Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey

Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey

by Lerna Ekmekcioglu

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Recovering Armenia offers the first in-depth study of the aftermath of the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the Armenians who remained in Turkey. Following World War I, as the victorious Allied powers occupied Ottoman territories, Armenian survivors returned to their hometowns optimistic that they might establish an independent Armenia. But Turkish resistance prevailed, and by 1923 the Allies withdrew, the Turkish Republic was established, and Armenians were left again to reconstruct their communities within a country that still considered them traitors. Lerna Ekmekcioglu investigates how Armenians recovered their identity within these drastically changing political conditions.

Reading Armenian texts and images produced in Istanbul from the close of WWI through the early 1930s, Ekmekcioglu gives voice to the community's most prominent public figures, notably Hayganush Mark, a renowned activist, feminist, and editor of the influential journal Hay Gin. These public figures articulated an Armenianess sustained through gendered differences, and women came to play a central role preserving traditions, memory, and the mother tongue within the home. But even as women were being celebrated for their traditional roles, a strong feminist movement found opportunity for leadership within the community. Ultimately, the book explores this paradox: how someone could be an Armenian and a feminist in post-genocide Turkey when, through its various laws and regulations, the key path for Armenians to maintain their identity was through traditionally gendered roles.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804797061
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/06/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Lerna Ekmekcioglu is Associate Professor of History and Women's Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Recovering Armenia

The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey

By Lerna Ekmekçioglu


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9719-1



In 1921, an untitled and unsigned picture appeared on the cover page of the Deacon's Almanac (Sargavakin Daretsuytse) (Figure 3). The image features a young boy and a girl standing next to each other, ready to defend themselves and their nation. The rock in the image, which represents Mother Armenia (Mayr Hayasdan), is protected by the boy's masculine power, his rifle, and his readiness to die for his homeland and his people. The girl, possibly his sister, embodies "the nation," not only because of her location — on the land — but also because she holds the tricolor flag (red, blue, and orange) that the newly founded Republic of Armenia adopted in 1918. The flag signals the identity of the nation in its distinctiveness and history, depicted here as larger than the girl and the boy, and capable of engulfing them both. These two figures complement each other by dividing the national labor along traditional gendered and familial lines. He is in a soldier's uniform; she wears its counterpart, a Red Cross uniform, attesting to her readiness to come to his aid if he falls wounded. She is the caregiver: a future mother, an apprentice in the service of the nation. The color of their outfits, and the girl's headgear, might even allow this picture to be read — however faintly — as reminiscent of a wedding photo. She is dressed in white and veiled, he is in formal black; she touches him, he holds a firearm at the ready; they are capable of reproducing the nation. Alternatively, the girl, who stands above the boy, can be viewed as a miniaturized mother. The determined mother touches a son to pass on to him courage, knowledge, and memory. Even without going into its subconscious layers, however, we can safely assume that in the year 1921 this illustration was accessible to the Armenian public in a certain way: a nation that had just survived a major attack against its very existence belies defeat by relying on its children, who are ever ready to face the future whatever it might bring.

Like their non-Armenian counterparts, Armenian spokespeople had long understood their nation as one big family and told its story through gendered children's bodies. However, at this immediate post-catastrophe moment marked by high hopes for Armenia's territorial expansion, children and their mothers gained even more important roles, literally and metaphorically. The figure of the child instilled an exceptional sense of temporality. He or she symbolized the past (suffering), the present (unity and self-help), and the future (Greater Armenia), all at the same time. Public figures of all standings made strong, persistent claims that the desired sort of bridging from the past to the future could happen only through surviving children's bodies, memories, emotions, and actions; and that women, as carriers of babies and caregivers of children, family, and thus the nation, had the primary role in bringing about that future.

This emphasis on children was part and parcel of a larger political, social, cultural, and affective repertoire in which the Bolsahay elite processed the damage the Great War did to their group and imagined its recovery. They referred to the era in which they lived with a number of terms that expressed recovery. Usually capitalized, these terms were National Rebirth/Restoration/Revival (Azkayin Veradznunt) and National Reconstitution (Azkayin Verashinum and Azkayin Veraganknum). The ultimate goal of recovery was to bring the Armenian people and resources to their prewar levels and to reclaim the western parts of the Armenian historical homeland. These two legs of the recovery project were seen as the ultimate revenge that the Armenians would exact on "the Turk." Despite multiple internal disagreements on the specifics of how to bring about that recovery and what Greater Armenia should look like, Armenian spokespeople were in basic agreement that the institution of the family was to play a fundamental role in national restoration. Turke had attacked the Armenian family, violated mothers, sisters, and wives, kidnapped daughters and sons, and killed husbands, fathers, and brothers. Therefore, National Rebirth had to start by reconnecting the broken pieces of the nation. Remnants had to find each other and form new families. The new families would reproduce new Armenians, who would then inhabit the soon-to-be-established Mother Armenia. This familial vocabulary and imagery — always necessarily gendered — enabled Armenian leaders to make sense of the recent catastrophe, organize for the care of the survivors, and mobilize hope that Armenians as a nation would survive, even thrive, despite recent attempts to destroy it.

