Showing posts with label armenia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label armenia. Show all posts

Friday, June 2, 2017

I seek a meadow

Turkey, 1910

At the end of the 19th century, a string of eight Armenian villages dotted the slopes of Musa Dagh - the Mountain of Moses - on the southern tip of Turkey near the ancient city of Antioch. Musa Dagh is so close to Syria that you can see it from the upper slopes, and wealthier residents used to take short trips to Aleppo just as often as they would head to Antioch. Of course, what was Syria, what was Turkey and what was Hatay (another word for Antioch, also called Antakya) was not a clear boundary. Reflecting on what life must have been like there a century ago, I can't be sure that a trip to Aleppo from Musa Dagh or Antioch was even considered an international trip. Now, it certainly is one: one you are not allowed, or not advised, to make. 

Musa Dagh is dry and pleasant, its roads shaded by orange and pomegranate trees. To one side there is a view of the Mediterranean. Its stone houses are picturesque, and life there was once quiet, as it is now. The area around Antioch and the mountain is dotted with Greek and Roman ruins, in fact, today Antioch has a fine sculpture and mosaic museum archiving this heritage. 

In one of the more distant villages, one well-to-do family made their money raising silkworms. They were Armenians, and therefore Christian, but in other ways they were not that culturally different from their Turkish or Syrian neighbors. They drank the same tea, they played the same endless games of backgammon, they wore similar clothing, they ate similar food, and they could all communicate. The Armenians were not necessarily treated well under the Ottomans; regardless, the family of silk-growers prospered. 

A few hours away in Tarsus, another well-to-do family was raising a small brood of children, including a strong-willed, handsome young girl named Verdjin. 

Verdjin was born right at the turn of the century. Around 1910, when she was 10 years old, a strong-jawed young student named Mihran, who was a family friend, asked her father Hagop for permission to marry her when she came of age. Looking back in time, this seems so odd as to be scandalous, but in Turkey in 1910 it would have been quite normal. What was strange, in fact, was that rather than grant his daughter's hand, Hagop insisted that the marriage could only happen if Verdjin herself acquiesced when she was older. 

Of course, Mihran was one of the sons of that silkworm-raising family on Musa Dagh. Having no interest in the family business, he went to Tarsus, finished school and joined the military. 

Throughout this time, the government of Turkey was doing its best to ignore the "Armenian Question" - that is, what to do about the promised reforms of their treatment of the Armenian minority that they had no intention of implementing, and how best to connect the Turkic-speaking peoples across Central Asia - a connection they felt was blocked by the existence of non-Turkic Armenia. 

Five years later, with the Ottoman Empire on its way out and the Young Turks on their way in, both Verdjin and Mihran's lives were upended. The Young Turks, led by Enver, Djemal and Talaat Pasha, instituted a policy of 'Turkification' whose main aim was to solve the 'Armenian question' by ridding Turkey of its Armenian population. In short, a genocide. It seems clear that their hatred for minorities was primarily ethnic, and they were working from a mindset influenced by Western Europe of what it means to be a modern nation rather than an empire: one nation, one people, no room for minorities. Of course, in 2017 this is clearly problematic, a recipe for genocide. At the time, it was a modern way of thinking. 

It's not clear to what extent religious hatred fueled the three pashas' thirst for Armenian blood, but it seems likely that they endeavored to promote religious animosity in order to get as many people to agree with their plans for 'ethnic cleansing' as possible. Remember that the killing continued under Kemal Ataturk - and Djemal, Talaat and Enver Pasha's death sentences for their perpetration of the genocide overturned - and it is often observed that Ataturk's religious beliefs were unclear, and he may well have been quietly atheist. On the local level, Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks had lived as neighbors for centuries - it's hard to turn someone against people of another ethnicity when you know people of that group. It's easier to turn people against their neighbors by engineering a campaign of religious fanaticism. 

When the Young Turks came to power, Armenians celebrated the ideal of the new republic with their Turkish friends. Soon after, they were told that they had to leave their ancestral homes 'for their own safety'. They were marched into the desert and, if they did not die along the way from starvation, fatigue, disease or raids that were not only ignored by their Turkish guards but were actively encouraged by them, were put in disease-ridden refugee camps in the most inhospitable parts of the desert with no food or water supply: these camps were designed to result in as many deaths as possible. 

Verdjin's parents decided it was no longer safe in Tarsus. Their first choice was Cyprus, but refugees were no longer being admitted there. They left instead for Izmir, once known as Smyrna, just as ancient as Tarsus, Antioch or Aleppo. 

Mihran, on hearing that Armenians were being systematically massacred and the children of his village being taken and sold to Turkish and Kurdish families, left his post in the military. He traveled around the countryside and, using the influence of his position in the military - and likely the fear that his uniform engendered in the families he visited - negotiated the return of every single child. While his neighbors and family (including, possibly, his father) were on Musa Dagh fighting in the 53-day resistance, he was off the mountain, doing his best to continue the fight. 

He had been hiding in a metal-lined barrel meant for olives, and survived. 

In Izmir, around the time of the great fire of 1922, Verdjin's family decided that Turkey was no longer safe for them, and decided to leave for Greece. They could have left immediately, but it was a Sunday, and Hagop refused to 'travel on the Sabbath'. His wife, Anna, could not persuade him. That night, on the eve of their departure, Turkish officers forced the hotel to turn over the name of every Armenian on the guest registry. As the women and children hid, terrified, all of the men, including Hagop, were rounded up and taken away. Typically at this time this would mean they were shot, and their bodies dumped in a mass grave. There was no way for Verdjin or her family to know if this had been the family patriarch's fate, however, he was never seen or heard from again. It is clear enough. 

The next day, the surviving members of Verdjin's family left for Athens, where they became refugees. 

Mihran was still at large. The children whose return he'd secured had been taken with the help of an Armenian family that had betrayed their neighbors and friends, and they were now out for him. At one point they came through a village where Mihran was hiding, emptying rounds of ammunition into every structure they could find, with the intent of killing him. Satisfied that he could not have survived such an onslaught, they left. 

This Armenian family called on the local military to find and arrest Mihran, most likely sending him to his death in one of the desert marches. The Turkish officer who found him walked up and, instead of shooting him or placing him under arrest, embraced him. They had gone to school together. Mihran was free to go. 

Soon after this, he decided it was time to leave Turkey. He sought to find the woman he'd asked to marry so many years ago, when both knew only prosperous and comfortable circumstances. She would have been in her early twenties then, certainly old enough to decide for herself if she wanted to tie her life to his.

* * *

Athens, 1924

Verdjin was living in Kokkinia, an area in Piraeus that, at that time, was sparsely populated and well outside of Athens. She lived in the refugee camp with her family, working in the refugee hospital for extra rations for the family. Around this time, a group of European missionaries donated the money and material to build a small church and missionary school - it was erected in 1924 and became the Armenian Evangelical Church. At the time, Kokkinia had over 100,000 Armenians - some attending the Evangelical Church, others attending the Orthodox Church just across the street. 

There were many refugee camps in the area - the Greek government took in the refugees but purposely separated them so that they would not form an 'Armenian ghetto'. 

Mihran searched for over a year before he located Verdjin. When he finally found her, instead of coming to her directly, he took a long and likely thoughtful stroll in the meadow above the refugee camp where she was living. He picked a bouquet of violets, went to the newly-built missionary school, and convinced the students there to find and bring Verdjin. It was April Fool's Day.

"Come meet our new friend!" the students said as they ran to Verdjin, who was working at the hospital.

Verdjin, quick and rational, initially refused to go with them. She was too busy; she had work to do, and her family needed the rations. They persisted. Perhaps this seemed odd enough to be worth investigating - what "new friend" is worth bothering someone this much to come meet? Perhaps she was nearly done with her work after all. Perhaps she figured this would be a quick trip and she could return soon. In any case, she relented. 

When she got to the school and climbed the stairs, the "new friend" her student friends had brought her to meet was, of course, Mihran, holding a bouquet of violets. 

I like to think he said "April Fool's!" before he asked her to marry him, but I don't think I'll ever know for sure. 

They married in Athens. Verdjin left the refugee camp and Mihran left his room at the church parsonage. They set up a small household and had three children: Ann, Armen (originally Musa Armen, for Musa Dagh and Armenia) and Hagop (James). Verdjin nursed her mother in her final years. Mihran's father returned to Musa Dagh, which by that time had become a part of the French Mandate of Syria, then the independent state of Hatay. It eventually reverted to Turkey, but he would have likely died before that happened. 

In those pre-war years, these Armenian refugees quite likely looked to their future and saw Greece. Verdjin cared for the home and Mihran worked at the Evangelical Church as the assistant to the pastor, who was blind. The pastor often said that Mihran 'served as his eyes'. Verdjin and Mihran and their three children were not Greek, but they could live here in peace. Their children could live a nearly typical Greek childhood in this slowly growing Athens suburb.

