Turkish Delights and Armenian Plights

By Avo John Kambourian (Guest Contributor)

Throughout my childhood I knew, quite extensively, about my Armenian heritage. My understanding of culture came from observing my family members. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were like the lens of a camera through which I saw and experienced the world.

My parents met in Los Angeles after fleeing during the civil war in Beirut. Similarly, their grandparents had no choice but to flee from their homes in historic Armenia; places like Ourfa and Marash in present day Eastern Turkey. Whether it was enduring the horrific days of the genocide, struggling in the Middle East, or immigrating to the United States, each generation faced its own unique set of challenges but never failed to preserve our ancient culture. Knowing about these struggles made me cherish this rich culture that had been passed down from generation to generation.

But there were moments in my childhood that left me confused. Occasionally, I would hear my parents play Turkish songs or notice my grandparents transfixed by the compelling drama of a Turkish soap opera. This was a stark contrast to what I had been taught growing up: to consciously refrain myself from enjoying anything Turkish (because of Turkey’s lack of acknowledgment that there was a genocide), with the exception of Turkish delights, because no one with taste buds can avoid enjoying these. This duality struck me in an odd way.

In 2009, during my second year of college, I watched a concert film called Dave Chappelles Block Party, directed by Michel Gondry. This was a film about a block party in Brooklyn, NYC, hosted by world famous comedian Dave Chappelle.

Chappelle had musical guests on his sketch comedy show, which helped spread the word about artists like Kanye West, Mos Def, The Roots, Common, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu, pretty early on in their careers.

So when I watched the film, two things happened. First, I became transfixed by the way live music was being shown in the film. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I got very much into photographing shows and concerts solely because of it. Second, I started listening to some of the artists, primarily Brooklyn based artist Mos Def because I felt so aligned with his words about life, humanity, and injustice.

Saying that Most Def’s album The Ecstatic blew me away is an understatement. That album helped define a lot of my core political beliefs. What drew me to that album was Def’s interesting mix of diverse beats and sounds paired with his dark poetic lyrics.

Here’s his single off that album, called Supermagic, with a short intro by Malcolm X.

The song was somewhat of a revelation for me. It sounded so familiar, yet was like nothing I had ever heard before. After a quick search online I found out that Mos Def had actually sampled a Turkish song.

Why would he open his album with THIS song? Why? I was appalled, but I was also curious. When I looked up the translation for the lyrics I remember being very skeptical about what they might be. I was thinking it was probably about something I couldn’t relate to, but boy was I wrong.

I found out that the original song, Ince Ince, which means flaked in Turkish, is a song from the Turkish psychedelic folk artist Selda Bagcan. She is widely regarded in Turkey as a prominent left-wing folk singer.

To me she’s like a fusion of Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And I was amazed to read about such a prominent leftist figure in Turkey. I couldn’t stop listening to her music, and I couldn’t help but feel like a kid with a box of Turkish Delights.

The song, as it turns out, is about the mistreated minorities of Turkey, the people that were flaked by their government. In the second verse, Bagcan even calls out her government by saying:

Why isn’t Ourfa like your Istanbul?*
Poor Marash, dry Ourfa, what about Diyarbakır?
We’re doomed, we’re dead, a drop of water
Come now sir, please

It was like the song was calling out to me since the beginning. The mentioning of Marash and Ourfa, my ancestral villages, really struck a chord with me. Suddenly it all made sense, I understood why Mos Def had chosen to use this song to open his album and why Selda’s music resonated with me, even before I knew what the lyrics meant.

Here is Ince Ince in its entirety:

To me this song is about a region of the world still affected by its past, an oppressive government that continues to marginalize a vast majority of its population.

When we talk about Turkey, it’s important for us to remember that we’re talking about a country built on the spilt blood of our ancestors. But we shouldn’t forget about the many other minorities who are still being oppressed in that country today.

