Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #15)

With exasperation in her voice, my niece blurted, “I wish they would stop trying to convert me. I am not interested!”

I grimaced and thought, If your Somali tutees care at all about you, this is exactly what they will try to do. But I didn’t say it.

My niece and I live in a country in North America that has been built and expanded by welcoming immigrants from all over the world. Both my parents and myself are immigrants from one North American country to another. And we are descendants of people who came from European countries that had governmental and societal belief systems based on Christianity. One of those deeply engrained beliefs is that each person has both the responsibility and right to choose one’s religion or lack there of. We hold dear freedom of choice.

People who choose to be Christians, however, are at risk if they live in a country or an area of a country that has Muslim rulers. (See my previous posting –Fatal Rationale). The situation for Christians today in Syria and Iraq is little different from the reality for Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. Annie and Nazli, the two protagonists of my historical fiction, are caught in the middle of the jihad whipped up by the imam’s edict referenced in my previous posting. As the daughter of their town’s government-appointed mayor, Nazli is well aware of the danger growing against the Armenians in Kemahcelli.

When Annie objects to Nazli’s calling her a gavur, Nazli replies.

“It’s just that everybody in my family and all Turks in this town call every Armenian and Greek that awful name. They say anybody who isn’t a Muslim is a gavur, an infidel.” Nazli turned and looked me square in my face. “In fact, there are many times I’ve wished you and your family would become Muslims, claim Mohammed your prophet, and go to the mesjid with me.”

After Annie promises to talk to her father about converting, Nazli says, “Good. Since I am the mudur’s daughter, I hear things. The current gossip has me worried. You and your family would be safer if you all converted to the Muslim faith.”

Annie thinks about what her friend says.

Nazli’s words sent chills up and down my body, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Does she say that because she cares about me and my family? Or is her declaration a threat?

At home that evening, I asked my hyrig why Armenians and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire were almost always Christians even though we lived under a Muslim government.

Annie receives a lesson in history when her father explains that her people were Christians centuries before the Turks ever invaded and took over Armenia. After listening to her father’s reasoning and after thinking about what she already knows about her Christian faith from her reading of God’s Word, the Bible, Annie plans to stick with her faith, not really knowing what her decision will cost her and her family during 1915.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #12)

Annie’s friend Nazli is in a unique position. As the daughter of the government-appointed mayor of their small town, Nazli has ready access to the political intrigue flowing from Constantinople.

The weekly interruption of the constant activity in her baba’s office provides Nazli with substantial opportunity to satisfy her curiosity. Every Friday, all the Turkish men in town go to the masjid for prayers. It is the one time each week the mayor’s office is devoid of men. Nazli’s main chore each week, then, is to clean the office when no one else is around. She takes advantage of this and invites Annie to come over every Friday at noon. Since Annie is perfectly willing to help Nazli with her weekly chore, Nazli looks forward to Annie’s visits. While the two girls work together, they snoop through the telegrams on the mayor’s desk.

Nazli’s baba knows that she is no star pupil. So he doesn’t expect her to be able to decipher any of the messages scattered around his office.

What the mayor hasn’t reckoned with is Annie and her ability to read anything and everything in two languages–Armenian and Turkish. Nazli capitalizes on her friend’s abilities and willingness to help out.

There is an even more readily available source of information that can satisfy Nazli’s curiosity. Her baba has a steady stream of visitors to the reception hall in their home. Since Nazli is often called upon to serve food and drink to the visitors, she makes the most of any opportunity to eavesdrop. There is a saying in English: Curiosity killed the cat. Hopefully, Nazli’s curiosity doesn’t contribute to her demise.

In one of her diary entries, Nazli writes about something she overhears.

“16 November, 1914

Baba and my older brother Yunus had some strange visitors….The visitors spoke a heavily-accented Turkish and talked of Constantinople–and militias. The men were the Rumelians who disappeared from town a month ago.

One growled loud enough for me to hear. ‘Now we can pay back the Christians for murdering us Rumelians and kicking us off our land on the other side of the Bosporus.”