World War II changed that. Many Armenians left: the population decreased from over 100,000 to around 20,000. While Greece had accommodated these refugees, they likely didn't complain when the Armenians emptied out of the neighborhoods that had sprung up in the intervening decades. Verdjin and Mihran knew that they too must go - with Mihran's military past and reputation for having resisted valorously in the years of the genocide, it was quite unlikely that he would have escaped the notice of the approaching Nazis. 

There was a quota system for immigration to the US then - it was not necessarily easier than it is now. Mihran left first, bringing Ann and Armen. Verdjin and Hagop waited in Athens for their 'number' to come up. There is a family story that Verdjin's brother, also in Athens, 'arranged' for papers of potentially dubious legality. I don't know how true this is, but in any case, Verdjin and Hagop eventually joined Mihran and the older children in the USA. 

Ann, Armen and Hagop were refugees; Verdjin and Mihran were refugees twice over. They lost everything, twice. Nevertheless, they made a home for themselves in America. Mihran was ordained and was the founding pastor of an Armenian church in upstate New York. 

Armen, the middle child, went on to earn a Master's in microbiology, married a beautiful woman with Mayflower blood and had five children. The oldest was my mother.

* * *

New York State, 1993

I was twelve years old when Nana died. Her real name was Verdjin, but I didn’t even know that until a few years before - we’d always just called her Nana. I knew her as the tiny old woman who spoke thickly-accented English, whom I couldn’t talk to easily. But she clearly loved me, and she had a certain gravitas about her that made me just the tiniest bit afraid. I knew, before then, that I would likely regret not getting to know her better, but my child’s brain didn’t know how to process that feeling let alone express it.

I grew up eating her food, and my grandmother’s: the only non-Armenian that the church ladies said could cook better Armenian food than any of them. I ate lahmacun, hummus, tabbouleh, sarma and dolma long before I knew what they were actually called. On Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, we’d have turkey, roast or ham - and hummus and dolma. We’d visit her little house - Mihran had died in the 1960s - and sit in her kitchen redolent with Armenian spices, or her white lace curtained, doily-covered living room. I didn’t even know how typically Caucasian those white lace curtains were, nor did I know how closely the doilies resembled Turkish ones.

I didn’t really know what to say when she died: I was sad because she was my Nana, but I had never really known her. As a pre-teen, I didn’t know how to relate to this ancient ‘ethnic’ person. I didn’t know how to ask her questions, or what questions I wanted to ask. We barely spoke a common language, which I didn’t know how to overcome. Everyone cried - I wanted to, but didn’t. I was twelve: I understood death but didn’t really understand. After all, I had hardly known her.

We couldn't even relate to each other as an older and a younger woman: she was a good woman, no, a great woman. Intelligent, with the steel will of someone who grew up in the midst of one tragedy and raised a family in another. An excellent cook. Her morality, however, was Old World. Homemaker, helpmeet, Christian. "Boys and girls are like fire and cotton - they shouldn't be in the same room together." I loved her, but my budding feminist self simply did not share those values.

Towards the end, she forgot the English she did learn to speak, and we couldn’t really communicate. I knew she’d survived ‘The Genocide’ and that her father had been dragged off in front of her and was later killed. I knew her husband, Mihran, had been the pastor of the foreign-seeming church where my grandparents sometimes took me, where they sang hymns in a language I didn’t understand, written in a script I couldn’t read. Armen came to America and decided he wanted to be as American as possible - he hadn’t raised any of his children, including my mother, to speak Armenian.

I didn’t even realize until I put the pieces of his childhood together myself that he was not a native English speaker. You would never be able to tell. Grandpa is still alive, you can go ask him. Or just listen to him talk about how much he loves Donald Trump - I promise, you’d never have guessed he grew up speaking a language other than American English if I hadn’t just told you.

* * * 
Taiwan, 2006

I had been in Taiwan for two weeks when I celebrated my 26th birthday. I’d lived abroad before, but had either made a few real friends, or been friendly enough with the people around me that it didn’t matter that I lacked authentic friendships - my basic social needs could be met. This was the first time I found myself in a city full of people I could potentially be friends with, and yet I had no one to talk to. Most new foreigners to Taiwan make friends with their coworkers first. I didn’t dislike most of them, but I didn’t feel compelled to spend much time with them, either, and I didn’t know anyone else yet.

My roommate and I shared a birthday, but even if we had had friendly chemistry (we didn’t), he had been here awhile and so spent his 26th on a day trip with his girlfriend. I don’t know what the weather was like where they went, but it poured in Taipei - that gray-all-day pissing down that never lets up. My room smelled a bit of must, old apartment and cigarettes - the other roommates sometimes smoked on the balcony outside my room, and I didn’t want to be the bitch who asked them not to. It rained so hard that the old Coke can on the balcony that they’d filled with cigarette butts and ash overflowed, spilling its sooty contents across the tabletop and down the legs in dark gray rivulets. Someone had stuck a sticker to the sliding glass door that led out there from my room. It said “Super” on it. I looked at it and all the gray beyond. “Super,” I thought. Just super.

I took myself out for terrible Indian food, which I ate alone. The samosas deflated under my fork and the lamb rogan josh looked and tasted like it’d come out of a microwave packet. The decoration in the restaurant consisted mostly of old Christmas ornaments taped to the ceiling. Nevertheless, other diners ate with friends, or at least people they knew. I chewed my flabby samosas alone.

The nearest metro station was on the elevated train line, the one that ran down Fuxing Road. As I rode home, I looked out the rain-streaked windows at everyone below: people in cars, people strolling down the sidewalk under colorful umbrellas, and I thought, everyone here has somewhere to be, someone to talk to, or at least people to return to. I am completely and utterly foreign.

What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.

Now I know that’s not true - locals are just as able to feel as deeply alone as foreigners, and foreigners don't always stay so neatly foreign - but at the time this thought reduced me to an embarrassing crying jag on the brown line. 

* * * 
Musa Dagh, 2011

Nearly one hundred years after Verdjin and Mihran fled Turkey, my husband and I traveled there. I attempted to find the village where Mihran had grown up. We also stopped briefly in Tarsus, a well-established city.

I couldn’t find the village then, because I lacked the knowledge and resources to get there: we were on a tight budget that precluded hiring a driver, I didn’t know the ‘Turkified’ name of the village, now devoid of Armenians, and I had neither an international driving permit nor the confidence to drive in a country like Turkey. Of course, this small village was not serviced by any buses. We made it as far as Vakifli, the only remaining Armenian village not only on Musa Dagh but in all of Turkey, where the bus stopped. We tried to walk a bit further, but we knew it would have been too far off. 

I took in the meadows where a century before some of my ancestors and their neighbors successfully fought off Turkish troops for those 53 days, and were finally rescued when a passing French ship saw their flag - Christians in Distress - Rescue  - and sent another ship to collect the refugees. Right there, on the Mediterranean coast I was gazing down upon. The whole way down was covered in quiet meadows with blooming flowers. Vakifli was a prosperous little town with a number of well-to-do houses surrounded by tidy fruit orchards and yes, meadows. The sun shined on the line where the sky met the sea. We stopped at the teahouse in Vakifli, where the local Armenians and some ‘roots’ tourists like us played backgammon just like the Turks in other teahouses we’d visited and drank amber-brown tea in flowerbed-shaped glasses…just like the Turks in the other teahouses we visited.

I looked out over the vista, down the coastline where ‘my people’ had been Rescued because they were Christians in Distress, and I could see Syria. Aleppo was only about 50 kilometers away. An ambitious person could have driven there in an hour or two if not for the border and, of course, the war.

Someday, we will return. What seemed impossible in 2011 would now be possible (if not for, of course, the war). I’m more confident, I have more money. I know the current name of the village. We could hire a car and driver or, not necessarily wanting to clarify our mission to a driver, rent a car.

When the war is over, we will return.

Is the war ever really over? 

* * *
Taiwan, 2010
We were about to get married. Brendan and I were a few months away from flying to the US (home?) for the wedding. Our Australian friend in Taiwan had a visitor, and we decided to take a road trip to the mountains. We rented a car and drove up Hehuan Mountain, up past Puli, past Cingjing Farm, up almost to the top where the trees end because they can’t grow at that altitude. I’d been here before with a Taiwanese friend, which is why I thought to take this longer route to Lishan: so I could show my friends the view.

The road snakes through chilly meadows, the low grass allowing for expansive vistas. We stopped at the highest lookout point - I knew realistically that we couldn’t see all of Taiwan from here, but it felt like we could. Taiwan is a small country, but from here, at the top of the meadow, with clouds snaking between the mountains below, it felt endless. 

