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From Eliza to Zehra: A ‘Hidden Armenian’ Superstar in Turkey

Special for the Armenian Weekly

On March 26, 1913, an Armenian girl named Eliza was born in Arapgir, a town in Elazig (Kharpert), which is now part of Malatya province in eastern Turkey.

Eliza was incredibly talented. She sang Turkish folk songs of all regions of Anatolia and became the first professional female folk singer in Turkey.

On March 26, 1913, an Armenian girl named Eliza was born in Arapgir, a town in Elazig (Kharpert), which is now part of Malatya province in eastern Turkey.

She was also an operetta dancer, a collector of folk songs and a teacher. She worked as an associate professor in the Folk Song Department of the State Conservatory of Istanbul University during the 1990’s. She was called “the mother of Turkish folk songs” (“Turku ana” in Turkish). According to the website of the “Women’s Museum Istanbul,” Eliza’s father’s name was Harutyun.

Sadly, she never publicly embraced her Armenian roots during her career. Turks thought she was Turkish because she used a Turkish name: Zehra Bilir. In 1985, the street in Arapgir where the house she was born is situated, was named “Zehra Bilir.” She passed away at a nursing home on June 28, 2007, in Istanbul.

Today her Armenian identity is no secret. Many sources on the internet state that her original last name was Surhantakyan. But the journalist Bercuhi Berberyan, who used to be close childhood friends with Eliza, wrote in her column in the newspaper Agos last year, that Eliza’s last name was actually Olcuyan:

“Zehra Bilir got her name through marriage… The moment one writes her name on the internet, one sees she is of the Armenian descent. And she is referred to as Eliza Surhantakyan everywhere. I don’t know who determined that, and when and how, but her last name was somehow decided to be Surhantakyan… But it is completely wrong. The real name of Zehra Bilir was Eliza Olcuyan.”

Berberyan explained that she had received an e-mail from Ali Berker Bilir, who introduced himself as the grandson of Zehra Bilir. Berberyan then met Ali in person, who told her that he had no idea where the last name “Surhantakyan” emerged from. “Ali had insistently applied to some places which referred to Eliza with that wrong last name but they responded to him saying ‘This is her actual last name’. How can others know the last name of his grandmother better than Ali does? Ali also sent me a photo of the grave stone of Eliza’s mother, Agavni Olcuyan, where Eliza’s brother Garabet is also resting… Let’s see how the endeavor by Ali who decidedly took on to make the name and legacy of his grandmother live on will end up,” Berberyan wrote.

The journalist Ali Can Sekmec wrote that many of Eliza’s relatives perished during the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

“Eliza’s father Harutyun was a soldier serving in the military during World War I. At what front he fought was never known, and he never returned home. Arapgir–like the entire region–was in chaos during the days of the 1915 tragedy. Many relatives of Eliza, who was just a baby in her mother’s arms back then, were on the deportation lists. Eliza’s mother was desperate. She had a son and three daughters who were very young. She was overwhelmed with fear of being added to the deportees, whose ultimate fate was not known and she did not know what to do.  She was a young widow. She eventually accepted the marriage proposal of a Turk from Arapgir and decided to start a new life so that she would escape the nightmare of Armenians of Arapgir: deportation. Maybe her relatives and friends would find her marriage with a Turk odd but she made the sacrifice for her children,” Sekmec wrote.

The Turkish newspaper Sabah conducted an interview with Bilir in 2002. When she was asked to talk about her roots, she said:

“I am originally from Elazig. I don’t remember my father. He was an Armenian. He enrolled in the military and joined World War I when I was one-and-a-half years old. They never heard from him again. He was either shot or died! I know my Turkish father. My name at the registration office was Armenian but I am Turkish and a Muslim.”

When the Sabah reporter asked her what her real name was, she responded:

“It is not necessary. I won’t tell my real name. I am an Armenian convert. But as I said, I do not know my real father.” She added that she was named “Zehra” by a Muslim mufti when she was about to marry a Turk at age 22. And she received her last name “Bilir” from her husband.

In 2007, the journalist Rober Koptas, the former editor-in-chief of Agos, gave a very different explanation on Eliza’s life:

“She received music lessons from the Armenian musician Artaki Candan-Terziyan… She whispered her real name to the Armenian artists and intellectuals she knew in Istanbul but she never made it public. Her first records were produced by a music company owned by Vahram Gesaryan. She got an Armenian painter in Istanbul to make a beautiful painting of her. She was featured several times in Konuk magazine, published by Hagop Ayvaz. Few people knew her real identity, but did not express it publicly… to not put her in a difficult situation.”

Eliza was not the only Armenian artist who hid her Armenian identity from the Turkish public throughout her career. Many famous Armenian actors and musicians in Turkey did the same thing–due to their fear of losing their Turkish fans, careers or even their lives. One was Sami Hazinses (1925-2002), a well-known actor, composer and songwriter. His real name was Samuel Agop Ulucyan, but he never used it.

In one of his rare interviews in 1994–conducted by Yelda Ozcan, a prominent human rights activist and journalist–he was asked about his real ethnic identity. The conversation started bitterly, as Ulucyan did not want to speak about his Armenian origins.

