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30.5.13

Constantinople and Smyrna in the Diasporan Armenian and Greek Imaginaries

Jennifer Manoukian
 

. . . 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 reexamine 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.
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.
 
Constantinople in Diasporan Armenian Films
While artistic production in the Armenian diaspora has been nowhere near as abundant as it had been in Constantinople during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, generations of diasporan Armenian artists—working in the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas—have been poking holes in Yessayan’s theory since the 1920s. But in recent years, diasporan Armenian filmmakers have even begun using her own symbol as proof of the invalidity of her theory. By turning modern-day Istanbul into the object of artistic inquiry, diasporan Armenian filmmakers are disturbing the clear-cut quality of her theory by drawing inspiration for their films from the city, despite living and working in the diaspora. The exile that Yessayan sees in Emma’s works produced outside of Constantinople is still, however, visible in the works of these filmmakers. Yessayan provides an explanation for the physical traces of exile in art when she writes:
We are like exiles in a strange and distant land. We are exiles in our own native city because we are deprived of the cultural environment that our people were going to create around us with its collective effort. Only fragile, loose links connect us to our native land.
Although Yessayan sees these traces of exile as an obstacle to producing art, diasporan Armenian filmmakers have transformed their exilic states into fodder for artistic expression. Naturally they have links to the city that are more emotional than physical, but this has not prevented them from taking up the links that have been preserved in the diasporan imaginary and seeking to understand the exilic mentality they have inherited by returning to the city and exploring it through film.
Both Eric Nazarian’s 2010 short film Bolis (Armenian shorthand for Constantinople/Istanbul) and Nigol Bezjian’s 2011 documentary I Left My Shoes in Istanbul represent returns to the city that are full of symbolic value for the filmmakers, as well as for the subjects of their films.
Bolis tells the story of Armenag Mouradian, a diasporan Armenian oudist from the United States who travels to Istanbul to perform at a music festival. He is the first member of his family to return to the city since they fled in 1915. These dark memories loom large as he begins to explore the Istanbul of 2010. Before his performance, he sets out to find the site of the music shop that his grandfather had owned in Ottoman times. In the process, the ambivalence he had felt towards the city lessens as he experiences modern Istanbul for himself. Myrna Douzjian succinctly explains this transformation when she writes that “[Mouradian’s] initial readiness to reject Istanbul quickly evolves into a complex set of nuanced emotions: an appreciation of the people and the city’s cultural history and a sense of nostalgia for its various spaces.”
Nigol Bezjian’s I Left My Shoes in Istanbul explores similar themes of return and nostalgia, but through the medium of the documentary. His film centers around Sako Arian, a Lebanese-Armenian poet who returns to his ancestral city and attempts to reconstruct a pre-1915 past by visiting the streets, churches, and schools that had once been a part of bustling Armenian neighborhoods. Like Mouradian, Arian has mixed feelings about returning to a city for which he feels both nostalgia and unease, but he ultimately finds comfort and familiarity in the modern incarnation of the city.
The topics treated in these films stretch beyond the purely cinematic into the lives of the filmmakers, who are both diasporan Armenians grappling with their own complicated relationships to the city. In an interview, Bezjian says that it was an unexpected sense of familiarity on his first visit to the city that motivated him to investigate it further in his film:
I didn’t set out to make a film about Istanbul. It happened through another film I was making about Taniel Varoujan [an Ottoman Armenian poet]. It was because of that film that I went to Istanbul for the first time in my life. [In Istanbul], I reflected more deeply on the city, which was familiar to me even though I never been there before. I knew the names of the neighborhoods. I knew the people. The faces of the Armenian community in Istanbul were familiar to me. I saw the Parish Councilman’s Wife; I saw Apisoghom Agha [both characters in Ottoman Armenian literature]—of course not as they were in those days, but in their modern forms. I had a Turkish assistant who was very surprised that I knew all of this on my first visit to Istanbul. So during those two or three days, I felt a lot of things, and from that experience emerged I Left My Shoes in Istanbul.
Eric Nazarian echoes this strange feeling of belonging and difference in describing his own experience of coming to Istanbul to make his film:
There are certain streets in Istanbul that inspired an extremely uncanny sense of déjà-vu. I still don’t know how to describe this feeling. It felt as if I was coming home, yet I knew I was still a stranger in this city. It was a very bizarre but also very poetic state of mind to be drifting in. I realized in this state that not genocide, not persecution, not politics can ever dilute or diminish the extraordinary contributions of the Armenian people to the architecture, culture, history, heritage, music, and society of Istanbul.
In their work, both filmmakers highlight the contributions Armenians have made to the city, not just for an Armenian audience anxious to see its history on screen, but particularly for a non-Armenian audience unaware of the historic link between Constantinople and the Armenian people. Particular consideration was paid to Turkish audiences. By representing members of the Armenian diaspora—a group often vilified in Turkey for their outspoken calls for genocide recognition—and sensitively portraying the inner turmoil that continues to rage in them as a result of century-old trauma, these filmmakers strive to foster compassion in the Turkish public for a people they only know as a caricature.
A mutual admiration for the city shown in the films also serves as a point of commonality. These films may even show residents of modern Istanbul corners of their city—glimpses of a 1915 Constantinople frozen in time—that they never knew existed, but that are still very much alive in the minds of diasporan Armenians living thousands of miles away.
Nazarian conceives of his film as a bridge between the Armenian diaspora and Turkey, writing that:
What’s important for me as a filmmaker is to make Bolis a human story about a Turk and a diasporan Armenian discovering an emotional connection through the act of storytelling and facing our past openly and sincerely.
Nazarian’s short film was in fact part of a larger film called Do Not Forget Me Istanbul, which sought to achieve a similar goal. The project was made up of a series of short films by filmmakers representing different ethnic minorities—Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Arab, Bosnian—that had once been integral parts of the city, but that may not be known to younger generations of Istanbulites.
While work about Constantinople and the Armenian community cannot help but evoke the past to a certain extent, these films are very much oriented towards opening up discussions that may help shape the future. But these filmmakers do not see their films as part of the heavily politicized reconciliation debate among Turkey, Armenia, and the Armenian diaspora. Their work is, however, inherently political, in that these films have the power to reach everyday people, encourage critical thought, and scrape away at the nationalism that has corroded the minds of Armenians and Turks alike.  
 
