Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #10)

The henna party Nazli gave for Annie is several weeks past. Annie’s wedding day has arrived and she is up in her small bedroom above her family’s kitchen. Annie is supposed to be dressing for her big day, but instead she is sitting, pondering much, and staring at herself in a mirror.

“Anahid Gregorian! Quit your daydreaming!” Mayrig hollered from the bottom of the ladder. “We don’t want to keep Uncle Dikran waiting. He’ll be here any minute for the ‘kidnapping’.”

I gasped and then chuckled. Unless I wanted to be blindfolded and paraded through the streets of Kemahcelli clad only in my underwear and barefoot, I’d better hurry. Squatting on the sleeping mat, I stroked the wide, silver and gold stripes on the smooth silk of my wedding salvars. Slipping them on, I pulled their drawstring tight around my waist. My heavy, cream-colored silk, floral brocade dress cascaded over my head and shoulders toward my ankles.

While I pulled the loops over the half dozen silk-covered buttons on the front of the dress, I studied the bride in the wardrobe mirror. Narow sleeves flowed smoothly over small shoulders to a collarless neckline and down a snug bodice to an ankle-lenth hem. Two slits in the skirt of the dress ran from hem to hip revealing the lovely gold and silver stripes of the narrow-at-the-ankle salvars. I smiled at my image. Loosening my braids, I brushed my hair until it shone. Pushing its glossy black, wavy lengths behind my ears, I pinned a gold-threaded lace scarf over my hair.

Turning slowly in front of the mirror, I studied the unbelievably stunning bride. Oh, how I wish Petros were here! I’m sure he would love this bride I see. Fastening my bracelet on my wrist and grasping my Bible, I backed carefully down the ladder to the kitchen. Mayrig was waiting for me in the sitting room.

“Anahid, you look lovely,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Here, I have a surprise for you.” She handed me a pair of cream-colored, silk-covered slippers.

Murmuring my thanks and sliding my feet over the soft leather soles of the curved-toe shoes, I showed her my sleeves.

“Well,” she said, “if Dikran appears this moment, he’ll just have to wait.”

After fastening the last button for me, she tipped a tiny bottle of rose water into the palm of her hand. With a smile, Mayrig dabbed droplets of the sweet scent onto my throat and wrists.

At the last dab, Dikran announced his arrival. “Annie, what a lovely bride you make,” Uncle’s voice boomed. “If only Petros could see you now!”

“Thank you, Uncle Dikran. This fabric is amazing and everything fits perfectly.”

“And now on behalf of Petros Hagopian of Pasadena, California, I kidnap you.” So saying, Uncle Dikran bound a blindfold around my head, picked me up, and deposited me on the seat of his cart.

As Uncle’s donkey clopped down our farm lane, Mayrig called, “Annie, the rest of us will meet you at the church.”

With much hoopla, the cart on which I sat sped into town and up and down its lanes. A kidnapped bride was supposed to wail and make a fuss about being stolen away from her parents. But I couldn’t wail. For some strange reason  this custom struck me as terribly funny now that I was the bride. By the time Uncle Dikran had finished the charade and stopped the cart, I was laughing hysterically with tears trickling from under my blindfold.

“Such a brave one!” he mumbled in my ear when he set me on my feet. Carefully undoing its knot at the back of my head, my uncle retrieved his handkerchief.

I looked down the aisle of our Protestant Armenian church. Faces of family and friends were blurred by the tears still rimming my eyes. As Hyrig walked me toward the front of the church, I silently scolded myself, Annie, your family has been planning this day for months. Struggling to settle down, I glanced nervously from face to face and from floral garland to garland of the decorated sanctuary. I remembered to smile my thanks to the women and girls who had helped.

With Uncle Dikran standing next to me holding Petros’ photo, our pastor led us through the wedding service. My uncle spoke Petros’ parts. But there was no kissing of the bride at the end or introduction of the couple as husband and wife. Such things would have to wait for a similar service in America with Petros present. Nonetheless, I had made a lifelong commitment to a man before God, my family, and friends.”

What a wonderful memory for Annie to cling to in the days ahead. The spring and summer months of 1915 would prove to be anything but joyful.

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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 #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.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #5)

North American anthropologists have long complained about Christians going to live in and work with people of other cultures. Why do the anthropologists object? Because the entrance of Christianity changes both the people and the worldview of their culture.

That was certainly true for the Armenians. The entrance of Christianity into their nation in 301 A.D. changed many aspects of the Armenian perspective of the world.

Previously, Armenians worshipped many gods, much like the people groups around them. And, like those groups, fatalism would have been the underpinning of the Armenians’ worldview. Their thinking would have been overshadowed by an internal struggle to accept what was. Well, this must be the will of the gods. There is nothing I or anyone else can do about it.

When Christianity came, Armenian people and their culture gradually reflected a more positive stance in their worldview. Learning about the gift the one true God gave the Armenians through His Son Jesus turned their fatalism into progressivism. Through Jesus, every human being can have forgiveness of all they have done wrong. God cares about us. He has given us His best. God expects us to do our best. He promises in His Word to help us do that. God keeps His promises. We Armenians have hope.

In the historical fiction Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it, the two main characters, Nazli and Annie, give voice to these two world views – fatalism and progressivism.

Nazli has been steeped in the Ottoman Turk’s worldview of fatalism. On top of that is her mother’s disdain for Armenians. Her thoughts likely were We Turks are followers of Islam. We have the sacred book, the Koran. Although our religion offers us no guarantee of forgiveness, we must be right and everyone else is wrong. Nazli’s father overlays the fatalism and the disdain with the third world suspicion of Armenian progressiveness.

