Being an Armenian in Turkey (13): A Greek priest in a Tarlabasi tavern
Have you heard of St. Yorgi Orthodox Church in Buyukada, the largest of the Prince Islands in Istanbul?
Aya Yorgi Church, as we call it, is a place that impresses me with its view of Istanbul, its glorious history, but most of all with its "soul".
High school was over and I enrolled in the history department at my university. One day we went up the Aya Yorgi with my tribe from Kinali island. On that day I met Kosta, one of the most important people in my life.
He was a seminarian from Greece, a few years older than me. He spoke neither Turkish nor English. Thanks to my caveman Greek, we could manage to get along. Kosta wanted to become a priest, but first he had to get married. If you want to be a priest you have to be married, if you want to be a monk you have to be celibate, and a virgin at that if possible.
It's a complicated matter; if you're wondering, you can ask the church. Anyway, where were we? Our Kosta needed to complete his ministry and then he had to find a wife. That day we became friends, and after that our friendship grew. His ministry on the island ended and he went back to Greece as I left the university and went to the military service. To a place called Tunceli, to war… I will also tell you about my time in the army.
Kosta never left me behind. He was always there for me both when I returned to Istanbul from the islands and when I was in the army. Since my mother is Greek, she became the natural translator between us. As for his letters, they were like love letters.
He would tell me how much he loved me and how worried he felt sometimes. One time, he put a Jesus postcard and a Bible in one of the letters he sent me when I was in the army.
I had a seminarian friend who wanted to give me strength so sent a letter along with a Bible and a Jesus postcard to this half-Greek, half-Armenian “Turkish” soldier who was in the middle of a war in at a distant end of the country.
He didn't show it, but he was worried about me. He would instead tell his worries to my mother, teary-eyed and hewould call her regularly. I don't even want to think about it now, although I can imagine how my mother would have felt during those calls.
Anyway, time went by, I finished my 18 months of military service in safety, Kosta got married and was ordained a priest. All in accordance with his dreams.
On the Easter Vigil, a large group of people who were burning with love for Istanbul were to come to the city to visit the holy places alongside the young priest Kosta acting as the head of the group. "Good news," Kosta called me by phone as his voice trembled with excitement.
"We will be reunited after so many years." I won't lie, I was also very excited. I immediately asked my mother, "What do you do with an Orthodox priest in Istanbul? He comes with his wife, where should I take them?"
Apparently, they had little time. Just dinner and maybe an afternoon coffee the next day. "Who cares about his priesthood, let's just find a tavern and call it a night," we decided. Belma, Uraz, Oya, Nisan, Selin, Tayfun, Kosta, his wife and I…
They stayed at the Euro Plaza Hotel in Tepebasi, owned by a Laz developer with a beautiful view of the Golden Horn. We drove to the hotel in the afternoon, the plan was to pick up Kosta from the hotel and head to the taverna. What greeted us were Greek women who had gathered in the lobby. There were at least eighty or ninety of them. They were dressed in black and wore headscarves, just like the widowed older women around my mother when I was a child.
As I stood in a corner watching them, a man about six feet three came into the hall with a beard down to his navel, a large cross around his neck, a stovepipe on his head and a scepter in his hand. Take my word for it, if someone had asked me to describe God, this man would have been my inspiration. And it was no other than Kosta!
I went up to him, astonished and perhaps a little awestruck, I could only say, "Kosta, what has become of you?" He ignored my astonishment and hugged me tightly. He was crying again. Either he was a crybaby or he was the nicest person I had ever seen in my life. "Wait a while," he said, hastily wiping his tears with the back of his hand.
The old women lined up as soon as they saw him and began to kiss his hand. Kosta blessed them by making the sign of the cross with his hand. Do you know the scene in the finale of the first Godfather movie where Al Pacino sits in the father's chair? It's almost the same scene, staged live in front of me, with lots of extras and a rising star.
From the hotel in Tepebasi, it is only a five minute walk through Tarlabasi to Hasir Restaurant. It is an old tavern in the basement of a building that is on the same street as the recently demolished Tarlabasi police station that was only three or four buildings away. There is no menu, the waiter just leaves everything on the table. Don't get me wrong, though, the mezes are excellent.
After a while, Kosta got ready and we left. But don't mind me when I say Kosta got ready, he didn't change his clothes. He was dressed exactly the same as before and like he was out of those old movies. As we walked by his side, we started to feel quite uneasy because as soon as we are on the street and walking, he started to look like the "evil priest" who always appears as the villain in Turkish historical movies.
