‘We Are Here’: How Solidarity and Stubbornness Are Bringing the Armenian Question to the Forefront in Turkey
BY KYLE KHANDIKIAN
Sayat Tekir says what he wants. Like the struggle he represents, he is a humble but stubborn man. His stature betrays the powerful message he brought with him to the United States on a whirlwind visit to meet with various Armenian communities and organizations this past week. When I learned that I would have the opportunity to interview Sayat, I knew that it would be a special interview. What I did not know is that speaking with him would leave me electrified.
Tekir is the spokesperson for Nor Zartonk. If you have not heard about Nor Zartonk already, follow them on Facebook right now. Go to their website and read about what they stand for. Nor Zartonk is at the forefront of the struggle for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the Turkish state and Turkish society. When it happens, it will be not because of our efforts in the Diaspora, however important they may be, but because of Nor Zartonk’s struggle for a freer, more equal and democratic Turkey.
With a radically different approach to the Armenian Question, Nor Zartonk’s message and its worldview sets it apart from the traditional parties and organizations of the Diaspora. It is perhaps the most progressive Armenian political movement in the word—not just a “youth movement” as this newspaper has previously called it, but in Sayat’s words, a movement of the people. But what is most important about Nor Zartonk is that it is not a movement just for Armenians or for Armenian interests. It is a movement that seeks the liberation of all those oppressed by the nefarious forces of the Turkish state, and really, of the entire globe.
Driven by the “specter of Armenians” that haunts Turkey today and by decades of minority repression, Nor Zartonk is tearing down the curtains that have blocked Turkey from the Diaspora’s view for most of the last century, and shaking the very foundations upon which mainstream discourses on the Armenian Genocide and on other issues of identity, culture, and history are built.
With Nor Zartonk, we are seeing the materialization of the intersections between the struggles of being an Armenian in Turkey and the whitewashing of history, with the struggles of so many others who are denied the right to exist by the Turkish nation-state. For them, solidarity is everything. It is “the holiest word,” and in a socio-political landscape as diverse and as volatile as Turkey’s, solidarity is the only currency that matters. For Nor Zartonk, without solidarity and a stubborn determination, the movement simply would not exist.
Nor Zartonk truly is what its name means—a new awakening of Armenians in Turkey. Now, thanks to Tekir’s visit to the U.S. with the help of the Armenian Youth Federation, more and more people are awakening to Nor Zartonk’s message.
KYLE KHANDIKIAN: Many people in the Diaspora know about Nor Zartonk and the work that you do, but I know for certain that there are still many others who have not heard about you. Can you tell us how Nor Zartonk came to be? Where did it all start, and why?
SAYAT TEKIR: Nor Zartonk was established in 2004 as an email group that young people would join to discuss various issues, from intellectual questions, to questions related to the community. Actually, we do not like to use the word ‘community,’ we use the word ‘people,’ as Armenians, as Armenian people—issues related to the Armenian people. There were great conversations happening back then, and at the same time, the young people who started Nor Zartonk were also involved in the leftist movements of Turkey; youth movements, those happening at the universities. In 2005, on the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, we organized a lecture with Hrant Dink and with historian Doğan Çetinkaya together with Turkish university students. When we did it, our predecessors—the older generation said, ‘You are crazy, what are you doing?’ But that is really how it started.
We organized another in 2006 and we told Hrant Dink, ‘We are a group. Let us get together and speak with you. Let us start something.’ Five of us came together. It was disappointing—there were so few of us. But now I understand that we were not that few. The Armenians of Turkey are already small; our numbers are small. Apparently we can do a lot of things with just five people. But Hrant Dink was eventually killed. Nor Zartonk came to life the day he was killed. We came together, first as a group of young people and then eventually people of all ages—men and women—came together. After Hrant Dink’s murder, the atmosphere was of course bad. Minorities were being killed and other terrible things were happening at the time. The atmosphere was not very good, but we came together and Nor Zartonk was born anyway. The first thing we did was a survey. That was the first thing we did. Why? Because… ‘Who are we? Who are the Armenian people? What are we?’
K.K.: You needed answers to those questions; as a movement, as Armenians in Turkey.
S.T.: Yes, exactly.
K.K.: What other questions or issues did you look at with the survey?