Smyrna in Diasporan Greek Films
In the Greek diasporan imaginary, Smyrna occupies a role similar to that of Constantinople for Armenians: a historically significant city boasting a large Greek community before 1922, Smyrna has remained a place of both nostalgia and trauma for diasporan Greeks whose parents and grandparents were forced to flee the city. But like diasporan Armenians, diasporan Greeks have kept the memory of their ancestral city alive in the diaspora, preserving inherited memories of a idyllic yet painful past that they have begun to represent in film.
Maria Ilioú’s 2012 documentary Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City 1900-1922 takes a historical approach to understanding her ancestral city—a city that her father had fled at the age of nine. In delving into a dimension of the history of the modern city of Izmir that is often absent from the Turkish grand narrative, she unearths photographs and archival footage and conducts interviews that reconstruct the Greek community of Ottoman Smyrna before its near destruction.
Although the memory of Smyrna permeated Ilioú’s childhood, she saw that few outside the diasporan Greek community were aware of the major presence of the Greeks in Smyrna before 1922. Writing Greeks into the history of the city and raising awareness about their historic connection to it thus became a major motivation to make the film.
Like Nazarian and Bezjian, Ilioú strives to break down the barriers that both Greek and Turkish nationalism have imposed on the retelling of history. In an attempt to counter efforts to revise the history of the city, Ilioú goes to great lengths to avoid perpetuating nationalist rhetoric and to present history as objectively as possible. About her documentary, she says:
The film is very much about acceptance of Otherness—how important it is to live nearby people who come from different religions [and] cultures, [who] speak different languages, think in different ways, and despite all that, they can live very well together. And that’s what happened in Smyrna. It was a miracle somehow. [They] were happy times for at least a hundred years where this community—this multicultural community—was really thriving. And then of course, the wave of nationalism—the wave of history—was bigger than the relations of the people and all this fell apart. And that was a tragedy.
Chrysovalantis Stamelos’s 2012 documentary Hello Anatolia takes a lighter, more contemporary approach to exploring the Greek presence in Smyrna. His film documents his own process of moving from the United States to Izmir, adapting to the modern city while exploring the traces of the historic one he knew vicariously.
Like Ilioú, Stamelos grew up with family stories about Smyrna. For him, these stories were so compelling that they prompted him to return and experience the city for himself. He describes his film as “the journey of going back to the land of [his] great-grandparents, trying to discover their past through language, architecture, faith, and culture.” Like the diasporan Armenian filmmakers, Stamelos was the first member of his family to return since the trauma that prompted them to leave. Despite nearly a century, the draw of Smyrna and its firm position in the diasporan Greek imaginary has remained strong.
The memories preserved in this imaginary in fact shaped Stamelos’s initial reaction to the city. Sharing the unexpected sense of belonging that Nazarian and Bezjian had felt when they first arrived in Istanbul, Stamelos says:
When I came to Turkey for the first time I felt very at home. I didn’t feel like I was in a foreign country…the culture and the people, the people’s faces, and everything it was probably one of the most bizarre experiences I ever had. I never traveled to a country where I felt so similar to the people…When they ask me if I’m a foreigner, or yabancı in Turkish, I say no. My family’s from here and I feel very connected here.
Despite its historical roots, the film is also very much concerned with the future of Greek-Turkish relations. Stamelos understands his role in this future by, in his words, “building a bridge” between the Greek and Turkish peoples through the city that they share. 
 