* * *

Taiwan, 2014

Those kids - maybe not kids, but kids to me, I was in my early thirties then - knew what effect they were having on the nation, but they had no idea what effect they were having on me. They peacefully occupied the legislature, a body created to represent the people which had failed to do so and had thus been taken over by those same people, and I was out there supporting them. It wasn’t not much: I was one body in a crowd of thousands (soon to be hundreds of thousands), and clearly a foreigner. When I picked up the microphone at one of the “public speech zones” set up around the legislature and said my piece, I carefully tailored it to show support for what they were doing, subtly positioning myself as a self-aware semi-outsider who was supportive but not involved. I said it in Chinese, but I don’t look Taiwanese, so I had to do this.

I didn’t say this, but I felt for the first time like I was actually participating in Taiwanese civil society. I didn’t consider myself Taiwanese then and don’t now, but it was a watershed: I was not out there observing, or reporting. I was acting: a supporting role is still a role.

Taiwanese history is not my history, and I would not seek to appropriate it. However, that moment laid a string in the syrup of my sweet life in Taiwan: I had long since built a happy home here. I began to think, for the first time, that although I don’t ‘look’ Taiwanese, and my ancestors were not Taiwanese, that I could live a more-or-less normal life there. I looked to the future, and I saw Taiwan. My job, my husband, my apartment, my cats, my friends, my life were all there. I felt as at home, despite some cultural differences, as I ever did in America. Perhaps more so. I have the wrong face but at least my religion is just fine: plenty of Taiwanese are atheists. It doesn’t matter. I had never felt comfortable as an atheist, either in my home country or my family.

And yet, as much as I felt as though I was participating through offering active support in 2014, I still stayed well away when things got rough and the water cannons came out. Why? Because I had the wrong face, and I had no other reason to be there. I stuck out too much, and I couldn’t change that.

I have never been a refugee - I grew up comfortably enough, because America more-or-less welcomed my ancestors, who were. I’ve never been poor: broke, yes. Not poor. I grew up in a house surrounded by meadows. I didn’t run from a genocide, nor did I leave the USA with a war nipping at my heels. I moved to Taiwan simply because I wanted to, and stayed not because I had to, but because I liked it. I was able to do this because of the generational wealth - not just in terms of money, because they started over with none, but in terms of having the right skin color, language and family religion - all because America allowed in these Christians in Distress, and they prospered.

* * *

Taiwan, 2016

Those kids from 2014 aren’t kids anymore. They have a political party now, and it’s just won five seats in the legislature. A seemingly progressive woman, the first in this country’s history, has just won the presidency, and her party - nominally friendly with those ‘kids’ - a legislative majority. The KMT - they of the former dictatorship and Chinese colonial legacy in Taiwan - are finally on the outs in every elected body of government for the first time.

We were excited, listening with ears almost physically turned to the radio in the taxi, as Dr. Tsai became President-Elect Tsai. We were on the way to the airport to pick up my cousin who, having finished high school early, was coming to spend an informal semester abroad in Taipei because why not? We’re a family borne of two incredible people who were refugees twice over, whom America allowed in and who prospered. Their grandchildren grew up well, well enough that they could now send their own children on excursions to other countries just for fun.

I have blue eyes - they are slightly almondine, a shape common in Turkey and the Caucasus, but not enough that you’d notice if I hadn’t told you - and light brown hair that I dye red. My coloring comes from my beautiful grandmother with the Mayflower blood, my face is a melding of her mother (who looked like my mother), and my grandmother on my dad’s side. My sister has similar coloring. My cousin has light brown curls and green eyes.

Again, you would never have guessed we were Armenian if I hadn’t told you.

In the taxi on the way to pick up my green-eyed cousin, I ruminate on this: that new political party, which surprised everyone by winning five seats? That new president? Our new president? This could represent a change. The KMT, now a sidelined bunch of sad snowflakes, was the party of implicit Han nationalism. They didn’t even dare to say We Taiwanese - it was always Chinese, Chinese, Chinese with them. Locals were allowed to join, but Taiwanese KMT elements were kept in their place within the party. On some level they didn’t think we permanent ‘foreigners’, the ones who don’t look the part of the roles we play, were worth their time. The old laws from the 1920s were never changed: anyone without Taiwanese ancestry had to renounce their original citizenship, but Taiwanese (Republic of China China China to them) could have dual nationality. You could be just as American as me, but have the right face and ancestors, and claim a Republic of China passport. You could have been born here but have the wrong face and ancestors, and be kicked out of the only country you’d ever known when you hit your twenties.

To them, Taiwan was China and China meant Han, or Han-associated. Han-assimilated. To them, it was the Republic of China. That meant one had to be Chinese to belong. I got the feeling that indigenous Austronesians were barely tolerated.

This could be different, I think. The Han chauvinists are out. Sure, Tsai’s party has had its share of Taiwanese Hoklo chauvinists, but the new government has made it clear that they do not see Taiwan as an ‘ethnic’ nation. First of all, that’s impossible - there hasn’t been a single ethnicity that has made up Taiwan in centuries. And secondly, by 2016 most rational people had realized that building nations around ethnicity was a recipe for disaster. When you do that, you might well end up not with a peaceful nation of all one kind of people, but with the death marches my ancestors barely escaped.

So Taiwan should know this: they themselves have had a ‘Chinese’ identity that they did not necessarily want forced on them. They elected a president from a party that has clearly signaled a move away from Taiwanese ethnocentrism and towards internationalization. Internationalization means welcoming foreigners, not just to visit, but to stay. It means building a nation based on shared values, not ethnicity or where your ancestors came from. It also means that people you might have once labeled as ‘foreign’ may not necessarily be anymore. It means that you can be Taiwanese, perhaps, and also have blue eyes and light brown hair that you dye red.

Certainly nobody has to accept that, but if you don’t, then it’s hypocritical to say that you want your country to be more international. 

Perhaps now, I thought, there might be a chance that the government will review the nationality laws and allow for dual nationality for foreign permanent residents. They must know that many of us cannot give up our original nationality - not out of any sense of loyalty, but because we have obligations in our home countries that we can’t sever. 

I looked like a foreigner, but I certainly didn’t feel like one. Would I ever see that reflected in my official status in Taiwan? As of now, my residency does accede permanence, but it also labels me an ‘alien’. 

* * *

New York, 2016

We were flying home for a family reunion. The election hadn’t happened yet. I hadn’t thought Donald Trump would win, but it didn’t matter. A more pressing concern was that my grandpa, whom I loved so dearly, was a staunch Trump supporter to the point where it was hard to have a conversation with him about anything else.

The fact that we had political differences wasn’t the issue. I have Communist friends and Libertarian friends, religious friends and militant atheist friends, somewhat traditional friends and hardcore punk/feminist/polyamorous/what-have-you friends. Friends who wear headscarves and friends who think headscarves are tools of oppression. Whatever.

The problem wasn’t even the casual dismissal of all of Trump’s fatal flaws: the virulent misogyny, the racism, the dehumanization of the poor and struggling. The fact that he had almost certainly sexually assaulted women. I’d met people who didn’t take any of it seriously before and, while I wouldn’t want them in my life socially, I could ignore them as hopeless cases. I could just as easily hug my grandpa and ignore it in him, too, for a few days.

What bothered me then, and bothers me still, is this: when your parents were refugees twice over, and you yourself were a refugee who made good because you were welcomed, how can you then turn around and say that these new refugees should be shut out, allowed to die in a war-torn country or drown in capsized boats? How can you say that it’s a tragedy that your family members died, but it’s not a tragedy that their dead toddlers are washing up on the beaches of Turkey?

Remember, you can see Syria from Musa Dagh.

We drink the same tea and eat the same food. The music is similar, so is the clothing.

Your family ran because a few powerful men in government stoked religious animosity in order to further their agenda of ethnic cleansing. Many Turks - Muslims - spoke out against this or refused to comply. Armenians betrayed your father. A Turk embraced him and let him go free.

Refugees today are running because a few powerful militants are stoking religious animosity in order to further their own agenda, and these people want no part of it.

Are you so special that you deserved better then than they do now?

Are you superior because your family were Christians in Distress, but they are Muslim? They are running too. Should we let them die?

Would we let them die, if they made a flag: Muslims in Distress - Rescue?

They eat the same food, drink the same tea, listen to similar music, wear similar clothing. They would probably love to play a game of backgammon with you. You don’t even really look different. I look more different from you than you do from them.

How would you feel if you heard a Syrian girl cowered with her mother and siblings in a hotel in Damascus as her father was dragged off and shot? Would you feel nothing?

I embrace my grandfather and let these feelings recede. For a few days, I turn them into distant things. I never really got to know Nana, but I’m not going to alienate myself from the grandfather I grew up with. However, I cannot wrap my head around this and I cannot truly let it go.

How can you support banning people who are so much like you from the country that gave you a chance? Do you really think you are the “good” kind of refugee? Are you somehow more deserving of the chance to be American? Is America a country that closes its doors to certain ethnicities? I had thought we were a country built on shared values.

