Armenian women's group conversation on stereotypes

Mash: Many people say that Turks and Azeris are the same. For example, people might say that Azeris are Turks and it’s like, I don’t get why they say it like that. They say it in a bad way, because in Armenia the word “Turk” gets associated with something bad.
Zani: Yea, that question has always interested me, that whenever we talk about Azeris we say they are Turks. It’s like you said, we identify them as one and the same. But I don’t think that they are the same.
Liza: But they are a little bit the same.
Pyunik: It’s just that they have originated from the same people.
Liza: Because as far as I remember, our elders told my generation that Turks are all the same, that Turkey is the same Azerbajian.
Mash: But we should take into account that those are two different countries, they are different nations.
Pyunik: And also, Turks are a more ancient peoples and they have more to do with Mongols. On the other hand, Azeris are the same Atropatenes of the ancient kingdom of Atropatene.
Zani: Aren’t they Tatars?
Pyunik: Some call Azeris new Tatars, but we say Turks.
Mash: I think that they say Turk with the aim of hurting that person whom they call Turk. It’s not that they do it to say that Turk and Azeri are the same, but simply to say that “Turk” is a bad thing.
Zani: I also think that people in Armenia say that Turks and Azeris are the same, because they are both considered our enemy.
Liza: That’s what I’m saying, that’s why we say that Turk and Azeri are the same thing, that they are both Turks.
Pyunik: And they say that they are barbarians, because they have both fought with Armenians.
Liza: The Turks supported the Azeris during the war, no?
Zani: Yea, but we can also say that Diasporan Armenians also supported Armenians here during the war.
Pyunik: Yea, but Turkey and Azerbaijan are brothers.
Arev: But it’s our viewpoint that Turkey helped Azerbaijan, because from the viewpoint of Azeris, the Turks did not help them enough during the war. In other words that’s one of the problems that happens when we analyze things from our perspective, from one side of a number of perspectives. We think that just because Turkey closed the border with Armenia right away, then that means Turkey proved its brotherhood with Azerbaijan by doing that. And we think that they are both the same because they both stood against us. But if we see things from the perspective of Azerbaijan, we will understand that Azerbaijan considered Turkey’s approach very weak and in the opinion of Azerbaijan, Turkey should have done much, much more in order to help Azerbaijan during the Karabagh war.
Zani: But we are also speaking from our own way of understanding things. So we can speak about that which we know.
If I speak more from my own experience I can say that I can’t separate all the instances when I was told whether by my parents, by my friends or in school that the Turks are our enemies and that they have killed us and that we should be cautious of them. I even remember that many times a connection would be made with being Turkish and being Muslim, and it made it so that not only the Turks are bad, but that Muslims are bad too. But what does it mean to be Muslim? It’s not only the Turks that are Muslim. There are Muslims in Indonesia, in Africa, in Russia. So it turns out that our enemy is anyone who is Muslim, which to me is already part of a discourse in which Christian and Muslim become divided. In other words, our being Christian comes from being against Islam, from disagreeing with Islam and considering it bad.
I remember when I was in sixth grade we were already living outside of Armenia and let me just say that since the neighborhood where we lived was an immigrant one, there were many, many different people from different nationalities living there. And I remember when someone new would come to our school, maybe he or she would tell me or I would find out from somewhere else that he or she was Azeri…Maybe this new person would also know that I was Armenian and we would act as if we weren’t talking, because we had learned that our nations are enemies. And even if we would meet each other in the school hallways we might have looked at each other, maybe there was hate inside of our looks, I don’t know…But there were things like his. And I also remember that this one girl had come to our class, she was Muslim, but I’m not sure if she was Turkish or not, but that’s what I thought, that she was Turkish, although it could have been my own apprehension. She could have just been Muslim and I had decided that she was Turkish. And she wore a headscarf and I remember that I treated her differently because of that, or rather I didn’t really know how to treat her, how to interact with her. But it’s not like I felt something was bad about her. Maybe she was actually a really nice person.
