30 November 2007

2219) I Wanted To Get Into Turkey, Especially Under These `Dangerous' Circumstances . . By Seda Papoyan

© This content Mirrored From TurkishArmenians  Site It was a foggy, rainy night when the Moscow-Istanbul flight landed at the Ataturk International Airport (I had had to choose the Yerevan-Moscow-Istanbul route in order to get to a seminar I was going to attend on time). For the first time in my life as I entered a foreign country, my heart filled with irrational fear. . .

I didn't know what lay ahead - who the Turks were, what adventures I was going to have in the coming seven days. I thought, maybe this really was a stupid decision, but I had to admit that it was already too late. Resolution 106 submitted to the US House of Representatives was not a problem for me but for my parents, relatives and friends, who were worried about my safety. At first they laughed off the news of my decision to attend the seminar, and then they tried to talk me out of it. It didn't work.

Representatives from six countries - Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Morocco, Estonia and Finland - were to attend an international seminar entitled Accept Me as I Am organized by the Turkish NGO GENCTUR with the assistance of the European Union. The main topic of discussion was to be discrimination in its various manifestations - from racial, religious and social to gender, ethnic and other kinds of discrimination. I was really interested in both the topic and the seminar but I also had another serious reason for going to Turkey - I wanted to get into a country, especially under these `dangerous' circumstances, that had been closed to me not because of the closed borders and the absence of diplomatic relations with Armenia, but because of some other psychological barrier. I wanted to discover for myself Turkey and contemporary Turks with the help of this symbolically dangerous situation.

Before my departure, in order to set my parents at ease, I even wrote a letter to the seminar organizers asking them for assurances that I would not be threatened. Their response went like this: `The US Congress is unable to disrupt the centuries-old friendship between our countries.' They even promised that one of the volunteers would meet me at the airport and accommodate me in his home for the night before going to the seminar site. I had to persuade my parents for another few days and promise them that I would not spend the night at the house of a strange young Turkish man. But it was in vain... his very name contained a threat - Osman.

I got off the plane and found myself in an airport, every wall of which reminded you that it was named after the great Ataturk. Among the group of people welcoming visitors I saw a young man holding a sign with my name on it. It was Osman.

In the parking lot Osman suddenly noticed that he didn't have his car key and asked me to wait there while he went back to the airport area of the airport. Doubts immediately began to cloud my mind- this was starting to look dangerous, perhaps he had something else in mind, why should somebody leave his keys in the waiting area? But I had no other choice but to wait for Osman.

When we got to his home, father greeted us half-asleep and went back to bed. Osman's mother had gone to bed earlier; she had made up a bed for her son on the floor, in order to provide their guest from Armenia with the comfortable bed. I found this display of hospitality to be too much and my doubts grew. However my weariness was stronger and I fell asleep, forgetting my parents' warnings. A week full of unforgettable impressions on the soil of our `closed' neighbor lay ahead.

When I woke up in the morning Osman’s entire family was there to greet the guest from the neighboring country. He lived with his mother and father, his sister, and her two-year-old son. The table was laid in the living room and everybody was waiting for breakfast. By now the manifestations of hospitality that had seemed too much the day before were becoming usual and quite different doubts began to emerge in me - like, for example, whether open-heartedness, going out of one’s way for one’s guests was characteristic of Turks as well.

Had they perhaps become like this after mixing with us for so long? Or was it a sham designed to show how well they receive their “enemy”. Later, from my conversations with Osman I found out that his parents had nothing against accommodating a young foreigner and had not reacted at all to the fact that the foreigner was Armenian - “a guest is a guest irrespective of his or her nationality.”

