Being an Armenian in Turkey (20): I am going to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage.
This is love, buddy…
Everything happens in the first 20 seconds.
You look, you like, you get excited, you get curious, you get confused, but most of all, you rejoice. It is the awkwardness of rejoicing without knowing what it’s for—a unique feeling. These days life coaches are trying to write a formula for the chemical changes in the body, caused by love. As if we asked them for it…
They are really interested in conducting an autopsy on our magical state that begins in those 20 seconds. I have never heard of an idea as bad as trying to organize that time period. I wish they would leave our rare great moments, made so precisely because they are chaotic, and baptized as love because they are great, alone.
The curiosity continues in the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years following those initial 20 seconds. You become interested in everything that one can wonder about in another human being. You want to know about her habits and how she wakes up, how she is when she’s happy or sad, her laughter, tears, anger, kiss; how she makes love, how she can be nasty…
But I swear there is one question that you never thought about before or after, never utilized, saying “what if,” a question where the answer has no value at all. And that question turns out to be the question which those from the outside ask first, and with the greatest enthusiasm.
For those who look at it from our side:
“Is the girl Turkish?”
For those who look at it from the other side:
“Is the guy Armenian?”
Of course, there may be some among you who think it is possible to say “None of your business!” and move on.
Well, that’s what you think.
Your mother asks this question. Your father, sister, grandparents ask. Second-degree relatives immediately besiege you. Then the neighbors turn up. Your 20-second story turns into conversation fodder for people you do not know. It turns into a matter for the whole country. The entire world gathers and delivers its sentence; it is officially presented to you:
“That cannot happen.”
It cannot happen because of 6-7 September…
It cannot happen because of the genocide…
It cannot happen because of the British occupation of Istanbul…
It cannot happen because of Cuneyt Arkin movies…
It cannot happen because of the Crusades…
It cannot happen because the Greek Patriarch calls himself Ecumenical…
It cannot happen because we have not yet decided whose song “Sari Gelin” is…
It cannot happen because two people do not like each other at all…
When you put it like that, everyone who says “it cannot happen” looks like a maniac, right? Well, they are. But as I said, they are the people closest to you. And the situation has aspects that cannot be handled. Your mother is the only adversary where you get unhappy after winning in a fight. There is no other way, we have to convince the families. We will place a 20-second story against all the information about the history of “civilization” that works against us, and succeed. It’s us against civilization.
Let me introduce the families to you a little bit.
Belma was born in Germany. Her mother and father have seen more “Christians” compared to other mother and fathers in the country. This is a great advantage, keep it handy.
Her mother, like all immigrants to Germany, is quite the nation-and-flag enthusiast, she loves Turkish traditions, but at the same time she cannot abandon the German lifestyle.
Her father has a more relaxed view of life. He would not mind if Turkey switched to the dollar if the economy would be better for it.
Her brother is a modern kid. He goes to a photography course, takes dancing lessons, he’s very social. But when it comes to the matter of the “Armenian groom” he takes on the airs of someone from Yozgat.
There’s grandpa Cemil. Later on, I would be in love with him more than I loved Belma herself. He was living in luxury in Germany, but when he got a little older, he turned into the most devout hajji; and this situation, which made him feel better, coincided with our marriage, so he did not want me as a son-in-law to save the faith… Such luck.
The grandmother is a regular Adile Nasit [popular actress who portrayed approachable, affectionate characters in TV shows and films in the 1970s-80s]. She was just like the grandpa, a hajji.
On our side, they are even more worried than Belma’s family. My mother’s worries are doubled because there is no father. A Greek woman who’s making a big fuss because “her child is being abducted.” An old-fashioned Istanbulian. In fact, let me say that we on my mother’s side have founded the city called Istanbul; don’t get upset now.
My sister Jermen is the eldest. Until she was married, she did not have much interest in religion or nationality. But her husband is a bit conservative about these matters. It took 15 minutes for Jermen to become a good Armenian after moving into the same house with my brother-in-law.
My sister Janet is the most compassionate. But she has serious worries that I will betray Jesus Christ with this marriage.
My sister Jaklin is just like me. And I was always just like her. The others shouldn’t be jealous. Or let them be jealous, they deserve it.
The two families who are against us because they fear each other are in fact in an unnamed alliance. “This marriage has to be prevented!”
While they kept trying, Belma and I had already ordered the fridge, washer, dishwasher, and a 28” TV, which was the largest at the time, through Vestel’s installment plan. There was already a massive dowry ready on the bride’s side, prepared without knowing that I would be the recipient.
If we can find a priest, an imam, or a civil registrar, this thing is done.
Let them come and ask, then…
This is how it is. Once they realized they could not stop it, they insisted that “it should be done according to tradition.”
Well, fine baby, whatever. What’s tradition anyway? I’m telling you, the TV is ready.
That was not the case. There were so many traditions; our ancestors have imposed so much nonsense as “tradition” that even two people from the same village, same religion, and same sect would get into a blood feud midway through the process. It’s almost as if we are not the ones moving into the same house, but our extended families.
