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The Good Man Baymurat

29/04/2009 1 comment

[Last summer, an unlikely star appeared on the Internet – a poorly dressed Tajik gastarbeiter who brilliantly performed the song ‘Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja’ from the Hindi film ‘Disco Dancer’ with such verve that he was a hit on YouTube. Soon his fame spread into the world at large, and Roman Gruzov located him in Kolomna, a little town in the Moscow region. Roman found out that the Tajik was not a Tajik, and, wholly unexpectedly, ended up helping the singer along his career in show-business.

Roman Gruzov wrote up the story in the online journal Big Town (Bolshoi Gorod), and I have loosely translated his tale here. In case you’re wondering, this is the story of the man who appeared in that video I posted a few days ago. [Via Neeka]]

Jimmy first appeared on the Internet on 4 June 2008, when a user called Kurmultuk uploaded onto YouTube a three-minute long video taken on a cameraphone. In the somewhat jerky film, a middle-aged man, surrounded by various shelves and tools, sang and skilfully drummed on cartons. He wore a baseball cap, a white woollen sweater and unlaced boots, and sang with equal ease and amazing range both male and female parts of the song. He appeared content with life, grinningly hugely, drumming merrily, making guitar riffs with his mouth, and dancing in the Indian manner. With his amazing rendition of the song of Mithun Chakravorty, what was revealed was not so much his undeniable talent, but his surprising joie de vivre that was in such stark contrast to the grittiness of gastarbeiter life. The video ended with the appearance of a uniformed individual, who spoke sternly to the singer: “Get dressed, and go to work.”

The little film was posted with the title ‘A performance of Indian songs by a Tajik guest worker’, and on the right, in the section ‘Related Videos’ appeared such links as ‘Football fans – the attack on the guest-workers’, and ‘Nationalists cut off head of a gastarbeiter from Central Asia’ and ‘Uzbek gastarbeiter kills young woman in Moscow.’

For a few months, a thousand-odd people viewed the video. Then it was copied by user 8philadelphia8, specialist publisher of fights and football matches, and the singer’s fame exploded. By the end of the year, tens of thousands had seen the clip. Then Jimmy began to appear in new videos: in three or four films, he sang the same song but at different venues. Wearing a camouflage jacket at a construction site, tattoing a rhythm on the windowsills. A sports outfit in a shoe-shop, drumming on a bench. Then at a large supermarket, banging away on a two-hundred-litre barrel instead of a drum. Even the context changed: Bollywood films were intercut into the videos. The videos passed from user to user, via social networks and through the most unexpected channels – Old Skool Ravers and Chechenchat.net. And Jimmy and his video steadily achieved more visibility on the Web than the killings of Tajiks, or even the murder of a girl in St Petersburg by skinheads. (That unfortunate girl still showed up in related video searches, with the comment of someone truly twisted, “A murdered Tajik girl. Too bad, there was only one.”). Jimmy, with his 200,000 views, suddenly had become the most famous Tajik in Russia, even more famous, it seemed, than the slain field commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.

I was able to trace Jimmy’s phone number and address in the township of Kolomna a day before the immigrant troupe Asian Dub Foundation was to perform in St. Petersburg. I didn’t want to miss the concert, but I figured that I had time to meet Jimmy and still get back in time for the show.

Golutvin station, two hours’ ride from Moscow, is not a place one associates with cheerful singers of Indian songs. The station square, one enormous puddle, is dotted with wrecked Zhigulis with checkered roofs; policemen and vendors of gilt and icons and used mobile phones wander about. Looming above, one finds a mass of concrete and glass, a shopping and entertainment plaza named ‘Rio’. Its interior is a mirror of the square outside. The only difference is that the gilt and icons lie on glass counters, and the mobiles are sold in glass stores. In the labyrinth of cafes and shops, in a shop called ‘Our Home’, Baymurat Allaberiev works as a loader. He, it turns out, is not a Tajik. In fact, he is Uzbek, although he was born in Tajikistan. Meanwhile, sales-ladies in the shop do not know his real name.

– Baymurat? – says one, stretching out the vowels in her surprise. – I reckon you need Jimmy!

The star of the RuNet, Jimmy, at that moment emerges from gloom of the shop. He is wearing the same sweater, and his boots are laced up now. He does not look like an easy-going fellow then, a short, elderly man, his left eye bloodshot, his fingers bent, a large bruise on his upper lip. Although we have agreed to an interview earlier, he still needs to get permission from the manager.

The kind-hearted manager gives Baymurat an hour’s break. Just as we are walking out of the door, the man says:

– You will be able to sing, won’t you?

Jimmy freezes on the doorstep.

– Yes – he says, embarrassed. – I tried earlier today.

The manager shakes his head.

– Please don’t cheat him – he says to me. – We had a television crew around the other day. They promised to pay him, and broadcast him on TV. And then neither was he shown, nor was he paid.. And yesterday he was beaten up on the train.

I guess they have mistaken me for a telejournalist, but the reason for their anxiety becomes clear when we sit down at a nearby cafe. Baymurat, realising that I haven’t brought a video camera, hides his disappointment behind a wide grin, and I see a bleeding hole in his upper gum. He is missing his two front teeth.

– They came up to me on the train yesterday on my way home – he said. – They said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m going home.” They hit me. I asked them, “Fellows, why are you doing this?”. “No reason,” they said. When I got home – no teeth. Only the gold tooth remains.

