by Matthew Chovanec
While working on edits for the translation of ‘Gavur Mahallesi’ by Mıgırdiç Margosyan, I received feedback for each of the four different languages used in the book of short stories. Over lunch, an Armenian staff writer at a New York magazine told me that it would be better to translate ‘Agavni’ as dove instead of pigeon for the name of Kejo’s 7th daugher. A Turkish musicologist explained how the streams flow in front of Diyarbakir’s ramparts, and helped me translate some of the stranger folk ballads quoted in the book like: “I jumped over the murky waters, I tied on the Mantin belt…” A Kurdish friend taught me how to count to ten in Kurmanji, and explained the word puns I didn’t get. My Texas friends would let me know when the English sounded funny.
I felt a little bit like Margosyan as he described himself in his youth in his memoir: surrounded by different languages.
While on your way, you keep running into people you know: an acquaintance, a friend, a relative, any number of people. You greet some of them in Armenian with “pariluys” and others in Arabic with “as-Sallam alay-kum.” Then in the evening, covered in a mixture of lime, mortar, and calcimine, you walk home again carrying enormous watermelons underneath your arms, saying “parirgun” in Armenian to some and “iyi akshamlar” to others in Turkish, and still to others saying “evarete gher” in Kurdish.
All of which was fitting considering the book itself, filled as it is with conversations and miscommunications, shouting and joking, ballads and idioms, all in the different languages once spoken the southern Turkish city of Diyarbakir. During the Ottoman Empire, the city was home to Armenians, Kurds, Syriacs, Arabs, and Turks. The city still retained its multicultural character even after the dissolution of the empire, the Armenian genocide, and population transfers. In Margosyan’s childhood, the city was home to a kind of cosmopolitanism usually reserved for much larger cities, with Kurds, Turks, and Armenians living side-by-side in dense neighborhoods in the walled-in central city. In the opening story of Gavur Mahallesi, the church caretaker and the imam at the nearby mosque interrupt one another’s call to prayer.
Uso’s unceasing church bell ringing made the Muezzin from the nearby Sheikh Matar Mosque lament “God give me patience” as he remembered his duty and went to call out for prayer from atop the historical four-footed minaret.
“Allahu ekber, Allahu ekber!..”
In the story Hacho, Margosyan learns how to sell products to Kurdish customers at his uncle’s blacksmith shop.
“Were ghalo, beje chi dughazi?..”
The first thing I had learned in my uncle’s shop was to work the bellows, and the second was this sentence: “Come in sir, tell me what you’d like?”
I stood there saying “were ghalo” to anyone coming in and out of the courtyard, and to all of the villagers passing by. Sometimes they would hear what I had said, and responded, asking to buy something. I could understand simple requests. They would point to some nails in front of me and say:
I understood. How much are the nails, they were asking the price. I answered right away.
“Hevabi deh kurush eh ghalomin.”
After this lesson you should all be able to understand what I was saying. “They are ten kurush each, sir.”
As the Armenian staff writer described it, Diyarbakir was “a kind of Anatolian Macondo, populated by people with names like Haji Mama, Deli Weli, Apple Popo.”
However, in his teens Margosyan emigrated to Istanbul with his family, and it would be many years before he returned. His memoir “Gavur Mahallesi” is a memory of what the city once was. Diyarbakir eventually became a majority Kurdish city, and almost all of the Armenians moved away to Istanbul, or further afield to cities like Los Angeles. Whenever Margosyan did return, he received the celebrity treatment for having portrayed Diyarbakir so warmy. Ordinary Kurds lamented the disappearance of their Armenian neighbors. The city authorities, eager to make amends for the multicultural heritage of the city which had been erased under the weight of the country’s monolithic, reductive and violent ethnic policies, worked to retain the memory of Diyabakir Armenians. As Ara Sarafian notes, the renovation of Sourp Giragos church less than ten years ago (featured in many of the stories in the book, and in some wonderful historical photos included in the English edition), the use of Armenian alongside Kurdish and Turkish by Sur Municipality, or the retelling of an inclusive history of the region were concrete steps at making amends.
Renewed violence and state repression in the city during the last three years has continued to chip away at Diyarbakir’s multicultural heritage, and plans for mindless gentrifying redevelopment might do even more to erase the past. All of which makes Margosyan’s literary contribution all the more important and special. The memoir was originally published in Turkish in the early 80s, and received the proper treatment of being translated into Armenian and Kurdish in 2011. With its translation into English, I hope Margosyan’s memoir will receive an even wider readership, and encourage more interest in the city of Diyarbakir, a world treasure.
Author: Migirdic Margosyan
Publisher: Gomidas Institute
Publication Date: June 2017
Matthew Chovanec is a PhD student in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin where he studies modern Turkish and Arabic literature with a focus on language ideology and leftist poetics. His translation of Mıgırdiç Margosyan’s “the Gavur District” was published this July with Aras Publishing and the Gomidas Institute. He tweets at @lundriguez