Being an Armenian in Turkey (10): "The lunatics of my island": Ali and Sureyya

Being an Armenian in Turkey (10): "The lunatics of my island": Ali and Sureyya
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In these island stories that may seem mundane to you, there are many people like Ali and Sureyya who provided me with ammunition at a very young age for my fight in life today.

Madness can sometimes be the best answer to reality... Ali's story might have also begun in this way...

This certain Ali was known as Ali the Mad on the island. Ali never left Kinaliada in his life and he was worried that the sea would run out of salt so whenever he had money he would buy salt from the supermarket and throw it into the sea in little packages. Yes, 'in package' not 'by the package;' that is, without taking it out of its bag.

Do not immediately think of a destitute, insane-looking man, just because he is called "Mad." Ali is the brother of Metin, the island's scrap dealer, who collects all sorts of scrap in his warehouse; anything from old household items to unexpected clothes.

And Ali, the Mad creates his look from Metin's warehouse. He wears different hats, coats and shoes all the time, and somehow they suit him. Weird, no doubt, but you can also tell he has style.

Ali was a man who walked confidently through the streets of the island, talking to himself with a smile on his face. The islanders always looked after his well-being and saw if he needed anything. Sometimes he would burst out laughing sitting in his seat, banging his knees in guffaws. We were never able to figure out why he laughed like that or what he was laughing about. But we were sure that a laughing man should neither be feared nor hurt.

Ali believed that he was friends with Ataturk. When asked, "How is the Pasha?", he always mentioned his health and passed on his greetings. “I have conveyed your greetings to him, as you asked me last time. He also sends his regards to you," he would say. "Much obliged!" It suited Ali to pretend that he was a friend to Ataturk, and to maintain this pretense with great seriousness.

There was a time when garbage containers in Istanbul were chained to tree trunks with clamps. Ali wouldn't have had any of that. He thought the trees were sick of it and would wander around the whole island at night with a pair of pliers and cut the clamps off the trees. In other words, he would let the them be free. He had such affection for trees...

Ali was also on the line between an omniscient and a braggart; he would surprise you with his unexpected answers to every question you threw at him. For example, you would ask, "Ali Abi, what does oxy mean?" Ali would immediately reply, "The heat created by the flames coming out of the mouths of dragons traveling in the sky reflects in the atmosphere. Oxy is the rain that falls from it." 

And what does 'oksi' really mean? It is the nickname of a friend of ours, which I believe means "threadworm". So, if you ask, "Ali Abi, what does Hayko mean?" it wouldn't be a surprise if you got in reply, "It's the moisture left by the wind that hits the chest of the fiery dragons that live on the snowy mountain tops while flapping their wings."

In other words, no matter what you asked, he would create a legend, a story, a myth about it or, more aptly, he would make it up.

One should not have given Ali money. You could buy a beer, maybe a snack to go with it, but no one would give him money, because Ali would buy packets of salt with all his money and throw them into the sea.

Will the sea ever run out of salt, Ali?

Ali indeed believed that the sea would run out of salt. Or maybe he was afraid it would run out. For some time, the islanders tried to stop Ali from throwing salt into the sea, saying it was a waste of salt. They chased after him, took the salt away from him and else. Even the grocery stores stopped selling salt to Ali.

They must have thought, "But what's the use of stopping him for us, let him do as he will", because after a while the islanders also gave it up. Ali kept on throwing the salt packages into the sea as he wished.

Soon the bottom of the island's fishing harbor was covered with Ali's packages of Billur salt.

And then Ali died. His extraordinary life ended with an ordinary death. What was left of him were salt packages. I still have a pack of that salt we retrieved from the sea.

Ali had a buddy named Sureyya, the Constabulary, who was very dear to all of us.

Sureyya had that special kind of beauty found in the most naïve faces, that Ali also had. His constability was by no means on paper, but we believed, or wanted to believe, that he was in fact a constable just as much he did.

Sureyya didn't find himself a constable out of the blue. On the contrary, he earned it little by little... First he confronted visitors to the island who were littering. Then he began to crack down on cyclists who rode where they shouldn't have. And so it came to pass that Sureyya performed with appetite many tasks that were otherwise the responsibility of the officers, who performed the same tasks only at their insistence.

Sureyya the Constable with his whistle

In time, Sureyya was outfitted with a uniform, not exactly like a police officer, but more like a sailor. That's how a white constable's uniform was devised, complete with a red band on the right sleeve with the word "officer" written on it. Thanks to this uniform, topped off with the red band, Sureyya was now being taken more seriously. Furthermore, he was equipped also with a whistle now.

What use is a constable without a whistle? So with that, he was all set. And, armed with his whistle and clad in uniform, he began to assume other professions as well.

After some time Sureyya began to make himself available in his uniform to greet the ferries on their arrival to the island. Every day he would warn thousands of people as they got off the ferry, "Don't make noise, don't throw garbage on the ground, don't ride your bicycles here." Now, the day-trippers to the island had to confront him when leaving the ferry and could not tell he was crazy, or rather, not a real officer. We, the islanders, never told that to the day-trippers, because Sureyya the Constable was performing a very important task on the square at the pier.

 He managed to bring everyone to behave. in fact, when island boys coming back from Istanbul got off the ferry, they would hand over their bicycles if Sureyya decided to take them, just so that they would not give away that he was mad. He served in that uniform for the rest of his life and, goes without saying, died on the island.

His extraordinary life ended with an ordinary death, but neither Sureyya nor Ali ever disappeared from our memory.

There are many people like Ali and Sureyya who provided me with ammunition at a very young age for my fight against life today. These childhood stories, which may seem trivial to most of you, give me the motivation and the values that I apply in my fight against any problems I may face today. The island has made us what we are, with Ali the Mad, Sureyya, Mino...

She nurtured us, raised us, and taught us how to go about on a small piece of land in the middle of a vast sea as well as believing in miracles.

*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.