Being an Armenian in Turkey (4): The dangerous and necessary "things" to be learned on the streets
I must have been nine years old. We had moved from Ergenekon Street to a place on Baysungur Lane. Compared to the street, there were fewer cars there, less people.
I said “lane,” you hear? I am talking about being able to go to the street to play ball, to be with my peers, to mingle with people, on equal terms. Eventually I was able to convince my mother, albeit with difficulty, to be a kid of the neighborhood.
As luck would have it, the kids in the neighborhood were mostly eleven or twelve years old. You should know that eleven-year-olds don't let nine-year-olds play on the neighborhood team. Whether Armenian or Japanese, this is as it is, for the cruelty of young children is universal.
This meant that we would finally meet the children of the "other" families! Most of the kids in the neighborhood were the children of fathers who worked as maintenance men in apartment buildings. Although this job was never just the father's occupation, as the whole family was in service to the entire apartment building.
Residents had the right to demand anything from this family at any time. In the apartments there were buzzers, that is, "the bell to call the janitor." When this buzzer rang in the living quarters of the coal bunker-turned-apartment, they would leave the movie they were watching as a family and try to resolve the issue of the grumpy man on the fifth floor of the walk-up apartment building. These living rooms had no privacy. Some didn't even have doors. Damn those bells...
The kids in our neighborhood were atrocious in many ways. They were not urban, not rich, not middle class, and on top of that they cursed and spit on the ground. Still, we got along quickly. The two years that separate a nine-year-old from an eleven-year-old is a very big difference at that age. But even so, the situation was somehow managed.
Finally, I had the opportunity to play at least in neighborhood games, even if only on defense. We formed a team called Akan Spor (Flowing Athletic) with yellow and black jerseys, and I also got to have a jersey made. My jersey had the number two. Number ten was the best; nine, eight, seven weren't bad either, but the best was the number ten.
Tanju Colak, the Maradona of the country and the goal machine of the time, wore the number ten. Anyway, I got the jersey, even if the number on the back read two, I got my chance. If I played fifteen minutes in a game, that was something for me. Since I was the youngest on the team, I hardly had a chance to dribble the ball or shoot. The other older boys on the team run the ball and knew soccer better than I did. Now I had two distinct circles: the one in the neighborhood and the one in the school.
Kids in school couldn't go into the neighborhood and play ball, in other words, they were not able to get out of our bubble. Even though soccer is about talent, it's also about mileage. The more you run after the ball, the more you catch it. That's how I soon became the best ball player in the school.
The bubble kids didn't have friends named Metin, Selim or Cem. I did, and that was one big difference. I now had the playgrounds that my classmates were deprived of. Moreover, I even had a crew in the neighborhood. Imagine, one of them would say, "Come on, let's go to this corner to eat sunflower seeds," and I would follow him!
They still wouldn't let me decide what games to play, but that was okay. It probably had nothing to do with me being Armenian. As I said, I was younger, that could be the reason. Sometimes there were inevitable quarrels with children from other neighborhoods. Another cause for concern for my mother. When they shot the dove
I remember very well my first incident in this neighborhood, because it was the proof for me that I was local enough to create an incident. Baysungur Street ended in a slope, in the third last apartment building of which we lived. Aktas Street cut off the neighborhood at the end of this slope. The older boys of the neighborhood played their games here, on Aktas Street. The others including myself were left with that steep slope as a playing field.
You go up a slope slowly and come down quickly. The slope creates its own games. For example, when someone washes a carpet on this road, the sudsy water flows down the slope into a storm drain, doesn't it? Except, if I didn't immediately build a dam with sand I stole from a construction site. The water breaks the dam. I do the whole thing all over again. Until the foreman catches you; now, there is your game. When it snows, the ground gets muddy; that's your game. Flat boards will be found, and naturally, there will be skiing. Perhaps the most difficult and skillful of all was playing a game of soccer. Playing it on the slope, that is. On a flat floor, even my old man would have fared just fine.
When we were lucky, that is, when the older brothers in the neighborhood were not using the Aktas soccer field, we had the field to ourselves. Right next to the field was an empty lot separated from the field by a very high wall. Imagine a wall three times as high as I was when I was nine years old, that's how high it was. If our ball escaped there, it meant we had our challenge cut out for us.
There were kids who could climb up through the small and large holes on the wall and cross over to get the ball. I won't lie, I could never climb up there.
In those years the gypsy children from Dolapdere went around the neighborhoods hunting pigeons with slingshots. They not only shot them, but decapitated them on the spot and threw the shot pigeons into their pouches. I think they took them home and ate them.
We were four siblings who grew up with a cat at home. Our cat had two names, Guzel Kiz ('beautiful lady') and Lady. My father had brought her from the Prince Islands. The love for animals, and perhaps even more so the compassion for them, was so strong that it was palpable in our home. This was largely due to my sister Janet. She set the bar for unconditional love so high that it has never been surpassed by anyone in my life since. For me, it was a horrible catastrophe when children decapitated birds. How could no one intervene? How come people didn't come out of their houses and chase those children? And how could the parents of those children allow it? How could this be normal, how could such a big murder be committed in the middle of the streets? I couldn't understand it.
One day I also got a slingshot. Kalyon Bakkal at the top of Kucuk Akarca Slope sold slingshots. We used to buy firecrackers with names like torpedoes, missiles and scares-the-girls from him. You know, now that I think about it, the guy built a store like an ammunition depot.
We used to buy Zagors from Madame Mari's grocery store. I remember they were both Assyrians. One day, as it happens, I climbed that wall three times my height. In my pocket was that slingshot. Just like the slingshots of those Gypsy children.
Looking down from the wall of the plot, I saw two children stretching the hoop of their slingshots to shoot a bird on the ground. I immediately took out my slingshot and threw a stone at the child. I did it without thinking much, because I was racing against time and my only goal was to prevent that murder. The boy clutched his hand to his eye, writhing on the ground and screaming in pain. I was terrified.
I knew they had side-opening pocket knives in their pockets for beheading birds. There was another back wall on the same property, but I couldn't climb it, and it had fewer holes to climb through than the other wall. This wall was about twice as high as I was...
Somehow, probably out of sheer desperation, I climbed up the wall after one or two attempts. But I was sure that I had saved the bird's life. I hid for a while and then ran home.
When I told my mother, she did not get angry with me. I knew what a dangerous thing I had done when I shot the boy with a slingshot. But I was also aware that I had to save the bird, and so was my mother, apparently…
I proved myself in the neighborhood with that incident. I made a name for myself. I had done something that the older kids did not dare to do. Maybe it was a very dangerous thing to do, but it was necessary.
*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.