Waiting for Tables
I was trying to imagine living in Sunnyside. A historic landmark built in the 20s, one of the first shared living communities in America, Sunnyside Gardens features two and three storey attached brick homes nestled between shared gardens, courtyards, and walking streets. When I first encountered Sunnyside’s tall trees fanning over peaked rooftops, I couldn’t believe such suburbia was a ten-minute subway ride from Midtown. But mostly I was curious how the idyllic neighborhood contained two of its inhabitants, the Armenians and the Turks, and their ancient, bloody grudge.
I discovered Sunnyside when my partner and I were looking for a home. We had just arrived from Armenia, where he was born, and where I had lived on a year-long Fulbright. Returning to New York City to encounter Armenian shops, Turkish restaurants, and both languages spoken on the street was intriguing. As an Armenian American, I was well aware of the enemy status between the two groups. My grandmother had been a child when the Ottoman Empire was shrinking and shifting ultra-nationalistically to a Turkish Republic. She survived the systematic series of death marches and mass killings that the ruling Young Turks waged in Eastern Anatolia to displace and decimate large numbers of Christian Armenians and their whole strata of society, along with anyone not Turkic, such as Assyrians, Greeks, and Jews. Every April 24, I had commemorated the genocide with other Armenian Americans, had signed petitions for the U.S. Congress to recognize the event, and had become enraged as the Turkish government continued to deny the truth with claims that the number of Armenian deaths is inflated and that just as many Turks died in a civil war.
During my year in Armenia, however, I discovered that many Armenians, like my partner, resented the manipulation of the Catastrophe (as the events of 1915 are also known) as a nationalistic tool. A formerly Soviet republic, Armenia occupies an especially precarious position: the tiny landlocked nation of under 3 millions souls has closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan since the war with the latter over the region of Karabakha—cease-fire has been in effect for over 15 years. But Armenia’s worst enemy seems to be its own nationalism, which enables government corruption to spread wealth among the well-connected while financially crippling everyone else. Nationalism also forced Muslim Azeris and Kurds in Armenia to flee persecution during and after the war, leaving a mono-ethnic, highly conformist and generally intolerant society. Many dissenting Armenian friends expressed to me that they were wary of the government-sponsored genocide commemorations for breeding an “us vs. them” mentality.
I also learned that there was resistance on the other side of the border in Turkey. Though the history of the Armenians has not been taught for generations in Turkish schools, local Anatolian villagers have known of the atrocities through oral tradition. In the past few years, more Turks have been realizing that they have Armenian blood through grandmothers who were rescued as girls from the death marches to assimilate into Turkish culture. When Hrant Dink, the prominent Armenian editor of Agos, a Turkish-language Armenian newspaper in Istanbul, was assassinated outside his office by an ultra-nationalistic Turkish teenager in January, 2007, unprecedented demonstrations took place. A spokesperson for Armenians in Turkey, Dink identified as a Turkish citizen. Though he spoke openly about the Armenian Genocide and was charged with the national crime of “insulting Turkishness,” he stated publicly that he had personally moved beyond the Armenian rage over the crimes of the past. To memorialize him, demonstrators in Turkey carried signs that read, “We are all Hrant,” implying that Dink wasn’t “the other” but Turkey itself, and all of Turkey suffered his loss.
On a trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, the same week that Dink was shot, I was further enlightened about Armenian and Turkish relations when I encountered an Azeri man who could speak better Armenian than me. At the centuries-old Turkish baths, he told me that his neighborhood was mixed with Azeris, Turks, Kurds and Armenians—basically a quartet of enemy nationalities—who were longtime friends.
I didn’t have time to discover this utopian community, but eight months later I moved to Woodside, just east of Sunnyside; walking under the sycamores, I wondered if the Armenians and Turks of Sunnyside were like their mythic counterparts in Tbilisi. I became curious to find out how they wound up in the same neighborhood. I wanted to know the dynamic among the neighbors, hoping to discover that people had bridged differences and forged friendships in a united front against American assimilation. After living in Armenia, an ethnically homogeneous place, where the “enemy” is rarely encountered but often imagined, I theorized that one positive aspect of living in New York was that its diversity provided a unique opportunity for longtime adversaries—landing in a new place and time—to confront their troubles.
