Written by @HalilMrT1– Halil Tamgumus
A wise man recently told me to write this blog, so I have, my first attempt at doing so (so please be gentle).
I am currently listening to an audiobook (another first). It’s called “Natives – Race and class in the ruins of Empire by Akala. I haven’t finished listening to it all yet but by chapter 5 I was crying. This, the same wise man as before assures me, is grief. I am grieving. He is right I am.
When I first joined Twitter in June 2018, I came a little late to this particular social networking party, I felt then as I did when I first started secondary school. Lost, a little confused and not able to find my place. I was the only Turkish Cypriot child in a school that, still to this day, sits in a predominantly white working-class area of Leicester. I felt different. Not because I was because we are all unique right? But because I was made to feel different – by my peers and for the most part the teachers.
Ironically – one of my first “proper” tweets was me asking if there were any other Turkish headteachers out there. I mean seriously, I cringe as I type this. It seems a bit desperate doesn’t it?…but I was reaching out for a connection – someone like me. No joy as of yet.
Luckily, as fate would have it, I found Pran Patel, my lahmacun loving brother from another mother.
As a 12-year-old boy growing up in Leicester, my family would tick every stereotype there was for Turkish/Greek/Cypriot people. My dad owned a kebab shop (tick), a massive extended family (tick) and an obsession with food which borders the ridiculous (tick).
As you can imagine a young lad … from a food-obsessed family, living above and working in a kebab shop (some of my fondest memories as a child were of my dad and I prepping salad together for the busy night ahead in the shop – the place where he talked to me about life and what it was like for him as a youngster) it was inevitable that I would end up a little bit larger than the average child of 12 years old. By the age of 18, I was tipping the scales at… Ahem, 21 stones… ahem.
And so I was known by the school bullies, “friends” and adults in the staff room I’m sure of it, as the fat Turkish boy.
It’s on this phrase that I need to dwell on. Just for a little while. Although it was part accurate, what purpose did the label serve? I mean yeah, ok, I was overweight, actually, I would have been classed as morbidly obese in today’s currency.
But what has my ethnicity got to do with anything. Why didn’t it end at just being called the fat boy?
Why the Turkish part? The fat Turk?
Actually, I’m Turkish Cypriot and Turkish Cypriots will adamantly tell you they are not Türkiyeli i.e from Turkey. The reasons for this are deep-rooted and needs a blog on its own to be explained.
My opinion (and that’s all it is), for those that called me that phrase must have felt a sense of power over me when they said it. By degrading my heritage, my background, my culture and by proxy my self worth they would imply that their self worth, being and belonging was more important than mine.
But listening to Akala say the following words it all becomes a little clearer “I am because you are not” I am better than you, more important than you because you are not important.
He goes on to state that, in a strange way, people who are put down by racism should feel quite flattered. And by looking back I do. I mean if I was so insignificant and so unimportant why spend so much time on me and other children from different ethnic backgrounds and with a different colour of skin to their own?
Wow. If I had this in my locker as a kid…wow. I would have been stronger for it. But I was too busy feeling sorry for myself.
I knew from an early age I had a different wit to my peers. An acid tongue, a sharp brain (although age has worn that away a bit) and a decent sense of humour. It’s the humour that got me through relatively unscathed physically during my secondary school years.
I only got into one notable fight in which Richard, a local black boy (if I remember correctly both his parents were from Jamaica) 3 years my senior, “backed me up” because “we have to stick together” as he put it. I’ll never forget that moment. He knew. He got it. He saved me actually because I was in no way equipped to win the fight. But I would have held on to the chain my grandmother gave me with my life. I would have died for it. It had a small pendant with the Turkish Cypriot flag. Exactly like the flag on my father’s headstone. The tears roll down my face as I write this – the connection is real.
My father needs his own blog. A socialist, a protestor, he believed in power to the people and education for all. He was the kindest man I have ever known. If you needed to borrow money from him and he didn’t have it he’d take a loan out so that he could give it to you! An angel and that’s not me being biased. When word got out that my dad was seriously Ill customers that used to go to his shop would knock on his door to see him. They would come to the ward, where he would stay whilst the doctors did tests on him, and bring him cards, flowers and chocolates. My hero.
I used humour in a way that I have seen other Poc and people of other ethnicities use. I used it until recently, to defuse awkward situations. Or to laugh at me about myself before others had a chance to. Take the wind out of their sails. I mean I grew up hating my name. Halil Tamgumus. I mean what a mouthful (ironic it was too many mouthfuls that helped me to my not so fighting heavyweight!).
Translated from Turkish, Halil means good friend and Tamgumus means pure silver. Growing up I’d have to listen to some of the strangest pronunciations of my name. Register …oh my days just the thought of it make my toes curl. Habeel…no sir it’s Halil…Hamil …no sir it’s Halil (can’t he read? – phonetics not his strongest suit?) Hakeel. Seriously, I’d think to myself, we haven’t even got to my second name yet, please God, if there was ever a time for the ground to open up now was that time.
I remember going to the doctor’s to pick up my dad’s prescription when I was younger. He had high blood pressure which partly came from him being the proprietor of a business and mainly due to my mother*. At the age of 13, I stood at the reception and the receptionist tried to pronounce my name. She got it spectacularly wrong – Halul tomangmouse – I mean really – so instead of correcting her. I said ” I’m sorry about my name, I completely blame my parents (insert eye roll here) there not from here” she laughed. Where I got those words from and why I decided to put them in that order I cannot tell you. All I know it was a lot less awkward than having my name, which I detested anyway, pronounced incorrectly.
Now. I’m proud of my name. And so are my two beautiful children it’s a strong name. And it is powerful. It comes from a beautiful group of people from a beautiful country. It withstood the test of a war and the subsequent crown colonisation under Britain (where divide and rule was the order of the day). It was passed on to me and my sister and now it belongs to my children. My father’s unbreakable desire to do good will live on through our actions. I hope he’s proud. I hope he knows.
My name is Halil Tamgumus and that is what I shall be called.
*I could tell you things about my mother but you wouldn’t believe me. That’s one part of my life that could be turned into a film. One of those “you couldn’t make it up” things.