Armenian identity Arabized Armenians

  • by Western Armenia, April 04, 2023 in Society

Few people know that during the Genocide years in Western Armenia, Armenians not only Turkified and Kurdified but also Arabized in order to escape massacres and deportation. Why and how did Armenians in Western Armenia become Arabized, to what extent is their Armenian and Christian self-consciousness preserved or forgotten, and what are their relations with Turkified and Kurdified Armenians?

While both scholarly and literary sources on the Arabized Armenians are still lacking, research has been conducted on the current generation of Arabized Armenians in 1915 and after to uncover some interesting facts about the history of the Armenians who were Islamized in Western Armenia and those who survived afterwards, which are hitherto unknown. 

 Speaking about the Arabization of Armenians, we can distinguish two main ways in which thousands of Armenians were Arabized: First, Armenian orphans who were taken under the protection and individually adopted by local Arab families in 1915, grew up in these families as Muslim Arabs and became part of the local Arab population.

Second, in 1915 and before, Armenians had close relations with Arabs, and during the Genocide, these Armenians managed to save their lives and not be expelled from their lands by joining Arab tribes and identifying themselves as Muslims.

Arabic-speaking Armenians live mainly in the villages of Khut, Motkan, Khablcoz-Hazzo and Psank in the eastern and southeastern regions of Western Armenia. Whereas, for example, in the northern and western regions of Sasoun, Kurdish is spoken entirely.

In order to uncover the “secret” of the Arabic-speaking Armenians in Sasun, it is very important to get acquainted with some details of the post-genocide history of the Sasun district, because it is not only about Armenians, but also about the “Arabization” of the entire district.

In other words, how did the Kurdish and Armenian speaking people of Sasun suddenly start speaking Arabic?

Yes, hundreds of Armenian orphans were taken in by Arab or Arabic-speaking Kurdish tribes during the Genocide, but the conversion of the Armenians of Sasun, including their “Arabization”, did not end with the 1915 period, and this is only the first stage. 

It is a process interconnected by a series of successive events that began with the Abdul Hamid massacres in Sasun in 1894-1986, continued with the Armenian Genocide and the 1938 deportation, and reached its logical conclusion with the urbanization process that began against Armenians after the 1950s.

First of all, we should note that the events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to clearly separate the two Muslim ethnic elements in Sassoun, the Kurds and the Arabs. That is, the Arabs of Sassoun, about whom we hear very little in historiography, did not just arrive in Sassoun, but they started to “appear”.

At first, unlike the Kurds, who settled in Armenian villages and often clashed with the Armenians of Sasun, the Arabs’ villages were usually separate from the Armenian ones. The fact that the economic power of the district and the collection of taxes were in the hands of Kurdish aghas contributed to the fact that Armenian-Kurdish and Armenian-Arab relations were not at all the same.

Thus, the slightly different attitude of the Arabs during the genocide against Armenians contributed to the sheltering of many Armenian orphans, but also to the clear separation of Kurds and Arabs. Moreover, after the mass exodus of Armenians, the characteristics of the two Muslim groups were inevitably emphasized more sharply. After all, whereas before there were only Muslims and non-Muslims in Sasoun, now there is a Muslim majority made up of two very dissimilar groups.

The 1938 expulsion, which stripped the Kurds of all their economic advantages, was a key stage in the “Arabization” of Sasoun. 

It is true that many exiled tribes returned with amnesty, but nothing was the same anymore. It is true that the Sasun revolt of 1925-37 had a more communal character and was joined by Arabs and Armenians, but the Kurdish aghas, who had previously owned more land, lost it and were subjected to paying taxes on equal terms. They therefore had more to lose and were more persecuted. This led to a situation where, after the Armenian Genocide and the deportation of 1938, the “most favorable” and intermediate identity in Sasun was Arab.

Today in Sasoun, Arabic is spoken not only by local Arabs and “Arabized” Armenians, but also by the Kurdish tribes who passed through the exile in 1938.

Ashkhen Virabyan

journalist-analyst westernarmenia