S.T.: Everything. Every issue. From mixed marriages, to elections and voting, to politics and social life—everything! There were over 50 questions. For me, the most important question was, ‘Do you want to leave Turkey?’ and 95% of respondents said yes. That is a very big number. If 95% of the Armenians here leave, it is over. That number scared us. So we continued organizing talks and lectures about Armenian issues, but also on other issues. Like this, slowly, we continued having intellectual and existential discussions. But we eventually became a group that participated in protests. We joined the protests happening around Hrant Dink’s murder trial; the protests during Sevag Balıkçı’s murder trial.
K.K.: Before you began participating in various other movements and protests, what was the conversation like in Turkey around minority issues?
S.T.: In Turkey, things change quickly. Things can change in just one day, in half a day, so we organized as best we could despite the difficulties. We brought in representatives, held press conferences and meetings, and news of our work and of these issues began to get out. I can say that the trials for murdered Kurds or Alevis, similar to Sevag Balıkçı’s case, would end in about 20 minutes. But the trials for Sevag Balıkçı lasted hours, because the court felt pressure from us. They said to themselves, ‘Let us do our job well,’ because the Armenians are watching. They are making noise.
K.K.: So the justice system in Turkey was failing you. Crimes were being committed against minorities with impunity.
S.T.: Yes. There were many scandalous cases. We go to these trials and we use them to show [the public] that in Turkey, there is hatred against Armenians and that the government is caught in the middle of it all.
Our message to the people is: ‘You are not alone.’ We tell [Armenians] that they are not alone because they feel alone. And to greater Turkish society we say that there is no liberation alone. Either all of us [are liberated], or none of us [are liberated]. And so to this day we continue. We opened Nor Radyo in 2009. We broadcast in 15 languages, in different dialects as well—Eastern Armenian, Western Armenian, and Hemshin Armenian; or also in Kurdish, or Laz, or Circassian. You can listen online. We have two segments, one for these different languages, and the second segment features programs on social issues—labor rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, or the rights of animals, environmentalism… And the people behind the programs are volunteers, of course.
We also have the Armenian Cultural and Solidarity Union that is involved in cultural work. They offer Armenian language classes because Western Armenian is close to extinction. It is in UNESCO reports already. The Union has existed for five years, and to this day we have over 60 graduates who speak Armenian, the majority of whom are not Christian Armenians. Either they are ‘hidden’ Armenians—Islamicized Armenians; or they are researchers; or they are people who have married an Armenian or who have Armenians in their families. For us, all of them are important because people who lost their identity in 1915—Armenians who became Muslims and lost their identity—they are finding our Union. Unfortunately the Armenian community of Istanbul—I can say community now—is closed to them.
K.K.: What do you mean exactly?
S.T.: It is closed to them because if they are not Christian, they are not welcomed. The people do not accept them. But for us there is nothing like that. They can come, our doors are always open; a person is a person. Whether they are Armenian or not, it does not matter. There are always people coming to our Union. Kurds come [and say], ‘My grandmother is Armenian,’ or there will be a gathering that we go to and people come up to us and tell us that they are Armenian; they hug us [saying], ‘My grandmother-grandfather was Armenian.’ Things like this started happening, especially after Hrant’s murder.
So we have these three organizations, and we have been doing these things for 11 years now. It is a humble struggle. If we look at the conditions in Turkey, it is a humble struggle. There are those who call us heroes, but if you ask me we are not heroes. The heroes are Sevag Balıkçı’s mother and father whose son was murdered, and they are still demanding justice with us and they are still standing with us. They are keeping their identity and demanding a reckoning for their son. Ours is a humble struggle.
K.K.: What do the families of the activists involved with Nor Zartonk think about the work that you do?
S.T.: Our families unfortunately… I do not want to answer this question. They respect us a lot, of course, but they also tell us that if we did not do this work, that would be good too. That is why sometimes there are debates. For some, we are bringing danger to the community. Others are supporting us and standing by us. This is how it is. We are demanding our rights.
K.K.: There is an atmosphere of fear.
S.T.: Of course, for the majority there is. There is an atmosphere of fear in Istanbul, unfortunately. Why should there not be? We talk about 1915, but 1915 was not the first time. There were the massacres of 1909 and 1894-96, but  was not the end of it either. It was not the first time and it was not the last. There were pogroms, massacres, banishments, and not just against Armenians. There were heavy taxes, discrimination… And we should say that the things that happen to the Greeks and the Jews affect us too. That is the psychology of being a minority. The minorities [of Turkey] have a very deep and long collective memory. We remember 1915 when things like this happen. When Hrant was murdered we remembered 1915, as well as other instances of violence and discrimination.
