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 #14)

The serious illness of a beloved family member will rearrange both priorities and the schedule of any caregiver. That was true for my entire summer. The only writings I did were lengthy emails as I struggled to drive between hospital and home or between rehabilitation center and home to help with the care of my husband and still maintain our home–without wearing myself out. My husband is a senior citizen and so am I. He wouldn’t have benefitted if I had gotten sick, too.

So plans and purposes had to be set aside–for a time.

The same would have been true for Anahid Gregorian in Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it when her elder brother, Mesrop, collapses at her feet in front of her family’s booth during a January bazaar day in Kemahcelli. Annie and her family hasn’t heard from Mesrop for months. Yet here he is, more dead than alive.

After the town’s doctor comes to their farm to assess her brother’s condition, warns the family about lice and the typhus those critters often carry, and gives directions for Mesrop’s care, Annie willingly responds to her mayrig’s plea.

“Annie,” Mayrig called me from the kitchen where she was washing her hands. When I stood next to her, she whispered, “I need you to take over Mesrop’s care. Winter’s hard enough on the baby. We can’t risk Mary getting sick, too.”

“Don’t worry, Mayrig,” I said with a smile. “First I was a school girl, then a carpet knotter, later a kilim weaver…now a nurse.”

She smiled back. “Good girl.”

After supper, I climbed the ladder to my bedroom. Kneeling for a moment on its kilim, I prayed, “Thank you, Lord God, for answering our prayers for Mesrop’s return. Please heal him; strengthen his body. In the name of the Christ Child. Amen.”

Throwing my rolled bedding over my shoulder, I returned to the main room. Before I crawled under my blanket next to Mesrop, I touched the inside of my wrist to his forehead. As a child growing up, I’d watched Mayrig do this so many times. For the first time, I understood why. Like her, I was checking for a fever. Warm. Not hot That’s good.

That night, the thrashing of my brother in his sleep interrupted my slumbers. I reached over to nudge his shoulder. “Mesrop, what’s the matter?”

“Huh! What? Who’s there?” He sat bolt upright, arms raised in front of his face, looking ready to defend himself.

“It’s me, Annie.”

“Annie? What are you doing here? This is no place for girls!”

“Mesrop, relax. You’re home.”

When he lay down again, I said, “You must have been having a nightmare.” I reached over to cover him carefully.

“Thanks, Annie.”

“You’re welcome, Mesrop.” I prayed silently, Father God, please heal my brother’s mind, his memory, too. He’s probably seen some awful things.

At dawn, I went to the hen-house for a few eggs.

Annie’s departure for America to join her husband – to – be has already been postponed. When Mayrig delivered Gregorian child number six, Mary, Annie was needed to help with the baby, the farm work, and the weaving.

Once again, Annie’s departure is pushed back for months while she is the main caregiver for her brother, Mesrop. Priorities and plans must yield to the urgent.

Nor will this be the last demand. It is January. The year of 1915 has hardly begun.


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.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (Excerpt #1)

For the past seventeen posts of this blog, I have published some aspects of the historical research for my historical fiction Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it.

What follows is an excerpt of the scene I have pulled from the middle of the book to serve as its prologue. In this portion of the central plot, one of the two young protagonists lets her friend in on the kind of disaster she and her family will face shortly.

Nazli is a fourteen year old Muslim, Turkish girl. She is the only daughter of a government-appointed mayor in a small town on the Anatolian Plain in Ottoman Turkey. When Nazli attends the town’s school for girls, the only classmate who willingly offers friendship is a girl called Annie.

Also fourteen years old, Annahit (Annie) Gregorian is a Christian Armenian, the oldest of daughter of six children whose family’s farm is a kilometer from town. When Annie attends the school for girls, she makes friends with Nazli because Annie empathizes with the recent arrival from Constantinople whose life experience is different from all the other small town girls in their class.

Add to the mix Nazli’s overpowering inclination to snoop. She always has to know what’s going on. When she discovers odd mounds of things in her father’s storage room next to his office, she and her Aunt Hatije decide Nazli must bring Annie to the mayor’s storage room to see for herself what the mayor is up to.

The following excerpt is told from Annie’s point of view. Once Nazli has let Annie into the storage room, Annie approaches one pile of odd things, squats, and picks up two items.


The small town of Kemahcelli, central Turkey, April, 1915


Trembling, I remembered my family’s night of stark terror. I stood up and faced my best friend. “Nazli, two nights ago, Turkish soldiers pounded on our door. One held my mother, brothers, and me against the wall. Others ransacked our home and outbuildings. Dumped out storage jars. Slashed apart cushions.” I held up the sheep shears and rifle. “Took these things from our stable and hen-house!”

Nazli fixed her eyes on the rifle in my hand. “Whose is that?”

I swallowed hard. The room felt suddenly as hot as our tonir, the lavash-baking pit on the farm. As much as I love her, Nazli’s quite a gossip. Can I trust her to keep this information to herself? “Taniel’s. He uses it to keep foxes out of our hen-house and vineyards. But … please don’t tell anyone.”

Hands flew to Nazli’s hips. Her lips set like stone. “I thought so. One rifle on an Armenian farm would only be for the protection of that farm. … But when the soldiers’ raid turned up no cache of real weapons, my baba was livid.”

My mouth dropped open. “Why?” My body stiffened. “Why did your father think we had any?”

“Guns in your houses would prove Talaat Bey right. He says you Armenians are plotting a rebellion.”

“A rebellion?” I felt the blood drain from my face. My knees and hands shook. Taniel’s rifle almost slipped from my grip. “Who’s Talaat?”

“Baba’s boss. In Constantinople. Baba talks about him all the time.” Nazli rolled her eyes and sighed. “Ever since Turkey took Germany’s side of the war in Europe, baba’s talked on no one else. He agrees with the man. Talaat Bey says Turkey is only for Turks.”

I swayed. Get a grip on yourself, Annie.

“Whose rifles are those?” I asked, pointing at the second mound.

“The Turkish soldiers’.”

I gasped. The room smelled of more that ground-in dirt on damp stone. My eyes lit on the box camera that stood on a tripod in the corner of the room. An odor like burnt matches wafted from the photographer’s hand-held, flash-powder pan that rested on the floor beside the tripod. The photographer’s equipment in such sinister surroundings gave me a premonition of evil intent. “What’s the camera for?”

“Baba photographed the soldiers’ rifles. Sent the photo to Talaat Bey. Told him the rifles in the photo came from your homes!”

“But that’s a bold-faced lie!” I felt as if a donkey had just kicked me in the chest.

“I know.” With tears in her eyes, Nazli gripped my shoulders. “Baba and the lieutenant are scheming with Talaat Bey to make trouble for your people, Annie. Aunt Hatije and I wanted to warn you.” …