At 8 years of age in year 3 with Mrs Finlayson, we were taking a lesson on ancestors. She had a copy of the passenger list of the convicts from the First Fleet. This was 11 ships full of largely petty criminals arriving in Botany Bay in 1788 to colonize Australia. All the eager youngsters put up their hand for their teacher to trace their ‘ancestor’ based on last name. I didn’t get picked. Actually I didn’t really fit in. Everyone was blonde haired, blue eyed with easy to pronounce names. James, Amy, Sarah, Grant, Mark. I had dark hair, dark eyes and definitely not white skin. Back in those days kids used to throw dirt at us, call us names during weekly ‘little athletics.’ I don’t remember that but my mum does.
Fast forward to mid teenage years and the only thing I wanted to do was play my sports. I was good at it, no one interfered with me and it was my escape in so many ways. It was a time of discovering self and identity. My mum would remind us “you don’t know what kind of family you’re from” but I didn’t really care. All I wanted to do was listen to the top 40 hits on the radio and be ready to push down ‘record’ on the tape deck, play hockey and be cool.
And then I went on holiday to Turkey by myself in 2004 after everyone around me seemed to be singing praises of this country, and everything changed. My previous memories of Turkey were going to relatives houses, eating a lot of food, wandering at will and having a freedom your parents would never give you at home. But this Turkey I saw was like waking up to the Mediterranean sea on a summers day. Captivating, beautiful, shiny and deep. Shortly after, I bought a one way ticket to Ankara, (I was living in New York at the time) determined to stay just 2 years. That became 6 years and began what some of my friends call an obsession with all things Ottoman. That may not be accurate but that time did lead to finding out who I am and where I come from.
It turns out our first ancestor, the first “Dogramaci” was treasurer to Sultan Murad IV during the Baghdad campaign in 1638. Dogramaci Kara Mehmet ended up staying in what is now Iraq, or then Ottoman territory. This is why its difficult to answer the question ‘where are you from?’ What do I say? Iraq? I’m not Iraqi. Turkey? But I’m not from the borders of contemporary Turkey. Australia? I was born there but I’m not from there. I still get puzzled looks if I volunteer that answer. If I tell people I’m Ottoman, most won’t understand, some will think you are a snob and very few others give you a reassuring smile and nod.
What is certain is that my family is almost 400 years old. Down the line, the family is known mainly for my great uncle (Ihsan) and aunt (Emel), and their father, Ali who was a Pasha(Governor) during Ottoman rule, then after the end of the empire, a Senator in the Iraqi parliament. History became real and that depth and captivation of famliy started to take meaning. When you discover that you are connected to something far greater than just one or two generations, for me at least it inspired a sense of ownership and preservation. There are enough connections to places, relics as well as conduct transmitted down the line. Everyone speaks multiple languages, puts a premium on education and diplomatic connections are effervescent. So next time I’m chasing dreams and a past in Jerusalem, Bursa, Rhodes or Istanbul, or when I start telling Ottoman stories about palaces, mosques, people and places, you’ll understand why.