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Constantinople and Smyrna in the Diasporan Armenian and Greek Imaginaries [Part One]

[Bridge and Galata Area, Istanbul, by Abdullah Frères, ca. 1880-1893. Image via Flickr.] [Bridge and Galata Area, Istanbul, by Abdullah Frères, ca. 1880-1893. Image via Flickr.]

. . . Բայց դուն, տեսի՜լք ընտանի, հիմա ա՜յնչափ հեռացած,

Ըսէ՜, իրաւ է որ ա՜լ պիտի երբեք չբացուիս

Դիմացն զքեզ փնտռող իմ անսահման կարօտիս . . . ։

Դուն որ եղար, ո՜վ Պոլիս, լոյսն աչքերուս նորաբաց,

Ճի՞շդ է, ըսէ՜, որ ա՜լ մենք օտարնե՜ր ենք իրարու

Եւ իրաւունք չունի՜մ ես քու հողիդ մէջ թաղուելու. . . ։

[But you, familiar vision now so far away,
Tell me, is it true that you will never again open your arms wide for
My limitless longing that has been searching for you?

You, oh Constantinople, you that became the light of my newly opened eyes,
Tell me, is it true that we are now strangers to each other
And that I no longer have the right to be buried in your soil?]

In Armenian, writers can express longing, yearning, and nostalgia not only through the words they select, but through their careful use of punctuation. The ( ՜ ), called yergar in Armenian, is an evocative particularity of the language: in lengthening the vowel over which it is placed, it has the power to heighten the plaintive, wistful tone of a text. In the final stanzas of Vahan Tekeyan’s 1924 poem “Constantinople,” printed above, the yergar allows the anguished intonations and quiet disbelief of the poet to reverberate in our ears as we become participants in his requiem for a city that has spurned him.

The late-nineteenth century Constantinople of Tekeyan’s youth was the site of a cultural reawakening for Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, where art thrived in an unprecedented way. Constantinople represented the nexus of all Ottoman Armenian intellectual activity. Home to writers, painters, poets, playwrights, composers, and musicians, the city was the fertile ground that nourished these men and women, who created with the firm belief that their community had a promising future where it was.

But the physical ties that had existed between Constantinople and the Armenian community were irreparably severed almost a century ago. In 1915, Armenian artists and intellectuals became the targets of arrests and deportations that ultimately ended in death or permanent exile.

Vahan Tekeyan, who had been abroad in 1915, was one of the many Armenians who returned to Constantinople after the armistice. Even after losing the majority of his friends and colleagues, his unwavering belief in Constantinople as a cultural center for Armenians remained strong, and he began attempts to revive its intellectual life. Tekeyan, along with many of the Armenians who remained in the capital, ultimately fled Mustafa Kemal’s advancing troops in 1922 and never returned. They took with them an unrequited love of the city so strong that it would shape the way their children and grandchildren conceived of it, fostering nostalgia in generations of diasporan Armenians who had never seen, heard, or breathed in the city for themselves.

As the site of both a vibrant and a traumatic past, the Jekyll and Hyde quality of Constantinople in the historical memory of the Armenian diaspora creates an inherited nostalgia, tinged with a certain degree of sorrow at the thought of a dynamic future that had been thwarted. Of course, in Republican Turkey there was, and still is, an Armenian community in Istanbul, but the city no longer functions as the lively cultural center it once was. The pre-1915 city that had been immortalized in the collective memory of the Armenian diaspora has naturally produced complex, ambivalent feelings towards present-day Istanbul, which have recently begun to be explored in art.

These feelings have been considered through the theme of return, both within the confines of the works and outside of them. Within the films and novels themselves, there is a physical act of return for a character, during which he or she begins to rexamine his or her own particular relationship to the city. However, outside of the works, artists are transporting the audience back to the city as it had once existed and urging them to reflect on their own perception of the city as it exists today. In traveling—both physically and symbolically—to Constantinople/Istanbul through literature and film, diasporan artists are confronting this fraught relationship between the Armenian diaspora and the century-old image of Constantinople that has been seared into its collective mind.

Armenians, however, are far from the only diasporan community with complex, ambivalent feelings towards cities in modern-day Turkey. The Aegean city of Smyrna has survived in the imaginary of diasporan Greeks through a similarly peculiar pairing of memories—memories of both cultural grandeur and traumatic severance—which have also begun to be reflected in their art.

