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.

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Ripple Effects and Rumelians

When a rounded stone (such as those displayed in this blog’s photo) plunges through the surface of a lake, is that the end of its action? Hardly. Ripples spread out in all directions from the stone’s entry point in the water. Some time later, a section of the ripples reaches a distant shore.

With the New Year of 2015 arriving shortly, it seems natural to take stock of the year 2014. But what I wonder is how the decisions and events of 2012 and 2013 contributed to what is today. Ripples effect lives, not just lakes.

The same was true in the days of the Ottoman Empire. In 1912-1913, European armies killed and pushed Muslim populations out of the Balkans and Thrace, forcing the displaced across the Bosporus (1989. A Peace to End All Peace). This flood of refugees included groups of Rumelians who resettled on the Anatolian Plain of central Ottoman Turkey.

Among the men of that defeated section of the Ottoman army was one, Mehmet Talaat. On January 4, 1914, Talaat and two of his cohorts took over the government of the Ottoman Empire. Talaat set himself up as the Minister of the Interior, giving him unlimited power to seek revenge for what the armies of Europe had done to him and the Rumelians when the European armies intervened on behalf of the Christian minorities in the Balkans and Thrace.

On October 15, 1914, the government in Constantinople issued telegrams across the Ottoman Empire for the recruitment of the Rumelian refugee men for military training. These were armed and formed into militias (p. 136. 2006. A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility).

The Rumelian militias were only one kind of group that Talaat used against a Christian population. But, instead of going after the armies that had tried to protect Christian minorities in Europe, Talaat aimed these revenging Rumelian militias at Christians who had nothing to do with the Balkan and Thrace defeats, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. The ripples from the 1912-1913 events hit the Anatolian Plain in 1915.

Now I ask, does punishing one group for what another did make any sense to you?

Choices

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.

Cross-Purposes for Jihad

Recent incidents in the midwestern part of the U.S. have prompted discussions about a home owner’s right to self-defence. If two teenagers break into an elderly man’s home with the intention of stealing, does the home owner have the right to shoot and kill the would-be robbers? What does the law say? Under what circumstances should a self-defence law be applied?

Then, there are many North Americans who view war as a necessary activity against aggression. The main idea behind participation in a fight is self-defence or in the defence of allies. The Western nations who joined the fight during Word War II provide a case in point. Young men in the U.S. willingly answered the governmental call to join the military in order to defend U.S. territory that had been attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Canadians had signed up even earlier to defend their ally England because its cities were being bombed by German planes.

In North American eyes, war is about the defence of one’s home or one’s friends. To most North Americans, jihad makes no sense. It isn’t war for the purposes of self-defence nor is it war for the purpose of defending a friend. It is blatant aggression against fellow citizens because that group of people has chosen a different religious belief and doesn’t wish to change. Yet Muslims call jihad a holy war. Most North Americans think of war as anything but holy. It appears to be more like hell. What makes jihad holy? Jihad is dubbed a war against infidels. Who is an infidel? According one of the definitions in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, an infidel is “one who acknowledges no religious belief.” Jews and Christians do not match that description. Yet most Muslims view anyone who is NOT a Muslim as an infidel.

That was certainly the definition that the government maintained in Ottoman Turkey.

On 4th January 1914, when the Young Turks took over the Ottoman government, Enver Pasha set himself up as Minister of War and Mehmet Talaat as Minister of the Interior (1989, A Peace to End All Peace). As the Young Turks rose to power, they promised equal rights for all. In reality, this group held a super nationalistic view–Turkey would only be for Turks, no one else.

  That was a non-reality in 1914. The Ottoman Empire at the time had a population from a variety of ethnicities, languages, and religions–Rumelians who had been expelled from Thrace and resettled in Anatolia; Greeks who had lived within the borders of the Empire for centuries; Armenians whose land the Turks had invaded and now administered; and Kurds who inhabited portions of the eastern provinces of Ottoman Turkey, just to name a few.

To accomplish their super nationalistic ends, the Minister of War Enver and the Minister of the Interior Talaat had several threads of recent history they could pull. Mob violence against the largest non-Turkish population, the Armenians, had already occurred in 1894, 1895, 1896, and 1909 (A Peace to End All Peace). Enver and Talaat were well-aware of the disdain with which most Turks regarded their Armenian neighbors.

Plus Enver and Talaat could easily beat the religious drum of jihad to rouse the Turkish population into cooperating with Talaat’s telegraphed orders to the provincial governors.

But Enver and Talaat didn’t just rely on the undercurrent of Turkish attitudes or use the Koranic encouragement toward jihad to foment hatred and justify mass murder.To accomplish “Turkey is only for Turks,” the two men spent an entire year drawing a variety of Muslim populations in Ottoman Turkey into well-armed and trained militias to wage the 1915 jihad against a group of Ottoman Empire citizens, the Armenians (A Peace to End All Peace; 1998, Lords of the Horizons; 2006, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility).

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.