Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kemal Yalcin speaks in Glendale

Author chronicles the hidden story of Turkey's Armenian remnants

* Kemal Yalcin speaks in Glendale

GLENDALE, Calif.-- On March 16, the Glendale Public Libraryauditorium was filled with an audience anxiously waiting to hearTurkish author Kemal Yalcin talk about his book-'You Rejoice My Heart'.

Recently translated into English by Paul Bessemer and published fort he Tekeyan Cultural Association by the Gomidas Institute, the booktells the seldom-discussed story of Armenian remnants, the so-calledsecret or hidden Armenians, who still live in the provinces of Turkey.

These survivors, along with the scant ruins of churches and otherlandmarks of their communities, are the last reminders of Armenian civilization, which has thrived on the lands of Western Armenia for thousands of years before being decimated by Turkish repression andgenocide.

As if frozen in time, the small numbers of Armenian remnantscontinue to live on the soil of their ancestors, secretly holding onto their Armenian heritage and sometimes even their religion.

In his opening remarks, Ara Sarafian of the Gomidas Institute cast abrief look at the Turkish treatment of minorities that remained inTurkey after 1915. In light of the prejudice and hostility to whichthese minorities continue to be subjected, Mr. Sarafian described 'You Rejoice My Heart' as a "seminal work" which is "opening a new chapter of understanding Armenian history." "The Armenian Genocide didn't finish in 1915," Mr. Sarafian said. "Turkish nationalism has become institutionalized."

Mr. Sarafian explained that concerted efforts to repress ethnicminorities persevered throughout modern Turkish history. By the 1950s,many Greeks, Jews, and Armenians who still lived in Turkey fled thecountry, and the few who remained, especially in the provinces, were assimilated by converting to Islam.

Armenians survived by adopting Turkish names, no longer speakingArmenian, and not telling their children about their ethnic origins.Children usually found out that they were Armenian much later in life.

While traveling throughout the eastern provinces of Turkey, Mr.Sarafian has come across Armenians who have assumed Muslim identity.But "they are Armenians," he said. "They will let you know if theychoose to let you know. They all have Genocide stories [to tell]. They all had horrible experiences."

Part memoir, part travelogue, You Rejoice My Heart peers into the world of Turkey's secret Armenians. "For the first time we haveinsight into their lives," Mr. Sarafian said. "As Yalcin collects allthese biographies, we get a more coherent picture of Armenianhistory,... a sense of what it means to be a Turkish-Armenian over thepast 90 years."

* The author

Mr. Yalcin began his address by welcoming the audience in Armenian.Afterward he spoke in Turkish, with an Armenian translator relayinghis words to the audience. With a personable style that captivated hislisteners, the author focused on his personal journey of uncoveringthe hidden links of a shared past that hold the keys to many unanswered questions.

Born in the Honaz subdistrict of Turkey's southwestern Denizilprovince, Mr. Yalcin was a product of the Turkish educational system,which reinforces the notion of an ethnically and religiouslyhomogeneous Turkish society and teaches little about minorities -- let alone the Armenian Genocide. After earning degrees in education andphilosophy, Mr. Yalcin went on to become a journalist and anaward-winning author. He moved to Germany in the 1980s.

Mr. Yalcin recalled that there were about 1,000 Greeks in Honazduring the years he grew up there. His grandparents were neverprejudiced against their Greek neighbors. In fact, they agreed to holdon to a Greek family's dowry for safekeeping. The Greek family nevercame to retrieve their belongings. Mr. Yalcin recalled his grandfather saying, "Whether it's 40 days or 40 years, we will hold on to this dowry until we return it to their family."

Mr. Yalcin's family stayed true to their promise until, decades later, Yalcin himself handed the dowry over to the Greek family's grandchildren in Greece. It was there that he learned about theArmenian Genocide and began what would become the journey of alifetime. "If you think what they did to the Greeks was bad, listen towhat they did to the Armenians in other parts of Turkey," the Greek family told him.

Mr. Yalcin then began meeting with Armenians. He took time tonurture relationships and gain trust in order to get the secretArmenians to tell their often unbearably painful stories -- whichwould eventually be included in his book.

* The book

You Rejoice My Heart opens in Germany, where Mr. Yalcin, working as aTurkish instructor, befriended an Armenian cultural-immersion teacher named Meline. Through her guidance, Mr. Yalcin eventually embarked ona project to seek out Armenians living in Turkey as Muslims or Turks.

His journey took him on a trajectory that started with his native Honaz and included Amasya, Erzurum, Askale, and Kars, and ended in theancient city of Ani.

One example of the secret Armenians whom Mr. Yalcin met is MadameSafiye. In the book, she tells her story with the effervescence of aperson who has waited 70 years to speak. She is one of the last remaining Armenians of Amasya. Born in 1931, she ran away from home to marry a Turkish man. Through her conversation with Mr. Yalcin, she opens up, for the first time since she was 15, about her Armenianpast. She reveals that her real name is Zaruhi, after an aunt who had perished during what she calls "the Deportations."

Safiye's mother, Zeytimya, was the sole survivor of "the Deportations." As Safiye remembers her parents, her memory drifts away, Mr. Yalcin explains. Her own children and grandchildren never knew about their Armenian past until Yalcin's arrival.

Through her story, we learn about the lives of other Armeniansliving in Amasya after 1915. Amasya once had a thriving Armenian population. The community, along with its churches and schools, was utterly devastated during the Genocide. After 1915, only about 60 Armenian families remained. All they knew was that they were Armenian and their religion was different. "We didn't let a lot of people know about it," Madame Safiye says. "Even so, we were so afraid!"

Armenians tried their best to marry within their tiny community.They prayed in secret and adopted Armenian orphans who had survivedthe massacres. While some Armenians eventually fled, most of those who remained stopped speaking their native tongue and denied ever being Armenian.

"These are hard things to talk about!" Madame Safiye tells Mr.Yalcin. "If you think about all the things that happened to us, youcan't believe how we managed to make it till now...."

* The aftermath

Mr. Yalcin has been living in Germany for years and speaks freelyabout this topic, though he is aware that he might be the target ofTurkish retribution. "I'm scared," he said. "But the reality is more important."

"There is big work to do," Mr. Yalcin added. "As humans we have to address and expose this inhumanity." He went on to stress that hiswork is about promoting communication between Turks and Armenians."Researchers deal with the archives, but my job is working with survivors and their grandchildren," he said.

When asked about Turkish public opinion and whether the Turkisheducational system will ever allow future generations to learn about what really happened prior to 1923, Yalcin answered optimistically,"Today what we see in Turkey was unimaginable 30 years ago."

"Things are changing in Turkey regarding this matter," he continued,referring to the recent wave of Turkish intellectuals and authorswriting about the Armenian Genocide. "Dividing is easy; coming together is hard," he stressed. "Always live with hope."

You Rejoice My Heart has been published in Italian, Armenian,Spanish, and French, in addition to Turkish. After the destruction ofthe entire first Turkish edition in Istanbul on June 21, 2002, the book is now once again in print and widely read in Turkey.

Mr. Yalcin has dedicated the English translation of the book to thememory of "his dear brother," Hrant Dink.

The English translation of You Rejoice My Heart is available at AbrilBookstore (818-243-4221).

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