Engseng Ho has written that “nationalism is easily considered a subfield of kinship studies” (Ho 2002: 215). I love this line, and think of it often. The reversal here is important. Where most nationalist imaginings would have us understand the family unit as nested within, contained by, the nation, Ho posits nationalism as the subfield of kinship: the big political concept enveloped by the personal, the relational, the familial, not the other way around.
I have always been curious about notions of racial/ethnic/religious mixing, which alliances with “others” are forbidden, which are encouraged, and which are tacitly tolerated.* I remain fascinated by the extent to which, even among critical social scientists, the types of people who are supposed to be well-versed in such matters, there is still a fundamental need to categorize people – colleagues, students, superiors, etc. – based on ethnicity/race, and simultaneously an inability to grasp half-ness, mixed-ness, complicated lineages, in day-to-day interactions. These thoughts tend to haunt me most, for reasons I will make clear in this post, around April every year, when the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide takes place. Rather appropriately, I began reading Lerna Ekmekcioglu’s monograph on the Armenian community of Istanbul in early April, after months of owning it in its e-version.
Lerna Ekmekcioglu’s recent book, Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey (Stanford University Press, 2015), captivates me because it manages to address a complicated, difficult set of historical questions in spare, elegant, and accessible writing. Recovering Armenia is an investigation of the immediate aftermath of the Armenian Genocide among bolsahays (Istanbul Armenians); by focusing on bolsahays, Ekmekcioglu rectifies a tendency in studies of Armenian-ness to focus on diasporic and refugee subjects, as opposed to those who chose to stay in Turkey following the events of 1915-1918. But it is not only the location of her subjects that makes Ekmekcioglu’s research unusual. There is a further layer of complexity here in her decision to focus on gender relations, to highlight the struggles and contradictions experienced by Armenian women, a subordinated social group within a minority community. Ekmekcioglu manages to present the challenges facing both the Armenian community as a whole while also attending to the gendered dimensions of violence, recovery and ethnic identity.
What is “difficult” about Ekmekcioglu’s inquiry relates both to the content of her argument and its implications. By bringing a feminist perspective to bear on the immediate aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, Ekmekcioglu does an admirable job of bringing to life an understudied period in time, and understudied subjects (bolsahay feminists). At the same time, the feminist analysis of this book troubles many heroic, simplistic narratives of the genocide by calling attention to the way that unequal gender relations were in fact at the foundation of the Armenian nationalist project. Armenian women, Ekmekcioglu argues, were actually at the center of the post-Genocide veraganknum (restoration) ethos because it was thought they could transmit and nurture Armenian-ness. As Armenian subjects in the new Turkish Republic faced increasing restrictions on their ability to express their non-Turkish, non-Muslim identities in the public sphere, the private sphere of the family became the appropriate, necessary site for cultural “preservation” and “restoration.” Like many women of marginalized communities, Armenian feminists in the immediate post-Genocide moment thus had to choose between continuing their fight for gender equality and emancipation and the welfare of their larger ethnic group, whose leaders were men, and not totally sympathetic to feminist goals.
Poignantly, Ekmekcioglu makes clear in the conclusion that such conflicts are not relegated to distant history but were in fact part of her own experiences growing up as a woman and scholar in the contemporary Istanbul Armenian community. Describing an encounter with an Armenian Orthodox Patriarch she describes a public speech of his:
He singled out girls. Because girls were continuing their education into universities and thus postponing marriage, this was taking a toll on the community as a whole since it was leading young men to marry non-Armenians. Girls had to be tamed into marrying early. Our young and passionate hearts were infuriated by this expression of misogyny and the double standards in the patriarch’s ideology. (Ekmekcioglu 2015: 163).
That is Ekmekcioglu speaking of herself in the year 2000, not relating the speech of a Patriarch in the 1920s.
