Bezjian: On the Way to Baykoz

Special for The Armenia Weekly

I was in Istanbul recently as part of a Lebanese production team working on a mobile phone commercial for a third country. Normally this would have taken place in Lebanon, but the politically unstable conditions here are diverting work into Turkish coffers. Interestingly, I was booked in a hotel located only a hundred meters away from the Armenian Agos newspaper, whose founder, Hrant Dink, was assassinated on Jan. 19, 2007. While resting and waiting for time to pass, I recalled my first ever visit to Istanbul where, once again unknowingly, I had booked a hotel just a street away.

In 2009, I was back in the city to film Marc Nichanian for “Milk, Carnation & a Godly Song,” my film about Taniel Varoujan, the Armenia poet who was killed in the genocide.

I met Marc in the lobby and, sipping sugared tea, we discussed where to film and what to talk about. Bored in the dark and gloomy lobby, we stepped out for a stroll, and that’s when he pointed out the Agos office—and the sidewalk where a single bullet had knocked Hrant face down, killing him instantly.

“This is where he fell to his death,” Marc said in a choking cold whisper. I took that walk again, to the same spot as if a impromptu pilgrimage was drawing me there, with Marc’s voice ringing in my ears.

As agreed, Y arrived on time to drive me to the studio. I had no idea where was I being taken, but once I was in the back seat of the van, Y, like every driver I have ever met, wanted to entertain me with his redundant questions of where was I coming from, how long the flight had been, if this was my first time visiting the city, and similar questions in limited English and French taxi language. I convinced myself that this might be a good chance to improve what little I knew of the Turkish language.

We drove through the congested traffic and our conversation got longer, like the bridge over the Bosphorus heading into Asia. We had ample time to get into more personal questions, and talked while maintaining eye contact via his interior rear view mirror.

He asked how I knew Turkish. I said that I was Armenian, that my grandparents had been survivors of the genocide, and that they had left their homes behind in Aintab and Sivas. He said he was originally from Bingol. “Are you a Kurd then?” “Evet [Yes], Nigol Bey,” he nodded, with his black hair falling over his forehead and almost touching his eagle nose. I asked what sort of Kurdish he spoke, and he responded easily: Zaza. “Are you a Kurd or Alevi,” I inquired. “Alevi,” he said, with a smile. “And I am happy that you guessed!”

Then he told me a bit about his very large family and his life in Istanbul, and when I asked about the studio we were headed to, he nicely explained that we were going to Baykoz—to the abandoned industrial zone that someone had purchased and was using as an investment by renting out studios for low-budget productions. My studio, he said, was in a giant dilapidated building that used to be a factory for “ayakkapan…how say in English, you know, ayakkapan, yes?”

Ayakkapan,” I said, was the new word for shoes. (It used to be “kundura” in old Turkish, which I learned from my grandmother). “Evet evet,” he said, lighting a cigarette at a sharp curve just before getting off the bridge. “Simdi Asya’dayiz,” he said proudly, as we had just conquered the Asian continent. We drove through a forested area in the misty cold and sprinkling rain, surrounded by a dark gray sky and naked trees, as he continued his questions of who I was and what I did.

I told him I was a filmmaker, and that coincidently one of my films—titled “Kunduralarımı İstanbulda Bırakdım” (“I Left My Shoes in Istanbul”) had been shown in Istanbul. Had he heard about it? “No,” said Y. “I am sorry I have not, but is it based on a book? I read a lot.” I told him it was an original film, which I had written, and that there was no book I could refer him to. He nodded and went silent. Then lit another cigarette.

After a few minutes, he said, “Nigol Bey, may I ask a question? Does the film have anything to do with Hrant Dink?”

After a moment, I said, “but how did you add one onto the other, how did you make the connection?”

“It is impossible for me to forget the corpse of Hrant Dink, covered with a white sheet on the sidewalk, with the only visible thing the black rubber soles of his shoes and a bit of oozing red blood. That image has stayed in my mind so fresh until now, Nigol Bey. I see it everyday, all the time.”

I was astounded, and had no words to say. Just then, we arrived at the Baykoz Studios, where I had to spend hours in the cold to witness a production in chaos (to put it mildly), waiting for my turn to play the role of mad scientist.

Among the several drivers on hand was Y, and he was adamant to be my driver again. This time, silence prevailed, as he was tired after driving for 20 hours and had to concentrate on driving through the dense fog. By the time we arrived at the city’s center on Osmanbey, it was almost 3 a.m., and the streets were empty except for a few drunkards coming out of speak-easy pubs.

He whizzed by Agos and I jumped out of my silence, pointing to my right and righteously announcing, “That’s were Hrant was shot, Y Bey,” pointing to the sidewalk.

“Yes, that’s were it was,” he said. “Every time I drive by, I say, ‘May God give the criminals what they deserve,’” and he parked the van at the gate of the hotel.

And so it goes…

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Nigol Bezjian

Nigol Bezjian is a producer, director, and a graduate of UCLA film school and School of Visual Arts. His work has been based in Beirut, Lebanon for the past several years. His most recent film is "Broken Kisses, Postponed Kisses."
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14 Comments

  1. I have been reading Nigol’s writings and find in them the artist the he is. he is not only a film maker but a story teller as well.

    Thank you Nigol, vartsket gadar.

