Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #16)

In my previous entry “Chaotic Consequences: Now and Then,” posted on July 2, 2016, I referenced the aftermath of recent disastrous battlefronts–floods of desperate Syrian refugees trying to find safety.

I likened that scene to one that occurred in December and January in 1915. When the Russians decimated the Turkish army in the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks weren’t the only ones who suffered. Their commandeered Armenian porters did, too. There was no organized retreat for the fifteen percent of those who survived the battle. It was every man for himself. Escaping the battlefront and heading in the right direction toward home was only part of the challenge. The trek home had to be done in the dead of winter, across hundreds of miles, without adequate clothing or food, on foot, and often alone.

Annie and the rest of the Gregorian family have no knowledge of the battle pitched hundreds of miles away from their farm and town in central Ottoman Turkey. All Annie knows is that she hasn’t heard from her oldest brother, Mesrop, in months. He doesn’t even return home in time for one of the most important times of the year, early January’s Feast of the Theophany. Annie wonders. Mesrop is a student at an Armenian college. Surely the war with Russia has nothing to do with him. What has happened to him? Why haven’t we heard from him? Where is he?

Two weeks after the Feast of Theophany, Annie and her father go into town with a cart of farm products and set up a booth to sell them in the bazaar.

While I was measuring out a couple of kilograms of flour into a customer’s sack, a skeleton of a man staggered up to me. Looking up from the scale I held in my hand, I stared at the man’s matted hair scantily covered by a rabbit skin tied over his head. I ran my eyes down the rags he wore. Their faded hues reminded me of clothes I had helped make for… The man’s blue lips moved. A cracked voice whispered, “Annie!” The ragged frame collapsed at my feet.

Dropping my scale, I knelt next to the heap on the snow. Putting my hand under the man’s head, I gently turned it so I could see his face.

“Mesrop!” My scream brought Hyrig and other vendors running.

“A cloak! Someone get a cloak. Some hot tea. Quick. Where’s the doctor?” Voices around me called to each other.

I sat in the snow and dirt, cradling my brother’s head, weeping, calling his name.

Someone thrust a warm cup in my hand. “See if he can sip this,” a woman’s voice said. “My husband’s gone for the doctor.”

Lifting Mesrop’s head, I tipped the cup to wet his lips with a drop of the broth.His eyelids fluttered. His tongue licked the drop. Sip upon sip brought slight color to his face.

A rattle of cart wheels and clop of donkey hooves drew my gaze up. Hyrig stooped to gather his boy in his arms. Gently, he laid Mesrop in our donkey cart. A hand offered a cloak. It was from the coppersmith that Mayrig had defended months ago.

“Thank you,” Hyrig said as he tucked the warm garment around Mesrop. “Annie, pack up our stuff. We need to get him home.”

Sensing the urgency of the voices around him, the Gregorians’ donkey hustles back to their farm. Shortly after Hyrig carries Mesrop into the house, the doctor arrives.

Mesrop revived enough to answer the doctor’s questions. “Mesrop, you’ve made it home. We’re all relieved to see you. Where have you been?”

“The Russian front. With Turkey’s 3rd Army Corps. The army conscripted all of us male students from my college. We were porters.”

“What happened at the front?”

“Blizzard. Lieutenant Mahmoud killed. Ran out of food. Many dead. Frozen. Sick. Shot. Tried to help. Long walk back. Alone.”

“Are you sick?”

“Don’t think so. Just hungry. Very tired. Sooooo cold.”

Turning to my parents, the doctor said, “Your son needs warmth, food, and rest. Best start with cleaning him up. Do you have a wash tub and warm water?”

Mayrig took the hint. “Hyrig, let’s get him out of these filthy rags.”

“You should burn them outside,” the doctor instructed. “Shave his head. Burn the hair, too. May be infested with critters.”

Mesrop makes it home. Most of the Turkish soldiers and Armenian porters don’t. Nor is this scenario of missing persons the last to be set in motion by the government in Constantinople in 1915. A mere two months later, Annie’s hyrig goes missing. (See excerpt #13, posted April 23, 2015.)

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.

Integrity: Character Requirement for Leadership

“The ability to own mistakes is a key component of integrity” (from “The Least and the Greatest,” December,2014/January,2015, Thriving Family). One basic model for leadership, that has been rightly established, can be found at times in a family. When parents “keep up a front of perfection” because they think “admitting mistakes would diminish them” in the eyes of their family, those parents miss the opportunity to lead. “In reality, when we say to our kids, ‘I was wrong, please forgive me,’ their respect for us increases” (Dec.,2014/Jan.2015, Thriving Family).