What I realized is that we, Armenians and Turks, aren’t all that different. I believe it’s vital for us to find a commonality between ourselves and our so-called enemies, not in acts of forgiveness, but in order to seek a common understanding. Although cultural identity may be established during the first few years of one’s life, I think any good work of art has the power to open eyes and connect people of all backgrounds; whether it be music, writing, or film, as long as it’s done with respect for telling a common story, something we can all relate to.

Avo John Kambourian is a filmmaker from Sherman Oaks, California. He holds a degree in Communication from UC San Diego, and claims to be really good behind the grill. His favorite films are Back to the Future, Godfather II, and Boogie Nights. Hes currently working on a documentary series called Echoes of Survival, which follows a diverse group of Armenian artists in the United States, whose works are directly influenced by their Armenian identity.

The Armenian Who Thought She Was a Turk

By Melissa Lake

An important part of stating Armenian culture has never died is to focus on its evolution. In biology we determine the fitness of a species by its ability to adapt to and cope with its environment, and just like animals will experience the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” law of nature, cultures throughout society have come and gone, waxed and waned, morphing and changing with time, some continuing on while others are left to die. As a scientist, I’m inclined to draw parallels to the laws of nature, so Armenian culture was no different to me. I see our common ancestor, a rich but concentrated culture exclusive to almost one singular area of the world, and I see its descendants, its gradual evolution and growth, its continued adaptations needed to survive in new environments. I see the branching from the original, the creation of different sub-families within a greater species. And like species in nature, while we all share a similar common ancestor, while our basic foundations are from the same source, all different Armenian cultures had to individually adapt to survive to their unique environments.

For my personal cultural experience, I was raised believing I was Turkish while still knowing I was Armenian. Whether it be to spare a child from tales of horrific violence, the inability to speak of a wound still raw and painful, or the fact that the reason my family is here today is thanks to the kindness of Turkish strangers, my mother never really spoke to me of the genocide when I was young. So my youth was a mix of two conflicting cultures: I ate breakfast in a kitchen adorned with Armenian flags but then talked about Turkey when people asked what ethnicity my mother was. My mother never renounced her nationality but also never abandoned her heritage. She was Turkish-Armenian just as American diaspora-born Armenians are Armenian-American. But I think this cultural fusion speaks more for Armenian perseverance than it does of forced Turkish cultural assimilation. My mother and her family spent years hiding their true ethnicity, adopting a culture that had seen to the decimation of their own. And yet their root culture was not lost, it had simply changed, evolving in its latency.

I’m here now, an adult raised a part of two enemy cultures, proud to say I am both, but also acutely aware that I am an Armenian by blood and birthright, and a Turk by genocide. And thus, I don’t think it would be too bold to say that Armenian genetics are a dominant trait. Somewhere on one of our 46 chromosomes sits an allele unique to Armenians and even through generational dilution it still permeates as strong as ever.

Even I stand up here today, half Turkish diasporan Armenian and half generationally American, raised in a town where I was the only Armenian, incapable of speaking the language of my ancestors, more than aware that I am Armenian before I am anything else. And whether it be through generations of ethnic mixing or from sheer distance from an elusive homeland, this genomic marker still remains permanent and impervious to the effects of time and other evasive cultural interference.

We are a culture of a people marred by tragedy and driven by strength. We are a culture of people who refuse to be forgotten, a people who refuse to be ignored and driven into obscurity. We are a culture that has survived through insurmountable strife and impossible odds. We are a culture that has come back from the systematic annihilation of our people stronger than we were before. You can drag us from our homes, you can burn us and rape us and reduce us to nothing, you can forcefully and coercively take the people out of Armenia, but you cannot, through any form of abuse or injustice or forced assimilation, take Armenia out of the people.

Pulling Teeth

By Melissa Lake

Growing up, my Aunt always used to say that getting Turks and Armenians to interact amicably was like “pulling teeth”. And by all literal comparisons, she was completely right- it was often a bloody, difficult, painful task that left things sore and only slightly better off than when they started. And call it fate, or divine intervention, or the cruel tragedy of the reality of my life, but I discovered first hand in a literal sense the symbolic meaning behind the “pulling teeth” struggle between the Armenians and the Turks.