While the body of a minor child symbolized the hope for repair, remembrance, and revenge to the Bolsahay elite, the same bodies had different meanings for a subsection of survivors who had been kidnapped into Muslim households during the war. Some of these women did not want to give birth or mother babies conceived during captivity and as a result of rape by the enemy. Given their disempowered state, however, they frequently had to yield to the demands of the Armenian authorities and relief institutions, which typically approached all children, regardless of their (Muslim) fathers, as the future of the Armenian nation. These reluctant mothers were among the survivors who found their way to the capital in the aftermath of the war and depended on Bolsahay relief societies for their everyday sustenance. They did not write their stories and the mainstream press did not report on them. Their perspectives would have remained completely submerged within the hegemonic narratives had the Bolsahay feminist press not highlighted their existence and had individual feminists not included their darapakhd kuyrer (unfortunate sisters) in their memoirs written years later.

The National Government of Armenians in Constantinople

Soon after the Ottomans' acceptance of defeat with the signing of the Armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918, Armenian survivors who had been dispersed to Mesopotamia and the Levant began to return. However, given that the Allies did not occupy all Ottoman territories, and because the situation was uncertain and potentially still dangerous for Armenians in unoccupied places, most of the survivors went to French-occupied Cilicia (contemporary southern Turkey) and to Constantinople, which the Allies jointly occupied beginning in November 1918. The Armenian leadership and the press referred to the incoming survivors as darakir or darakryal, meaning exiled or expatriated people, usually translated to English as "deportee." Because the genocidal policy primarily (though by no means exclusively) targeted adult males for killing, women and children composed the majority of the survivors.

From 1919 until 1922, approximately 35,000 deportees entered Constantinople and joined the 120,000 Armenian residents of the city. Bolsahays immediately rushed to help these mostly sick, emaciated, and traumatized people. Because the Ottoman capital had not experienced the war years in the same way as the rest of the empire, its Armenian infrastructure — people, churches, schools, orphanages, charitable institutions, hospitals — had remained more or less intact and ready to be put in the service of the needy. In 1912–1913, the city was home to 42 Armenian parishes, 42 neighborhood elementary schools, 10 secondary schools, and a dozen Catholic and Protestant middle and high schools, with a total enrollment of about 25,000. Bolsahays opened thirteen refugee stations (gayan) to shelter and feed the refugees (Figure 4).

Given their experiences as a semi-autonomously governed millet under the Ottomans, Bolsahays knew how to organize for communal self-help and because of the previous massacres in the provinces (i.e., the 1894–1896 Hamidian massacres and the 1909 Adana pogrom) they knew how to organize for self-help even during such emergencies. Although the Great War had wrought damage on an unprecedented scale, they tried and largely managed to provider deportees with shelter, food, clothing, medical treatment, and when possible reconnected them with surviving family members and/or facilitated their emigration abroad. Some of the deportees left almost immediately for other countries, some became self-sufficient after a short time, some stayed with their relatives in Bolis, and many remained housed in orphanages, hospitals, former barracks, schools, shelter homes, and refugee camps. Western aid organizations such as the British Lord Mayor's Fund, the Swiss-Armenian Society, and most important, the American Committee for Relief in the Near East, commonly known as Near East Relief (NER), also provided relief. Among Armenians, while the initial aid efforts were organized at the neighborhood level, the Armenian patriarchate soon managed to centralize the care that the Bolsahays offered to their less fortunate azkayins, nationals or members of the same nation.

Established in 1461 at the request of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II after his conquest of the city, the Armenian patriarchate of Constantinople had functioned as the administrative and spiritual center of Ottoman Armenians. The patriarch acted as the liaison between the state and his Armenian congregation, almost all of whom were Apostolic Christians until the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century and in response to conversions and the interference of France and Britain, two separate Armenian millets came into being. While the Ottoman government approved an Armenian Catholic millet in 1830 and one of Armenian Protestants in 1857, the overwhelming majority of Armenians continued to practice Apostolicism. Given this history and the demographic differences, when one talked about "the Armenians" in the Ottoman Empire one meant Apostolic Armenians; qualifiers such as "Armenian Catholics" and "Protestant Armenians" were necessary when one referred to these non-normative populations.