He speaks of his beating quietly, gathering the Russian words with difficulty. Indeed, he is remarkably calm, slowly sipping green tea, winking at the Uzbek waiters who eye the dictaphone warily. He talks of himself equally simply, interspersing his speech with the occasional smile. He was born in the kolkhozPravda‘ in the Kurgan-Tyubinskiy region, studied Arabic at his neighbour’s, a mullah, and learned music at a music school, served in the army, got married, divorced, herded sheep.

– I lived eight years in Kazakhstan with my wife, but we didn’t have any kids, so we split up. Had a bit of luck, thank God – I served in the Soviet army in Azerbaijan, and just after they sent me home – the war started there. In Tajikistan, too, I was lucky – the war began, but I wasn’t affected. The Wahhabis arrived and announced, “All the women should wear chadors.” The other Tajiks said, “No way that’s going to happen.” And there was war. I was working under contract for a Tajik, he had agreed to pay me in sheep. When they came for us, we had to take the sheep into the mountains. Every time they came, I’d tell them – there’s nobody here, they’ve taken the sheep into the mountains. So I spent the war in the mountains. Thank God, I was alive and well. And an agreement is worth more than money – at the end of every month, the Tajik gave me a sheep. My mother was ill those days, and we needed money for her medicine. And when she died, again I needed sheep – for 40 days… You also have a similar tradition?

Speaking of his mother, he gathers himself, speaks lightly, quicker.

– My uncle played the drums. He was old already, performed in the chaikhanas, sang at weddings. Mama said, “When you grow up, you can go perform with him.” My real name, in the passport, you know, in the documents, is Oymahmad. But my uncle was called Baymurat. When he died, I took up that name. Baymurat – it means ‘wealthy man.’

Smiling, he drew his tongue over the unaccustomed hole in his mouth.

– Mama said, “When you grow up, I’ll buy you a drum, just like Uncle’s.” I was going to middle school, Michurin’s school, and after classes, went to the music school – I learned the piano, dombra, drums. Then I took up the mike, and when I started to sing, I noticed that when there were other people around, I’d take on a second voice, female. And I developed it quietly. My brother was a projectionist, he often screened Indian films. Of course, it was translated only into Russian. It turned out that I had a talent: in two days I’m able to learn any song. The old man said to me one day, “Baymurat, you go sing at weddings – and sing like a woman and like a man.” I began to sing “Jimmy.” True, I didn’t understand the words, but the meaning is clear: “Sing, Jimmy, sing from your heart.” And that’s what the song is about. And what a fellow is this Jimmy! So I also became Jimmy, when I was still in school. And whenever there was a wedding or a festival, the villagers would come over and ask me to sing. “Sing for us, Jimmy, sing whatever you like.”

Speaking of music, he finally comes alive: he jumps up from the table, wiggles his shoulders, clicks his fingers, and, as though unable to hold back, begins to sing. He is immersed in his song, oblivious of what’s happening around him. Having begun in a low voice, by the second verse he is belting it out in full voice, so that everyone around stops and turns around to look at us. The strong, confident voice beats against the glass walls, as though to be heard even by the policemen in the square below, in the huge pond by Golutvin’s railway station. People applaud; the waiter who marched towards us to shush Baymurat, halts half-way. But Baymurat stops anyway, visibly forcing himself to stop, and he sits down and turns back into a grizzled, elderly man, indistinguishable from the other workers at the mall ‘Rio’. Just like them, he lives in the neighbouring village, wakes up at six in the morning, so as to arrive at work by eight, drags boxes till the evening, and returns home in the gloomy darkness. He fires up his fireplace with wood, not having enough money for coal, and he sings again.

– Sometimes I’m asked to sing. In our village, we get the occasional Russian or Armenian. I sing for them the whole evening, and in the morning, it’s back to work. I’ve been doing this for two years now. At first, I would think: Tajikistan is beautiful but Kolomna is not. But what is beauty? Here I have work, I can get an advance, they pay me on time – that is also beauty. In Tajikistan, of course, I would attend the mosque regularly. We have a mosque here as well, the Tatars go there, but I’m working, and just can’t manage it. But you see, at home, my father is a pensioner, if I send him a hundred dollars, he can live normally in Tajikistan. When the building work ended, thank God, I was fortunate again. I went to the manager and said, “Do you have a moment?” and he said, “What is it, Jimmy?” and I said, “Will you take me on for some work?” and he said, “Please, we have a need for porters.” Three thousand I send home, three thousand on rent, seven thousand remains for food. It’s good. I can’t save anything, though. Here, in ‘Rio’, on the second floor, there’s a shop, they have a Yamaha synthesiser costs twenty thousand. Sometimes I go there after work. The owner knows me. “Go on, Jimmy,” he says, “Play it. Sing.” If I can buy that synthesiser, maybe I can go back home, play at weddings. I love weddings: they make pulao, they speak kindly, everyone dances. And in any village, they go, “Jimmy, sing something.” They don’t pay much, but they feed you really well. And I don’t need a lot. For whatever God gives me, I’m grateful. What more can I ask for, when Allah has already given me two voices? All I need is a synthesiser.

He quietens down, turns the tea-bag around in his cup. Then he repeats

– Too much money? That’s not good. As we say, “Even the rich weep.”

