ARMENIAN DELIGHTS

Since late last fall, I’ve been immersing myself in all things Armenian, as I have begun to formulate a direction for my book about Armenian families. Although my childhood was consumed with Armenian foods and practices, I slid away from that after I married and allowed my jobs to consume me. The more I’ve reconnected with my “inner Armenian,” the stronger the pull to be more involved has grown.

Armenian CDs (4)

I’ve often listened to music as I worked on writing endeavors. Now, as I pursue the preliminary efforts toward envisioning what form the book will take, my music of choice is Armenian folk and dance.

I’ve delighted in revisiting the food of my young and Armenian church-going days, tweaking recipes from my old Rose Baboian Armenian Cookbook until my palate recognizes just the right combination of flavors from those days.

My first culinary adventure was Lahmajoun.
Lahmajoun
My mother used to describe it to non-Armenians as an Armenian pizza. A mixture of ground lamb, green and red peppers, tomatoes and a long list of seasonings spread thinly on a thin base of bread dough create a one-of-a-kind experience for your palate. Even if you think you don’t like lamb, you should try this!

We never made it at home, but I knew exactly when I hit on my aunt’s cheoreg creation, a yeast roll that is slightly sweet and made unique with a near east seasoning called mahlab. The version in this picture are simple round shapes. But you might also see them rolled into pencil-size ropes that are braided together and/or curled into a pretzel look-alike.

Cheoreg

Next up was the Armenian Sugar Cookie (left) and Easter Gurabia (right), both sinful sugar cookies that melt in your mouth for an orally orgasmic experience. These are dangerous if you don’t want to replace your jeans with a larger size!

Sarma and Dolma were on last week’s menu. Sarma is cabbage stuffed with a meat (lamb is best, but others can be used) and rice mixture. When you use the mixture to stuff peppers and other vegetables, it’s called Dolma.Sarma and Dolma

And yesterday I had a delightful experience making Yalanchi with a group of women at St. Peter’s Armenian Church in Watervliet, NY. I joined them for 3 hours during which we made in excess of 1100 stuffed grape leaves! This photo isn’t from that batch, but looks the same, although not piled as high as our group creation! These may look familiar, as they are found on some salad bars and are a culinary concept shared with the Greeks.

Yalanchi

 

I’ve lost a lot of years of connection with fellow Armenians. But the renewal has been most enjoyable – AND inspiring. Each new experience and person I encounter brings me closer to my original goal: to write about Armenian Americans. But a pleasant bonus has been my enjoyment of reconnecting with my heritage and the welcoming warmth of my widening circle of Armenian friends.

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ARMENIAN STRONG!

TwoArmenianWomenW_Rifles

If I’ve learned nothing else since embarking on learning more about my Armenian heritage, it is that Armenian women are incredibly strong.

During the marches of the genocide from roughly 2015 to 2018, the trek through the deserts and mountains were made predominantly by women and children. Countless died along the way. Most were raped. Beaten. Starved. Parched. Watching others shot when they slowed the march. But imagine the resilience of a woman, carrying a small child, walking from what is now Syria to Egypt! Look it up on a map. One of the women I interviewed was the grandchild of the woman and the daughter of that child who made that trek.

Could you do that?

Could you leave your dead infant in the desert? Or your elderly father? Knowing that you had to continue to survive?

Can you imagine being thirsty enough to risk you and your child drinking tan water?
It was all about survival. A powerful human instinct.

Can you imagine leaving everything you ever knew, boarding a crowded ship with strangers, with the sole goal of surviving to make it to the shores of a welcoming nation?

And then arriving to find that while the government welcomed you, your new peers thought you were strange and laughed at you.

And yet they went on. Those who were betrothed (marriages were arranged in those days) hoped and prayed someone who knew someone who knew the whereabouts of your future husband would greet you at Ellis Island.

And they set about doing what women in that day did – established a home. Often it was in the home of the in-laws, and sometimes that didn’t go all that well. But they had to focus on moving forward. Raising the child/children who might have survived the deserts and mountains and ships. Connecting with others from their own village (the Armenian immigrants tended to reconnect with other survivors, familiar faces and names from home villages like Marash, Kharpert, Van. Immersing themselves in the activities of their churches – Ladies Aid, Sunday Schools.