I was born with a rare genetic defect that caused two of my adult premolars to never form and thus the baby teeth remained to serve as my pseudo-adult teeth. For generations this issue has existed within my mother’s family and it has never been a large cause for concern. For 20 years, my soft fragile, baby teeth remained in my mouth, slowly being eaten away by everyday use- decaying and softening. And then the time came where it was finally time for them to go and my uncle (who has the same problem) assured my mother that he “had a friend” who could take them out for me and place an implant in.

And thus began the most illegitimate medical experience of my entire life. The dentist was an Armenian, with only a foreign dental license so consequently he was forbidden from legally practicing in the U.S. He had been running an under-the-table dental operation within the heart of the largest Armenian diaspora outside of Armenia itself and his clientele were mostly older Armenians. The “office” was located in a warehouse; it shared the building with an auto repair shop and metal factory. There was no sign, nothing that would indicate that any sort of medical professional worked in the building. The only thing that would possibly allude to the fact that there was more to this building than heavy metal work was an Armenian last name pasted onto the glass front door in faded and peeling block sticker letters. When my uncle rang the doorbell, a large man with a thick mustache and a white apron I’ve only ever seen butchers in meat markets wear opened the door. My first instinct was flight, and as my knees tensed ready to help me escape, my mother smelled my fear and pushed me in.

The office looked exactly as how I always pictured a third-world dentist office would look. The machinery had at least a good 20 years on me, sharp metal instruments were lain strewn about. The paint was peeling from the walls and directly in front of me was a large canvas painting of a countryside with Armenian lettering scrawled on the bottom. I was terrified. I had spent my whole life in professional dental offices to come here- a place where I could almost hear the echoes of the screams from previous patients reverberating off the walls. “If there was a God, he could not help me now”- I thought to myself in panic as the large dentist examined my tooth, his gloveless hands in my mouth. All I could see was his thick mustache moving as he talked in Turkish to my mom and uncle, the panic in me swelling. He X-rayed my teeth to confirm what I had known my entire adult life- that the baby teeth were all I had-no adult teeth would be making an appearance to take their place. And as he was explaining this to me, he reached into one of his drawers and pulled out a set of pliers that I pray were designed solely for medical use and looked at me as he said in a broken, accent stained English “the tooth needs to come out today”.

If I had ever felt fear before in my life it was nothing to what I felt then. Every muscle ached as they strained to fight every one of my survival reflexes and remain seated while adrenaline pumped through my body. I turned to my mother and begged “Please just knock me out”. They all laughed, like captors laugh at frightened prey. He pulled out a needle and assured me that I wouldn’t feel a thing and as he poked my gums with it and injected the liquid into the base of my tooth, my eyes shot daggers at my mother. As he waited for my mouth to numb, my mom asked him in English about his children, probably thinking that my panic would subside hearing a language I could understand (she was wrong). He talked about how his daughter was going to dental school, how she would be the fourth generation dentist in the family. And my mother, who could never pass up an opportunity to pry deep into someone’s past, asked him about his grandfather who had practiced in Istanbul. He asked me about how numb I felt, reached for his pliers and told my mom, “My grandfather was the best dentist in Istanbul. The Turks would never admit it, but even they would go see him and deny it if anyone asked.” At this point, the pliers were snug around my tooth, wiggling back and forth, and then accompanied by the most horrifying tearing sound you could imagine. I could hear every tendon ripping and I could feel nothing. When the tooth was finally out, after my mom made sure to ask if she could keep it, the dentist had me rinse my mouth and while I was bent over spitting up blood, he patted my back and jokingly said, “Aren’t you glad you’re Armenian? Any other dentist would have taken twice as long.” My mom and my uncle both laughed and I gave my best attempt at a smile, the half-numbness of my face causing me to look like I was suffering a stroke.

If I was capable of speaking, I would have told him I’m happy to be Armenian every day, maybe just not so much on days that it means brutal medical procedures. I’m happy and proud and honored to be part of a people who have faced and still face callous discrimination and are able to move past it and through it with grace and dignity. And the day may never come when relations between Turks and Armenians are free from enmity and vehemence, where Armenians are no longer seen as inferiors, where seeking their help is no longer a thing of shame, but we have always been a strong people and we will continue to be a strong people, one tooth pulling at a time.

