In front of my butcher’s shop the other day, I bumped into an old Armenian friend. I hadn’t seen him for several years. “Don’t you want to buy my apartment?” was the first thing he asked me.
I laughed. “As long as I know you, you have been asking me that question, but you never really sell,” I said. Secretly I suspect his true pleasure in this matter is quoting the price for the property – not surprisingly, since booming Istanbul has multiplied it by factor of five in the past decade. He saw my cynical look.
“This time I’m serious,” he replied with a grave voice. “Turkey is becoming uglier and uglier. I don’t want to live here any more.”
That too, I’ve heard him say before.
“I’ve put my children through school. They’re both in America now. I’ve got no reason to stay,” he added.
It did sound as if he was serious, after all.
“You’ll get homesick,” I tried.
He threw back his head to say no. “What was difficult for me was to leave Malatya. That’s where my roots are. I’ve never felt at home in Istanbul.”
He had lived until 1983 in that old, once predominantly Armenian town in the east. So he was there when a bomb in 1978 set off a series of violent riots, which resulted in the death of hundreds or, according to some, thousands of Alevis, members of a heterodox branch of Islam with strong Christian influences.
“Oh, yes,” he nodded, “that was the implementation of the secret program to get us all out.” Having delved deeply in this topic for my book De Gouden Appel (The Golden Apple, Turkey between East and West, 2002) I assumed he was referring to the once secret report drawn up by the Ninth Party Bureau of the Republican People’s Party, CHP, which held a monopoly on political power until the first multi-party elections after the Second World War. In the 1930s, this bureau, which was responsible for non-Muslim minorities, devised a strategy to ethnically cleanse Turkey.
“The head of police was my father’s friend,” my acquaintance continued. “Long before those riots, he often warned my Dad not to send us children to school on certain days, or not to go to a particular part of town. He was our friend, you see, but even he was part of it. He was trying to frighten us, to make us leave.”
A friend he must have been, for this was the most benign form of intimidation. As part of the strategy first the economic power of the non-Muslims (i.e. mostly Christians) had to be broken. The infamous Wealth Tax, and remote labour camps for non-payers, achieved this during the Second World War. Next, all Christians who had remained in Anatolia after the big clean-out in the beginning of the 20th Century (the Armenian massacres, and the population exchange of Greek Orthodox Christians for the Muslims of modern Greece, most of them ethnic Turks) had to be moved to Istanbul. When the report was written, 1,1% of Turkey’s 16,5 million inhabitants was Greek, and they resided mainly in Istanbul, and 0.9% were Armenian, who lived mostly in other towns. The plan’s ultimate goal was to get rid of the Christians (and Jews to a lesser extent) altogether. The so-called deep state quietly upheld this policy under all subsequent governments, be they right-wing or left-wing, conservative or liberal.
Pogroms in Istanbul (1955) and government measures (1964) panicked the Greeks into leaving. Today there are only a couple of thousand still here. The state has slowly and quietly appropriated much of their property. To be fair, the AKP government has at last returned an old Greek orphanage on the Princes Islands near Istanbul, one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, but as recently as December 2009, the same AKP administration opened its Secretariat for EU Affairs in an old, confiscated Greek school along the Bosporus. This month it was announced that for the first time in the history of the republic a Turkish citizen of Armenian descent will be allowed to work for the state in this very Secretariat, provided he passes scrutiny by the secret service, MIT.
Hopefully MIT will not block his appointment, and his example will open the way for many more civil servants of Armenian descent. Even if most of the remaining 70,000 or so Armenians were indeed displaced by the plan, they have been reluctant to emigrate from Istanbul. When they (and Greeks, Jews and any others carrying Republic of Turkey identity papers) are recognised as full citizens with equal rights as the Muslim citizens, Turkey can finally let go of the pain of the loss of empire and move forward, instead of remaining hobbled by a now very out-of-date view of its own history.
As long as I have lived here, more than two decades, government officials have spoken flowery words of tolerance and diversity. For many years these have just been words, as empty as all the abandoned churches, schools and synagogues that testify of a once thriving multiculturalism, now on the brink of extinction. Please, Turkey, open a new page. There is no more need to be afraid of people who are slightly different. Nobody is threatening you anymore. The First World War, and Europe’s imperialistic mindset that led to it, is really, really over.
The painful past is being discussed more openly. That’s good. Unfortunately the outdated, sickly suspicion of ‘strangers’ is still being kept alive. How else can a young man with his life ahead of him, feel so much hatred that in 2007 he could shoot the most prominent Armenian, newspaper editor Hrant Dink (born in Malatya), in the heart of Istanbul. What else to think of the fact that this hitman was slapped on the back in front of a camera by the policemen who had to arrest him? That they all posed together with the Turkish flag? And that the trial against Dinks assassins has got nowhere in four years? Or, that the trial against the slaughterers of three Christians in Malatya, that same year, is riddled with insinuations of state involvement, and that also there, justice has not moved an inch?
The next session in Dink’s trial is March 28, the one in Malatya April 29. Wouldn’t it be great if the judges suddenly surprised us all? What if Turkey showed the narrow-minded xenophobes among the French, the Germans, and in my own country, Holland, that it is truly embracing tolerance? I wish Turkey would shame them by setting the good example.
I sincerely hope I will bump into my Armenian friend again in a few years’ time, but that he will no longer ask me whether I want to buy his apartment, because he will want to stay. I know I’m not alone. Many of my Turkish friends yearn for their old Christian neighbours, and the colour they added to life. Already years ago, poet Cahit Irgat (1915-71) wrote:
They have swept away your shadow from the streets
They have flung the evening after you like mud
And the city is dizzy with longing.
The old colours have faded, but Turkey can still make sure its richness lie not only in its past.