And for the first time, he bursts into laughter, as though he has heard a hilarious joke.

This childlike wish for a synthesiser convinces me finally. I call up Ilya Bortnyuk, the producer of ‘Light Music’, and organiser of the concert by the Asian Dub Foundation in St. Petersburg. He has also seen Jimmy on YouTube, and agrees at once to have Jimmy as a warm-up to the show. But a few minutes later, he calls me back: “It is a large hall, a few thousand in the audience. What if he is frightened and runs away?”

– If he runs away – I say – we’ll pretend he’s a stagehand.

Baymurat followes the conversation without interest and with no emotion. He only asks if the equipment in the hall is any good. When I tell him that the equipment is professional-quality, he smiles toothlessly, and promises that he won’t run away.

– When I was a kid, I won first prize at a contest in Tashkent, and there were many people there. When the equipment is first-class, and there are many people – I become happier, more cheery than ever. And you know what? – he says, putting his hand on his heart – I feel that tomorrow I will be a star.

There is something touching and naive about this quiet confidence of a man who, for two years, has never left the environs of Kolomna. But at the Kazan station in Moscow it becomes quite clear that he knows what he is talking about.

A man on the station platform is the first to recognise Baymurat. “Jimmy!” he exclaimed, “Is it you?” At once, they begin to talk in Uzbek. A couple of Daghestanis come up then; they have seen him on the Web. Hearing that there is internet access even in Daghestan astonishes Baymurat more than being recognised on the street. In St. Petersburg, where he is accosted every twenty minutes, he explaines, not shy at all, that he can’t sing just then because he is on his way to perform at a concert. And then, he sings briefly, has his photo taken by schoolgirls, who then film him with their own cameraphones.

– I didn’t know that so many people recognised me – he says to me, signing autographs – but I felt it in my heart of hearts.

Neither during the flight, nor being introduced to the Asian Dub Foundation, nor the soundcheck in which he astonishes everyone not only with his voice, but with his first class percussion, nor, in general, during any of the pre-concert turmoil, does he even once betray any anxiety at all. He is focused, polite with everyone, quietly and completely calm. After getting changed into sharp-nosed shoes and a white shirt with a pattern of yellow balls (a gift from an Englishman named Quincy who encountered him in ‘Rio’ a year ago), he slowly paces around the still empty hall, and suddenly remembers an absolute necessity – a bucket.

– Usually, when there’s no drum, I play on a barrel, you get a good sound out of it. But there should be buckets here in the hall. A good iron bucket, that’s what I need.

When the security arrives in the hall, Baymurat noted with satisfaction that throughout his journey, he has not had a single run-in with the militia. Thoughtfully, he adds:

– No problems so far, but still it’s scary. At home, if they catch me, they say, “Jimmy, you are the star of Kolomna.” The others are arrested, but they only ask me to sing something for them. Here, who knows what can happen.

At this point, as though feeling the need to justify himself, he says:

– In two years, I’ve been attacked twice. Once before, and then yesterday, in the train. Thank God, no more than that. So I don’t really have any problems in Russia.

I promise him that he will be escorted to the airplane. At that moment, he is called up on stage.

Baymurat steps out with Steve Chandrasonic, the guitarist of the Asian Dub Foundation who has recently recorded a track with Iggy Pop. Steve introduces him to the audience, knocks himself on his strong white teeth, and speaks of discrimination and tolerance. It is evident that even if Steve speaks in Russian, his words will not have quite the same effect on Baymurat as the name of Iggy Pop. Still, he listens carefully to Steve’s English speech, takes the microphone from him, and, having waited for the hall to quieten, he addresses the crowd:

– Hello, friends. I came from Tajikistan and I work in Russia at construction sites.

The hall growls, and, as though someone had especially trained him for the moment, Baymurat waits for the noise to die down.

– I love to sing. These guys – he waves to the side – have come here from England. They also love songs. Everyone – equal, and everyone equally loves songs. And while they are getting ready, I’ll sing.

He speaks clearly, confidently, without a single mistake. And without waiting for the audience to absorb his message, he performs a solo beat at this bucket, and bursts into “I am a Disco Dancer.”

The hall erupts in a roar.

– Are you sure he has never performed in a stadium? – behind the scenes, an incredulous Steve asks me.

Jimmy manages the public like a shepherd guides his sheep, as though all his life he has been doing only this. He pounds the bucket, shifts his voice from male to female and back, strikes poses, tosses up his arms, and having sung “Jimmy, Jimmy,” turns the mike towards the audience, so that a thousand voices can be heard responding, “Aaja, aaja!” Then he bows, putting his hand on his heart in the Muslim way, and he leaves the stage, but within half an hour, he is dragged back, this time to sing with the entire group. The Asian Dub Foundation dedicate their main hit “Keep Banging on the Walls of Fortress Europe” to the “fantastic Mr Baymurat”, and instead of banging the walls of Europe, sing about the walls of Russia.

– I haven’t seen such a reaction from an audience in a long time, and it’s been even longer since I met such an unusual artiste – says Ilya Bortnyuk to me after the concert. In the next half-hour, with the same sang-froid with which he agreed to travel to St. Petersburg, Baymurat signs a contract with “Light Music”. Young women crowd around, trying to get backstage to have him autograph their t-shirts. He poses a bit more before the TV cameras (“We have a satellite dish in Pyanj, my father will be able to see me.”) and immediately gets ready for the night flight – at eight in the morning, he has to get back to work.

