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 #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 #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 #8)

While the two groups lived side by side in the small town of Kemahcelli in central Ottoman Turkey, the Turks and the Armenians maintained separate lives–for the most part. The friendship between Annie and Nazli, the book’s two main characters, exposed these teenage girls to each other’s cultural and religious contexts. That exposure helped each girl to look a little more carefully at their own cultural and religious perspectives of the world. That is what was going on in the next excerpts from Nazli’s diary.

Jihad was the topic during one Friday that Nazli went with her mother to the mesjid in Kemahcelli.

Chapter 5

“Iyi arkadasim, 26th June, 1914

Mam and I joined the other women behind the partition in the mesjid today. Since Annie and her family were on their trip for that all-important photo for her Petros, I agreed to go with my mam for Friday prayers.

After prayer, our imam expounded on the righteousness of following Allah the way Mohammed did–with holy war against the infidels. Our holy man talked an eternity. I thought he’d never stop. My legs cramped. I was so relieved when we could finally stand up.

What do I have to do with any holy war? What infidels was the imam talking about? He can’t mean the Christians in our town, can he? Why should we war against them? I don’t see them harming anyone. They obey our laws and pay their taxes more than any of us Muslims pay. At least, that’s what Baba’s told my older brother Yunus and me.

I don’t understand the call to jihad. Who decided that? Against whom? And why?

16th July, 1914

I’ve been thinking about the jihad that the imam called for. I feel ashamed now that I called Annie a gavur. She may not be a Muslim, but she worships Allah, too. Only…she calls him God. She doesn’t bow toward Mecca or prostrate herself when she prays. Nor does she recite prayers. She says whatever she thinks to Allah. I know. I’ve heard her do it whenever it’s prayer time for us Muslims. But can that be right? To speak one’s mind to Allah? I’d better persuade her and her family to become Muslims.

Added note: Petros might object though. He’s Armenian and probably a Christian.”

At this point in the storyline, Nazli’s understanding of what was right and wrong was thoroughly anchored in the world view given her by her family’s Islamic beliefs. Her desire for Annie’s conversion to Islam was based partly on what Nazli believed was right and partly on her growing awareness that Annie’s Christianity might provide the Turkish authorities with a convenient excuse for a disastrous consequence.

By the spring of 1915, Nazli’s niggly feeling of possible danger had developed into an all-encompassing alarm over Constantinople-orchestrated events. Jihad was the drum that the Young Turks of the Ottoman government wielded to get the cooperation of Turks, Rumelians, and Kurds against their Christian neighbors, the Armenians.