Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #4)

In the historical fiction Lavash, the storyline comes through two girls – one Armenian and one Turk.

 The Armenian, Anahid Gregorian, is the eldest daughter of six children. Anahid (Annie) and her family live on her father’s farm a kilometer from Kemahcelli, a small town in central Turkey. Annie’s father had been sending his children to the Armenian parochial school attached to the Protestant church they attend. So she and her brothers could learn better Turkish, Annie’s father is sending the boys to the town’s school for boys and Annie to its school for girls. That is where Annie meets Nazli.

The two girls become friends partly because the Turkish girls of Kemahcelli ostracize both Annie and Nazli. Their classmates give Annie the cold shoulder because she is Armenian and a farm, not a town girl. The Turkish girls keep Nazli outside their circle because she is a newcomer and a city girl from Constantinople. The fact that Nazli’s father is Kemahcelli’s government-appointed mayor contributes to the tension between Nazli and her classmates. Nazli’s loneliness in her new surroundings is exacerbated by the fact that she is an only daughter. She has one older brother, but he is away most of the time because he is a soldier in Turkey’s 3rd Army Corps.

 Warm-hearted Annie won’t leave Nazli friendless. She volunteers her time to help Nazli with her weekly chores so the two of them can spend time together.

Smarting from the attitudes of the Kemahcelli girls and accustomed to the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of Constantinople, Nazli accepts Annie’s offer of friendship. When her new best friend gives her a diary as a birthday present, Nazli begins her entries in the blank book with “Iyi arkadaşim,” my good friend.

 Since Nazli is a Turk and therefore a Muslim, her world view is necessarily other than Annie’s. In the book Lavash, the reader learns how different the viewpoints are through Annie’s survivor narrative juxtaposed with Nazli’s diary entries.

 From Lavash, Chapter 3:

“Kemahcelli, Turkey

Iyi arkadaşim,                                                                                                 23rd April 1914

Since you are indeed my good friend, I should start this diary by telling you what happened today. At the fountain in the Town’s Centrum, Lieutenant Mahmoud flirted with us schoolgirls, Annie and me. I think he’s handsome. So what if he’s got two wives already? He probably makes enough money to support three.

But Annie got all upset. Tried to drag me away. What’s the matter with that girl? She’s so level-headed, except when it comes to boys, er, that is, men.                                  Nazli

Iyi arkadaşim,                                                                                                 27th April 1914

My good friend, I pity poor Annie. Her parents got upset, too. They made Mt. Ararat out of nothing. Now she can’t come to school anymore. I miss her in class so much. Because I’m the müdür’s daughter, all the other girls are jealous of me and afraid to be friends. I don’t understand why. Just because the town’s mayor is my baba, they needn’t be afraid. I won’t eat them. Ha!

Well, better stop now. I hear the ezan. That call from the mesjid, our local mosque, means my prayer rug must not wait.                                                                            Nazli”

Since Nazli is her father’s youngest child and only daughter, she has an unusually close relationship with him. From the time she was a toddler, he had doted on her and she was accustomed to using that doting to her advantage. But, as Nazli approaches young womanhood, her father’s attitude of permissive indulgence changes and she doesn’t know what to make of the change.

 From Chapter 3, 30th April 1914 entry:

“I long for the days when Baba called me, ‘My pet,’ and bought me my golden bay, Arabian mare. Gone, apparently, are the days I can ride like a desert princess on a whim.

 Pouting no longer works, either. ‘Be careful, little miss,’ Baba said. ‘One of those storks on our roof will think that lip a proper perch.’

 All I could then say was, ‘Ha! What did you do with my baba? You’re definitely not him.’ I stomped to the women’s section of our house with my arms folded tight against my chest.

 It is hard to ‘Go happily’ from girlhood. I can feel the difficult life of a woman overtaking me.”

Unlike Annie, Nazli views the attention of an army officer exciting. In her innocence, she has little understanding that such attention is actually a threat to her friend Annie. The reality of the implications registers only when Annie’s parents react by keeping her home from school and Nazli’s father insists she wear both her headscarf and a veil across her face every time she leaves the house.

The 1914 time-frame of Nazli’s initial entries in her diary are important because while the friendship between Annie and Nazli is developing, the political climate in Constantinople makes a sharp turn. The Young Turks have taken the power over the Ottoman Empire away from the Sultan and have set the stage for the Armenian genocide of 1915. Nazli’s baba plays a key role in the execution of the Minister of the Interior Talaat’s schemes as they apply to the Armenians of Kemahcelli. As the mayor’s daughter, Nazli is caught in the middle.