My visit to Düzce University: Kartvelism is not idle! By İrfan Çağatay

Laz people in Turkey

Statue of a Laz man and woman. Artvin, Turkey

Lazoba-- During my stay in Germany, I received good news via our ex-foreign affairs Minister Yaşar Yakış. We had last winter interviewed Mr. Yaşar for the Ağani Murutsxi in the Laz language. During the interview I had mentioned to Mr. Yasar our efforts to create a “Laz Language and Literature” programme at universities located in Rize and Artvin. Mr. Yasar had in turn asked me whether we had submitted a proposal to Düzce University in this regard and also told us that he personally knew the Chancellor and would discuss the matter further with her. 

Mr. Yasar must surely have contacted the Chancellor as she, Prof. Funda Sivrikaya Şerifoğlu, last week stated their intention to speed up the process of opening the “Laz Language and Literature” programme and they would therefore require 3 academicians who have gained their doctorate in the Laz language; she had also asked from where such staff could be found. Mr. Yasar had in turn directed Prof. Şerifoglu’s question to me.  Following on from these developments, on the morning of Friday 19th December at the invitation of the madame Chancellor, I was en route to Düzce. Having arrived there and toured the city centre for a while, I made my way by bus to the university in order to attend the meeting at 2 o'clock. I must state that, Düzce University is quite outside of the city on the outskirts. Being situated in the north of Düzce in the Konuralp district, it is located over a wide area. The Konuralp district is composed of the villages that are home to the year 93* emigree Çxala Lazs, such as  Suncuk, Sancakdere Osmança, Kabalak, Düzköy, Boğaziçi. (* Translator’s note: Year 93 refers to the Ottoman-Russian War that took place in the years 1877-1878, which equals to the year 93 according to the old calendar system used by the Ottoman Empire. Those Lazs who had migrated to today’s Marmara region are called as the “year 93 emigrees)

At precisely 2 o'clock I was at the university. A little later, the Chancellor welcomed me to her office. During my trip to Düzce, I gave some thought as to who the potential three people who had completed their doctorates could be and whether any tolerances could be made. Additionally, I tried to decide whether or not to mention the notions of Georgian nationalists regarding the Laz people and the Laz language. Perhaps it would be inappropriate, however, would they not need to have information on this issue if they wanted to open a department? Having sat down with the Chancellor and ordered coffee, the  subject matter was immediately brought up. The lady Chancellor explained that they had been considering creating such a programme for the past few years but had been unable to accomplish this aim. As a university they had over previous years created a Circassian (Adyghe) Language and Literature programme and also a Georgian Language and Literature programme and students were enrolling in them. These programmes were apparently running well. The teaching staff had been brought over, with the assistance of Circassian Organisations, from Russia. Similarly, the teaching staff for the Georgian Languages programme were brought over from Tbilisi. 

The organisation with which they were connected in Tbilisi was საქართველოს საპატრიარქოს წმიდა ანდრია პირველწოდებულის სახელობის ქართული უნივერსიტეტი  in other words the “The Georgian University Named After St. Andrew the First-Called of the Patriarchate of Georgia”. As can be understood from the name, the University is affiliated with the Patriarchate of Georgia. 

During our meeting, a Turkish woman of Georgian descent, Nigar Demircan-Çakır, also joined us.  According to what was explained by the Chancellor, a delegation, including Nigar Demircan-Çakır and the Dean of the Science-Literature Faculty, Prof. İlhan Genç, had a few days earlier on the 17th December attended a meeting in Tbilisi with the intention of forming a partnership with two Georgian Universities, and at this meeting their intention of creating a Laz Language and Literature programme was also on the agenda of the topics discussed. 

At the meeting in Tbilisi the attendees from the Georgian side were as follows: Chancellor of the University, Sergo Vardosanidze, Tariel Putkaradze, Teimuraz Gvantseladze, Mikheil Labadze, Sopo Kekua and Nana Kaçarava. ( I am sure our interested readers will have heard of the names Tariel Putkaradze and Mikheil Labadze before. During their meeting madame Chancellor also mentioned to me a dialogue which she found quite peculiar. The above-mentioned individuals had apparently said the following: “Whether it be in allocating teaching staff for the Georgian classes or in creating the Turkology programmes in Georgia, we have provided every form of assistance. However, we  have a polite request. We have heard that you intend to create a Laz Language and Literature programme. Do not go ahead in creating this programme.  Or if you do intend to do so please do not bypass us; create the Laz language classes as a subject taught under the aegis of the Georgian Language and Literature programme. We do not accept Laz as a free-standing language but deem it to be a dialect of the Georgian language. If a university in Tbilisi were to have created a programme accepting a dialect of the Turkish language as a language of its own, would you find this to be pleasing? So, therefore, for us the creation of a Laz programme is equally displeasing. 

Madame Chancellor had told me that she was not acquainted with the subject and asked whether Laz was in fact a dialect  or the Georgian language or a language of its own.  Insofar as she was aware, Laz was a language on its own, and she found the Georgians' allegations strange. As I stood listening to madame Chancellor, the audacity of the Georgians came as a great shock, surprise and anger.  Furthermore, I realised that the dilemma I had during my journey  about  addressing to this very subject seemed even more relevant and to be something of importance that I should mention. Yes, the Georgian nationalists do not hesitate, and at every opportunity presented to them they attempt, for the purposes of their own interests, to sabotage the Laz cultural, linguistic and political achievements. So what do we as the Laz do? How seriously do we take this subject matter? I remember in previous years when, for the purposes of standing up to Georgian nationalism, we published the Laz Intellectuals’ declaration, certain individuals did not stand by us for frivolous reasons. Certain Laz and supposedly “democratic” Turkish Georgians also accused us of inciting hatred towards Georgia. We tried to explain that we were not in conflict with Georgians as such but specifically with Georgian nationalists, whose groups, lead by the Church, were asserting untruthful and false claims. 

