Being an Armenian in Turkey (14): Do you know who my uncle is?
My uncle's real name was Khristo, but they called him Yasar.
There are those stereotypes relating to minorities, suggesting that "they are all flower children, good-natured folks, quite decent fellows. They're all somewhat wealthy, all good at the arts, as well as in trades, and so on and so forth." We're a bright bunch, looking from there, aren't we? It just makes me wonder who came up with such tales.
Here, let me tell you about someone you would change your way if you saw him on the street; you know, someone you would get in trouble with just by being around him, and who was my secret hero at the same time. Just take a listen to the story of my Uncle Khristo.
He often visited us when we lived in the apartment building on Ergenekon Street. I loved my uncle very much. He looked a bit like James Caan, or in my childhood imagination I always fancied he looked like him. My uncle grew up in Tarlabasi. My grandfather, who was a shopkeeper, gave him a very hard time, created a lot of difficulties for him and put too much pressure on him. Eventually, my uncle lost it, left the grocery store and went to work as a transporter in Tophane. He went on to become one of the troublemakers in the neighborhood, with a cigarette in his hand at all times.
He was just another member of the minorities, coming from a Greek family. That would not make him all that smart, crafty, polite, or anything of the sort. In fact, it would make him nothing more than a two-legged failure. Even we, his family, were afraid of my uncle. My mother used to threaten me, especially when she couldn't cope with me, "I'm going to let your uncle know about this."
He was constantly in trouble with the cops. One day he showed up at our house again, in a hurry. He pulled me into a room, while trying to avoid letting mom know about it. "You perch on that bay window now and let me know if a police car shows up." Whatever he was running from, he would set me up as a lookout. Eventually we found that out, but I can't tell you about it. My mother would kick my ass if I did.
He lived in a house in Sefa Square in Kurtulus, and he locked his transport truck and chained it to the electric pole in front of his door, and he got up and looked at his truck until the morning.
You see, minorities are not novel heroes. You've got it all wrong.
So that's the kind of person my uncle was. You see, minorities are not only those who dance the most sensual dances, who have built the most beautiful buildings, who travel back and forth all over the world with ease, who are cheerful cupcakes with colored eyes.
The stories you tell and hear about with sentimental descriptions, as if you are reminiscing about a closed tavern, are actually the stories of real people, with real lives.
We are talking about people with sore kneecaps, people who die normal deaths, sometimes even in traffic accidents, people who are short of money, who have abscesses in their teeth, go figure... Sometimes they are bullies, sometimes hooligans, like all of us, they can be affectionate or poor...
We have been living in the same human condition as everyone else. I am talking about the minorities who were the peoples of these lands just a few generations ago. May you have your tongues fall off for treating them like goldfish in the aquarium.
My uncle, who recently passed away, was very precious to me. He got into a lot of trouble at home and fled to Greece, and there he had no peace either. He was in Greece when he died. The Greeks of Greece, he complained, were such jerks. They didn't have the same balls as the people of his homeland. As such, he was constantly picking fights.
"They don't even know how to fight here," he would grumble.
Do you favor the Greeks or the Armenians? (Obviously, the Greeks)
Only much later did I learn that the fact that my mother was Greek and my father Armenian caused many problems for their union.
Greeks won't let their daughters marry Armenians. To begin with, there is a very clear religious distinction between the two, and the Greek Orthodox take this matter very seriously. It may all begin here, but that is definitely not where it ends.
I think I've said it before, but it bears repeating: If we have to compare the two, the Greeks are far superior to the Armenians. They are the ones who are more urban and more educated, and they could actually speak in their own language.
When I first went up to the Greek camp at the monastery on the hill, the headmaster there inquired of me, "What do they have to eat for lunch at the Armenian camp?" And when he found out the menu, he made a sour face. But if I were to tell him that ambrosia was regularly available, he would invariably say, "You can't have ambrosia every day, can you?" It's just that he didn't really appreciate Armenian schools, that's all.
My mother has always had her heart set on the Greeks. Not outright, for sure, but I have often baited her by asking, "You always talk about those Greeks of yours, why don't you tell me then what you people have ever done?" to bring her partiality out in the open.
I teased her by saying, "You have but a couple of stories of tavern fights in all of Ottoman history. Yet look at us Armenians, who built the Dolmabahce Palace and served as Grand Viziers. We survived from Ottoman times to the years of the Republic, this way or that. The only thing I know about you lot, on the other hand, is that you guys owned taverns and that you make good music."
Once she could not stand it any longer and retorted her answer: "My son, while you were performing those services to the Ottomans, we were founding a country called Greece!"
This woman will surely go down if she is not always the one who proves to be right!
*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.