I love you, grandpa, but I don’t think you’re more deserving than them.

I love you, but I hope your side loses. We need your side to lose. I actively work to thwart your agenda. I respect my family history, but I do not necessarily share my ancestors' values.

Can we really be said to be a nation of shared values when our differences go beyond rational disagreement?

* * *
Taipei, 2017

The Tsai administration has announced its new rules for dual nationality. 

We had done what we could to be heard in this country we called home, where we were welcome but always foreign, and where we lack political representation. I wrote in when the draft was open for public comment and had my Taiwanese friends do the same. I let friends in high places know what I and other ‘foreigners’ wanted to see. 

We excitedly awaited the publication of the new guidelines, hoping that perhaps our voices had been heard.

They had not.

Some foreigners - ‘high-level’ foreigners, whatever that means - were now eligible for dual nationality but most of us who had built lives here and done our best to contribute positively to Taiwan were told, essentially, that we were worthless and not welcome to share the same citizenship regulations that applied to native-born Taiwanese (those who looked the part) or those with the right ancestors.

In essence, we were told that some 'foreigners' were better than others, that some could be welcomed into the fold but others, while allowed to stay, must remain outsiders to a degree. Someone decided that a few of us are deserving, and the rest are not.

A few of my friends applied, but as of now, none have heard back.

Several missionaries, however, have been granted dual nationality. While I believe they deserve a path to citizenship just like anyone else and recognize that many of them are good people, I do not necessarily believe that their work merits special priority. Would they do those good deeds if they didn’t also have the chance to win new converts? Would they do them with no other agenda but to do good? Are they not supported by an institution that makes their work possible, in exchange for a hoped-for return on their investment in the form of new parishioners?

As of now, we are still ‘aliens’. 

I read the new regulations while sitting in the Japanese-style tatami alcove of my Taipei apartment. I’m drinking tea - lao ren cha, oolong to be precise. I live in the same sort of apartment, have the same friends, even drink the same tea and now speak the same language as almost every other resident in Taipei, and yet I’m an alien. 

* * *
Athens, 2017

I had been corresponding with the current pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Piraeus Kokkinia for some time, and was interested to meet the person who had such a calming demeanor even through email.

We had spent the past few days in Athens being tourists - too jet lagged on our first day to embark on this kind of journey, and somewhat lost on the second after getting turned around trying to find an open post office, and then couldn’t figure out how to buy bus tickets. 

I kept wanting to say that I was not a tourist, not really. My great grandparents had lived here. My grandfather was born here. I had just as much right to Athens as anyone.

Did I, though? We stayed near the Acropolis and enjoyed the beautiful, old-fashioned urbann Mediterranean neighborhoods in the tourist districts. We used a guidebook to get around. We went to museums and ruins. I don’t speak a word of Greek. Two generations had turned a family of Athenians into complete foreigners.
The day we were thwarted by our inability to buy bus tickets, I emailed our Airbnb host asking him how it was done, and sharing some of my family history with him to explain why we needed to go to Piraeus and take a bus in the first place. Of course, we could have taken a taxi, but I insisted on this tiny bit of local life.

“Oh wow,” he responded. “My brother’s godfather was an Armenian refugee too!”

As the metro headed towards Piraeus, the scenery became rougher. Around the main tourist sites, you wouldn’t know that Greece was in the midst of an economic meltdown. Everything was comfortable and picturesque, as it usually is in such neighborhoods. Beyond Thisio, however, the ever-present graffiti further encrusted every flat space. Faded buildings in need of modern updates predominated. The streets looked older, the parks and medians poorly maintained, storefronts closed.

I had told the pastor that we’d arrive around 11am. We fumbled looking for the proper bus stop and finally found the church at 12:30; fortunately, Mediterranean time is flexible and he didn’t mind.

The old building from 1924 is still there and undergoing renovation. The old classrooms have been converted into offices, a guest room and a kitchen, but are still there. The parsonage where Mihran briefly lived still exists; the new pastor resides there, as the blind pastor Mihran worked for had done before him.

I know that Mihran waited with a bouquet of violets from the meadow in one of these classrooms, but I don’t know which one. In any case, I took a picture of each. Downstairs, the pastor gestured to a picture on the wall which included the blind minister and Mihran. Almost a hundred years later, and my great-grandfather’s face can still be seen in Greece.

We had coffee with the pastor in the courtyard and I take an instant liking to him, so much so that I decide not to mention that I’m an atheist. It doesn’t matter, anyway. He exudes calm, and I can see why someone with a spiritual bent would want to join his congregation.

We talked about those ‘kids’ in Taiwan in 2014, the ones who occupied the legislature. He mentions that in Greece, students will lock their school in protest and classes will cease until negotiations can take place - they do this over small things, like not thinking the lunches served in the cafeteria are good enough. “They have no respect for authority,” he says.

I smiled in a way that indicated that, while I agreed that it’s a bit silly to close a school down over substandard lunches, I didn’t really concede a need to respect authority so much.

“Well, a little disrespect for authority is good,” he continued, “but that’s just silly.”

Yup, I liked this guy.

He went on to describe how, when the Armenians arrived in Greece, they had nothing, The church and parsonage themselves were built entirely with donations from missionary groups. I didn’t know how to feel about this, but I accepted that one can have conflicting feelings about an issue such as missionary work, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t know your own mind. 

I inquired then about the meadow where Mihran might have picked those violets. 

Some things are lost to time, however. There had been several refugee camps, and there are several hills around Piraeus. Any one of them would have served as a meadow above the nearest camp. It’s impossible to know for sure which one was theirs. I had seen a lot of places from my family’s past that day, but the meadow I sought was gone forever. 

* * * 
Armenia, 2017

Our next stop is Yerevan.

We arrive before dawn and get three hours of sleep before we’re picked up for an 11-hour day trip to Khor Virap and Noravank monasteries. We plan it this way because it’s $30 cheaper per person to go on that day rather than the next. We’re not sure why, but we roll with it and plan to sleep on the bus.

I don’t sleep much, though. I’m too captivated by the scenery of Armenia. The entire country seems to be covered in meadows; it grasps at my heart.

Armenia is a small country. However, as the bus makes its way over the grassy summits of hills that look out over still more hills, then mountains, then snow-covered massifs beyond, one gets a sense of infinite space. It’s as though Armenia goes on forever.

One of the main reasons I booked this trip was that Khor Virap monastery has the best possible view of Mount Ararat, with the best chance of seeing it even in poor weather conditions. As we leave Yerevan and head toward the monastery, Ararat comes into view. It, too, grasps at my heart. Ararat is said to be the mountain where Noah’s Ark came to rest, and is a cultural and historical touchstone to Armenians, whose country has been Christian since 301 AD. I may not be Christian, and I certainly don’t believe the story of the flood and the ark depict true events, but I am an Armenian and it was important for me to see this mountain.

Mount Ararat, however, is currently within the borders of Turkey, not Armenia.

The view from Khor Virap across the Turkish border to Ararat is almost entirely treeless, it is one meadow stretched across two countries. I suspect people on both sides of that line eat similar food, drink similar tea, and they probably all play backgammon. 

When I take a picture of myself with it in the background, I am wearing a t-shirt that says “Taiwan Soul” in Chinese.

In Yerevan, children stare at me. This is not new; children stare at me in Taiwan too. I’m more okay with it in Taiwan; as local as I may feel, I still look, to them, like a foreigner. I may want to share the national values of the Taiwanese, but I am simply not the same race.

Here, I want to tell every person who gives me a passing glance that I am, in fact, Armenian. I do tell some people. Everyone is surprised. I suspect some don’t believe me. I couldn’t look less Armenian if I tried.

“My grandfather is Armenian,” I say. “He’s even named Armen, for Armenia.”

I can sense their next question.

“But he’s not from Armenia,” I add. “We’re Armenians but we came from Turkey.”

One person kindly offers that ancient Armenians are said to have had blue eyes. I smile and say ‘maybe’, but I know it’s probably not true and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter.

This doesn’t feel very different from the other thing I keep telling people - that we live in Taiwan but were born in America, or that we’re “from the USA, but we live in Taiwan”. My grandfather earned the right to say he was American, but I have not (yet?) earned the right to say I am Taiwanese.

Of course, they wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t told them. It can’t be guessed.

I wonder if I can ever just be a person who is from a place and have it be simple. 

It’s not simple, though. If it were, I could shed all of the privilege I was born with, this generational wealth and the better treatment it often affords me. It’s not so simple at all as pretending these things don’t matter. They shouldn’t, but they do. On some level I too must agree with this - if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be so eager to play the Armenian card in Armenia, a country whose language I don’t speak, whose culture is not mine, and yet is so familiar to everything I grew up with. The food, especially. The language - I grew up around Grandpa Armen talking to Nana and other older family members in Western Armenian. Eastern Armenian is not quite the same, but it sounds more or less the same to me.

