Being an Armenian in Turkey (12): So you're Armenian? My God, how can this be possible!
I was preparing for university exams.
Studying law seemed like a good idea. Maybe it was the influence of those ridiculous American movies we watched. I imagined myself in the courtroom giving the great last plea of the defense.
Yet in Turkey, neither our courthouses were so magnificent, nor did we have jurors representing the conscience of society, nor justice itself. Besides, it was a bit problematic to dream of always being on the side of the defense, but anyways…
I attended a tutoring center in Kadikoy. Classes were divided into sections, with about 15 students in each section. Over time, new friendships formed, we shared our concerns about the future, took the ferry together, did extracurricular activities, and I began to love Kadikoy. We began to spend breaks together, and with the addition of students from other classes, we formed a small new group of friends.
There was a boy named Suleyman. He came from an Imam Hatip* school and had a smiling face, looked a little older than us, and was a nice, pleasant, talkative boy. One day Suleyman ran up to me excitedly.
"Hayko, they say you are Armenian..."
I didn't say: “We are almost in the middle of the year, how come you didn't even deduce anything from my name?” Instead I said: "Yes, dear Suleyman," but he responded with: "Please show me your ID.”
What the... Why didn’t Suleyman believe me now?
I showed it to him. He took it and began to examine it with surprise in his eyes. He turned it back and forth and fixated on the word "Christian" in the 'religion' section. Then, Suleyman reached out his hand and touched my shoulder. He felt my body a few more times to see if I was real.
"My God, how can this be possible!" he said. I smiled, and in a calm tone, trying to be helpful, I could only say, " Didn't you know?"
Armenians speak Turkish? He didn't know. How can this creature that is supposed to look like the devil himself be our Hayko?
What now? What to decided on between what is taught and what is felt? How will Suleyman act now? I know you think I am exaggerating or that this is an extreme example, but it is not. Besides, I can understand Suleyman.
I know him better than most of you. I know why he did what he did. He doesn't know, but I do. I'm not from outer space after all, I know it all.
Suleyman and I have remained friends. However, I could not study law. I was admitted to the Faculty of Literature in Istanbul in the History Department, my second choice.
Suleyman and I ended up in the same school, but in different departments.
I had a very good friend from that time, named Esra.
Her father was an imam and a religion teacher at an Imam Hatip school. Until Esra, I don't think I ever had a girlfriend who wore a headscarf. We would talk for hours about religion. You know, when you're curious about a distant piece of information and you wish there was someone you could ask, someone you could trust not to manipulate you when you asked. Esra was that person for me.
Some nights, questions about Islam would come to my mind. If she was not enough for me, then her father, the imam, would pick up the phone and answer me patiently and at length. I was trying to get to know Islam better.
I even read the Koran a few times at that time. I was curious about Islam and Esra was curious about Christianity. We never preached to each other, but were invaluable sources of information for what we were curious about.
Years later, I was a guest on conservative TV stations, taking part in programs produced by some dear friends of mine. I always had little surprises for those who assumed that the language, jargon, verses and hadiths referred to in these broadcasts were foreign to me. I always spoke more "of them" than one would expect from an "Armenian." Perhaps, you might have been surprised at this “insider” information as well. Or maybe they were used to what came from me.
The conservatives who have been following me since those days love me very much. "I wish you were a Muslim, I wish you got on the true path," they insist. "You are such a good person that you are just like a Muslim," they exclaim.
"You are such good people, you are just like the Christians," I say, smiling under my mustache.
I am sure they think they are trying to say something good. I know they are preaching for my salvation, with the thought that it is for my good.
I mean, none of them do it with the intention of insulting my values. But they do it knowing that their doctrine, their belief is more valuable. Instead of having respect for what I believe in, they have learned to try to change it. And that's a shame as it does not have to be that way.
*Imam Hatip schools are state vocational schools in Turkey for the training of imams.
*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.