I can’t say that I had met many Turkish people or had any Turkish friends at that point in my life, although I had the opportunity to since I lived outside of Armenia in a country with many immigrants. But I can say that my best friend in seventh grade was an Uzbek girl and she was Muslim. I remember that when I went to her house I noticed some symbols of Islam and things from her culture, symbols that seemed sacred, much like symbols hanging from the walls of my house such as the cross or Mt. Ararat. And I remember that, for example, my parents encouraged my friendship with this girl because they would say that her people were like our people, that they were also from the Soviet Union, that they could understand us. They would say it’s better for me to be friends with her than with someone who’s originally from the country we had immigrated to, because they didn’t want me to lose touch with my own ethnicity and nationality.
But on the other hand, I am almost sure that if this girl was Turkish maybe my parents would have thought differently about my being friends with her. I don’t know, I can’t say for sure. And let me say another thing, when I had already grown up and I was already studying in the university I met two girls, one of them Arab and the other one was partly Turkish. We all lived in the same neighborhood and we started to hang out together. One of them was from Syria and wore a headscarf and I had never been close friends with anyone in my life who wore a headscarf. I can say that all of those things I had learned from the media and I don’t know where else had affected me. I couldn’t imagine that I could see someone who wears a headscarf as human, in other words to see that person as someone outside of her headscarf. I know it’s horrible, but that’s what I had learned. But this girl was so ordinary that I simply couldn’t see her as only her headscarf or her clothes. And so we started to be friends. We were all friends, her, the other girl and myself.
I have to say that with the other friend, when I found out that she was partly Turkish I asked her right away if she recognized the genocide. She got really upset because I immediately tied the fact that she was Turkish with the genocide. And so there was this little conflict between us. We spoke a lot about it later and both she understood me and I understood her. After that my mind opened more, first of all regarding women who wear head-scarves and also Turkish people. And so I understood that Turkish people are also human and I don’t have to see them from this narrow perspective, to think that they are Turkish and so that means genocide, or that means Islam, and so on and so forth.
Liza: My story is a little bit different as I’ve lived in Armenia my whole life. Well, I spoke about how I associated Turks with Azeris from a young age, because that’s how I was taught. After the war in Karabagh, whenever we spoke about things where I live, even in school, they always said it like that. I understood later, at an older age, that Turks are different from Azeris. But it didn’t matter because during the war they used to say that we’re fighting with the Turks, but when they said Turks they meant Azeris. They had linked the two together and that’s what it had turned into. Now as an adult I know what is Turkey, what is Azerbaijan, I can already differentiate between the two. But when I was smaller, I was under the influence of what other people said.
Zani: But you knew that Turkey and Azerbaijan were separate things, right?
Liza: Yes, I knew that they were two different nations, but when people would say they’re the same and since I had already learned that’s how it was, whether it was my grandfather, grandmother, or other elders who taught me that, or people who had lived side by side with Azeris…I think maybe I just trusted that they knew what they were talking about.
I remember the first time that I went to Istanbul, my father was really worried. He was really afraid. I wanted to go because I had never gone and it was interesting for me. But my father was the first person to be against my going to Turkey. He was really scared that it could be dangerous there. But I don’t know why I didn’t think about that at all, that it could be dangerous. But this time that we plan on going, I am sort of realizing that it’s necessary to have a feeling of fear.
Zani: This time you feel that you need to have a feeling of fear?
Liza: Well, you have to go with at least a small amount of fear in order to be protected…
Zani: And the first time that you went, you didn’t have even an ounce of fear?
Liza: No, not at all…
Zani: But your father scared you so much about it.
Liza: That’s what I’m saying, there was absolutely no feeling of fear then.
Mash: Maybe something happened there?
Liza: Yea, that’s it. When we were there, Gayane and I got in a taxi and went to some stores. Then when we came back and were listening to the news we found out that some Armenians got into a taxi and they took them and raped them…something like that. There was news like that, that they were beaten…yea, I think in reality they were beaten not raped…or were they raped? I don’t remember. And so Gayane and I were kind of in shock and we were saying at least we didn’t say anything about how we were Armenian or anything like that…Although they already knew, we heard some people we met say “Ermenistan” and things like that. So people knew where we were from.
Zani: And was the news source you found out this news from trustworthy? Were they news from Armenia or Turkey?
Liza: It was Armenian news of course…
Zani: But was it trustworthy? Or was it just to make people afraid? I mean, it’s probably hard to know for sure…I don’t know.
Liza: I think it was real.
Mash: Yea, there was definitely something like that.
