North American teens often have more choices in life than they can reasonably handle–given their rather short exposure to being on the face of the earth. Most of the time, they can freely choose hair styles and color. Imagine my shock the day I discovered one blond niece with pink-tipped hair or the afternoon I realized the black hair of a  normally blond nephew was courtesy of the efforts of his younger brother. Then freedom of choice in body-jewelry and baggy or holey jeans must be tolerated or approved somehow. Choices in friends and daily habits come next. North American teens’ choices seem to be endless.

I often wonder what a North American teenager would do if he or she were transported by a time machine back to the days of the Ottoman Turks. Girls in particular would be scandalized by what they would experience.

From childhood, a Turkish girl would be kept at home. She would likely be denied an education. The women in the household would train the girl in the keeping of the home, in cooking to please her father and brothers, and in the performing the daily washing and prayer rituals expected of the followers of Islam. A Turkish girl would be allowed to go to two places–the hammam or the local bathhouse at specified times, and the mesjid or local mosque on some Fridays. Whenever she left her home or whenever any men or boys came into her home, she had to cover herself completely. By the time, the girl reached the age of twelve or so, she was considered marriageable and often had to cover her face as well.

So one day, a matronly visitor shows up at the girl’s home. The girl’s mother understands the significance of the visit and hustles her daughter off to change into her finest clothes. When the girl and the household’s most elaborate tea service are ready, the girl must enter the sitting room and, with downcast eyes, serve tea to the visitor. While the visitor sips her tea, she examines the girl from head to toe. When the visitor puts her cup back, the girl must quietly withdraw.

After the matronly visitor leaves, the girl and her mother wait to see if the visitor has chosen the girl as a bride for the visitor’s son. If the girl isn’t chosen, she and her mother wait for another such visitor. If the visitor does choose the girl, the girl’s mother checks into “the prospects of the potential groom.” When the criteria of both mothers have been met, the girl’s father and brothers make the arrangements for the wedding contract, dowry amount, ceremony, etc.

And the Turkish girl? She has NO choice (1971. Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey.) (Also see the August 30, 2013 posting of this blog.) It is my guess that every Turkish parent taught his or her daughter to meekly accept ‘her fate.’

Daughters of Turkish families in the Ottoman Empire were not the only ones without choices. The summer of 1915, all choices ended for the Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey. But the selection process for every Turkish mother of a son continued with little interruption for decades.


“Here Comes the Bride”

Announcements of engagements and weddings come through fairly predictable forms in North America these days. The engagement proclamation in a local of newspaper includes the names of the man and woman and their parents, as well as a general description of both the man’s and the woman’s education, current jobs, and their wedding month and year. The notice sometimes states the couple’s plans for their future home. Above the announcement, there is usually a photo of the happy-looking pair. Sometimes they announce their intentions to their church community. In Anglican and Episcopalian churches, such notifications are called “the reading of the bans.”

A fancy card in a mailed envelope is a common method of inviting family, relatives, and friends to a wedding. Nowadays these seem to arrive with either directions to the location(s) of the ceremony and reception or a slip of paper that has a map on it.

While none of these methods for announcements existed in the Ottoman Empire in 1914, customs for announcing a wedding existed. On the day of the wedding, a man from the groom’s family went to the home of the bride. After blindfolding her, he and other male members of the groom’s family led the girl, often no older than twelve years of age, from her parents’ house through the streets of the town to the church for the wedding ceremony (1971. Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey). According to tradition, the bride was to look sad (1991. Turkish Reflections.) Keep in mind that the bride may not have even seen the face of the groom before her wedding day.

Traditional expectations were also influenced by the fact that Armenian girls were often the victims of a kidnapping by the men from the groom’s family. So an escorted bride was supposed to wail during her circuit through the town’s streets because the men were ‘stealing’ her away from her parents’ home.

Hmm. A very different method for a public announcement of a wedding, wouldn’t you agree?

But all these traditions were exterminated the summer of 1915.

Bridal Shower: Ottoman Turkish Style

A bridal shower is a common, North American custom that provides a bride-to-be with a chance to celebrate with the women and girls among her family and friends. Such parties are usually held in someone’s home before the date of the bride’s wedding. During such a party, the guests play games, eat sweet treats, and present the bride with gifts that are either personal or for the bride’s new home. The intention of such festivities is to rejoice with her and to wish her the best in her new life.

For centuries now, women and girls in the Middle East have held henna parties for a similar purpose. A friend or family member of the bride-to-be organizes the party, invites the bride’s family and friends, and hires women henna artists. At the party, guests enjoy delicious food and drink and noisy gossip.

But the highlight of the event would be the decorating of the bride-to-be with the reddish henna paste. Applying it with sticks onto the young woman’s skin, the artists draw on her hands and forearms and sometimes her collar-bone and throat swirling henna designs. When the drawing is complete and the henna paste has dried, the granule-like remains are brushed off, leaving the reddish decorations on the bride’s skin. Some of the guests also ask to be decorated with small designs, rewarding the artists with small tips.

A henna party has been the Middle Eastern version of a bridal shower. It’s intent has been to wish the young woman health and beauty.

