Turkish women's group conversation on stereotypes

Zeynep has shared a memory with her friends via e-mail. It is a memory about something that happened a few years ago in a bus on the way to Greece. We started our conversation with Zeynep reading the mail that was sent to her friends out loud.
Zeynep: My dear friends, last evening as I was departing from Istanbul, I felt terribly bad and I wanted to write to you. I just needed to share a traumatic experience that happened to me on the bus.
So the buses that come here are always double-decker buses, but generally there are not many people inside. I was on the second floor, reading Radikal (a Turkish newspaper) and sitting in a relaxed position on a seat for two people. You will understand why I mention the name of the newspaper a little bit later.
After I finished reading the paper, a man sitting in front of me asked me: “May I read the newspaper?” So I gave it to him. He just took a quick look and then gave it back to me and said “very clean!” I asked him what he meant exactly. He told me that this newspaper was not following the political agenda very well and that there was no single news of significance inside. This is how our conversation started. We talked a little about other newspapers such as TarafCumhuriyet and the general situation of the country (Turkey). He complained about the people –especially young people- who do not question life. He also spoke about how most people are only concerned with the pleasures that consumption brings. I didn’t want to get into a long conversation so I just kept nodding, “yes, yes, you are right.”
Afterwards, when he said that women are so ignorant and they always vote for AKP (the conservative party, which is in power at the moment), I couldn’t stand it anymore and changed the subject…Then, the topic of our conversation shifted and we were talking about the idea of the nation state and slogans such as ‘one nation’, ‘one state’, unity etc. I mentioned that the nation state discourse doesn’t work anymore. After this, he asked me: “Haven’t you ever read ‘Nutuk’?” (“Nutuk” is a book composed of the collection of speeches by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk). I answered him, “I have read it twice.” I mean, I wonder why I would do such a thing? But sadly, it is true.
Then we talked about the taboo of Atatürk. This man I was speaking to was quite Kemalist (Kemalism is the ideology named after Atatürk’s first name, which is the official ideology of the Turkish Republic), but he was a somewhat open-minded person. I said that “Atatürk has also done ethnic cleansings. He made mistakes. I mean, he is a human being, he’s not perfect.” 
Delal: (sarcastically) Sure, human beings do such things…
Zeynep: I continued, “Atatürk hasn’t always done what was right. So it is not right to try to solve each and every problem by following Atatürk’s way of reforms.” This man I was talking to was annoyed a little bit, but he acknowledged that I was right too. Anyway, I talked with this guy enough and all of a sudden another man came close to us to talk. He had been living in different European countries for 35 years. When we talked about minority rights, he said “I have been everywhere in Europe and what I observed is that Turkish people cannot protect their rights, Kurdish people do it better.”
Here things got heated up. A woman sitting in the front of the bus suddenly turned back, and said loudly to me: “I’m sorry for interrupting, but I can’t stand it anymore. Being a young Turk, how can you dare to think like that? There was not a single good thing that came out of your mouth.” When I realized that she assumed that I am a Turk right away, I said on impulse: “How do you know that I am a Turk?” And I continued: “Yes, I was born in Turkey, and I am living there, but I am not a Turk, I am Armenian.” (I don’t know how it came to my mind. I am really a Turk.) 
The woman got really angry when she heard my words. She murmured something, but I didn’t understand. Actually I didn’t intend to answer her; I was planning to just get quiet. But then she said, “Everybody who thinks in a similar way as you do should be executed in Taksim Square (a popular district in Istanbul) as a warning to others.” I got so angry at those words. I said: “People have been killing and dying in Turkey because of such ideas and thoughts. This way of thinking is exactly the reason why we couldn’t live together. Shall we kill everybody who is not Turk? Is this your solution?” 
Then a very strange scene occurred; all the other people in the bus turned towards me. I caught all of their eyes… This woman had already almost signed my death verdict and yelled it out for everyone to hear. The other passengers also started speaking their minds, agreeing with this woman: “Yes, she’s right!”
I was in the middle of chaos.  My god! I thought they will kick me off the bus! I felt that moment so strongly.
Of course, the most violent part of this discussion was happening in a very ironic place: We had just left Turkey, and were waiting on the border of Greece. In other words, it was the most proper border to reach a consensus…huh! Ok, I am making fun, but I seriously thought about it: what happens if they kick me off the bus?