Ermeni

By Taleen Mardirossian

You can count on two things when bad news is dispersed in my family; synchronized gasps and my grandmother’s voice, “Asdvads tushnameeyis chee tsutsuneh.”   If someone has been diagnosed with cancer, or a life has ended prematurely, or an elder is placed in a retirement home, God forbid, my grandmother makes a plea to God to save everyone, even her enemies, from whatever tragedy has taken place.  One time when I was young, I confronted her, “What about the Turks?”  They had, in fact, killed our ancestors and stolen our lands, and based on the morals instilled in my household, good people didn’t kill, hate, or steal, so the Turks couldn’t possibly be good people.  And so I wondered if her wishes to God extended to them too, or if they had earned themselves a category far worse than “enemy”.  Being an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth kind of person, her response surprised me, “Even the Turks.”  So I imagined, there must be some good ones if my grandmother prays for them too.

Unfortunately, my first encounter with a Turk was not a good one and the ignorance, hatred, and utter disrespect I experienced made me question why my grandmother was praying for people who wished nothing but the worst upon us.  After being prey to a merciless predator for so long, one would imagine that almost a century later, hatred would be replaced with remorse and empathy. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; or so I once believed. Among the very short list of people who have earned my utmost respect is the name of a Turk, Taner Akçam. I am not oblivious to the fact that there are Turks who acknowledge the Genocide and have even risked their lives for the sake of publicly making it known to their very democratic government.  But it always seemed as though this was a rarity since I had never come into contact with a Turk who accepted the wrongdoings of their predecessors or wished Armenians well. That is, until now.

After painting the perfect shade of pale pink polish on my nails, I carefully opened my laptop, and sorted through the unread messages in my inbox, while waiting for my nails to dry. And there it was, a response to one of my previous posts, from an unfamiliar name that I recognized as being Turkish. Clicking on the name, I already knew exactly what this was, another unpleasant message from a Turk.  The entire message was written in Turkish so I didn’t understand any of it, none but one word, Ermeni, meaning Armenian.  I instantly knew I was being attacked for not only being Armenian, but for expressing my thoughts about a genocide that, apparently, never occurred.  To be quite frank, I’ve never cared about the opinions of others, and this was no exception.  I didn’t know what these words meant and I really didn’t care to find out so I closed the screen, slipped on my Toms, and went about my day without giving it a second thought.  The following morning, my dad said something in Turkish.

“Dad that reminds me, someone from Istanbul sent a message.”

“Saying what?”

“I don’t know. Probably talking shit, what else?”

“Let me see it,” he responded nonchalantly.

My dad is a man of a million remarkable qualities, one of them being his ability to maintain a calm demeanor, even in the midst of ferocity. Being my father’s daughter, I knew just by peering into his eyes that he was angry. As we entered our favorite restaurant, the hostess escorted us to our table as I fumbled for my phone in my large bag, overfilled with everything from highlighters to pepper spray. I handed my phone over to my dad, and watched his facial expression change as he read those Turkish words.  Seconds later, he gave me the “Really Taleen?” look.  I was confused and he could tell. He then started reading the message out loud in Turkish, before finally translating.

“I will forever be with you Armenians, until the end. Signed, with love always.”

Wait, what? If it weren’t for the smile on his face, I would have thought that this was a really bad joke. Even after a minute of trying to process this information, I still didn’t know what to think so I handed the phone back to my dad, demanding that he read it a second time, at which point, he was offended that I was questioning his fluency in Turkish.  But there’s no way.

I automatically placed you in the “brainwashed” category without even understanding the meaning of your words. I allowed the actions of a few Turks to taint the good intentions of another.  I admire you for seeking your own truth, when buying the one your government tried to sell you was a cheaper option. I now realize that your kind and loving words should not have come as a surprise. After all, my grandmother has been praying for you all of these years.