Being an Armenian in Turkey (3): Who is right – my mother or the state?

Being an Armenian in Turkey (3): Who is right – my mother or the state?
Update: 18 September 2022 18:23
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“How did Silva, who introduced herself as Ayse to the soldier, know at her age that she had to hide her name?”

These were the years following the [1980] coup d'état*...

I was attending the Esayan Armenian elementary school on a certain Meselik Street, on Taksim Hill, in the center of Istanbul, right across a Greek school on the same street. It is the gray building on the right side of the street leading from the Hagia Triada Church in the square towards Cihangir. I did not know if they existed in all the schools, but at our school's gate two soldiers stood guard in their smart uniforms and with their big rifles.

I do not know exactly why. Perhaps they put those soldiers in front of the gate to protect our school. Why else would they place soldiers standing guard over the children?

I will not lie, the sight of the soldiers at the gate thrilled me!

They were living, breathing versions of my toy soldiers at home, replete with their rifles and uniforms. They were real in every way. And now they were right outside the door of our school, in front of me.

I chose one of them. I wanted to have a connection with him and decided that I should try to build a relationship with him. As I walked past him, I kept thinking, "Now is the time," but I could not make a move.

Indeed, one day I was standing in front of the big iron gate of the Esayan School and was about to call out, "Brother soldier, shall we get to know each other?" when I stumbled out of excitement and fell to the ground. Remembering that moment, the back of my head still hurts. That soldier had seen it too. I cannot tell you how embarrassed I was. As I fell, I hit my head very hard. The impact made me feel a sensation that I cannot exactly describe.

This feeling never went away after that and it still comes and goes to me, giving me a feeling of alienation. Later, I was even taken to doctors to get rid of this feeling of alienation. Do you remember the times when you had high fever as a kid? You are at home in bed, with your mother by your side, but you experience that moment more like a journey. A journey that picked up where you left off every time you had a fever. If you were asked to describe it, you could not, but you can remember it.

That is how I felt when I hit my head and I still get that feeling sometimes. Have you never experienced anything like that? Well, let us get back to the subject then...

I was tempted to go up to that soldier at the door and ask him meaningful questions like, "Soldier, how many rounds does your rifle fire at once?" I wanted to do it, but I could not. I do not know, maybe I did not have the guts. And I had no notion that it would end in something bad. It might even turn out for the good. I just could not dare, with my childish mind. I mean, I guess I was afraid, like I was afraid to go to the neighbor and ask for water even if I was dying of thirst.

We had shuttles that took us on adventurous rides home to school. They were old American cars with kids crammed inside. When they normally carried seven people, they took 10-14 kids. They were really nice cars. Chevrolets. Chevy, I mean. And it has three rows of back seats. The back and middle seats face each other. The oldest kids in the shuttle sit in the front seat. Lucky brats. We used to call bus drivers "Dayday." They are still called that. "Dayday" is the word for “uncle” in our Istanbul Armenian. Real uncles are actually called "hopar," which is short for "hoyryeghbayr," father-brother. Aunt we call "tantik" while father's sister is "horkur," shortened from "horakuyr," and grandmother is "yaya."

One day we were sitting in Dayday's Chevy and my soldier at the door approached the car as he walked up and down. I swear I was dying with excitement. Something I had never dared to do was about to happen; we might talk. Perhaps I would even be able to ask, "How many shots does your rifle fire, brother soldier?”

The soldier acted first. He walked up to us and asked, "How are you guys doing?" We all looked at each other. No one said a word. The soldier made a second attempt, "What are your names?" he asked.

I immediately moved forward. After all, the soldier had come for me. I was about to say my name when one of the boys next to me shushed me by pinching my leg. "Ayse!" said a girl in the front row, two or three years older than us, maybe nine, "my name is Ayse!"

Wait a minute! What's going on here? What a liar! Ayse is it? Her real name was not Ayse. But at that moment, the girl felt the need to provide a name of the others who did not belong to us...

But why? Doesn't it already say Armenian School on the gate; isn't that soldier standing in front of that gate? Why are you lying? Would the soldier buy it? He is protecting us, that's why they put him by the door. Now, why would you close the door on someone who tries to approach us?

More interestingly, how come all the other students approve of this? Why can't someone say, "She's pulling your leg, her real name is Silva?" Why is the shuttle suddenly silent?

Why have the children, who were shouting and interrupting each other all the time, suddenly become so quiet? The soldier is at the door of our shuttle, isn't it curious? We can finally talk...

And how did the girl who introduced herself as Ayse know that she had to hide her name at her age? Or was the soldier in my imagination not the same as the real soldier? Had the state lied to me just when I was trying to get out of the bubble? Had we run out of common ground again?

With Sadri Alisik's help, I wanted to leave my own mortal shell. But when I met this soldier, I realized that it was not so easy to traverse the road. I did try, though...

And what were we to do as children who were not allowed to speak their names in front of soldiers? It was to be an adventure thereafter.

Should we return to the circle of safety from which we tried to escape? Should we give ourselves new names?

How were we to define ourselves? Which symbols belonged to us and which did not? Which artists belonged to us and which did not? Who were we and who were they? And who decided on those things? My mother or the state?

Should I define myself by the identity described by my mother or by the identity described by the teacher at school and by the state? The state had given me guarantees. So why couldn't I still tell this soldier my name?

And why would my name sound strange to this soldier? What would he do if he heard my real name? What had he done before to "those with such a name"? Why had Silva hidden her name, and why did she know fear at that age? I was a child, and every day such new troubles were added to those of childhood...

Was it all because she was a spoiled child?

How come "Ayse" knew fear at that age?

*The coup d'etat: The military intervention launched by the Turkish Armed Forces on the night of September 12, 1980. The first statement read, "The aim of the operation is to protect the integrity of the country, ensure national unity and solidarity, prevent a possible civil war and fratricidal conflict, restore the authority and operation of the state, and eliminate the causes that impede the functioning of the democratic order."Following the intervention, the Turkish Grand National Assembly and the government of Suleyman Demirel as prime minister were dissolved, the immunity of members of parliament was lifted, martial law was imposed throughout the country and travelling abroad was banned. General Kenan Evren, Chief of General Staff, became head of state. According to official figures, 650,000 people were detained, 230,000 people were tried in military courts, about 300 people died in prisons, 171 of them as a result of torture, 48 people (24 judicial criminals, 15 from the left, 8 from the right, 1 ASALA member) were executed, and 1,683,000 people were tagged.

*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.