We have been born into injustice in Turkey. A genocide happened during Ottoman times, and we were unfortunately born in the country where that genocide occured. We are what is left here of the people who were subjected to genocide. These two facts alone I think illustrate what motivates our struggle and us.
K.K.: The HDP came out not too long ago saying that if they were elected to government, they would recognize the genocides of the 20th century—not just the genocide of the Armenians but of all the minorities. Nor Zartonk has aligned itself with these other communities, like the Kurds. What are their views on you? On Nor Zartonk, on the Armenian Question?
S.T.: That is hard to say. 60% of the country is right wing. Finding people who accept the Genocide in that 60% is difficult. But of course, the remaining 40% does not all accept the Genocide either. There are Kemalists there too. Let us talk about the LGBT community. Even amongst them there are Kemalists; there are very hardline nationalists. They exist; they are there. But I can say that especially with the struggle for Kamp Armen, many people joined us. I am sure you saw the seven colors at Kamp Armen.
K.K.: Seven colors?
S.T.: The gay [pride] flag.
K.K.: Oh, yes. I ask this question because in America, especially among young Armenian Americans—students—we are seeing the alignment of this struggle [for Genocide recognition and reparations] with other social justice movements. But in Turkey, that seems to have happened much quicker.
S.T.: Yes, we are together in that regard. That is Nor Zartonk’s worldview. We are together with the Kurds, with the Alevis, Greeks, the LGBT community… We participate in gay pride, in trans pride. We participate because—how should I say this? You can ask me, ‘Are you gay? Why are you participating in this?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes, I am gay.’ I participate in Alevi rallies because I am an Alevi. I participate in Kurdish rallies because I am a Kurd. This is the issue. We are the same in Turkey. The government’s foot crushes all of us. And if we do not join them and they do not join us, we cannot accomplish anything. And the government has created a system so well that we even go against one another. The Armenians do not like the Kurds; the Kurds do not like the Armenians. The Alevis do not like the Kurds; the Kurds do not like the Alevis. Everyone does not like the LGBT community. You understand? The government has also done it in a way so that we [Armenians] cannot unite.
The name of our union is the Armenian Cultural and Solidarity Union. For us the word ‘solidarity’ is a very holy word; one of the holiest words. Because it is with solidarity that we will pass through all of this; that we will break fascism. And for that reason we are against discrimination. We hold lectures and discussions in our offices on various issues—women’s rights, for example. Every year we participate in gay pride and trans pride; we write about these subjects. But heterosexuals do not write about these subjects, of course. The writer has to be a part of the LGBT community. I cannot write about that subject, for example. Or as a male, I cannot write about women’s issues. It is not my place to do so.
K.K.: It is amazing. Honestly, all of this that you are talking about is amazing. These types of discussions almost never happen in the Diaspora, at least based on my experience as an Armenian American living in Los Angeles.
S.T.: I went to Lebanon and I heard the same thing, especially about women’s rights. People are even stricter there. But you have to shake them; you have to move them. I speak about these issues. We have to open the doors. Whether or not it opens, still, we have to get the message through. People say about us, ‘In Turkey, in that hell, they are struggling. But why are they [struggling] for faggots?’ We are doing it because we are the same. We are oppressed minorities. We are all the same. We go to gay pride every year with our own signs. In Turkey we talk about these issues, we approach them from a theoretical perspective too. We talk about queer theory. But of course, we do not… How should I say this? There are some who attempt to push Armenian issues more [than other issues], but we say, ‘Wait a minute.’ We do not want to be that way. If the LGBT community has a message, we will not stand in front of their message—block that message—with our own message. Of course we say our message too. But whatever they are saying, we say as well.
K.K.: You listen to their struggles, and you give them the opportunity and space to share those struggles and those messages.
S.T.: Yes, exactly. That is the right thing to do for us. We will not stand in the way of what they are saying. The same with Kurdish issues, or Alevi issues—we will not stand in their way. Whatever they are saying, we say too. Of course it is not always exactly the same, but we follow them and we support each other. This is important.
K.K.: Are there any relations between Nor Zartonk and society in Armenia?
S.T.: We have members in Armenia. But as an organization we do not have very many relations at all, unfortunately. This is the first time I am in America. Why? Because for a long time the Diaspora and Armenia has not seen us—Armenia still does not see us. Right now we are protecting the orphanage [Kamp Armen] but at times we ourselves feel like we are orphans because we have not received anything from Armenians, there was no solidarity. We got it later, but really there is nothing. This is not about giving us money. Apo Boghigian, for example, writes articles about us, and they encourage us. We feel that they are following us. Their spirit is with us. Feeling that is very important; it is our motivation. For the struggle in Turkey, that is the biggest thing. We do not have any sponsors, we do everything ourselves.
