In this article I will be discussing the life of Madame Anahit who was born in 1926 and spent most of her life playing her reddish accordion in Cité de Péra aka Flower Passage in İstiklal Street. When she passed away in 2003, after playing her accordion for over 40 years, she had become an icon in the streets of Beyoğlu.
Her journey with her accordion started when she moved to Büyükada where she would spend her youth on the beautiful island after she graduated from Armenian Eseyan High School. She saw her young Greek neighbour playing an accordion. His name was Yorgo and she fell in love with him. The young girl decided to learn how to play an accordion and impress Yorgo with touching and moving melodies which would flow through her instrument. With her girlish pride, she went to her mother and said “I want to have an accordion.” Her mother could not resist Anahit’s insistence and bought her an accordion from Papa Jojr for 170 Liras. Papa Jojr was an important Istanbulite with a strong network at that time, and he helped her to get in touch with Arto Benon who would proceed to teach her how to play. After spending 2 years with him she decided to work with another accordionist; Norayr Dırızyan, who later became her first husband. At the age of twenty, she started to play in marriage ceremonies but then she decided to play in Flower Passage in Istiklal Street. You make ask, what had happened to her marriage? After spending 17 years together they decided to get a divorce; however, they remarried 10 years later. The explanation for their remarriage was the fact that they loved each other.
Every night she used to go to taverns at the Flower Passage and play her accordion to the people she liked. She would refuse to play for the ones she didn’t like even if they offered her thousands of Liras. She would bring joy to people with her unique voice and flowered dress. However, it was not that easy to get a “Madame” title. When she first started she used to get kicked out of the passage, but then she became an essential element to the Beyoğlu nights. Celebrities would go there to listen to her music, business men and women would go there to have a drink while watching her dancing in her flowered dress. She became so popular that Johnny Weismulle, who played Tarzan in the Hollywood production, came to Istanbul and danced with her. She would start the night with a glass of cold water and drink gallons of cherry juice as she played and sang her songs. Even though she had always played at taverns, she neither drank alcohol nor smoked cigarettes. Her favorite song was “Yıldızların Altında (Under the Stars)” but she would not sing it every time, only when she wanted to. She became friends with famous Turkish actors and singers, she even played in their movies and song clips. In one of her interview she states her best time in Istanbul was the period between she was 30 and 35. The times of Ayhan Işık, Zeki Müren, Sadri Alışık, Kemal Sunal, Yılmaz Güney, prominent figures of Turkish art history; furthermore, all of them were her friends. She also took place in some cinema movies together with Yılmaz Güney, Kemal Sunal, and Cüneyt Arkın.
She was left alone with her accordion and her cats when her husband died. Her house where she used to live and feed street animals was demolished by the municipality. Yet, she still continued to wear her red lipstick, and headed for the taverns of Beyoğlu and play her accordion.
As years passed, the faces of Beyoğlu had changed. People that she used to sing, and dance with started to leave their seats to the new generation. New comers called her “old granny” and some of them dismissed her. New tavern owners did not want her since she could die of old age in their taverns. People confused her with ordinary street singers and beggars. Everything was changing: houses, cars, people… Beyoğlu was changing. But she was smiling and playing her accordion that she had been playing for 40 years.
She passed away on the 1st of September 2003. She was buried in an Armenian cemetery in Şişli neighbourhood; however, her grave was left very dilapidated for a while. There was not even a headstone. But then, the shopkeepers of Flower Passage acted responsibly, and dug a grave, which she deserved. Some people believe there was an organization and announcement problem that caused this silent funeral. However, one of her friends, Yetvart Tomasyan, said that “she was part of a minority.” This statement might explain why only few people showed up to salute her for the last time. Yet at least she was honored in the newspapers, on which her photographs with her dark hair, an elegant outfit, and her accordion at her chest were published.
How much of her legacy has remained for us then? A photograph on the walls of Flower Passage and a phrase she always used to say: “I am prominent, but I have got a hole in my pocket” even though she didn’t have much money during her lifetime, she never looked for it. If people gave money to her, she would kindly say “May you come upon gold”.
Istanbul misses your smile, your joy, your melodies, your dances, your voice…
For me, a life without meaning, without drive, without focus, without goals or dreams isn’t a life worth living.
Photo Credits: Gökhan Koray Seğmenoğlu