I'VE NEVER CALLED my sister by her name. I say abla which means “older sister” in Turkish.
When I say Leyla in conversations with other people, it doesn’t feel natural. My tongue: unsure. Abla sounds the same in most languages.
In our Hamedi home, we communicate in three languages. Our sentences begin in Turkish, develop in English and conclude with a few Farsi words.
When I was younger, my mother stuck to Turkish but my Iranian father’s Turkish was not as strong, so he spoke to us in English and Farsi.
My sister and I grew into a language borne of both home and the outside world. We dove into the three languages, taking what we wanted, what we needed to communicate.
When we were with other family members outside the four of us, however, we tried our best to avoid these shifts. We attended an international school in Istanbul in which all classes were taught in English. Our cousins attended Turkish schools and their knowledge of the language and Turkey’s history far surpassed our own. Our cousins and grandparents noticed our struggle to find the right Turkish words, to translate thoughts in English to sentences in Turkish. My lighthearted defense—or excuse depending on the family member I was addressing—was that I learned Turkish by reading the billboards along the highway to school.
We were a mix of our Turkish mother and Iranian father, and our grasp of the Turkish language was wholly different from theirs. Two cultures; not one or the other. But what separated us from the rest of our family, even more than the languages we spoke, were our names.
In the Ottoman Empire, last names were not common, especially within the Muslim population. In smaller towns, they used nicknames. My grandfather Asım grew up in a poor Anatolian village in the province of Afyon. His last name, Kocabıyık, translates to “large mustache.” We always assumed that someone in the family had a large mustache and this physical feature, embodied in a nickname, was passed down. All the way to us.
The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, a year before my grandfather was born. Its founder and first president, an army officer, was called Mustafa Kemal. Mustafa Kemal initiated the Turkish War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, abolishing the monarchy in 1922. His given name was Mustafa, an epithet of Prophet Muhammad that means “the chosen one.”
As part of his Reforms to modernize Turkey, Mustafa Kemal created the Surname Law in 1934. The law required all citizens, including Muslims, to adopt the use of hereditary, fixed soyad: lineage names. The Christian and Jewish populations already had family names, but the Surname Law enforced official soyad, decreeing that names had to be taken from the Turkish language. Many non-Turkish people living in Turkey who lost their tribal surnames had to accept more Turkish renditions that didn’t use Armenian endings like yan or Persian endings like zade.
A few Ottoman appellations could still be used but the names that suggested military rank or civil office were banned. Historical names were discouraged without proper genealogical evidence, and in the districts, the family that registered first for a more popular name got the right to keep it.
Turkish people, especially communities in Istanbul, give a great deal of importance to titles and names. A name is the difference between who is seen and who is ignored, between the entitled and the unfortunate. Families either defend their names or try to escape them if it’s in their best interest.
When you say that someone has made a name for herself in Istanbul, they have achieved the impossible. This could mean one of two things: either the soyad already has importance—like a family of old money, and the descendants have succeeded in living up to that name—or, the name is new, young, but is spreading like wildfire.
Everyone lines up to use these names; to get closer to them.
On my mother’s side, we all belong to the Kocabıyık, though it is only carried by a few members. Even as a child, I recognized the divisive power of this name. Kocabıyık was not the promise that those who belonged to our tribe would stay together.
My mother once spoke of when the Kocabıyık name was found on a list.
In the early 1980s, General Evren led a coup d’état on the Turkish government. It was a time of civil unrest, struggling economy, and desperate people. Jewelry was snatched off necks and arms and children of industrialist families were kidnapped and held for ransom.
My grandfather had founded the company Borusan in 1944, trading in iron, steel, and agricultural products. By the 1980s Borusan comprised several factories and other consolidated companies.
The chief of police found my grandfather’s name on a hit list belonging to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) along with the names of other members of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen Association.
My mother told me my grandfather once narrowly evaded a bullet that shot through his office window, past his desk chair. He never asked for protection or carried a gun. He didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to himself.
In later years, because they shared my grandfather’s last name, my uncle and his wife assigned bodyguards to my cousins and they sat behind them on dates in movie theaters and took them back and forth from school.
My sister and I moved freely from our house to school and to the city after school to wander our favorite stores on Istiklal Avenue or see the latest movies with our friends at the mall. We never thought we would be targets because we didn’t carry the Kocabıyık name.
Though, I remember waking up one morning to find that thick iron chains had been wrapped around our gate. My mother told me at the time that it was the municipality’s mistake. We finished our breakfast before school and exited from my aunt’s side of the property.
When I was older, my mother admitted the chains had been a threat. Trapped in our own home with no way to escape.
Even though my mother shed the Kocabıyık name when she married my father to become Zeynep Hamedi, whoever was responsible had discovered her maiden name and thus the connection to my grandfather.
Before she got married, her last name was constantly conflated with the name of the company my grandfather had founded, Borusan. She’d attend parties and people would introduce her as the “daughter of Borusan.” After she got married, they would refer to my father as the “son-in-law of Borusan.”
People assign identity. They can’t separate the name from the person.
My cousins’ first names stem from older Turkish words. Their names are ingrained in Turkish culture and imagery, such as Berkay, a compound word composed of berk, lightning, and ay, which means moon, a recurring motif in Turkish artwork and one of two symbols on our national flag.