How can I say it should be easy to look beyond ethnicity and nationality when I have one of the best passports in the world, and when I, too, feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to the best possible view of Mount Ararat, because I happen to be of a people for whom Ararat is sacred? How can I say it when I live in Taiwan not because I have to, but because I chose to?

The next day we go to the Armenian genocide memorial. Mournful opera music is piped through speakers across the grounds. We sit in the enclosed circle looking at the eternal flame and I think back to Musa Dagh. Within sight of it another war rages on. This memorial is certainly important, but if all we do are mourn genocides after they happen, and then allowing the next one to happen anyway, then I have conflicting feelings about memorializing something intrinsic  to the fabric of my family - people who enjoy prosperity, no longer Christians in Distress - while letting the next atrocity happen literally next door.

What good is it, when you can see today’s genocide from the site of yesterday’s?

I look back past the election, and the callousness of Americans who once suffered towards the suffering of Syrians today, back past Taiwan and past Grandpa in 2016 in his Make America Great Again hat, all the way back to 1993 when Verdjin died before I ever really got to know her. 24 years later, I cry.

But I’m wearing sunglasses, and you wouldn’t know I was crying if I hadn’t told you. 

In the museum, I sit for a good long time looking at the small exhibit on the resistance on Musa Dagh. What they did was extraordinary, and I’m moved that it is still remembered in some small way a century later. There is a screen showing a slideshow of photos - I recognize the coastline where the refugees from Musa Dagh boarded the Jean D’Arc and were taken to safety in Port Said, Egypt. It was right there as I looked down the meadow to the sea, just north of the Syrian border. The Christians in Distress flag is not there, but the second flag, which was stitched with a red cross, is. It’s a replica, of course, but it almost doesn’t matter. 

If there is ever a memorial to the victims of the massacre at Aleppo, which is so close to Musa Dagh, will it matter if it’s erected while the next massacre is going on?

Towards the middle of the exhibitions is a room chronicling the treatment of Armenian women and children during the genocide. I notice one panel covered in text discussing the “rape of beautiful Armenian women” and “Armenian teenage virgins” (the first quote is exact, the second is a paraphrase). It feels cheap, to imply that the greatest quality of these victimized women is their beauty or virginity. It feels cheap to list Armenian intellectuals and see that almost all of them were men. I would prefer to face the horrible truth of genocide without a small side-dish of casual sexism. I generally identify recognition of the genocide as a liberal value, but liberalism has not always been kind to women or friendly towards gender equality. Who gets to decide at what point elevating public figures based on their merits turns into suppressing female voices because they were born into a system that doesn't support them? Who decided that liberals should support abolition but mock suffrage, support civil rights but mock feminism, support democracy and yet shun Taiwan, support learning the lessons of history and yet continue to treat the Armenian genocide as a "debate"? Who decided that all of this was acceptable in a framework for liberalism that espouses equality for all?

About two-thirds of the way through the museum there is an exhibit on a 1919 movie called Ravished Armenia: The Auction of Souls. I won’t go into the plot details, but it is based on a true story. There is one poster in particular showing Aurora Mardiganian, a pale-skinned, dark-haired beauty in a flowing white dress, being forcible grabbed at the waist and dragged off by a Turkish soldier who is depicted as monstrous, more inhuman than World War II propaganda against the Japanese. He has dark skin, squinted eyes, an inhuman expression on his face and he is, frankly, monstrously ugly.

I understand that this poster is from the late 1910s, but it’s presented without comment or context. By bringing to light the suffering of one group, it dehumanizes another.

I see this and remember that Mihran was betrayed by fellow Armenians, and embraced and set free by a Turkish friend. I remember that the Turks who participated in the genocide were whipped into a frenzy by the Young Turk leadership, and Donald Trump’s anti-foreigner, anti-refugee supporters are being whipped into something very similar. This poster is a historical artifact, I think, but it needs more context than it is given.

Throughout the museum are references to the missionaries who came to the aid of the Armenians: first those who survived the death marches, and later the orphans of those who didn't. I may not be a fan of the philosophy behind missionary work, but I can't deny that they were of great help to my ancestors. We have different values, but we can rationally disagree.

As I walk through, I think about an event from my youth: I referred to the genocide as "The Armenian Holocaust", because every Armenian I knew did so. The person retorted: "I'm sure it was terrible but can you not use the word 'Holocaust'? Can you just let the Jewish people have that word?"

I haven't used that term since, but years on, it caused me to wonder. Which genocides are genocides, and which get their own word? Who decides? If a special word were created for the Armenian genocide, would anyone use it? With the strong arm of the Turkish government clamping down on recognition, would people dare? Even those who claim to espouse liberal values?

At the end of the museum there is a simple quote:

“…who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
- Adolf Hitler

Of course, it is important to remember these things, to memorialize them, but it’s not enough. If the descendants of the survivors of Armenian genocide accept a massacre happening within sight of one of the bravest fights of the Armenian resistance, we haven't really remembered anything.

I think back to my time in Turkey and all of the friendly Turkish people I met, some of whom I consider real friends. They are all aware of my family history, and none has said a critical word about it. There is plenty of documentation proving the truth of the genocide, but beyond that, I have my great grandparents’ lived testimony. I like to believe that they understand that their government’s official stance that it never happened is false, and they’ve never given me any reason to think they don’t understand that. However, I am aware of how difficult it is to overcome one’s education, and I’m a bit afraid to ask.

In this way, I feel some sympathy with the Taiwanese. It is difficult to overcome one’s KMT-indoctrination-based education, and many Taiwanese who look at history with clearer eyes live alongside neighbors who still make excuses for the old dictatorship. Sometimes they know this, sometimes, perhaps, they dare not ask. 

They, too, fought a long battle for the recognition of the massacres following 228. The specific events were very different, but the essentials are similar.

Back in Yerevan, I feel oddly at home among the massive stone buildings, brandy distilleries and wide promenades. We eat food similar to the food I ate growing up, and at one Western Armenian restaurant, we follow it up with tea in tulip-shaped glasses, just like the ones everyone, Armenian and Turkish, drinks from in Turkey. Back home in Taipei we have Turkish and Chinese teacups as well as big American mugs.

I consider this: Taiwan and Armenia are different, but not that different. Both are small countries vying to be heard: one to be recognized for the country that it is, the other for its greatest national tragedy to be fully recognized by the world. Both are full of people with a fighting spirit, who never give up even when the odds are not in their favor. Both have a sense of great national pride and identity. Taiwan is full of old KMT-era military rah-rah: we can’t entirely rid ourselves of it, as we have a real military threat right across the strait. At the top of a hill, a statue of Mother Armenia wielding a sword looks across the city. If you climb up there you’ll see that she’s flanked by tanks, missiles and war materiel (I don’t know if it’s real or not). She is facing Mount Ararat, which happens to be in Turkey.

What’s more, to recognize the Armenian genocide is a liberal value. To recognize Taiwanese sovereignty, considering its democratic values, is also a liberal value. And yet both causes have been abandoned by liberals because stronger, angrier illiberal regimes have insisted on it.

Ethnocentrism dressed up with a fat dollop of manufactured religious fanaticism, served up on a hot spearhead of ethnic nationalism was the weapon used by a bloodthirsty government to annihilate millions of Armenians in 1915. Today, some people denigrate Taiwanese identity, equating it with that same sort of ethnic nationalism. It’s not, though. Taiwan is not seeking to purge itself of all foreign elements: there is a growing understanding that there are many ways to be Taiwanese. If anything, Taiwan is moving in the direction of modern liberalism: a country based not on ethnicity but on shared values. All it wants is for the world to recognize what is true. The independence Taiwan seeks is independence from being forced into provincial status under a country that does not share its values.

That’s not so different from what Armenia wants, although the recognition it seeks is different.

Many young, liberal Taiwanese have been engaging in a national conversation about what word to call Taiwan. The Republic of China is an obvious no, as it's not China. Taiwan is a Chinese word, but likely originates from an indigenous one. However, that's also the word China uses to claim it as a province. Formosa, perhaps?

Who decides which countries are deserving, and which aren't? Who deserves which countries are welcomed in, and which are left out? Can one bow to the wishes of illiberal regimes and yet still call oneself a liberal?

Considering the strong-arm power of China, if Taiwan came up with a new word for itself, would anyone dare to use it, even those who claim to espouse the right kind of liberal values? Who decides which countries get to choose their name and their fate, and which must give in to stronger, illiberal powers?

Essentially, both countries want those who claim to espouse liberal values to actually live up to them.

