Vakıflı village is at the northeastern edge of the Levant region, looking down the Eastern Mediterranean. It faces the Kel Mountain that runs perpendicular to the sea. Syrian lands lie behind the mountain. Kesab, another Armenian region, is right there. Vakıflı is a few kilometers away from Hatay-Samandağ, on the foothills of Musa Mountain (Musa Ler) and on historical trade routes. For centuries, it has been home to Armenians who settled in the region in the 1300s.
In the beginning of the 20th century, there were 22 villages, as part of Süvediye, 7 of them being Armenian villages. Vakıflı is the only village that survived after 1915. It is the last Armenian dwelling in Turkey, with a population of 130 people. In the area, people keep doing organic agriculture by traditional methods. They speak a specific dialect of Western Armenian along with Turkish and Arabic. In the last 50 years, young people have moved to the big cities, leaving the economy in the hands of the elderly. In 1915, women embroidered their call for help in flags during the Musa Mountain Resistance. Seeing the flags, ships saved four thousand Armenians and brought them to the Port Said harbor in Egypt. Today, the grandchildren of these women, as the women branch of the Vakıflı Village Agricultural Cooperative, do not only fulfill the needs of their houses and the village, but also keep their culture alive. Eda Kısadur, Meral Şirin, Kuhar Kartun and Armenuhi Hergel tell their story.
How did you start the women branch of the Vakıflı Village Agricultural Cooperative?
Kuhar Kartun: We started the Vakıflı Village Agricultural Cooperative in 2004 and the women branch in 2005. It all started with the open market we set up in the summer of 2005. We were busy with building our hostel. We set up the bazaar in the church’s garden to support the construction of the hostel, selling liquor, syrup and jam. We invited everyone we know in Antakya. We earned two thousand liras that day and used it to make the windows of the hostel. We were proud of ourselves. We stored the remaining products in the church. Upon seeing the demand for our products, we started producing more systematically. Our motto is “one for all and all for one.” We were lucky that our church was restored in 1997 and tourists started to come, which changed the region entirely. There are three monotheistic religions and six different sects in Hatay. We are part of this rainbow. As in many other places in Anatolia, we have been around in this region before Christ and we will remain here. When we saw the tourists’ interest in our flavors, we diversified our products.
We produce 18 different liquors. We make concentrated fruit juices, laurel soap, wine, honey, and olive oil among others. We work with the belief that if we survive, this village survives too. Our principle is to produce organic and seasonal. We produce only what we harvest.
What did you start producing?
Eda Kısadur: Where to begin? (she laughs) Let’s start from the liquor. In Armenian culture, you serve liquor with chocolate. Narcissus liquor is specific to our culture. We diversified the types of liquor we learnt from our grandmothers. Now, we make liquor from a variety of fruits.
Kartun: We produce 18 different liquors: bilberry, sour cherry, blackberry, mulberry, tangerine, orange, lemon, pomegranate, strawberry, rose, mint…Liquor’s sugar, alcohol and spices depend on the taste of the woman who prepares it. Everybody has a different style. Bitter orange and walnut are our traditional material for jam. The types of jam we produce also increased. We now make jam of eggplant and mulberry too. We make concentrated fruit juices, pomegranate syrup, laurel soap, wine, honey, olive oil among others. Pomegranate is very productive. You can make syrup, jam, juice and wine out of it. We want to do meaningful things and we want to survive. We work with the belief that if we survive, this village survives too. Our principle is to produce organic and seasonal. We produce only what we harvest.
How many are you now?
Kartun: We started as five women, we are thirty now. We made a list of who produces what. Producers get the entry price of their products. The profit belongs to the cooperative and is used for the village’s needs, as well as for the costs of electricity, Internet and hostel expenses. Women who produce in the cooperatives and working in the hostel earn their livings in this way. We were able to provide scholarship for fourteen young people last year. Our production contributes to our own living and the life in the village.
How do you get along with the men in the cooperative?
Kartun: They help us, but there is also kind of a competition between us. Men work in the field. It becomes increasingly difficult to do agriculture in this country. Hence, it is impossible to earn a living only from the field. Without our cooperative, most of the families would be in trouble.
Do you get the fruits and vegetables from the fields in the village?
Kartun: Sure, we produce what we harvest. We only buy sour cherry from outside since it doesn’t grow here. But all the rest, from olives to laurel, honey to pomegranate, grow here.
Does the fact that all products are homemade create a difference in taste?
Kartun: Everybody produces according to their taste. Our customers choose accordingly. We see this as natural, as our specialty. All our products have numbers, representing the women who produce them.
Are you planning to have a common space for production?
Kartun: Through the project of the governorship, we could have a common kitchen. It is a bit small, but it’s enough for now. Our main principle is to take small and meaningful steps. We are necessary for the survival of the village. We cannot extend our network of supply without increasing the number of the women who produce.
We started as five women, we are thirty now. We made a list of who produces what. Producers get the entry price of their products. The profit belongs to the cooperative and is used for the village’s needs.
Are you planning to increase the number of the women producing?
Kartun: That is our dream. Only if young people would stay and have children here… Women here are around 40-65 years old. We want to transfer what we know to the next generation. Just like other villages that earn their living from agriculture, people emigrate from here. Once youngsters complete their education and they go to settle in cities. How can they earn their living here? These are facts of life.
