"we are all actors trapped in the plot of history, playing roles most of us haven’t chosen."
December 15, 2012 6:35 AM   Subscribe

A Lost Map On The Tramway In Istanbul
In Turkey, there lives a mysterious minority known as the “secret Armenians.” They have been hiding in the open for nearly a century. Outwardly, they are Turks or Kurds, but the secret Armenians are actually descendants of the survivors of the 1915 Genocide, who stayed behind in Eastern Anatolia after forcibly converting to Islam. Some are now devout Muslims, others are Alevis –generally considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, even though that would be an inaccurate description by some accounts–, and a few secretly remain Christian, especially in the area of Sassoun, where still there are mountain villages with secret Armenian populations. Even though Armenian Gypsies wouldn’t strictly qualify as Secret Armenians, they share many traits with the latter, including reluctance or fear to reveal their identity even to fellow Armenians.

Secrets Revealed In Turkey Revive Armenian Identity

Crypto-Armenians: Silent Survivors Of Genocide

Turks and Armenians: The Cost of Reconstruction - "It takes many hands to reconcile two peoples so divided by history"

The BBC ran an obituary for Hrant Dink. Earlier this year, three more men were sentenced in connection with his murder, and nineteen aqcuited, with no investigation into any larger conspiracy.

Metafilter posts on the Armenian Genocide: 1, 2, 3, 4.
posted by the man of twists and turns (15 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
This is fascinating and sad and beautiful. Thank you.
posted by mdonley at 6:45 AM on December 15, 2012

Are "Alevis" also known as Alawites, the sect to which the Assad family belongs in neighboring Syria? If so, probably another reason to keep your head down these days.
posted by hwestiii at 7:00 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis the same?
Despite semantically similar names - -both Alawites and Alevis derive their names from their reverence for Ali, a close relative of the Muslim prophet Mohammed - Alevis and Alawites represent different strains of Islam. Alevis are not Alawites, just as Protestants are not protestors.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:05 AM on December 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

That was an interesting article, thanks.
posted by arcticseal at 7:14 AM on December 15, 2012

Thank you for that the man of twists and turns. Just what I was looking for.
posted by hwestiii at 7:16 AM on December 15, 2012

Great article, thanks.
posted by languagehat at 7:55 AM on December 15, 2012

A slightly different interpretation that explains the differences in rites in more detail:
Alawites in Syria and Alevis in Turkey: Crucial Differences
The similarity of their common designation – Alawite and Alevi both mean "devoted to Ali," the son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Muhammad – denotes that they are Shia in origin. Shiism is defined essentially by reverence for Ali, the fourth caliph, or successor, to Muhammad as leader of the Muslims, before he was murdered in 661 CE. Mainstream Shiism recognizes 12 imams or religious guides, beginning with Imam Ali; and Alawites and Alevis are known as "Twelvers" in honoring them.

While they are "Twelvers," Alawites and Alevis hold to principles and practices that set the two communities off from the rest of the global Shia community. Alawites and Alevis view Imam Ali as embodying the divine. In this they are far from conventional Shia doctrine, according to which Imam Ali was noble, but purely human. But notwithstanding these points of resemblance between the Alawite and Alevi believers, they are, in reality, markedly unalike from one another.

There have apparently been overtures from religious authorities in Iran to "claim" the Alevis, with little success.
posted by dhartung at 7:56 AM on December 15, 2012

I don't get a law against "insulting Turkishness." The Turkish people are of course special and unique, but in that respect they are just like everyone else.

I understand that coming to grips with terrible crimes perpetrated by your ancestors is a difficult thing. Heck, I found out that my grandfather had illegitimate children all over the place and cheated on my grandmother up to and including the day that she died, and that felt like a punch in the gut. So having to face up to the possibility that grandpa took part in a mass murder of women and children? Unimaginable. But there's no surer sign that some part of you knows you're wrong than reacting to history you don't like with violence, or by pretending that the people who "won" their dirty war are somehow the real victims in all of this. Because they're insulted.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:04 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

This has been a fairly common phenomenon throughout Turkey's history. The article on the Crypto-Armenians mentions explicitly the Hemshin communities of ethnic Armenians who converted to Islam within the last 200-300 years but maintain much of their own language and ethnic traditions, and many Turks today can name an Armenian or Kurdish-speaking grandparent in their background. In the wake of WWI, some Greeks and Armenians escaped deportations or death by converting to Islam or simply being allowed to stay because they had a Turkish spouse.

