Being an Armenian in Turkey (21): A church wedding is a grandiose affair

Being an Armenian in Turkey (21): A church wedding is a grandiose affair
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“Belma’s hajji grandfather stands in the back row. His hands clutch a fedora. As the priest reads the prayers in Turkish, he loudly exclaims ‘Amin’ each time ‘Allah’ is said.”

Belma and I met in 1998. In 2002, we decided to get married.

Belma, who was born in Germany and who returned home at age nine, is the daughter of a Circassian family. You might be thinking that I am here to narrate Belma’s experiences as the daughter of a Muslim family who chose an Armenian husband, or the reactions of my folks to this marriage, or the events that transpired until we found ourselves at the church for the wedding. There are people who would tell those stories, but I most definitely am not one of them. Yes, I’m aware that we’ve come to the point revealing anything and everything, down to the pants we wear on our buttocks, but I firmly believe that some things should stay private.

The one piece of good news I can tell you shall have to suffice: to date, the set of in-laws with whom my mother gets along best is Belma’s family. Everyone loves one another. And not only that: everyone trusts one another and is happy. Come, let’s now talk about the fun parts of this affair.

We must have the wedding at church. However, the policy for couples to be married within it is that both parties must have been baptized in the Armenian church. Others who have had mixed marriages have only been able to hold such a wedding by convincing either the bride or the groom to be baptized, jumping through the thousands of bureaucratic hurdles to do so, and registering their religious affiliation on their state identification card as “Christian.” Assuming that these people didn’t have a sudden moment of religious epiphany leading to conversion, the fact of the matter is that they must have made this sacrifice based on a desire to be with their loved one. I respect that choice.

Though, of course, asking such a thing of Belma never even crossed my mind. After all, why should a church marriage be of such consequence? Sure, a marriage recognized by the church is necessary for any future children to be eligible for baptism, to attend an Armenian school, or to retain ties to the congregation. So, it’s a good thing indeed that luck was on our side.

Patriarch Mutafyan thought about the issue. To his mind, the sizeable increase in mixed marriages now should at least be acknowledged by the church to be able to keep such couples within its folds without alienating them entirely. This is an important stance to take in the face of the potential assimilation of the next generation. I think our wedding was one of the first that was conducted with this understanding.

At church weddings, the groom’s side usually sits to the right while the bride’s sits to the left. If you happen to be in the vicinity of Istiklal Avenue, stop by the Uc Horan Armenian Church. It’s a refined sort of church. That’s where our wedding took place.

A bride as beautiful as a princess, Belma enters the church after the church bells ring, rose petals float down from above, the choir sings a magnificent hymn in three or four voices, the priests rest at the front, the lectorers stand waiting for the bride to take her place. And yet, there is not one Christian among the ranks of the bride’s side.

Belma’s relatives, college friends, a few neighborhood families, and our shared circle of people. All in all, we had a little over 300 people divided into two sides of the church. The frontmost rows were reserved for family. Traditionally, women cover up at church. Today, a fancy hat does the trick. It’s customary for the wedding hosts specially to wear the best of hats. Belma’s mother dons one of the fanciest.

Tuncay is next to my mother on the pews of the groom’s side. The Kurds are having a protest that day at Istiklal; Tuncay seems to have been there before making his way to the wedding. Wearing a rather athletic outfit to be able to evade the police if need be, Tuncay has found himself a spot among my family in their most ostentatious garb. No one must have alerted Tuncay to the fact that that pew is strictly for family.

Belma’s hajji grandpa sits in the back row. His hands clutch a fedora. Each time the priest says “Allah” as part of the prayers he recites in Turkish, the grandpa loudly exclaims, “Âmin.” Both those who are watching such a ceremony for the first time in their lives alongside the Armenians who are watching them watch seem to have forgotten to look at the bride and groom. “I was so jealous,” says Oya to Belma at the end of the ceremony. “The whole thing was literally like the Queen’s coronation…”

I want to talk to the hajji grandfather after the wedding. Despite all his initial objections to the union, his “âmins” at the priest’s prayers still echo in my ears. I ask him, “Would you like to recite something according to the Islamic faith, grandpa?” He doesn’t think there’s a need to do so. Afterwards, and until the day he dies, I find myself caught up in a tremendous love affair with the grandpa. All the fears, the identities, the hatred, they all die that day.

It’s not only Belma and I who are getting married. It’s as if everyone in the church marries one another that day…

Being Armenian: A state of perpetual loss

Of course, there might be plausible reasons for the disapproval of mixed marriages.

The perceived threat in the union of two people from different religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds is significant. The bride or groom being welcomed into the family will be transferring knowledge from one side to the other. At first, we fear this information. We assume that our accumulated capital of “traditional” knowledge will be somehow lessened or marred by the introduction of this new information. This assumption that a new piece of information can lessen overall knowledge is a rare moment of stupidity.

You know what the anxieties of a society’s majority are regarding mixed marriages. What I want to talk about are the most foundational objections minorities have to such marriages.

After the catastrophe of the genocide, Armenianness was shaped by a singular motivation: losing, always losing…

Losing your relatives, losing a generation.

Losing the city you live in, the town, the village, the streets you’ve walked.

Losing home, land, the garden, the chicken coop. Losing your school, your church, your hospital, your newspaper. Losing your language, your dialect, your literature, your poetry, your alphabet.

Losing whatever hope you had of living in your motherland freely, in dignity and with equality as a fellow countryman.

The whole of this loss understandably contributes to a conservatizing trend in the Armenian community. People develop reflexes to stay alive in the face of existing anxieties. These must be the reasons underlying living a life geared towards the internal. These must be the reasons behind the weighty suspicion that greets everything coming from “outside.”

Add to this the problems that accompany being a “diaspora.” think of the century’s worth of stories amassed by these people, by our relatives trying to hold on in foreign lands like trees uprooted.

Try to understand the fears, the yearning, the agony of Yozgatians living in Argentina, Sivasites living in Germany.

Only then will you understand what I’m trying to convey.

* “Âmin” is the Islamic equivalent of “Amen.”

*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.