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Vahe Sarukhanyan

Istanbul Diary: The “Old” City’s “New” Armenians (video)

During the past few days, I have discovered a new Istanbul. It’s not the modern district of Beyoglu or the tourist-traversed pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal leading to Taksim Square.

It even isn’t the “old city” with its Byzantine and Ottoman period relics and monuments. What I have discovered is the Istanbul of Armenians; more correctly the city experienced by Armenians from the Republic of Armenia.

It’s the southern stretch of what is described in the tourist maps as the “old city”. But these neighbourhoods – Kum Kapi, Yenikapi, Gedik Pasha, and Beyazit – are given short shrift in the tourist brochures.

The Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate is located here along with other Armenian and Greek churches.

We take the tramway to the Beyazit station and get off, slowly descending the cobblestone streets that wind their way down to GedikPasha and the Sea of Marmara in the distance.

A woman approaches from the other direction. She’s a typical Armenian from the RA – her face, gait, gaze... dyed hair. A second woman approaches. “Luso jan, hello, how are you, how’s your girl...” is the conversation we hear as we pass by.

 As we make our way down the narrow streets, the foul smell of garbage piercing our nostrils, we hear the locals conversing in Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian.  Kids are playing in the streets, men are pushing carts full of goods back and forth, owners of vegetable and fruit stalls are hawking their wares at prices four times less than you’ll find back in Istiklal. In a word, these are neighbourhoods where people eke out a living somehow and where life is out in the open; warts and all.

It might be a scene taken from one of Hagop Baronian’s Istanbul travels except for the new cars and satellite dishes.

But the one thing that has changed, and in a big way, is that today you hear eastern Armenian on the streets of KumKapi and adjacent neighbourhoods.

I say to myself – so what? People are speaking their mother tongue. But to hear the Yerevan, Lori and Gyumri dialects here in Istanbul...What the hell happened? Why?

The open Street Market in KumKapi takes place every Thursday. It’s a good place to check out if you want to get an idea who lives in the area. For readers back in Armenia, just imagine a giant ‘Ferdus” market that also sells agricultural produce. You’ll find some local resident Armenians here as well. They’re all from Armenia. They still retain RA citizenship but have winded up here, whether legally or by “bending” the rules, living and working alongside Turks and Kurds. The Armenians have learnt enough Turkish to get by and the Turks in the market have picked up a few Armenian words.

The old houses that line the narrow streets look the same. Most are in need of repair and the wash is hanging outside. The sidewalks are a noisy jumble of kids, pushcarts and people.

Thus, it’s hard to point to the Armenian houses. All you have to do to locate an Armenian is walk down one of streets and pay attention to the faces of the passersby. Raising your voice a bit when you’re talking Armenian wouldn’t hurt. You’ll elicit a reaction if there are other Armenians around.

This is another world and these aren’t your traditional “Bolsahay’s”. These are “Stambulahay’s” that have practically no contact with Armenians born in Bolis or who have come here from other Turkish towns and villages.

You can safely say that most “Bolsahay’s” live comfortable lives – they have a home, a job and Turkish citizenship.

I liken the “Stambulahay’s” to the Armenian traders and merchants of old who set out for Russia, India and other virgin lands farther still. They are like the average Armenians who left the homeland for the factories in America and France during the 19th and early 20th century, in search of a better life. Many pulled themselves up from the factory floor and went on to manage factories of their own.

Many of these new Armenians in Istanbul have passport problems. None have the legal right to work, but in order to survive they find a way.