It does seem a bit of a stretch to call someone with an Armenian-speaking ancestor who adopted Islam and the Turkish language a "cypto-Armenian", even if that ancestor was still around within living memory. I guess it may be a bit weird for people living in Turkey who have had been propagandized their entire lives about the purity of Turkishness to find out the truth-- that being a "Turk" is an amalgam of different ethnic groups and tribes who have adopted the Turkish language and Islam-- but that's what it is.

It is an interesting question, however, whether there are still crypto-Armenian communities in villages out in Dersin and Sassoun. Certainly there are a few in Diyarbakir, but the ones that don't "claim" an Armenian identity will, after a few generations, be just like most other Kurds and Turks in the region. Does that make them "crypto-Armenians" or does that make them people with a complex history from the fallout of the dissolution of the Ottoman empire, similar to many other people nearby?
posted by deanc at 8:19 AM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't get a law against "insulting Turkishness.

I'm pretty sure I've met a lot of people who would support a law against insulting America, or Americanness. Nationalism is worldwide.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:35 AM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Centuries ago, on the other side of Europe, there were Moriscos and Marranos. What terrible symmetry.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:48 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Apocryphon, some descendants of those Moriscos and Marranos are presumably living in Turkey today as crypto-Sabbatean Muslims (Donmeh). The subject is of great interest to kooks and loons (so I would take the information on most websites with a grain of salt), but this seems like a good PDF on the subject of modern Sabbateans, the best I have read.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:24 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Modern Turkey is an incredibly diverse nation - Istanbul and the western part is as advanced in lifestyle as western Europe, and parts of Anatolia are entirely third world and tribal. As regards Armenians, in Istanbul and many of the western Turkish cities Armenians continue to attend Armenian schools and Churches, and journalist Hrant Dink published in an Armenian language newspaper published in Armenian script. Given the realities of modern Turkey, the people you meet speaking Turkish during their workday may go home and speak Armenian or Laz or Ladino or Greek or Zaza or Albanian or Pomak over dinner. In public, everybody uses the identity of "Turk" the way Americans use "American."

I have visited Black sea Pontic Greek speaking muslim villages near Trabzon and the Hemshin Armenian villages near Rize and Ardesen. Western Hemshin speak Turkish although they use an Armenian vocabulary for matters regarding inheritance or village land division. Like the nearby Laz, they are often suspected of not being "good Muslims" by neighboring Turks, but in fact they are just straightforward Sunni like their neighbors. I have known some of the Sabbatean Donmeh (maaminim) and they tend to be upper class Turkish Istanbulites - including more than a few bankers, Beyoglu alternativos, and established media people - who are mainly worried that Islamic fundamentalists will expose them as "bad muslim Jews" by connecting their names to the names of gravestones at the Donmeh cemetery in Uskudar....

You can find "crypto" groups almost anywhere in the world, but it isn't too difficult to be open about one's Armenian heritage in Turkey, at least in Istanbul. Any weekend you can take a ferry to the weekend vacation Princess Islands in the sea of Marmara, populated mainly by Armenian, Greek, and Jewish minorities (and the Erzincan Alevis who bake them bread and dainty pasties.) Once the ferry boat leaves the dock the majority of the passengers start singing loudly in Armenian and dancing. They aren't hiding anything.
posted by zaelic at 3:42 PM on December 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

As a white skinned person of indigenous ancestry I think I'm a crypto-Ojibway Canadian.

Great article. Having been in Turkey this summer I was struck by the cultural complexity that is completely evident, especially in Istanbul. And struck too by how much simply goes unsaid.
posted by salishsea at 4:45 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Apocryphon, some descendants of those Moriscos and Marranos are presumably living in Turkey today as crypto-Sabbatean Muslims (Donmeh).

Well, not the Moriscos (those were Muslim to start with). As for the Sephardim, there's quite a vibrant Sepharadic community in Istanbul. I was once rather surprised when a Turkish colleague, whose ethnic background I ignored, let me have a closer look at his newspaper, which turned out to be written in Ladino with modern Turkish spelling.
posted by Skeptic at 8:30 AM on December 17, 2012

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