Constantinople and Smyrna Revisited
So much suffering, so much tragedy. Now my mind wanted only to return to the past. If it could only all be a lie, if we could only go back to our land, to our gardens, to our forests with their songbirds, sparrows and tiny owls, to our orchards with their tangerine trees and flowering cherries, to our beautiful festivals…
These are the final words of Greek novelist Dido Sotiriou’s 1962 novel Farewell Anatolia; here one of her characters is staring at the outline of Smyrna from the safety of one of the nearby Greek islands in 1922. While the Ottoman Armenian and Greek communities of Constantinople and Smyrna may no longer be on the radar of the inhabitants of the modern cities of Istanbul and Izmir, the memory of the cities in the imaginaries of these diasporan peoples is still vivid. Despite the time that has passed, generations three or four times removed living all over the world still carry the nostalgia and bear the trauma that these cities represent.
In examining their relationships with their ancestral cities, these diasporan artists allow the outside world a glimpse into the tormented psyches of their peoples. To diasporan Armenians and Greeks, Constantinople and Smyrna have come to signify overwhelming loss—loss of life, loss of potential, loss of a future that could have been. The loss is compounded by attempts to untwine the history of their communities from those of the cities. These books and films are attempts at resisting this dispossession of history by laying their pasts bare and enabling those willing understand to feel the psychological toll that history continues to take on the diasporan Armenian and Greek communities. The wound is still fresh.
But these works have also given diasporan Greeks and Armenians agency over their relationships with ancestral cities that beforehand they had only known through inherited memories. In the process, they have demythologized these cities, shook themselves loose of the nationalist rhetoric that dominates in the diaspora, and have come to know the cities more intimately. In these works, the inherited melancholia and nostalgia that has defined diasporan relationships with Constantinople and Smyrna make room for a new sensation, colored by more diverse experiences that combine to form a more nuanced impression of the cities, past and present.
Trauma should not overshadow the various roles these cities once had for Ottoman Greeks and Armenians, or influence the possible roles they can play now and in the future. The possibilities can only increase thanks to projects like these; as they receive more attention, they have the potential to humanize these peoples, to dispel nationalistic perceptions of them, and to encourage today’s Greeks and Armenians in the diaspora to experience their ancestral cities for themselves.
These artistic representations are not constructing a common history that attempts to suppress the suffering endured by Ottoman Greeks and Armenians, to silence them, or to squeeze them into a stale conversation about multiculturalism. These projects are, at their core, personal—constructive manifestations of an inherited exile, told through a return to the site of trauma, as a way to show Constantinople and Smyrna that they have never been forgotten.

"Jadaliyya," May 26 and 28, 2013

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