Tales of Winter
Finally it snowed! And finally, I used freshly split logs to start a long-awaited fire with dried kindling in the fireplace. It was the seventh of the month, and it had not yet snowed until now. That was a change from yesteryears, when Thanksgiving came in the middle of snowstorms stranding air and land travelers. The Greens attribute all this change to global warming, which, if persists, will melt the Antarctic snow and raise the sea levels to surpass that of the Great Flood, which prompted Noah to build his arc. Waves and wind had directed the arc towards Armenia, and when the waters receded, the arc had settled on our very own Mount Ararat—unlike the British Navy, which couldn’t (rather wouldn’t) climb our mountain as Gostan Zarian had portrayed in his novel Nave Lerran Vrah (The Ship on the Mountain).
I sat in my recliner watching the wood crackle. Since I don’t drink liquor, my wife fixed me a cup of Turkish coffee. Oops! I mean Armenian coffee. (The faux pas reminded me of Hassan Cemal’s dolma story, which he told in a forum at the ACEC in Watertown recently to highlight the cultural similarities that existed between the Turks and the Armenians. Now, aside from dolma, we also have coffee in common.) And I lit my pipe, no not the peace pipe or the one filled with weed.
The fire was going in earnest! The flames dancing in Arabesque created a very peaceful atmosphere. I must have cat-napped several times, always maintaining a certain degree of wakefulness. People, places, and events exchanged venue in my mind. I thought if my grandchildren were here I would have told them a few stories, which they would remember in my absence.
—Remember Grandpa, smoking his pipe in front of the fireplace telling us stories?
One story came to mind and I burst into laughter; I remembered the one with the shoeshine Turk in Athens. My friend Vatche and I had stopped in Athens on our way to Cairo as guests of the Egyptian government, arranged by Egypt’s ambassador to Armenia, Dr. Ahmed F. Raslan.
Vatche was looking for blue stones, the kind that repels the evil eye. We spotted a jeweler in Omonia who had them. The jeweler turned out to be an Armenian; we knew it immediately since he had a painting of Mount Ararat on the wall. As Vatche was entertaining the possibilities, I spotted a shoeshine man. The jeweler told me he was a Turk. I asked him if he would shine my shoes. He said it would cost me 500 drachmas. I agreed! In the middle of his work I asked him, in Turkish, if he is a Turkish Turk or a Turkish Kurd. He swore that he is a Turkish Turk. I said, “All right, in that case, if you stand up and curse Turkey I will give you 500 more drachmas.” He stood up, and in profane language, cursed Turkey. I gave him the extra money, and said helal olsun! (May it be helal).
I have told this story numerous times, and each time laughed heartily, but then I realized that it was a spontaneous theater portraying the cowardice of the Turk outside of his country, and the desperation of an Armenian to get even with his executioner, the Turk, psychologically.
Then I thought of Zeynep and Ibrahim. I felt something warm trickling down my cheeks when I recalled the story. They were in their early old age when I met them. He was a diabetologist educated in Switzerland. Coming from Istanbul where they were born they had lived in Switzerland for 20 or so years. We spoke Turkish with each other, trying to find a common language other than the dolma, coffee, manti, and suli kufta. He told me that he was orphaned at age four. His father had been a very wealthy industrialist, whose right hand man was Dickran Effendi. “He managed our business when my father was alive, as if it was his. Upon my father’s death, the entire business was faithfully managed by Dickran Effendi. For my stipend, I used to go to him and make a case for getting a little more pocket money before he gave it to me. Arguments that it was my father’s money fell on deaf ears. This is how Dickran Effendi protected our wealth, and sent me to Europe for education. He guided me, and shaped my behavior.” I could see his chin quiver with emotion.
His story was not uncommon in Istanbul of the time. Famous Armenians like Krikor Zohrab, a professor of law, had educated a generation of Turkish youth who were to become lawyers. Judges used to consult with him about the intricacies of jurisprudence, yet he was the first of 150 Armenian intellectuals to be murdered on April 24, 1915. The Ittihad ve Terraki (CUP), with German engineering, had planned to behead the Armenian nation and then terminate the masses. And that’s what they did!
Doctor Ibrahim’s wife Zeynep was a gem. She refused to be addressed Zeynep Hanim, since hanim was used by the Ottoman rulers as a sign of respect for a lady who was the subordinate of man. She preferred to be called just Zeynep. She was every bit European in demeanor. She was kind and smart, She became my mother’s close friend, though she always addressed her Madame Astarjian. And when my mother was hospitalized in a semi-comatose state, then coma, Zeynep never left her bedside. She comforted my mother, held her hand. She held vigil until her final breath. This was Zeynep, a decent human being. One could not help but remember Dickran Effendi’s influence.
By accident I met Mohammed Amin, a tailor in Milford. He made some clothes for me, the old-fashioned way. He was a true gentleman and deeply religious Muslim. We talked about the old days, when Armenians lived on the same land with the Turks. He was aware of the killings and deportation of the Armenians, but he was unaware of the magnitude of the atrocities amounting to genocide. He was grateful for being in a “free country, like America,” and he was grateful for having a trade, like tailoring. He said, “I learned it all from my Usta (Master) Garabed, who made me his khalfa (senior apprentice) for many years before I became an usta.” He sighed, “I owe it all to him, he was a good man, Allah rahmet etsin (May God be merciful to him).”
I thought these were the bridges that traversed the gorges that existed between the two peoples of Anatolia, until the Turks planned and executed the genocide.
I had many more tales to tell my grandchildren on this wintery night, but my wife was calling me to dinner. It was dolma.