Turkish alumnus Ihsan Karayazi has tackled peace-building using a unique tool: a universal love and appreciation of food. After participating in the U.S. Department of State’s Professional Exchanges and Training Program for emerging leaders in Turkey and the U.S in 2008, Ihsan has gone on to complete a number of innovative projects intended to increase mutual understanding between Turkish and Armenian communities. In Turkey’s complex society, where tensions among these groups run very deep, Ihsan’s ability to counterbalance the negative narratives between these groups by raising awareness about their common cultures is a tremendous accomplishment.
Ihsan seized upon the power of “culinary diplomacy” to develop “Cook for Peace,” locally referred to as “Beraber Az mi Tuz Ekmek Yedik.” During the program, women from the Armenian town of Gyumri and the Turkish province of Kars took turns hosting each other in their respective countries and sharing recipes. On June 20, 2015, individuals from several different backgrounds and beliefs came together around an iftar table in Kars. They broke their fast with a menu consisting a selection of delicious food prepared by Armenians and Turks together, representing both nations’ kitchens and cultures.
“Beraber Az mi Tuz Ekmek Yedik,” a saying that exists both in Armenian and Turkish, roughly translates to ‘How many meals have we shared together?” The name highlights the unity, friendship, and shared experiences of the two cultures. The project thereby underlines the similarities between Turkish and Armenian cuisine, with the goal of building bridges between the two cultures. The project, which includes the motto “Peace starts in the kitchen,” also includes the production of a documentary film and the publication of a book containing the stories and recipes collected throughout the program.
Ihsan’s innovative culinary diplomacy project was especially critical in 2015, when the run-up to the 100th anniversary of what Armenians consider the genocide of their people at the hands of the Ottoman Empire made Turkish-Armenian relations especially difficult and tense. Rather than focusing on differences that divide the cultures, Ihsan succeeded in demonstrating that Armenians and Turks share common values of cuisine family, and friendship, using his deep ties in the multicultural city of Kars in eastern Turkey to showcase diversity and tolerance among different faith and ethnic communities.
As president of Kars Urban and Culture Research Association (KasKa), Ihsan continues to bring together not only Turkish and Armenian community leaders, but also member of Kurdish communities, officials of other national governments, and international organizations. His willingness to embrace reconciliation and develop programs such as “Cook for Peace” have made, and will continue to make, invaluable contributions to long-term reconciliation efforts between Armenian and Turkish communities.