Through Annie, Nazli gets a glimpse of a totally different worldview. She doesn’t understand it at first; then questions both what her culture has taught her and what Annie tells her.

Annie’s family, on the other hand, is evangelical Christian. Their understanding of God is that He loves the people of the world so much that he sent His Son Jesus to offer Himself so that everyone could have forgiveness. Having received that forgiveness from God, Annie is free to love other people, including Nazli. Annie puts her belief into practice, doing her best to benefit her family and friends, as well as herself.

In this excerpt from chapter 4 of Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it, Annie and Nazli are sitting on the carpeted floor of Annie’s bedroom that is above the Gregorian family’s kitchen annex to their two-room farmhouse. Annie speaks.

“Why do you say we Armenians are rich, Nazli? My family lives on a farm, for all the saints’ sake, not some grand house in town!”

“But look at it. Made of quarried stone. Carved ceiling beams. Decorative wall tiles. It’s not a hovel.”

“You’re right. It’s comfortable, even if it isn’t huge. But it didn’t just appear from a dervish dancer’s vision.” Thinking about the relatively recent arrival of Nazli’s family when her father was appointed as mudur, I said, “My friend, you’ve been in Kemahcelli only two years. Do you have any idea how long my family has been here?”

Shaking her head, Nazli shifted on the rug.

“My brothers and I are the twentieth generation to be born on this farm.”

“That’s hundreds of years, Annie! … But I still think you Armenians must be rich. You have many thick, gorgeous carpets and kilims, like this rug in your bedroom.”

I folded my arms across my chest, exasperation putting an edge in my voice. “Nazli, we knotted and wove them ourselves.”

“Oh, I’d forgotten about that. Well then, all the Turks of Kemahcelli believe that you Armenians have buried gold in your houses, in your courtyards.”

“Where did they get that idea? Have you ever seen my mayrig, Aunt Shoshanna, or me wear any gold jewelry or coins?”

“No, but you family sells so much on market days. You must have lots of money.”

“That all goes for my oldest brother Mesrop’s education.”

“Education? Ha! What does Mesrop want with that?” …..

In this scene, Nazli expresses the common themes of Ottoman Turkish thinking. Assumptions always die hard. What Nazli voices to Annie becomes the excuse the average Turk uses to justify participation in the horrendous treatment of their Armenian neighbors during 1915.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #3)

In this excerpt of the historical fiction book’s chapter 2, it is 1914, in the small town of Kemahcelli in central Turkey. A simple incident of receiving some unwanted attention scares the thirteen-year-old Armenian girl Annie and panicks her parents.

Later, while Annie makes the dough for her family’s daily lavash, she thinks about the encounter.

“The memory of his eyes still terrified me. Those brown eyes under the red fez had bored into mine before I could drop them as any proper girl should. Such an intense gaze by a Turkish soldier followed by a lip-curling smirk would chill the blood of any Armenian school girl. Lucky for me my best friend Nazli, the mudur’s daughter, was beside me when we stopped for a drink at our town’s fountain. Otherwise, God only knows what else the soldier would have done. …”

Annie’s parents react to the incident by keeping her home from school. Without telling Annie, they begin the process of an arranged marriage. Months later, Annie learns about the arrangements when a letter arrives from her mother’s cousin.

“Annahid, come look at him,” Hyrig [Father] called from the sitting room. When I stood next to the divan on which he sat, he handed me a photo. A pleasant-looking young man smiled in black and white.

Mayrig [Mother] came over to look, too. “That’s my cousin’s son. He’s fifteen, a little older than you. Handsome, isn’t he?” Smiling, she caressed my cheek and chin. “Taniel went to get Dikran?” she asked Hyrig.

My father nodded. With a smile, he said, “Daughter, no Armenian girl has to marry the young man her hyrig has chosen for her. She can refuse. But I suggest you think and pray about this young man before you make up your mind.”

Make a decision – about marrying a young man – in America? My heart almost stopped. “Hyrig, why have you chosen him?”

“He comes from a good Armenian family. Everything we’ve learned about him indicates he’s upright, a hard worker with a genuine Christian faith. His mother wrote that he’s doing well as a high school student, too.”

“His family must be very proud of him,” Mayrig added.

“We’ve waited in making arrangements for you,” Hyrig continued, “maybe a little too long, partly because your mayrig needs your help right now. We also wanted to make sure we arranged a Christian marriage for you.”

“Even if it means sending me to America?”

“Yes, daughter, even if … But that won’t be so bad, will it? America’s a country everybody wants to go to.” Hyrig took my hands. “Why not you?”

“America’s a long way from Turkey. I know. Our teacher showed us on the map at Armenian school. I’d never see you again.” Tears trickled to my quivering chin.

Hyrig lifted my face with the palm of his hand . Using a sleeve, he wiped my tears away. “Anahid, you don’t have to go anywhere, if you don’t want to. But take some time to think and pray about this decision. It will change your life, whatever you decide. Just know, Mayrig and I believe this marriage would be the best for you.”

Scared, not in the least convinced, I kissed my parents on their palms goodnight and climbed the ladder to my bedroom above the kitchen…..”

Annie has a tough choice. Even as young as she is, she understands that accepting this marriage proposal means traveling to a distant land with the likelihood of never seeing her family again. If you were Annie, what would you choose? Refuse the proposal, stay in Turkey, take a chance on being kidnapped by a much older Muslim man and being forced into his religion? Or accept the proposal and travel half way around the world to a land where people don’t speak your language?

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. …..”