Esther Heboyan, photographed at a book fair (2019) by Damien Guillaume

By Esther Heboyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Until recently I had no inkling that Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), formerly known as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, used to live on the very street where I spent my early childhood. Until recently I had no inkling that my street in the Harbiye neighborhood of Istanbul was renamed Papa Roncalli Sokak. I say my street because I lived there the first eight years of my life. Yes, I lived somewhere on that street during the crucial formative years, as they say.  What did I see, what did I hear, and what did I do?

Do? I didn’t do much, it seemed to me years later, and it still does today. Wasn’t allowed to play outdoors. The city street was no playground at the time. Never owned a bike to rush up and down an alley as some kids, mainly boys though, did on the Prince islands. However, I remember strolling about the Beyoğlu neighborhood or going to the Turkish film matinees, my hands tightly squeezed in my parents’ or my grandmothers’ hands. Tightly squeezed as if a sudden whimsical urge would make me wander off. Where to? And how could I? My world was my family, was my neighborhood. Tightly squeezed as if a malevolent character out of a book or a movie would snatch me away. And then what?

Hear? Heard languages, Western Armenian (spoken mainly indoors), my maternal grand-mother’s funky broken Armenian (a language no one else around me spoke at the time and would ever speak in my future life), Turkish (indoors & outdoors), funky peasant Turkish (from street vendors and apartment janitors), Greek (at an aunt’s), American English (from Elvis Presley songs). All of those languages were music to me. Just like the doleful songs drifting from the radio, a relative’s sad saz being tuned endlessly, someone’s harmonica, someone else’s accordion and home-made percussions – the clink of silver spoons, bare hands drumming on a table top, and the best of all, tongue popping, yes, a human tongue that produced short round clogging sounds and that I so wished to mimic. Heard songs performed after meal times. Those who had no ear joined in anyway, to be rebuked ruthlessly. Heard laughter and weeping, screaming and whisper. Heard silence.

See? Saw an ill-lit room on the first floor of a small building. Saw a dancing bear and the bear-keeper right in front of our window. Saw the ice-cream vendor rolling his cart that was bluer than the sea. Saw the classrooms of a grade school run by solemn nuns. A catholic school for girls in black uniforms. Austere as austere can be. Don’t know why I took along and have kept to this day my school report card of 1962-63. The absurdity of it all. Halfway during the last term of Grade Two I was gone already, gone out of the country, I mean. The child of eight looks at two assessment rubrics left blank in the yearly average column, then scribbles down one perfect 5 (the highest mark then) for Hal ve Gidiş (Disposition and Conduct) and another for Düzenlik (Organization). A pair of 5s in blue ink aiming for muted perfection. Also: the parents  having lost interest in daily matters, the child decides to sign the report card herself. Resisting the erasure of time and place.

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Some sixty years later, I couldn’t find my street on the Harbiye map. Kept flipping web pages, searching and searching. I know buildings get torn down, streets change names, for better or for worse. I know whole areas undergo urban renewal, and in some cases urban decadence, but this! I certainly wasn’t ready for this. No sign of Ölçek Sokak, or Ölçek Street, in the Harbiye neighborhood of Istanbul. I felt cheated out of something. Why didn’t anyone report the news to me? I couldn’t travel back anywhere anymore, certainly not to what used to be my street. Even my imagination was under assault, let alone bygone reality tentatively surging up and down memory lane.

So more web page flipping, more searching. Until I spotted the picture of my old Armenian school, Anarad Hığutyun. Indeed, it was almost the same frontal snapshot I had taken on my last trip to Istanbul in 2009. Same façade, door, windows. I could almost see myself behind that door, those windows, between 1960 and 1963 which enclosed my one and only preschool year plus two elementary years (minus one term). But the caption below the photograph said Papa Roncalli Sokak, Pope Roncalli Street. How come? Who was that Pope Roncalli? Did he ever converse with the catholic nuns of Anarad Hığutyun, greet an ancestor of mine who happened to pass by, purchase half a pound of goat cheese at the grocer’s round the corner ? Did he pray for the Armenian people be they Evangelical, Catholic, Apostolic, non-affiliated or atheist? Did he vow to educate Armenian girls, all girls around the world, be they rich or destitute ?

A web page provided scant information on the history of the Anarad Hığutyun school. It opened on a Pangaltı street in 1903. But it didn’t say where exactly in Pangaltı. The Catholic school aimed to instruct Armenian girls of poor background. So, not all of the Ottoman Armenian population was wealthy, as the myth goes. Educating girls – a noble and essential task to this day and most likely through tomorrows. The school moved to Ölçek Sokak in 1915. But which month of 1915? It didn’t say. By the time I visited the Turkish lady who had been residing on Ölçek Sokak all her life (or so it seemed to me) and whose severely enfeebled yet still graceful mother had been a good neighbor to my paternal grand-mother (she long gone, dead and buried in Marseilles), the school had closed down in 2004. “All of you gone, the school had to close down,” said the Turkish neighbor lady. After taking leave of my hosts, I loitered in front of that closed door for a while. No one stepped outside. Not a soul stirred behind the curtains. No need to ring the bell. Better move on, go one’s way, as in the French expression passer son chemin.