Well, to cut it short, it was necessary to go to her family ask for her hand in marriage. The decision was taken quickly, just the day before. We said “fine” because Belma and I thought they could change their mind if the date was a week from then.
We will meet up on a Sunday, come over to you guys, and ring the bell. When I say “we,” I mean my immediate family. When I say “you,” it means whoever wishes to participate. I took care of all the flowers, chocolate, accoutrements. There was such a hustle and bustle at the house that you would think the women of the house had formed a group and were about to compete in the Eurovision song contest. My mother and sisters were all very chic.
According to what I’ve heard from Belma later, it was the same situation at the bride’s house. Grandpa Cemil was wearing his best suit and sitting in the largest chair in the house. It was his habit to wear his suit every morning as soon as he woke up, the dear old man.
Her father is the calmest person there, and also the person I need the most. Her mother is very capable. She created such a table that you would have to search for the food among the adornments. But of course my family talked about it later, saying “Mezes and hot food cannot be displayed on the same table at the same time; see, the Turks don’t know how to set a table.”
My brother-in-law was all prepared, he was more handsome than I was. Grandma chose a classic, chic dress. Must be one of the dresses she wears during Easter in Germany.
Here we are. The house is in Yenikoy. It’s a nice neighborhood by the shoreline, an elite neighborhood. If it had been another neighborhood, my family might have tried to get out of it on the way there.
We are going up only one floor, at least; here we are.
Welcome, nice to meet you…
Everyone shook hands and kissed in semi-formal fashion, and took their places in the living room.
The grandpa does not speak much. My sister Jermen is like him. They are the grumpiest of the bunch. Small talk in the room. Belma’s mother is having an average chat with my mother; I am not too aware of what the others are doing. The main subject just does not come up. It's almost as if no one wants to utter the sentence that begins with “On this joyous occasion…” Everyone is questioning themselves.
Greekness is being lost.
Armenianness is being lost.
Turkishness is being lost.
The institution of being a hajji is being lost.
People feel like it would be better for us to leave that house instead of losing all this.
Belma’s mother said, “Let’s move over to the table.” Even if she was going to send us away, she could not do it without showing us that magnificent table. We moved over, and sat on whatever chair we could find, unsure of where we should sit. Belma’s mother sat down last. And as soon as she sat down, Jesus Christ performed a miracle, voiding my sister Janet’s worries.
Before we could realize what had happened, we turned and saw my future mother-in-law’s two upraised legs at the same level as the table, a second after she had landed between the four splayed legs of the smashed chair.
“Oh no!” yelled my mom. “Are you okay dear, are you hurt?”
Grandma ran over to the kitchen, saying “We need ice, where did she hit?”
Father-in-law Ahmet mumbled, “Oh come on Isil, again?”
Meanwhile Janet was telling my brother-in-law Atila, “The chair was rotten, it’s not her fault.”
Grandpa Cemil had connected the dots with theology again: “Come, my daughter, get up, Allah protected you.”
I really do not remember how long this ceremony lasted. After a while, the broken chair was taken away and a stool was brought. Everything went back to normal and people were quietly seated again. Things seemed to calm down. Or let’s say that was the case for the hosts.
But we knew what was about to happen. Janet was already pinching my mother under the table and quietly speaking into her ear in Greek, “Mama, please don’t.” Jermen was signaling my mother with scary looks as a last resort. But the woman cannot be stopped –when has she ever managed to stop, anyway.
So my mother could not hold it in any longer: “You silly thing, how did you tumble like that!” And she launched into a fit of laughter that would last for minutes. Her face red, she points at Isil; she cannot speak but you can tell what she means.
In such situations, you get an expression of someone trying to stop the laughing person while trying to suppress your own laughter. Our family had all these mimics, along with worried looks.
My mother won.
We all fell for the lure of the laughter, Grandpa Cemil first among us. At some point Isil said, “Oh my dear Keti, I literally flew” while holding my mother’s hands.
No one in the household had any trace of the theatrical manners they had a few minutes earlier. They had touched each other to help each other get off the floor. If there was a sickness called racism, it had just cracked in the middle, along with that smashed chair.
The rest was easy. There was chatter, stories were told, everyone became friends. We asked for the girl’s hand and received it in the meantime, and it was just a detail somewhere in there.
The last conversation I remember was the one where Isil sat by my mother and they talked side by side after it was heard that my mother was good at fortune telling with a coffee cup.
My father-in-law had been swindled badly in business at the time. My mother has no tolerance for a man’s failure in business. And the guy on the other side was really merciless. My mother was saying soothing things like, “You will get over all the difficulties my dear, that is what fortune holds.”
And Isil was unburdening herself to her new relative, whom she now considered part of the family, and telling her secrets:
“Ah my dear Keti, not even the giaour would do the evil that guy has visited upon this family!”
For some reason, my mother did not laugh at this.
*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.