Early Sunday School

And dancing. Finding joy in making the music of their homeland and the familiar steps of the dances. Dances and music were an outlet. That and the church and their home village groups kept them anchored as they acclimated to their new lives in a new land.

Armenian-Dance-e1469608083945

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ARMENIAN STRENGTH AND RESILIENCE

HA’/EE YEM!   A-ME-REE-GA-TSEE YEM!

I am Armenian! I am American!

[Scenes From the Armenian genocide (shaded due to graphic nature): Left-bodies prior to burning; Top right-public hangings; Bottom right-refugees boarding lifeboats at Smyrna]

An internet video search of the Armenian genocide returned literally hundreds of videos! And yet so many people don’t even know of its existence.

At least part of the reason for this is that, unlike the Jewish Holocaust, the United States has never officially recognized the murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Why? Despite books and movies depicting it (The Promise was the most recent), and the words on paper and in video of survivors and their loved ones, and actual photos of the horrors, Turkey has denied it ever occurred, claiming it was an isolated occurrence of abuses committed by some officials. Photos, eyewitnesses and survivors prove otherwise. But Turkey, dishonorable as it is even in today’s world, is a member of NATO and officially an ally (though a shaky one) of the United States.
The tentacles of politics strangle acknowledgement of a horror unmatched in modern history until the Nazis.

Did you know that Armenians honored the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2015? I’m an Armenian, and I missed it. The hatred and intermittent killing of Armenians by the Turks had a long history prior to 1915 and began ramping up systematically around 1895. Lands were confiscated. Threats were common, and all too often were carried out. People disappeared. My own ancestors saw what might be coming and like many other Armenians, began immigrating to America, often via Syria or France, in the late 1800s.

In the early years of the first decade of the 20th century, a change of Turkish leadership provided Armenians with what turned out to be a false sense of security. As was also the case with the Jews, the relative prosperity of the Armenians provoked the envy of their neighbors. The fact that they were of a different religion (Turks were Moslems, Armenians were the first Christians) fanned flames and made Armenians objects of suspicion and resentment. The outbreak of World War I turned these elements into an explosive mixture of hate and fear. Armenians were presented by official propaganda as agents of the Russians and were somehow blamed for Turkey’s military setbacks. The Young Turks portrayed the Armenians as a threat to the state.

April 24, 2015 marks the fatal date when several hundred Armenian intellectuals were rounded up, arrested and later executed. This was the start of the “official” Armenian genocide, a bloody massacre that lasted until 1917.

In addition to 1915-1917, the massacres occurred in 1894-1896, 1909, and repeated again between 1920 and 1923. The scope and ruthlessness of these dates, though, do not compare with the mass slaughter of 1915-1917, which is correctly described as genocide. In his book, “A Peace to End All Peace,” David Fromkin described the terrible fate of the expelled Armenians: “Rape and beating were commonplace. Those who were not killed at once were driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink or shelter.”

What impresses me most as I learn more about the survivors of the genocide was their strength and resilience. Refusing to dwell on the horrors and losses, American Armenians embraced their new country and the opportunities provided here. The final scene in the movie, The Promise, reflects this – watch it, if you haven’t already! The children and grandchildren I’ve interviewed show similar strength, manifested in in their ability to adapt to changing lives, but also in a streak of stubborn independence that is reflected in many life choices, including sometimes a resistance to compromise.

More about this as my journey continues!

My regards to all!

HAR-KANK-NE’-RUS PO-LO-REEN!

 

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DANCE MEMORIES-ARMENIAN STYLE

I’m sitting here at my computer, immersing myself in my Armenian story with the accompaniment of Armenian music. The music has triggered memories of long-ago experiences: background music at some unidentified event with my cousins near Boston; a wedding where a belly dancer gyrated to the music to entertain the guests, eliciting positive and negative oohs and aahs. “Look at her amazing moves!” “What will the minister think?” “How does she spin like that without tripping on her scarves and veils?” Don’t ask me whose wedding, because I can’t recall. But it was someone from our church because the minister in question was our minister; another time when friends from the Armenian Protestant Youth Fellowship were visiting because one or more of them were playing Armenian dance music at a local event. Weddings and other family events with Armenian music, the mostly women on the dance floor patiently demonstrating the steps. In my memories, men rarely were on the dance floor with us – but if you Google Armenian dance, part of what you will find is groups of men dancing. I need to learn more about the cultural forces at play.

