People in Turkey with non-Turkish names feel like ‘exotic animals in a zoo’

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Alin Ozinian

If you live in Turkey as part of a non-Muslim minority, your name will be the first thing that makes you visible to the majority. If you are Armenian, Jewish or Greek and don’t have a Turkish name, people will first ask, “Where are you from?”

Turkey still continues to recognize only three non-Muslim groups as minorities: Armenians, Rum Orthodox Christians (Greeks) and Jews. This means that other non-Muslim groups and ethnic minorities such as Alevis, Assyrians, Circassians, Kurds, Laz and Roma are not officially recognized, limiting the exercise of political and cultural rights by these groups.

Even minorities with official recognition are not adequately visible or represented in politics and daily life. On the other hand, they cannot exercise their rights fully since Turkey limits their rights to those guaranteed in the Lausanne Peace Treaty, signed in 1923.

For these reasons people who belong to the Turkish-Muslim majority mostly view minorities as “foreigners” in the country.

Turkish Minute spoke with Betsy Penso, an İstanbul Jew who works as a lawyer and asked what it was like to have a non-Turkish name in Turkey. Penso thinks a person with even a little knowledge can tell from her name that she’s a non-Muslim, and even though this doesn’t cause difficult situations, it brings a lot of anxiety for her.

“When your name is Betsy in Turkey, it means you should be well prepared to answer different kinds of questions at any moment. Turkish society generally gives traditional and modern Turkish names to their children. For this reason, it’s not common to have a ‘different’ name in Turkey. This society is also curious about others’ lives and can’t hide that curiosity. Therefore, you will face questions like ‘What does your name mean?’ ‘Where you are from?’ and ‘How do you speak Turkish so well?’” said Penso.

Most members of minorities are worried about the possible discrimination they could face after giving their name and the accompanying “confession” that they are not ethnic Turks.

“A minority person inevitably thinks about her or his name, especially when applying for a job or at a state institution. I don’t use my name when it isn’t necessary, like in taxis and at Starbucks because they will start to ask a million questions. But meanwhile, I’m a lawyer. When I enter a courtroom, neither the judge nor the clerk will ever understand my name when I say it. So I found a solution by giving my identity card instead of saying my name, a solution that works in state institutions, like notary’s offices an municipal offices. My Turkish Republic identity card or my lawyer’s identification card proves that I am an equal Turkish citizen. It is my way of saying, “I am not Turkish, but I’m an equal citizen, even if my name is different for you,” she said.

Sevan Değirmenciyan, an Istanbul-Armenian philologist, believes that even if people constantly ask the meaning of his name, it’s still nice to have a rare name in Turkey.

“Of course, over time, you realize that you have a special name, or more precisely, a name that’s different from the others. It‘s sometimes nice to be different, so I can say that I always carried my name with happiness and pride. Sometimes I have to repeat it when the other person can’t understand it, but I’m not complaining, and I never thought of using a fake name.”

Değirmenciyan’s name comes from Lake Sevan in Armenia, which is the largest lake in the Caucasus and one of the biggest high-mountain lakes in Eurasia, with several ancient Armenian churches lining its shores.

“When I say that my name is Armenian, they wonder what Sevan means, so I tell them about Lake Sevan in Armenia. Then they ask why I have an Armenian name. I guess they can’t even imagine that I can be Armenian. Actually, they know very little about Turkey’s minorities,” says Değirmenciyan.

Members of minorities with “odd names” find ways to solve the problem in their daily lives. Some people use false names in social settings to ease the situation. People most of the time feel tense because a conversation about their name and its ethnic origin can turn into a political discussion, and they can find themselves being held responsible for political decisions in other countries like Armenia, Israel and Greece.

Penso, who is also editor of Avlaremoz, an online platform that publishes news and opinion pieces on minorities in Turkey and Jews around the world, points out the difficulties of being a Jew in Turkey.

“In courthouses, I should be on good terms with state officials. It can make my job difficult if I say I’m a Jew when they ask my name’s origin. On the other hand, it is not a Jewish name or a Sephardic name but a completely Anglo-American one. So in some cases, I prefer to cloud the issue,” says Penso.

According to Axel Bertamini Çorluyan, a Levantine/Armenian academic born in İzmir, most families start to think about the “right and smooth” name for their child before birth because parents know very well that the name will cause trouble.

“My parents constantly grappled with questions such as ‘Will this child have trouble, will they make fun of him if we name him one of ‘our names?’ The paternal Armenian side of my family already had a habit of hiding their real names, starting from the 1915 Armenian genocide, to prevent possible problems, so the entire Armenian cultural heritage was suppressed on that side of the family,” Çorluyan told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.

Corluyan emphasized that after learning his ethnic identity people have both positive and negative responses but said that somehow the positive reactions are in fact not objectively positive.

“When they hear my name, there is usually a pause. Questions about the name usually come with questions about identity. Some of them react really positively, but not all these ‘positive’ responses are honest. Some of the modern, secular Turks feel good that they have a ‘foreigner’ among them, some are proud that they have a friend who is non-Muslim, modern and Western. Because of this attitude of some ‘progressive’ friends, I sometimes feel like an exotic animal in a zoo,” said Çorluyan.

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