Liza: And they had gotten in a taxi, those people…and they took them and beat them up. Maybe there was another reason, not that they were Armenian, but some other reason that they beat them… No, but that news really affected me. I was thinking wow, what if something like that had happened to me? All of my fears would have been justified then. That my family thought that Turkey was unsafe for Armenians, and there we were like children, saying yes, we are from Armenia, yes… We went to the market there…really some scary things happened, but I didn’t realize it then. Now I am a little more grown, I realize that you have to be careful, you have to take well thought out steps, and that’s it.
Mash: I want to say that I had always heard more about Turks, at least in Armenia among my relatives. I mean, I didn’t hear so many negative things about Azeris as I did about Turks. And I always had that resistance that when people would say Turks, Turks, I didn’t understand why they called both Turks and Azeris Turks. I mean, c’mon Azeri is one thing, Turk is another thing.
Zani: But when they would say bad things about Turkish people, you didn’t think they were talking about Azeris?
Mash: No, I thought they were talking about Turkish people, because that’s what they were saying. But for example, in my family it was never the case that really horrible and intolerant things be spoken about Turkish people. No one ever said that it’s just the way things are and that we have to hate Turkish people. It’s never been like that for me and it’s never been the case that if I see someone Turkish then I think I have to be careful. It has always been kind of really ordinary. I’ve also gone to Istanbul and for me it was really fun there, I even really trusted people there. It was Lilit and I and we left our suitcases somewhere. We had an hour that we could go around Istanbul and so we went into a random cafe. We didn’t know anyone there or anything, and we asked this man if we could leave our things there and be back in an hour and he said of course, no problem. So we left and later I thought, I mean, in any case you can’t really know, you know? That man found out that we were Armenian, I mean we spoke, but he was really welcoming. So then we came and took our suitcases and he hadn’t lied to us, he hadn’t stolen from us, and neither had he put anything in our bags. I mean later I thought that in any case something could have happened. But I have always felt that security, I mean really if I have ever asked for anything, they have always answered in a really loving way and I have never had that thing to hate Turkish people or to treat them bad.
Zani: What about when you were young?
Mash: I mean yea, the things I read, that part was intense…history books present things in a really different way and they just want to have you start hating Turks, but I don’t know. I think that’s also about choice, it’s about taking that information or not taking it. Of course in many cases you take it, but for example that has really not been the case for me. I know many Turkish people and it has always been a normal interaction. Sure, we have never had a very deep friendship but for example, this summer I went to this summer camp and there were Turkish girls there, three of them, and they were really cool girls. We were interacting really well with each other.
Yea, and I also wanted to say that I think that this feeling of insecurity can happen anywhere and you can be raped anywhere and it can really have nothing to do with nationality. And if you’re going to another country, it doesn’t mater whether it’s Turkey or Sweden or where-ever, you should be careful no matter what. But I remember that when I had to go to Istanbul the first time and no one was going to come with me from Armenia, so I was going to be alone, no one asked me why I was going. It was the opposite, people were very happy, they were saying it’s good that I’m going…
Zani: And no one was making you afraid about it?
Mash: No one at all. I mean, my parents also found out that it was for work. Maybe if I was going just to go on vacation, they might have taken it in a different way. But that they already knew I was going for work they trusted me, it was different, I don’t now…I mean, for example it’s been more the case that when I met Azeris, like when I went to Odessa and for the first time met Azeris, I really felt so much tension from them and they even didn’t hold back that tension and took it out on me and the other Armenian girls. It wasn’t so much a conflict, it was more so that they said some really intolerant things about us and to our face. And always whenever I have gone somewhere where there were also Azeris I have felt that tension, because I think they present things a little bit differently in their country than how we do it in ours. I don’t like to say the words “winner” or “loser,” because I think that no one wins during war, I think that everyone loses. It’s just that they have this kind of “losing” side mentality. The hate speech is a little bit different in their country than in Armenia and I have felt that on several occasions.