In the meantime, everybody was continuing the discussion. One of them said, “I am also part of a minority in Greece, but I always get on well with Greek people.” Another one said, “We should be grateful because we have a hero like Atatürk.” Another one said, “So what, should each of us have another prime minister, should everyone form another state?” As you see, everybody was criticizing me maliciously. At last, I felt the sensation that I needed to do something. Finally I yelled out loud that they are being really verbally abusive with me. I said it out of habit mostly. I said that they had no right to do such a thing. After that, I added quickly: “There isn’t any bit of tolerance for different ideas here.”
Then the driver’s assistant took our passports and being a man who tries to get involved in community matters and to fix conflicts, he distracted everyone’s attention from the hot topic. So finally people stopped talking so loud and their words started to turn into a mix of murmurs…
Up until that point I had never encountered a situation in which I was so clearly the target of violence. I had never actually felt so lonely and helpless like that. In that moment, within just a few minutes, anything could have happened. And so I had also raised my voice and tried to fight back.
Then I got off the bus and went to the hotel. I was astonished.
I have been asking myself: “What kind of a thing is ‘the psychology of identity?” Yes, of course we know that identity politics are important. But still, how come a person interacting with an “other” identity feels virtually as if s/he experiences an “enemy invasion”? What kind of a self-protection instinct is this? From whom are we trying to protect ourselves even while we are all living side by side, in the same world. Our identities and possessions are important, but we are not solely made up of them. I mean, just because I am Turkish, it doesn’t mean I feel a specific emotion with regard to my Turkishness. I don’t have to be Turkish, but I have to be someone. Indeed sometimes, I don’t want to be “Turkish” at all.
I really couldn’t understand how Turkish people living in the Balkans were not able to empathize with minorities living in Turkey. (Yes, seriously I still don’t understand it.) We know that Turks aren’t liked so much in the Balkans. Ok, I admit that maybe this doesn’t always work to establish empathy, but how does the hostility emerge? It seems to me that the very reason behind this hostility is the very notion of “identity.” Belonging to a nation is nothing but a notion, which is created to exclude anyone not belonging to or agreeing with that nation. There is no truth inside of it and it is made up of an “abstract” meaning. Its purpose is to create social relationships based on that nationality; Such people think how nice it would be if everybody was “Turkish.” It would be so simple…
But it is not like that. It can’t be. So then what are we going to do now?

With love,
Your tired friend,
Zeynep: I finished the letter with a set of inquiries.
Oya: It is a really difficult situation. You probably felt at that moment the kind of hostility there is…
Zeynep: Exactly, those few seconds… I was really scared. I said to myself “I wish I hadn’t done that, why did I say something like that?” Because I suddenly perceived the threat in this way; I thought Oh my god, I am the victim.
Delal: You were not only an Armenian, you were an Armenian who claims her rights; that makes the situation more complicated.
Oya: Well, you did say that you don’t understand how Turks who are minorities in some countries couldn’t empathize with minorities in their own country. Actually there is a phrase: “being more royalist than the king.” So sometimes these Turks can be more nationalist. They can hold on to their national identities as a result of the anger of being excluded in the countries where they live.
Zeynep: In fact I thought it should be the exact opposite. I thought that ultimately, Turks are not liked so much in Greece so the Turks living in Greece should understand the sufferings of other minorities.
Oya: When I think about the prejudices towards Armenians and other minorities, my time in primary school comes to mind. I grew up in Istanbul, I went to Şişli Terakki Primary School. Şişli Terakki is known as a “Jewish school.” It was established in Thessaloniki. It is said that Atatürk as well went to this school. Do you remember the old name of this school?
Delal: Şemsi Efendi.
Oya: Yes, Şemsi Efendi. There were many Jewish and Armenian people in our school. For example, there were at least 10 Jewish and Armenian students out of 40. I guess there were more Jews than Armenians. Since our school was a private school, everybody used to say “Jews and Armenians are rich.” My parents as well said such things, they said “They are always rich.” And so on…Because of that, the stereotypes that Jews and Armenians are rich stuck in my mind. But I didn’t think at that time about the fact that in any case, I went to a private school, so you had to have money to go there. For example, the grandchildren of the owners of Nuh’un Ankara Makarnası and Nuh Çimento (two big factories in Turkey) were my classmates. So in fact, Turks were also rich.
Zeynep: But no one ever thinks about that or finds that disturbing.
Oya: Yes. By the way, I didn’t have any Kurdish friends. When I was studying at the university I remember that I asked myself: “Why have I never had any Kurdish friends before?” Maybe I had some Kurdish friends, but I did not realize that they are Kurdish because they were not introducing themselves as Kurd.   
