The Armenian Istanbul

Maria Titizian


“Hüzün does not just paralyze the inhabitants of Istanbul, it also gives them poetic license to be paralyzed.”
― Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City

When my Marashtsi grandmother moved to Canada, I was 12 years old. I had only seen pictures of her. She was the typical Armenian grandmother of her generation, the survivor generation…plump, dressed in dark clothes, long, willowy white hair tied in a bun, round face, full lips and tired eyes. When she finally landed in Toronto, I thought my life would be complete. I had felt the absence of grandparents in my life and I was ready to embrace her wholly.

The first words that came out of her mouth were Turkish and although I had heard enough Turkish at home when my parents wanted to discuss something privately, the Turkish that flowed from her mouth had a slightly different feeling to it.

My preconceived image of a grandmother – loving, giving, caressing – were quickly replaced by a distant woman who just looked sad all the time.

She lived for two years with us and then passed away. She was 62 years old. She looked 80. I remember my mother weeping over the loss of her mother and becoming distant herself for a time.

It was only years later that we learned about the demons that haunted my grandmother, a survivor from Marash who married an orphan from Urfa. She always seemed dejected, always wallowing in some kind of melancholy or yearning, or sadness. I never got to know the colors of her soul. It’s hard to say but it was in that state of melancholy where she seemed to be most comfortable and most contented. I don’t remember her laughing, ever.

I don’t think about her very much. She remains a distant memory. The rare times I do remember her is when I hear Turkish.

I was moved to remember her countless times for a few days last month when I went to Istanbul for the first time. Everywhere I went, the Turkish words I associated with my Marashtsi grandmother seemed to float to the surface of my consciousness. Çocuk, oğlan, kız, ben bilmiyorum and so many other words I had heard in the quiet, endless conversations she would have with my mother.

And it confused me. It was at once familiar and strange, it felt like home yet it wasn’t supposed to be, I needed to hate it but I couldn’t. Conflicting emotions were battling one another causing me to lose my balance. Poise and equilibrium were shattered as the colors, sights and smells of Istanbul, the dishes I had eaten and prepared my whole life, the smell of brewing coffee, the roasting chestnuts sold in carts around the city transformed themselves and became crude images from different periods of my life sketched by a quivering hand on pieces of scrap paper.

As I walked along narrow streets and wide boulevards, as I entered musty old buildings with circular staircases steeped in history or met people I didn’t think I would meet or who even should have existed, those scraps of paper were swirling about, each one narrating a long-forgotten story from my life. I was moved to tears as I am wont to do, I was falling down rabbit holes, I was climbing mountains, I was lost in the labyrinth of history and memory and imagined existence.

As I walked along those narrow streets and wide boulevards of Istanbul, I was in the shadow of my Marashtsi grandmother’s suffering. It was the language that had floated from her mouth the first time I heard her that was engulfing me and guiding me.

There is a lot that can be said about Istanbul if you are Turkish or a tourist or a businessperson. I am still not sure what to say about Istanbul as a Western Armenian who can trace her roots to Marash and Urfa and Musa Ler. It is the East and the West, it is the Orient, it is the new and the old, it is Bourj Hamoud and Paris, it is Muslim and secular, it is Armenian churches tucked away behind heavy wooden doors in a fish market or out in plain view alongside soaring mosques, it is huge with so many small compartments of living all rolled into one inexplicable metropolis.

You meet the Armenians of Istanbul, you hear their lyrical Western Armenian, you listen to their stories and witness their struggles, you confront their reality and you suddenly realize that you don’t know anything at all about them. And you are ashamed at your ignorance while you are humbled by their tenacity, their drive to protect the remaining traces of an Armenian legacy that stretches back for centuries. You don’t know what to do with all this information that has taken up dwelling in your brain. You don’t know how to process it, so you begin to take it apart, piece by piece and you start telling stories.


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  1. Francois Antounian said:

    After I read your piece, I could remember my marashtsi grandmother with her white willowy hair in a bun, eternally in black clothes and constantly melancholic. How she managed, after seeing her daughters slayed, to dole out so much love, I still wonder. I hope your story telling will unravel more to us all how to process the realities of the remaining Armenians in Istanbul and beyond. Great start Maria, these stories should not remain hidden, do not stop.

  2. Sis said:

    Dear Maria,it seems you have more thoughts and impressions to tell us. Please write more about this place and share your deep feelings with us. Maybe you’ll be able to process them by telling and sharing more.

  3. Garo Setrakian said:

    Dear Maria
    Your writing skills and story telling is progressing fast to the point of being “OUTSTANDING”. Are you considering writing a book of short stories?. I think that may be a great success.
    I was also amazed at your grandmother being from Marash. Now I can tell some marashtsi characteristics in your writings. That of honesty, truthfulness, to the point of being ” simple” sometimes, “tell it as it is” positions, generosity and welcoming, guest loving, and so on.
    As to your grandmother, the poor woman I imagine was suffering from chronic depression, like most of her contemporaries. Exogenous depression due to grief and loss, very sad childhood. I bet frequently she said Asdvatz Im, although you say she mostly spoke Turkish. God bless her soul, as she brought into this world a great granddaughter, Maria.

    Sincerely, Garo

  4. Random Armenian said:

    Thank you for this story.