“You don’t want to speak about being an Armenian?,” Ozcan asked.

“Never!” Ulucyan said.

“So you don’t want your Armenian identity to be known?”

“Who told you I am an Armenian?”

When the interviewer insisted, Ulucyan accepted his Armenian origins, saying: “The love they [the Turks] have for me would go away. That’s why I don’t want [my ethnic roots to be known]. Don’t write these things now. First let me die. After I die, you can write them. For now, forget about it.”

Ozcan published the interview in 2003, a year after Ulucyan died. His burial ceremony was held in the Kadikoy Surp Takavor Church. His remains rest in the Hasanpasa Armenian Cemetery in Istanbul.

It was undoubtedly Armenophobia or Armenian-hatred in Turkey that kept Eliza and Samuel from fully embracing their Armenian identity publicly. In Turkey, even the word “Armenian” is used as a swear word by many people – including government and military authorities. Even 102 years after the genocide, Turkey’s small Armenian community of about 60,000 people are often exposed to psychical and verbal attacks.

The Armenian Genocide in Turkey was not only about the slaughter of Armenians in their native lands during WWI. The genocide also aimed to destroy the identity and spirit of the Armenian people, not only during the war, but also during “times of peace”—for decades since the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

7 Comments on From Eliza to Zehra: A ‘Hidden Armenian’ Superstar in Turkey

  1. avatar Diane Kupelian // March 30, 2017 at 11:28 am // Reply

    This beautiful, painful, and very poignant article should be widely read. How many famous, brilliant Turks are really Armenian?

  2. avatar Rosa Poladian // March 30, 2017 at 2:12 pm // Reply

    Great article. Tried to share on facebook but message app is not set up.

  3. Claim not just the famous and the loved. Turks and Armenians are mixed together. To paraphrase Hrant Dink, one cannot heal without the other. All those lives are valuable.

  4. avatar Zaruhi Postanjyan // March 31, 2017 at 3:24 am // Reply

    Շնորհակալ եմ ճակատագրից, որ իմ պապերը ընտրել էին Հայաստանը` Նոր Արաբկիրը:
    Զեյրա Բիլիր (Էլիզ Փոստանջյան-Սուրհանդակյան).
    Այս պատմությունն այն արաբկիրցիներից մեկի մասին է, ով չէր ընտրել Նոր Արաբկիրը: Ինչպես Ցեղասպանությունից հետո բազմահազար այլ արաբկիրցիներ, սփռվելով աշխարհի տարբեր երկրներում, ապրեցին և արարեցին այդ երկրների համար: Այդպիսիներից մեկն էլ իմ հայրիկիս հորեղբոր ընտանիքն էր: Նրա աղջիկը` Էլիզ Փոստանջյանը, ով հետագայում դարձավ Զեյրա Բիլիր հանրահռչակ երգչուհի, հանդիպեց իր եղբորը` պապիկիս` Մինասին բաժանումից գրեթե կես դար անց, Ստամբուլում: Այդ մասին պատմության ականատեսը հորաքույրս էր` Լուիզա Փոստանջյանը.
    1973 թվականին պապիկս` Մինաս Փոստանջյանը և հորաքույրս` Լուիզա Փոստանջյանը գնում են Ստամբուլ (Կ. Պոլիս): Այսպես պատմում է հորաքույրս. «Երբ հասնում են Ստամբուլ, Զեյրան շատ ջերմ է ընդունում հորս` ներկայացնելով տարբեր հանրահայտ մարդկանց և ընդգծելով, թե եղբայրս է ու Հայաստանից է եկել: Թուրքիայի հանրային կյանքում փառքի և գնահատանքի արժանացած հայուհին պատմում է, թե ինչեր է արել, ասում էր, որ`Մինասի՛կս, ասոնց համար (այսինքն` թուրքերի համար) շատ բան ըրել եմ, ժողովրդական երգեր եմ մշակել, մասնակցել եմ Թուրքիայի ռադիոյի ժողովրդական գործիքների անսամբլի ստեղծմանը… Թվում էր, թե հայրս պետք է ուրախանար, բայց հայրս տխրեց և ասաց`ափսոս»: Պապիկիս` Մինասի տխրությունը մեծ էր, քանի որ ընդհատված հայկական քաղաքաքրթությունը օտարված էր մեզանից: Շնորհակալ եմ ճակատագրից, որ իմ պապերը ընտրել էին Հայաստանը` Նոր Արաբկիրը:

  5. Such a lump in my throat after reading this. Feeling sad for all that was lost, but also grateful for courageous Turkish writers like this author.

  6. avatar Rouzanna Manoukian // March 31, 2017 at 9:02 pm // Reply

    ❤THANK YOU !!!

  7. avatar Kamil Yemez // May 23, 2017 at 4:36 pm // Reply

    Well, but Armenian- Turkish actor Nubar Terziyan used his real name, we Turks all knew that he is Armenian and we loved him. He is one of my favorite actors in retro Turkish movies. He acted in a good characters always.

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