Reader, do keep in mind that in 1915 the Ottoman government aimed its militias, even those formed from Rumelian refugees, against a Christian population who  1) were the original inhabitants of the Anatolian Plains and  2) had NOTHING to do with the displacement of the Rumelians from their territory.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #11)

Nazli has been able to persuade her mother to help host a henna party for Nazli’s friend Annie. In her discussion with her mother after the party, Nazli is flabbergasted by her mother’s real reason for going along with her headstrong daughter’s wishes.

The following is an excerpt from Nazli’s diary that is included in the book Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it.

Chapter 7

Iyi arkadashim, 23rd July, 1914

My good friend, the henna party for Annie was a great success! Everyone had a good time. Mam made such tasty saffron rice with chicken. To drink, she made sherbet sweetened with grape sugar. Annie’s mother and aunt brought almond cakes and grapes. The hammam attendant made Turkish coffee. Delicious.

Annie looked like a Turkish bride wrapped in her white cotton towel and blessed with our henna marks of health and beauty. When we got home that afternoon, I was bubbling over with excitement, of course. But Mam’s reaction to the event surprised me.

“What are you so happy about?” she demanded with a scowl. “That should have been a party for you, not some dirty gavur!”

I stood with my head down for some time. Then I sucked in a deep breath before I said, “Dirty gavur? How can you say that? Annie and all of the women and girls in her family bathed right beside us.”

“Nazli, you know I don’t like Armenians. Never have. Never will. I agreed to host that party for one reason only. I hoped at least one of the Turkish women there might select you as a bride for her son.”

My mouth dropped open. “Mam, how could you?”

Quaking with anger and fear, I tore for my bedroom. To think that my mam viewed the henna party for Annie as nothing more than a baited hunt for a husband for me. As I write this, dear friend, I wish with all my heart that her ploy will catch nothing.

Nazli has not seen the end of underhanded reasons for the actions of both her mam and her mayoral baba. During the months leading up to June of 1915, Nazli struggles to understand and at times circumvent the decisions that her parents and the other Turkish leaders of her town make against her friend Annie, Annie’s relatives, and the other Armenians in and around their town in central Ottoman Turkey.  

 

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #9)

Girls in any culture love a party, any reason to get together with other girls. Annie and Nazli, the teenaged, main characters of Lavash were no exception.

As was mentioned in the previous posting, the most likely place for a henna party for Annie, the bride-to-be, would have been Kemahcelli’s Turkish bath.

“Steam rose from the hammam’s basins of hot water, beckoning us to a refreshing bath. We washed and ate and gossiped. We tried to guess who would be next among us to marry. The older women listened, looked at each other, and laughed at us behind their hands.

When I had scrubbed and eaten, I sat wrapped in an enormous cotton towel. Two Turkish women hired by Zarifeh knelt on each side of me with bowls of henna paste.

“Annie, let me wear your bracelet while they apply the paste,” Nazli begged.

With a smile, I gently clasped the jeweled links around my friend’s wrist. As she turned its glittering links, the henna artists drew designs on my hands, arms, and feet with sticks they had dipped in the paste. Swirls of the warm, reddish gel soon moved from my fingernails, over my fingers, across the backs of my hands, and up my arms to my elbows. Similar reddish designs ran from my toes to my ankles.

“Annie, the artists would like to henna your neck up to your chin. Is that all right?” Nazli asked.

I looked at Mayrig.

“Annie, have them do whatever you’d like,” she said.

“Nazli, these designs eventually wear off, don’t they? Petros might not understand.”

Nazli laughed. “They’ll be long gone before you ever get near a boat to America, Annie, I promise.”

“All right then, go ahead.”

Nazli stood behind me and piled my hair on the top of my head. I could feel the warmth of the gel being swirled on my skin. When the gel had dried, it was brushed off. Smiling broadly, the artists handed me two mirrors to examine their handiwork.

Already awed by the delicacy of the designs on my hands, arms, and feet, I gaped in amazement at the lacy filigree of reddish-brown that rose from my collar-bone to cover my neck and throat. I laughed with delight as I ran my hands over my skin. “Thank you so much, ladies. You’ve made me truly beautiful today.”