Integrity is as necessary for leadership in a nation or for the leadership of a nation among nations. The governments of the countries of North America are aware of the need for integrity.

Among the national parks in the United States, for example, there are “places of historical significance like Sand Creek in Colorado, where U.S. troops massacred a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho” (“The National Park System,” May 31, 2015, Parade). (Cheyenne and Arapaho are two of the many First Nations that were in North America before Europeans came.)

The article about the national parks continues. “We [citizens of the U.S.] have been unafraid of not only sharing with the world the glories of our natural wonders and our inspiring past, but also culpability for some things which have not gone particularly well.” Burns says, “That’s how a great nation goes forward” (05/31/2015, Parade). Integrity requires a willingness to admit mistakes.

The opposite attitude, however, has been Turkey’s choice. Although Turkey had desired for centuries to be a leader among nations, that much-coveted position has eluded her because she lacks the necessary character quality for leadership–integrity.

A recent article in a local newspaper registered Turkey’s current prime minister’s objection to “descriptions of the Ottoman-era killings of Armenians as genocide” (04/16/2015, Associated Press).

The article further states that Turkey continues to insist that the Armenians killed “were victims of civil war and unrest, not genocide” (04/16/2015, Associated Press).

As I read the newspaper article, memories of photos I had seen flashed through my mind. It took me a while to revisit the sources of the research I did in 2010. When I viewed the photos again, those photos taken in 1915 and 1916 plainly told a very different story. They showed Armenian men being marched out-of-town under armed guard. Who had the guns? The Turks. What were the Armenians carrying? Shovels (2003, The Burning Tigris). What were the shovels for? Those men were never seen again. The photos showed Armenian men being hung from tripods in a public square of an Ottoman Empire town (2003, The Burning Tigris). Again, may I ask–who had the guns? Who had the power? The photos also showed numerous skeletal corpses of naked Armenian women and children and orphaned children dressed in rags and obviously starving to death (2003, The Burning Tigris). Who took these photos? A German on business in a central Ottoman Empire town, a second-lieutenant in the German Army stationed in the Ottoman Empire, and a number of Near East Relief workers. The photos testify that the Turks are denying the truth.

Modern day Turks continue to grip with all their might “… a brittle identity unable to risk questioning the story it clung to” (2014, There Was and there Was Not). When a people refuses to own up to a wrong they have done, their lack of integrity paints them with shame and sham. Without integrity, Turkey’s dream of being a leader among nations will remain in the dust.

Whose Responsibility? The Perpetrator or the Victim?

Let’s say a man forces a donkey to carry him up a treacherous mountain slope. When the man falls off and plummets down, as he surely will, is the man right to blame the donkey? The man was the one who chose the path.

A woman in India is raped and brutalized by a gang of men. The men have the gall to refuse to take responsibility for their crime. Society insists that someone take responsibility. Society doesn’t much care who does. So the society assigns the responsibility to the victim, the woman.

Huh? Say what? Is the human race a colossal bunch of idiots?

Yet this ignoramus mind-set perpetuates itself down through the centuries.

In December of 1914, the Ottoman Empire’s Minister of War, Enver, set the scene for a major disaster. He sent his army up the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, in summer uniforms, without tents, to bivouac in snow, and fight against the Russian army at the beginning of World War I. The encounter proved to be an enormous mistake. Enver lost 86% of his army (1989, A Peace to End All Peace). Did he take responsibility? Oh, no. He had the gall to blame his ‘donkey’, the Armenians that Enver himself had conscripted ( i.e., forced) to serve as porters for the Ottoman Empire’s army. It was the Turkish saying all over again: “It is not only the fault of the axe, but of the tree as well.”

Yep. Ottoman Turks, in general, and Enver and his counterpart Talaat, the Minister of the Interior, proved to be a special band of idiots.

Just goes to show you that if a lie is repeated often enough, society as a whole will eventually view the lie as the truth.

Perpetuating the lie about who was responsible for the disaster, the Ottoman Empire Turks rounded up their able-bodied Armenian men, escorted them under armed guards away from towns, had the Armenians dig their own graves, and then knifed them, burying the dead Armenians under shallow covers of dirt in the spring of 1915 (2006, Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility.) [ See my posting for March 11, 2013, “The March Madness of 1915.] Yet the Ottoman Turkish government had the gall to cast the responsibility for the crime on the Armenians. And Turks still do.

Huh? Say what? Is the human race still a bunch of idiots an entire century later?

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.