Monday, 24 September

The Armenians of Istanbul…Old and New

At twelve noon the bus with Turkish license plates departed from the center of Yerevan, outside the offices of a the travel agency close to the Opera building, headed for Istanbul. Buses from this location leave for Istanbul twice a week.

There are also three other agencies whose buses depart from the Central Bus Station in Yerevan to a country with which Armenia has no diplomatic relations. There is also a bus to Turkey that leaves from the town of Vanadzor once a week. Twice weekly, there are flights from Yerevan to Istanbul and back. During the summer holiday season there is also a weekly flight from Yerevan to Antalya, on the southern Turkish coast. During an average month, the number of individuals traveling to Turkey from Armenia reaches 2,500. Yearly, this figure reaches some 30,000.

According to the passport laws existing between Armenia and Turkey, citizens of the Republic of Armenia (ROA) are granted a 30-day tourist visa. There’s no difficulty getting a visa. People traveling to Turkey by bus are issued one at the border and airline passengers get theirs either at the Istanbul or Antalya airport, at a cost of $15.

In October of 2007, Sukru Elekdag, the Deputy President of the Republican People’s Party in Turkey, declared in the Turkish Parliament that, “there are 70,000 illegal immigrants from Armenia working in Turkey.” In response, Besir Atalay, Turkey’s Minister of Internal Affairs, offered up the following numbers - 53,108 individuals entered Turkey from Armenia in 2007 and in the same year 53,359 Armenians left Turkey. He also stated that in 2007, eight Armenian citizens were deported from Turkey as illegals. It’s difficult to say how correct these statistics are. However, during our one week stay in Istanbul, we met many numerous Armenians who have been living illegally in the country for years on end. We also met up with Armenians who had already obtained Turkish citizenship. There is no government body in Armenia that has ever commented on these published numbers.

Many traveling in our bus weren’t even aware of the fact that Armenia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Turkey. I guess it’s because they really have no problem at all entering Turkey. All they have to do is pay their $15 at the border and Turkey opens wide its doors to Armenians. The Georgian border guards are more of a problem to deal with. Before we arrived at the Bagratashen customs house Ali, one of our drivers, called out, “Whoever’s passport isn’t in a normal state needs to hand over $10.” I don’t know how many actually did so but a pretty nice sum was collected by Ali to hand over to the Georgian border guards. I asked a guy from Vanadzor sitting behind me, “What could possibly be the problem with the passports?” and he replied, “Either the pages are wrinkled or the plastic film covering the photo is unraveling.” I quickly checked the pages of my passport and everything looked normal. Ali then collected all our passports and with the money clutched in the other hand he headed off to the border post. Naturally, the payment of this money to the guards might also allow us to quickly pass through the border. After a one hour wait we crossed over into Georgian territory. Several hours later, in the dead of midnight, we once again found ourselves at the Georgian border. This time however it was the Turkish city of Artvin that lay on the other side. Again the Georgian officials kept us waiting. The female Georgian passport control officer was scrutinizing all the passports with a fine tooth comb. She took my passport and started to flip it this way and that, ran her fingernail over a page or two, and then finally stamped it and gave it back to me. Back in the bus I noticed that the plastic strip over my photo was turned up at one corner. A woman from Gyumri, seated next to me on the other aisle, evidently noticed my puzzlement and wryly laughed saying, “She did that in order to get her $10 from you on the way back.” This woman had the answers to practically all of our questions - where we would stop along the way, the times, etc.

After the bus passed through the town of Spitak in Armenia it stopped to pick up six more passengers that were waiting along the roadside. A woman of about 50 got in and immediately exclaimed, “Oh, so this Ali fellow has changed the seat cushions...” It seemed that everybody in the bus knew Ali and went to him to discuss this or that matter.

The woman from Gyumri was giving advice to a couple from Vanadzor, sitting a row behind her, who was traveling to Istanbul for the first time. “Without realizing it those people will take you for all you’ve got” she told them with a smirk on her lips. “My young man, I’ve been traveling back and for 16 years now” she told the attentive man from Vanadzor. I did the calculation in my head; she’s been going to Turkey since 1992. That’s when Armenians first started to travel to Turkey, to bring goods back. “Now everybody makes the trip. Oh, what times they were. Back then they used to call me the “kozhi printsesa” (leather princess). I was the only one transporting leather back. Everybody knew me and would beat a path to my door to get some. Today, those big stores have strangled us. They have the money to bring huge quantities back. It’s no longer profitable for us any longer” said the woman with a look of regret. “You see this guy Hamlet here? I was the one who took him to Istanbul for the first time and showed him the ropes. Now he thinks he’s some big shot or something, the way he talks and all. Later on I pulled him aside and told him, so you’ve forgotten all that, you’ve got selective amnesia or something? Don’t you feel embarrassed?” she went on and on. These were the types of discussions that went on for 36 hours in various parts of the bus. People were at ease, as if they were oblivious to the long ride. This was their daily routine.