During the mid-nineteenth century, as part of the Ottoman state's Tanzimat (Reorganization) modernization program, each non-Muslim community reformed its internal organization by making it more participatory and democratic. In the process, each millet came up with new rules and regulations pertaining to self-administration and legalized these procedures in a written document that had to be ratified by the Ottoman center. The state approved Armenians' Azkayin Sahmanatrutiun Hayots (National Constitution of Armenians) in 1863. The Armenian constitution instituted a National Assembly (Azkayin Zhoghov) of 140 members made up of elected clerical and laymen. In the coming decades, this National Assembly effectively served as a parliament and was understood by the population as such. In the period under study, the Armenian press called the members of the National Assembly yerespokhan, meaning, parliamentarians or deputies. While the clerical members (20 people) were elected by other Armenian Apostolic clergy in Constantinople, the lay members (120 people) were elected by popular (male) vote. The assembly's various duties included the election of the patriarch, who served as the head of the assembly. The assembly also appointed the members of the commissions that dealt with specific issues related to the everyday lives of Ottoman Armenians both as individuals and as a community. These commissions were responsible for finances, education, personal status law, endowments, hospitals, and church buildings, and so on. Ottoman Armenians referred to this whole system as their National Government (Azkayin Ishkhanutiun) or National Administration (Azkayin Varchutiun).

During World War I the Ottoman government exiled the Armenian patriarch, Zaven Der Yeghiayan, to Mosul and ordered the patriarchate closed. The National Assembly, which traditionally convened in the patriarchate building, ceased functioning. The patriarchate reopened only after the war. In February 1919 the patriarch returned to office and the National Assembly resumed its work but with a reduced number. Many of its former members, especially representatives from the provinces (kavar), had fallen victim to the genocide. For the first time in its history, the Armenian patriarchate and the National Assembly unilaterally cut their ties with the Ottoman government. Relying on the Allies' support, the patriarchate openly condemned the government for the massacres during the war. In Allied-occupied Constantinople, Zaven Der Yeghiayan, the ultimate head of the Ottoman Armenian community, cooperated with occupying forces and worked for the partitioning of the Ottoman territories out of which he hoped a new and free Armenia would be born. This post-genocide moment of crisis and the necessity to present a united front in the struggle for the establishment of Greater Armenia led to another unprecedented development. The patriarchate of the Apostolic Armenians together with the All-Armenian Catholic patriarch and the leader of the Armenian Protestant community formed an All-Armenian Assembly (Hamazkayin or Hamahaygagan Zhoghov) and cooperated in finding solutions to the problems that beset all Armenians regardless of their religious affiliation.

One of the first steps taken by the reestablished National Assembly was to command the establishment of an umbrella organization to respond to the refugee crisis. The ensuing Armenian National Relief Organization (Hay Azkayin Khnamadarutiun) was run by twelve members, four from each Armenian millet. Like almost all other Armenian initiatives at this time, the Relief Organization remained an all-inclusive endeavor extending its help to Apostolic, Protestant, and Catholic Armenians alike. In his memoirs, the chairman of the society explained this unity simply by saying that "since the Turk massacred all Armenians without distinction," acting together was essential.

Initially the budget for the Relief Organization was drawn from wealthy donors, but in September 1919 the National Assembly's Civil Council (Kaghakagan Zhoghov) decided to standardize fundraising and share the burden of the relief work with the whole community. Every Armenian, male or female, with a source of income was to pay a new monthly tax. The revenue from the new tax would be used for two purposes: to care for orphans and deportees, and to fund the patriarchate's political and diplomatic efforts among the Allied powers in Constantinople and in Europe. That the new tax was called a Fatherland Tax (Hayreniki Durke) was indicative of how the postwar Armenian leadership understood the terms of their nation's recovery. Rehabilitation of the survivors and the reclamation of territory constituted the two halves of the same project of National Rebirth.

Survival of the Weakest

While the Fatherland Tax created a fund for the care of the deportees, resources never sufficed to meet the demand. Although deportees as a general category received attention, the Bolsahay organizations, press, and the leadership paid the most attention to the care of the orphans. It is not clear what the age limit was for being categorized as an "orphan" (vorp). My reading of the institutional reports, periodicals, and memoirs suggests that unmarried girls and boys, regardless of their age, were considered orphans if they had lost one parent, usually the father, and if they had no male relative on whom to depend. Often women without a male relative were also considered orphans. Armenians have a term for such women: vorpevayri, meaning "orphan and widow." Orphanhood and the disintegration of the known family structure were closely related. To a certain extent, orphanhood meant an absence of the support of a family on whom one depended for everything before the catastrophe.

Armenian orphanages in Constantinople in the immediate aftermath of the war housed about 4,000 orphans. To encourage people to donate money to orphan care and volunteer their labor and time, periodicals frequently reprinted before-and-after photos of orphans. A typical example appeared in the 1922 issue of the famed intellectual Teotig's Amenun Daretsuytse (Everyone's Almanac). Two photos show the same group of orphans at different times. In the first photo, the children look miserable, angry, and sad. Lacking shoes, wearing rags and unattractive outfits, they shiver in the cold. In the second photo, captioned "The same orphans after they have been saved by our efforts," the children have hats and decent, clean clothing, and they look confident.