Laz Intellectuals Explain Their View of Laz Ethnicity                                                            

Turkey’s Laz awakening

Taking a deep breath, I began, to the best of my capability to inform madame Chancellor of a subject matter about which she might possibly have been hearing for the first time: I explained of the actions of the Georgians' request for land during World War I, the Open Letter penned by Simon Dzhanashia and Nikoloz Baratashvili; I mentioned the activities of the church post-2002. I also named renowned Georgian linguists who recognised the Mingrelian and Laz languages as separate languages — amongst these linguists was Arnold Chikobava, whose name is carried by the Georgian Institute of Linguistics. Moreover, such Georgian scholars as Nikolai Marr, Guram Kartozia and İoseb Qipşidze, plus Europeans such as Georges Dumézil were also of the same opinion. I explained that besides Georgian nationalists no-one in their sane mind acknowledges the correctness of their view. 

Furthermore, in explaining the ridiculousness of Georgia interfering in the creation of a programme in Turkey, I explained that nearly 99% of the Laz population were Turkish in lineage and that in Georgia, only 1 village, the village of Sarpi (according to the 2012 population count the population of the village of Sarp consisted of 1,120 People.)  was inhabited by a couple of thousand Laz people. I explained that due to the lack of official policy towards the Laz population by the Turkish Republic, the Georgians were trying to fill the gap. The Laz people elect members of their own ethnicity to represent them in Parliament, they pay their taxes to the Turkish Government and are present in Turkish bureaucracy, but the Republic of Turkey does not have an official policy regarding the Laz people. This act of insolence by the Georgians constitutes a kind of ethnic irredentism towards the Laz people. 

I told madame Chancellor that the Laz people were deeply disturbed by the Georgian nationalists' behaviour, that the Laz will never accept a Georgian identity, that such thoughts do not exist in the traditional memories of the Laz people, that these notions have been engendered by an ideology of syncretism and attempts by the Georgians in their process of nation-building; I also stated that the Georgian nationalists have equated the Laz people with Kartvelians of Mingrelian ancestry and therefore, in conjunction with this, they regard Lazistan (the region up to and including the Provence of Trabzon) historically to have been Georgian land, and, as such, they have in a self-serving manner created a “mega-lo-idea”. I also added that to create the Laz Language and Literature programme with the assistance of Georgian teachers would result in it being used as a base to import and expand the afore-mentioned ideology and that this must be strenuously opposed. Madame Chancellor explained that she had never listened to this dispute at this level or depth, and, for the purposes of understanding whether the Turkish Republic had an official policy regarding this issue, she would be writing a letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs. I left the Rectorship having stated that I could also prepare a summarised report regarding the views of the Laz People on the matter. 

As I was leaving the rectorship, madame Chancellor explained that I could also meet the Dean of the Science-Literature faculty, Prof. İlhan Genç; she also added that the teaching staff for the Georgian classes, Maka Salia and Nana Kacavara were present in the rectorate building. I knew Nana Kaçarava from my visit to Georgia; as for Maka Salia, on the other hand, I was aware of her through her works, namely the “Dictionary of Laz and Mingrelian Fishing Terms”. At the rectorate building, Mr. Genç courteously welcomed me. Ms. Salia was already there and Ms. Kacharvaia also joined us. Madame Chancellor had told me that Ms. Salia, who was of Mingrelian descent, besides Mingrelian also knew Laz. She spoke some Mingrelian with me, but it was apparent that she did not know Laz. 

This was also a political move. As stated above, Georgians are of the opinion that Laz and Mingrelian are the same; therefore, anyone who knows Laz would normally also know Mingrelian, and vice versa. They do not separate Mingrelian from Laz; thus, by including Mingrelian and asserting that the Laz population living in Georgia are fully Georgians, they seem to be proposing that the Laz people in Turkey, who are not of the same opinion, are in ignorance. Additionally, they have also been able to manipulate such individuals as the directors of the university. I vigorously opposed this approach and, in the presence of the Georgian teaching staff, I explained the theses of the Georgians to the Dean. 

As the Georgian teaching staff were continuing amicably to speak of “brotherhood, being from the same blood, friendship”, they asserted that they were not opposing the creation of a Laz Language  Programme and claimed they were in fact pleased with it. On the other hand, however, just a few seconds later they added, “How do you intend to give classes in literature, when the Laz language has none?!” Having spent the whole day arguing, I returned back to İstanbul by the night-bus. The Georgians, who at every opportunity, whether domestically or overseas, attack the Laz language, the Laz people and our gains, are met all over the place. They use every opportunity to propagandise. Taking advantage of the benefits of being a recognised country, they employ all means necessary to try to ensure that the Laz people and the Laz language are accepted as Georgian. 

I reached Istanbul thinking of the actual reason I went to Düzce and with what I had ended up being occupied there. I would now clearly like to state this..  Oh Laz people of Turkey, oh Mingrelians, oh Laz, oh Georgians (wherever you are from) in Georgia, keep this at the back of your minds when interacting with people: as you may be well-aware, bad intentions may lie behind talk of brotherhood. Protect the Laz heritage and your language — react to whoever attempts to reject your ethnic identity or attempts falsely to categorise you! 

Skidas Lazuri nena!

- Long live the Laz language! 

First published in Turkish in Lazoba and translated by Kadir Erdi Öge.




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