Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey by Avedis Hadjian, I. B. Tauris, US $35.00, Pp 572, June 2018, ISBN 978-1788311991
The massacre of Armenians in eastern Turkey in 1915 — popularly known as Armenian Genocide — was so complete that it is commonly believed that no Armenian survived in Anatolia which was once largely populated by Armenians. In reality, many thousands or perhaps a few millions survived. Many of them were orphans whom Turkish and Kurdish Muslims adopted and raised as Muslims. No one knows whether the hidden Armenians were/are in the thousands or a few million. They are called secret Armenians or hidden Armenians even. Journalist and author Avedis Hadjian has traveled to the towns and villages once populated by Armenians and wrote their stories in Secret Nation. Avedis Hadjian says that the descendants of the survivors of the 1915 Genocide who stayed behind in Eastern Anatolia were forcibly converted to Islam. They kept their identity secret for nearly a century. Many of them still do. There are devout Muslims among them while others are Alevis, and a few secretly remain Christian, especially in the area of Sasun where there are still mountain villages with secret Armenian populations. Many have become agnostics or atheists.
Avedis Hadjian says that the Young Turk Revolution began the exclusion process of Armenians and other non-Muslim minorities, a process that culminated in the Genocide. The Armenian Genocide was the direct result of Ataturk’s slogan of “Turkey for the Turks.” Yet Turkey has remained an empire in all but name, in terms of both a geography appropriated from other nations for the benefit of a dominant people, descended of conquerors arrived from elsewhere, and a state that has consistently excluded throughout its history its indigenous people, now reduced to token communities, from any position of power or public office. However, Avedis Hadjian also adds that the situation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was not benign. Yet it was a polity where they had a place, albeit a deteriorating one as violence in the Armenian provinces grew worse following the dissolution by imperial fiat of the Kurdish emirates and the power struggles amid Kurdish tribes to fill the vacuum, and their land grab and wealth appropriation at the expense of Armenians.
To this date, most Armenians tend to adhere to a narrow definition of their natural identity. As in Ottoman times, many still believe that you cannot be an Armenian if you do not profess the Christian faith regardless of denomination. Avedis Hadjian says that this traditional concept of nationality prevails both in Armenia and the Diaspora. As the number of agnostics and atheists grow among Armenians, this narrow definition faces several challenges. Many of the secret Armenians, who have genuinely converted to Islam, and are solely Turkish speakers, come to blur even further what was until very recently a clear notion of what made an Armenian, in which denial and rejection of Islam and the Turk plays a big part. Avedis Hadjian argues that this has been changing. Secret Armenians and Hamshentsis are being embraced by Armenians from elsewhere as they are being connected on the social media.
In this scenario of decline and loss, the sudden discovery of Armenians who somehow escaped extermination in 1915 and stayed behind in their historical lands offered an unexpected jolt of life. Avedis Hadjian says that nobody paid much attention to the Anatolian Armenians half a century ago, even though they were known to exist. Visits by Armenians from Syria, Lebanon, or other places to relatives who had stayed behind in places such as Bingol, Sivas, or Diyarbakir — some having converted to Islam — were not uncommon in the 1960s. There were known cases of lost Armenians who left these ancestral lands to join the Diaspora, which at the time was barely beginning to stand on its feet after the devastation wreaked by the Genocide. With their language, many of them have lost their past, too.
The history of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 as the Ottoman Empire crumbled is well known. But very little is known of the people who survived the Genocide. It was popularly thought that the survivors fled Turkey and settled in Europe and North America. In Secret Nation, Avedis Hadjian shows that thousands or maybe millions of Armenians survived and stayed back in Turkey. He also shows that most of them survived by hiding or changing their religion. Secret Nation is the story or history of these hidden Armenian and their future. Avedis Hadjian has filled a huge gap in scholarship on the history of Ottoman, Turkey, and Armenia. Secret Nation is a meticulously-researched work of scholarship that will equally benefit lay people who are interested in knowing about the hidden Armenians.