Pyunik: Maybe I will start by saying that the first time that I was going to smoke hooka with my friends, I remember that day really well, and it’s like, my uncle also had a hooka, but when I saw that someone was smoking it, it was like just something really horrible. I myself smoke, I smoke cigarettes, but hooka is different for me. I know that yes, it’s not a drug or something like that. I know that it’s ordinary tobacco with flavoring, but just the thought that say, four Turks had sat and smoked hooka and planned how they would kill my grandparents…that did it for me. No, that hooka thing was horrible for me and the first time I tried it…
Zani: Hey, do you think it’s something that has stuck with you from the movies?
Pyunik: Yea, I think so, maybe…because I remember in those films they were mainly sitting and smoking hooka…
Mash: Which film?
Pyunik: As far as I know it’s that genocide film we have…
Zani: No, I was talking about another film, nothing to do with genocide.
Pyunik: Yea, it’s like they would sit with those hats they have and with those hookas and they’d smoke. It’s so horrible when I think about it. But then I spoke about it for a while, I was explaining to my friends that no, I don’t want to smoke, but also I know that it’s not something else, something bad, but I just don’t want to smoke. And so when I just spoke about it and continued to speak about it something broke inside of me. Then I tried it and realized that I’m just dumb. I mean, what am I thinking? How can I associate some simple object with such a thing? With genocide? And the most interesting thing is that it’s not like I blame this generation of Turks. I’m saying let’s forget, let’s pass those things, but see how deep all of that stuff is inside of me that I’m thinking yea, ok, when you smoke hooka, it’s bad, it’s something only Turks could do. Why should I think like that? Why should a normal, open-minded person think that way?
Zani: But you’re saying that you blame this generation?
Pyunik: No, the opposite. I don’t blame this generation. I don’t have the right. I mean, that’s the same as if my grandfather committed a crime and went to prison, or maybe even didn’t go to prison, and someone came looking for an answer from me in the future. Why should I answer for the crimes that my ancestors committed?
Zani: Exactly, you should.
Pyunik: I have to? I have to answer on behalf of my grandfather? The whole nation is different…I mean, they can accept it, that’s a totally different thing, but I don’t blame anyone personally.
Zani: Yea, I also don’t blame anyone personally.
Pyunik: Yea, I’m talking about personally, I’m not talking about the whole nation. As a nation I want, I can even demand, that they accept what happened, but I can’t place the whole weight of history on one person and say for example that you’re Turkish and so your grandfather killed my grandfather and now you are guilty in front of me.
Last year in August I went to Turkey for the first time. I have worked with Azeris a lot, I’ve met many Azeris, but I had never met Turkish people. I am able to separate the two, I know what Azeri is and what Turkish is and I would never confuse the two.
Anyway, the interesting thing is that I stayed in Istanbul for five days, and I kept getting lost during the span of all those five days. I would walk around by myself, I kept getting separated from the group, I don’t even know why. And in the beginning when people would ask me where I’m from - and they’re like us Armenians in this way that when we see someone who is not from Armenia we always want to know where they’re from - so the first day I would lie and say I’m Spanish or Italian. I’d pick places like that, close to where I could look like I’m from. I thought that if I said I’m Armenian they’d do something bad to me. I had such a fear inside of me.
And then the second day I got lost again. They have this market called Laleli, it’s a really big market and I got lost inside of it. I thought about what I should do and decided to wander around a bit. I went to some bag store. There was this young man, he asked me where I’m from and I paused for a second, I didn’t know what to say. I said I’m Armenian, I said “Armenistan” so maybe he would understand better. And I noticed this guy also paused for a moment. So he’s looking at me and I’m looking at him and I got a little scared, I thought I should leave fast, but then I said no. I asked him what this bag I was looking at cost, as if I was interested. I didn’t want him to think I just came to this store for no reason. And suddenly he’s saying to me, well since you’re Armenian, originally it’s 50 euros, but I’ll give it to you for 30…because you’re Armenian…
Mash: Yea, they say things like that.
Pyunik: Yea, I know, I know. But in any case I wasn’t expecting that kind of treatment, it completely broke that thing in me that I was thinking because I’m Armenian something bad can happen to me if I admit that I’m Armenian. And then it started from that. I sat in a bus… Well you know their public transportation system is not like ours, you have to actually pay before you get on. This guy was sitting next to me and he asked me where I was from and I said I’m Armenian without being afraid. He said, well you can give me the money and I can use my card as a pass for you, because you can’t pass without paying first.