Some people say that we Westerners in Taiwan, with our fight for dual nationality and our support of liberalism, are pushing beliefs on the Taiwanese that they don't want or are not endemic to their culture. Someone might even note that, if this were true, it wouldn't be much different from the work missionaries engage in, which I oppose. I wouldn't say it's true though: those students didn't occupy the legislature because liberal values were pushed on them - they simply have liberal values. Taiwan did not take a step towards a more egalitarian dual nationality law because we pushed them: we have no political representation. We can't push anyone. Taiwan isn't a country where almost everyone believes in democracy and the majority believe in equality because we pushed them. Liberal values are global, not Western. We can share them without having to push.

I’m Armenian but my family is from Turkey. I was born in the USA, but Taiwan is my home. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be more simple than that. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Safranbolu Turkish Restaurant, and Shared Culture

Safranbolu Turkish Restaurant
#60 Nanjing E. Road Sec 2
(corner of Nanjing and Jilin Roads)
Zhongshan District, Taipei Taiwan

Pictures on this will come later, as I only had my phone with me and haven't uploaded the photos yet.

Anyway, I was quite excited to hear about Safranbolu, which as far as I know is the only Turkish restaurant currently operating in Taipei. Middle Eastern food exists, but until now, I couldn't find Turkish. As someone of Armenian descent - Armenian from Turkey - this is like a godsend to me.

The atmosphere is quite good - well lit (perhaps a little too brightly lit for a romantic dinner, but not overly dim as a lot of restaurants are), with the sort of lanterns one might find in the Istanbul Grand Bazaar hanging from the ceiling, Turkish coffee sets and evil eye charms for sale and Turkish music piped in.

We got hummus, ezme (a finely chopped salad of tomato, bell pepper, parsley, lemon juice, walnuts and pomegranate molasses), ayran (a savory Turkish yoghurt drink), lahmacun and Iskender kebab (my favorite kebab), Turkish coffee and two desserts (a custard and a rice pudding).

The food came quickly which we appreciated, and the ezme was perfect - exactly like I used to eat in Turkey after long days on the CELTA course - I would put it on thick slices of Turkish bread spread with soft cheese and eat it with a bowl of olives and local wine (Ancyra Okuzgozu), occasionally with some kofte. The hummus was chunkier and grainier than I prefer - I think this might be a regional difference. My ancestors' homeland is in the deep south of Turkey, near Antakya (Antioch) and the Syrian border. Around there they make their hummus silky smooth, doused in olive oil, garnished with parsley, cumin and cayenne pepper and served with bread, tomato slices and pickled vegetables (usually turnips or beets). When we had hummus in Patara, a little further west, it was chunky with nearly whole chickpeas and didn't have the same seasonings. This hummus was more like what we had in Patara. It was fine - though I still haven't found anyone in Taipei who makes hummus the way I like it - although we were a bit annoyed that the bread took awhile to arrive and was not very substantial. The bread was, however, good. I hope that they can sort out this service snafu and remember that bread comes at the same time as the hummus, and should be adequate to eat all of the hummus on the plate.

The lahmacun was excellent - the bread was not as thin as you can get it in Turkey but they got the flavors just right. My only comment here is that in Turkey lahmacun usually comes with a lightly dressed side salad of onion, tomato, possibly lettuce, cilantro or cucumber and you wrap the salad in with the lahmacun, and no salad was provided. On the other hand, I feel I should not be quite so picky: there is nowhere else in all of Taiwan to get decent lahmacun.

Iskender kebab is from the city of Iskenderiya just north of Antakya - it's the closest "regional kebab" to Musa Dagh, where my ancestors are from. While my family has apparently had a long-running feud with the Iskenderians, an Armenian family most likely from Iskenderiya (I don't really subscribe to the "old family feud" school of thought though), Iskender kebab remains my favorite. It's thin slices of grilled meat over chopped flatbread, doused in tomato sauce and served with yoghurt and rice. This Iskender kebab was pretty good, though it doesn't hold a candle to the huge heap of perfectly cooked lamb I had at a Turkish restaurant in New York not to mention the delicious Iskender kebab I had in Sanliurfa or Antakya. But, it was pretty good...I guess I just wish lamb had been an option (they only had chicken or beef).

The ayran was served in Moscow mule mugs, which I liked, and tasted basically like ayran, so yay!

All in all though I would say they hit the mark on all the flavor combinations - the tastes were all just like we had in Turkey - the other issues are just small kinks to work out.

The desserts were quite good - both fairly Turkish and tasty. We had them with Turkish coffee, which came in lovely cups with Iznik tile designs on them (not real, of course) and a pistachio Turkish delight. They don't do different sugar levels though - you can't say you want your coffee sweet or not. But, the way it's made, it's basically perfect so I'm not complaining.

Prices were not cheap, but then for good foreign food in Taipei you will usually pay a premium. The lahmacun (which is a light meal) was about 260NT, the Iskender kebab topped out in the 400s and the appetizers were about 60-90NT each. For the two of us - coffee, appetizers, ayran, meals, dessert - we paid about NT1800.

Oh, no alcohol on the menu. That's one major downside.

Before I finish this, I'd like to add something on a personal note. As an Armenian whose ancestors lived in Turkey before the genocide (the 100th anniversary of which just passed), it's kind of weird for me to eat Turkish food, because that's OUR food. The food of my family. The food of my ancestors. It's integral to our culture as Armenians...but that food is Turkish. But, it's also Armenian. I want to claim it as my cultural heritage, but I do not want to claim Turkish as my heritage, as I am not Turkish, I am Armenian by ancestry. It comes across as - this is our food! So, you're Turkish? No, we're Armenian. But this is our food too. But it's Turkish food. It's also Armenian. Armenian from Turkey? Well, yes, but food in Armenia proper isn't that different. So if they lived in Turkey, weren't they technically also Turkish? Not under the Ottoman Empire they weren't - there were Turks and then there were millets, or ethnic minorities under Ottoman control.

But a lot of the words of Western Armenian (the Armenian variant spoken by Armenians in Turkey) are Turkish borrowings, the food is the same, the culture is essentially the same, the tea and the games are the same, but we're not exactly the same. So on one hand I'm claiming my own heritage, on the other, I feel like I'm claiming one that is not entirely mine. Or, by claiming it, people make assumptions about my heritage that are not true.

All this to say, I understand how a lot of Taiwanese feel, wanting to claim aspects of Chinese culture that are also Taiwanese, that the two groups share (with the added aspect that they are ethnically the same), but wanting to remain culturally distinct. Wanting to say, yes, this is our heritage, we have this too - but we are not "Chinese", or, in the ways that we are, that is not the same as being from China. We share cultural touchstones, but we are distinct, and having that claiming of cultural heritage confused by the world at large for identifying as "Chinese".
I mean, I can never fully "get it", but I get it well enough, I think.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Home Mountain: Musa Dagh

The outskirts of Vakifli, the last remaning ethnic Armenian village in Turkey.
Yesterday we made a quiet but meaningful trip to Musa Dagh, the site of the village of some of my ancestors (it would be disingenuous not to note that I could surely make similar trips to Poland, Switzerland and the UK, but I wouldn't know quite where to go). We have been staying in Antakya (also known as Hatay and best known as the great city of Antioch), which is the closest small city with good accommodation options, amenities and points of interest.

It also happens to be the "town" that my ancestors would go to just as my folks might drive to Poughkeepsie for the day or Brendan's might drive over to Bangor. My great great grandfather was involved in the silk business there. I'll probably post more about Hatay later.

From Hatay, public transportation to Musa Dagh is a bit dodgy, although it does exist. You have to take a dolmus - a small van-like minibus - to the town of Samandag near the Mediterranean coast and then transfer to a rickety bus, van or dolmus (or back of a truck or whatever you can finagle) up the mountain. There is an official dolmus service but it is so infrequent that most people grab rides informally. The view on the way up grows more stunning as you climb, past farms and orange orchards with rocky bluffs and cultivated fields in the difference, all under a crystal blue sky.

This was the first time that I've felt comfortable in Turkey openly stating my reasons for being here, and for being candid about my origins: Vakifli is a small village but there are enough Armenians around that I felt I could openly, well, be who I am.

Bitias (my home village) is long gone, the residents having relocated to Anjar in Lebanon when Hatay returned to Turkey. The land out beyond that golden lump and farmed rows is where one resident of Vakifli told me Bitias was once located.

I didn't really know what I expected to find - I went up more for personal reasons than to see anything in particular or make any specific discoveries. I've wanted to make this trip for years and, being the big traveler in the family (although I have other relatives who have traveled extensively I'm the one who seems to have turned it into a lifestyle) it seemed inevitable that it would eventually happen. As we climbed Musa Dagh, I can say that a calming feeling did come over me - although I think this is less an ancient attachment to the land than a feeling of peace at having finally made the trip to be there (as in, it came from my ego, not my id).

