Being an Armenian in Turkey (15): "All Turkish soldiers should be circumcised, and that includes you, Hayko!"
I was enrolled in the History Department of the School of Literature at Istanbul University.
The faculty was in Beyazıt, as you may know. I didn't like it there at all. It was hard to keep going in a place you didn't like. Of course, there were also questions I was looking for answers to: “Suppose I graduated in history, what would I do? Would I become a history teacher? Absolutely not!”
Could I be an academic? Let's say I was... Would that academic earn money? It wouldn't kill me, but it was sure to make me miserable... Yet, I had responsibilities. My father was dead and our family's financial needs did not allow me to indulge in such "lofty ideas" or fantasies. My mother ran the print shop that my father had left behind. My mother and I talked and I decided to drop out of my studies and join the military.
As a recruit, I joined the 116th Gendarmerie Recruit Training Regiment, part of a unit stationed on a hill called It Durmaz (literally, "dog won't stay") on the Dardanelles.
The hill was swept by a terribly strong wind, so that the trees grew sideways as if they were drawing an inverted L. As the name 'It' (dog) 'Durmaz' (won't stay) implies, this was a hill where a dog wouldn't stay even if you tied it. It was so cold. Cold enough to kill a human being. I felt like a prisoner in a Nazi camp. I think that's how everyone felt.
Military service was a strange business, I thought, something that makes you wonder how come they don't let you know before you go.
This unit on the Dardanelles was known for training soldiers for deployment in the east and southeast of the country as gendarmerie. I had a sergeant who heard that my name was Hayko when we were chatting during training.
"All Turkish soldiers should be circumcised," he would tell me with great nonchalance.
I watched his face to see if he was joking. The man was deadly serious. "You should be circumcised too, Hayko, I'll talk to the captain about it," he said.
"Sir, no way, sir!" I blurted out in a panic. I remember reciting the relevant articles of the Lausanne Treaty by heart to save my dick.
The benefits of memorizing Lausanne article by article
Until then, I had never heard of the story of forcibly circumcised Armenians in the army. If there was such a story, I would have heard about it, so I was sure it didn't exist. But the man was so confident of himself that he almost convinced me of the necessity of circumcision. He did indeed ask about it and the captain also reminded him about Lausanne. By the way, I still don't know if there is such a detail in the Lausanne Treaty, but at that moment it was a lifeline to me. For those who are wondering: No worries, I saved the dick.
The military training period usually lasts two and a half or three months. But after the first five weeks, the assignments are already allocated. Skilled personnel who are designated for these tasks are sent to their veteran units before this period. Drivers, waiters, butchers are sent to the locations where they will complete their actual military service after those five weeks. After going through that circumcision episode, I thought, "It wouldn't be bad if I could find a profession for myself and get out of here." One of the professions was "orchestra member." This job of being part of a band of players suddenly seemed like a very attractive idea to me.
If I, who can strum a few tunes on my musician uncle's keyboard, even if only with one finger, would claim to know how to play the piano, who could tell me from a musician? Who would know anything about music here? You wouldn't expect to discover the new Beethoven on the hill where even the dogs won't stay! Rudolf Buchbinder, one of his most well-known interpreters, wouldn't do his military service here, would he? And so I dashed forward from the line and cried out, " Sir, I am a musician!"
That was a huge mistake. The officer asked me what did I play? I replied, keyboard, the piano. The man produced a keyboard at that training area and told me to go ahead and play it. I didn't expect that at all. By the way, violin or clarinet are also among the instruments they can bring out if you claim you play those instruments. When I started playing Havva Nagila on single fingers, the official stopped me after the sixth note and said, "Fuck off, my grandmother plays that too," and dismissed me.
Soon they started recruiting people for the marching band, and there were few volunteers for the job. I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I jumped out of line again. This time they picked me right away. There were no questions about either horns or trumpets. I was delighted. I was going to spend the rest of my military service practicing music. Besides, music had to be performed only in the western part of the country, so it was almost certain that I would be sent somewhere, like Istanbul, for example. I might even be able to stay at home on weekends, if that was the case. I began to wonder if there was a band in my neighborhood, back at the Harbiye Army House.
But wait a minute, why weren't there many volunteers? And how come no one congratulates me? In the evening, in the dormitory, I learn that there are only six places in Turkey where there is a gendarmerie band stationed: Van, Batman, Dersim as well as Zonguldak, Ankara and Dardanelles. But the thing is that my unit, which I just told you about that usually deploys soldiers to serve in the east and southeast of the country, has now been punished. Because there were too many martyrs among the soldiers it trained, the 76/3 circle was to be moved entirely to the west. Except, of course, the marching band!
All my fellow soldiers served on beaches as gendarmes in places like Bodrum or Kusadasi, and they carried out their military service in shorts. But Dersim needed bandsmen for there was a shortage of bandsmen in Dersim. The first suicide bombing in Turkey took place in Dersim when a partisan dressed as a pregnant woman blew herself up during the playing of the national anthem at a flag ceremony in the center of town. It was perhaps the first music band in the world to be attacked in this way and to lose martyrs.
We were the band members who were to be sent there to replace the martyred soldiers.
*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.