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From Bulgaria to Turkey, from Turkey to the USA: A family history through interethnic marriages and records

Sahizer Samuk

The author's parents in the 1970s. Courtesy of the author.

My multicultural family is Bulgarian and Turkish, and has been Americanised via interethnic marriages. Within this story, the context is set by mixed marriages as well as the objects brought from abroad: the objects that my father brought from the USA, the records, in particular, reflect the Zeitgeist during his emigration perfectly. The acculturation and transnationalisation process of the whole family proves the peaceful as well as conflicting co-existence of diverse cultures, within which, one can grab the chance to be more flexible amongst so many different selves. According to the famous sociologist Erving Goffman, the identity is always in the making, we are always ‘becoming’. Furthermore, understanding migration via the objects of the times proves the fluidity of ‘becoming’ in the realm of cultural adaptation and character formation. One wonders, what happens to the other members of the family when one person from the family emigrates and returns? Especially if we consider that a return is never a real return because you have collected so many memories and taken into your life so many new people.


I aim to tell this story against the setting of cultural essentialism, which makes people refrain from contemplating one very important issue that we often take for granted: the indisputable sameness of the human condition in very different corners of the world vis-à-vis the obligation to leave a place and adapt to a new one.


My father


My father became a soldier at a very young age and he moved to the USA after taking a difficult exam, which he felt he had to do as he had a disagreement with one of his superiors (success was his exit strategy). As the oldest son, he sent remittances to his family (nine siblings in total, three died when they were babies) for six years.


He started bowling there and proved to be really good at it. He won more than three cups. His friends used to celebrate his birthday a couple of times in a year, as he was so popular amongst the girls.


To this day, my father still pronounces ‘hamburger’ and ‘supermarket’ with an American accent. He told me that the first time they went there, they did not speak English well and he and his friends purchased dog food by mistake. After six years in the USA, he always says, they were ‘studying all the time, our noses fell down’. He always talks about the work ethic and advises me to ‘never give up on the hard work’.


The only objects that my father brought from the USA were his bowling cups and his records of Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald; many classical music records, and, of course, my absolute favourite: West Side Story.


My grandmother


What did my father’s family do when they moved to Balıkesir, Turkey, from Bulgaria? They started a family business to produce socks (pure wool) and tricot pullovers. My grandmother would go to Istanbul and sell them herself. The family made their living thanks to the leadership of grandma. They were definitely a matriarchal family. As a matter of fact, my grandfather liked to stay alone in his room and when they invited him to join the sects of the time (so it shall be in the 1950s) he said that he was fine praying by himself.


My paternal grandmother was named Şahizer. Şah means ‘shah’ or ‘sultan’ and zer means ‘gold’: her name meant ‘Shah of Gold’, meaning 24-karat gold. Her name was Iranian but her family came from Bulgaria to settle in Kepsut. She was quite a strong woman, both in character and in physical posture. As I remember from the photos, she had hazel eyes. She gave birth to ten kids and she worked hard as the ‘head’ of the family. People used to come to her to take advice on everything, subjects ranging from employment to marriage and relationships.


Once my father wrote to my grandmother from the USA: ‘I cannot stay here anymore, I feel anxious’. She responded: ‘Open a window in your heart and breathe from that window, but do not come back till you finish your studies there’.


The interethnic marriages


One day my father visited Kepsut with one of his best friends from the USA, Henry. He was welcomed by this crowded family and one day, after a generous meal, my father noticed that Henry could not sleep and said to him: ‘Çıkar ağzındaki baklayı’ (‘do not beat around the bush’). Henry confessed that he was in love with one of the sisters. As it turned out, it was Kadriye with her beautiful smile. Happy ending, of course! Furthermore, my older uncle who was offered to work for Yeşilçam (which he refused), also went to the USA to work and married Penelope, in short, Penny. When I visited them for three months in 1999, my father advised them not to speak any Turkish with me, and so Penelope became my most patient and diligent English teacher. 


Inconclusive thoughts


Listening to these memories from my father and the records he brought from the USA, it has been easy to accept that there is just a leap of faith between one culture and another, between one Iranian name and a Bulgarian-Turkish exile, between a crowded family and one son who goes abroad and opens all the ways to his family to discover further horizons. Finally, having roots does not mean we cannot have branches that extend beyond us: West Side Story, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, bowling cups, and Figaro’s wedding photo standing next to each other on the shelf make a convincing case.


Şahizer Samuk Carignani

Şahizer Samuk Carignani was born in Kayseri, Turkey in 1984. She graduated from N.M. Küçükçalık Anatolian High School in 2002. After completing her bachelor in Political Science at Bogazici University in 2006 she worked as a reporter in documentary making in Africa and the Middle East. Later, she earned her first MA at Koç University in International Relations in 2010, she worked for IOM Istanbul for one year on a project about counter-trafficking of persons. She had a second MA at LUISS Guido Carli on European Studies in 2011. She received her PhD in Political Science at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca in May 2016. From March till August of 2016, she worked for IOM Ankara on supporting the development of harmonisation policies in Turkey. She used to work as a short-term postdoc at the Geography and Spatial Planning Department at the University of Luxembourg for almost 1.5 years in the team of MOVE Project which focused on youth mobility within the EU and later on, she assisted the writing process of a Horizon 2020 Project. Her research interests are cultural heritage, mobility/migration, integration policies (mostly in Canada, Italy, UK and Turkey), temporariness vs. permanence (temporary migration policies), and authors in exile. She has two short stories published in Turkish magazines apart from her academic publications. She currently works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology at the University of Pisa.

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