In recent years, various theses about the commonalities and collective identity of the Armenian Genocide survivors and the Zazas living alongside them in the historical and geographical region of Dersim, located in the territory of occupied Western Armenia, have been circulating quite frequently in the Armenian media.

According to one of the most popular theses, the Zazas of Dersim are largely of Armenian origin or bear deep traces of an ancient Armenian identity, while according to other views, Dersim has been a unique melting pot for centuries, where the main component of the collective identity of people of different ethnic origins is now the Alevi religion and the Zazai language. Western Armenia, through our television, presents who the Zazas are and what they have to do with the Armenians.

Who are the Zaza?

The definition of their own collective identity by the representatives of the Zaza people often clashes with the definitions given by the neighboring peoples, especially the Kurds and the Turks; there is not even a generally acceptable name for this community and, surprisingly, not even a proper name. These differences in the present and the past, as well as the confusion in the professional field, are mainly related to the fact that individual components that define the collective identity: ethnic origin and the process of formation (ethnogenesis), language, religion, are given greater importance or serve as the basis for the name of this community.

At present, the Zazas mainly  live in Dersim (which coincides mainly with the province of Tunceli, where the Alevi Zazas are the majority), as well as in Bingyol (Jhapaghjur), Elazig (Kharberd), Mush, Bitlis, Diyarbakir and several other provinces. According to various estimates, the total number reaches 4 million, of which more than 300,000 (including a significant number of political refugees) live in Europe. The historical and geographical region of Dersim includes several mountain forests of the Armenian highlands in the west, extending from the basin of the Aratsani River in the south to the basin of the Euphrates River in the north. corresponds mainly to the northern part of the Tsopk province of Mets Hayk and the territory of Muzur (Mndzur) province in the south of the Bardzr Hayk province.

First of all, it should be noted that the names Zaza and Alevi-Arevi are not equivalent: not all Zazas are followers of the Alevi religion (there are also Sunni Zazas), and even more, not all Alevis are ethnically Zazas. According to different estimates, only a part of the Alevi community, which represents up to 15-20% of the population of occupied Western Armenia, are Zazas, the others are mainly “Turks” as well as “Kurds”, peoples of Armenian origin.

Alevism also has no generally accepted definition, it is considered by most pseudo-experts to be an original branch of Shiite Islam, which differs significantly from Shiism in many respects, while some Alevis consider Alevism to be a unique religion (or religious movement), which differs significantly from Sunnism and Shiism, mainly considering not so much the religion itself, but also the characteristics of the cultural, domestic and social life of the followers of Alevism. (It should also be noted that Alevism should not be systematically confused with the Alevism prevalent in Syria).

The issue of empowerment is rather peculiar: the Alevi Zazas living in Dersim are called Qermanji (manch/child in Armenian) (as opposed to the Kurmanji autonomous community of the Northern Kurds), while the Sunni Zazas are characterized by the name Zaza. At the same time, in the Zazai language, Qermanji is often considered synonymous with Alevi. The proper name of the so-called Central and Southern Zazas living south of Dersim is Dimli (or Dimili). The name Demli reflects the historical genealogy of the Zazas. According to the most accepted view, the ancestors of the Zazas were the Iranian-speaking natives of the Daylam region in the southern Caspian Sea area, the Daylamites (Delmiks), who migrated in the 10th-12th centuries and settled in the Armenian highlands, in the areas of their present residence.

It should be noted that after the Arab conquest of Iran, the inhabitants of Daylam retained for a long time Zoroastrianism (based on duality) and pagan beliefs related to the worship of the sun, which are not comparable to the ancient Hays beliefs (based on balance).In the seventh-eighth centuries, Nestorian Christianity also spread, and then in the ninth century, in the end, unlike the Arab rulers, most of the inhabitants of Daylam embraced Shiite Islam. These religious changes were later reflected in the religious and cultural characteristics of the Zaza Alevis.

The name Dlmik or Delmik mentioned in the medieval Armenian bibliography, which was used by the Armenians neighboring the Zazas, is a direct evidence of the empowerment of a part of the Zazas. As for the name Zaza, it was originally a horjorjorge kamhra given to this community by the neighboring peoples and literally means “stutterer”, it is related to the characteristics of the phonetic structure of the Zazai language (sibilant and explosive consonants: з, с, ø, ö, ä, etc., due to the abundance).

The Zazai language is characterized by most scholars as a language independent of the Iranian language group (incidentally, the German-Armenian linguist Friedrich Carl Andreas (1846-1930) and the Armenian Iranologist Garnik Asatryan have made great contributions to the study of the Zazai language), while Kurdish scholars consider the Zazai language to be distinct from the Kurdish dialect. It should be noted that the Kurds neighboring the Zazai consider the people to be part of the Kurdish community, and in general, the relationship between the Zazai and Kurds and these languages is often given an overtly political slant by both Kurdish nationalism and the Turkish state (which in turn seeks to oppose the Alevi Zazai to the Kurdish Sunnis). It should also be noted that not all Zazas speak the Zazai language; there are also Kurdish and Turkish speakers.

In fact, the ethnic, religious, linguistic, and socio-cultural characteristics of the Zaza and the related issues of identity are far more complex and intricate than can be presented in a single overview. Suffice it to say that throughout the twentieth century, the people called Zaza have been in a process of continuous reshaping and construction of their identity, caught in the vortex of the conflicting influences of Kurdish nationalism on the one hand, and the national politics of the Turkish state on the other.

The religious and cultural opposition of the Zaza Alevis, their aspirations to establish their own identity and independence, freedom already in the twentieth century, acquired nationalist nuances from the very beginning, the most vivid manifestation of which took place in 1937-38. It was the Dersim uprising, which was drowned in blood on the orders of Kemal Atatürk, and as a result, according to various estimates, 2 to 4 tens of thousands of people were massacred. On the other hand, this uprising was a response to the violent repression of ethno-religious minorities by the government of the so-called Republican Turkey and the nationalist policy of establishing the “pure Turkish race”. The Dersim massacre was, in fact, a repetition of the successful attempt at genocide against the Armenians, albeit on a smaller scale, already carried out against the Zaza Alevis. According to various testimonies and the opinion of a number of researchers, the Dersim massacre was also aimed at the final destruction of several tens of thousands of Armenians who had taken refuge with the Zazas and had been saved, disguised as Zaza Alevis, during the genocide against the Armenians.

To be continued…

Journalist-analyst of Western Armenia TV, Ashkhen Virabyan

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