I imagined Armenian and Turkish teenagers in Romeo and Juliet romances, and little black-haired toddlers playing in courtyards. I envisioned elderly people sipping thick unfiltered coffee, which they didn’t claim as Armenian or Turkish, as they read each other their fortunes in the swirled coffee grounds.
When I was more rational, I presumed that I would run into trouble during my search, and when I got paranoid, I feared no one would talk to me. Previously, I had tried to engage in dialogue with Turkish restauranteurs and shop owners in Manhattan, but it was invariably awkward. Sometimes I could identify when a stranger was Turkish with a kind of ethnic radar that I attributed to a vestigial sixth sense from when our ancestors lived together as foes. Though I was nervous about tapping into this inherited animosity in Sunnyside, I was more excited by the fantasy of neighborly love.
My investigation into the relationship of the Sunnyside Armenians and Turks took place last spring, several months before the governments of Armenia and Turkey announced that they would work towards establishing diplomatic relations. Public protest in the Armenian diaspora erupted in response to the announcement of the pending agreement, especially over a proposed historic commission which will look into the “question” of the genocide. But Armenia has been struggling economically ever since the Soviet collapse, and diplomatic relations with Turkey could lead to an opening of the border, which would improve Armenia’s trade. Nearly a hundred years later, it seems the demands of the present have finally caught up with the need to atone for the past.
This wasn’t the case in Sunnyside, though I discovered that economics forced people together there, too.
To learn how the two groups wound up in the same neighborhood, I met with Edvard, a Romanian-Armenian journalist, at the back of Baruir’s, a small Armenian shop on Queens Boulevard which has been roasting coffee beans in a giant copper contraption in their store window for nearly 45 years. Every weekend a group of older Armenian men, in their 60s, 70s and up, meet in Baruir’s back store room to eat, drink, and talk politics around a table, like village elders. Edvard emerged from their lair and set up two folding chairs for us by the freezers. He took off his hat to reveal his graying, bald head, crossed his legs, and smilingly gave me a rundown of the Armenians in the neighborhood. A few were from Bulgaria, some from Syria, and a group arrived from Armenia starting in the 1980s before the breakup of the Soviet Union. But the vast majority came from Bucharest, when nearly 5,000 Romanian-Armenians fled Communism during the 60s and early 70s with the help of the Displaced Persons Act.
Edvard chronologically outlined the local Armenian social clubs, sports teams and businesses, many now defunct. One social group used to meet regularly at the Wendy’s on Queens Boulevard, “but then they moved to Cedar Grove,” Edvard grinned with a gleam in his eye that I didn’t understand. He explained that the Wendy’s crew was pretty old and Cedar Grove is a cemetery in Flushing. The joke underlined a pertinent point, though. When I asked Edvard if there was tension between the Armenians and their Turkish neighbors he said, “No, because the Armenians had already dissolved by the time the Turks arrived.”
Apparently the Armenian community in Sunnyside was a ghost of its former self. I had read online that Turkish people began settling in Sunnyside in the early 80s, prompted in part by the Turkish prime minister, Turgut Ozal, who ushered in a period of economic growth with export and openness with the West; the majority of the community arrived during the mid to late 90s. By this time, many of the Romana-hye (the Armenian name for Romanian Armenians) had moved out of the neighborhood since the late 70s on their climb toward upward mobility.
On another day, I went to Transylvania, a Romanian restaurant with a sign emblazoned with a full moon and a bat in flight alongside the cheerful proclamation “Dracula’s Place.” Inside the restaurant, among white tablecloths and a giant portrait of a Romanian king, a co-ed group of elderly Romanian Armenians congregated every Thursday. They were an extension of a group called Armenian Social Life of Western Queens, originating 35 years before. When I asked why the Romana-hye moved to Sunnyside, one man guessed that the shared gardens reminded the Romana-hye of Bucharest. But most people said more definitively that the rents were cheap and it was close to Manhattan where they could work.
