Sergey Vardanyan is a researcher at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia. He is also an ethnographer, folklorist, the vice president of the charity community organization “Hamshen”, and editor-in-chief of the monthly newspaper “Dzayn Hamshenakan”.
Below is the transcription of his interview with the Medialab agency. Sergey Vardanyan was interviewed by Marina Baghdagyulyan
Mr. Vardanyan, how can those Hamshenis who have become Muslims preserve their culture and traditions?
“The main thing here is to know how much time has passed since their adoption of Islam. Hamshenis adopted Islam in large numbers in 1720. Imagine Armenians who have converted to Islam 300 years ago. What big changes could have happened in their culture in such a long time?
When asked where they are from, they answer: ‘We are Hamshenis’.
How would I answer this question? I am from Van because in 1915, my grandfather and grandmother moved out from precisely Van.
In Hamshen, villages are scattered throughout mountains and forests. The Hamshen Armenians of Rize Province spoke the Armenian language until the 1950s-60s. They began to speak Turkish when they were provided with electricity and access to television. However, they preserved many Armenian words, some of which they wrote down in their villages.
Prior to this, people, especially women, hadn’t spoken Turkish. They had lived in the mountains with no access to education. The same conditions used to be in Ardwin Province before the introduction of electricity in the 1970s and 80s.
Before, many did not know Turkish. Now, children watch cartoons in Turkish and from childhood know the language. When you speak with Hamshenis, they often switch to Turkish. I have asked them: “Why not speak the Hamshen dialect?” We know the answer – they do not have a sufficient vocabulary to describe many modern concepts and phenomena.
According to UNESCO, the Hamshen dialect is among the 18 endangered languages of Turkey.”
How did it happen that you became interested in Hamshen and Hamshenis?
“After my graduation from school in 1969, my mother and I went to Adler for vacation. She said: ‘You’ve worked a lot, you’re tired, so we’ll go and have a little rest.’
Near Adler is the village of Moldovka – this is an Armenian village. Villagers would come to us with anxious faces and sticks in their hands, demanding that an Armenian school be opened in Moldova. But local authorities opposed this.
When chatting with them, I would not understand some of their words. I remember that I was impressed that they called an individual “masht”, and much more. But most importantly, it impressed me that these people fought to remain Armenians.
When we returned to Armenia and started to ask around about Hamshen and the Hamshenis, we heard a lot of sad, heartbreaking things. We looked for literature, but there was none.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians spend their vacations on coastal cities where the Hamshenis live. They swim in the sea, relax, but they know almost nothing about the Hamshenis.
Then, I got employed by the newspaper ‘Pioneer Kanch’ and began to publish poems of Armenian children from the Krasnodar Territory and Abkhazia.
One day, a Hamsheni teacher, one Andranik Zeytunyan, arrived from Adler, bringing books for distribution in schools. He was engaged in the preservation of national identity. With his assistance, I found answers to many worrying questions and strengthened my ties with Hamshenis.”
How strong are these bonds? As far as I know, the charity community organization “Hamshen” operates in Armenia, of which you are vice-president. There is the radio program “The Hamshen interlocutor”, which is again authored by you, and the monthly “Voice of Hamshen”, whose editor also is you. Are you preparing all this material at home?
“Well, if you know so much, it means that things are that way.
For many years, I have collected material in order to establish a museum in Yerevan dedicated to Hamshen and the Hamshen Armenians. But now, I realize that my dreams were not destined to come true. We have changed. The national identity is in decline. The Hamshenis of Abkhazia and the Krasnodar Krai are no longer as interested in maintaining ties with Armenia as before.
I repeatedly asked Hamshenis who were planning to come to Yerevan to bring newspapers and books so that I could freely distribute them, but they did not bring anything. I asked the Hamsheni teacher to send a photo of his students so that I would publish it in the newspaper, but he wouldn’t send any.
In Soviet times of censorship, Hamshenis have been looking to tell people about themselves, about the history of their genocide, and about their culture and folklore. Today, it’s no longer this way. Now, when I ask them to send materials for printing, many people don’t even care about it.”
They say that the folklore of the Hamshenis is dying out and that we missed the moment to preserve it when it was still possible. Why is this happening?
“In 1984-87, when I was actively collecting works of oral folk art by Muslim Hamshenis in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, people who had witnessed the genocide with their own eyes were still alive. They could spend hours telling fairy tales, fables, and parables, singing songs, making riddles, and sharing proverbs and sayings.
I collected some data back then, but there were some difficulties. I was just starting to learn the dialect. They got surprised when I told them that I was an Armenian and was looking for Hamshenis. An old woman who survived the genocide asked: ‘Where do they live now, have they really fled?’
Now, when I come to Turkey and manage to describe several games or puzzles, I get very pleased and consider myself lucky.”
Folklore is not a written heritage but an oral one. Was it really difficult to verbally pass it on to the younger generation, tell them tales, sing songs, fables, riddles?
“The Hamsheni does not want to pass his dialect and folklore on to his children.”
“In Armenia (in Soviet times), why did parents send their children to Russian schools, speak Russian at home, and propagandize Russian culture? Because the Armenian language did not give prospects for a good position in the future. Likewise, Hamshenis do not teach their children their dialect or tell them songs and fairy tales because in this case, the only future for the child would be working on tea plantations or shepherding.
The Hamsheni wanted his child to study Turkish to allow him to get higher education in Istanbul. The Turks, in turn, actively propagandized in Hamsheni villages that the Hamshen language and culture were not interesting to anyone and were not needed.
In Armenia, a country where the state language is Armenian, Armenian books and newspapers are printed and published, and there also is Armenian television. Here, you can find many true patriots. But how can the Hamshenis maintain their identity in their conditions?
One Muslim Hamsheni told me: ‘How can I consider myself an Armenian when I am unaware of the community of Hamshenis and other Armenians, when I don’t know your history, and my history too?’ But I’m trying to get them back into the bosom of their history.”
Translated from Armenian, “Dzayn Hamshenakan”, November-December 2017, Armat.im