“Good luck, good health, pearl of a bride for Petros.” Nazli hugged me, blew kisses past both of my cheeks, and re-clasped the bracelet on my wrist.

The tiled walls of the room echoed with applause and chatter. As they gathered their things to leave, the girls and women pressed small bits of money into the hands of the hammam attendant, Nazli, and Zarifeh. Mayrig gave each artist a tip and a smile.

For a few precious hours we had been neither Turk nor Armenian but women together, celebrating my coming marriage.”

Such a kindness from her friend Nazli gave Annie a fond memory to hang onto for decades. It was one of several highlights she innocently relished prior to 1915.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #8)

While the two groups lived side by side in the small town of Kemahcelli in central Ottoman Turkey, the Turks and the Armenians maintained separate lives–for the most part. The friendship between Annie and Nazli, the book’s two main characters, exposed these teenage girls to each other’s cultural and religious contexts. That exposure helped each girl to look a little more carefully at their own cultural and religious perspectives of the world. That is what was going on in the next excerpts from Nazli’s diary.

Jihad was the topic during one Friday that Nazli went with her mother to the mesjid in Kemahcelli.

Chapter 5

“Iyi arkadasim, 26th June, 1914

Mam and I joined the other women behind the partition in the mesjid today. Since Annie and her family were on their trip for that all-important photo for her Petros, I agreed to go with my mam for Friday prayers.

After prayer, our imam expounded on the righteousness of following Allah the way Mohammed did–with holy war against the infidels. Our holy man talked an eternity. I thought he’d never stop. My legs cramped. I was so relieved when we could finally stand up.

What do I have to do with any holy war? What infidels was the imam talking about? He can’t mean the Christians in our town, can he? Why should we war against them? I don’t see them harming anyone. They obey our laws and pay their taxes more than any of us Muslims pay. At least, that’s what Baba’s told my older brother Yunus and me.

I don’t understand the call to jihad. Who decided that? Against whom? And why?

16th July, 1914

I’ve been thinking about the jihad that the imam called for. I feel ashamed now that I called Annie a gavur. She may not be a Muslim, but she worships Allah, too. Only…she calls him God. She doesn’t bow toward Mecca or prostrate herself when she prays. Nor does she recite prayers. She says whatever she thinks to Allah. I know. I’ve heard her do it whenever it’s prayer time for us Muslims. But can that be right? To speak one’s mind to Allah? I’d better persuade her and her family to become Muslims.

Added note: Petros might object though. He’s Armenian and probably a Christian.”

At this point in the storyline, Nazli’s understanding of what was right and wrong was thoroughly anchored in the world view given her by her family’s Islamic beliefs. Her desire for Annie’s conversion to Islam was based partly on what Nazli believed was right and partly on her growing awareness that Annie’s Christianity might provide the Turkish authorities with a convenient excuse for a disastrous consequence.

By the spring of 1915, Nazli’s niggly feeling of possible danger had developed into an all-encompassing alarm over Constantinople-orchestrated events. Jihad was the drum that the Young Turks of the Ottoman government wielded to get the cooperation of Turks, Rumelians, and Kurds against their Christian neighbors, the Armenians.

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.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it. (Excerpt #2)

An excerpt of chapter 1 from my historical fiction Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it.

 

Pasadena, California, 1982

“Grandma Annie, it’s almost time. Are you ready yet?” My sweet granddaughter Mary sticks her head in my bedroom doorway. Along the adjacent wall stands my vanity, but it’s too far away for me to see myself clearly in its mirror. From my seat on the side of my afghan-draped bed, I turn slightly toward her.

Despite my qualms about this afternoon’s visit, my heart smiles. This young woman gives me joy everyday and I’m so glad we live together. “Not quite,” I say. “Need a little help with my hair.”

Crossing the soft pile of the Armenian carpet, she stands in front of me. After tucking in the stray end of the braid I’d wrapped around my head, she scrutinizes the sides. Mary’s patience with my old-woman idiosyncrasies expresses love without words.