Mash: Yea, they’re really helpful like that…
Pyunik: Yea, so I noticed things like that and that fear…I mean there was no fear, it’s not that I was afraid they’d kill me or do I don’t know what to me, but I was afraid that they’d treat me differently if they knew I was Armenian. That’s what I was afraid of. I thought that they’d be hostile toward me, they’d say well she’s Armenian, she’s this, she’s that….For example, when we find out that someone is Turkish, we think about how people say that Turks have a specific smell. I thought they’d say the same about me, that I smell…This was what was going through my mind.
Mash: I think each nationality has its own specific smell and it depends on the air, the spices and the foods they eat, but I mean it doesn’t have to mean that this smell is bad.
Pyunik: Yea, it’s just that they say Turk smell…this is something that has stayed with me. And I also remember that we were flying with Armavia when we went to Istanbul, but when we were returning we took Turkish Airlines. It was me, and this other participant from our group and this Turkish man, all sitting next to each other. And we were passing through a turbulent zone and we all just started looking at each other terrified, the whole Armenian team was thinking it’s some kind of terrorist act. Something like that was passing through all of our minds. I was saying that it’s just turbulence, it’s normal. It was my second time flying in a plane and I knew for sure that this was usual, that when the clouds are dense the plane would shake a little bit. And this Turkish man who was sitting next to us, it seemed he was listening to us, to our every word. But it’s also possible that he didn’t really even care about us…
It’s just that we are so scared, and we have this paranoia that everyone is following us, I mean I have that. You think that if you are flying with a Turkish airline company then a terrorist act is something that can definitely happen, but if you’re flying with Armavia then it’s impossible. I mean, when they were bringing us food I noticed how we were all just looking at each other, suspicious of the food.
Zani: You thought that a terrorist act could happen because they knew that there were Armenians in the plane?
Pyunik: Yes, that there were Armenians inside. There were really a lot of Armenians in that plane and I mean when they’d bring those tiny packages of food and all of us were looking at that food, smelling it…
Mash: I mean yea, it’s fear.
Pyunik: Fear kind of turns off all of your senses and only that fear remains. I mean the most interesting thing was that I really liked Istanbul and I am always thinking about returning there. It was really magical there and there were so many different cultures there with all of these different colors and scents. You could smell a distinct scent from each street and I really liked that.
Zani: But you know Istanbul is a big city and it’s right on the water…but not all of Turkey is like that.
Pyunik: Yea, I know that all of Turkey is not like that. I mean for example Istanbul itself is old Constantinople. You go a little bit and it’s Roman, you go a little bit and it’s Armenian, a little bit more and it’s Turkish…Arabic…
Zani: Greek…
Arev: I’ll just say that my perspective is a little different, because I was born and grew up here, I mean, not in New York but in Los Angeles, and as you know Los Angeles has a really big Armenian community. I went to an Armenian school my whole life, so I studied Armenian history, religion and all of that was just very Armenian, Armenian, Armenian…And I remember that when I was young, like in the 2nd or 3rd grade, I would write “100 percent Armenian” on all of my notebooks, both in Armenian and in English. It was an absolute need to write this on all of my notebooks and now that I think about it, and I’ve thought about it a lot, I think this comes from the fact that the Armenian identity was really important to me and it was something that was rooted in me since I was very young. And with that, the hatred for Turks. Those two had to go together, because being Armenian meant being a survivor and a survivor of what? A survivor of genocide. We are the survivors of suffering. And so who was responsible for that? It was Turks, it was Azeris. So being Armenian always means hating Turks.
Hate…well, “hate” would be too strong. Rather, it’s about seeing Turks as the other, as in someone very different from you. And so it’s not about hating Turks so strongly, but rather not understanding who the Turk is and, from a young age, assuming that the Turk is bad.
And so growing up that way until I was 18 years old, until I went to college, those feelings were really strong. But during my college years, a lot of internal conflicts arose within me. A really strong inner conflict arose inside of me, because I was studying not only the history of the Armenian genocide, but the histories of other genocides. And studying all of this made me realize that it wasn’t only Armenians who lived such a history, but that there were many, many other peoples who lived that same history, that others had also been subject to genocide and so my world-view expanded a lot. I started to understand what it means to be human, and if before that I would have identified myself first as an Armenian, after understanding all of these things I would identify myself first as a human, then a woman. No, sorry, I wouldn’t include “woman” then, because that part of my consciousness had not developed so much yet. I would say I am human and only after that I am Armenian, that I’m Armenian-American.
