BY RAFFI BEDROSYAN
From the Armenian Weekly
The homecoming trip of the (no more) hidden Armenians from Diyarbakir to Armenia finally began this week, after months of planning, preparation, resolving issues, and seemingly endless three-way long distance discussions from Diyarbakir to Yerevan and Toronto.
And now, the “new” Armenians of Diyarbakir are strolling in the streets and museums of Yerevan, tiptoeing into the various churches scattered all over Armenia. Emotions are near the surface… One moment they burst into dancing in the streets as soon as they hear a playful tune, and the next moment they cry uncontrollably at a scene which may mean nothing to passersby but has reminded them of something, someone – all the way back to 1915.
Yerevan is full of Armenian kids from all over the world as part of the “Ari Dun” program at the invitation of the Ministry of Diaspora, which has also helped organize our itinerary. Government officials arranged to meet the Diyarbakir group on our first day, along with hundreds of the Diaspora kids. The Diyarbakir group was extremely anxious about how they will be greeted. The Armenian officials were equally curious about these Turkish/Kurdish speaking individual— ranging in age from 18 to 83—mostly middle-aged, and representing all socio-economic and education levels. Among them are teachers, students, doctors, housewives, and retired individuals. Some of them are sophisticated urban dwellers; others are going abroad for the first time.
I am acting as the translator (from Armenian to Turkish and back), but my task needs to be more than just to relay statements and messages. On the one hand, I have to be able to convey, from Turkish to Armenian, the incredible desire and courage of these individuals in becoming new Armenians; and on the other hand, I have to be able to convey, from Armenian to Turkish, the honest sincerity of welcome of the government officials. But I am happy to report that by the end of the meeting, the previously anxious Diyarbakir Armenians and the previously serious-looking government officials were dancing the Diyarbakir “halay” together to Armenian music, while the kids from the Diaspora, Russia, the U.S., France, Iran, and elsewhere, watched these grown-up kids in amazement. A government official says his parents are from Mush, another one says from Sasun, then one of the Diyarbakir Armenians screams “My father is from Sasun, too,” and the common stories from Sasun pour forth. They don’t need my translation anymore, they have already started comparing Sasun village names and hugging one another…
I had been a bit apprehensive when the Diaspora Ministry representatives told me they had planned two hours of Armenian language lessons each day as part of the itinerary, thinking that our group would be more interested in sightseeing. To my surprise, they all burst into enthusiastic applause and were deeply grateful for the lessons.
When we visited the Madenataran with its manuscript treasures and the village of Oshagan where Mesrob Mashdots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet, is buried, they understood better the mystery of the strange letters that they saw for the first time in their lives just two years ago.
As I reported in previous articles, almost all of the group members have some degree of “Armenianness” in their family, some from one parent, some from both. They have mostly decided to come out as Armenians, but not as Christians—yet. Two of them have already been baptized in Diyarbakir’s Sourp Giragos Church, changing names, identity and religion. Gafur Turkay has become Ohannes Ohanian, his wife Nurcan has become Knar, proudly wearing not one but all three cross necklaces given to her as presents after her baptism. One of the teachers in the group is determined to be baptized at Etchmiadzin. The risks he is taking are enormous. He is a primary school teacher in a government school. He may lose his job, friends’ circle, or worse; but his mind is made up. In addition, if he is baptized in Etchmiadzin instead of back home at Sourp Giragos, he will gain bragging rights over Gafur/Ohannes as being a more complete Christian Armenian… I have arranged for the ceremony beforehand with Bishop Pakrad Galstanian of Etchmiadzin, formerly the Canadian Diocese Primate.
We also have a lady who has spent many sleepless nights trying to decide whether she should also get baptized. Her dilemma is even more dangerous. She feels she has an obligation to her long-suffering late father, a hidden Armenian, who had encouraged her to become a Christian Armenian before he passed away. But her devoutly Moslem Kurdish husband has forbidden her from taking this step. The night before our trip to Etchmiadzin, she tells me she will not be able to go ahead with the baptism.
In the morning, we are off to Sardarabad, visiting the Victory Museum, understanding the significance and consequences of the 1918 events. As we approach Etchmiadzin, the lady with the dilemma walks from the back of the bus to where I am sitting, and tells me her final decision: “My father suffered a lot. I know he is still suffering even though he is dead. I need to do this to end his suffering. If I will suffer as a result of this, I am prepared for it.”
So we end up witnessing a double baptism ceremony at Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church in Etchmiadzin for the “new” Stepan who took his Armenian grandfather’s name, and for the new “Anjel” who took her Armenian grandmother’s name. I am certain this was the first time in Etchmiadzin, or all of Armenia, where the Armenian baptism ceremony was carried out in Armenian along with the Turkish translation word-for-word. At the end, Pakrad Srpazan concluded with the statement: “To become a Christian, one needs to be brave, to become both an Armenian and a Christian, one needs to be doubly brave.” Everyone had tears in their eyes, including Pakrad Srpazan.
Isn’t it ironic that these individuals chose to become Armenian on the same day when Turkish Prime Minister and presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated on national TV: “They [opposition] said I was of Georgian origin. Even uglier, they accused me of being an Armenian, sorry to say” ?
And isn’t it doubly ironic that if Erdogan does become President, the presidential mansion that he will reside in was once owned by an Armenian family known as the Kasapyan family?
Our reporting of the journey through Armenia toward a new life for the (no more) hidden Armenians will continue.