01 December 2014
Little Vercihan Ziflioğlu with her parents and brother in France, Valance in 1980.
I asked three Armenians I know what it’s like to live in Istanbul today as an Armenian. What are the pressures and fears they feel? Do they feel the need at times to change their names, for instance? Here is what they said . . .
It was a few years ago one morning that I was having breakfast in our previous building in Güneşli in the Hürriyet cafeteria… (Yes I have a poor social life and most of it revolves around Hürriyet facilities. Yes, I know. Don’t rub it in my face.) I had an Armenian intern at that time and I mentioned casually to the bunch I was eating with that it must be hard to be an Armenian in Istanbul during these times. (I said this while there was so much hatred around… Again, a politician had just used the word “Armenian” as an insult.)
This intern of mine was doing research in rural areas as part of her school work, and I knew her friends called her differently and changed her name when they were in certain conservative villages. They hid her identity. There was also a funny anecdote about the head of one village who liked her and her made-up identity so much that he wanted to marry her to his son.
Anyway, that morning, one young guy at the table disagreed with me fiercely, arguing that I knew nothing as there was no need to be sorry for them, as they were all rich and all jewelers. This young man was angry at me; I was angry at him… I’m glad the venue was the Hürriyet cafeteria and the level of anger was limited.
Ever since, I wanted to do a mini-assessment. I asked around a general question on what it’s like to live in Istanbul today as an Armenian to the Armenians I know. What are the pressures and fears they feel? For example, do they feel the need at times to change their names?
Post-graduate student Aslin Arslanoğlu said she attended an Armenian school from kindergarten to high school. She met no non-Armenians all along the way. When she enrolled and started attending preparatory courses for the university entrance examination during her senior years in high school, she started making close, non-Armenian friends. “I understood in those years that I had been living inside a [bubble] all that time. In other words, I was part of the Armenian community that had shut itself - with justifiable reasons or prejudices to a certain extent - to the outside culture surrounding it," she said.
“Frankly, I have never come across an incident that made me feel any fear. Also I can say that I was mostly lucky in the relationships I formed with my non-Armenian friends and acquaintances. However, certain incidents that didn’t directly target me personally, but the ones I witnessed close by, such as the murder of [Turkish-Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink, do make me anxious," she added.
Another young lady, who I will refer to as S., said it was difficult to live in Turkey in general. “Living as an Armenian in Turkey, when it comes to mentioning your name, yes, then it becomes tougher. As a woman, I do not feel the need to change my name, but based on what I hear from our family elders, men felt the need to change their names for their military service and in their commercial lives. This situation is still valid today. For instance, when he was starting his business my father had to change his name and he still goes by that name. I still hear similar stories; that my friends have to change their names while doing their military service," she told me.
“I feel very lucky in this sense because I do not need to do such things in my work environment and in my social life. I never feel like a minority. But I have to tell you that no non-Muslims in Turkey are hired as civil servants. They cannot be officers, noncommissioned officers, colonels, police or have similar professions. This is indeed a regrettable state," she said.
My colleague Vercihan Ziflioğlu said she did not like defining people in terms of their ethnicities and nationalities. “If my identity comes before the individual ‘Vercihan,’ then there is a problem. In such a case, my advancement as an individual would come to an end. I see myself as part of the world as well as the culture I belong to. Thus, while nurturing the richness of the ethnicity and culture I belong to, I am trying to embrace different cultures.
“You are asking me what kind of a feeling it is to live in Istanbul today as an Armenian. I do not remind myself when I wake up every morning, ‘You are Armenian; alas; you will again go through difficulties.’ I now believe that the difficulties experienced should be viewed from a more general perspective than from the viewpoint of identities. The reason is that thinking the other way around would hold us back in the developing and maturing process as individuals. I think this is what everyone of us should do.
“The tragedy lived in 1915 is known to everybody. I do not who my roots are; more precisely, I do not know who I am.
“I was raised in France until I was 7. When I came back to Turkey, I felt lonely and marginalized, not only in the country I was in but also among my own people. On one hand our Turkish language and history teachers did not hesitate to call us “infidel” [gâvur] in class; and on the other hand, our Armenian language teachers made class discriminations.