Armenian-Dance-e1469608083945
And a more recent experience, visiting with one of the Armenian ladies from our church, when she put on music and as at those events past, demonstrated the steps – but too fast for me to follow before she moved on to a different pattern when the music changed. Her music was not Armenian specifically – but rather Middle Eastern. If there’s a difference, it was too subtle for me to identify. It was this haunting music at her home and the memories triggered that nudged me to purchase music of my own.

According to Wikipedia: “The Armenian dance (Armenian : Հայկական պար) heritage has been considered one of the oldest and most varied in its respective region. From the fifth to the third millennia B.C., in the higher regions of Armenia, the land of Ararat, there are rock paintings of scenes of country dancing. These dances were probably accompanied by certain kinds of songs or musical instruments.”

As I listen to the music and view the images in my brain, I feel like it’s all a part of me and I of it. Maybe there’s something to those multiple lives theories, and I was an Armenian dancer in a past life!

Armenian dancers

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A STORY BEGINS TO EMERGE

According to legend, the Armenians were descended from one of Noah’s sons after the landing of the Ark on Mount Ararat. Some specialists believe that the “Arimoi” mentioned by Homer in the Iliad may have been among the remote forebears of the Armenians.

(Taken from the Introduction to the Second Edition of Reverend Abraham Hartunian’s Neither to Laugh Nor to Weep. The introduction was written by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin of Barnard College in April, 1986)

Reverend—or Badveli, as the Armenian ministers are called—documented his, his family’s and so many others’ experiences with the massacre of the Armenians. “The premeditated, ruthless, official campaign by the Turkish government to exterminate Turkey’s Armenian minority—which began in 1895—ground relentlessly through 27 years and two million deaths.” He documented how a once proud people was reduced to scattered and ragged remnants. The quiet voice of Abraham Hartunian offers a profound warning: “When governments forget that they are dealing with human beings, not abstract problems, the results can be horribly inhuman.”

Massacre photo-Hartunian bookSoup Kitchens in AintabSleeping in Streets

As I have sat with and listened to stories of first generation Armenian Americans–those whose parents survived the massacres and immigrated to America to ensure the survival of their children, the stories have shared many commonalities, all against the backdrop of horror beyond description left behind in their native land:

  1. They rarely if ever spoke of the worst of their experiences. Women in their eighties and nineties I’ve spoken with had nuggets of information that shed some light on what their parents went through. Some had stories that had risen to legend within their families.
  2. They embraced their new homes in America. Most were actively involved in their churches. They learned English. They had to prove before they were processed through Ellis Island that they had a place to live and a way to earn a living–and that they were healthy.
  3. Many started in one city and ultimately settled in others.
  4. Many started businesses – food markets popped up on every corner; stores sold rugs and furniture.
  5. Large groups of Armenians settled together. A good example is the migration of Armenians to Watertown, MA to work at the Hood Rubber Company.
  6. First generation offspring saw themselves as Americans – many placing their American identity above their Armenian heritage.

Although the men held the leadership positions in their churches, the women held the fabric of the church community and Sunday School together:

DSC00675

And the story continues. It’s a story of survival, of strong wills, of self-determination and positivism.

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THINGS LEARNED ON THE WAY TO A BOOK

My current project began with a plan to write a history of the Armenian Church where I spent much of my childhood and teen years. It’s evolved since its original conception and likely will evolve further as I continue my research. Some of the things I’ve learned have not surprised me—although I hadn’t considered them when starting out. Others have both surprised and dismayed me. But the biggest surprise has been the increasing connection I’ve felt with my Armenian ancestry. The result of this last finding has been to nudge my book focus more toward that ancestry, with the church history playing a supporting role rather than being the sole focus.

What I’ve learned:
• Armenians—men and women—are a strong, resilient, adaptive, and intelligent nationality. Over centuries, their home country’s borders have changed, and their faith (they were among the first Christians) made them the target of the predominantly Moslem Turks, most notably during the massacres spanning 1895-1922, the most well-known period being the genocide of 1914-1917. The latter included death marches, rapes of young women (and boys), and targeted annihilation of men, women and children.

• Hundreds of thousands of Armenians who survived and/or were able to escape to safer neighboring countries eventually immigrated legally to America. Most of those immigrants and virtually all of their children assimilated into the American culture and became American citizens.

