Being an Armenian in Turkey (5): “Didn't I tell you not to be friends with that giaour!”

Being an Armenian in Turkey (5): “Didn't I tell you not to be friends with that giaour!”
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I had managed to survive in the neighborhood, and had my own tribe accept it. Who would I fear after that? I would not even fear the State...

Armenian schools were not coeducational in the past; there were separate schools for boys and girls. This is not the case now.

Each of our schools has its own history, tradition and rivalry among them. Following Esayan, I started high school at Mkhitaryan School, a former Catholic seminary. Years ago it was a boarding school.

Affiliated with the Mkhitarist school of education, these schools used to cater to students from Venice to Vienna. The year I started was the year the school became coeducational. As such, there were many boys and few girls.

Most of the kids in the class had studied together in the same school since elementary grades. They were old friends. None of them ever came out to play in the neighborhood before. That same year we started going to Kinaliada for the summer. Most of my classmates were also friends from the island. So I became the "new kid" both in their class and on the island.

They were decent and respectable Armenian kids, as they were expected to be.

It was proper for Armenian children to be friends only with other Armenian children. With all due respect, I was cooler than all of them. For one thing, I had seen the streets.

I had been covered in dust and mud. I had actual fights, used slingshots, played ball. I knew the drill, if you catch my drift... Naturally, I soon gained their respect. I started talking about that other side to this side. My neighborhood friends would even come to greet me at the door of my Armenian school. The kids from both sides, perhaps thanks to me, got to know each other after a while, but they were never friends.

It shouldn't give me any headache if I claim I was a petty king among my people, when I was just a regular hood boy while on the street. I had managed to survive in the neighborhood, and had my tribe accept it.

Who would I fear after that?

I would not even fear the State...

At the time, Turkey used to lose every national soccer game. We were defeated but not crushed, that is, except for the 8-0 loss against England. It was in the qualifiers for the World Cup in Mexico. We lost 0-8 at home and 5-0 at Wembley. It was the talk in the hood.

After the national games, when we would gather in the street to comment on the game, I would often hear the lines "The giaour referee, these giaours are all like that, he was unfair to us, the giaours favor each other, that's how we lost..." Well, I also think the referee was unfair. But I couldn't really tell if it was because he was giaour...

I was really annoyed that such language was thrown around even among children. When they called the referee a giaour, they would look at me out of the corner of their eyes and make me feel like I was responsible for the defeat. Such idiots!

Then this giaour issue came up again. And from the mouth of a haji granny in this case...

A new boy had moved into the neighborhood. The boy's father was nowhere to be seen. Rumors circulated behind his mother's and sister's backs. I remember the other children in the hood made him cry because of this.

Although her grandmother was a haji, it was always said that she also indulged in this "unchastity." The grandmother's alleged pilgrimage was also viewed with suspicion, and it was rumored that she used her headscarf as camouflage to cover up the disgrace.

One day I was sitting in the street with that boy when his grandmother stuck her head out of the window and shouted, "Didn't I tell you not to be friends with that giaour, hurry back home..."

I was dumbfounded. Children are cruel to each other, that's true. It may be forgivable to hear the word giaour from the mouth of a boy, but from an elderly grandma?

How dare she do that? Isn't she the one who should be correcting and warning her grandson if he did this? Isn't she the one who would be angry with the other children when she heard such remarks? Isn't she supposed to be the grandmother of all the children in the neighborhood?

Then another friend of mine reassured me by offering, "They're sluts anyway, don't worry about it!"

I'm still mad at the grandma who said giaour, and at that kid who called a grandma a slut...

*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.