After the Turkish breakfast I was well sated, but I felt somewhat uneasy since I had seen and tasted at the table a number of dishes very dear to me that I had to perceive for the first time as being Turkish. Osman’s mother had cooked the so-called “false dolma” very popular with us and explained that for dinner they usually cook it not with rice or other grains but with meat. Then they offered me doshab, again explaining how it was prepared, various preserves and comb-honey. Since this Muslim woman, like the other family members, didn’t speak English, Osman translated for us. He told me that his mother was a native of a village in the Eastern Turkey and they treated me to the bread baked by their grandmother living in that village which turned out to be just the lavash we know, but this time I ate it as a special Turkish bread. Osman told me that one cannot buy lavash in stores; it is served mainly in restaurants.

Osman’s nephew was a wonderful child and since he couldn’t even speak his native Turkish yet we communicated in the most common international language - smiles and gestures. Before I saw the child, when I had just learned from Osman that he had a little nephew, I thought that in any case it would be hard to feel warm towards him, since I arrived in Istanbul prejudiced. But the toddler captivated me so that I not only forgot his nationality, I regretted that I had not brought an Armenian souvenir for him, and I found myself hoping that perhaps one day my son would get to know and make friends with him. In fact all my prejudices disappeared completely, at least in this Turkish family circle.

As we parted, Osman’s mother took a souvenir from the cupboard - it was a plate with a picture of a mosque in her village. The plate is now hanging on the wall in my living room.

Osman and I decided to meet later at the seminar and I rushed to the city center to see the contemporary delights of timeless Constantinople.

Istanbul with its population of 15 million has a lot to offer a tourist; it is a city that contains the history of three notable empires of the world - Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. You can find the traces of all these cultures in Istanbul - with the prevalence of the Islamic culture. For example, the Saint Sophia Cathedral carries the heritage of all three Empires at once - originally constructed as a church it was later converted into a mosque and now is a Museum. And perhaps very few people know that the massive dome of that world-famous cathedral was rebuilt in the tenth century by the creator of the Ani Cathedral, the architect Trdat.

Incidentally, this city populated predominantly by Muslims made an enormous impression upon me. Although loud calls inviting to prayers were heard five times a day from the mosques located at every step, both the outside appearance and the lifestyle of Istanbul Turks did not convince you that the city residents were indeed zealous Muslims. Later after discussing this subject with my young Turkish acquaintances I realized that the majority of educated Turks, who considered themselves to be something of an elite, are not in fact religious; they don’t pray even on Fridays and they perceive themselves Muslims more according to custom since “it’s an Islamic country and since my parents accept this religion therefore I’m Muslim too.” Many of the Turks I met didn’t go to mosques even during Ramadan and didn’t cover their heads.

In the center of Istanbul surrounded by crowds of tourists I always tried to avoid the question of where I had come from. When responding I was ready to lie saying that I was from, say, Spain or some other country, but not from Armenia - I felt uneasy among millions of Turks.

My biggest impression from Istanbul and, generally, from Turkey, was the ubiquitous adornment with flags. I knew that Turks were more devoted to their flag than other nations but I didn’t expect that the national flag could be such an idol. On the fronts of most diverse buildings in all parts of the city very large red cloths with Turkish crescents and stars were flapping. Even the beauty salons, stores, gas stations and windows of ordinary citizens were adorned with the national flag. When I asked my Turkish friends about this phenomenon, some of them said that the number of flags had increased in connection with the upcoming holiday - Republic Day (October 29). And only one more candid young Turkish man told me that the flag as a manifestation of national self-identity comes as a help to citizens every time the state is somehow threatened. By raising the symbol of the state, the citizens want to show that they stand beside their government and are ready to fight for their national identity. I had additional evidence of this when I attended the Republic Day celebration in a small Turkish town.

[December 17, 2007]
I found out as soon as I got to Istanbul that the name Seda was quite common in Turkey. I first heard about it at the airport, where the immigration officer smiled wryly and said that my name was purely Turkish.

This fact started to get to me after a while, as each Turk I was introduced to expressed surprise at an Armenian bearing a "Turkish" name (in reality, the name Seda - which I inherited from my grandmother - is Arabic in origin, according to books on the origins of names), but little did I know that greater tests awaited me.

