Being an Armenian in Turkey (1): Learning to be quiet

Being an Armenian in Turkey (1): Learning to be quiet
Update: 10 September 2022 19:59
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Growing up as a minority in Turkey, children learn that being safe involves being discreet about who they are in public.

We were children...

The children in our household, that is to say, my older sisters, Jermen, Janet, Jaklin, and me, were aware that there was something wrong, but we didn't know exactly what. I don't remember who said it, but I remember a saying that goes: "First you have to teach a child to talk, then you have to teach them to be quiet..."

It's like it's referring to us. You are born into a home, and naturally whatever you learn early in life becomes precious to you. It is almost like you form your identity around it. What are you? You are an Armenian, a Greek, a Christian or a Kurd... 

If you were English or French, it would make no difference. The family you were born into has its values, sacred and important. And if the larger society has a problem with all these values of yours, you sense this at a very young age. Why do they have a problem with us? Why are people threatened by the things that we hold dear? At home, when we pray that our mother doesn't get sick, we always pray to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. 

The Virgin Mary is soothing, as soothing as a mother to her child. She is pure and it is a relief to take refuge in her...But the holy Virgin Mary and Jesus are threatening and strange to the outside world while she's sacred, untarnished for you. You pray to her. You look to her to fulfill your innermost wishes. How can such a symbol of innocence be a threat in the eyes of those “on the outside”? 

You cannot mention the Virgin Mary or Jesus outside your home, or be seen with a cross around your neck. But why? You don't understand these rules as a child. You don't understand much of anything. You're only a kid after all, which also means that you are not supposed to question the way things are. How can you let a child start life like this? What kind of heartless person dictates any of this? 

No children would choose "otherness" for themselves. It is not a pleasant state to be in. This experience of "otherness" is like being subjected to the same harassment as a child who wears glasses, who stutters, or who limps. At my mature age, here I can find myself grieving for my heavily burdened childhood...

I don't actually know when I was told that "sacred things should be hidden in the larger society." Maybe I was never told. But it was that way, I just knew it. And I realize that this knowledge is not good for a child.

The "safe zone" and our family's secret pact

We lived on Ergenekon* Street in Kurtulus**, one of the few neighborhoods in Istanbul where Armenians choose to live. It was a street crowded with cars and people, a complete racket, in other words. But the overall feeling I remember was not the fear of being hit by a car, but some other feeling that I could not fully comprehend. It was rather about the people in the crowds. I felt like the people in the crowds were more dangerous than the cars. We knew we were something different. We were few but special. To us, we and those like us were the ones who were favorable. 

As long as we didn't go out on the street, we were safe at home. We had a secret pact within the family that we were sure was beneficial. We needed to protect our little cocoon by keeping in touch only with each other and others like us. The truth is, we were trapped in that cocoon. Well, it might be practically a prison in the end, but as I said, we were safe in that little prison. We were actually experiencing a great insecurity brought about by constantly talking about the issue of security. We had to be cautious. But we always, always, always had to be cautious. But how come we never talked about why we needed so many rules?

Did our parents never tell us about the disasters, massacres, rapes, pillages, extortions that befell our ancestors in order to make that safe zone safer? They were always silent when it came to that information for it was dangerous and they had already been exposed to that danger enough in their time.

My father would sometimes tell us the story of Hagop, who used to smuggle people through the sewer channels and underground tunnels. I didn't know what period it was or what the people were running away from. I still don't know the whole story, believe me, because my father never told it in its entirety.

Or rather, he couldn't. 

Every time he started to tell the story, my mother would not only interrupt but she would also get angry with him. Dad, how could you possibly fail to tell your children such an important "story," in its entirety, a story that would shape our identity, guide our future, and be the backbone of our struggle for justice?Instead of those ridiculous children's stories, why didn't you complete this hopeful story of survival for once, in spite of my mother? Or did my father make them all up and that was the reason my mother was angry? 

The "story" hidden from us was real.

So no, my father wasn't making it up. It was my mother who was just afraid of a story that was years old. I was 16 years old when I found this untold story in my lap. The story that was denied to me and my peers was the genocide of my people. And my mother was right, it was a terrible story. My peers and I had finally accessed this truth and were suddenly confronted with a harsh reality that we had to overcome, a truth that was like a ticking time bomb in our laps. We would not be able to let go of this age-old truth and the ongoing denial of it for the rest of our lives. The story that was kept from us has been a great trauma, a terrible blow, a deep wound. And it was a great struggle. It was not a "story" that was kept from us, it was the truth itself. 

*The legend or epic of Ergenekon is a founding myth of Turkic and Mongolian peoples. Ergenekon is the name of the legendary homeland of Turkic peoples in Central Asia and the epic tells the story of the birth of the first Turkic Khaganate.

**The fate of old Tatavla, which had about 3 thousand mostly wooden, two- or three-story houses, changed in the early 20th century with the fire that broke out on the night of January 21, 1929. The fire, which started at 10:00 p.m. in the house where blacksmith Aleko and shopkeeper Yannis lived on Aya Tanas Street, quickly spread throughout the entire neighborhood of wooden houses and, according to newspapers of the time, at least 500 houses were burned. It was also reported that the Greek church and houses where priests resided were among the burned buildings. It was not the fire that spelled the end of "Tatavla." Two months later, the municipality decided to change the name of "Tatavla" to "Kurtulus." The Cumhuriyet newspaper welcomed the "change of identity" in its article: "Tatavla is a name that evokes thieves and certain criminals. In this sense, the name Tatavla leaves a bad impression on the ears... Tatavla, once a haven for criminals and miscreants like Chrysanthos, has now become a clean place where many Turkish families live. In this sense, it is very appropriate to remove an old and ugly name and change it to 'Kurtulus'" (literally, 'emancipation').

*Hayko Bagdat was born in Istanbul in 1976, as the fourth child of an ethnic Greek mother and an Armenian father. After attending the Armenian schools Esayan and Mkhitaryan, he began studying history at Istanbul University in 1994. Due to the unexpected death of his father, he was unable to complete his studies. He began his journalism career in 2002 with a program on a radio station covering minority issues for the first time in Turkey, and worked as a journalist, columnist and commentator for Turkey's mainstream media. In 2007, Bagdat was among the founders of the "Friends of Hrant" group, which was formed after the murder of journalist Hrant Dink and that continues its search for justice. Bagdat's first book on being an Armenian and 'the other' in Turkey, Salyangoz (Snail) was published in 2014, his second book, Gollik, in 2015, and his third book, Kurtulus Cok Bozuldu, in 2016. His one-man stage performance "Salyangoz," based on his book, thrilled audiences in many cities in Turkey in 2016 and was subsequently acclaimed with tours all over the world. In 2017, Bagdat moved to Germany and continues to work as a journalist and producer in Berlin.