By Alin K. Gregorian
BELMONT, Mass. — Member of Parliament in Turkey Garo Paylan received a hero’s welcome for a standing-room-only talk at the First Armenian Church on Tuesday, October 4, for his first appearance in Massachusetts, at a program co-sponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), the Tekeyan Cultural Association, and several others.
Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian welcomed Paylan. “To our brother, Garo, welcome to the beautiful Armenian community of Boston. Our brothers and sisters in other countries face repercussions and retaliation. We will use our freedom of assembly to listen.”
Paylan, who hails from Malatya, is a co-founder of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the left-leaning, majority-Kurdish party. He represents a district of Istanbul in the National Assembly. The veteran human rights activist seemed taken aback by the thunderous reception and standing ovation greeting him. Soft spoken, he thanked the crowd in Armenian (Shad shenorhagal em), as he launched into his talk in English.
Paylan continued to shock the audience by his openness. He was asked if he was worried about his own safety or that of the Armenian community. “Your worries are real issues. The example is Hrant Dink. [But] What about Sevag Balikçi in the army? He said nothing about Armenian issues and they killed him as well.”
Balikçi was a young conscript in the Turkish army as part of the compulsory service, who was shot to death by fellow soldiers on April 24, 2011.
He then raged against acting Patriarch of Istanbul, Aram Atesyan, who sent a letter to Erdogan declaring his unhappiness with the German Parliament for adopting a resolution denouncing the Armenian Genocide in June.
Such kowtowing will not keep him or anyone else safe, Paylan said.
“If you say you’re Armenian, it’s enough for them,” he said. He added, “I can’t make statements like that,” referring to Atesyan’s groveling.
He added, “Maybe 1 percent struggled in 1915 and they just killed us. We were taught to be silent. To stay silent is not safe,” Paylan said.
Paylan compared the current post-coup mood in Turkey to the one not-so-long ago, when human rights activists were taking to the streets to demand justice for Kurds and Armenians.
“We are living in one of the darkest periods of Turkish history,” he said. “A year ago, in June 2015, it was a warm summer, [we experienced] very romantic days, when we were having hopes about peace, facing the past and future for our children and grandchildren.”
The focus of Paylan’s comments was rights for all in Turkey, including Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians, members of the LGBT community and women. In fact, Paylan said that as a supporter of human rights and democracy, he and fellow liberals earlier supported the rights of conservative Muslim women, who were prevented from wearing headscarves to universities.
“In the 1990s they were suffering and as a democrat, I was with them on the headscarf issue. At college I was with them, especially friends who had headscarves,” he explained.
Those very same repressed fundamentalist Muslims eventually helped build AKP Party, the Islamic powerhouse headed by current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“For three generations we were always silent, especially those who suffered Genocide. My grandmother refused to tell me about it. My father told of what she lived through but said don’t speak publicly about it,” he said. “Then Hrant Dink came.”
For him, Dink was a catalyst for embracing his identity. Eventually Paylan took over the leadership of several Armenian schools in Istanbul.
Later, he became one of the organizers of Dink’s funeral, which was epic in scope.
“We started to know each other. To only care about your identity is a disease,” Paylan said. Those introductions in broader society led to the creation of HDP.
While the party is not big yet, it has doubled its numbers in the election from 6 percent the first year to 13 percent the second.
More importantly, Paylan noted, there are “many that are ready to hear about us.”
HDP, he said, works for gender equality, LGBT rights, as well as respect for every minority in the country.
“Whoever suffers, we are them. We don’t care about the vote,” Paylan noted, adding, “My party recognizes the Genocide.”
He explained, also, that the HDP makes sure that the candidates are at least half female.
He also said that many members of parliament have had their immunity stripped, exposing them to arrest if the government disagrees with what they say. For the time being, Paylan has his immunity.
Erdgoan, he said, needs an internal enemy, against whom he can raise and consolidate his power base. The Kurds and Armenians both have been useful foils for him.