Excerpted from Recovering Armenia by Lerna Ekmekçioglu. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Contents and Abstracts

Introduction: Afterlife of Armenians in Post-Genocide Turkey, an Introduction
chapter abstract

The introduction introduces the protagonist of the story, Hayganush Mark, the Constantinopolitan Armenian woman who published the main primary source of the book, Hay Gin (Armenian Woman), a feminist biweekly, from 1919 to 1933 in Istanbul. The chapter clarifies the research questions that drove the writing of this book and explains what kind of a route was taken to answer them. The analytical core of the chapter revolves around the historical explanation of why and how a gendered way of organizing social relations was fundamental for Armenians as they adjusted to the multiple catastrophes that befell them from the World War I into the mid-1930s.

1The Re-Birth of a Nation
chapter abstract

The story takes place in Allies' occupied Constantinople from late 1918 to late 1922. During this time Armenian leadership aimed to cede territory from the defeated Ottoman Empire and declare independence. Their goal was to unite the Eastern and Western parts of the Armenian ancestral lands. The chapter looks at the ways in which this goal was enmeshed with a broader agenda called National Revival or Restoration. Post-genocide Armenians mobilized to prove "the Turk" wrong and exist as a community, as a nation, and as a state. They have imagined these agendas in familial and gendered terms whereby children, most of them orphaned, represented the future.

2Can Feminists Revive a Nation?
chapter abstract

Armenians of Constantinople experienced the war years different from their counterparts in other parts of the Empire. They were not massacred or deported en masse. Therefore in the aftermath of the war, they were the ones who helped the survivors through various relief organizations. Elite, intellectual women of the Ottoman capital were very active in these endeavors and they also contributed to all other kinds of National Revival-related causes, such as fundraising, lobbying, and propaganda. In return, they asked to have a say in the decision making bodies of their community. This chapter focuses on the ways in which feminists formulated their arguments for the inseparability of the women's cause from the national cause. They established a Women's Association and began publishing a feminist fortnightly called Hay Gin (Armenian Woman)

3An Exodus and its Aftermath
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on one single year, from late 1922 to late 1923 when it became obvious that Armenians failed in their territorial goals. As a result of the Turkish War of Independence which was led by Mustafa Kemal, Ottoman Muslims drew the occupation forces out and forced the Allies to renegotiate a peace treaty. In the fall of 1922, after the Symrna Catastrophe (Kemalist takeover of Western Anatolia from occupying Greeks), Armenians (and Greeks) in Constantinople fled the city in panic, in anticipation of Kemalist entry to the city which could unleash violence against Christians whom Kemalists and the Muslim majority accused of collaboration with the enemy. Most people that we encountered in the first and second chapters of the book leave the city during this time. The remaining become an officially recognized minority in Turkey according to the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne.

4A Tamed Minority
chapter abstract

The chapter looks at the communal survival strategies that Turkish Armenians crafted in order to stay put and remain safe in a place where they were unwanted by the state and by the majority. Armenians performed loyalty to the state and in returned hoped to receive freedom of religion and traditions. This formulation was gendered. Because women represented and were seen as the transmitters of tradition, they were assigned the task of ensuring the continuation of Armenianness in Turkey. The ways in which Armenians adapted to the new Turkey's conditions rested on an age-old relationship between the Ottoman state and its non-Muslims (dhimmis). But Turkey was very different from the former Empire, especially after the secularization and westernization reforms that the Kemalist Republic passed in the 1920s and 30s. Armenians welcomed these developments. This new-but-old state-minority relationship is termed "secular dhimmitude," a consciously paradoxical term.

5Can Armenian Feminism Survive the new Turkey?
chapter abstract

The ways in which the Turkish state discriminated against Armenians and the legacies of the recent, violent past, pushed the community into an enclave-like existence. As Armenians turned in on themselves they cherished domesticity, conservatism, and status quo. The chapter follows the Hay Gin journal to see how both the nationalist and feminist discourses changed in its pages. Because the editor of the journal, unlike most of her peers, did not leave Turkey, her case provides an emblematic case of what Armenians had to do in order to survive the new Turkey. Feminists were faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, they wanted to continue the Armenian tradition. On the other hand, their liberal progressive ideas that demanded gender equality required a change in the hierarchical order of the community. The chapter analyzes how Hayganush Mark, Hay Gin's editor tried to resolve these challenges.

Conclusion: When History Became Destiny, a Conclusion
chapter abstract

The chapter summarizes main points of the book. It briefly discusses its interventions into the historiography. The last part narrates how young Armenian women in early 2000s Istanbul resurged an interest in the history of Turkish Armenian feminism.

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