The Translation of Love and Hate

Travel Stories: Taught to despise Turks, Tina Barseghian didn't know how she would confront her prejudice on a visit to Istanbul. Then she fell ill and met Dr. Alev.

02.21.03 | 8:56 PM ET

In a jet-lag-induced haze, I wandered the dingy stone streets of Istanbul. Street merchants approached me, speaking Turkish. Though my dark hair and olive complexion are typical features of a Turk, I resented them for mistaking me for one.

If there is such a thing, I am the opposite of a Turk. I am Armenian, and as such, a deep-seated indignation of Turks is part of my hard-wired identity. Since the second grade, Armenian history teachers in California taught me about the horrors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, assuring that the images of poets, authors, scientists, artists, philosophers and priests being led to their deaths by Turkish soldiers would not dissipate with my American citizenship. The atrocities took place generations ago, but a general sense of injustice never righted still lingers.

Yet there I was in Istanbul, waiting to meet my friend Elizabeth, whose fascination with this city finally convinced me to visit. I had no idea how I would confront my prejudice against Turks while encountering the inarguable beauty of the city. How could I walk through the majestic doors of Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque without associating them with the country’s history?

I was mulling over these doubts while strolling through old Istanbul when I was startled by the chant of the Islamic summons, the call to prayer. A horde of men swarmed the courtyard of the mosque next to me, took off their shoes and began washing their feet at the outdoor fountain. Instinctively, I recoiled against the sounds and rituals of the religion I was taught to hate. I turned away.

Barely a couple of days into what was planned as a two-week holiday that would take Elizabeth and me through most of Turkey, I fell ill in our hotel room. I had the symptoms travelers dread: nausea, diarrhea, fever. Elizabeth ran down to the concierge and asked for a doctor. Within a half hour, a petite brunette with big brown eyes, wearing jeans and a sweater, appeared at my door and introduced herself as Dr. Alev Ersoj. She spoke perfect English. She sat at the side of my bed, gently examining me while making small talk about my trip.

Diagnosing a benign infection, Dr. Alev scribbled the names of a few prescription drugs that she believed would combat my symptoms. She gave the piece of paper to the concierge, who quickly disappeared. Within a few minutes, he was back, holding a bag full of drugs from the local pharmacy. Dr. Alev wrote down her name and phone number and told me to call her in the morning as soon as I awoke.

“I don’t know exactly where the infection is, but I don’t want you to worry because it’s not serious. Your vital signs are normal. You will be all right,” she said.

I paid her $50 and thanked her for her help, and Dr. Alev left. When my symptoms did not improve a few hours later, Elizabeth called Dr. Alev and asked her what to do. Within a few minutes, she was back at my side, holding my hand, trying to quell my fears. I tried several times to give her more money, but each time she pushed my hand away. She didn’t leave that night until I had fallen asleep.

Over the next three days, as my symptoms alternately subsided and worsened, Dr. Alev and I saw a lot of each other. With each visit, I learned more about her life: that her husband - a surgeon at the same hospital where she worked - had left her and her 3-year-old daughter the previous year for a younger nurse; that her daughter lived with Dr. Alev’s parents and, between shifts, she visited her every other day; that, at 32 years old, she worked every day of the week at three different hospitals, at odd and excruciatingly long hours. On weekend evenings, she stayed with her boyfriend, who was a lung specialist. She fantasized about going to the coast and walking on the promenade, smelling the salty sea air. But in the past few years, she had not had the time or the money to take a vacation.

All the while, I’d intentionally kept my Armenian identity hidden from her, fearing poor treatment, or worse, her refusal to treat me at all. I had no idea if Turks perceived Armenians the same way we did them. But after revealing so much about ourselves over those few days, I felt I’d be deceiving her by not telling her.

“I’m Armenian,” I blurted out, as we sat at the hospital waiting for my blood test results to come back. She smiled.

“Many of my neighbors are Armenian,” she said. “This hospital is a private Armenian hospital. There are many Armenians here in Istanbul. I’m very fond of them.”

Neither of us mentioned our peoples’ history. Relieved that this was not an obstacle in my treatment or in our relationship, I went on to tell her about my life at home, about my husband, my job as a freelance writer.

“You call me when you come back to Istanbul,” she said, this time scribbling down her home telephone number. “We will all go to the coast together, the four of us.”

I spent the next few days either at the hospital or stuck in the hotel watching stale BBC documentaries. Every few hours, the call to prayer wafted in from the open window, but rather than being repulsed, as I was initially, I grew to find the chant calming.

On my last day in Istanbul, there was a knock on our door. Standing there, holding a huge bouquet of flowers, was our hotel concierge.

“We want you to get better so you can go out and enjoy our city,” he said. When I told him I was leaving early the next morning, he invited me for tea at his sister’s house that evening, so I could at least get a taste of his culture before I left. “You have come all this way…” he said.

I didn’t make it to his sister’s house for tea, but just before leaving for the airport, I stopped by the hospital to convey my gratitude to Dr. Alev. She gave me a quick, hearty hug, then we stood smiling at each other for an awkward moment.

“I love you!” she finally said.

How was I to respond to this? There she stood, embodying all of what I had been compelled to despise as an Armenian.

I realized that the Turkish word for “like” is the same for “love,” and that although she wanted to express fondness for me, she may not have gone that far in the literal English translation. But I didn’t care.

“I love you, too,” I said.

Tina Barseghian is a San Francisco-based writer.

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