Never having been sure to what extent calling myself “Armenian” was appropriate, I find Ekmekcioglu’s look at kinship interesting in that it illuminates Armenian-ness as being both a social/political claim as well as one based on lineage. And yet what is social/political should not be confused with what is more noble. Ekmekcioglu makes clear that efforts were made to convince female Armenian genocide survivors to carry children of their rapists to term, even when the women themselves did not want to keep or raise these children. The shift from an understanding of Armenian heritage from one based on paternal descent to one based on maternal descent was not so much a radical re-thinking of women’s roles in the community, but rather a move to boost Armenians’ numbers in the wake of near extermination:
Demographic and other sorts of anxieties reached such levels that the Bolsahay elite found it justifiable to ignore paternity in determining a baby’s ethnic and religious origins. Despite the established patrilineal logic of both Armenian canonical law and sharia, the patriarchate and its vorpahavak agents decided that anyone with an Armenian mother, regardless if the father was a Muslim, would be officially considered a full-fledged Armenian. As such they would be eligible for a place in the orphanages and shelter homes run by Armenians and for Armenians (Figure 6). The Armenian Church baptized babies (of Muslim fathers) who would have been considered full Muslims in the pre-genocide era. (Ekmekcioglu 2015: 35)
The shift from paternal to maternal sources of Armenian identity came about in response to the horrific realities of the day. Armenian women were often targets for sexual violence at the hands of Turkish men and the pregnancies arising from rape posed pragmatic, ethical and even ontological questions about what it meant to be Armenian. I am torn still, even after reading Ekmekcioglu’s arresting work, as to how one can process this, a move towards greater inclusivity and re-thinking of patriarchal kinship brought about through the cruelest of circumstances.
Without wishing to make this essay overly personal, some biographical – genealogical – information should make it clear why Ekmekcioglu’s book is fascinating to me. Of my four grandparents, three were ethnically Italian though one, my maternal grandmother, was born in Romania and lived there until she was around 30 years old. My remaining grandparent, my maternal grandfather, was Turkish-Armenian, born and raised in Istanbul until age 20, in a family of wealthy bolsahays who chose to stay on in Turkey well beyond the genocide. My maternal grandfather’s family would thus have experienced many of the events and debates that Ekmekcioglu describes in her study. While I do not know much about the political leanings of my great-grandparents and their assorted relatives, I do know that the question of recovering a female genocide survivor was very real for them (a cousin of my grandfather’s was the only surviving family member outside of the city of Istanbul, and was brought back to live with them after having been found in the household of a Turkish family).
The proportion of grandparents I list above, three-to-one, makes me one-quarter Armenian. I recall a few times in college introducing myself this way to members of the Armenian Students Association, which led to the inevitable question: “so, what’s the rest of you?” And yet in California, home to so many immigrants and a major part of many diasporic networks, such articulations of belonging – half this, one quarter that – are hardly rare. And indeed, given that only one quarter of me – 25 percent – counts as Armenian, I was surprised by the extent to which “real” “fully Armenian” Armenians seemed to welcome my presence at cultural events and encouraged me to talk and learn about my grandfather’s upbringing.
In Ho’s concluding sentence to the article “Names Beyond Nations” he speaks of the Hadramis saying “they appeared to be local because they were fragments, but their capacity for reconstitution proved that they had always retained their larger connections beyond states and nations, their cosmopolitanism” (Ho 2002: 229). A few weeks after the 101st anniversary commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, I read these words and can’t help but think of a favorite slogan at both Genocide commemoration events and other kinds of demonstrations in the US: “they tried to bury us, they did not know we were seeds.”
Another memory comes to the surface, of waiting at the on-campus bus stop at UCSD one sunlit afternoon when a man approached me and a few other students waiting there with some aggressive questions: “what are you? what are you guys?” he wanted to know. Was he deranged, or a white supremacist, or both? I couldn’t tell you now. But this unexpected encounter resulted in me learning the ethnic make-ups of the other passengers at the bus stop and, funnily enough, one of the young men who initially identified as “Syrian” eventually admitted to being “one quarter Armenian.” “Just like me!” I recall saying, a big astonished smile on my face – “what are the chances?!” I exclaimed. He shrugged, and got on the bus.
*Nowhere are such concerns more beautifully explored, I think, than in Jacqueline Brown’s ethnography of race and gender politics in Liverpool (2005). Indeed, a whole other blog post could (and maybe will) be written about feminist and critical race perspectives on such matters from other regions, but I ran out of space to include more discussion here.
Brown, Jacqueline. 2005. Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool, Princeton University Press.
Ekmekcioglu, Lerna. 2015. Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey, Stanford University Press.
Ho, Engseng. 2002. “Names Beyond Nations: The Making of Local Cosmopolitans” Etudes Rurales No. 163/164 pp. 215-231