That internal conflict was really strong. But even though during that time my world expanded so much, I had still not had much interaction with Turkish people. There was this Turkish guy I met and with whom we decided to meet once or twice a week to discuss our histories. He was from Turkey and he had received a scholarship to study in an American university, but he was studying science, physics I think. He wasn’t studying history.
So he was interested in history and we met a few times. It didn’t go very far and after that I didn’t see him anymore. And so I didn’t have much interaction with Turkish people. I knew that there was a Turkish Students’ Association at my university and they were really active. They would often say some negative things about Armenians. They also had some negative things on their website, I mean even in the university there were some anti-Armenian sentiments from the Turkish students. Even on their website, I mean it was pretty public. And so there were several issues like that and so I decided to study Turkish. I’ve completely forgotten it now, but I really wanted to learn their language because I also wanted to better understand their culture.
Then something interesting happened with my professor. She was probably in her 60’s at that time. The first semester went really well. I got a good grade and our relationship was really good. It was a small class, maybe about seven students the most. Then it was the end of the second semester, summer vacation was about to start and it was the last day. She approached me, this professor. And I should mention that during the year she would also talk about Turkish culture and about history and so on. And she would hint at things, not often, but she would do it. She’d talk about how throughout history Turkish people were very welcoming. In other words she would say that they were really welcoming to minorities, that they treated minorities really well, that minorities lived well in the Ottoman empire and so on. I mean, I would burn up inside when she’d say these things, but I wouldn’t say anything because I had to be in her class the entire year.
And so it was the last day of the second semester and we weren’t going to see each other anymore. Everyone left the classroom and she said goodbye to me and hugged me and her eyes teared a little and she whispered into my ear in a really low voice that she was sorry for everything that had happened. I was in shock, I mean she was hugging me and then she just kind of let me go and I was stuck in my place. I didn’t know what to do, what had happened…I was just in shock and I thought to myself that she knows. And let me also just say that her husband is an Englishman, I mean he has almost become Turkish in every way possible, and he taught Turkish history and he was one of the most anti-Armenian professors in that university. He simply hates Armenians. And my professor is the wife of this person who isn’t even Turkish. I mean I was just asking myself does she really know? Is it possible that this woman who has such a husband, this woman who has been saying all of these things during the entire school-year, is it possible that she knows the history? And that feeling of guilt was so strong inside of her that she felt the need to hug me and say to me in a really low voice that she was sorry?
After college when I met my husband and we both started to explore a number of different things, starting from Ghandi, to Martin Luther King and those movements, my entire mentality changed. I began to understand that if we want to move forward and live alongside Turks and Azeris, then there needs to be peace, there needs to be love and compassion. I can say that the 10 year old Shushan, even the 20 or 21 year old Shushan had gone through a 180 degree change and she was no longer the same person. And that was the result of many many years of struggle. It was about breaking those stereotypes one by one, it was about those arguments with my parents, it was about the arguments with my friends and changing those stereotypes. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of struggle.
I think that within the Diaspora, if I speak outside of my own perspective, these issues are really big, because the youth isn’t breaking these stereotypes and is staying stuck within false ideas about who Turks are and the hatred continues. I can say that for the past several years some of my husband’s and my closest friends are Turkish and these are people who are like brothers to us, people who we see everyday because we work side by side. One of them is a sculptor and the other is a painter. They are really talented guys.
In other words my mentality regarding Turkish people has completely changed. Of course it took many years. These guys were both really radical activists in Turkey and they also said that they know the history and everything…so in other words, this thing that someone is Turkish and so he or she is “the other” no longer exists inside of me
So that’s all, thats my Diasporan experience. And I just want to say one more thing: Azeris and Turks are not the same, in my mind they are different.
Liza: I think that we are now a really different generation and all of those things from our history, even that hate that has been passed down from our ancestors, I mean we imagine it in a different way now and we are trying more to have peace as opposed to hate. I think that we are trying to approach things in a different way now and I think that we are not living in a century where we should start hating each other and fighting all over again. I think people just need to respect each other and to recognize each other as human.