If a henna party were ever to include both Turks and Armenians during the era of the Ottoman Empire, the location for such a party was a great difficulty. Turks disdained Armenians and were reluctant to enter their homes. And Armenians were seldom welcome in a Turk’s home. Although Turks and Armenians lived side by side in towns and cities in Ottoman Turkey, there were few places of neutral space. The two spaces of shared territory were the weekly bazaars, or open markets, and the town or neighborhood’s hammam, or Turkish bath.

Yet even these common spaces had rules that relegated separation. Women weren’t permitted to do the shopping in the bazaar. A woman’s husband or brother did it for her. If she ever did any shopping, a man of her family had to accompany her.

The rules for the use of the town’s hammam were even stricter. Each gender was assigned the use of the bath on a specific day once a week (1971. Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey). And Armenians were required to use the hammam on entirely different days. There was no mixing of genders or people groups.

Even then, the hammam functioned in Ottoman Turkish towns as the space closest to a modern-day community center. Such a neutral space was most likely to have served as the location for a henna party if such an event included both Turkish and Armenian women prior to 1915.

Civil Rights?

North Americans often assume that people will or at least should function as if their behavior is governed by Judeo/Christian-based laws or ethics. A teacher colleague of mine discovered to her shock that isn’t always the case.

Even here in the north central part of North America, many immigrants from Africa and the Middle East are our neighbors these days. Just because these newcomers have come to the “land of the free” doesn’t mean they have shed any of their assumptions, prejudices, or culturally engrained ways of handling relationships. When my colleague objected to the way a neighbor had treated her, the neighbor replied, “You’re an infidel (not a Muslim). So I can treat you any way I like.” Remember now, this incident occurred in North America in the twenty-first century!

Evidently, a Muslim’s understanding of Sharia (Islam-governed law) holds that Muslim accountable for how he or she treats another Muslim. (And punishments for disobedience can be quite severe.) Apparently, any activity or attitude of a Muslim is permissible toward a non-Muslim.

That expectation evidently hasn’t changed since twelve hundred A.D. after the Seljuk Turks took over Armenian territory to establish the Ottoman Empire. By 1915, the Empire’s Armenian population had already endured centuries of subjugation as second class citizens (See “Segregation Device: Shoes by Firman,” December 7, 2012 posting). Whenever an Ottoman Turk had a mind to harass, beat up, steal from, rape, or even kill an Armenian, the Turk could do it with impunity. The Armenian had no recourse. Any attempt at a protest usually resulted in more mistreatment.

Justice and civil rights existed only for Muslim Turks in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. 


Is Wealth Made or Stolen?

“Wealth is made.” This Western cultural belief follows on the heels of another belief that is dear to the heart of every North American. If a man or woman works hard at obtaining an education and is diligent in business or at a job, he or she can and will make personal wealth. So wealth is not evil. It is a just reward for great effort.

In most developing countries, however, no such assumption exists. Peoples of third world cultures assume that there is only so much material on earth. They firmly believe that the world has limited goods (1976, Cultural Anthropology, p. 265). Therefore, if a neighboring farmer succeeds in growing a dozen more yams than the farmer with fewer yams, the poorer farmer assumes it is because the richer farmer has somehow cleverly stolen the ‘extra’ yams from the poorer farmer’s field. Wealth is viewed as theft. Third world people assume any evidence of personal wealth is a sign of evil, proof of intelligence used to rob everyone around the wealthy one.

“Wealth is stolen” was an assumption alive and well during the days of the Ottoman Empire. Turks acted as if the prosperity and success of the Armenians in Turkey were  signs of evil intent.

Functioning on Christian principles, the Armenians of Turkey embraced any opportunity for an education that became available, especially for their young men. The Armenians also acted on the teaching from the Bible that God expected every follower of Christ to work hard and to do his or her best everyday and in every way.

Their Turkish neighbors and overlords, however, viewed the prosperity of the Armenians with jealous eyes. One rumor Ottoman Turks evidently believed was that Armenians had gold buried in the walls of their homes. Once the Armenians had been forced out in 1915, there were instances where Turkish neighbors pulled apart Armenian houses looking for the gold. Of course, the looters found nothing.

If you or I had been living in Ottoman Turkey in 1915, would we have believed prosperity to be a sign of God’s blessing, e.g., His reward for diligence, or assumed wealth to be a sign of thievery? Are commonly held assumptions mirrors of a group’s religious foundations, or are assumptions the reflections of the weaknesses of human hearts and minds?

Marriage customs of Ottoman Turks

We North Americans have a tendency to throw our hands up in holy horror at the idea of a marriage including multiple wives. But we think nothing of a series of spouses – gained through divorce and remarriage. I find myself wondering how that is any better than the allowances Mohammed and his Koran made for Muslim men.

In my discussions with my Muslim students in my English classes, both the men and the women made it clear that the Koran’s allowance for multiple wives still had limits. A Muslim man can only take a maximum of four women as wife. There was the additional limitation of “only if he could support that many.” An undercurrent of opinion among the women included  their expectation of an evaluation by their fathers and brothers of their suitor. Each woman expected her father and/or brothers to make sure the suitor could provide for her and any children that came, especially if she was to be the second, third, or fourth wife.