The executive director of TAMEF, the Turkish American Multicultural Educational Foundation, also offered the common sense answer: when the Turks arrived in the 80s and 90s the rents were affordable in Sunnyside. And it wasn’t the only place they immigrated to; the Turkish populations were actually larger in Brooklyn and New Jersey.
These un-exciting answers about surviving economically went contrary to what I was hoping to hear: that Turks and Armenians wound up in the same neighborhood because once they arrived in an unfamiliar land, they found comfort amongst their Near Eastern, albeit estranged brethren. Even if part of my imagined scenario were true, I doubted anyone would admit it. Armenians repeatedly told me there was little relationship between the two people; in fact, no Armenian could suggest a Turk for me to talk to. One elderly Romana-hye man stated very clearly: “We don’t want to know it [the Turkish community] exists, we have no relation whatsoever, we don’t approach them and they don’t try to approach us.”
Louiza, a Romanian-Armenian dentist a generation younger than the Baruir and Transylvania crowds, told me she had Turkish patients and they were friendly, but she didn’t think the two groups should be compared, since the Turks were Middle Eastern while Romanians were European. Of a darker complexion, I’ve always considered myself belonging to the subset of Middle Eastern Americans. Ironically, the blonde, European-identified Louiza and I have the same origins; her grandparents were also genocide survivors who spoke both Armenian and Turkish. A sheepish smile came over her face as she told me how just the other day she had unknowingly used the Turkish word, perde, while talking to her priest about curtains. “‘Perde?!’” she imitated the priest’s dismay. But then she realized it was close to the Romanian word, perda. “Romania was also conquered by Turkey,” she noted.
Perhaps this was a reason why the Armenians in Romania strongly identified with their first adopted homeland. Louiza said, “Romanian culture had a tremendous impact on our lives. We speak Romanian daily.” She explained how poor they were when they first arrived to Sunnyside and how hard they had to work to survive, since they didn’t know English. She described the Romana-hye as clannish, marrying within their own community and not Armenians, never mind Americans, until a generation later. So it’s understandable how an insular, tighly-knit community, struggling to make its way in a foreign country, would feel indifference toward a clearly identified ethnic enemy. One man told me that 50 of his relatives, his entire family in Romania, immigrated to New York. Why bother getting to know anyone else, never mind Turks? I doubted if I was going to meet an Armenian in Sunnyside who had the time or interest for such an endeavor.
I could have inquired about the first Romana-hye generation born in the U.S., but most hadn’t been raised in Sunnyside. Their parents were Louiza’s peers, the so-called 1.5 generation, who scaled the American dream by becoming doctors, dentists, bankers, and engineers. As they became successful, married, and had families, they moved to more upscale neighborhoods in Queens, then to points east on Long Island. Louiza told me that if you hadn’t moved out of Sunnyside by 1977, you were still here.
Sarkis, who founded Armenian Social Life of Western Queens, was one of the Romana-hye who stayed. A spry octogenarian in matching beige sweater and slacks, also known as Sergio, he was proud to tell me his group’s motto. “Fun” he said slowly, holding up his index finger, “leads to Friendship” second finger. He smiled, his eyes seeming to enlarge behind his sizable glasses. “Leads to Love” third finger, “leads to the most important of all, Unity.” He showed me a looseleaf binder filled with an annotated list of videos of the ASLoWQu meetings he’d organized, ranging from the Armenian alphabet to the 1989 Armenian earthquake, from health to taxes. I asked him if the group met to keep their unique dual-heritage intact. He exclaimed, “Many of these people are widowed! I tell them to reach out to their friends, exercise their mind, don’t be sad! The main point is to give spiritual support, to help with loneliness.”
He then told me about his recent near-death experience when he collapsed during an ASLoWQu event and was rushed to the hospital, suffering an embolism. When he was brought to consciousness four days later, he questioned why, at the age of 80-something, he had been given another chance at life. In fact, he was a fan of the purpose-driven-life philosophy of Rick Warren. I cringed at his mention of the anti-gay marriage czar until I listened more deeply to Sergio. He had a place here among his people.