Anyway, after finishing the “Jewish primary school,” I went to a Christian high school. The school was owned and directed by a catholic cult. The nuns used to live inside the school, some of them even became our teachers. In our high school it was obligatory that the school principal be a priest. I think Christian people felt more comfortable in this school if the principal was a priest. I remember at that school I had more Armenian friends than Jewish ones. I guessed that Armenians prefer that their children attend schools where Christian education and values are taught.
One of my close friends in high school was Armenian. Her family was also quite rich. My prejudice that “all Armenian people are wealthy” changed after I moved to Feriköy (a district in Istanbul where many Armenians live). After I started to get to know the Armenian community in Feriköy better, I realized that not all the Armenians are as rich as I predicted. For example, my parents were also not very rich, but they somehow managed to send my sister and me to private schools. The same condition can be valid for the parents of my Armenian friends. However I always remember such phrases as: “They got all the money,” “They know their business and they’re no fools.” These things were said in such a way as if to imply that the Armenians don’t deserve to be rich or that their wealth is unjust.
Delal: Assuming that the Armenians are wealthy is not very problematic, I suppose. After the genocide, those Armenians who remained mostly came to the big cities, especially to Istanbul. Living in the city might have given them more of a chance to become wealthier. For instance, compared with the Kurds, they might seem to be wealthier. On the other hand, within their own community, Armenians are divided into many economic classes.
Oya: Yes, that is my point. There are economic classes within both the Turkish and Armenian communities. However, if an Armenian is rich, it is highlighted additionally. And this is done in an accusatory manner, the Armenians are accused for having wealth.  In addition to these prejudices, I had the impression that Armenian people were “vigilant merchants.” After many years, I learned that Armenians are mostly craftsmen and the crafts culture in Turkey was mostly taken over by the Armenian masters.
Zeynep: Also the architectural skills… Most of the old buildings in our district were constructed by Armenians.
Oya: Well, how was the situation in your schools? I heard that in some high schools there were fanatically nationalist school principals in charge who applied pressure on the students. I did not experience such nationalist pressures at my school. Actually, I was quite unaware in school, but I started to realize the Turkish reality once I was already in the university. Until then I was not aware that many Armenians are brought up and live with a big fear in this country.  I noticed this fact after the homicide of Hrant Dink. I already knew the upheavals of September 6th-7th, the stories of genocide… However, I did not think these things still happen today. I would not have guessed that Armenians were afraid of expressing themselves and saying “I am an Armenian” in a public space like you did Zeynep. Maybe they are not even saying “I am an Armenian,” but sometimes it can also be understood from their Turkish pronunciation or from their names. For example, I did not know that in the 80’s Hrant used to name himself “Fırat” (a Turkish name).
Delal: It is very common for Armenians to register their sons with Turkish names, although they are still called by their Armenian names in daily life. They do this considering the fact that they will serve as soldiers, because it is obligatory for all males to do military service in Turkey, and considering that it might be dangerous for them to have an Armenian name during this time.
Oya: My close friend in high school had an Armenian name. So I didn’t think that they were hiding their real names.
Delal: I met an Armenian who has a last name with a meaning that praises the state. It was striking for me.  I suppose with the best scenario, his grandfather might be an Ottoman bureaucrat, but… 
Oya: Actually, in the Ottoman times, there were many Armenian bureaucrats, Armenian government officers, and even Armenian members of parliament. But later…..  
Zeynep: …. things suddenly changed.
Delal: One of intellectuals who was killed in 1915 was Krikor Zohrab. He was a member of parliament at that time.
Oya: Yes, that’s right, he was. Another important debate in Turkey’s history is that the wealth of genocide victims was transferred to the people who remained in Anatolia. Think about it…without any effort you become wealthy. This fact also has a strong effect on the denial of the genocide, because many Anatolian people became the owner of unearned property.
I should shut up now, I always talk. Please tell me your stories, your experiences….
Zeynep: I am thinking about my education. I was really apolitical when I was in high school. I guess it was due to the apolitical atmosphere of inner Anatolia. Rums (Greeks) used to live in inner Anatolia before the foundation of the republic. I do not know if there were also Armenians that lived in my home city. However, I know that it is an area that is mostly occupied with a Turkish population.
In my home city there was a very conservative and nationalist atmosphere. I was always noticing the conservative and nationalist mentality. I was not aware of alternative ways of living in and thinking about the world. In our high school there were young nationalist party chiefs. The young nationalist supporters of this party were beating up students in hidden corners near the school.
