26 December 2006

1326) 'Ararat' Is Everywhere In Yerevan

While wandering the streets of Yerevan, if the weather is clear you can be lucky enough to have the magnificent sight of Mt. Ararat right in front of you. I haven't yet been to Agri Dag, as Turks call this peak, but from Yerevan, Ararat really looks incredibly beautiful and I can understand the feelings of Armenians. . .

"My maternal and paternal forebears are all from Ararat, and every day we see it towering so beautifully quite close to us," one Yerevan native told me. "It's a wonderful feeling to have it there, like a marvelous picture. But what about really being there? It must be very different, touching the Ararat snow with your own hands, smelling the unique scents and listening to the birds singing. Why can't I go there?"

Certainly I couldn't answer this question, but in Yerevan vistas of Ararat are very valuable. I heard that rents are sometimes 20 percent higher for apartments which have a better view of Ararat.

But I was disappointed to see that many of the old buildings in the heart of the city had been demolished to be replaced by modern buildings paid for by the diaspora. So I wondered if the view of Mt. Ararat would stay the unique and ancient symbol in Yerevan.

They told me that old residents of these buildings were very angry with the Yerevan Municipality because while they were forced to leave their homes and now live on very little money. So they mounted some demonstrations against the municipality and once even carried signs saying, "Should we seek political asylum in Turkey?"

Freedom of the press

Though some recent human rights group reports drew a dark picture of freedom of the press and expression in Armenia, I noticed a very energetic media.

During our round table discussion at the press club, Armenian colleagues raised interesting questions.

"Our ancestors are from Van, and we know that our family once had large land holdings there," said one. "Do you think we can get it back?"

So I had to show him a front-page story in Hurriyet five years ago, when Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told me this:

"You see, an Armenian citizen won a court case in Van. He had all the documents to prove he owned some properties there, so the judge ruled in his favor. But then how can we evaluate what a Cabinet minister of the time said: 'As long as we have such judges, we don't need any other enemies'? "

I cited this article to show the objectivity of the Turkish judiciary. But then my colleague said they knew they used to own property in Van, but had no papers left to prove it.

But according to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, or Dashnatstutyun), a government coalition party, this is just a small detail, because they believe once Turkey recognizes the "genocide," the next steps will be on territorial issues.

Maybe this was because most Armenians still call eastern Anatolia "western Armenia."

You see the words "Ararat" "western Armenia" and "Greater Armenia" on product labels everywhere in Yerevan, on the walls, cognac bottles, and on famous Armenian vodka.

I bought one bottle of "Greater Armenia" vodka and put it into my suitcase. Then when I realized it was leaking, I tried to wrap it snugly in tape and my Armenian colleague teased me:

"Let's see, when you get back home, how much will be left of Greater Armenia?"

Impressions from streets

So we keep on walking down Yerevan's streets. Most of the embassies moved out recently but I can still remember the big crowds waiting for visas in front of the American Embassy. I asked if it's still crowded there, and somebody joked:

"No, no more crowds. Because almost everyone left Armenia years ago. That's why no one knows the real population of Armenia anymore."

We felt tired and hungry, so it was time to eat. We wanted to find a good restaurant where we could have a good taste of Armenian cuisine.

Than we found a restaurant whose name and symbol are like Armenia's historical symbol, the pomegranate, so we sat there talking with famous Armenian author Vahram Martirosyan, 47.

The small restaurant is run by a family. We were advised to order kufta there, because this traditional Armenian dish is the restaurant's specialty. We waited for a while and then the dish was brought to our table. The moment I saw the slices of meat, I remembered the summers I spent during my childhood in Sivas. I recalled the generously prepared dinner tables at my grandfather's house, their Armenian neighbors around the table and my aunt's words about the Aptigor Kufta:

"Finish your food! Don't forget that the more meat you eat, the longer your hair will be."

Then I learned it's the same dish but simply called kufta in Armenian. My friends told me how to make it:

"First you buy a veal rump, take it home, take the bones and skin out and on a wooden surface, with a wooden weight you keep on hammering it maybe four hours until it's softened. While you hammer the meat you add some chopped onions and herbs, then you shape the meat as a ball. It has to put into boiling water to be cooked. Once it's done, you slice the ball into thin pieces and serve with fried vegetables. "

In fact, Turkey and Armenia's 1,000-year-plus shared history makes our cuisines very similar. For example Armenians like to have gatnasor (a kind of a fresh cheese) for breakfast, and they serve it with titvaser as topping. It was a wonderfully refreshing taste in the morning.

