Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #6)

In this historical fiction, two teenage girls Annie and Nazli are the main characters. At the age of thirteen, Annie, the eldest daughter of an Armenian family, has to make a difficult choice. Her parents have contacted one of her father’s cousins in America. That cousin’s son Petros has sent a proposal of marriage to Annie. As she holds the fifteen year old boy’s photo in her hand, she realizes that accepting his proposal will mean leaving Turkey and everything and everyone she knows. She will probably never see her family again. So she hesitates, then makes her decision.

“Before a week had passed, I said yes to Petros in America. One would think I’d said, “Gallop on,” to a bit-chomping horse, our family got so caught up in a flurry of activities.

First came the all important inspection of the potential bride’s home. Although every Armenian girl went through this, I was a bundle of nerves.

Shoshanna, Uncle Dikran’s wife, came on behalf of Petros’ mother. During an afternoon visit over tea and cakes, my aunt periodically got up and ran her white-gloved fingers over a centimeter here, and a centimeter there. She checked the furniture, the floor, the window sills, door frames, and kitchen utensils, pots, and jars. She even checked the rolled up sleeping mats, and the pile carpets, divan cushions, and the kilim wall hangings in the sitting room.

Of course, Aunt Shoshanna had warned my mayrig of the visit several days ahead of time. In preparation for my aunt’s coming, I had wiped, beat, and scrubbed everything spotless. To be considered marriageable, I didn’t have to know how to cook. But I was expected to know how to clean a house!

Much to my relief, Aunt Shoshanna’s gloves remained white. We had her approval for my marriage to Petros.”

Annie’s Turkish friend Nazli views the Armenian process of an arranged marriage as romantic. Nazli shares her belief with Annie that she is one lucky girl to get a proposal from a handsome boy from a wealthy family. (All Americans, especially Armenians in America, are of course rich, aren’t they?)

Annie’s parents have a more important reason for reaching across the seas. They are desperate to protect Annie from being  forced into a Muslim home. They have searched through family connections to find a young man who, among other criteria, is an evangelical Christian. What these Armenian parents would not be able to anticipate is how fortuitous their choice turns out to be. In less than a year, their family life in central Turkey comes apart at the seams due to edits from Talaat, Ottoman Turkey’s Minister of the Interior in 1915.

Marriageability Test

Teenagers in North America face tests every week. Schools want to know how well the teens have learned their subjects. Teens want to know: do they own the latest electronic gizmos; do they know how to use such items to their advantage; do the teens and their friends have access to the latest fashions; do they and their friends listen to the most popular singer or watch the most Oscar-nominated movie? And how about the in-crowd? Got any friends in that group?

Teenagers in the Ottoman Empire lived in very different times and had a set of concerns and tests to face that no North American young person would ever think about. Each teen had to meet the criteria of their culture for marriage. Yes, that’s right – marriage. Girls were considered marriageable by the age of twelve (1971. Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey.)

Whether Turk, Armenian, or Kurd, each culture had its own way to measure marriageability. Turning this stone on the beach of history revealed a criteria for Armenian girls with which no North American girls need concern themselves – passing the white glove test.

In the early 1900s, the prospective bride knew to expect a visit from the groom’s mother and perhaps an aunt or sister. The women would inspect the girl’s work in her entire house. “They would raise the cushions on the couch, check under the furniture for dust, and even open the storage cupboards where bedding and kitchen equipment were stored. If they were convinced that the prospective bride was a good housekeeper, then — and only then — did they put a stamp of approval on the marriage” (1977. The Bride’s Escape, p. 99).

In Ottoman Turkey, an Armenian girl had to pass the housekeeping test, but not a cooking exam, to be considered marriageable. Only after she married her groom would she learn how to cook. (Since the young couple would live with his parents for a while, the bride had ample opportunity to learn from her mother-in-law the best way to prepare her husband’s food the way he liked.)

How many young teen girls in modern North America would be able to pass this housekeeping test? At age twelve or thirteen? Probably zero. At age twenty-one even? Maybe ten percent. And North American women have insisted on being called homemakers, not housewives. Humph. It seems as if something basic is missing completely.