– This was a success – he says to me, bidding me farewell. – And it’s possible to continue this success a bit. Maybe, Inshallah, I might get that synthesiser. But the synthesiser comes second, it’s only a dream. First of all is God. My good fortune comes from the fact that I was filmed on that cameraphone, and the video posted on the Internet, and that you came to Kolomna. And it comes from the fact that if I am asked to sing, I am happy. Truly happy. But I always think first of Islam. Islam – it is obedience, it means that I need to pray and to hold on to it.

He wraps the bucket (signed by the members of the Asian Dub Foundation) in a plastic sheet, puts it under his arm, walks to the exit – this little man, soft-hearted, very polite, and just a little bit nervous, taking life as it comes, invincible in his acceptance of God’s will.

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Categories: india, music, russia, tajik, uzbek

Armenian Istanbul

09/09/2008 7 comments

[Mark Grigorian has posted a neat set of three articles on the Armenian influence on Istanbul, based on recent visits to that city. The original is in Russian, and my translation is below. Mark kindly went over my translation and improved it considerably; any mistakes that remain are, of course, mine.]

If you are a speaker of Russian, as many Armenians in Armenia are indeed, and have never been to Istanbul, then you should start with two words: “durak” (which in Russian means “fool”) and “bardak” (“brothel” in Russian).

There is nothing wrong with these words, in Turkish. “Durak” means “a stop.” So the question, “Where is the tram durak?” is normal, legitimate, and insults nobody. Likewise, “bardak” means “a glass.” And “tea in a bardak” is merely in a glass, and has nothing to do with “coffee in bed,” as you might have imagined.

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace

With the rest, it’s a bit easier. How about the word “saray” (“shed” or “barn” in Russian), which means “palace” in Turkish? And, of course, the name of Dolmabahçe Palace sounds peculiar to the Armenian ear, as “dolma” is a dish in Armenian cuisine. But that’s just linguistics in some poor taste. Dolmabahçe, the palace of the last Ottoman Sultans, was built by the Armenian architect Garapet Balyan, and its collection of works of art is graced by the canvases of Hovhanes Aivazovsky – a famous Armenian seascape painter. So, quite naturally, the first part of my travelogue of Istanbul will be called …

ARMENIAN ISTANBUL

And let it not sound strange or unlikely: Armenians have dwelt in Constantinople since long before 1453, the year the Ottoman Turks conquered the city. Today there remain sixty to eighty thousand of them, and they do not consider themselves part of the Armenian diaspora. “The Armenian diaspora,” they say, “is in the US, in France, in Russia. We are indigenous.”

Because what I’m presenting are notes on travel, and not research, I will allow myself the leeway to ignore chronology, and will not attempt an exhaustive study of the subject. I have a modest role: I am a tourist in Constantinople, who came to see it through the eyes of an Armenian from Yerevan. But before I begin this essay, permit me a small digression. For me, having lived the first forty-five years of my life in Yerevan, Istanbul was a city filled with an absolutely negative aura. It was – in every way possible – the city where on the 24th of April, 1915, began the genocide in which perished a million and a half of my compatriots.

The beginning of the genocide is marked by the day when tens of eminent Armenians were arrested. Politicians, priests, artists, musicians, jurists, doctors, teachers, lawyers, businessmen were taken out of the city, and nearly all were put to death. Back in my school years, I had the impression (which lasted for many years) that there were no Armenians left in Istanbul, and that this city would not tolerate even a mention of Armenia or Armenians. But when I moved to London, I began to meet compatriots whose families still lived in Istanbul, and who indeed often journeyed to that city and spent months there. I, myself, began to travel to Istanbul frequently, meeting with fellow journalists who lived and worked in that city. With the assassination of one of them, Hrant Dink, all the ambivalence of Istanbul began to reveal itself to me.

Indeed, despite the genocide and the terrible past, in Istanbul continues to dwell a fairly large community of Armenians. Along with the Greeks and the Jews, the Armenians are an officially recognised minority in Turkey (unlike the Kurds). Armenians study in their own schools, maintain their own churches, own real estate in prestigious districts of the city, and are engaged in business and craft. But they all say that life has become harder in recent years, the harassment has gotten worse. This, they tell me, is in the atmosphere – cloying and unpleasant. Many say they are ready to leave the city.

But surprisingly, many are arriving. Mainly, these are families from Armenia, and mainly, from Gyumri and Vanadzor – two towns seriously damaged during an earthquake in 1988. There are areas in Istanbul where the sounds of Armenian speech are freely heard on the streets. But I am getting ahead of myself…

In the 19th century, Constantinople was one of the centres of Armenian culture. Because the Armenians had been denied their own state, their literature, journalism and culture developed outside of Armenia proper. The closest places to mainland were Constantinople and Tiflis, cities outside their native lands.

In the space of a few decades, by the middle of the century, there were almost fifty Armenian newspapers and journals in Constantinople; there was an active theatre; Armenians thrived at business, and even had their self-governing body – the Armenian National Assembly (although, in fact, with very limited powers). Armenians were often advisers to viziers and ministers, and even some Foreign Ministers, in the Ottoman government.

