Being an Armenian in Turkey (19): “We’re talking ‘Armenians’ on the Radio: Patriarch Mutafyan and Hrant Dink”

Being an Armenian in Turkey (19): “We’re talking ‘Armenians’ on the Radio: Patriarch Mutafyan and Hrant Dink”
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“My relationship with Patriarch Mutafyan started in that abysmal gaffe, but we became good friends afterwards.”

When I started the program titled “Empty Promises” at the radio, it had been five years since the establishment of the Agos newsletter.

Aras Media had been around for quite some time. I think if I say that the year was 2001, we won’t need to beat around the bush so much. I can say that it was the initial stages of Armenians in Turkey making contact with society at large. The program was met with more interest than it deserved. And not just from the Armenians. Turkish people were also interested in what was being said. It was a live broadcast lasting close to two hours.

Let me tell you something funny; at the time, I might not even have known the neighborhood of the Patriarchate, but the figure of the Patriarch was important to me, even if I was an obligatory Armenian or an atheist. Those enormous robes, the churches, the bells.

Folkloric though it may be, I have an exaggerated sense of respect towards the Patriarch. When you meet the Patriarch, you kiss his hand and say, “Asdvatz Oknagan Sırpazan Hayr.” This means “May God be your helper, Your Holiness.” I just hadn’t been able to memorize this difficult sentence. Well, honestly speaking, there hadn’t been any reason in the past for me to be in the same room with the Patriarch anyway…

We were talking about foundation issues with one of my guests on the program. My guest was someone who was knowledgeable on the topic, well-respected, and most importantly, an advisor to the Patriarch. And Patriarch Mutafyan, who had been informed, had also tuned in to our program.

He called my guest at the end of the program. They talked at length, and then he asked for me to be put on the phone. Dear God, how flustered I got! It was no joke; I was about to talk to His Holiness the Patriarch on the phone. Speaking in Armenian in a way that was equal parts formal and informal and was decorated with his prayers, Patriarch Mutafyan expressed to me at length how important and good the program was and how much he valued these activities us youth were putting together. There I was, trying desperately to remember that one sentence that I couldn’t seem to form or commit to memory, and it simply was not coming to me. I knew I was going to be humiliated, I was a bundle of nerves.

And so, I blurted out, “By Allah, did you really like it?” The original sentence aside, it would’ve been a much better start to our relationship if I hadn’t asked him to swear by Allah’s name…

My relationship with Mutafyan started in that abysmal gaffe, but we became good friends afterwards.

Welcome, Ms. Diramayr

Shortly after our meeting, we received news of a terrible accident.

There wasn’t much time left until we would be on air when we were told that the Patriarch had been on the way to Antalya for a church visit alongside a group of youth when they were involved in an accident. The bus carrying them overturned, people were launched through the windows. We had friends among that group. On the Turkish TV stations, we saw the headlines read: “Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, Mutafyan, in accident. Bus flipped, five injured.”

In a moment of sudden instinct and courage, I called my friend whom I knew was on that tour and asked, “Can we connect the Patriarch to the broadcast via telephone?” There was some waiting and discussion, but in the end, they said, “Okay, he’ll talk.” As soon as I heard that, I started the broadcast and announced the situation, saying “We will soon connect to the Patriarch over the phone.” Do you see the airs I put on? We made the connection.

The Patriarch updated us on those who had been injured and on his own health, telling us that he was going to be taken into surgery soon for his broken nose and leg. I believe this was a piece of news that was worthy of CNN International. Just think about it, the Armenians first and foremost, alongside the Turkish public, heard the first updates directly from the Patriarch himself. I cannot quite fathom why the Turkish TV stations neglected to make the same connection.

Just as I was about to go on air with the ease of knowing that I had done my job, a woman insisted on connecting to the broadcast. We put her on. “Hello,” she said. “I am Diramayr, I’m sorry about the accident. I ask God for his healing. I am praying for everybody. I would like to kindly request that you put on the Der Vogormia hymn that you play occasionally, especially at a time like this.”

I did at times put on some music during the broadcast if I needed to take a smoke break. The piece the woman was talking about is actually an old church hymn modernized by Ara Kevorkyan. I would suggest you take a break from reading and give it a listen. I said, “Ms. Diramayr, I’ll see what we can do.” Of course, I did not play the song. Did she take us for one of those radio programs playing songs at request? We’d had the Patriarch himself on, and here people were, demanding songs. An email I received the next day at the crack of dawn revealed to me my second blunder in my dialogue with the Patriarch. It read: “Hayko Bey, I commend your efforts. However, if you are making a program about Armenians, shouldn’t you at least know that ‘Diramayr’ is not a name, but the combination of ‘der’ (madam) and ‘mayr’ (mother), and that you were in fact called by the Patriarch’s mother?”

That is to say, addressing her as “Ms. Diramayr” was a little like saying “Mr. Patriarch.” In short, not quite nice.

Patriarch Mutafyan and Hrant Dink

Hosting a radio program once a week was significant perhaps, but obviously insufficient.

Following the success of Agos, dear Hrant was eager for a radio channel that would broadcast in Armenian. While Agos was an incredible resource for the general public, it had caused deep divisions within the Armenian community.

Patriarch Mutafyan considered Agos to be too daring with respect to “representation,” and was insistent that Armenians be represented by the historic Armenian Church. Brother Hrant, on the other hand, defended the notion that the formation of civil society was required by modernity and that the relationship the church was forced to form with the state would itself endanger representation. The argument ballooned to the point that Mutafyan and Hrant who had been old friends soon became adversaries.

They could, however, agree on one thing. “An Armenian radio channel is necessary.”

If brother Hrant were to establish the radio, it would be something like Agos FM, and would have been perceived as a faction in this split. Dear Hrant insisted that this project should be realized by Mutafyan, and the Patriarch gave in to the wishes of his old friend. Mutafyan formed a team for the initial work of setting up a radio, and I was invited to join since I was a radio broadcaster. You poke fun at my deficient Armenian-ness, but at this stage of my inevitable ascent, I had already begun to receive VIP treatment at the Patriarchate building, the location of which I had not even known. What else could one wish for?

The story behind forming the radio is a long one, but in the end we were unsuccessful. When they murdered brother Hrant, we had to shelve the project which we were about to complete. But I had thus assembled the missing parts of my “Armenian” identity thanks to both my own program and the activities of this commission.

Now, on the topic of the two old friends…

They died on the same day. The speech Mutafyan made while weeping at brother Hrant’s funeral was the last composed address his disease allowed him to complete. These days, he lies unconscious, awaiting death at the Yedikule Surp Pirgic Armenian Hospital. We lost two of our treasures at the same time back then.*

The story of these two old friends turned adversaries must be told one day.

*Patriarch Mutafyan passed away on 8 March 2019.

*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.