Are you in touch with other women cooperatives?
Kartun: We come together in seminars and activities. Last time, we met in Antep.
Armenuhi Hergel: It was during a seminar organized by the Foundation for the Support of Women’s Work. There were women cooperatives from Southeast and Mediterranean region. I was very happy to join such a seminar for the first time and witness the solidarity among women. There were food and consumers’ rights specialists. We exchanged information on issues such as how to produce hygienically and expand production capacity and diversity.
Kartun: We are still in touch with those women through WhatsApp. We went to Istanbul last year. These activities allow us to let people know about our existence.
How do women who are not aware of Vakıflı react to you?
Hergel: Women from Gaziantep, for instance, probably never heard of the word Armenian before. We had a very good connection. Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, Orthodox, Sunni, Alevi women, we were all together. We didn’t talk about cultural or religious differences, which didn’t matter anymore. It was very hopeful to see this integration.
Kartun: We were invited to Diyarbakır in 2012. They apparently heard about our village from media. We told them how we got organized and got support. We said: “Just decide what you want to produce and create your market”.
Hergel: During our Gaziantep meeting, they told us the political obstacles they encounter when they ask for support from municipalities to become a cooperative. A woman from Urfa told that when she went to the municipality to ask for a market space and atelier, she was asked: “what political view do you support?”. Women told them, “we don’t need to be on the same side”, and eventually they couldn’t get the support. The woman who told the story left her house with one luggage and five children. Her resilience was so admirable.
What are your plans for the future?
Kısadur: We send our products to different places in Turkey: Istanbul Bosphorus Cooperative, hotels in Antalya, whoever want them. We can come up with new products. We can make a cold storage and expand our production space. We came to this point thanks to the solidarity we built, not only due to tourism in the village. We will keep on learning and being in solidarity.
Kısadur: If we can survive as a village that keeps the Armenian culture alive, this is thanks to our good intentions and efforts.
How do you feel when you hear “the last Armenian village” expression?
Some people tell us that it must be nice to live in the last remaining Armenian village. In fact, it’s quite tragic. We have only thirty-five households in this village. There were about six thousand people in these seven villages. Then came the rupture of 1915.
Kartun: It is really sad. Some people tell us that it must be nice to live in the last remaining Armenian village. In fact, it’s quite tragic. We have only thirty-five households in this village. If this village were in Ağrı, Erzurum or Ankara, it would have been gone by now. We would have had to hide our identity. If our language, religion and traditions survive now, this is due to the diverse history of Hatay. Some visitors ask as where we come from. I say: “We were always here, where did you come from?” There were more than two million Armenians here before 1915, before the deportation processes started. Our ancestors came from Kars, Ağrı and Erzurum to settle around the Musa Mountain in the 1300s. They chose this place since it is on trade routes and close to the sea. They were engaged in sericulture. There were about six thousand people in these seven villages. Then came the rupture of 1915 and our grandparents found themselves at Port Said.
Hergel: People who had to leave in 1915, started to come back in 1918. The region was under the French rule, and our villages were part of Aleppo in Syria. The region was part of the Ottomans until 1918, then the French took control for the following 20 years. It was governed by Hatay Republic for a short while also. When Hatay became part of Turkey, people leave again, first to Syria and then spread to the world from there. I was born in 1958 and didn’t have a negative experience here until I went to Istanbul in 1971. The older generation refrained from telling us what they went through in the past. I didn’t know anything about what has happened here until I went to Istanbul. We learnt the past from written and oral sources much later.
Vakıflı continues bringing people who emigrated back together…
Kartun: Everyone has relatives outside, who we see in the summer. 70% of our population is in Istanbul, living in Bakırköy, Kurtuluş or Şişli. Some of them are in Germany and France. We are here to protect our village and our culture. We cannot do this from a distance.
Hergel: Just like you can never be fully comfortable in someone else’s house, we cannot be comfortable somewhere else than this village. That is why people who get retired or whose children get married come back here.
Kartun: We try to teach our children what we learnt from our mothers. Hrisi, for instance, what you call keşkek, made of wheat and meat, is our traditional food. It brings us together for thousands of years. Each generation teaches the way it is made and served to the next generations.
Kısadur: We try to keep our traditions and culture alive. This was not the main goal of the women’s branch to begin with, but it turned out to be very helpful for this purpose. If you cannot preserve your mother tongue, culture also dies out.
Kartun: Arabs and Kurds in this geography feel the same.
Kısadur: Education system here doesn’t let us teach our mother tongues. It dies out since it is also not widely used where people emigrate to.
How did the Syrian War and migrations affect you?
Hergel: Armenians are heavily affected by the war by being displaced, losing their homes.
Kartun: We had visitors from Kesab. I used to hear the bombings when war got intensified; I was trembling. The whole village was restless. This influenced trade and tourism here. The number of our visitors dropped 80%. This year, tourists started to come again.
Meral Şirin: Migration influences both the region’s economy and daily life. We are worried about it. Migration also affects our children’s schools and our culture. There are significant cultural differences between us. But, I surely don’t want them to be deported mercilessly.
Kartun: We hope the war will end, our neighbors will find peace and we will go back to the good old days…
Translated by Aylin Kuryel