Hüseyin Ovayolu

Hüseyin Ovayolu: ‘For Me Armenia Is Like Noah’s Ark!’

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YEREVAN — Photographer and documentary filmmaker Hüseyin Ovayolu was born in Gaziantep (Antep), Turkey, in 1986. He studied at photography and video department of Istanbul Bilgi University. Hüseyin also graduated from the Documentary Photography School organized by the Photography Foundation in Istanbul. He is an artist who tries to tell his personal stories and social memory with the language of photography.

We met in Yerevan in the beginning of last July. What was interesting, that in his English conversation Hüseyin never used the word “Armenia,” but “Hayastan.”

Hüseyin, once a Turkish intellectual said that everybody is minority in Turkey. Do you agree and what nationality were your ancestors?

I was born in a Kurdish-Alewi family, but both of my father’s grandmothers were Armenians from Marash, survivors of the Genocide. Our family village had some 11-12 Armenian villages around. When their inhabitants were exiled to Der Zor or Aleppo during the Genocide, many Armenians gave their children to Kurdish families. That was the case of my two great-grandmothers. They were very little, did not even know their real, Armenian names. One of them, re-named Khatije, died early, but my father and aunt told me that sometimes she was using words that were neither Kurdish, nor Turkish, for instance, the word aghjik (girl in Armenian). They tell that Khatije was well aware of the government and public rules, which was not typical for a peasant woman.

You see, I don’t know the language and traditions, but when I meet an Armenian, I have very different feeling. I want to hug him or her. And this feeling I have not only in here in Armenia, but also in historical homeland, be it in Sasun, Van or Cîbîn. It is not about the lands, but the people; the same happened when I met Armenians in Paris.

You know, Turkey’s history is full of massacres and bloodshed. If you are not Turk, you are politically on the outside; they consider you against everything. Actually I am against fascism. I stand up for all oppressed and marginalized people, whether Armenians, Kurds or Assyrians. I understand the minorities’ mentality very well.

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You are from Aintab or Antep, a city with a rich Armenian past, but perhaps with no Armenian traces anymore.

Yes, but I will tell you something interesting. Once in Antep, in a shopping mall, a girl, seeing my bag with Armenian letters, approached and asked me where I bought it. It turned out she is an Armenian from Syria. After the Syrian war, 25 Syrian-Armenian families came to Antep. My friend Hagop’s wife, Haiganush, had a baby in Antep. Imagine, after 100 years, in 2015, an Armenian, named Sahag was born in Antep! The Turkish government gave Syrians refugee cards, without mentioning their ethnicity, but cards given to Syrian-Armenians were different, mentioning in red color their Armenian ethnicity. By the way, after 2018, no more Syrian-Armenians remained in Antep.

What brought you to Armenia this time?

My photography book project, called Uprooted. It started in Antep, aiming to explore who am I, what it means being born in Turkey. With this project I want to learn and discover myself with the colors and languages of our bordering countries. I went to the borders made by governments and people, both legal and illegal. This is a different way for me to understand myself and my geography. This is not just a black-and-white photo documentary project; this is about me, my view, my observations and the ways how can I understand our neighbors — Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, as well as sea-bordering Ukraine, Russia, Cyprus, also Israel. I have visited almost all those countries and I just want to present them like a visual novel.

Before this current project, have you ever made other Armenia-related efforts?

Ten year ago I came to Yerevan for my metro stations photography project. I photographed lots of portraits and metro stations as a part of my project which was photographing metro stations in ex-Soviet cities: Moscow, Petersburg, Kyiv, Yerevan, Tbilisi and Baku. Next time I will visit Kyiv again, as well as Central Asia.

What about documentaries?

I plan to make a short documentary film in a very strategic area on Turkish-Syrian border Akçakoyunlu, inside the train station there. My big dream is to have in this film my favorite dancer from Yerevan, the brilliant Rima Pipoyan, whom I had a chance to meet in person thanks to you.

This is your third visit to Armenia, but the first one after the war. What do you feel?

This time I understood I should be beware of having a Turkish passport. Four years or 10 years ago, I was taking lots of photos in Hayastan, and if people asked me to show my Turkish passport, it was really no problem. But this time when I went to Armavir to shoot the train station, I saw a police car and was worried if they would ask me to show my passport. Before it was safe to say I am from Turkey, but now I understand the situation: we had horrible days, 5,000 young people were killed. By the way, after the war I went to Azerbaijan, where people were quite skeptic about me, but my Turkish passport helped me, as they collaborated and killed together.

This time I saw many intellectual and dynamic Russian expats in Yerevan. Of course, countries also determine their guests according to the education quality of their own society. Russians in Armenia are just the opposite of Russians visiting Turkey. Once I met a Russian in Antalya and told him I love Dostoyevsky very much. He asked me: “Who is Dostoyevsky?” This time thanks to you I visited the town of Nor Ayntap, which was a nice experience from an Antep-born person like me. I am impressed by school no 2 of Nor Ayntap, the warm welcome of its director and one of the teachers. It was great to see the map and photos of Antep’s self-defense, as well as the monument with busts of commander Asadour Levonyan, priest Nerses Tavoukjian and gunsmith Avedis Kalemkarian — names I know from the history of Antep.

It is really exciting: every time I meet different interesting people in Hayastan. And I love that in Hayastan people live with art. You see monuments everywhere, I love walking in the morning in the calm and relaxed parks, often hearing piano playing or vocal practicing. For me Armenia is like Noah’s ark. There are Armenians, but many of them have different cultures, languages and knowledge. This richness in people of Hayastan I love very much!

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