“If you ask for Kurdish rights, he says you support the PKK. We are the ones who want to stop this entire war,” he said, referring to the HDP. “Polarization is deepening.”
Growing up, he said, the humiliation of being Armenian was especially daunting at Armenian elementary school, he said, where the Turkish vice principal would control everything, making student sing the national anthem up to 10 times back to back, if he deemed students were not shouting with enough zeal.
The students were made to chant happy is the person who is a Turk, again and again. “I asked my father, aren’t we Armenians?”
Paylan was asked how his family chose to stay in Turkey despite all the obstacles, dark history and mistreatment.
Simply, he explained, it is home.
“My dad and uncle came in the 1970s for a month and my dad said he could not make it. He could not eat the food and the culture was different.”
Paylan said that in high school, his classmates and friends could not figure out his name, asking where he was from. His full name, Garabed, was not used; instead, he was known as Kaya, the Turkified version of his name. In fact, in public he even had to call his mother “anne” (pronounced “anneh”) instead of mama.
“They asked in high school where I came from,” he said, not knowing anything about Armenians or their existence or eradication on those lands.
He added that the crowd he saw before him Tuesday night bore the same faces he sees back home, from Marash, Aintab, Dikranagert, etc.
He also spoke at length about the fate of the Armenian lands which are now mostly settled by Kurds. Armenians and Kurds, he said, have to work together toward joint ownership of those lands. The Kurds, he added, have a saying that the Armenians “were the breakfast and we are the lunch.”
Paylan said that he was delighted with his reception in the diaspora. “I knew that people were following me [in the media] but I didn’t know it was this much.”
He praised the diaspora for keeping ties with Armenia, but urged them to remember their ancestral lands in Turkey. “You have lost your interest in Turkey. You think it will never be OK but we had dreams two years ago. There was very much hope and the church in Dikranagert was renovated.”
“We always start the sentence, ‘first you recognize the genocide and then we talk. Of course we had demand about genocide for all our losses. Unless we have a democratic country, none of it will happen. We have to care about our land. That land is still bleeding.”
He then blamed the “deep state” in Turkey for knowing “how to manipulate.”
“The deep state continues. They know how to manipulate and consolidate the majority. So all the Turks have to come together.”
He had harsh words for the Erdogan government, especially post-coup, their zeal for blaming every problem on the supporters of Abdullah Gulen. Nor did he mince words when it came to Turkey’s culpability in sending weapons to Syria to terrorists.
He said that the budget committee in 2012 had $2 billion in hidden numbers, which had been paying for trucks that went to Syria and brought weapons to Islamic terrorists.
“Erdogan wants to be the leaders of Sunnis” around the world, he said. The power struggle and the fight against the Kurdish minority have led to 8,000 deaths, he said, with many as young as 15. “I have buried so many young bodies,” he said.
Erdogan, he added, is centralizing all power. Thus, he said, he is fulfilling the requirements of the deep state. “Every 10 years or so there is a coup or coup attempt in Turkey. We warned him [Erdogan] but he didn’t listen.”
He blames the US for the coup, Paylan said, and he asks the US to “give me Gulen. Then he is taking all the properties of those he blames. Does that remind you of something?”
The properties confiscated during the Genocide add up to $50 billion, he said. Therefore, he urged the diaspora to come back and claim those lands.
Despite the human rights violations, he said, the US is still trying to curry favor with Erdogan.
“The West turns a blind eye to the human rights violations,” he said. “There are 5,000 politicians in prison, there is no free media, there is no judiciary.”
“I am not a hero. It was a genocide. We all lost something 100 years ago.”
Sponsors of the program, in addition to NAASR Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Lecture Series on Contemporary Armenian Issues and Tekeyan, included the Kaloosdian-Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University, Hamazkayin Armenian Cultural and Educational Society and Society of Istanbul Armenians of Boston.
Please look for a follow-up interview of Paylan by Aram Arkun in a forthcoming issue of the Mirror.