    Garo
    Irvine , CA

  2. “Are you a Kurd or Alevi?”… “Alevi”. Alevi has become a sort of ethno-religious term for us. We consider ourselves Alevi first, Turk, Kurd, etc., second. If you asked me the same question (even if you included a third option of ‘Turk’) I’d reply the same way. I think most Alevis would respond this way.

    • RVDV:

      You have written that you are an Alevi: God be with you.

      Q: Are you an Alevi first ?
      A Turk ?
      A Kurd ?

    • That’s interesting, but I guess it is similar to how the Ottoman empire was, one would be a Muslim first and foremost, everything else was secondary, and after religion that would be an Osmanli. So if the Kurds, Alevis or both ever want autonomy or independence does that mean they would not want to call it Kurdistan, but something else? What about Alevi-Turks and Alevi-Kurds, do they consider themselves pretty much the same culturally and nationality-wise?

    • Avery: I thought I had mentioned it before, maybe not, not sure. Anyway, the answer is Alevi. From the stories my grandparents told me, we were neither allowed in Turkish villages, nor the Kurdish ones, thus explaining why both sets of my grandparents’ villages growing up were high on hillsides, in barely arable land. It only got better in the 1950s for my father’s family, when the last of the Greeks were deported under the “population exchange” and they moved into the home of a Greek family- pretending to be “regular” Kurds. Often times, Kurds- who were supposed to be our own people- were worse or just as bad as Turks. At least Turks weren’t our ethnic kin. Growing up, I often heard sunni Kurds only referred to as “Shafi’is”, most Kurds being of the Shafi’i school of Islam. I feel no affinity towards Kurds at all.

      Hagop: As far as Alevi-Turks and Alevi-Kurds, it really makes no difference for the most part.. A large majority of Alevis are actually Turks, and many of them claim that Alevis are the “true” Turks, as we are not Arabized, in a religious sense, like the Sunnis. It’s a complicated topic. Some Kurdish Alevis do support the PKK and Kurdish independence movement, but it is a very divisive topic- we see ourselves as Alevis above all for the most part. So as far as autonomy, no that’s more of a Kurdish thing. Alevis live, traditionally, in central and east-central Turkey, not in the southeast. Also, Alevis are notoriously poorly-organized, much more assimilated into mainstream society, etc., so I don’t see autonomy for Alevis happening.

  3. Interesting that both characters, who would not describe themselves as Turkish even if it was the nth choice on a list, communicate in Turkish and make a living in a Turkish city in Turkey. It was a similiar love and obsession with ethnic/religious identity that killed Hrant and continues to spread violence and misery in the region. Could not help noticing the irony. Yes, Istanbul can be a gray and sad place during winter, as Pamuk has described elegantly in his various novels.

  4. Very nice article & good story teller as always
    By the way I left comment after your poem dedicated to your Mom
    but I don’t think it went through
    I remember her hospitality full of smiles when the crew of “cycle Carmen”
    slept in the living room
    Looyseroo metch mena

  5. I will never go to turkey where my grandfather and uncle disapered from the face of the world . Where my Father was A genderma taken from Jerusalem to serve in the Turkish army from 1911 to 1917 when he was taken to be killed with few dozens of armenians who were serving the army . Fortunately my father took a chance and escaped. I fear you keep going to turkey is dangerous . The more they are educated the more dangerous they become . Their are good ones also. My father witnessed the massacre as a soldier , and burried armenians along the road before a German convoy arrived.

  6. RVDV
    I used to live for a long time in a neighbourhood in Istanbul where the Alevi people dominated the neighbourhood. I think that they are much happier compare to the past decades as they can practice their religious belief openly and they are well represented in the low level government posts and the Army. They can now built Cemevi as they like.The main problem is the Sunni majority still look down these people’s belief and expect them to be happy with what they have. I do not think that they have been assimilated as they are much more organised compare to the past.I do really support the Alevi rights as I feel that one part of my brain is Alevi

    • The situation has certainly gotten better I agree. While we can build Cemevi, why are they still not recognized as a religious institution? These are issues we still need to address. The problem in Turkey is that no one respects each other, period. Not their beliefs, political ideology, their position on the Armenian issue, and even soccer teams (remember the Fener fan who was stabbed in the heart after Galatasaray won the league)? Everyone who is deemed an “other” no matter the basis, is deemed untrustworthy, an enemy of the state. There are enough people out there that take joy in our disunity and dysfunction, we need to work together based on our similarities, not let our differences divide us. For that, we need 2 things. 1- to face our history in a truthful matter. Get it all out there. It’s the only way we can ever move. We HAVE to do it. Second- we need a democratic society where this can be achieved and where we can have actual peace. We have gone from being a so-called Muslim success story with regard to democracy to being labeled a hybrid regime. We’re being talked about as just another Muslim country now. We can be better than them, we ARE better than they are, our only enemy is ourselves. My two cents on the issue.

      Also, I take it your a liberal then? Not many conservative Turks would associate with Alevis.

  7. Alevis are very marginal Muslims, to say the least and today count many, many who have Armenian ancestors among them, as it was an easy segue to a new and safer identity post 1915…no mosque, no Ramadan, few restrictions. A DNA study would reveal the degree of cultural and ethnic cross fertilization, which is probably very high.

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