Last week I applied to Harvard University. I wrote several essays. I took a myriad of standardized tests and wrote two research papers. I was exhausted. So, I decided to take a long walk, because I was on the verge of a fifth breakdown this week. I put my headphones on and began walking in Sisli, Istanbul, a place harmonized with Anatolian culture. My neighborhood reflected the real side of life without any shame. No big money talks. No fancy cars. Bustling local kebab restaurants, women selling flowers on the ground, smelly pavements, working class with tired laughter on their faces…observing my people and my neighborhood is one of my favorite things to do.
My walk led me to Taksim: the heart of Istanbul that has seen bomb attacks, LGBTQ protests, civil rights movements and many distinct people. After 40 minutes, I started feeling refreshed as my nose grew numb in the cold. On my way back, just when I passed the Italian pizza restaurant at the corner next to the Taksim Pharmacy, I noticed a young man ducked at the side of the pavement, eating lettuce from a black plastic bag on the ground. He had this look in his eyes that made you feel the shivering fright of survival. He was cold and in a way ashamed. It was not the first time I saw this tableau in Istanbul, but this one made me feel the innocence. This time I felt his fright in my chest. I couldn’t believe how everyone was going on with their lives, talking on the phone to their wives, laughing with their friends as if everything but them was invisible. They were indifferent to the world, to the real world. At that moment, I personally realized that it actually did not matter who fought who. Ones who got damaged were always the ones on the sidelines: the man who ate off the ground and scraped his way to survival, the young boy who used to be my classmate and was now fighting at the Armenian border, his mother…
Sometimes it feels as though every system in this world is constructed in a way that omits people who fight for a greater cause, who serve a system, who constitute a bigger body; they all lead individual lives. Yet we see more authorities, neighbors, civilians hardening against each other. The polarization and the fragmentation are everywhere. Today, I am more afraid of the people next door than the government. We put up borders between ourselves and groups that we feel polarized against due to the mind games of some nationalistic and political gains. Until what point will we play three monkeys, covering our eyes, our ears and our mouth to the real world? A relative recently told me, “But we have policemen around every Armenian association in Istanbul. We are safe.” Yes, we are physically being protected during this time, and I appreciate that. But doesn’t something about that sentence sound wrong about societal groups? Doesn’t it hurt too much to stay on the sidelines and trust those we see on TV? In a sense, I was mad at myself too. I was trying to bring change to my community, but for a brief second somewhere in between tests, school, internships, I forgot to look around. I acted like the monkey covering its ears when I was dining in the kitchen listening to news that was who knows what percent true. No matter how tight I squeezed my hands on my ears, I still felt the polarizing double standards. I didn’t want to hear anything about the Artsakh War on TV. I didn’t want to see horrific videos of harassment and violence on my Instagram feed. I didn’t want people to look at me as if I am not a part of this country anymore. But most of all, I didn’t want to hear about the glorified victories of our fallen Armenian soldiers because perhaps one of them was my friend.
This time I am asking you to get out. Feel the real world. Feel the real experiences. If you cannot get out physically because of the pandemic, connect via an online platform and be a part of someone’s journey. Observe the people and the circumstances around you. See the reality between the lines. Educate yourself with the truth of other people. I want you to feel the reality of our current circumstances in your chest with the crushing weight. When I saw that young man on the ground, looking into my eyes, he became a part of my story, and I hope I became part of his when I offered him a warm meal. This time I want you to become other people for a brief second for the real sake of solitude. Only then, we rise for each other: when we feel for each other.