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The Turkish-speaking Armenians who never visited Turkey

26.03.2015
The Turkish-speaking Armenians who never visited Turkey

By Handan Kazanci

Yerevan, ARMENIA

Many assume history between Turks and Armenians is black-and-white, but the story of one family in Yerevan reveals that lives and language in this part of the world can be intertwined.

Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink -- assassinated by a Turkish teenager in 2007 -- once described Turkey and Armenia as: "Two close nations, two distant neighbors."

One such "distant neighbor" is Hovhannes Avagyan. Born in Athens in 1920, this was the same year that the multiethnic Ottoman Empire was collapsing and Armenia become part of the Soviet Union.

Now living in Armenia, Hovhannes has never been to Turkey but his family, including his two granddaughters, speaks fluent Turkish.

The Avagyans’ story begins as Anatolian Armenians during the Ottoman era even before Hovhannes was born. His grandfather was from Ankara and his grandmother was from Turkey’s western province of Afyon.

His grandfather, Agop, was in the Ottoman army as a baker during the Gallipoli (Gelibolu) Campaign in 1915.

Meanwhile Agop’s sons -- Melkon, 12, and Rupen, 14 -- lived in Ankara until the family was split up after they lost their mother to illness.

During the turmoil of WWI, the two brothers stayed in Istanbul for a time and then sheltered in a U.S.-funded orphanage in Greece.

When Hovhannes’ grandfather was discharged from the Ottoman army, Agop started to look for his children and found them by sending letters to churches and orphanages.

Agop eventually found them in Athens working as shoeshine boys.

By the time they met again Melkon was 17 and Ruben was 19. The re-united family started to live in a tent city in Athens with thousands of other ethnic Armenians.

Ruben married an Armenian girl from Turkey’s Aegean province of Usak and eventually moved to France.

Melkon also met his future partner in the form of an Armenian girl who was staying in another tent city in the Greek city of Thessaloniki and was in Athens for a visit.

When the family bought a small piece of land from a wealthy Armenian family in Athens, Hovhannes’s parents and grandfather built a simple house made of adobe brick.

They lived together in Athens, working in their own grocery store and bakery, until 1945 when an official from the Soviet Union came to talk about moving to Armenia.

At the beginning they did not want to go. The Avagyans’ eschewed the first two ships which carried away thousands of hopeful Armenian immigrants seeking a new life in their ancestral homeland.

But eventually the number of Armenians in Athens decreased so much that the Avagyans found themselves running out of customers.

The loss of their regular customers hit the business hard because some local Greeks refused to shop at an Armenian store.

"As it [our name] was written on the shop sign -- Agop Avagyan -- local Greeks did not deal with us Armenians," says Hovhannes, sitting in his Yerevan home.

In the end this led them to board a ship with around 2,700 passengers in 1947. Including the Avagyan family, this third group passed through Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait en route to a new life and an uncertain future in Armenia.

Hovhannes recalls that time: "Armenians living in Istanbul were waving white sheets to salute them."

The family arrived in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, where they still live today; Hovhannes’ father re-established his bakery while Hovhannes worked as a bus driver.

Looking at his wife Hovhannes recalls living under communism: "I can speak with you openly now but under Stalin’s rule I would not even speak freely with my wife."

Hovhannes married Pertshuhi Krepekyan -- now 83 -- in 1955.

Pertshuhi, who also speaks Turkish and whose parents were from Turkey’s southern province of Adana, came to Armenia via Lebanon.

Coming "home" was not the happy ending the Avagyan family had dreamed of: “My father always wanted to see where he was born," Hovhannes says, musing.

"But it was Soviet times and it was very difficult."

They kept speaking Turkish at home. That is why even today both Hovhannes and Pertshuhi speak fluent Turkish with an Anatolian accent.

Their first years in Armenia were not easy; they were the newcomers and they were called "ahpar" which means literally "brother" which Hovhannes’ Yerevan-born granddaughter Pertshuhi Avagyan, 24, says had a "marginalizing" meaning.

Coming from Anatolia meant a different cuisine as well as culture.

"Even eating olives was strange for the locals as they did not have it here in Armenia," says granddaughter Pertshuhi, who is a linguist and translator.

Hovhannes still misses traditional tahini halva, a dessert which is quite common in western Anatolia and Greece.

Although he and his family have never lived in Turkey, their granddaughters learned how to speak Turkish just by listening to her grandparents and watching Turkish TV.

"I was watching Turkish TV programs and cartoons since I do not even remember, maybe from when I was six years old," Pertshuhi says.

Pertshuhi -- named after her Lebanon-born grandmother -- says: "It is very difficult to comment about Turkish people without going there even once but I can say this; the people there are very warm and hospitable, just like Armenians."

Pertshuhi hopes to live together with Turks and peacefully with "doors open," a reference to the Turkish-Armenian border, which has been closed since 1993.

It is true that no member of the Avagyan family lived in Turkey at any time. But from their way of speaking to their cuisine and Hovhannes’ attitude to his granddaughter -- disapproving when she was a little late home that night -- they are Anatolian.

As Hovhannes puts it: "We are from Turkey, I never forgot this."

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