I grew up internalizing the official ideology of the Turkish Republic. I was accepting all written information in our school books; for example, I believed that the Armenian parties were harmful. I had neither an Armenian friend, nor a Kurdish friend. We were living as conservative “white Turks” in our town. For me, Armenians were making trouble because of their harmful political parties like Taşnak or Hınçak. That’s how the Armenian parties were called, right? For me these were the names of organizations to be remembered for history class. I remember also that jokes were made about the names of these parties.
Oya: I remember ASALA (an armed Armenian organization). When I was in high school, ASALA committed some homicides. At the same time I was learning from my history lessons about the deportations. I learned that: “At first Armenians killed the Turks. Therefore, Turks were obliged to displace the Armenians, because Armenians were in collaboration with the Russians. They were traitors.” I remember during that time the homicides committed by ASALA were shown as a proof of this argument.
Zeynep: There was talk that they were trying to cause the collapse of the state from inside.
Oya: Exactly, this was also told to us. I remember that we read some “traitor” stories about Armenian people. Was it in the history books, or in the newspapers? I can’t remember. However, the hostility has increased now; for example, documentaries about the denial of the genocide are shown in schools nowadays.
Delal: When I was in my 2nd or 3rd year at the university “Sarı Gelin” (a documentary about the denial of the genocide) was distributed to all schools across the country by the ministry of education.
Oya: I remember the Armenian parties Taşnak and Hınçak from our history classes, too. When we were told these stories about traitor Armenians, I was studying in the class together with my Armenian friends. At that time, I did not think about the difficulty of that situation. What were they feeling? For me, only the religious traditions of the Armenians were important, since we were celebrating the Christian religious holidays at school. I was not aware of a national Armenian identity and therefore it did not come to my mind that the accusations about Armenian people might harm my Armenian friends.
The first text that I ever saw in the Armenian language was in a newspaper called Agos (an Armenian-Turkish newspaper published by Hrant Dink and his team). I saw Agos in my friend Nirva’s house. I was surprised. I asked Nirva: “Is there such a newspaper in Turkey?”
Zeynep: After I started studying at the university, I realized that most of the historical information that was told to us in school was composed of lies. We were focusing on Armenian history in one of our theater plays. We started to talk about this issue. The Armenian genocide was an issue that many people in the group were confronting for the first time. It was really important to experience this confrontation. We tried to empathize with Armenians, to listen without any judgment and to understand how the genocide happened. There were many things that we learned for the first time. Before that we had no idea about the real facts and about what really happened in our history. I remember the photos….
Oya: You searched some documents, didn’t you?
Zeynep: Yes, when you research into the documents you realize that people were exiled to the desert, they were sent to death. The stories in the book “Grandchildren” were dreadful. One is obliged to leave her/his child…Very tragic stories. And reading them as such made me wonder: “If these stories were actually lived and experienced, why hadn’t we known about them at all?”
And indeed, this is recent history. We are the grandchildren. It is not a history that is so far from us. There are many people who have learned that they are Armenian recently; they are the ones who have been assimilated… We thought that these stories should be told, they should come to light outside of closed discussions, whether it was genocide or not, we thought these things should be spoken of without any judgment. Our play emerged in this way.
At the beginning we were really afraid about what kind of reaction we would receive, what would be written. But everything was so clear in the play; there was no color or race of the story, we were solely mentioning a tragedy. At the moment that this tragedy is told, there occurs a silence, a kind of shame at least. One thinks: “Maybe I am not the perpetrator directly, but maybe by not listening to these stories and ignoring them, I become the perpetrator, at least indirectly.” The play has evoked such an effect. Thus, we haven’t heard any of the nationalist arguments, which we had expected.
Delal: I think of my prejudices about Armenians, but not a lot of things come to my mind. I suppose situating myself somewhere with regard to the Kurdish question has been more painful and important in my life. I grew up in Antalya and my mother is Kurdish. I remember a scene from my childhood, but I cannot fully understand the questions of how it happened and why it got stuck in my mind. I suppose I was 5 years old at that time. There were rectangular birthday cakes, do you remember? There were long birthday cakes in rectangular shapes.