Where had all the children gone? The little Armenian boys of co-ed preschool? The very young Armenian girls of early 1960s Istanbul? I couldn’t remember any names although I remembered the sound of names, Nvart, Zvart, Verjin, Vartuhi. Where had all the children gone? I used to not like the heavy atmosphere of the place with its strict routine. I even hated nap time in kindergarten. It all felt like a series of required drills. No questioning allowed. No humor whatsoever. Life was a tragedy from the start, better get used to it.

After my last trip to Istanbul, I pulled out the only picture I had retained from my school days there. A group picture of girls and boys with one teacher (not a nun) in the middle of the last row. Uniforms were not black but white in preschool. In the foreground seven girls seated on a small oriental rug laid upon the stone tiles of the yard. Six of the students are huddled together, the one on the left, dainty, precautious, untrusting, has decided to sit on the cold stone. Eleven others, including three boys symmetrically distributed to the edges and the center, are seated on stools in the second row. Fourteen more are standing behind, with one boy to the left, one to the right. The last girl in this third row, shorter in height, seems puzzled as if she belonged to the group age of the second row. The thirteen pupils in the background were told to step on stools and surround the teacher. I stand in the fourth row, a silk seagull of a ribbon atop my skull.

Photo of students

No memories to cherish or to shake off. No joy, no bitterness. The 1960 or 1961 photograph was as void and inanimate as the Anarad Hığutyun school building of 2009. A Throwback Thursday token, at best. The kind that would draw attention on social media and score “likes”. Ten, twenty, fifty “likes”? What for? For decades gone by and never to be retrieved ? For a schoolyard turned perhaps into a private patio? For time and place estranged? A gap was gashed between my older self and this picture, a gap as abyssal as between my language-wise self and the credit names scrolling down at the end of, let’s say a Nuri Bilge Ceylan movie (since he’s a regular at the Cannes Film Festival). Unacquainted, unschooled I had become. Where are all the Ayşes and Hamdis, the Fatmas and Fikrets gone?

A closer look at the Anarad Hığutyun photograph brought back a name or two. Hilda? Could it be Hilda? The girl in the second row – cheerful, almost giggling, her ears adorned with seagull ribbons ? Was the one standing next to the teacher in the fourth row Nadya? The girl with a flapper haircut, no seagull ribbon, aloof, poised, hardly a smile? As I stared again at the little girl curled up on the stone tiles, I was moved by her maturity. Like her comrades she had been instructed to sit properly with her legs aside. But unlike others she wouldn’t let her body slump. Her right hand rested on her right ankle, her left hand had its fingers pressed on the carpet. She had given herself enough space to find her balance and stay upright, unbent. And the eyes, what profound eyes! I called her Hripsime. One of the boys, I thought, must be called Krikor. There was a Krikor in every group. Where had all the children gone? Gone to foreign shores ? Gone to ashes? Who had stayed in Istanbul ? Anyone still living in the Harbiye neighborhood ?

Some years later when I studied the photo again I was struck by the tall French windows hidden behind iron bars. The bars rose from the window sills to the headers. Those iron bars were like books, trees, rivers. They had stories to tell. Stories of human frailty, weaknesses, faults, drama. Institutional buildings, trades and stores, entertainment venues, places of worship, private homes made use of iron bars to prevent intrusion, theft and destruction – all over the world. In Istanbul, Lisbon, Sydney, San Francisco, Tokyo, Paris or Montpellier in Southern France, iron bars were conceived to protect from aggression. Security bars looked ugly and made me cringe. Even those painted green or blue. Even those in wrought iron that seemed decorative. Windows barred with iron definitely canceled the idea of lightness. Life wasn’t a matter of carefree ease as the preschool pupils of Anarad Hığutyun were yet to learn. Again I wondered : Where have all the children gone? And also: What practical, ethical or theoretical knowledge have they gathered from a compulsory course called Hayat Bilgisi (Life Knowledge)? A rather pompous title, if you ask me.

And despite all the teaching and preaching, not one curriculum, neither there nor here, had prepared me for the loss of my street, I mean for the un-naming and renaming of Ölçek Sokak. The school was long gone, long emptied of children, teachers, administrators (one newspaper feature defined the years 1961-1964 as the highest occupancy period). But not the school building. The two-story structure looked renovated, still stood there on the old street now named Papa Roncalli Sokak. The signage said: Anarad Hığutyun Binası 128 (Anarad Hığutyun Building # 128). And what is more, the façade now held two additional rectangular business plates, one designating the Armenian-Turkish weekly AGOS in red letters, another the Hrant Dink Vakfı or Hrant Dink Foundation with Hrant’s profile as a logo. I knew then that on my next trip to Istanbul (had no idea when that would be) someone would answer the door, show me around the institution and take me to the interior patio on the second floor which used to be my schoolyard. The schoolyard, I thought, was what I missed most. A roofless haven that not only adjoined the terrace of my last home in Istanbul (see the white wall on the picture?) but also stretched out to the sky’s infinite pathways.

Esther Heboyan © 2023 (Born in Istanbul to Armenian parents, Heboyan was a professor of American literature at the University of Artois, in Arras, France. Retired from teaching in 2021; published a travel piece, “Mississippi Blues,” in 2022.)

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