Those of you who are not from Istanbul may not know it, and there is no shame in that. This street is a main artery that runs across Beyoglu, parallel to the famous Istiklal Street, all the way to Taksim Square, where the two streets meet. Although it is under constant traffic of cars, it abuts Omer Hayyam Street on the left and Galatasaray, the British Consulate and the side streets of Beyoglu on the right.
Omer Hayyam is a vibrant street of ornate apartment buildings from the golden age of the old minorities, now inhabited mainly by residents from the southeast of the country and the music-making Gypsy community. It's a rough place to walk through. On the other side of the street, in the streets behind Beyoglu, working girls wait for customers with their pimps next to them.Now imagine yourself walking down this street with the priest Kosta at your side, in his full costume complete with a beard, headdress and a cross, which was easily visible from afar.
At that time, such men existed only in Turkish movies. And in those movies, the valiant Turkish heroes either beat them up or beat them down, or had them converted. That's probably why we were a little uneasy. Tayfun keeps his eyes on the corners, me on the main street. In my head I keep thinking, if someone says or does this or that, then we will say this and do that...
When we finally reach the tavern, we first take a deep breath. Kosta doesn't seem to mind, as he greets everyone with a broad smile. We have arrived, but that means the real ordeal has just begun and we have a long night to get through. It was easy to be through that door, but there is no way to be sure what awaits you inside. We're talking about getting into a tavern in a basement, mind you, in a quarter like Tarlabasi.
To hell with the evening we were supposed to organize!
We quickly walked in, found a table and, thank God, were seated. That night, the Hasir restaurant was serving three or four tables. At one of them sat four or five fellas from Diyarbakir. At first, no one noticed us. And after a few minutes we were served.
As I expected, the service is poor, but the food is delicious. "I'll have a raki," says Kosta, who is accompanied by his wife, to whom he owes his priesthood. When the last plate is placed on the table and as if we made no effort to hide his holiness from view, Kosta stood up and asked for our attention to his imposing stature. Then he raised his hand and said, "I will consecrate the food."
What should we say, but “alright, then?” Kosta would do what he wanted to do, and we would take the necessary precautions.
My eyes immediately flew to the table occupied by the fellas from Diyarbakir. They were talking among themselves and assessing the situation, as is customary among the Kurds. It didn't take them long, the decision should have been made, and so they joined us in standing up. They folded their hands in front of them and waited until Kosta's prayer was over, whereupon Kosta crossed himself and one by one, blessed all the tables. And then everybody sat down together before they continued as if such a scene had never taken place.
And I find myself showing off to Kosta, "You see, that's how we are, my boy. That's how our country is. Respect is essential. Everyone tolerates each other's religion... blah, blah, blah." As if it wasn't us who were shaking in our boots on the way here.
What about the evil priest in Turkish movies? What if someone would have said, "Take that cross out of the sight, this is a Muslim country," where would that lead? So which one was justified for, what I was saying to Kosta, or the worries that flew through me and triggered my panic attacks?
"You know that you won't go to heaven, Hayko!"
I would like to tell you one more detail about Kosta that impressed me and even upset me a little.
Because Kosta was an Orthodox priest with a a strong spell, his wife believed that he could perform miracles. For example, she believed that if he prayed over a glass of water, it would not go bad for days, or if she had a headache, Kosta would utter a prayer and the headache would disappear in an instant. They must have experienced it, because Kosta's wife was very confident. She believed that Kosta was a miracle from head to toe, that she was married to a miracle.
One day she came to me and said, "Kosta feels very sorry for you." "Why?" I asked, "Because you are not going to heaven. You should have been baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church to go to heaven," she answered. I said: "I was already baptized in the Armenian Church, isn't that enough?" She shook her head in exasperation, "Ahh, ah.... That won't save you," she explained.
I knew that this was actually Kosta's doing.
It was not much different from the frequent appeals of my Muslim friends who sought the salvation of my soul. Because of the good feelings they had for me, they were offering me something very good in their own way, which was the best method they knew of to save my soul.
Actually, you could easily hear the same kind of phrasing that Kosta's wife had just said to me from my Muslim friends as well. "When are you leaving?" I asked, "Let's do the baptism right away, then."
This time it was Kosta's turn to get angry. "How can one convert so fast?" he questioned. He considered what I had just said as conversion to another religion. It was again my place to get angry.
"What do you really want from me?"
*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.