The Bitlis town council has approved the renaming of five streets in this historic town in south-eastern Turkey. Among the names is “William Saroyan Street,” after the great American-Armenian writer whose ancestors came from Bitlis before 1915. Saroyan was born in Fresno but felt strong ties to his ancestral home. He visited Bitlis in 1964 and 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of that visit.
One of the champions of renaming William Saroyan Street is Barzan Serefhanoglu, whose grandfather, Adil Serefhanoglu, was the mayor of Bitlis when Saroyan visited the city. Adil Serefhanoglu showed great respect to Saroyan and paid a high price for it. After Saroyan’s departure, he was harassed by the authorities who wanted to punish him.
William Saroyan Street will now be the main street of the Sapkor district of the city, where the Saroyan family home was located. This district looks over the citadel in the city below. Many of the houses in this district still bear the dates of their construction in Armenian, Ottoman and Western numerals.
The Gomidas Institute congratulated the co-mayors of Bitlis, Nevin Dasdemir Dagkiran and Hüseyin Olan, as well as all members of Bitlis town council who approved the name changes unanimously.
“This was a sensitive decision,” said Ara Sarafian of the Gomidas Institute. “The people of Bitlis have expressed their pride in one of their own Armenian sons. Such sentiments could not have been expressed even a few years ago, when all positive sentiments regarding Armenians and Kurds were proscribed by the Turkish state. We have come a long way in Turkey, but there is still a long way to go.”
The other names adopted by Bitlis town council celebrate Bediüzzaman Said-i Kürdi, Kemal Fevzi, Serefhan, and Ferhat Tepe.
The renaming of William Saroyan Street is partly the result of a bridge-building operation the Gomidas Institute initiated in 2013 – before the current co-mayors and town council were even elected. The Institute’s efforts resulted in increased contacts, a public exhibition dedicated to the Armenians of Bitlis before 1915 – an exhibition which was shown in Bitlis and Fresno, California – as well as other projects still underway.
The Gomidas Institute’s work in Bitlis has been possible with the help of the Turkish Human Rights’ Association (IHD), the Bitlis Bar Association, the Armenian Studies Program at California State University (Fresno), as well as private individuals.