Diasporan Armenian and Greek artistic representations of Constantinople and Smyrna are attempting to tackle the mixed emotions of their respective communities, but they also take aim at dismantling the nationalist Turkish narrative that has essentially written these communities out of the history of the cities and obscured their historic presence. The perception of Ottoman Armenians and Greeks as treacherous pawns of European powers, which was so deeply imbedded in the official grand narrative, is already slowly beginning to change, thanks to work being done both within Turkey and abroad. Diasporan Armenian and Greek art can only help accelerate this process by reconstructing the past and raising more awareness about it, both in Turkey and elsewhere.

Given how historically removed diasporan Armenians and Greeks are from their ancestral cities, it will likely surprise those outside these communities to see how the memory of these cities is still very much alive today and how their pasts continue to be a source of torment. Indeed, these artistic representations of Constantinople and Smyrna show bonds between peoples and their historic cities that have endured over the course of three generations and have sustained their power to create a sense of mourning and nostalgia for an essentially unfamiliar place.

 Constantinople/Istanbul in Recent Translations from Western Armenian

It is Constantinople/Istanbul that provides the setting for recent translations from Western Armenian, the language of Ottoman Armenians and their descendants in the diaspora. These translations help illustrate the Armenian cultural link to Constantinople in fiction; through the stories and struggles of the characters, Constantinople as a home for the Armenian community is conveyed to non-Armenian audiences and revived in diasporan Armenian ones. The translators of these works have—either intentionally or unintentionally—reasserted Armenian belonging to a city by clearing a larger space for individual characters, and the authors who created them, to demonstrate the multifaceted relationship between Constantinople and the Armenian people. These efforts have no designs on delegitimizing the connection of other peoples to the city, but serve simply to restore an understanding of Constantinople’s Armenian community and of its vital role in the intellectual development of a people who no longer call it home.

In both Hervé Georgelin’s 2012 French translation of Zaven Biberian’s novel Le crépuscule des fourmis [The Twilight of the Ants] (1970) and Anahide Drézian and Alice der Vartanian’s 2012 French translation of Zabel Yessayan’s novella Mon âme en exil [My Exiled Soul] (1922), Constantinople functions both as an object of nostalgia and as a site of return. The returns, however, are in response to contexts outside of those that have come to be expected for Armenians, namely pilgrimage-like returns to the city by descendants of the Ottoman Armenian community who fled in 1915.

[Covers of Zaven Biberian, Le crépuscule des fourmis, and Zabel Yessayan, Mon âme en exil.]

In Le crépuscule des fourmis, the antihero, Bared Tarhanian—a member of the Armenian community that stayed in Constantinople after the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923—returns to Istanbul after serving three and a half years in the Turkish army during World War II. Biberian’s novel—facilitated by Georgelin’s lively translation—helps readers live vicariously through Bared as he slips in and out of the different ethnic communities that still existed in the Istanbul of the late 1940s and early 1950s, albeit on a smaller scale.

In the novel, nostalgia in its conventional sense is turned on its head as we bear witness to a lesser-explored dimension of the relationship between Constantinople/Istanbul and the Armenian community: the nostalgia of an Armenian character living in the city, as opposed to one yearning for it from afar. The novel centers around Bared’s inner conflict as he tries to reintegrate into his native Istanbul after his military service. Throughout the novel, Bared feels estranged from the city and yearns to return to the Istanbul of his youth, a city not radically different from the one before him, but one that he is now seeing with new eyes:

For three and a half years, he had thought of a different Kadıköy. A legendary suburb with calm streets lined with greenery where the kind, joyful expressions of happy, affluent people would converge…he felt like he was in the wrong place. He had waited for this hopeless moment for three and a half years. He had waited for that demobilization notice to come home and now instead of rejoicing, everything in his body was telling him to flee and leave everything behind.

Bared’s alienation in his native city is tied most directly to the turmoil his family experienced in his absence. Bared returned to find his family still crippled by the wealth tax (varlık vergisi) that they had been forced to pay during the war. If the tax had not been paid in full, Bared’s father, like many other members of non-Muslim minorities, would have been sent to a labor camp in the Eastern Anatolian city of Aşkale. This looming threat compelled the Tarhanian family to sell their home and most of their belongings in order to pay the tax, but it continued to take both a psychological and financial toll on the family for years to come.

