Why Don’t You Speak Homshetsi? (Ինչի՞ համշեցնակ խաբրե չես)
The interviewer of “Medialab” is Sergey Vardanyan – the Research Fellow at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, ethnographer, folklorist, vice president of the charity organization “Hamshen”, editor-in-chief of the monthly newspaper “Dzayn Hamshenakan”.
Mr Vardanyan, how can Hamshenis preserve the culture and traditions when they have become Muslim?
It is important to know how much time has passed since the conversion to Islam. Hamshenis’ mass conversion to Islam took place in 1720. Imagine the Armenians who converted to Islam 300 years ago. How many changes could take place in their culture during that period of time. When you ask them where they are from, they answer: “We are Hamshenis”. What would be my answer? I am from Van, as my grandfather and grandmother are from there. The villages are scattered over mountains and forests in Hamshen. The Hamshen Armenians, living in the province of Rize were speaking Armenian up to the 1950s. When the electricity was conducted there and TV channels were opened, they started speaking Turkish. At the same time, they saved many Armenian words, some of which they wrote down in their villages. Before that the people, especially the women, didn’t speak Turkish. They used to live in the mountains and there was nowhere to study. The same concerned the province of Ardvin by the time the electricity was conducted there in 1970s. The majority didn’t know Turkish before that. Now, children watch cartoon films in Turkish and know the language since their childhood. When you speak to Hamshenis, they often switch to Turkish. I asked them: “Why don’t you speak the Hamshen dialect?” The answer is apparent: their vocabulary is too poor to describe modern concepts. According to UNESCO, the Hamshen dialect refers to 18 endangered languages of Turkey.
How did you get interested in Hamshen and Hamshenis?
After graduating the school in 1969, I went to Adler together with my mother. She used to say: “You had been working hard. You are tired, let’s have a rest”. There is a village near Adler – Moldovka, which is populated by Armenians. The villagers with anxious faces and sticks in their hands used to come to the house we were living in. They demanded to open an Armenian school in Moldovka, but the local authorities were against it. I couldn’t understand some of their words when I was speaking to them. I remember that they called the man “masht” and used other interesting words, and I was impressed that those people were fighting in order to stay Armenians. When we returned to Armenia and started asking about Hamshen and Hamshenis, we were told about many sad and heartbreaking things. I wanted to make a research, but didn’t find any data. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians come to the seaside towns where Hamshenis live. They swim, pass their vacations but they know nothing about Hamshenis. In a while I started a job at the newspaper “Pioneer’s call” and began publishing verses written by the Armenian children from Krasnodar and Abkhazia. One day, a Hamshen teacher Andranik Zeytunyan came from Adler in order to distribute books in schools. His activities were aimed at preserving Armenian identity. Assisted by him, I found the answers to many of my questions and strengthened my ties with Hamshenis.
How strong are those ties? As I know, there is a “Hamshen” charity organization in Armenia and you are the vice-president of it. There is a radio program and the Monthly “The voice of Hamshen”, and you are the author and the editor again. Do you prepare the data for them at home?
Well, if you are so much informed, then it is so. I have been gathering materials for many years in order to create a museum in Yerevan dedicated to Hamshen and Hamshen Armenians. However, I realized that my dream will not come true. We have changed. The feeling of our national identity is in decline. The Hamshenis from Abkhazia and Krasnodar are not so interested in maintaining close ties with Armenia as they were before. I asked the Hamshenis arriving in Yerevan to bring with them newspapers and books, in order to distribute them freely, but they didn’t. I asked one of the Hamshen teachers to send me the photo of his pupils, in order to publish in in the newspaper, but he didn’t send. In Soviet times the Hamshenis used to look for people whom they could tell about themselves, about their history and the Genocide, their culture and folklore. It’s not so today. Now, when I ask them for materials, the majority remains indifferent.
They say, the Hamshen folklore is dying and we missed the moment to save it when it was still possible. What is the reason?
In 1984-87, when I was actively engaged in collecting works of folklore of Hamshen Muslims in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, the people who had seen the Genocide with their own eyes, were still alive. They could spend hours telling tales, fables, parables, singing songs, making riddles, telling proverbs and sayings. I collected some data then, but there were some difficulties. I had just started learning the dialect. They were surprised when I said I was Armenian and was looking for Hamshenis. An old woman, who survived the Genocide, asked me: “Where do they live now? Have they really escaped?” Now, when I come to Turkey and manage to describe some games or riddles, I am very pleased with it and consider myself lucky.
Folklore is not a written heritage, but an oral one. Was it really so difficult to convey the young generation the tales, songs, fables and riddles?
The Hamshen people have no desire to convey their children the dialect and folklore.
Why did parents used to send their children to Russian schools in Armenia (in Soviet times), speak Russian at home and propagandize Russian culture? The knowledge of the Armenian language was nor prospective in getting higher position in future. Likewise, the Hamshen people don’t teach their children the dialect, the songs and tales, as in that case the children can only work on tea plantations or shepherding. The Hamshen people want their children to learn Turkish in order to get a higher education in Istanbul.Turks conducted active propaganda in the villages directed against Homshetsi and Hamshen culture. Here you can meet a lot of real patriots. How can Hamshenis preserve the identity in such conditions? A Muslim Hamshen told me once: “How can I consider myself Armenian if I don’t know about the relation between Hamshenis and other Armenians, don’t know your history and my history too”. I am trying to bring them back to the bosom of their history.
The interview was conducted by Marina Bagdagyulyan
Translated from Armenian. "Dzayn Hamshenakan", november-december 2017.