It is a difficult thing to think, but it's true: that side of my family was quite prosperous in Bitias. If the genocide had never occurred, if there had been no Forty Days of Musa Dagh, they would not have left for America. My grandfather would have never met my grandmother while he was at RPI. My mother would have never been born, let alone met my father. 

So I can say that "if things had happened differently I would have grown up around here" but it's not true: I would not exist at all.

Despite the grittiness of the photo above, Vakifli is a prosperous village - they are making a name for themselves in organic farming and earning big bucks for it, and being the last remaining Armenian village in Turkey, they have close ties to some very deep pockets in the Armenian community in Istanbul as well as the diaspora. It is a popular vacation spot for members of the diaspora coming home as well as a summer destination for Istanbul Armenians. I was surprised by how neat, tidy and prosperous it was: new stone buildings, neatly paved roads (mostly), a well-tended cemetery, fecund orange orchards and farms, people dressed neatly and driving nice, new-looking cars. 

The swingset was just about the only broken-down thing in the place. Not really what you expect from a mountain village in Turkey or any country that is not quite First World (although I'd argue that Turkey is not too far from Taiwan in terms of development, mostly), but hey. That's Armenians for you.

The church in Vakifli
For those who don't know - you should. When the mass murders and deportations were occurring across Turkey around 1915, the residents of the eight Armenian villages of Musa Dagh managed to resist and hold off the Turkish forces for forty days, hiding in the mountains and fighting back. My great grandfather was among them along with other distant relatives. They held out and were nearly out of supplies when they were rescued by French ships (note the Mediterranean below, it's not that far away and quite visible from Musa Dagh) and taken to Port Said, Egypt. The episode is known as the Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which is also a novel based on true events. It's the reason why the residents of those villages were not deported or massacred (although many died), and why they were all still there until the 1930s, when Hatay united with Turkey: that's why they were there at all and decided to leave, not wanting to return to the rule of a country whose government had tried to murder them.

My family ended up in the USA, of course, as did other distant relatives.

Plaques in the church wall commemorate this. According to my mother there is also a monument up there to memorialize the resistance - we hiked the roads above Vakifli for awhile and down a few side roads but did not find it.

Musa Dagh with a view of the Mediterranean
 I am extremely proud of the courage and tough survivalism of my ancestors, which is a part of why this visit was so meaningful for me. I grew up with this story - I heard it many times and from many lips, sometimes from people who had lived through it (such as my Nana, although I couldn't understand her entirely - she did learn English but was never fully fluent in it and forgot much of it in her old age). It's not just the food, not just the kilims, not just the other assorted memories of my childhood and cultural upbringing that make me who I am and make my family who they are: this story is also there, hanging behind it all like a dark cloud, a story that is purposely told so as not to be forgotten even as generation upon generation becomes more American in both culture and looks (most of my cousins would never be guessed for Armenians. Very few of them were born with the features one normally associates with people from the Caucasus. I personally look more Polish than anything).

I also reflected on who I am today and what it meant to come here with Brendan - as much as thoughts, feelings, ideas and other bits and bobs of soul should ideally be shared with a good mate, this piece of my history is something I am ecstatic to have shared with him.  I can say confidently that there is no one else I would have rather shared this journey with than my husband, and that yes, an ideal husband (or wife) is the sort of person you both can and wish to share such things with. We spent quite a bit of time sitting on a warm rock just off the road looking out at this splendid view of the mountains and sea, and though we didn't say much, just sitting there with him was more of a sharing experience than talking could have been (we also ate some Cheezy Stix).

Another mountan view out towards where Bitias once stood

The residents of Vakifli are quite used to members of the diaspora venturing back to discover their roots - I thought I might be met with surprise but no, not at all. I'm just one in a string of foreign-born Armenians who makes the trip up here, not necessarily to see anything but just to be there and to see it with their own eyes. The town has a surprisingly hopping tea garden, and here is where you can see some cultural influence from the Turks: like others across Turkey, sitting outside, drinking tea and playing backgammon seems to be a career path in Vakifli. They may be Armenian but in this way they're just like their Turkish neighbors. A key difference - unlike most small-time tea gardens, women were welcome here and children were running around. I felt no sense of "this is the preserve of men" as I did from many tea gardens in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, and the owner was a woman to boot. Go Armenians!

It was quite clear that we were not from around these parts, so we had the chance to chat with a few locals (although most were so used to people just like us, albeit usually older and more connected to the Armenian community, that they paid us no mind). One older man was disappointed that I don't speak Armenian but was happy to point out where Bitias once stood. At one point I got locked in the tea garden bathroom (the lock broke) and half the town came to rescue me.

All in all it was a quiet trip, a ruminative one, not one given to fresh new discoveries or heaps of things to see. Just walking on Musa Dagh, watching the Queen Anne's Lace and other dry-climate flowers shake in the Mediterranean beaches, smelling the dry earth and orange trees, waving hello to locals on tractors, visiting the church, getting horrific sunburn while peering out at sun-drenched vistas and drinking tea among fellow Armenians was what I came for, and that's what I got. 

I do think that everyone with the means and interest in their origins should make a similar trip - I can't point specifically to how the visit moved me, but it did, I know it did. Wherever you are from, whatever your history, it is worthwhile to go see the place of your origin - even if it's just to lay eyes on the place.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The New Old Country

I'm not the first person to travel back to my 老家, or ancestral homeland - from any land to any other. "Roots" tourism is a well-established industry (in fact, it's practically its own business model in China). Ever since people have been immigrating, moving or simply forced to leave their homelands, they or their descendants been trying to find ways to return, even if just to poke around the place a bit. That's basically what I'm doing right now.

We arrived in Antioch (Hatay) yesterday after a long and improperly air-conditioned bus ride from Sanliurfa - I am hoping to blog about my experiences earlier in our trip after this one. As I have mentioned numerous times, on my mother's side I am Armenian from Turkey - Musa Dagh in Hatay to be precise. Before 1915, they were living in Bitias, a village on the slopes of Musa Dagh - one of the eight ethnic Armenian villages that once graced its slopes among farms and orange trees.

My great grandparents fled Turkey in the wake of the Armenian genocide, but not until after my great grandfather spent time as a freedom fighter for the resistance, escaping death by hiding in an olive barrel, and my great grandmother's family fled only to end up in Izmir (Smyrna) where Turkish forces and the Great Fire of 1922 - almost certainly set on orders of Kemal Ataturk - claimed many fatalities. They fled to Greece, where their three children, including my grandfather, were born. As World War II rolled in they fled once again for the USA and settled near Troy, New York. My grandfather married and had five children, the oldest of which is my mother.

So here I am, not quite 100 years later, back in Antioch - not only a historic city in its own right but also the nearest decent-sized town with accommodation options to Musa Dagh. One hundred years and I made it back to the Old Country. I may not be the first person to return to an ancestral homeland, and I won't be the last, but I'm the first in my generation to go - I don't believe anyone in my mother's generation has returned either, but I could be wrong. It's a pretty big generation, including many distant cousins I've never met.

I have to say this: when one returns to The Old Country, one expects to see, old country. Don't get me wrong - Turkey's quite old, possibly the oldest settled, civilized place there is and boasts approximately one butt-ton of ancient stuff. I mean that one expects this ideal vision of what an "ancestral homeland" should be: whitewashed buildings, donkey carts, women in headscarves, an exotic bazaar.

One certainly does not expect to start rolling into town over a mountain range, as one does to enter Hatay, and see a shiny modern wind farm spread out across the peaks and ridges.

One does not expect, regardless of what the guidebook noted, a cosmopolitan downtown full of smart cafes with HDTV and Turkish techno-pop, WiFi everywhere, upscale restaurants with pleasant outdoor seating, bars that welcome women (a rarity in much of Turkey besides the party towns of the Mediterranean and larger cities), women in skinny jeans and halter tops yakking on cell phones and people generally more smartly dressed than you - you scuzzy traveler, living in rumpled t-shirts from a backpack for weeks on end.

I know I'm not the only one to feel this way: I've had at least one acquaintance in Taiwan tell me that somewhere in the back of his head was lurking this idea that his ancestral home in China was still this stone-house, chickens-in-the-courtyard, ancient-temple and peak-roofed paradise in rural farming country. When he got there and found a mid-sized town of dingy tile and concrete buildings, snarled traffic and paved-over boxiness, he admitted a touch of disappointment.

I've had Indian friends note the same thing: their parents left when their towns were, well, quaint, with goatherders in white lungis and women in saris and vendors that crisscrossed the neighborhood with carts of goods, and toilets that required hand-flushing. A lot of that is still there - the goats certainly haven't gone anywhere - but children return and are shocked to see women in pants (still a rarity in non-urban India but becoming more common), flat-screen TVs, Western toilets and everyone with an iPhone.

As we walked through pleasant evening breezes down the bustling nightlife of downtown Hatay - a thoroughly pleasant city with the exception of the stinky Orontes river - music flowing from cafes, locals on laptops, lights playing off pedestrian walkways, I thought to myself Nana would not recognize this.