    One thing Turkey has accomplished for sure is to deny long enough such that they did not have to face the survivors.

  5. John the turk said:

    The Armenians can become an important fabric of Turkey but it seems unlikely to happen this as they are going in the wrong direction.

    • Random Armenian said:

      Armenians were an important fabric of the Ottoman Empire, until the Young Turks decided to destroy the Armenian component I mean seriously, can you be any more insulting, patronizing and condescending to a group of people who experienced cataclysmic destruction? After reading your comments on the net, the answer unfortunately is ‘yes’.

    • Arn.Sweden. said:

      Turkish Ignorant Arrogant Haughtiness as always eh ?

      John the Turk will in a short period of time se the destruction of Turkey,
      as Her sins will come for revenge.


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  7. Andranik Carapetian said:

    Dear Maria,

    My family are Eastern not Western Armenian but that just means different pogroms at different times. Turkey is a common problem for all of us (and our Greek friends as well). But Istanbul is unique. It runs by different rules it. Read Elif Shafak’s “Bastard of Istanbul” it helped me reconcile things in my head, about that city at least. It’s just the rest of the country I have to come to terms with now. How about you?

  8. Jda said:

    My Marashtze grandmother left as a child to escape the Hamidian massacres. She too was sober and reserved. She never quite got the hang of America, although she arrived as a teen, and traded the life of a wealthy family’s only daughter for that of a factory worker. Her father preceded her here and fought in the Spanish American war. She often asserted that many Marashtze children were adopted by Germans, perhaps because Marash had a German Hospital, I believe.

  9. Harry Kaladjian said:

    We all have heard those stories; that is what links us. Out of curiosity, why Istanbul? The Turkish Government has detailed property records of Armenian property in Marash. Have you traveled there?

  10. Harry Sirounian said:

    Very penetrating ,Maria. Keep it up. Recalling a episode,that occurred at a function in my house, my mother a 95 yr genocide survivor ,was introduced to recent Istanbul immigrant. The lady began speaking in Turkish, to which my mother responded in loud broken English so that everyone heard “This is an Armenian house, speak Armenian or English, no Turkish”.

  11. Viken Sarkissian said:

    You brought back memories of ancient times , my grandmother ,who used to sell candels in Aleppo St.
    Krikor Lousavoritch church , spoke Armenian very well but somhow at home it was easier for her to
    convers in Turkish, and just as you mentioned , she did that withe my mother, but you know I picked
    the langouge from them and today I do speake some and understand well.
    Dear Maria very simple and down to earth article.
    (My gm. was from Aintab,God bless her soul)

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  14. gaytzag palandjian said:

    I am only very much taken aback,surprized and even shcoked…no,not for the marashtsi Ler ci nostalgic counts-narrated by Maria or others-but the NOSTALGIA SOME ISTANBULLA PEOPLE feel for that G-D-. city.Been there for 3 days and then drove on to Erzeroum..etc.,
    First impression was and is,,when at Taksim sq. Hotel ,think it was Divan the info desk signing in the bell hop all of a sudden at top of hios DAMNED VOICS SHOUTS-CALLING HIS COLLEAGUE. APILLA!!!!…to come FWD and hlep him.This uncouth manner made me think of the GAZAN-within the body of this filthy turk!!! in a so called western style Hotel ,the supervios 8nearby9 or did not mind , as his educationb ,no education wrong word ETHICS not very different from this Guy…
    Rest of journy(driving in French new car with latin Trip tic …going through small towns , kids would throw stones at us.Then next railway station put the car on trains and went as far as Erzeroum in train.thereon with a Minmbashi , accompaning us to Iran frontier…8early morning in erseroum , waiter comes and knocks on the door..I got a bit annoyed, thinking after he said.Theya re waiting for you in hall the kaimakam( MAYOR?)…DOUBTING MY LAST NAME THEY COULD FIND OUT MY DAD AND G.PA LIVED THERE WERE FROM THERE AND G.PA AND UNCLE PUT PON DEATH MARCH…MAYBE THEY HAD DUG INTO IT AND WOULD GIVE ME …HELL…no such thing offered me cigarette and gave a map of Toiky, asking if the Mimbashi could accompany us up to near the border.I consented.But when Out we went the colonel or whatever was alread BAZMEL AT BACK SEAT OF OUR CAR..somehow I drove through heavy snow ,lucky had chains for tires,which me and persian kid who also asked us to take him to Tabriz…put these on when on a hilltop car beginning to slip this that way..I should Efendi Chkhen(my iranian Turkish they understood quite well…I shall never wish to go to that country even if they offer me a Baklava and toikish delights…
    Mine is A R M E N I A !!! let the istabullahayes GO BACK THERE.dON´T BE SURPRISED SOME DO FROM Europe and U.s. they feel as though that is their MOTHERLAND!!!! HELL WITH THIS KIND!!!!

  15. ovsanna said:

    My grandmother was a Marashtci also. She was one of the six children, who had been raised up by her uncle. She born in Marash,but grow up in Kahiro Egypt. She was one of the victoms of Armenian Genocide. Her full name was Ovsanna Dolabjian, one of the siblings of world famous doctors, Dolabjian family. I do remember she always use to cry for being saperated from her family forever, and not having a chance to meet with her brothers and sisters.

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