The author weighs in

While having our kufta, we heard a poem written long ago before by a Turkish young man pining for a beautiful Armenian girl:

Purple violets in the gardens,
Ahchek, you've made me crazy for you,
May you become Muslim,
Or shall I became Armenian?

Certainly this was long ago; nowadays the atmosphere isn't that rosy between Turks and Armenians. We discussed the possible reasons behind this.

TNA: I was very surprised not to see any Orhan Pamuk novels on the shelves of bookstores. Why are all the books in Russian?

MARTIROSYAN: Because we have a slowly progressing system. During the Soviet era things were different even for the literature sector. Too much money was spent on publishing. Since the Soviet ideology sunk, also reading habits have been deteriorating among the people. So if Pamuk wants to publish his books here in Armenia, then he will pay at least $5,000 to the publisher, and the publisher will find an Armenian translator first and than at most 2,000 copies will be published. I'm also a well-known author but my books don't sell more than 1,000 copies.

TNA: Why does Armenian society have such an obsessive stand against Turkey and the Turks? I noticed that they don't even care what Hovhannes Katchaznouni, the first Armenian prime minister, said in 1923, criticizing Armenian insurrection for spurring the Turkish deportation.

MARTIROSYAN: Well the books written about his speeches are read by quite a few Armenians. But there are some Armenian historians who criticize the taboos and stereotypes of Armenians too. For example some of them blame the Armenians for causing the genocide.

TNA: I was disappointed to see such an obsessive common stand here against Turkey and Turks. I wonder if even one day the genocide were recognized and Turkish politicians apologized for it, would it be any easier to establish a better atmosphere between the two peoples?

MARTIROSYAN: I'm sure the Armenian people would look more positively after that, but I can't guarantee the politicians' actions.

TNA: Do you personally believe a genocide took place?

MARTIROSYAN: Yes, it was the political verdict and order of the Turkish rulers of that time. But I don't believe that Turks supported this. The majority of the Turkish people protected their Armenian friends and neighbors despite the difficult conditions of the war years.

TNA: How can we explain these two peoples living peacefully almost for 1,000 years and suddenly this happens? Back then there were even many Armenian diplomats, high-ranking bureaucrats, and even top military officers serving Turkey.

MARTIROSYAN: Right after they (the Ottomans) decided to do this, they removed all these Armenians from their posts at once. In Istanbul 800 authors and composers among Armenian intellectuals were executed. Even some close Armenian friends of Talat Pasha and Enver Pasha were also killed. I don't share your optimistic view that we shared a peaceful and equal era for 900 years. Maybe there wasn't much bloodshed during all those years but there was always discrimination against Armenians. We've never been equals, we were always suppressed. Armenians weren't allowed even to ride horses. The Zeytun (Armenian revolt in 1862) was an example. But even the Ottoman sultan believed the Armenians were right to revolt at that time, and he rewarded their leaders. But later in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was sinking, and it was losing most of its territories one by one. Armenians were a great majority in those years so it sounded like a headache for the Ottomans, and we were so alone ourselves. We couldn't decide who we should support.

TNA: If the genocide is such a solid reality, why does Turkish society deny it so strenuously?

MARTIROSYAN: In fact you should ask the Turks this. But I'll try to be honest with you, as I believe, I mean if I were a Turk, probably I wouldn't like to have such a shameful stain in my past.

TNA: But many Turks believe the tragedy resulted from the unforeseen consequences of deportation.

MARTIROSYAN: So at least you Turks admit the deportation as a reality. But all the documents are very clear there. Let's think about the aftermath of the deportation. Okay, there were the victims during the deportation but anyway some managed to stay alive. So why couldn't they go back to their homeland afterwards?

TNA: Don't you think the psychological scars held them back?

MARTIROSYAN: No, that doesn't make any sense. Turks kept the small minority of Armenians living in Istanbul as propaganda material. None of the deported Armenians could ever go back to their homelands even after five years, for example. If they could have gone back, maybe we wouldn't be facing this problem today.

Nursun EREL
14 December 2006
New Anatolian & eraren.org

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