Reaching Out to The Other Side: an Armenian in Turkey

Author: Christina Soloyan, Davit Avetisyan


“How do you cook rice?”

When her Turkish neighbour in Istanbul asked this seemingly odd question Armenian Varduhi Balyan was not surprised. 

“I told her that Armenians cook it the same way Turks do.“ [Most Turks] don’t imagine that our cultures are so similar, as where else they have seen an Armenian? It doesn’t mean [she] had prejudices; she just didn’t know anything at all and was curious how we cook.”

Many Armenians do not even travel to neighbouring Turkey for a vacation, let alone move there – either out of fear or a long nurtured anger for the 1915 mass killings of an estimated one and half million Armenians which are widely recognised as genocide. While Turkey admits atrocities took place in the turmoil of WWI, it adamantly denies a systematic attempt to wipe out the Christian Armenians.

In both countries nationalist discourses isolate people from each other and perpetuate constructed images of implacable enmity. The alienation is augmented by the lack of diplomatic relations - in 1993 Turkey cut relations and sided with Azerbaijan during the war with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The border between the two neighbouring countries has been sealed ever since.

Today Armenians in Turkey tend to be either families who have living there for generations -- the bolsahays who do not consider themselves part of the diaspora as Turkey is their homeland, or people who are temporarily in the country for trade.

Balyan landed in Istanbul in 2013 to volunteer for the programs of the TOG community volunteer foundation and the Hrant Dink Foundation and with the idea of staying for one year. Soon however she fell to the city’s charm. She decided to enroll in a master in Social Projects and NGO Management, at Istanbul Bilgi University. Balyan feels that her life choices, can help to challenge stereotypes and distrust.

Varduhi Balyan passes a Turkish flag hanging over a window in Şişli neighbourhood on her way to to work in Şişli.

“[My Turkish neighbours] see me, they talk to me, and understand that Armenians are not the people with prejudices [they thought]; they realize that our cultures are not so different. […] You can count on your fingers people like me. Many come to study and go back or come for trade. I wanted to do EVS [European Voluntary Service]. I could also go to Hungary, but I studied Turkish studies at the State University of Armenia and Turkey was always interesting for me.”

Varduhi Balyan in a small cafeteria in the quarter of Kurtulus. It is run by an Armenian woman originally from Diarbekir, a large city in southeastern Turkey - here Balyan feels at home. Istanbul has become her home away from home.

“I used to identify Turkey with its government. The Armenian media has that problem of portraying Turkey as Erdogan. It was hard for me to imagine there are also people that are against the state ideology, and that hundreds of people, that go to the Genocide memory walks every April 24, despite the threat of losing their jobs. [...] I had many friends here saying: ‘Be careful, this is an addictive city.’ And so it is; I have never felt foreign here.”

Balyan is fluent in Turkish. She is contributing editor of the Turkish section of AGOS, an Armenian-Turkish bi-weekly paper which has been published in Istanbul since 1996, providing an alternative narrative into the relations between Armenia and Turkey.

It was 2013, right after the large wave of street protests in Istanbul. What was initially a protest against the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park grew into a call to defend freedom of press, of expression, of assembly to the government’s encroachment on Turkey’s secularism. 

“I came right after the Gezi Park protests, in September [2013] there was still a democratic atmosphere, full of hope; with time [it has] faded out. I have been living in Turkey in times when many changes occurred, in a short period of time.”

“[In Karakoy] the seashore, the tea-makers, the memories - [all] gone.”

“There is a culture of erasure of memory in Turkey. Be it the Genocide, the Dersim massacre [the Kurds’ uprising against the Turkish government in 1937] or the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom [attacks to the Greek minority] the Turkish government manages to kill memories. Now [I feel] it tries to erase my memories too, although I am here only for five years. “Alternative places” where the leftists [left-wing political supporters] hang out are getting demolished too.”

The Greek cafe Dose & Istos in Beyoglu.

“Every year, in Switzerland we [in cooperation with the The Initiative of Changes Swiss organization and the Caux from Netherlands] organize Armenian-Turkish-Kurdish dialogues.

It is a common mistake when we isolate the Armenian and Turkish diaspora and the Kurdish people. So we involve Turkish and Armenian diasporas, especially from conservative communities as is in Lebanon. Armenians from Lebanon do not have the chance to meet Turks, that is the biggest problem. There is a need for such meetings, so we try to fill that gap.”

Balyan has many friends. The place to meet them, as always, the Dose & Istos Bookstore Cafe.

“ In 2017 I invited my closest friend to [one of the] meetings; she is from Izmir, a nationalistic city which used to be inhabited as well by Armenians and Greeks. There the [inter-ethnic] conflict was mostly with the Greeks, it had nothing to do with [Armenians] from Eastern Anatolia. At one point the Lebanese Armenians started to accuse my friend in seizing their lands and houses. She was under pressure and started to cry. I remember I lost myself at that moment and yelled. Of course, in the end, all become friends and start to apologize to each other, but this happens every year.”

“You don’t make a global change, but ultimately you become a window for the flow of alternative information.” Balyan participating in the Velvet Revolution, Yerevan, Armenia.

“Armenia plays a secondary role in Turkey’s daily life, [Turks] are not interested. Yet, when the [April 2018 Velvet] revolution happened, and everything started to change, I felt that the informational gap in Turkey regarding Armenia. It has always existed, but now it has become vivid. It is the case also in Armenia about Turkey. […] Now, I am in the process of finding resources for this project. The interest in Armenia grows in Turkey. But, the existing information is incomplete. If Turkish readers search for information about Armenia they have to be able to find good quality reports about what’s going on in Armenia and vice versa.”

Balyan in İstiklal area. One of the most crowded streets of Istanbul.

“I don’t feel I make a big change in the world, but I try to make the smallest steps I can do to be a part of that change, because changing the world is not a one-person work. So, if there is one important thing in your routine that you can do -- do it.”

October 2018, The 'Peace Builders'  edition

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