From this period of enlightenment remain more than ten churches (interestingly, nobody was able to give me an exact figure, though there is mention of sixteen churches belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church, and several others, Catholic and Protestant); a few schools where a good part of the instruction is in Armenian (in truth, there is considerable oversight of this by the Turkish authorities, who take exception if things are not “just so”). And there are hospitals, shops, restaurants, residences…

It is said that not long ago, a travel guide to the “Greek Istanbul” was published. I am convinced that there is interest in a guide to the Armenian Istanbul, and it will sell well. But evidently the Turks are still not quite ready for this.

Haghia Sophia

Haghia Sophia

I would, somewhat unexpectedly, name Haghia Sofia as the first monument of Armenian Istanbul. Although the original basilica was constructed by Greek architects (Isidor of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles) in the sixth century (532-537), its cupola has collapsed several times; after its destruction during an earthquake in the year 989, the authorities invited the famed Armenian architect Trdat, creator of the cathedral of Ani, to restore it. Well, by “the authorities” I mean the Byzantine emperor Basil II, nicknamed the Bulgar-Slayer (Boulgaroktonos), who actually was of Armenian descent.

And by 994, Trdat had finished the reconstruction of the cupola which has to this day – for more than a thousand years – covered this magnificent cathedral. The Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam wrote about the cupola:

“Haghia Sophia – “stop here”
Said God unto nations and kings!
Indeed your dome, as the witnesses say
Is hanging from the heavens by a chain.”

Dome of Haghia Sophia

Dome of Haghia Sophia

Madonna & Child - The fresco had been scrubbed when the church became a mosque. Recently restored.

Madonna & Child - The fresco had been scrubbed when the church became a mosque. Recently restored.

Crosses visible from where they were painted over

Crosses visible from where they were painted over

The Cathedral Is Now A Museum

The Cathedral Is Now A Museum

But let’s move forward – to the next point in Armenian Istanbul.

Do not seek the Armenian Istanbul in the world-famous Lonely Planet guide. In fact, do not seek any Armenian references in this book – I spent nearly an hour on this, to no avail. I found pointers to gay clubs, and baths and saunas for gays, but did I find any mention of Armenian Istanbul? Not one. If you meet the author of the guide, Virginia Maxwell, please convey my regards to her.

So we are not going to depend on maps and guidebooks. We’ll just head to the tramway fool (“stop”, remember?) nearest to Haghia Sophia, and proceed further by rail, towards the Grand Bazaar.

But don’t worry, we shall not enter the bazaar. Opposite the bazaar, we shall turn left into one of the little lanes that steeply descend towards the Sea of Marmara. If we are lucky, this will be Tiyatro Caddesi, but if not, we shall anyway exit at the next junction, deftly avoiding the enormous number of shoes that are sold in this quarter.

The junction is a meeting point of five or six streets. At the centre of this square sits a bootblack, and around him are tens of restaurants, mainly offering fish dishes. These restaurants are very popular and therefore the food is not very tasty. Why bother to make an effort if the place is filled up day and night?

We are now in the area known as Kumkapı. In the evenings, it is impossible to breathe here. Hundreds of tourists invade the restaurants to eat fish. Ushers stalk the lanes in front of the eateries, persuading passers-by in six or seven languages to patronise one or the other restaurant. “I see that you are a bit hungry,” says one hopeful to us, “Well, here you can find all that you want.”

“Mister, mister, where are you from?” yells another. “Table for two? I’ll seat you at the VIP table. Cool and delicious!”

Belly dancers wind their sinuous way among the restaurants. Rather than an exotic oriental dance, what they are doing is simply an extortion of tips from the men – you may stick your money into their bras, but if it’s more than ten dollars, you will be granted the opportunity to stuff it into their silken panties.

But I digress. We are not interested in this. In fact, we arrive at this oasis of restaurants not in the evening, but during the day, when the waiters are just preparing the tables and utensils for the usual evening feast. So we head towards another street called Çifte Gelinler, and walking a bit along it, turn left onto a street with a strange name: Şarapnel.

Patriarchate of the Armenian Apostolic Church

Patriarchate of the Armenian Apostolic Church

And here is a three-storied white mansion, built in the European cottage architectural style of the 19th century. In front of it are palm trees, and it would appear completely serene were it not for the booth of policemen armed with automatic weapons.

This mansion is the residence of the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Constantinople. The police post was established shortly after the Patriarch was shot at. The Patriarch himself, Mesrob Mutafyan, is seriously ill, and has stepped away from his duties for about six months. This affects the Armenian community, because he is not just one of the highest church authorities, but is also the exarch, that is, the spiritual as well as secular leader of all Armenians in Turkey. The Patriarch of Constantinople performs secular duties as well, in particular representing the interests of the community to the authorities in Turkey.

Across the Patriarchal residence is the Church of the Holy Virgin. This is the mother church of the Armenian community in Turkey. Ethiopian and Syrian residents of Istanbul also worship at this church; as they also belong to relatively small Eastern Orthodox Churches. The group differs from other Christian denominations in that it is Monophysite, that is, believing that Christ has only one nature – divine. The Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants maintain that Christ has a dual nature – human and divine. They are called Dyophysite. And that’s a very old story – this division goes back to 451.

