The arrivals board at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport always makes for interesting reading. Stand in front of the sliding doors beneath it – alongside anxious husbands clutching bunches of flowers and limousine drivers waving name cards – and passengers emerge from a diverse set of destinations. From Ataturk there are direct flights to Montenegro’s Podgorica, two Mediterranean trading posts in Algeria as well as a list of German cities from Munich to Friedrichshafen. As Turkey’s national carrier adds dozens of African destinations to its schedule, smaller airlines such as Atlas Jet fly to Erbil, Simferopol and the Turkish resort of Bodrum.
But there is one glaring exception: there is no flight to Yerevan, the capital of Turkey’s next-door neighbour Armenia. Borders between the two countries have been closed since 1993, when Turkey ceased relations with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan over conflict in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. To travel there – as many of Istanbul’s 70,000-strong Armenian community often do – requires a trip via Georgia, Sochi, Moscow or even, ludicrously, Rome.
Relations between Turkey and Armenia have gone from bad to worse – and then back to bad – for decades. The two nations have disagreed bitterly on many issues, including the recognition of the Armenian genocide in 1915. Short-lived rapprochements brokered by Swiss intermediaries and countless others have ended in stalemate. It’s a diplomatic spat that has global ramifications, especially as powerful Turkish or Armenian diasporas weigh in to press their governments to back one side or the other.
But recently it’s the figure of a small girl that has shown the closed borders in a new light. Turkish director Derya Durmaz’s recent film Ziazan? tells the story of a four-year-old Armenian who zips herself into her uncle's suitcase to make the journey across the border into Turkey. Her mission: to secure supplies of the Turkish chocolate paste her bullish school friends have asked her for.
Her trip in the back of her uncle’s truck, with her head poking out of a brown leatherette bag, is touching and poignant. The film has been a hit both here and abroad; this month it won the special jury prize at the Southeast European film festival in Paris. The director said she made the film to highlight the “absurdity” of the situation on the border, after reading about the informal trade that operates in the region. It’s clear that smugglers thrive at these crossings despite the state deadlock.
Experts have stressed that opening the border would benefit both countries: Armenia would access the wealthy Turkish markets and have contact with the wider region’s resources. A fluid border would raise the competitiveness of the Turkish port of Trabzon and boost economic efficiency in the Black sea region. It all makes perfect sense but perhaps it needs Ziazan, a four-year-old girl stowed away in a suitcase, to really make the point.
Sophie Grove is Monocle’s senior editor.