In 1950s, Armenian children from all around Turkey came to Istanbul to study at the Gedikpasa Armenian Protestant Primary School. While many would return to their villages and towns by the end of the year, Armenian orphans stayed in Istanbul and spent the long, hot summer days in the garden of the Church and sleeping in the basement dormitory. In order to create a home for the orphans, the Church foundation found land in Tuzla, which was close to the sea, unoccupied, and coloured with all shades of green. They bought the land from the previous Turkish owner by following the letter of the law. According to the 1936 regulations, minority foundations in Turkey had the right to obtain property as long as they informed the state, which ensured that there was nothing illegal in the buying of land by the Armenian Foundation.
Thirty Armenian orphans, aged between 8 and 12, helped the workers to build a new orphanage. They carried water in small buckets, transferred bricks, and helped workers to prepare the cement. They weeded the paths and planted trees on their own. They were building a new home, a sanctuary where they could communicate freely in their language and practice their religion: Camp Armen.
However, all changed in 1974, the year of Turkey’s military operation in Cyprus. The hostility towards the Greek minority somehow expanded to involve all non-Muslims, who had come to constitute ‘different’, problematic, and possibly untrustworthy groups within the predominantly Muslim and Turkish society since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; or at least, they had been perceived thus by the state, whose policies towards minorities are now well-documented. A new law introduced in 1974 banned the foundations of ‘the foreigners’ from acquiring lands in Turkey. The interesting point is that Armenian minorities were also considered ‘foreigners’.
The unavoidable end was at hand. The legal battle between 1979 and 1983 ended with the defeat of the Foundation, which had to return the land to the previous owner, who reoccupied the land with a ready-built complex, on which he had not spent a cent. The legal efforts of the Foundation continued. However, on 6 May 2015, a few weeks after the centennial of 1915, teams arrived for the demolition of the orphanage, although protests have stopped them for now. The owner aims to build a hotel with a sea view on the land whose value has immensely increased recently as the result of the predominance of the construction-based capital accumulation in contemporary Turkey.
The Camp Armen was not the sole victim of urban transformation. Taksim Square, which was the locus of left-wing opposition in the 1960s and 1970s, has been another target. In 1977, when Turkey was in political turmoil, 1 May celebrations were targeted by ‘unknown’ assailants who left 34 protestors killed. Afterwards, Taksim Square was closed to public protests. When the current Justice and Development government announced the Taksim Pedestrian Project in 2011, its plan was to reconstruct the Topçu barracks (Ottoman-style barracks), thus replacing the only green oasis in central Istanbul: Gezi Park. The ‘barracks’ would, in fact, be a shopping mall in the cloak of old barracks. Taksim, which is now a concrete mass, is still part of the left wing political memory as part of its identity.
The cases of demolition of history, city, and memory and their substitution with hotels, villas, business centres, and malls are countless in Turkey. What I would like to underline in the case of Camp Armen is a dimension of neoliberal urbanization that is sometimes lost in the intensity of economic discussions: how urbanization is appropriated in the nation-state context in order to reproduce the marginalization and silencing of the ‘different’ and the ‘deviant’. As argued by critical scholars and activists Hardt and Negri, different type of relationship exists between neoliberal Empire and ‘the difference’. Unlike the former nation-state, Empire does not terminate the different and the deviant. Rather, it values the different; it co-opts, categorizes, and manages it so that solidarity cannot flourish in such a postmodern moment, and so that the new neoliberal elite with their capital move freely. Urban transformation projects in the developed and developing world have been one of the platforms through which Empire reproduces itself with construction bubbles, shopping malls, and massive construction plans such the Canal Istanbul, a project to slash the land into two to construct an artificial canal.
This is not always the case. The Camp Armen experience and many other examples point to neoliberalism being appropriated in order to realize the traditional nation-state political project, which aims to assimilate the different in favour of national homogenization. The legal and political foundations of the dissolution of the Camp or the Taksim Pedestrian Project were set up long before the arrival of Empire, in the 1980s aggressive neoliberal turn with Turgut Özal. The marginalization of non-Muslim and non-Turkish minorities and the silencing of the left (even if it is the soft social democratic version) have been constitutive pillars of exclusionary and oppressive politics in Turkey, as countless reports of NGOs, academic works, and political events have demonstrated. Neoliberal urban transformation is doing the last trick: it decouples the ‘different’ from the space with which it is associated. The orphanage was one of the centres where Armenian identity could be reconstructed in Turkey. So was the Halki Seminary for Turkey’s Greek population. The closure of these institutions was part of the marginalization of the ethnically and religiously ‘different’. The following ‘land grabbing’ of the neoliberal urban transformation has constituted a new phase of respatializing the land in the way that the different cannot be reproduced through/in it.
Another consequence is that the memory of the city can be erased; at least those parts that the neoliberal state, which is in company with the modern nation-state, would like to be ‘cleansed’. The new neoliberal city becomes the city of shopping malls, hotels, business centres, and gated communities, without opposition and difference. In this way, the nation-state is reproduced through the city without the memory of the different and without the space where the different can survive. I believe that the Camp Armen experience should urge us to rethink the productive relations between the two forms of the state: one is the Empire and the other is the traditional, which coexist in a symbiotic relationship. While the neoliberal state gives the traditional nation-state a homogenous nation through urban transformation, the latter provides the political and legal set-up for the new neoliberal local elites to become stronger.
One of the orphans living in Camp Armen met his future wife there. This orphan, journalist Hrant Dink, was murdered in 2007. Following his murder, his wife Rakel urged all of us ‘to question the darkness which converts a baby into a murderer’. The darkness is still with us with a neoliberal touch. In 1915, the territory was cleansed; in 2015, the memory is to be ‘cleansed’. However, neoliberal urban transformation cannot ‘cleanse’ the infamy of 1915 and 2015.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Harvard University Press, 2009.