Recovering Armenia
The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey
Lerna Ekmekcioglu



As I am finishing this book in early 2015, all kinds of organizations, Armenian and non-Armenian alike, have been laying plans to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian genocide with special programs, memorials, and conferences. Inevitably, many of these commemorative events will raise the issue of denial. The Republic of Turkey has refused to acknowledge its role in bringing about a decisive end to Ottoman Armenians’ collective presence in their native lands. The Turkish state’s official rejection of the term “genocide” with regards to the Ottoman government’s “wartime deportations” has long been the focus of Armenian politics, especially among diaspora communities worldwide, communities that came to existence largely as a result of forcible dispersal from their homeland. As the offspring of 1915 come together to honor their dead and invite the world to do the same, they prioritize the long-sought demand for justice and accountability.

Of the Armenian communities worldwide, one does not commemorate the centenary like the rest. Turkish Armenians stick out in this respect too as they do in almost every other aspect of their lives. Unlike other Armenians, they live under an unapologetic Turkish state that has viewed their continued presence in the new Turkey as a problem, even though at present only about sixty thousand Armenians live in a Turkey of nearly 75 million.

That their history has evaded scholars and community members alike is another peculiar point about Turkish Armenians. Unlike other major diaspora communities such as American Armenians, French Armenians, or Lebanese Armenians, whose pasts have been objects of scholarly scrutiny, Armenians of Turkish citizenship have escaped the attention of scholars for a long time. The most important reason for this is the Turkish state’s uneasy relationship with its past. Histories of minority communities, not just Armenians, are usually written by insiders first and then later taken up by others. It would not be easy for Turkish Armenians to produce such “insider historians” given the continued discrimination their community faces in Turkey. For instance, students in Armenian minority schools are not allowed to learn Armenian history. Legally, students in Turkish schools (public, private, minority) can only learn history from textbooks prepared centrally by the Ministry of Education. These textbooks represent the state’s perspective. By “Turkish history” such books mean “the history of Turks,” a perspective shared by most historians of Turkey to this day, both inside Turkey and outside. “Turks” in this usage excludes non-Muslim, non-Turkish peoples of Turkey. Minorities appear in these books largely as traitors ever ready to stab their host state in the back. Moreover, in minority schools the subject of history can only be taught by ethnically Turkish citizens who do not belong to any minority group. Compounded with the continued tension between the Turkish state and Armenians worldwide, including the state of Armenia with which Turkey has no diplomatic relations, this fraught situation has deprived Turkish Armenians of a history of their own.

This book, a history of Armenians in post-genocide Turkey, then, has multiple aims. At this moment of commemoration and remembrance, it hopes to move the global conversation about the Armenian genocide to victims who survived not just the genocide but also the new Turkey, the reluctant host of remaining Armenians. It also aims to write Armenians into Turkish history, Turkish Armenians into Armenian history, and women and feminists into both. The book is my way of paying tribute to the resilience this community has shown in the face of multiple challenges over the past century. I offer this history as a modest corrective.

.   .   .

In 2002, I left my hometown for the United States to study the history of Armenian feminism in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. I had to work in near-complete darkness for the history of Armenians in Turkey in the aftermath of the 1915 Armenian genocide had not been studied before. It was for political and historical reasons that the ways survivors endeavored to make a life for themselves in a land ruled by unapologetic perpetrators escaped the radar of various historiographies. Even the basic narrative of the transformation that post-genocide Armenians had gone through as the Ottoman Empire evolved into the Republic of Turkey was missing. This emptiness forced me to excavate the “big picture” from scratch, a time-consuming, labor-intensive endeavor that surprisingly proved to be quite feasible simply because, although there was a dearth of secondary sources, there was no shortage of primary sources. On the contrary, I soon recognized that there are multiple and equally legitimate sources for studying Armenians in post-genocide Turkey and multiple and equally legitimate ways of dealing with those sources. Given my initial curiosity and the lack of a formative framework in which to understand the Armenian communities in post-genocide Turkey, I have focused on Istanbul, where the majority of Armenians lived, and on elites and intellectuals who actively worked on inventing and re-inventing Armenianness where it remained most unwanted.

I arrived at New York University where additional challenges might have presented themselves: there was no specialist in Armenian history. But this ultimately turned out to be a boon, as I had the opportunity to benefit from conversations and collaborations with numerous non-specialists inside NYU as well as with specialists at other institutions. I am especially grateful to Vartan Matiossian and Hourig Attarian, now good friends, who responded to my endless queries about Armenian history, literature, and language. Vartan Matiossian found many of the primary sources mentioned in this book and guided me toward new ones; he is my Armenian studies mentor. Hourig Attarian supported this project both with her deep knowledge of anything Armenian but also with her attention to imagination, emotion, and the lived world of the scholar. I will remain grateful to both of them. I also thank Ara Sanjian, who similarly helped me navigate Armenian scholarship, responded to my queries, and helped me locate sources. It was thanks to him that I first accessed the full collection of Hay Gin, the heart of this book, at Beirut’s Haigazian Library. Aram Arkun, Howard Eissenstat, Khachig Tölölyan, Fatma Müge Göçek, Gerard Libaridian, Taner Akçam, Keith Watenpaugh, Rıfat Bali, Irvin Cemil Schick, Abraham D. Krikorian, Matthias Bjørnlund, Bedross Der Matossian, Yiğit Akın, Osman Köker, and Chaghig Chahinian shared their knowledge with me. I am equally grateful to my NYU advisers Leslie Peirce and Molly Nolan, as well as Elizabeth Frierson of the University of Cincinnati, for nurturing this project in so many ways. I first conceived of this book as a college student at Boğaziçi University’s Sociology Department under the guidance of my excellent professors. I began working on it under the guidance of Ariel Salzmann, whose excellent scholarship continues to inspire me. My postdoctoral year at the University of Michigan’s Armenian Studies Program gave me precious time to pause and think about the broader implications of my research.