In researching the situation for girls in Ottoman Turkey for my historical fiction Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it, I discovered that the person who usually initiated the process of finding a bride was a Turk’s mother, not the young man himself. His mother went from house to house to observe the daughters who dressed in their best to serve such a matronly guest. When the mother found a girl she liked she would approach her husband about her choice of bride for her son. Then the men of both families would make the arrangements for the marriage. Most of the time, the groom and the bride never saw each other before the day of the wedding. The young man had little say about who he married. And, unlike her Armenian counterpart, a Turkish girl had NO say in who she married. A fatalistic attitude mostly likely commandeered her mind.

A Turkish girl in the time of the Ottoman Empire had a maximally prescribed life. Her brothers monitored the modesty of her dress and did whatever they could to ensure her chastity. A girl’s contacts outside the family’s home were limited, rarely at her discretion.

Even in the days of the Ottoman Empire, a young Turk was allowed by his religion to take “a woman of the Book” to wife. Since “the Book” is a reference to the Bible, that meant a Muslim man could marry a Christian wife. Given the customs of bridal selection, it is doubtful that any marriage in Ottoman Turkey between a Turkish man and an Armenian girl was accomplished through her or her family’s choice. It would have been by force, usually through a kidnapping.

In Ottoman Turkey, then, neither a kidnapped Armenian nor a Turkish girl had any opportunity to set the general course of her life. Were girls simply cattle to be bred? To be disposed of as the men around them saw fit? This treatment of women was demeaning then and a direct indictment to this day of the soul-lessness of Islam – whenever it decides to relegate half of the world’s population to the status of cattle.

As “a woman of the Book,” I read the following, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27). From that sentence and other passages of the Bible, I understand that both men AND women are living souls.

Arranged Marriage: Ottoman Empire Style

The romantic notion of marrying for love has taken a firm hold on the North American view of marriage. How much of that expectation is due to movies out of Hollywood, California, is anybody’s speculation. A lasting marriage arising out of any other foundation seems unlikely to our ‘modern’ mind set.

Marriages in the Ottoman Empire, however, weren’t made by the young. The elders of the two families arranged any marriages. At least that was true for the Turks and, in the best of circumstances, the Armenians, as well.

A Turkish mother with a son of marriageable age was the one to start the ball rolling. She would visit the homes of girls to look for a prospective bride. The boy’s mother expected the young girl to be dressed her best and use the family’s best coffee service. While the boy’s mother inspected her, the girl had to stand and wait with head bowed. Once the mother guest returned the coffee cup, the girl withdrew from the sitting room. From house to house, the boy’s mother visited until she had made her selection. The boy’s mother would revisit the home of the chosen girl and ask the girl’s mother for the girl’s hand in marriage. The girl’s mother would ask questions of the boy’s work and other prospects. When the mothers agreed on the selection, they talked to their husbands and left the arrangements up to the men for the exchanged betrothal gifts and dowry money, the marriage contract, and the setting of the date for the wedding ceremony and feast.

What did the young people involved have to say about the marriage? The boy had little to say. The girl had none. In most cases, the groom never saw his bride’s face or talked to her until after the wedding celebrations had ended. At which point, the groom brought his bride to his father’s home.

Under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, marriages for Armenian young people were also arranged – by the male members of the boy’s and girl’s families. Usually the girl’s father or older brother presented the boy’s proposal to the prospective bride who was likely no older than twelve years of age.

Unlike the Turkish girl, an Armenian girl could reject the proposal.

If the girl accepted the proposal, she could expect a visit from the boy’s mother. During the mother’s visit, she would give the girl’s home a white glove test. While the prospective bride wasn’t expected to know how to cook, she was expected to know how to clean a house. Only when the boy’s mother approved of the housekeeping skills of the prospective bride did the fathers of the two families complete the marriage arrangements.

Here, too, the bride and groom rarely saw each other until the wedding ceremony and feast. And at their conclusion, the groom took his bride to his parents’ home to live during the newlyweds’ first year of marriage.

This specific Armenian custom had a unique purpose. It was so the groom’s mother could teach the bride how to cook the groom’s food just the way he liked.

Not every Armenian girl was so fortunate to have her family arrange a marriage for her. Under Ottoman Turk rule, many Armenian girls were kidnapped, forced into Turkish or Kurdish harems, and coerced into converting to Islam.

Some girls were snatched from the streets or stolen from their homes. Fathers and brothers who dared to object to the kidnapping of their daughters or sisters were often killed. This was especially true, if the kidnappers were Kurdish Hamidiye.

With such a threat shadowing the Armenian young women of the early 1900s, I believe they usually welcomed the marriages arranged for them by their families.

As a North American woman, I can hardly fathom the limited choice under which Armenian girls or the total absence of options under which Turkish girls lived during the Ottoman Turkish Empire. It makes me wonder. If I had been a fourteen-year-old daughter in either type of household in 1914 or 1915, at what kind of straw would I have clutched?