The tax, which was imposed more heavily and more arbitrarily on Armenians, Greeks, and Jews than on their Muslim neighbors, was a physical manifestation of their perceived foreignness in the only city they had ever known. This betrayal forms the backdrop of the novel and is evoked with the same quiet disbelief palpable in Vahan Tekeyan’s poem. Yet despite betrayal after betrayal, the Armenian community represented in the novel seems to absolve the city each time:

“We must endure them,” repeated Azniv hanım, who seemed bored by Arous’s wailing. “Catastrophes are always ready to get us.” The word catastrophe roused Bared. Even Azniv hanım expected catastrophes, like his mother and [his friend] Haybeden. Yesterday it was the wealth tax; today it is Cyprus; tomorrow it will be something else…the permanent imminence of a catastrophe gnawed away at their days. They made a living, ate, drank, enjoyed themselves, but there was always the fear of a shipwreck to come. They expected something at any moment.

This resignation to disaster and the decision to remain in the city despite the promise of upheaval indicates the scope of the affinity that many Armenians felt/feel towards Constantinople/Istanbul. Bared shows us that it is the ancestral ties to the city that prevent him and many other Armenians from leaving it altogether. Upon returning to his uncle’s abandoned house on Büyük Ada, one of the islands outside Istanbul, and finding it taken over by another family, Bared explains this indelible connection through the metaphor of a house:

My grandfather built this house, Bared said. Now he has turned into dust; my father has turned into dust, and my uncle too. They built the house with this dirt and with these stones. Let it collapse. Let the one who lives here now become stone and dust, too. Whether the house remains or collapses, it will never disappear. It will remain; it will remain until the end of time. In a thousand years, the people who come here will see the foundation. There must have been a house here, they will say. Look, people lived here, they will say. They will see the hole for the chimney in the wall, and with their fingers, will wipe away the soot of the wood that my grandmother had burned.

In this passage, Bared not only conveys his ancestral connection to the city in grand, abstract terms, but also explains the link through the mundane elements that make up the city, as a way to illustrate a multi-level connection that cannot be erased. This is a kind of tangible history that Bared cannot experience outside of Istanbul, and despite the numerous times the city has betrayed him and his family, it is this ancestral connection that eclipses all else.

Zabel Yessayan’s 1922 novella Mon âme en exil brings this permanent link alive in the Ottoman context. Yessayan’s protagonist, a painter named Emma, returns to Constantinople after the Ottoman Constitutional Revolution in 1908. As was the case for many artists and intellectuals in Constantinople at the turn of the century, Emma had been in self-imposed exile in Europe during the final years of Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s reign, returning only after he was deposed and she could work free from fear of surveillance and arrest. In her novella, Yessayan juxtaposes the paintings Emma completed while in exile and those completed in Constantinople as a way to theorize the city as the only site where Armenian art and artists could thrive:

[In exile] there was light, joy, and life in me, and yet all of my paintings were veiled in a haze. The luminous sun of my native land was not yet shining in those works that I had produced, but I feel that in the works to come that haze will clear and my sun will shine through.

Inherent in Yessayan’s theory that only a physical presence in Constantinople will allow Armenian artists to express themselves fully is the inextricable connection between Armenians and the city. In other words, she identifies Constantinople as such an indispensable source of artistic inspiration that it becomes the one and only place where Armenian art can take root and flourish. Mon âme en exil, expressed through Drézian and der Vartanian’s mellifluous translation, not only securely anchors Armenian artists to a period in Ottoman history in which they do not often feature, but it also illustrates one writer’s fervent belief in the intrinsic link between Constantinople and Armenian art.

Yessayan finished this novella in 1922, a time when she and the majority of Armenian writers, artists, and intellectuals who had survived were living in exile. Given that by this point she was now a diasporan writer, the symbol of Constantinople as the only site for Armenian artistic development takes on an even gloomier tone when we realize that there was little hope that she or her fellow exilic artists would ever return to the city they needed to fuel their art. Shortly after the publication of Mon âme en exil, Yessayan found a surrogate source of artistic inspiration in Soviet Armenia, and began to more directly condemn the Armenian diaspora to a future that would be devoid of any form of true artistic expression.

[Part two of this article can be found here.]

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