Was “Turkish Cinema” merely “Turkish” Cinema?

A significant number of performers were minorities; not only Armenians and Greeks, but also Kurds, Arabs, Laz and Circassians.

When it comes to minority rights in Turkey, or to the Kurdish question, or to put it briefly, to the unredeemed rights of "others," the secular-nationalists who have always considered themselves the owners of the “old” Turkey, employ an argument that appalls me every time:

They say: "We used to live in such a state of fraternity that we didn't know who was Armenian, who was Greek or who was an Alevi; we didn't even bother to ask about such things..." to glorify the past - as well as to denounce the AKP's policies.

Now knowing is a problem in itself but not asking is even more cynical.

For a long time I spent a lot of time offering explanations because I assumed that most people in Turkey lacked awareness, but thne a point came when I realized it is not that they do not know but they they are denying it. Since then, I offer fewer explanations.

Unless an Armenian, Greek or Jew has changed their name, buried their culture away or hidden their mother tongue from you, there is no way for you not to know that they are “different.”

Stating that, "we had no idea what the other was in the past," actually translates into admitting that our assimilation policy worked like a charm, that we assumed they were all Turks except in cases where we were in the process of Turkifying them with campaigns like "Citizen, speak Turkish;" that we pillaged and plundered as a means of repressing them; that we took what they retained with trumped-up laws, and they seemed to be alright with that, and furthermore that we never wanted to know who they really were and that we were glad they seemed to conveniently forget.

According to the "egalitarian" policies of the Republic, in order for there to be no separation and discrimination among us, there was only one solution: we should all become Turks or pretend to be Turks.

Needless to say, this policy was out of touch with reality, because the state would know that they were not Turks, no matter how much they pretended to be so, and would record their ethnic identity in the civil registers by assigning codes indicating their race, thus keeping this "potential danger" in check.

In short, the problem could not be solved by simply declaring, "I am a Turk," in denial of one's old identity, nor by actually conforming to be a Turk.

Being a citizen of the Republic of Turkey, loving the land and fulfilling all duties based on citizenship would not eliminate "otherness."

The sole solution was to be a reasonable, well-behaved and compliant other.

Turning a blind eye and deaf ear in the face of this or that, keeping to yourself and not seeking your rights, was the main way to be worthy of the country where "you earned your bread."

Many in the generations before us did exactly that in order to be able to keep living in our beloved motherland, and many of us still do.

“Yesilcam,” was a cinema of clichés of pure and undying love, deep and strong family ties, neighborhood, friendship, and love overcoming all evils. Producing "melodramatic narratives" for adults, Yesilcam was very popular in Turkey. The "others" loved it as much as everyone else.

Filled with moral messages, overgeneralizations, inconceivable coincidences, overblown twists of fate, stereotypical plot threads; good women bereft of sexuality, sultry bad women who seduce the good women's hubbies, handsome men, unhappy children growing up in the hands of stepparents, paternal uncles, barrel-chested aunts, charming doctors, unscrupulous foreigners, snobs, gardeners, servants, cooks... stories far off from actuality and closely resembling one another.

In time, local cinema began to be referred to as "Turkish cinema." The Turkish cinema, which had its heyday between 1960 and 1980, was called "Turkish cinema," but a significant part of its performers were minorities, not only Armenians and Greeks, but also Kurds, Arabs, Laz and Circassians.

Minorities were very active not only in front of the camera, but also behind it. Throughout the Ottoman period, non-Muslims were at the forefront of the performing arts; particularly women from minorities.

The Armenians in Yesilcam, who had to disguise their identity and change their names, were very popular with the audience of the time. And the largest part of this audience were those we mentioned above, who opined, "We used to live in such a state of brotherhood that we didn't know who was Armenian, who was Greek or who was Alevi, we didn't even bother asking about such things..."

Nubar Terziyan was a name that stood out from the bunch. Although his real surname was Alyanak, which sounds perfectly Turkish, he decided to disclose his identity and adopt and bear the surname Terziyan, which belonged to an Armenian theater actor during the Ottoman times. Bakırkoy's beloved Nubar appeared in no less than 450 films. He made a great impression on everyone who saw him in his fatherly and affectionate roles.

