Monday, May 16, 2011

‘Little İstanbul’ in Los Angeles

It was, in a way, a surreal suggestion. “Do you want to see how İstanbul lives in LA?” asked my friend. “Just follow me.”

Under optimistic March sunshine and blue skies, we took a pleasant, smooth car ride all the way into downtown Los Angeles. When we reached Hill and 7th, we felt we were there. “Welcome to the Grand Bazaar of the West Coast,” said my friend, a second-generation Armenian of İstanbul. Sooner than I realized, I was to meet his 84-year-old father and others.

Here they have been, all spread out in jewelry boutiques, sharing various counters, all with people from “Bolso” -- as they call İstanbul. Here are all the old guys from the old town, from the districts of Kumkapı, Kadırga, Samatya and Kurtuluş. Dressed just as they used to, they gather in the grand streets of downtown L.A. to meet each other and to greet visitors. We are invited to an old alley called “Eli,” which means “passage,” where they meet regularly to talk and remember the good old days in İstanbul, its life and its great football clubs. They are the victims of nostalgia. “We are like salt on the earth,” one of them says. The analogy is clear. The Armenians are everywhere on the globe, as if somebody spread them here and there, just like grains of salt.

I am greeted with exaggerated friendliness. The fact that I am a newcomer from İstanbul is enough. There he is, the man whom everybody calls “Uncle Garbis.” He is 84 years old, looking half as young, telling me stories of his days as a tough guy in the Old Town (of İstanbul) and how many times he waved joyfully at Atatürk and even kissed his hand, as he passed by his car in Kumkapı. I am conscious of a conversation with a genuine İstanbulite, in the midst of Los Angeles, miles and hours away.

Here they are, the Anatolian Armenians, “castaways” on the West Coast. “Here we are,” says one of them, “Sentenced to life imprisonment.” Here, in one of the most pleasant climates on the earth, they do not conceal that they feel misplaced. They miss their real hometown. They are with their families, in another city, generous and comfortable, but their minds are elsewhere. Distraction is their fate.

Most of them had to leave a turbulent and hostile Turkey in the early ‘70s. It was a time of deep political divide that left little room for Armenians. They joined their kin, who had been living there since the early 20th century, and found a home in a place with a climate that resembled the Mediterranean.

There are around 800,000 Armenians living in California, mainly in the Los Angeles area. The majority come from Anatolia and İstanbul, with which they still keep contact, probably because the love for the homeland is too strong despite the fact that the memory is haunted by the painful sequence of events.

They remain Anatolians. They expect their broken hearts be met with love and care. The only healing will be through some steps for closure -- a tough task.

When I flew the first direct route of Turkish Airlines (THY) between İstanbul and Los Angeles the other day, I felt puzzled. A part of me felt cold, indifferent; the other part was joyful because the route was reconnecting a broken line of history, offering a new opening.

THY will fly the route four days a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday). Its management hopes that the large Armenian diaspora (with 800,000 people) -- and the Iranian one with more or less the equal number -- will be encouraged to visit. It is a positive step, particularly for the aim of “normalizing” Turkish-Armenian relations. It is important that the Armenians of Anatolia are helped to “heal” their broken hearts, as they are encouraged to (re)visit İstanbul.

Most of them will feel attracted to it, since they fly to Yerevan. It is most welcome, since there already are direct flights between İstanbul and Yerevan, but it should be much more reasonable for THY to establish regular flights even along that route. This could be a new, small, but important step along the path of normalization, which can only take place if the people encounter each other spontaneously.

I felt that the Anatolian Armenians welcomed direct flights, and I hope that it can open a direct flight to reconciliation.

07 March 2011

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