When I broached the topic about the Turks in the neighborhood, he said, “Many Turkish families are friendly. There’s no animosity. My super of my building is a Turk and we are good friends. We’re helping each other. He calls me ‘amucha’ which means ‘uncle’.” He laughed as he said the word and raised his hand as if his super was waving or slapping him on the back.
“They have no relationship with the past Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government has inherited the sins of the old Turks. But the people now are against Hrant Dink’s killer, who was a disturbed and indoctrinated teen. Just like during the massacres there were good Turks who saved Armenians and didn’t allow them to be massacred; they were against what happened. They aren’t all the same. You can’t blame a whole country for a minority who committed the atrocities in the past.”
Sarkis presented an image of unity that I had fantasized about earlier. It was a rare vision, and I certainly hadn’t expected to find it at Dracula’s Place.
At one point, one Armenian told me that I should send in a spy to talk to the Turks. He suggested an American girlfriend could do the interviews for me without revealing the material would be used for a parallel history on Armenians. He was concerned the Turks wouldn’t speak with me, and if they did, I would be too subjective to not become outraged by their views. I brushed him off and deemed such a reconnaissance mission unethical.
But in one Turkish store, the two friendly, 30-ish guys behind the counter, each working on alternate days, kept telling me that the owner would be in the next day; it took four tries before I realized they were the owners, passing me off to each other, till one of them said, as if speaking of someone else, “He won’t want to talk about the history, I can tell you that much.” I had never identified myself as Armenian, but his ethnic radar must have tipped him off. I feared I would never find a Turk to talk to.
If this wasn’t depressing enough, Sunnyside reminded me of death. It was first introduced to me by a friend who later died. An Armenian writer and resident my age had recently succumbed to leukemia. There was a huge cemetery nearby. My parents were closing in on their eighties, and I had just turned forty, which caused a radical shift in my thinking; how much time do I have left to do something important with my life?
When I had lived in Armenia, I glimpsed a different attitude toward death; there was less a sense that every moment was so urgent and precious, and less of the angst that New Yorkers have about “being somebody.” I tried to return to the Eastern mindset of valuing life in the present and not worry so much about my article.
And then the executive director of the Turkish American Multicultural Educational Foundation returned my call. Nervous as I walked over to Sunnyside for my first interview with a Turk, I wondered how we might dispute history. I had to stop on the blooming street corners to scribble down my thoughts about Americans valuing time and life as a commodity. Lobbying Armenian-Americans officially use the number 1.5 million to describe the quantity of people who died in the Catastrophe. But the true crime was not the number, but the suffering. There was the physical suffering of both those who survived and died, and the psychological suffering of witnessing such human depravity, and the emotional suffering of losing family. There was all the culture that was destroyed—art and schools and churches—that the world lost, not just Armenians. Turks lost their neighbors, friends and peers: they lost a question, an intellectual challenge, a certain kind of spirit that comes with difference. And hundreds of thousands of Turks suffered and lost their lives, directly as soldiers fighting in the war, and indirectly from the resulting spread of disease and poverty. 1.5 million sounded like a deal; it matched up so nicely with the 15 in 1915, easily remembered like a commercial message. It must have seemed threatening to Turks who deny history: a ploy to accuse them of wrongdoing, to demand reparations, to take away their nation, their culture. Armenians swoon over Mt. Ararat, the symbol of their land on Turkish territory, and some of them actively want it back. I'm not interested in land or numbers, I imagined telling the Executive Director of TAMEF. I believed in healing the cultural loss on both sides, much of which stemmed from the fear and hatred that allowed such an event to happen. Peace and reconciliation wouldn’t come until people in the present—in Turkey, in Armenia, in the diaspora—faced their own prejudice which had been passed down through the generations and institutionalized.