I was at the Church of the Holy Virgin last year, during Easter. There were crowds, masses of police, because the previous week, ultranationalists had tried to assassinate the Patriarch at the entrance to the Church (they missed). The Easter service was led by Mesrob Mutafyan, solemnly proclaiming the good news: Christ has risen!

The attendees were in two groups, clearly distinguishable from each other. One group was comprised of the long-time residents of the city. Many couldn’t speak Armenian, and I noticed they were ashamed of this. We spoke to one of them, a man of about sixty years of age, with the help of his eight-year old granddaughter. She was visibly proud to translate from Turkish to Western Armenian. I was doing my best to communicate in Western Armenian (which is quite strongly distinct from Eastern Armenian, which is spoken in Armenia). I had to speak as clearly as I was able so that the little girl could understand me.

Those who know both these Armenian tongues will understand that this was not an easy exercise.

The second group of parishioners was comprised of “Armenian” Armenians, that is, spoken in the modern tongue, migrant workers, or gastarbeiters. The majority spoke Armenian with a brightly expressive Gyumri accent. Naturally, because they came here from Gyumri.

Estimates vary, but in Istanbul there are between five and twenty thousand migrant workers from Armenia. Many have dwelt here over a decade, and have managed to purchase apartments, bring over their families, get settled. Not all are legal, but the authorities turn a blind eye. It is said that it’s much more difficult in Istanbul for the Uzbeks – the authorities are trying hard to prevent them from staying on illegally.

In Istanbul, I was told, there was much demand for nurses and domestic workers from Gyumri. Their cleanliness, kindness to toddlers and their hard work are much prized. And in the local Armenian families they are valued for speaking the Armenian language with the kids, who, thus, begin to speak the mother tongue.

At the same time, the same nurses improve their Turkish, and moving into Turkish employ, find themselves valued for their work ethic.

A Street in Kumkapi

A Street in Kumkapi

Many of the folk from Gyumri live not far from the Patriarchate in the Kumkapı quarter. Walk on the streets and you will certainly overhear the Armenian speech with its characteristic Eastern interjections “vabshe” (meaning “in general”), and “ee” (uttered abruptly and passionately, expressing surprise and other related emotions) and so on.

I visited the residence of one of these inhabitants of Kumkapi. It was a small one or two-bedroom flat in one of the four- or five-storey buildings where, in keeping with the spirit of Armenia, lived three generations of Gyumriites.

A rug hung on the wall, Jesus Christ embroidered; on the buffet a carefully arranged dinner service; a TV in the corner of the room and a portable tape recorder. Both were on: there was some broadcast from Yerevan (satellite!), and from the tape deck shrieked a shrill female voice, singing an Armenian pop song. In a nutshell, everything was just like back home.

Kumkapı is not a wealthy area. This means that you will see here yet another aspect of Istanbul – where the ordinary people live. Turks, Armenians, Ethiopians… They live, you see, together.

This is the story of the owner of the house. It is easy, after all, to chat over a cup of coffee…

“It is difficult [to live here], but not overly so. Difficult, because we are not citizens. If we had citizenship, everyone would benefit.”

“We have little connection with the Armenian community of Istanbul. If anyone took the initiative, that would be good. But there’s no effort at all. The local Armenians keep to themselves, and the Armenians from Armenia – we keep to ourselves as well.”

“We are asked – was there really a genocide? We, to the best of our ability, explain: “Yes. There was.” But the local Turks say to us: “It was war, and many Turks died.” Thousands of Turks perished at the time. Well, it’s not for us to make out what happened or how. But we speak to them, and we want to say, yes, it did happen.”

“They often ask me: “You, an Armenian, have been here for seven years. Has anyone insulted you?” Well, even here there are fanatics. But there are fanatics everywhere. There are parties espousing fanaticism. Among all peoples there are bigots.”

But It is time for us to abandon Kumkapı. Let us leave the quarter of thin moustaches and grimy houses, and head towards the touristic centre of European Istanbul, İstiklal Caddesi, or the Avenue of Independence. To do this, we need to get to the New Mosque and cross the Golden Horn over the Galata Bridge, where at all times and any kind of weather, one always finds fishermen. These are a strange breed. If they catch three or four fish as long as an adult’s middle finger, they consider it a satisfactory achievement. Actually, I respect these guys. They are real sportsmen, for whom the whole process is as important as catching the fish. But the result… Such a result would barely be enough for a bite with a can of beer.

Crossing the bridge, we will take the metro to the stop (or “fool”, in case you haven’t forgotten) Tünel, ascend to the surface, and emerge upon the famous Avenue of Independence.

Until the middle of the last century, the entire street and quarter was called Pera. It was mainly inhabited by Greeks. There were also some Armenian quarters, life in which was described with warmth and sweet sadness in the novels of Krikor Zohrab – writer, lawyer, member of Parliament, killed in 1915.

A Tram on Istiklal Caddesi

A Tram on Istiklal Caddesi

Pera was considered one of the luxurious quarters of Istanbul. As an Istanbul resident said to me, a woman could not step outside one’s home without gloves and an umbrella. What a sophistication! Lace gloves upto one’s elbows, and a matching umbrella in lace.

But in early September 1955, an explosion ripped through the courtyard of the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki. In revenge, a mob stormed through Pera.