“There.” She gently pats all the strays in place. “You look nice. Like you’re wearing a silver crown.” We exchange smiles. Taking my hands, she pulls me to my feet. I wobble into the living room to sit in my floral brocade, easy chair. I’m ready, at least physically, for our visitor today, one of my granddaughter’s coworkers. I smooth my skirt with wrinkled hands and place them folded in my lap. A girl named Ella has some questions for me. What could a young one want from an old woman like me?

Ding, dong, dingle, dong. Mary has the door open before the chime finishes. “Hello, Ella. Do come in. My grandmother is expecting you. Please sit in the chair to her left. She can’t hear a thing out of her right ear.”

What a smart girl my granddaughter is! I touch the hair that covers the scar above my right ear. I’ve yet to tell her that story!

“Hello, Mrs. Hagopian, how are you today?” Ella takes my hand and squeezes it ever so gently. “My name is Ella.”

“Hello, Ella. I’m fine and glad to finally meet you.” I adjust my rimless glasses. Armenian courtesy prompts me. “Are your parents well?”

“Yes, Mrs. Hagopian, they’re doing just fine, thank you.”

“Call me Annie.” From what my Mary had already told me, I liked this young woman. Now I find myself appreciating her even more for her good manners. My arms and back relax against my chair. “Mary says you have a question for me.”

“I hope it won’t trouble you,” she says.

“I’m sure it’s okay.” I lean toward her. “Go ahead.” My breath catches. My thoughts tumble over each other, trying to anticipate what Ella’s going to ask.

“I’ve been teaching English to adults. Night classes.” Ella’s gaze locks onto mine. “Many of my students are Armenians. English isn’t their second language, either. Often it’s their fourth, in some cases fifth!”

I chuckle. My memory races through a childhood flush with people from different tongues. Ah, for those days! Learning phrases was as easy as rolling off my sleeping mat in the morning. “Did that surprise you, Ella?”

She nods. “What surprised me even more was when a young woman named Araxi said, ‘I speak Turkish. Teacher, why I speak Turkish?’ I asked her if she had ever lived in Turkey. She told me no!”

My mouth drops open. Unbelievable. Araxi’s parents apparently haven’t told her anything about where they came from. My brows crease together.

“The strangest thing happened next.” Ella’s hands twist in her lap. “Another student named Krikor revealed something so awful … horrendous.”

My gut tightens. I can easily guess what that student said. It’s still on the tongue of every older Armenian alive. But I choose to let this girl tell her story. I wait. After all, haven’t I waited almost seventy years? Tears rim my eyes as I think of my best friend.

Ella stumbles on. “He … he said, ‘They kill us for nothink — Teacher, for nothink!’ I had no idea how to respond. So I just listened. Annie, what did he mean? Can you tell me? When…”

From her place on the sofa to my right, I see Mary catch Ella’s attention and put a silencing finger to her lips. I glance at my granddaughter. My lips form ‘Thank you.’

Tears flow unchecked down my cheeks. Pushing on the arms of my chair, I stand and hobble to the front window. I struggle to collect myself. Brushing away the salty dribbles with shaking fingers, I gaze past the ruffles of my white curtains at the bus stop across the street. When my vision clears, I see two girls in their early teens sitting together on the bench. They’re giggling and probably sharing girlhood secrets while they wait for a trip to the mall. The girls remind me of Nazli, my best friend, in a world away, eons ago.

“Grandma?”

Stifling a quick response to my granddaughter now as I have stifled my past for almost seven decades, I realize for the first time that maintaining my silence has accomplished nothing. My numb tongue has neither soothed my traumatized soul nor given my granddaughter an enlightened understanding of the suffering of her people. Without that, how will she ever truly value her roots?

“I’m so sorry.” There is a sob in Ella’s voice.

Poor Ella. The answers to her questions would supply much that Mary doesn’t know. Maybe it’s time – even if doing so will open old wounds of deep grief. Am I strong enough now? I ask myself. Guess I won’t know ’til I tell our story, Nazli’s and mine. …..”