As I walked down the street, by the laundromat, the real estate office, the Turkish and Armenian groceries, I thought about my connection to land. I moved fairly easily from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, even country to country. Would I die defending Woodside? Hardly. Would anyone feel spiritually attached to aluminum siding, shiny chrome gates, and electric wires dangling from cheap balconies into the apartment below? It could be that such a place of impermanence would encourage people to get along, since they’re not going to fight to the death over parking spaces. In a place of flux and rental units, everyone can co-exist, even if your allegiance is still to the land where you come from, the flag of origin—Brazil, Croatia, Greece, Colombia—hanging neatly in your window.
“Co-existence”: it is not the same as talking, changing, and growing together.
Veysel, the Executive Director, greeted me in the dark space of the Center and walked me into his sunny office facing the elevated 7 train tracks. I smiled at him and he didn’t quite smile back. He was a big black-haired man with a quiet demeanor, wearing square-shaped rimless glasses and a white button-down shirt.
Unlike all my Armenian subjects who wouldn’t broach the topic till I asked, Veysel immediately launched into the question of Armenian-Turkish relations. “Turkish people have no problems with Armenians,” he said. “They live peaceably everywhere. They go to the same shops, restaurants and cafes, sitting together and talking together.” I wasn’t quite sure which Armenians and Turks were sipping coffee in which cafes, but I nodded my head. “We’re very happy that the Turkish government and the Armenian government are getting closer together,” Veysel went on, and again I nodded. The Turkish president had recently been to Armenia for a soccer match between Armenia and Turkey in the fall, an unprecedented diplomatic event. But then Veysel said, “I don’t want to talk politics, but just personally about our center.” In a place of diversity, he said, it was important that people learn about each other, so that we can all get along. He said they had visited the Irish Center in Long Island City and had coordinated a Japanese-Turkish night.
“Right after Hrant Dink was assassinated, we wanted to visit the Armenian community here and offer our condolences,” he said. “But we couldn’t contact the right person. My Armenian friend told me that there were other people who would be more open.” He then asked if I knew of an Armenian group that was specifically for Armenians from Turkey. I recalled some Armenian graduate students from Istanbul for whom Turkish is their mother tongue. When I told Veysel, he was excited, as much as peeked through his reserve.
“It would be good to meet with Armenians without talking about things that divide us. We can talk about what brings us together,” he said, “and respect whatever our religion and culture is.”
I asked Vesyel, “Do you think the Armenian culture and the Turkish culture are similar?”
“They’re almost the same!” he enthused. “Except for religion, we’re very alike.” And then he said, “We should look to the future and forget about the past.”
Though 50 years separated them, Veysel seemed similar to Sergio. Perhaps it was the glasses, and the deliberate yet gentle manner of speaking. I discovered later that TAMEF was affiliated with Fethullah Gulem, a prominent spiritual leader in Turkey, who preaches the combination of Islam with science and modernity, including interfaith dialogue. Like Sergio with Rick Warren, Veysel had his own spiritual guide. He honestly wanted people to get along, and he actively wanted to be part of that effort, and was even willing to take risks, like approaching Armenians in the aftermath of Hrant Dink’s assassination. But by looking to the future, he seemed to want to speed up the process of reconciliation in the present, skipping over the acknowledgment of the past.
The past also proved problematic at Massis Food, a sizable store with “European and Mediterranean Foods,” advertised on their sign. Massis is the word that Armenian speakers use as a name for Mt. Ararat. The owner, Raffi, a tall Armenian from Beirut with close-cropped, salt and pepper hair, told me that he had an equal number of Turkish and Armenian customers. Apparently, the Armenian name doesn’t scare his Turkish customers away.
After Raffi greeted and rang up customers that he knew by name—some Armenian, some Turkish—I asked, “Do you ever talk about the history with your Turkish customers?”
He shook his head no. “These people don’t know the history. It’s been kept from them, so I don’t bring it up.” His neutral stance wasn’t surprising, given his role in the neighborhood. It was a common sense business practice to not bring up ages old-disputed bloodshed.