Of course, I should have known that the Hatay of 1915 would look nothing like the Hatay of 2011. It was, on an intellectual level, abundantly clear. It's just that the reality - which is exactly what one should have expected (other than, perhaps, the fact that such a small city is so cosmopolitan - usually mid-size towns in countries like Turkey are a bit tatty at the edges. Not Antioch) - was not what my mind associated with "The Old Country".

We still haven't tackled Musa Dagh - we were far too tired today, Brendan has a very angry digestive tract and public transportation out there is unreliable at best. We're planning to go tomorrow and visit Vakifli, the last remaining ethnic Armenian village on Musa Dagh. We don't imagine that there is anything left of Bitias to see, but I personally am hoping to at least do a little rural walking or hiking on the mountain.

Today, we went to the bazaar and the museum (and a few of those smart cafes). I have to say that - hometown pride notwithstanding - Antioch's bazaar is my favorite. Goreme didn't have one (instead it had streets packed up and down with souvenir shops). Gaziantep had a great one full of coppersmiths and huge plastic tubs of fresh paprika and cayenne powder, but an entire chunk of it was given over to a tourist bazaar in one of the restored caravanserais and I never did feel entirely good about buying anything there (for the record I do think the "tourist bazaar" was just as much for the domestic tourists looking for high-end gifts). I will say that Tahmis Kahvesi, a coffeeshop in the heart of Gaziantep's bazaar, was one of my favorite kick-back spots in Turkey. Sanliurfa's is exotic and huge, but I feel in some ways it banks on its reputation as such and is given over to kitschy tourist shopping - although, again, much of that is for domestic tourists. We did buy four silk scarves - two for me, two for gifts.

Antioch's bazaar is distinctly non-touristy. We wandered it for hours, got a little lost, and found alley upon alley of things that actual locals who live their lives and need stuff would want: household goods, decorative items, clothing, spices, jewelry, food. I saw exactly one shop selling souvenir-type goods which seemed popular with Turkish schoolgirls. It was very much an Everyman's Bazaar and I love it for that.

I bought some amazing smelling olive oil soap and a set for Turkish coffee (which the Turks do drink, just not to the great extent that they drink tea) - the kind a local might buy if they had a desire for coffee.

What I love generally about the bazaars in Turkey, and especially about Antioch, is that the snaking alleys and backways of shops are set around ornate - or sometimes half-hidden - entrances to mosques you would never guess were there, ancient bathhouses and crumbling caravanserais. You get the sense that these shopping streets have had the same function for millenia, or at least as long as it takes to build a caravanserai, have it be used and have it crumble. As you walk through, much of it is shaded, which is the only way you can possibly shop during the heat of the day. You round a turn and - here's what I really love - you see an old caravanserai entrance, so you poke your head in and more often than not you come upon a courtyard of locals relaxing or even a tea garden. We found one today shaded by trees rustling nicely in the breeze, set among a water station where people were washing their feet and hands, and a cage full of exotic birds. Needing a break from the packed bazaar alleys - it's "Ramazan Bayrami shopping season" (people seem to do a lot of shopping as Ramadan ends, not too unlike Christmas shopping in terms of the sheer crowds and sales volume) - we breathed a collective sigh of relief as we found this little paradise tucked away right in the middle of the bazaar, and downed several glasses of tea while I wrote postcards and Brendan worked his way through a book. Sure beats a food court at the mall.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

More photos from Istanbul tomorrow. This was taken in The Blue Mosque

We've been in Turkey for two days now, and what I have to say is this:

- Great food
- Breathtaking sights and scenery
- Extremely friendly people, talkative and helpful almost on the level of the Taiwanese

That last one is a bit of a sticker for me.

(By the way, I do link this a bit to Taiwan further down, if you feel like reading that far).

As you know if you read this blog with any regularity, I'm Armenian on my mother's side. Specifically, Armenian from Musa Dagh, Turkey: it's half the reason why we're in Turkey now at all - I'm interested ins seeing the one of the lands I come from. And as you know if you've studied history under anything other than a regime hell-bent on brainwashing young citizens through education, the Turks committed a massive genocide against Armenians in the early 20th century. I exist at all - and am American - because my family (or at least many of them) escaped that genocide. My great grandparents fled to Greece, but as WWII approached they had to leave Athens, as well - my great grandfather had been a freedom fighter for the Armenians, was well-known to the Turks and also to the Nazis. They would not have lived long in Greece had they stayed through the Nazi invasion.

My grandfather was born in Greece between those two flights for life, and as you can imagine, he hates Turks with a passion. Nobody else in the family is too fond of them, either. This might be left to history if the Turks would admit that what they did was commit genocide, and apologize for it. This hatchet might be buried if they'd admit that Ataturk was not only the father of their nation but also someone capable of committing great evil (hell, most Taiwanese, even those who vote KMT, pull no punches when saying the same about Chiang Kai-shek, although nobody sees him as the father of Taiwan and "father of the Republic of China" is a honor given to Sun Yat-sen).

And yet they won't admit this, and they educate the young to believe their side of the story - not that I believe there are sides - there is the side that knows what happened and the side that denies it, and that's all - and so young Turks today still believe that "it was a difficult and chaotic time and many people died but we did not commit a genocide". They will defend this quite vehemently and in Turkey, the law against speaking ill of Ataturk or calling the Armenian genocide a "genocide" is on their side.

This is why I have not told anyone I've met in Turkey of my ancestry. Yet. It's not a fight I can win. It's a fight that can get me in legal trouble.

So in my postcards home I've been writing things about how friendly the people are, and sounding fairly lighthearted about it. Honestly, though, I'm not. I am not remotely lighthearted about it. If anything it's had me a bit on edge since we arrived.

These women were quite friendly to me, and took lots of photos with me because they liked my blue eyes. No joke!

Instead, I'm torn. That friendly fellow in the tea garden who chatted with us, and the nice young boy who served us tea, and the helpful people who gave us directions or gently guided us, or who smiled but did not mock the mistakes we made in Istanbul (like trying to put a token on a card reader in the Metro), the man in the electronics shop who asked if we liked Cappadocia and the women in the Blue Mosque who took pictures with me just for fun, or those who were just plain friendly and welcoming - they didn't murder my people. I can't blame them for something that happened almost a century ago.

And yet they also deny that it happened.

And yet they were educated to believe it didn't happen.

And yet despite that education, they should know better.

And yet, they are some of the friendliest people I've had the pleasure of traveling among.

There's no denying it - so far the Turks have been nothing if not truly hospitable. That's hard for me. Their ancestors killed my people and the descendants deny it happened, and yet I cannot find fault with their kindness. How do I even begin to reconcile that?

Because really, underneath my feeling of warmth for the warmth the Turks have shown us is a bit of a raw scar - a thin line of anger, knowing that that kindness would probably be withdrawn the moment they learned I was Armenian. That kindness is wholly dependent on a pretense - on allowing them their cognitive dissonance. On not upending their belief system. This means that I also feel cognitive dissonance - these people who are so friendly, whom deep down I know would deny a massacre I know to have happened - how does one go about stitching those two things together? Is it really friendliness if it's contingent upon my not revealing a deep kernel of myself? Would it even be appropriate to do so? Is it fair to my ancestors who gave their lives or risked their lives to save others to not do so and to accept this hospitality at face value?

What happens is that I talk with these lovely people, and it's fine, except I feel, off to my side maybe, waves of heat from a red-hot poker, just inches from my skin, threatening to brand me an Unwelcome Other if I discuss my heritage or speak the truth, and threatening on the other hand to brand me a Traitor if I let things be.

It's a hard line to walk and I can't help but feel a little emotional over it. It's not so bad in Cappadocia, but when we hit Musa Dagh I will have to work very hard to keep my feelings in check.

I can see how the same issue dogs many Taiwanese. There are those who came or whose parents came over with the KMT, those who served or whose parents served under Chiang Kai-shek, and those who were killed by the KMT in the wake of 228 and the White Terror. There are many for whom being welcomed by neighbors, coworkers, classmates and even family is contingent upon not upsetting the worldview of others that their political beliefs are correct (and that goes for both sides). It is not so serious as a genocide when someone who is deep green can't reveal to his coworkers who are mostly blue, but there is still a raw feeling underneath the pretense of cameraderie. There is an unspoken understanding that "we all need to get along", so talking about things like, well, the White Terror around people whose parents may have ignored it or even supported it is not condoned. I can very much imagine how those Taiwanese feel, unable to upset the fragile truce of "your parents' party killed my loved ones, and that party won't apologize for it, your parents won't acknowledge the atrocity, and that kills me inside so I won't talk about it. I have to deal with you and I want things to run smoothly so I can't bring it up. I have to pretend it doesn't exist."

I can imagine it because I'm living it right now.