During the seminar, I had the chance to go to a Turkish village, Zeytindag, which was one of the main centers of olive production in that part of the country. In that village of 4,000, I witnessed many familiar scenes - women baking lavash in a tonir, unemployed men gathered around a backgammon board on a street corner, a group of children running after foreigners and so on. It would be difficult for me to say how a ten-year old Armenian would greet a Turk entering his village, but I could sense the hate with which one Turkish boy reacted to my presence. The boy, about ten years old, quickly gathered his friends around me when he read the word "Armenia" written on my badge. "Ermeni, Ermeni…" he said and loudly started explaining something to his friends (now I understand how important it is to know your "enemy's" language). One of my Turkish acquaintances approached the children and tried to silence them. I did not ask him what the problem was, because it was obvious from the boys' faces and body language that they were not happy to see the "enemy" in their village.

The next day in Turkey was one of the most important holidays of the year - Republic Day (I felt that it was probably best not to wear my badge at all on that day). On that occasion, flags bearing the portrait of the Turkish national idol and cult figure Kemal Ataturk were raised everywhere next to the flags of the country itself. In general, Ataturk, as the founder of the Turkish identity, was everywhere, always. Statues, busts, and sculptures of him in all sorts of different poses were placed even in villages; any place which had had a role of any sort in his life housed a museum. This, of course, was very strange to me. One can give the flag, as a national symbol, cult status of some sort, especially when it helps unify the people and promote their national consciousness. But it seemed unusual in these times to do that through an individual, a cult figure. The Republic Day celebrations in the small Turkish city of Yeni Shakran brought back recollections of cult figures from Soviet times, corroborated by the Estonians and Georgians who had experienced Soviet life as well, and even by the Finns with their European past.

Ataturk's stern eyes looked down upon us not just from the walls of buildings, but also from the clothes of adults and even children. The schoolchildren taking part in the celebrations had proudly pinned photographs of the founder of the Turkish republic to their uniforms. I could not help but recall my history teacher, who said that in the days of her youth they were often forced to pin photographs of Stalin to their chest on important occasions, and that while that was an obligation at first, it slowly grew into a habit, and then even into a desire.

The Turkish children believed that Ataturk because of his deeds was truly worthy of awe and worship. This was clear even without any knowledge of Turkish. The schoolchildren recited poems dedicated to their country's founder, sang songs, and staged a play especially written for the occasion, all with indescribable pathos and conviction. That pathos was so impressive that, at least to me, it rung out like a threat - it is possible to recite a poem or sing a song with faked emotions, but the feelings and conviction they were expressing could not have been false. The Turkish boys and girls were not rejoicing on the occasion of Republic Day, but rather expressing their determination to resist any force that threatened them. It is difficult to imagine children raised in these conditions conducting open discussions about "disputed" issues of any sort in the future.

The "disputed" issues between the Turks and us were the subject of only a few private discussions during the seminar. The Finns, for example, who were not well aware of the past, noted that they also felt a threat of some sort from the performance and from the children's upbringing in general.

I had a few discussions with the Turkish young people participating in the seminar as well. Although they mostly avoided the issue, one of them nevertheless explained that he felt the way events were unfolding was quite "absurd". He studied international affairs and was well aware of the details of those events, but insisted that the international community often took advantage of such things to put pressure on Turkey. He personally felt that "what happened", irrespective of the accuracy of the numbers and other information, was not his fault, because he could not be blamed for the actions of his ancestors. Now, as a young citizen of Turkey, he was ready to initiate dialogue and look for solutions to the "question".

Another Turkish youth confessed that he did not see dialogue starting anytime soon. According to him, both Turkey and Armenia were young republics which were still building a national identity and because they had "common obstacles" on that path, the ice would not be broken anytime soon.

By Seda Papoyan: In the Wake of Resolution 106
© 2007 Hetq Online www.hetq.am