Ancestor Naturalization Papers
• The early Armenians, before and after immigration, most likely didn’t choose their spouse. Their marriages were arranged—sometimes through agreements when they were still children.

Ancestor Wedding
• First generation Armenians’ lives revolved around family and church.

1908 Church Groundbreaking (2)
• Men worked and managed the money. Women lived with their parents until married and rarely worked outside the home. Once married, they took care of children and the home, and supported the husband. Since multiple generations lived together, the women often were called upon to care for parents and grandparents. (Wedding Photo)

• As a young child in our church, the adults were addressed as Mr., Mrs., or Miss. We rarely saw church members away from church activities, so children and teens didn’t get to know “the adults,” both men and women, in any depth. My strongest recollections of the church ladies was a pinch of my cheek accompanied by “inchbes es” (how are you?) – and sometimes a kiss on a nose or forehead or cheek that left a bright red lip imprint. The church men rarely spoke to the children, at least not to girls. As a result, I never really knew those elders, even those of my parents’ generation. Since I started my research and have had conversations with many of these women (most in their late eighties and up to almost 100), I have been delighted by the warm, friendly women I’m getting to know. The real people, not the limited cardboard cutout of my childhood experience. Many of these women have begun sharing stories of their younger years and what they remember of their parents’ experiences.

Since I didn’t know the men at all, I’ve chosen to meet with the women first. In later posts I will describe my interviews with the men – no first generation church members still alive, but I hope their offspring will have stories to share.

And finally . . .
• Strong people have strong ideas and opinions—in relationships, in work settings, in countries, even in a church that once played a central role in people’s lives. Unwillingness to be open to someone else’s ideas or try new approaches with an evolving congregation can, and in this case did, bring about the church’s demise.

A new friend who has been making documentary films about the Armenians for decades advised me: “Do your interviews and research first. The direction of your story will flow naturally from what you learn along the way.”

My journey continues.

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EYES ON THE FUTURE

The good news is I didn’t receive a single rejection for The Eyes Have It during the lead-up to Christmas. I also didn’t receive any offers. Currently my queries are still in the hands of 13 agents and 9 small publishers. As of the second week of January, no correspondence, positive or negative. I did prepare two additional queries for publishers. What will the rest of 2019 bring for Eyes?

For now, that’s out of my hands. So what’s a writer to do? This writer tripped over an ancestry search last September and fell into a terrifyingly complex yet thrilling new project. It likely will take a couple or more years to complete properly, but it has adrenaline surging through my veins daily.

My cousin from the Boston area inquired about a shared ancestor. He’d been unsuccessful finding any information about him, so he asked if I could search church records, since his last known residence was in Troy, NY. The church records belonged to the church I was raised in and attended into early adulthood – the only Protestant Armenian Church in this part of New York State.

My name doesn’t sound Armenian, you say? Well, before marriage, my last name was Essegian. I was active in our church all through my first two decades, including participation in the Armenian Protestant Youth Fellowship (APYF).

Then life crowded out many things, participation in my church included. I stayed abreast of the goings-on through my mother–until the early nineties when she died. Around then, coincidentally, one of my APYF friends was hired as a new minister for the church. She virtually reincarnated a dying church while she was there. But she lived in the Boston area with her family. So after 8 years she left the church, and from then until the early 21st century it declined. By the time I inquired about the church records, the church had closed–a century after its founding–and the building was for sale.

I was fortunate enough to connect with the former minister, my APYF friend, and made connections with some church members who were still around–including one of the brothers handling the sale of the church building. He let me into the church, we located the record books, and after consulting with another senior congregation member, they allowed me to borrow the books for a couple of weeks.

Wading through the history in those books, seeing so many familiar names, including my grandparents–who died before I was born but were involved in the founding of the church–flipped some switch in my head. I wanted to write a history of this church, founded during the mass migration of Armenians to America to escape annihilation by the Ottoman Turks. I wanted to learn more about not just the church, but the people who came before me in the church and what their lives were like – as survivors, as immigrants, as first and second generations of those Armenians fortunate enough to escape the genocide.

And so it began.

I will continue to report as my adventure continues!

dsc00674

A mid-1900’s Sunday School Class In Front Of The Church

 

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