Monday, December 11, 2006

The Armenian Question

My grandfather, who died earlier this year, was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. As a child, he escaped from Turkey with his family and spent his formative years in Marseilles, France with his mother and two siblings. In France, he organized dances, sold newspapers and became a tailor to earn money. His father finally saved enough to bring the rest of the family to America in the late 1920s.

In Philadelphia, my grandfather began a career as a tailor. He soon opened a dry cleaning location and the rest, as they say, is history. My uncles and cousins still run the operation, which has grown and changed many times over the last 75 years. During his long career, my grandfather helped bring many Armenians over from Turkey. My childhood holidays seemed like a long procession of thickly accented people thanking him, eating with him and always laughing as they pinched my cheeks.

My grandpa (left) with his younger brother Clem in 2004.

When I visited him at his office in Philadelphia every year -- he worked up until the end of his life -- we used to go across the Delaware river into New Jersey for lunch with various uncles and cousins to his favorite diner. One of the highlights for him during the meal would be to speak to a Turkish busboy or waiter in their native language. He took real pleasure in these conversations. He'd turn to us after the conversation and tell us something about the waiter: "His family's from Istanbul," or "He was a lawyer in Ankara."

A few years ago, I asked him how he managed to get along so well with these Turks given the enmity that existed between them and the Armenians over the years. "You were there during the worst time," I said. He turned serious very quickly. The twinkle in his eye became a steely gaze and I worried that perhaps he was finally going to carry out his old threat of pulling my ear. "These kids don't know anything about what happened. They didn't have anything to do with that. They're trying to make a good life for themselves here."

That was his attitude in a nutshell. He was always looking towards the future. He was unwilling to put the sins of the father on the sons. He was looking for common ground, not things that divided people. The rest of my family does their best to emulate this attitude. I can't say that they are as successful as he was, but at least they try. I also do everything I can to take this lesson to heart in my own life. Heck, I even try to extend it to the Republicans I know.

This is perhaps why I read Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul with a mixture of fascination and alarm. The Armenian-Americans in this new novel don't resemble my family at all. I have always known that many, perhaps most Armenians, didn't take the same attitude as my grandfather towards the Turkish people, but to see them portrayed in such a harsh light was a shock. Shafak's Armenian-Americans have so thoroughly bonded around their hatred of the Turks that it colors their whole perception of the world. It reminded me of the Cubans in Florida, waiting for Castro to die so that they can reclaim their place in a society that doesn't really exist anymore.

Shafak has written a courageous novel that looks at the Armenian-Turkish question from many different angles. She has faced trial in Turkey for using the word genocide when referring to the -- well, genocide -- of the Armenians during World War I. The novel focuses on an Armenian-American family in San Francisco and a Turkish family in Istanbul; the two are connected when a young woman from the American family travels from San Fransisco to Istanbul. Most of the contemporary Turkish people in her novel are ignorant of the events of the past, though some have swallowed the government propaganda and accuse the Armenians of exaggeration. The Armenians who live in Istanbul have moved on from that horrific time, finding a way to survive and even thrive in the multicultural milieu of modern Turkey. It's the haunted Armenian-American characters who can't move on.

I imagine it's a true portrayal of many Armenian-Americans based on the constant stream of literature I receive in the mail from various Armenian groups. They track every utterance from the Turkish government on the genocide, pressure the U.S. Congress to force Turkey to recognize the holocaust, and always object to Turkey's possible entry into the European Union. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to see Turkey acknowledge what happened during World War I, but I have no interest in building my identity around it.

In fact, in terms of making the world aware of what happened, nothing could be better than what is occurring now. Turkey tries to prosecute its top novelists, including the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pumuk, as well as artists and even cartoonists for mentioning the holocaust, and each time it makes world news. I sometimes wonder if Turkey did an about-face and held a ceremony honoring the slain Armenians, if everyone would just start ignoring the genocide a month later.

All of the politics seem like a theoretical exercise to me. In my everyday life, the one real issue that occasionally comes up is how should I respond to a Turkish immigrant. Do I identify myself as an Armenian and risk an awkward conversation? Do I stay silent and ignore the similarities of our cultures and our shared and painful history? On a recent trip to Chicago, a cab driver with a thick accent was going on about how family is the most important thing in life and you should cherish your wife, when something in how he phrased the words made me think of one of the many good-natured lectures my grandfather had delivered to me over the years. I asked him where he was from. "I'm from Turkey," he responded.

I hesitated for a moment, worried that he might be wary of me, before telling him that I was an Armenian. He turned completely around in the car, his face lit up with joy, despite the fact that our lives were in jeopardy as he careened down Michigan Avenue facing backwards. "Where did your family come from?" he asked. "Near Ankara. A town called Yozgat," I responded.

The rest of the trip flew by. He told me of his children: "Real Americans." I told him that I wanted to visit Turkey and see my grandfather's home. He said that I would love it and that the Turkish people were very friendly. I asked him where I could get the best Turkish or Armenian food in Chicago, and he lamented the lack of good Turkish cuisine in the windy city. "You know, the best food is the Lebanese place, Fattoush, a few miles from here. They have everything."

Sure, I could have kept my mouth shut when he told me that he was Turkish. Perhaps, I could have berated him for what happened in 1915. Instead, I did what I thought my grandfather would have done in the same situation. I greeted him with openess and focused on how much we had in common. We had a great conversation, and later in the week I took some colleagues out for a wonderful meal of shish kebab. My only regret is that I couldn't talk to the waiters in their native language.

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