armenian community, and their longing for acceptance. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I listened to their pain. Their grief and suffering, palpable with each uttered word, deeply resonated within me. My heart ached for these individuals who don’t belong to either community – Turkish Muslim nor Armenian Christian. I couldn’t help but grieve with them, as feelings of empathy for their suffering found root within me.
As Armenians – Christian Armenians, how should we respond? When an Islamized Armenian, in the halls of a Turkish university, publically exclaims “I am Armenian!”, what should our response be? Do we accept them into our midst, thus creating a mosaic of Armenians? As Christians, do we embrace them with the love of Christ? Or do we reject and abandon them?
At the conclusion of this historic conference, I left the tranquil campus consumed with inner turmoil, a different kind of turmoil from what I experienced initially, as I contemplated the challenges we will face as a community as we respond to this group of hybrid individuals. Today, on the eve of the Genocide centennial, the surfacing of Islamized Armenians is a reminder of the trauma that has impacted us, of the tremendous loss that we as a nation have endured, and of the challenges that lie before us.
I went to Istanbul with great anticipation to present my paper, to meet fellow scholars from around the world, to reunite with friends and make new ones.
However, I did not expect to be forced to confront my own uneasiness at the notion of a “Muslim Armenian.”
I did not expect to find myself mourning the pain of fellow human beings, fellow Armenians.
I did not expect to be moved so deeply, to find myself reaching out and hugging strangers who didn’t share my language, my religion, my culture, but who nonetheless considered themselves Armenians.
Having encountered Islamized Armenians and their stories, how can my response be anything other than compassion, acceptance, and love?