In Armenia, we have good relations with the Yerevan Women’s Resource Center, because our feminist worldview is the same as theirs. We have relations with PINK Armenia. The ties exist, but it is happening slowly, it is still new there. We can do more, but sometimes we do not have the ability; we do it however we can. We do a lot with solidarity from others. It is difficult, but we are determined. We grab them [Turkish society] by their collars, look at their faces, and say, ‘We are going to stand here. Whatever you do, we are going to stand here. We are not moving.’ We are stubborn. It is a stubborn resistance.
K.K.: This is your first time in America. What are some goals with this visit, and what message do you bring with you?
S.T.: We have to create ties; the ties between the Diaspora and Istanbul are not that great. We know this; it is not a secret. For a long time many people would say, ‘Why do they live in Turkey?’ and we were outside of their [the Diaspora’s] view. So we want to create ties. There is a struggle here too, of course. And I have to say this—people say this, especially in Armenia: ‘The Turk is a Turk.’ That is not true. They are not the same. The Turks have changed after 100 years. Not all of them, but many have. We are not alone there because there are Turks who support us; Alevis, Kurds, LGBTs, or other minorities. We are not alone. We are in danger; 100% we are in danger for sure. This is the struggle. We do this knowing that it is dangerous. But we are still going to struggle. Some things are changing in Turkey. Accepting the genocide is important to us, but making Turkey a more democratic country is more important because it affects Armenia, it affects the Genocide issue, it affects everything. It affects the Armenians of Turkey and the Armenians of the Diaspora. Of course we are going to demand recognition of the genocide, but we are also demanding Turkey’s democratization. But also, not just Turkey; we are demanding Nicaragua’s democratization too—every country. We have to create ties with people who are struggling for a democratic Turkey wherever they are. We are just now finding these people. We began in 2004, but the Diaspora did not recognize us until 2013 during the Gezi Park protests. They saw Armenians in those uprisings.
K.K.: The curtain that has blocked Turkey as whole from our view is finally being lifted. It is opening up for us in the Diaspora.
S.T.: But it is happening with some difficulty. For 100 years we have learned that there was a genocide; they [Turks] have learned that there was no a genocide. Changing that will not happen in a few minutes. But again, we need to join together; we need to be in solidarity with one another in democratic circles in Turkey. Anti-Turkishness does not help us at all. We can be against the state—we are against the [Turkish] state. We are against the current regime. But we are not against the people. We are not even against the people who are against us. The people are something else.
Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the specter of communism haunts Europe. In Turkey, there is the specter of the Armenians. It is wandering now. The ghost is going to the Kurds and it affects them. It is going to the west and it has effects there too. There are old Armenian streets and neighborhoods in western Turkey—in Izmir, in Istanbul, in Bursa. Or it comes and affects our struggle. Things are changing. We should not be saying, ‘The Turk is a Turk.’ That is wrong. The state is the same. The state does not change, I should say that. There is the problem of education when it comes to the genocide, of course. You have the Turkification of capital—capital that was once multicultural. To create a nation-state, all that [multiculturalism] must be erased. Either you take it from their hands with taxes, which they did in the Republican period, or you kill them outright and take it [during the Genocide]. Turkey was built using the economic capital of Armenians. But saying that the Turks killed the Armenians is not completely correct either. This is an educational problem. It is not that simple. We have to understand this.
K.K.: It is clear that Nor Zartonk’s approach to the Genocide, and Nor Zartonk’s overall message, is quite different from that of the Diaspora’s, in general.
S.T.: It is an educational issue. From our leftist point of view, this is how we approach the issue. There is also the problem of identity. It is not just accepting, and it is not just an issue of reparations. It is an issue for Turkish identity. In Turkey we are the first to make demands in regards to the Genocide. First, we demand that the genocide is recognized and that the government asks for forgiveness. Second, there are place in Turkey named after Talaat Pasha and Enver; we want those removed or changed. We also want schoolbooks to include the stories of these crimes. Third, Turkey is lobbying for genocide denial; it is giving money to lobbying groups so the U.S. doesn’t recognize the genocide; it publishes [denialist] books here and supports [denialist] organizations. We want them to stop those lobbying efforts and to give that money to opposite causes. Fourth, the names of places have been changed. We want them to be changed back and we want the Turkey-Armenia border to be opened.
