Dedicated to the children of my friends To children everywhere

Ali, Erkin,

I’m here. Let’s play. Bring your toys. We’ll play here, lying on the floor. We’ll play to our hearts’ content. Come on then, open the packets I’ve brought. I hope you’ll like what’s inside. I hope I made the right choice, that I bought what each of you wanted most. I’m so thrilled you like the gifts, my poppets. More thrilled than you are. When you grow up and become aunts and uncles yourselves, you’ll understand what I mean.

What toys did I have? My toys weren’t bought from a shop. I made them myself. Not just me, all the children in our refugee neighbourhood. We made boats out of pine bark. Our grandmas helped us make dolls, like the ones they sell to tourists at Deriköyu. Don’t laugh. In those days, very few children had ready-made toys. Those who had aunts and uncles in America or relatives who were Gastarbeiters in Germany, who came back home in the summer and brought dolls with hair and clothes, and toy trains and cars.

In those days we used to play games in the street, the schoolyard, the playgrounds, on the beach. Play meant company, the gang of friends, voices, laughter, quarrels, teasing, crying, protesting. It meant grazed knees and bleeding elbows. I’ve never understood board games like Monopoly. Lego? No, that didn’t exist when I was a child. And if it had existed, who’d have had money to buy it for his children?

What would I want if I were a child today? I don’t now. Yes I do. Shall I tell you? I’d like those paper lanterns we used to make with silver foil, from sweet wrappings. I’d like the kites we made with coloured paper from the fruit crates at the local greengrocery. I’d like to have again the Karagöz figures that we all chipped in to buy at the bookstore, pooling our meagre pocket money. To me, your toys seem very sophisticated, there’s too much plastic. You think that’s funny, do you? Go on, have a good laugh. I love to hear you laughing.

Now that I think about it. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to create a museum of toys and games from Cappadocia, here at Kayakapi? We could collect whatever we can find, or we could ask the old people to make some of the toys they had when they were you’re age. I remember an exhibition like that in Athens, in 1993, when old people made improvised toys, exactly like the ones they played with when they were little.

What did you ask me? Sorry. I’m here. Whether the boys played with weapons when I was a girl? Of course they did. There was lots of warfare when I was a child, with wooden swords, and hats and helmets made from newspapers. We had an army of boys and girls, which launched attacks on the upper mahalle, to pick fruit or to pick fights with the kids from the other school, who made fun of our uniforms at the parade. We were proud of our wooden swords and our catapults. Even I had a catapult. But I never aimed it at birds. Why did I have one? Because all my friends had one. Most of the boys had water-pistols too, and they used to drench us. And some of them, who imitated John Wayne, had cowboy pistols that fired capsules. I was scared of those because they went off with a bang. Who’s John Wayne? No wonder you ask. He was an American film actor who played cowboy roles in old westerns.

Why did I play with boys? Because all the kids in the neighbourhood played together. We didn’t split up into boys and girls. I made the caps and capes for our group, and I decorated them, usually with hen feathers. Our leader had a peacock plume in his hat, from Aghios Sylas, a monastery near Kavala. I’ll tell you about how we lay in wait for the peacock, another time. Just as I’ll tell you the stories I invented for the puppet theatre we set up each Sunday, with an entrance ticket. There was no television in those days, for us to watch cartoons.

Do I give toy guns as gifts? OK, I understand, you want those dreadful weapons you see on television. The ones you see in the adverts. Your parents wont buy them for you. What do they say? That they’re bad, that wars are bad. That’s right. But you’d really like to own one? Does Mehmed have one, across the way, and Yusuf? I know what you’re going to say. All the other kids have them but we don’t, our dad wont get them for us. And because we haven’t got them, the other children wont play with us. That’s what my nephews told me 15 years ago. I bought them guns. They didn’t become warmongers. They were just toys. I remember how they begged me. They were dying to be like all the other kids in the neighbourhood. And so I bought them toy guns, I who always sign anti-war petitions. That’s what aunties are for, to do favours for kids. Isn’t that so. Next time I come to visit, I promise, I’ll bring toy guns.

Because, above all, I want you to play, to play a lot, whilst you’re still children. I want you to play comradely games, to learn to share with others, to lose as well as to win. Above all, my poppets, I want you to live your life like a game, because life is truly a great exciting game. And it’s up to us grownups to teach you that. Children’s games and adults’ games are not the same, but they’re not completely different either. Play helps you to learn, to enjoy yourself. It sharpens your judgement and heightens your creativity. Through toys and games we experience communication, companionship, friendship, competitiveness, justice, honesty, reward. We also experience rivalry, reconciliation, hostility, hatred, cunning, injustice. After all, isn’t that what life is about?