When I spoke to Yasemin, the young, pretty owner of the Turkish Grill, she echoed Raffi’s diplomatic proprietor stance. She told me that she never asked people where they were from. Yasemin was from Ankara, and she had friends from all over the world. In fact, her sister had married an Armenian man. She told me that both families had trouble accepting each other, but eventually her family came round. The Armenians never did. Yasemin said her brother-in-law was the nicest guy she had ever met. But tragically, he died young from cancer. Still, his family wouldn’t be in touch with her sister, their daughter-in-law, nor their grandchildren.
It occurred to me that Yasemin must have been quite tolerant to not hold a grudge against Armenians when her sister had been so mistreated by them. Here she was, warmly welcoming me into her restaurant on a busy Saturday to talk.
Yasemin told me that the restaurant’s location wasn’t chosen so much for Sunnyside’s Turkish population, but because of its foot traffic, location to the subway, and close proximity to Manhattan—for business reasons. She and her brother operated the Turkish Grill; other members of her family ran four other restaurants. Her father-in-law ran Ali Baba, located near the Armenian Cathedral at 34th Street and 2nd Ave in Manhattan, which I had always heard was Kurdish.
Yasemin told me her father-in-law was indeed Kurdish, and so was her father. “Kurds and Armenians are close to each other,” she proclaimed.
I didn’t mention to Yasemin that some of the Kurds had killed Armenians during the spring of 1915, promised by the Turks a homeland if they helped with the extermination. Instead I agreed with her that the Kurds’ situation of the last 25 years in Turkey—of being persecuted as second class citizens with limited rights and lack of autonomous rule—had been similar to what the Armenians endured in the Ottoman Empire. But I also told her that Kurds who had lived in Armenia were harassed and driven out after the Soviet Collapse. She told me, “Yes, my family was there; Armenians killed one of them.” I didn’t know what to say, but it did not occur to me to apologize in the name of Armenians.
In graduate school all I wanted was a Turkish person to apologize to me as a symbolic act to heal historical hurt. Later, I met two different Turkish female artists in New York who acknowledged the genocide, and I received a sense of closure. At a dinner party at Brighton Beach, when a Turkish choreographer actually apologized and held my hand, it felt wrong; she hadn’t done anything to me. Still, when I read recently that an online apology was issued by nearly 30,000 Turkish citizens for what happened in the Ottoman Empire to Armenians, I couldn’t help being impressed with the risk and coordinated effort these individuals took to act where their government had failed. Some part of me now wishes that I had told Yasemin that I was sorry for the crimes against Kurds in Armenia.
I suspect she would have waved it off. She told me how many Armenian jewelry businesses in Jersey hire Turkish employees and vice versa, explaining, “It’s been so long, no one cares. Most people don’t know what happened. We killed them, they killed us, and made them leave the country, but they did some bad things too. So we can’t keep going on like this.” Though she was half Kurdish, Yasemin considered herself Turkish. “There’s no such thing as a Kurdish restaurant, or a Kurdish citizen,” she said. She made a comparison to the way Americans can identify as certain nationalities or ethnicities, but they’re all U.S. Citizens. She said that Kurds should be able to speak and study their language, because Turkey was a multi-ethnic society.
Yasemin was a good reminder that even a nationalistic nation is not a monolith, but has its own system of subsets and groups, which can be divided further into allegiances and persuasions, which can be broken up even more by camps and families, until you finally get to the level of the individual holding many identities at once, or none at all.
The woman in a windbreaker, panties, and sunglasses was crawling down a wall and gradually found her way to her feet; the roar of cars zooming on a highway was her only soundtrack. The room was dark but for the spotlight on her. As she slowly moved toward the front of the room, one foot after the other, her face immobile, I nearly cried. Irem, the Turkish choreographer who’d held my hand and apologized, was doing a solo performance at the Judson church. Afterwards, Mehmet told her that it reminded him of the plight of the homeless.
Before the performance, Mehmet had found me in front of the church by calling me on his cell phone to say, “I’m here, where are you?” as if we’d been friends forever. Mehmet had responded to an email I’d sent around to speak to Turks in Sunnyside. He lived on Long Island, but he was willing to help me as a translator or a link to the Turkish community. He was in his 50s, had emigrated in 1975 after his military requirement, got his PhD at Cornell in economics, taught in the U.S. and Turkey and then became a businessman. He had two daughters, one at Bryn Mawr, the other in her 20s.