That day my parents had bought one of those cakes for me. But it was not my birthday. I should have found something to celebrate, but what? My parents were out there in the balcony. The electricity was gone, I remember in such detail. We had lighted the candles on the cake. The cake was sitting on a round coffee table and I humbly made the whole event into a celebration by turning around the table and shouting “Damn the PKK!” (PKK stand for Kurdistan Worker’s Party). There is such a scene in my mind. I could have been 5 or 4 years old. How did it happen? And why?
Oya: But this is something that make sense…I mean that it happened, especially when I think about the time-period of when you were 5 years old. When were you born?
Delal: This happened in 1995 or 1996 probably.
Oya: Exactly. At that time there was enormous propaganda against Kurds on television.
Delal: I was not going to school; it cannot be the reason, no way.  I believe it cannot be because of my family. As far as I can see my father is not fascist. My mother’s family is already inside the Kurdish struggle. Maybe I was affected by my father’s family. I used to stay in my grandparents’ home a lot. They had Kurdish neighbors and although my mother is Kurdish too my grandparents used to tell me that their neighbors were Kurdish within a narrative in which the word Kurdish was used as a swear-word, a curse. Maybe it was what really affected me.  Television definitely had an effect in a great way.
Zeynep: It is definitely television. “Damn the PKK” was the most catchy and common slogan at that time.
Oya: As you could not have read the newspaper at that age, it must have definitely been television that influenced you. It was very influential. Oh, I cannot believe Delal, and cannot imagine you in such a position. It means that they made such strong propaganda that…
Delal: Ok, but why do I still have this scene in mind? It cannot stick in my mind because I thought that it was something shameful for me since at that time I was not evaluating things as I do now, and thus I couldn’t think that it was shameful. What is weird to me is the fact that I remember this scene very clearly.
Then I started primary school. By the way, during the year 1990 the armed conflict in Kurdistan was quite dense and active. And we were going to Diyarbakır each year. Some of my mother’s family lives in Diyarbakır and the rest live in Bingöl. We were going to Bingöl from Diyarbakır. The road was by way of mountains; on one side there was a cliff and on the other it was full of high rocks. But because there was ongoing armed conflict, the gendarmerie (police force) did not allow cars to light their headlamps. It was as if we were driving to death…
Oya: And probably there was no light…
Delal: Yes, there was no light on the road. We went without knowing where we were going. Only someone who knew the road well would drive the car.
Zeynep: It must have been still so dangerous, even if s/he knew the road well.
Delal: But being a child I probably didn’t understand what kind of violence there was. Because just one year after this visit to Bingöl-Diyarbakır, the following event happened: My primary school was in Kemeraltı, an elite district of Antalya. My mother picked me up from the school. The Kurdish Party of that time…DEHAP or HADEP I don’t know, one of them… The party had a convoy that day. Lots of people were passing by in the convoy. They were sounding the horn, waving hands. My mother made the victory sign with her fingers towards the convoy and I remember reprimanding her and saying: “Mom, what are you doing? You are supporting the terrorists! How can you do such a thing?” And this shame of mine at the age of 8 still eats my heart out.
Zeynep: But do you remember anything about your prejudices towards Armenians?
Delal: When I was in the 5th grade, probably in the newspaper Milliyet, I read an article which gave me an idea about how bloody Ottoman history was. Indeed the article was not specifically on these massacres, but I remember that I asked the following question to my parents: “If the Ottoman Empire has such a bloody history then what they call the Armenian Genocide might have occurred, right?” I remember that I was waiting for the approval of my statement, as in I wanted them to approve it. And so they said: “Yes Armenians have probably been massacred.”
When I think about it now, it seems to me that I had no prejudices towards Armenians before and after this event. But I know that it is impossible for the things that I heard and learned in school and elsewhere to not have affected me. Of course one reason for me to think that I had no prejudices as such was the fact that there were not many Armenians in Antalya. My more profound thoughts about this issue actually began when I was in high school. Reading articles by some intellectuals of Turkey who had alternative arguments to the official ideology and what we had encountered so far, I became more curious about what happened to the Armenians.
I remember that I sent an e-mail to Etyen Mahçupyan. I asked him: “what should we read about 1915?” We didn’t really know what to read at all. At that time, I was very willing to meet Armenians. I think this is an extremely pathetic situation, it is not normal. It’s like you have read and heard about the other from certain sources. Yet you haven’t gotten to know them. Then some kind of tragedy happens and you want an immediate access to recovery, to mending the past.
What else can I mention? Maybe this is worth mentioning: the assassination of Hrant Dink has affected most of us. Sometimes they say “after this or that, nothing remained the same,” and I think his assassination was such kind of a thing for Turkey.