“I was advised not to call my mother ‘mama’ on the street. In the history textbooks I studied, Armenians were defined as ‘traitors.’ When I was able to find a [single] book in Armenian, I could not stop my tears. Do you know what it means not to have access to a book in your own language? All of these experiences were very serious for a child’s world at that age.
“You are asking whether or not I feel the need to hide my identity. I do not have the slightest bit of doubt in that sense because I am behind my thoughts to the core. I do not believe there is anything to hide.”
An Armenian wedding in the 1950s.
Continuing from last week, my last set of questions to my Armenian acquaintances was “Are you thinking of leaving? What makes you stay? What do you want this place to be like?”
Talking about her school years, my colleague Vercihan Ziflioğlu said that for both her Turkish and Armenian teachers, “thinking and questioning” was the only issue that was never acceptable. They agreed only on this matter.
“They wanted unquestioning little brains, whereas I, even from that age, was questioning. My path as an individual was not very easy. A father with a French education, a freedom-loving mother, and a ‘Vercihan’ just back from France, it was obvious that my journey would not be easy in this land where I belong. There is, of course, also ‘being Armenian,’ which means ‘being different.’”
“I was interested in literature. When I brought Nazım Hikmet books to school one day, they wanted me to take these books out of the school immediately. I could not understand. On the one hand, I was asked to take Nazım Hikmet out of school; on the other hand, all the other landmark writers in the Armenian literature who I loved were said, in class, to have died of ‘tuberculosis.’ One day, when I asked why all of the writers had died of tuberculosis and how such a coincidence was possible, just like the day I brought Nazım’s book to school, I was asked to go home early and warned not to ask any questions on this matter. This is because all of them had lost their lives in the tragic events of 1915.
“It was the Nazıms and Orhan Velis and Armenian writers who died of ‘tuberculosis’ who have shaped the ‘Vercihan’ of today. Despite all the bans and impositions, I have learned to question. Instead of getting stuck at the troubles that society went through, I searched for new roads. I have witnessed the pain of other people in many different countries of the world. I learned that pain should not shape the future, but I also did not deny the pain of my ancestors.
“You ask me if I want to leave. Even asking this question means you actually perceive me as ‘the other.’ If one day I decide to go to any other country, be sure that I will never lose my ties with Istanbul and Anatolia. I would be here at every opportunity.
“As a woman, I want to be able to sit in an ordinary café without being the target of some strange stares. I should be able to, once in a thousand years, to stay alone and order wine for myself … I want a more modern, free Istanbul that stands up to its identity.
“My grandparents used to prepare themselves for one week before strolling down İstiklal Avenue. They would put on their gloves and hats and look in the mirror. Women would do their hair, put on their best clothes. Of course, times have changed; we cannot be like them, but I would like to live in that beautiful Istanbul with its cafés and the pastry shops they told us about.
Meanwhile, the young publicist, S., said Istanbul truly is a very beautiful city. “I believe we should really appreciate it. I have traveled a lot and when I talk to people and tell them I live in Istanbul, I see the spark in their eyes. I wish this city was a place where women and men live under equal conditions, where women’s purses are not snatched, where women are not murdered by the dozen every day.
“My ancestors were born here. We can trace back several generations, all born and raised here. I see this place as my country. I am not thinking of leaving because I feel that I belong here. Even though we may experience unpleasant situations from time to time, we have never thought of leaving our country as a family. Our wish is to live in a country where everybody is able to defend their ideas freely. This is not for minorities only; this is for all the people living in Turkey.”
Aslin Aslanoğlu also said that even though she has some concerns, she would not think of leaving her country. “Frankly, if an unwanted act or incident happened to me, I would not generalize it to all my non-Armenian friends. I would want all my non-Armenian friends to approach me like that too. As a result, I have very strong friendships, a life I have formed for myself. Absolutely, definitely I am staying here because I love my country. This is the only reason.
“Even though I have listened to certain unpleasant memories from my family about those times when they migrated from Anatolia to Istanbul and about the rural environment before that, I have also listened to stories involving very strong Turkish-Armenian relations. I have never acted with fanatic feelings.
“I have to add that I wish not only the city I live in, Istanbul, but the entire country should be a place where the rights of minorities are embraced; and equal circumstances, as equal as they can be, are provided for all minorities. I do not like using the word "minority," but this concept should include not only Armenians but all other cultures, atheists, homosexuals and our handicapped citizens, all of our people who are seen as ‘the other.’”