Over tea after the performance, Mehmet told me why the Turkish grocery store owners may have avoided speaking with me. Right around April 24, the Turkish Federation and the Turkish Association of America, both funded by the Turkish government, bombard many Turkish Americans to contact Congress in protest of any Armenian attempts at U.S. legislative recognition of the Armenian Genocide. “It’s so irritating,” he said. “I delete the emails.” The Turkish Americans believe that Turkey is unfairly blamed and attacked by Armenians. He imitated the Turkish stance: “Why are Armenians doing this when we have treated them well?” Then he echoed Raffi’s claim that the history is not taught to Turks.
“My parents’ generation knew what happened. But most of the Sunnyside residents, who were born in the 60s and 70s, are completely oblivious. It’s not taught in the universities.”
Then he predicted responses: “They’ll try to ‘educate’ you, saying the Turkish side is not told, that they are the victims; the diaspora is the one falsely telling stories. But very few who are less educated might have read up and learned the realities. And the very educated will say that genocide is still going on with the Kurds in Turkey, with atrocities happening now.”
I thought back on Raffi’s customers with whom he did not broach history since they were unaware of it. If they believed Armenians were destructive to Turkey’s image, why would they patronize an Armenian store?
Mehmet replied that the Turks are trying to reconcile being American and more open-minded with the stories from the Turkish government. “They think they are being tolerant of Armenians, and if you share the music, food, and culture, you’ll be ‘buddy buddy.’”
About TAMEF, Mehmet said that it “promotes tolerance among religions, and [they] are for peaceful coexistence, but they don’t want to talk about what happened to Armenians in the past; they want to talk about what happened to Muslims in the past.” Gulem’s tolerance only went so far. It was interesting to hear that Rick Warren’s counterpart is as flawed towards non-Muslims as Warren is to gays.
Mehmet told me that he came from ten generations of Arabs in Turkey. And because he was Arab, he took a critical view of the official government position.
“Turkish identity was created. It’s only 15% of the population. The rest is Circassian, Georgian, Serb, Croatian, Kurdish, Albanian, Greek, etc.” I had also been learning there were distinctions among ethnic Turks in terms of Muslims—the majority being Sunnis from mostly the Hanafite sect, followed by the Alevis who were Shia and secular—but also various ethnicities such as the Zazas and the Circassians, not to mention the Laz who once were Muslims but converted to Christianity, and the Hemshin who were once Christians but converted to Islam and speak a unique dialect of Armenian and Turkish. Mehmet told me that he grew up speaking Arab and Kurdish, and he learned Turkish in school. “I knew who I was, that my roots weren’t from Central Asia.” I looked at Mehmet’s facial features: high forehead, brown hair, small squarish nose, and light brown eyes, trying to discern Arab physiognomy. A mutual friend had claimed he looked Armenian, but I didn’t think so. Then again, Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Arabs: they each include a range of coloring and facial features, not easily identifiable.
Mehmet then said that his mother’s maternal uncle saved the life of a 12-year-old Armenian girl, whom he had considered an aunt. So the family knew what had happened to the Armenians as part of their own personal history. When Mehmet came to the States, the first thing he did was buy a world history book.
He believed that the genocide marked the point at which the Turkish government began lying to its people. Since then, scores of Kurds, intellectuals and other opposition groups have been murdered and imprisoned unjustly. He thought that in the next five years there would be a “blizzard of enlightenment,” with more and more people learning the truth. “Then all the dirt, all the killing will come out, of people whose only crime was a certain belief, their ethnicity or religion.” The State, he purported, will lose its credibility and people will rethink the other stories they were told.
We could have talked much longer, but it was getting late. When the bill came, he insisted on paying. “Please, I’m your uncle,” he said, smiling.