I thank my colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for providing the best academic home that I could hope for. Anne McCants and Craig Wilder, my two chairs at History, supported this book with relief from teaching. Christopher Capozzola has always asked the right questions and Elizabeth Wood, my faculty mentor, always knows what I need and guides me accordingly. Cristelle Baskins and Jeff Ravel have generously shared their time with me. Sana Aiyar answered endless questions regarding the technical side of publishing a book and Hiromu Nagahara and Christopher R. Leighton shared the joys of being “juniors” inside the MIT giant. I am also grateful to my two former chairs at the Women and Gender Studies program, Sally Haslanger and Emma Tang, for their continuous encouragement. Thanks also to our Associate Provost, Philip Khoury, who facilitated the endowment by the late Geneviève McMillan of a chair in the Department of History on “women in the developing world,” the post I currently hold. History’s administrative cadre, Mabel Chin Sorett, Margo Collett, and Chuck Manger, and Women and Gender Studies program manager Emily Neill, thank you for all the work you do to make our lives easier at work.

The book has greatly benefitted from the feedback that I received at a book manuscript workshop generously sponsored by the Department of History at MIT. I thank Ronald Suny, Fatma Müge Göçek, Betty Anderson, Molly Nolan, and Elizabeth Wood for all the suggestions that helped the book reach its near-final shape. Atina Grossmann’s feedback was invaluable and helped the manuscript reach its final shape. My collaboration with the Stanford University Press went as smoothly as a first-time author could hope for. I thank Kate Wahl, Nora Spiegel, Emily Smith, and the excellent copy editor Richard Gunde for the labor they put in this project.

I thank librarians Anahit Astoyan of Madenataran (Mesrop Mashdots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan) and Helda Aynayüz of the Ormanyan Library of the Istanbul Armenian patriarchate for helping me locate sources. Like Helda and Anahit, Marc Mamigonian of NAASR (National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, Belmont, Massachusetts), Raymond Kévorkian and Boris Adjemian of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Nubar Library in Paris, and librarians at the Armenian National Library (Yerevan), the Yeghishe Charents Museum of Literature and Art (Yerevan), and the Haigazian Library (Beirut) were most helpful in finding and digitizing sources. I also appreciate the help that my research assistants, Sinan Çetin, Narek Dshkunyan, Aret Tatlıdil, and Tenzin Dongchung, offered throughout the years. I also thank my Istanbul contacts, Arsen Yarman and Murad Bebiroğlu, for helping me. I will always remember the late Yervant Gobelyan and the late Sarkis Seropian, both former contributors to the Turkish Armenian weekly Agos, as well as my high school principal, Silva Kuyumcuyan, who early on instilled in me a curiosity about Armenian history and the history of Armenian feminism.

Friends, some of them also colleagues, engaged with my work in multiple ways. Düriye Gökçebağ, Diane Baygin, Gonca Sönmez-Poole, Shane Minkin, Başak Tuğ, Abigail Jacobson, Selina Özuzun Doğan, Sarem K. Şeşetyan, Carole Woodall, Talinn Grigor, Johanna Vollhardt, Nora Nercessian, Jennifer Dixon, Özgen Felek, Elizabeth Thompson, Zeynep Kezer, Lale Can, Seda Altuğ, and Zeynep Kutluata, a big thank you. Thanks also to the Wong family of Montgomery St. and the Bilezikian family of the St. Stephens School for the multiple playdates during which they hosted my daughters and gave me some extra time to focus on this book. I thank Varteni Mosdichian for connecting me with elderly Bolsahays (Armenians of/from Istanbul) in the Boston area, joining me in my visits, and sharing with me her own family history. Similarly, Ara Toshigian, Vahan Toshigian’s grandnephew, graciously agreed to an interview and responded to my various questions about the Toshigian-Mark couple. Nora Lessersohn did not let go of my “title problem” and eventually found the book title for me! Neda Bebiroğlu, her husband, Claude Abivien, and son, Sevan, are my Europe family. Thank you Neda for who you are and for the Belgian waffles. Melissa Bilal, my co-adventurer of the last two decades, lived with this book from the moment of its conception till its very end. I don’t know how I will pay her back for all the intellectual, emotional, and physical investment that she put into this piece of work.

Whatever value this book has I owe to my mother, Röne Ekmekçioğlu, and my mother-in-law, Nazen Merdinoğlu, who embarked on planes, trains, buses, and cars, sometimes on very short notice, to help us with childcare and managing the household. They gave me what I needed most: time and peace of mind. Plus good, healthy, home cooking that comforted us. Their devotion is priceless. I thank my brother, Araks, for his loving presence and encouragement. My husband, Mardiros Merdinoğlu, shared the long journey with me in all possible ways, joining my enthusiasm with his intellectual curiosity and love of success. Our daughters, Zepure and Zulal, deserve a BIG round of applause for . . . everything. I hope they will one day understand the threads that connect this book with them.

My father, Murad Hagop Ekmekçioğlu, instilled in me a curiosity about the past and a strong sense of justice from very early on. I know that more than anyone else I am his daughter. Like my mother and brother, he too helped me locate sources in Turkey, put me in touch with the right people, and acted as an informal research assistant.

My grandparents are the invisible shadow behind this book. Meryem Evingülü Ekmekçioğlu (b. Adıyaman, 1932), Kevork Ekmekçioğlu (1930, Adıyaman–2010, Cologne), Garabed (Ohanyan) Yurtlu (1923, Mersin–1991, Mersin), Sofia Andonyadis Yurtlu (1927, Iskenderun–2011, Mersin) are descendants of survivors whose loving hands touched my head.