At the end of two days of rioting and arson, Pera lay literally in ruins. Many houses, shops and churches were destroyed. Relatively few people died – sixteen or so Greeks, and one Armenian. But the Greek community, like the rest of Pera, suffered irreparable damage. Before the pogroms, almost a hundred thousand Greeks lived in Istanbul. Now, fifty years later, there are barely two or three thousand.

I’m amazed, however, at the sheer number of Greek tourists in the city. You can hear the language being spoken everywhere, in Hagia Sophia, in the Grand Bazaar, on the streets. The restaurateurs, and the shopkeepers in the bazaars, and the vendors of knick-knacks and touristy bric-a-brac, everyone, in fact, would call out perkily in Greek, inviting the customers in.

I am heartened by the numbers of Greek visitors. God willing, there will one day be similar numbers of Armenian tourists here as well, and the ushers will call out to them like Gikor in the novel by Hovhannes Tumanyan: “Esti hametsek, esti hametsek” (“Come here, come here”). Or something similar – after all the Tiflisian dialect of Gikor is quite different from the western Armenian spoken in Istanbul. But we have to wait quite a while before any of this happens.

So let us return to İstiklal, renamed thus after the pogroms.

Today, this is an eminently European avenue, wide, beautiful, with brightly displayed fashion stores and souvenir shops. It is mainly pedestrian.

Occasionally, right in the middle of the street, a police car will pass by, or red tram with its musical bells, ticketless travellers hanging off its back in happy bunches.

On İstiklal are the French and British embassies, and the Russian trade office. This is, after all, a diplomatic district.

Çiçek Pasajı

Çiçek Pasajı

Walking along the avenue for about a kilometre, we look carefully at the buildings on the left side, where we will soon encounter a sign “Çiçek Pasajı.”

This means “Flower Passage” and is one of the most important places of interest of the avenue.

These days, there are restaurants in the passage. Oh, and a counter of sweetmeats at the entrance. In 1920, this was a real shopping passage, with haberdasheries and glass-blowers and tobacconists. And at the time, the building was still called Cite de Pera. During the early twenties, Russians aristocrats, fleeing from the Bolsheviks, began to sell flowers there.

Imagine this! A Russian baroness or Grand Duchess, with her brilliant French manners, sophisticated in the best European tradition, standing there, selling bouquets to passers-by.

For some time thereafter, the passage was used by flower vendors, and thus obtained its name.

Having admired the passage, we turn to a narrow little street next to it. Twenty-odd metres up and turning right, between the vendors of fresh fish, cheap jewellery and Chinese-made toys, we notice a rather unobtrusive door. It opens to the Armenian Church of the Holy Trinity, built at the beginning of the 19th century by the architect Garapet Balyan, the same man who built that palace with a strange name Dolmabahçe, and also the Mother of God Church in Kumkapı, where we have already been.

Church of the Holy Trinity

Church of the Holy Trinity

Leaving the churchyard, we do not return to İstiklal; instead, we proceed farther. We fall into a little lane, seething with restaurants. We should be careful here, for we do not want to miss a particular eatery named “Bonchuk.” Obviously, as I am writing about the Armenian Istanbul, the owner of this restaurant will be Armenian, too. His name is Telemak, an ancient name, but not very Armenian, indeed.

I was told that the journalist and founding editor of the weekly “Agos“, Hrant Dink, loved to sit around at this restaurant. Dink was killed at the entrance to his office by a young ultranationalist from Eastern Turkey. Dink’s family and lawyers accuse the Turkish police and army of having known beforehand of the plan to murder him. The authorities, however, did not allow to launch an investigation against eight allegedly culpable police officers, including the police chief of the city, and the head of police intelligence department.

I must confess, however, that I was not very happy with the quality of food in “Bonchuk”. Maybe that’s because at the moment Telemak was not “on site”? I do not know. I, perhaps, will venture to go to “Bonchuk” one more time.

Istanbul Restaurant

Istanbul Restaurants

Having recalled Hrant Dink, it is time to proceed to the final destination of our adventure – the office of the newspaper “Agos”. To do so, we go along İstiklal towards Taksim Square and beyond, past the Hospice of St. Akop, an Armenian Catholic establishment, and walk past the mansion by which flutters the Armenian tricolour (this is the office of the Armenian delegation to the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation), onto Cumhurriyet Caddesi, the Avenue of the Republic.

We must amble along this avenue for about twenty minutes. We could, of course, take a bus or descend into the metro. Cumhurriyet merges smoothly into Halaskargazi, where we can find the editorial office of “Agos”.

I love visiting there, meeting with journalists, drink the coffee that has been kindly prepared for the visitor, and talk to the editor Etyen Mahcupyan about the situation in Armenia. This is a very hospitable place. Of course, I understand that I’m distracting Etyen from his editorial work with my chatter, but cannot deny myself the pleasure of reacquainting myself with Sarkis Seropyan, that master of the Armenian language, and once again look at the large photograph of Hrant Dink on the wall of the office, and breathe in the smell of freshly printed newspapers.

“Agos” is the first and so far the only newspaper released in two languages – Turkish and Armenian.