Nubar's last name was Terziyan. So was it possible for the audience not to know that he was Armenian?

He actually dreamed of becoming a policeman when he was young. Realizing that they would not let an Armenian become a policeman in his homeland, he wanted to join the 'Dârulbedâyi,' the Ottoman imperial theater, but that didn't work out either. He was forced to work as a draper and perform plays with the amateur theater group he had formed with his friends.

He loved theater so much that when a skull was needed for Hamlet, he pilfered one from the cemetery. Opportunities were scarce and Terziyan's dream of acting in movies didn't come true before he passed the age of 40.

In contrast, Vahe Ozinyan, who etched himself in our hearts as Nuri, the rooster who shouted "Bedihaaaaa!" in his once popular song, opted for not using his real name, so we all knew him as Vahi Oz.

Directed by Turgut Demirag and inspired by Resat Nuri Guntekin's novel of the same name, the 1947 film, Bir Dag Masali (A Mountain Tale) was the first film of his cinematic career during which the veteran actor also acted as director in later years.

During the 1960s, he followed the trend of Yesilcam actors and recorded a single in 1964 for Serengil Plak. The front side of the record featured the above-mentioned song Bedia, and on the reverse side, a song titled Farewell singlehood which he performed with Ozturk Serengil.

In the meantime, Oz never parted ways with the stage, and in 1968 he formed his own theater troupe under his own name. After his death, he left behind the phrase, "Treacherous shoes kick you in the back!" to his fans.

Samuel Agop Ulucyan left Hancepek in Diyarbakir for Istanbul to find work. He was a poet this Samo, a talented one too! He would soon become the Sami Hazinses in Yesilcam and went on to become one of the most memorable comic actors in Turkish cinema.

In addition to his acting, he also wrote lyrics and songs. His piece Bir Dilbere Mupteladir Deli Gonlum was sung by the so-called Sun of Turkish music Zeki Muren. Before his death, Samuel Agop Ulucyan told a journalist in an interview that he was Armenian, but immediately made a request: "Publish these conversations after my passing." When asked "Why?" his answer was brief: "It must be so."

Krikor Cezveciyan started his artistic career in 1953, but after he became Kenan Pars, he did not like to be reminded much of the old Krikor because he did not like to discuss his identity and avoided any questions about his being Armenian or Turkish.

In an interview later in his life, he mentioned, "During my military service, because I was a non-Muslim, they gave me a pickaxe and a shovel in my hand instead of a gun and a rifle. I played a significant role in the construction of the highway between Akhisar and Sindirgi."

When Kenan Pars, as Yesilcam buffs would know him, or Kirkor Cezveciyan for the elderly Armenians from Bakirkoy, the ultimate villain of Turkish cinema, died, a great debate began over his body. "Should his funeral rites be held in a mosque or in a church?"

The old Krikor, the new Kenan had never indicated that he had changed his religion during his lifetime. His daughter Cigdem Pars, on the other hand, while acknowledging that her father was originally a non-Muslim, stated that he had not lived much differently than a Muslim, and added that he recited the Shahada (the most widely used statement of Muslims in numerous different contexts as well as to become a Muslim) only two days before his death. She finally announced in the midst of the bickering, "we will hold the service in a church, and his body will arrive there in a Muslim funeral vehicle."

Yusuf Konuk, then deputy provincial mufti of Istanbul, intervened on this issue of "incapacity to share the dead" and reassured the bereaved loved ones by stating, "Even if a person is already interred in an Armenian cemetery and the funeral procedures were carried out in accordance with Armenian rites, a funeral prayer can be held in absentia for him."

The newspaper that published the news after the funeral under the headline "He lived like Kenan Pars and was buried as Kirkor Cezveciyan" was perfectly justified.

Whether the veteran actor only cultivated a Kenan within himself or hid a Krikor within during all those years is something only he could know.

*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the Arti Media.

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