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.

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.

 

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #13)

The tenor of life in the towns and villages across the Anatolian Plains of Ottoman Turkey took a sharp turn for the worse in the early months of 1915. Turkish and Kurdish harassment against their Armenian neighbors became serious and intense. Orders from Constantinople included stripping Armenian gendarmes of their guns and the re-conscription of Armenian men into labor battalions, supposedly to do road construction.

In my book Lavash, Uncle Dikran shows up at Annie’s house to complain about being fired from his town post as a gendarme. After spouting off, he suddenly remembers a message he is supposed to pass on to his brother, Annie’s hyrig.

“Oh, I almost forgot. The town crier passed our house early this morning.” Looking at Hyrig, Uncle said, “Minister of War, Enver, has called up all former conscripts of Armenian army units to serve on labor battalions this spring. That includes you, I believe.”

“It does. Labor battalions?” Hyrig asked. “What kind of labor? It doesn’t mean serving as porters for the army again, does it?”

“No. This time it’s for road construction. Next Friday morning, you are to report to the Centrum in Kemahcelli. Bring food for a week, several lengths of rope, and a shovel.”

That Friday, as Annie says goodbye to her father, she tells him she has a bad feeling about this departure. Her premonition is that the goodbye isn’t temporary. It is really forever.

Two days later, Annie, her mother, and siblings attend church for Easter Sunday services.

She relates, “Only when we were leaving the building did the absence of our men strike me. The church was full of women and children. I could count on one hand the number of men with their families.”

Annie never sees her beloved hyrig again.

What Annie doesn’t know is that armed Turks escort the re-conscripted, unarmed Armenian labor battalions some distance from their towns of origin and summarily ‘deport’ their laborers permanently that spring of 1915, leaving the remaining Armenian population of women, children, and elderly defenseless.


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 #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.

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.