My mother’s name, Zeynep, was the name of Prophet Muhammad’s daughter and granddaughter, her father’s pride. My father’s name was the same as the Prophet himself, Muhammad.
My sister’s name, Leyla, is found in the Hebrew, Iranian, and Arabic languages, the word for night. My name evokes the “azure color of heaven,” and it was also the street in Tehran where my father grew up.
My father told me our last name, Hamedi, meant “one who praises God.” It was also the first chapter or surah of the Quran: Al-Hamd. My father said, “You are descended from poets and scholars.” My ancestors lived in words and languages.
I pored over books and through countless articles tracing our names. What we called each other seemed to represent places, spiritual concepts, art, and nature. We belong together because we didn’t belong to one single culture or tradition. If I couldn’t fully fit in with my cousins or completely belong to the Kocabıyık name, perhaps the Hamedi name was enough to define me.
Sometimes my cousins Defne and Levent would appear in magazines and newspapers the mornings after late nights in the city. Their last name, Kocabıyık, emboldened in captions below blurred images.
Once, Defne invited my sister and me over to spend the night. She lived with her family in a large house on the Asian side of Istanbul across the bridge. The house rested atop a hill overlooking the Bosphorus Strait, trees framing it on either side. It had been renovated entirely. The floors in the house were made of thick glass, and you could see from the lowest level to the highest by standing in the center. We had to be careful about where we stood wearing dresses and skirts.
We sat outside on the top-floor balcony. It felt like we were the only ones in the house even though the cook, the housekeeper, and several others were in the kitchen on the first floor. A few would spend the night in the house, as they did on nights my cousin’s parents were away.
We poured shots of vodka into glasses and smoked. I noticed my sister held her cigarette loosely. Defne told us about her boyfriend and her parents’ fights. She smiled as my sister made a joke at my expense, then kissed my forehead.
The next morning, I experienced my first hangover as we drove home, crossing the bridge from the Asian side back to our European side. The strait waters shining in the sunlight, the seaside mansions resting among trees whose names I wished I knew.
When my grandfather died, photographs of his funeral appeared in every major newspaper. The media shifted their focus on my cousin Levent, the oldest grandchild, the one who carried the Kocabıyık name, the supposed sole heir of the family company. Levent was chosen to give a speech a year later at the memorial.
My mother spoke out during the event. There are six of them, you know, she told the company publicist.
Journalists and newspapers suddenly remembered the rest of us and made all six grandchildren pose for photos after the memorial. We lined up in front of an image of my grandfather’s face, covering an entire wall. His often-referenced quote was printed right next to his half smile: I owe a debt of gratitude to my country. I have spent my entire life trying to repay it.
When I was younger, he wasn’t Mr. Kocabıyık, the industrialist titan, the businessman born in the heart of Turkey, a true Kemalist. He was my grandfather. He was Dede, I suppose the same way my sister Leyla was abla and Defne’s brother Levent was abi to her. We called each other by our familial names. My cousins and I even called each other the Turkish word for cousin: kuzen, kuzi for short.
Only the outside world seemed to truly care about names and reputations.
When my sister got married, people began to refer to her by her husband’s last name, as Mrs. Wish. She had to add Wish to all of her Turkish documents. She would receive invitations and papers requiring her signature addressed to Leyla Hamedi Wish.
Wish is NOT my name, she’d say, holding the pieces of paper away from her.
My mother once told me she happily took my father’s name when they got married. It was like she was welcoming a new identity and leaving an old one behind.
Kocabıyık has always maintained a hold over us, but Hamedi carries a different legacy. At times, I feel like I’m fighting to decide which gets to claim my future.
I honor all of the languages I grew up around. I trace the origins of words the way I traced our names, our family histories.
Rather than allowing one language to take over, or trying to shift my focus constantly, I accept that I can only say certain things in certain languages.
Seni seviyorum is stronger than “I love you.”
Khodahafez is more heartfelt than “Goodbye.”
I understand is more sincere than “Anlıyorum.”
In the same way, calling my grandfather, Dede, is more important than Kocabıyık.
I continued to unravel the names in my family, to disrupt how clean and simple everything appeared to be for my cousins. I read extensively, tracing the origins of each name, falling deeper.
I began to notice that some of their names were not of Turkish origin as I had previously determined. These names had been borrowed from other languages and cultures. Altered.
Defne, Beril, Emir, were names of Arabic and Greek origin. Daphne, a bay leaf, Beril, an emerald-colored gemstone, Emir, a prince or ruler. My grandfather’s first name, Asım, was both an Arabic male name and a Kazakh female name.
So what did this mean? Their names, the very things we use to define ourselves and our family—what we hope will survive long after we are gone—were not Turkish. They didn’t belong to a single culture.
Even the Kocabıyık last name started as a nickname. It did not signify a great historical lineage.
Why did we let this name hold such power over us?
I’m sorry, Dede, my beloved grandfather, but I must defy Ataturk here.
Kocabıyık, Hamedi, these names do not define us. They represent parts of us.
I am not just Mina Hamedi.
I am a kardeş, little sister.
I am a dohktar, daughter.
I am a kuzen, cousin.
The name should never overshadow the person.
Mina Hamedi grew up in Istanbul, Turkey and is of Turkish/Iranian descent. She has an M.F.A. in Nonfiction from Columbia University's School of the Arts. She works at the literary agency, Janklow & Nesbit Associates, and is writing a collection about her grandfather and the nature of legacies.