Right in front of the office is a music shop. I would recommend a visit there to ask for Armenian music. I don’t know if I can find as many CDs of our music in an average store in Yerevan. If you like the duduk, please yourself: any number of CDs of Djivan Gasparyan, Levon Minasyan, Gevorg Dabaghyan, Suren Asaduryan; you can find here folk songs performed by the ensemble Knar, records of Anna Mailyan, and concerts by Ara Dinkjian, and Arto Tuncboyaciyan, and even – imagine it – folk songs reworked by the famous Soviet-Armenian choirmaster Tatul Altunyan.

And a CD of Komitas performing Armenian folk songs.

Do you see Tegaran? Thats pharmacy in Western Armenian

Do you see 'Tegaran'? That's 'pharmacy' in Western Armenian

If you think that such a wide selection of Armenian music exists in this store just because it is so close to the editorial office of “Agos”, then feel free to inspect the shelves at any other music store in Istanbul. The variety and number of Armenian discs are no less anywhere else.

But let us return to the reality of Istanbul. The editorial office of “Agos” is not far from Kurtulush. This is a district so Armenian that one can find shop signs written in Armenian. Well, they are in the Latin script, but, as the old folk adage goes, there cannot be two strokes of good fortune in one place.

“Agos” is not the only Armenian newspaper in Istanbul. I met the editor of another, a daily, called “Zhamanak”, on Taksim Square. His name is Ara Kochumian. He is a corpulent young man with a bristly fuzz on his cheeks. Ara speaks an excellent western Armenian in a verbose and flowery fashion. And if he can’t find the mot juste, he borrows an equivalent from the French.

“We are all citizens of the Turkish republic, but of Armenian ethnicity. Many adhere to the Armenian Apostolic Church. And we, like jongleurs, keep having to juggle these three balls: one always in the air, and two in our hands.”

“An Armenian in Istanbul tries to live in such a way that he can run his business quietly, so as not to attract any overt discrimination. On a personal level, therefore, much unpleasantness can be avoided. But at the institutional level, for example, where the Armenian Apostolic Church is concerned, or the problems of the Armenian educational organisations – schools – are concerned, we see many examples of discrimination.”

“And this is because in Turkey there are several ways to oppress minorities. The Turkish republic was born out of a multicultural empire and often describes itself as the legal successor of that empire. That is what I want to say: the state today is secular, but [it is understood] there is a notion of non-Islamic citizens of the country. This was established at the Treaty of Lausanne. The existence of this notion raises a number of issues, including how to organise the education and religious practices of a new generation of Armenians. To this, we can add the two-headed supervision of Armenian educational establishments, created with the tacit agreement of the community. As you know, the directors of the schools are Armenian. But alongside them there are deputy directors whose powers and functions are in some ways higher than expected at that level.”

In all, in Istanbul, there are fifteen Armenian schools, and as I understand it, in the most of them, but not all, this deputy director – a Commissar of a kind – is an ethnic Turk.

“But there is one more problem,” continues Ara. “In the Armenian high schools, we are giving up the teaching of certain subjects in our language: history and geography and so on, are taught by Turks in the Turkish tongue.”

“After all, these community institutions were established at a time when the Armenians in Istanbul numbered 200 thousand out of a total population of about one million people. Now we are barely 70-80 thousand, and these institutions are working to save our community. But to ensure that they continue to function, we need huge, superhuman efforts. And sometimes it upsets us that in the other Armenian Diaspora communities, these efforts are not fully appreciated.”

***

Hrant Dinks Portrait in the Agos Office

Hrant Dink's Portrait in the Agos Office

Here I probably shall stop, although there is much more to tell about the Armenian Istanbul. For example, I could have talked about the architectural dynasty Balian. Istanbul takes pride in many of the remarkable buildings built by them. Or of the Armenian churches in other parts of the city, including those on the Asian shore… Separately, I could have talked of one of the best photographers of the 20th century – Ara Gyuler (I wrote about him here)…

And, of course, there’s a lot I don’t know. I hope that my concise notes were interesting, and helped you to think about the Armenians of Istanbul, about their past and present. And the future, of course. This is important for all.

As an epilogue, here’s a conversation I had with the manager of the hotel I stayed in. Or, rather, it is his monologue.

Imagine: a shadowy hotel lounge, steaming cups of tea before us (“bardak”), and a young man of about thirty lounging on a sofa, smoking Marlboros.

“Your son is called Tigran,” he began. “That is the name of the famous Kurdish singer, Tigran-Aram. He is an Armenian just like you, but he sings Kurdish songs beautifully. I, myself, am a Kurd.”

“I know,” I managed to put in a word, “I realised this as soon as we met.”

“…I myself am a Kurd,” he continued. “We support the Armenians. Do not worry, Istanbul is in our hands. There is nothing to fear here.”

“I’m not afraid,” I responded.

“At the moment, we are about twenty percent of the country. Maybe even more. The President (I suppose he had the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan in mind) said: have more children. If you have more children, in a generation, or maximum two, we’ll number as many as the Turks. Fifty-fifty. And the country will be ours.”

“But our people are asleep. It is time for the people to awaken.”

At this “optimistic” juncture in the conversation, I was able to make my excuses and leave.

But Kurds in Turkey are not even considered a minority. In Turkish universities, there is not one chair in Kurdish studies or in the Kurdish language Kurmanji.

Meanwhile, there is no faculty of Armenian studies or the Armenian language either.

But when they do appear…

References

Mark Grigorian, Armenian Istanbul, Parts One, Two ,Three.