And this year, being 2015 we wanted to write something else [to commemorate the Genocide centennial]. We have always written about the genocide, but this year we did not want to. We wanted to write something that was not theoretical or historical, but rather something that was more emotional. We spoke looking directly into [Turks’] eyes and hearts. The name of our publication was ‘I Am Your Brother.’ We said, ‘Look, you are not someone who has committed genocide. You are not a criminal. But if you do not speak out against this injustice, you are responsible too. Do you want to live in this type of country—a country of injustice? The Armenians were killed; there was no outcry. Then the Kurds were killed, then the Alevis were killed, and others. You are going to leave your children a country like this. We know your grandmothers-grandfathers saved us, or did not want to participate in this crime. But do not vote for parties who deny the genocide. You are responsible too.’ That is what we wrote and it affected people. It spoke to people’s consciousness; to their hearts. Why do I say this? ‘Turks are the enemy. Turks are criminals. Turks are this, Turks are that.’ We, and the Diaspora, have to change our language too. All this anti-Turkishness is not good for us and it is not good for the society we want. We want the genocide to be accepted but with this type of language nothing will be accepted. We will not achieve anything.
K.K.: And it does no good for our conscious either. It brings us no peace.
S.T.: Yes, it only creates hatred. This hatred is not good for our spirit. So we organize every year for Hrant’s murder, for April 24—and this year we had a march.
K.K.: That was the first march in Turkey, right? For the 100th anniversary of the Genocide?
S.T.: Yes, there have been protests in the past but this was our first march, and it was not that easy. During the march the police were going to arrest me, but lawyers came and saved me! They grabbed me [from one side] and the lawyers of a human rights union came and grabbed from the other side saying, ‘What are you doing?’ to the police. The police let me go. It is a good thing they came. They said that we were not allowed to march through the street. We ignored them and began marching, and so the police came with their gas masks ready. Members of other political parties came, the lawyers came; lots of people came to our defense. They told us to walk fast; not to scream. They told us to walk normally but we would not accept that. We said: ‘We are here.’ ‘We are here,’ is important. We are no longer saying, ‘They broke us. They massacred us.’ No. We are here. They were not able to massacre us. We are the ‘remnants of the sword.’ We are here and we are in front of you. I said before that in Turkey there is the specter of the Armenians. ‘We are here, and we are looking at you in the eyes,’ we say to the government. ‘You will accept it. Eventually you will. Either today or tomorrow you will accept it and you will give us our rights. We are here. Hrant it here too. Zabel Yesayan is here too. Komitas is here too. Marissa Küçük is here too. Sevag Balıkçı, they are all here. We are here.’ That was our message this year. ‘We are here in front of you. Come join us.’
K.K.: Those words are very powerful: ‘We are here.’ Do you have a particular message for young people here? For Armenian Americans?
S.T.: What organizations are there here? The ANCA, AYF, Asbarez… The young people should topple all of these and build their own ANCA, their own Asbarez—with their ideas. They should build them. Why should they build them? They should build them with new ideas, with their thoughts and minds, and not with the ideas from 100 years ago. If they build it with their own hands, then they will protect their creation even more. That is how we did it. We built our union ourselves. If they are not very inspired, they will not be very interested. If they are, then they will become more interested. But with their ideas, not with what their predecessors have told them. Look, if we did what our predecessors told us to do, today there would be no Nor Zartonk. The generation before us said you cannot open a union called the Armenian Cultural and Solidarity Union. They said you cannot open a union with the word ‘Armenian’ in the name. We asked, ‘Why?’ We called up some lawyers and they told us you cannot; the state would not allow it. There were rules like that at one point, but they have been erased. We said we will struggle; we will resist. If they do not give us the word ‘Armenian,’ we will scream: ‘In Turkey the government will not allow the opening of an Armenian union.’ Whatever happens after that, happens. Let the government do what it wants. If they do not allow it, we will struggle. We will politicize it. Understand? If they do not give us Kamp Armen, we will politicize it. We will scream; we will resist; we will occupy. And you know what happened? Normally, because of bureaucracy, to get the paperwork for these types of organizations it takes 45 minutes. For us it happened in 15 minutes. Why? Because we are Armenian. They did not want a problem with us. You have to demand your rights. They [young people] should topple everything. They should build their own.