The issue of generosity came up when next we met, at a Turkish shish kebab restaurant in Sunnyside. Mehmet proposed approaching the guys behind the counter after having some dessert first. I asked Mehmet a few questions about his identity, and he told me how everyone spoke Arabic in Mardin, the town where he grew up. When his family moved to Aintep, he was told he spoke Turkish with an Arabic accent. He said he is just now learning the Arabic alphabet, since he never had the chance to learn it in Turkey.
“So do you identify as Arab or Turkish?” I asked.
He said, “I’m a bastard of cultures.” He explained that he didn’t identify as Muslim and was not religious, and he didn’t associate with Arabs, and he was not politically aligned with the Turkish government. But he said he was proud of Turkey, calling it “a cradle of civilization”. He described the generosity of the people, especially in the villages, and he gave an example of the small village where he once taught, where the poorest folks would share everything they had with you. I couldn’t help think of the way Armenian villagers, destitute after the earthquake of 1989 and the war that lasted till 1994, were renowned for their incredible generosity, too. I told him, “In Armenia, it’s an insult to thank people because you’re signaling some kind of formal exchange. But Armenians believe that kind of generosity is the natural course of life. As an American I couldn’t get used to not saying thank you.”
“America is such a young country,” he said. “That generosity comes from ancient civilizations.”
Mehmet mourned the destruction of the multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious society which had fostered that value of generosity and sharing. “Nationalism is the cancer,” he said. It was what had made people defensive and destructive.
As Mehmet was speaking, I thought about his polite nature, his thoughtful observations. He was talking a lot, but he wasn’t the kind of person who spoke without listening. Rather, it seemed these conversations were necessary to voice his thoughts which were not widely heard. A Turkish academic living in Woodside later told me that dialogue was more open in Turkey than it was here. People were more able to talk to each other while living through the identity issues. But in America, where making a living took more of a priority than generosity, and where assimilation threatened their cultures, nationalisms of both Armenians and Turks were the prevailing attitudes.
There went my theory that America was a unique place where people were confronted with each other. Later, when Mehmet asked the Turkish counter guys if I could talk to them, they simply declined.
Still here we were, as Veysel had described, an Armenian and a Turk, of different generations and persuasions, sitting together, sipping coffee, talking to each other.
As I was working on this story I gave a reading of work-in-progress at Topaz Arts Center in Woodside. During the Q & A, a couple of Turkish women described the difficulty they had when they learned about the Catastrophe for the first time; it had been shocking to hear what had been kept from them. One woman said that when she meets Armenians for the first time, she immediately says “I’m sorry!” and laments that many Armenians are unable to see her as a person first. When I met her for coffee on another day, she told me she was lonely and bemoaned that she could find so few like-minded Turks, and further, that she had trouble connecting with discriminating Greeks and Armenians. And yet she dreamed that Armenians would go back to live in Anatolia, on the land they were driven from. I blinked at this strange vision.
Many Armenian American nationalists want Ararat back, and they were angry about the protocols of the recent Turkey-Armenia agreement calling for current borders to be recognized, since it seemed to ensure there would later be no chance of legally restoring lands to Armenia. But many other Armenian-Americans counter the reality of such a desire to live on Western Armenian lands, questioning the feasibility of diasporans moving en masse to historical Armenia. A common refrain is, “We don’t want to go back.” Putting aside the political reality, the obvious cultural differences, and the quality of life issues, I believe it’s also because the idea of Armenians living in the Anatolian countryside among multi-ethnic Turkish neighbors causes an amazing psychic rip—it is too difficult to envision a life of peace. Perhaps we have become so defined by our loss that we cannot imagine ourselves without it. Getting over this psychic disconnect is comparable to what Turks will have to go through, as a nation, when they admit the genocide and realize the whole of their history so differently. It will cause a great shift in the way that they understand themselves.
So we have more in common than we realize: the impossible imagination.
NANCY AGABIAN is the author of the books Princess Freak and Me as her again. With her QY colleagues she will be presenting "Queered" at 7 p.m. on March 14 at Word Up Community Bookstore, 4157 Broadway (at 176th St) in Washington Heights.