“Sen gal ma, gyal ma sen” (Don’t you come, don’t you come) - this blaring refrain of a Turkish song, that went on and on, had already sawed my brain into pieces. The words echo in my head even today. The only respite from the Turkish music played by the drivers once we headed out of Yerevan was when we stopped at the border crossings. We were seated in the second row behind the driver so our view in front was unobstructed. This didn’t prove much of a benefit in light of the continuous musical racket hitting our eardrums. Turkish music would have pretty much accompanied us all the way to Istanbul had I not suggested we watch a movie or two. Here too we didn’t have much luck. All we could chose from were some Chinese chop-socky action flics or some soft-porn that somehow sneaked onto the screen. We all turned away and snorted when some of the more erotic scenes appeared. My God, there were some kids as young as 10 watching as well. Suffice it to say our 36 hour trip was chock-full of such pleasantries; Turkish music, stupid movies, some snacks and other questionable odors. What do you expect? The bus is the cheapest way of getting to Istanbul at a price tag of $80.

Hamlet and his wife have been living in Istanbul for 8 years now. He said, “I nail on the soles in a shoe factory.” They send back goods via cargo to their relatives in Armenia who in turn sell the stuff. Hamlet told us that he intends to return to Armenia this August. At the time I believed him. In the days to come, after meeting and talking with other Armenians from the ROA, I realized that while they all talk about returning they continue to stay.

“The Police know about all of us, where we live, etc. If they wanted to they could round us all up in one night and deport us”. This is how Hamlet responded when I asked him about the dangers if caught as an illegal in Turkey. I didn’t understand why Hamlet specifically noted the word ‘night’. Was it perhaps to overly dramatize the danger or was it that the Police had already visited him one night. A few days later however, after meeting with a 21 year-old guy from Yerevan, I realized that their days are filled with anxiety.

The young man I refer to returns home from work and never leaves till the following morning. Home is a bare-bones 8 square meter cell-like room. The day of our visit even the electricity wasn’t working. His Armenian neighbors, a mother and her son from Yerevan, are the only comfort he has. Armenians from the ROA essentially reside in the Bayazit neighborhood, along the streets of Tiyatro, Gedikpasha and the narrow alleyways of Kumkapi, in the old city. It’s in this area where most of your shoe, clothing and leather plants are and also where the Armenian Patriarchate and the Armenian Protestant Sourp Hovahannes Church are located. The Armenian presence is palpable here everywhere you look. You even come across signs in the shop windows advertising telephone call rates to Armenia. Perhaps these Armenians congregated in the streets surrounding the Patriarchate out of some inner instinct. I can’t say. Or maybe it was some inner fear that drove them to seek out the Armenian Mother Church of Istanbul. Then too, it could be because the factories are here with their wholesale outlets and one can rent apartments here on the cheap. 

Gypsies and Kurds from the provinces live on these streets alongside Armenians. Outside the cheap hotels, that are a dime a dozen here, you’ll see young women plying the world’s oldest trade. There also an abundance of night clubs and discos with guys standing on the street outside inviting unsuspecting passers-by inside.

Police cars are constantly patrolling these streets. Also located here is the building housing the Police Department’s detention center for illegal aliens and related matters. From the bars on the windows you can see the shirts and underwear of the detainees hanging out to dry. From behind some of the barred windows you can even glimpse a face or two. Across the way from this imposing structure are rows upon rows of restaurants where live music can be heard along with the laughter of passing merry-makers. A ten minute walk from here and you’re looking upon the Sea of Marmara.

In essence, the majority of ROA Armenians live here illegally. After their 30 day visa is up they’re obliged to leave the country. “Yeah, we’re illegal. If they wanted to they could deport the lot of us. But they don’t. If we’re grabbed we slip them $10 or $20 and they let us go” says the 21 year-old from Yerevan who’s works as a jewelry maker. 
Hamlet says, “We left our country and wound up in this mess.” I knew he was saying this merely to justify his actions but I wouldn’t say anything to him about it. These Armenians, like those in Los Angeles, suffer from a certain complex. They all constantly try to justify the reasons why they are here. Hamlet mentions that he views Armenian H1 TV by satellite. I ask another Armenian if his kids go to school here in Turkey and she answers, “What school, there is no school. Let the kids work as well and bring home a few bucks. Better than doing nothing, right? There are many Armenian families from the ROA in Istanbul whose kids are being deprived of an education. Even if the parents want them to attend classes they can’t because Turkish law prohibits children of non-citizens from attending school.

Bolsahay Gayaneh says that, “Kumkapi is again being inhabited by Armenians, who would have known?” She was our guide while in Istanbul, showing us the Armenian neighborhoods of the city and the churches. At the turn of the last century Kumkapi was an Armenian populated neighborhood. Today, due to the influx of ROA Armenians, it is becoming so again.

Gayaneh tells us that, “Once, we were afraid to speak Armenian outside the house. We only spoke Turkish. One day I spotted two women in the tramway speaking Armenian out loud in front of all, without a care in the world. I realized then the sense of fear we grew up and lived with. Slowly but surely we too started to speak Armenian out in public.   I’m talking about my nervous generation, the remnants of those after the Genocide who somehow managed to remain Armenian here.”

After returning to Yerevan I remember how we always invariably walked down to the street where the Patriarchate was, where the Armenians lived. For the life of me I couldn’t understand why we walked along those streets, those Armenian-inhabited streets.

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