Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April 2009: The Armenian Genocide Yet Again

My Little Ben Pipe: It wasn’t yet April. I was already thinking about my April letter which has been Armenian and Armenian Genocide themed. This year shall be no different.

It was Sunday, March 29th. We woke up to a snow storm. We just had one of those late season storms of wet snow that clung to every limb and twig of every tree making for a beautiful sight. The two inches of snow was too heavy to shovel and I knew it would melt by days end or the next day for sure. If it were dry snow, it would have been easily 8-10 inches.

True to my prediction, by late afternoon the snow was pretty much gone from all the paved surfaces, the sun was out, and it was a beautiful and unseasonably cold day. So, I decided to take a short bike ride outside rather than ride in the basement, stationary, in front of the TV. I bundled up in fleece, windbreaker, long spandex, a hood, sunglasses and helmet and took off on my oldest bike that I do not really care how wet or grimy it gets.

I felt good at the end of the ride and was acclimated to the temperature. I thought I would enjoy the last few minutes of daylight by smoking my pipe. It is a little pipe, a wee bit of a pipe that one closed hand can conceal. It is curved and so short that when I light it, I have to be careful not to burn my nose!

So why do I smoke this pipe? There are two reasons. I like it because it has a small bowl that makes for a short enjoyable smoking leaving me wanting more. The second reason is more important and thematic for this letter: the pipe is from Armenia.

I picked up this little pipe in Vernissage the open air weekend craft and flea market in Yerevan. Like many tourists, Vernissage is a must stop on a Saturday morning to buy souvenirs of the land, relics of the Soviet era, carvings, weavings, rugs, instruments, knick-knacks, books, bootleg music, and most anything else the enterprising locals might think of selling. We would start off as a family, but scattered here and there, never too far, based on what caught our eye. I would gravitate to musical instruments, soviet relics, and cool crafty things. My wife? She was attracted to table clothes, decorative bowls, and the like.

An old man had a small table with wooden items that I presumed he carved. That is always a presumption because there is a small but definitely non-zero probability that the knick-knack that catches your eye might actually be made in China or Vietnam. On this table, were a few of these little pipes. They were cute and ever so cheap, just a couple of dollars. So, I picked one up, gave it the once over, and noticed two words stamped on the briar where the mouth piece attaches Ben and under it in Armenian the same thing. So, I bought it without even bargaining assuming it was made in Armenia by this old fellow.

Usually, this Ben denotes the second letter of the Armenian alphabet. It made me wonder if this were the name of the man’s little company. Maybe it meant it was also his #2 model and the other were other models, the Ayp or #1 and perhaps even a Geem or #3 pipes.

I never gave the pipe another thought. We got home and I put it in my desk drawer. The pipe moved with the desk from Connecticut to Illinois.

Truth be told, I smoke the pipe a few times a year. But each time I smoke it, all I think about is where I bought the pipe. I think it being carved out of a chunk of an Armenian tree by the carver/vendor that I bought it from in Vernissage. I think of the memorable afternoon my Uncle Rouben, Cousin Charlie, and I smoked on Uncle Rouben’s front porch in Rye, New Hampshire on a lovely August late afternoon in 1981.

This time I smoked my Armenian pipe and pondered the above as well as the future of Armenia and the Armenian community in the Diaspora. I thought of my grandparents and how they survived. I thought of the current politics in Turkey and Armenia. Are they headed toward a resolution and understanding that will allow for an opening of the border and freer trade? What may either side concede regarding what happened in 1915? Will the government of Armenia give up on Karabagh? If the border opens, will it begin a slow Turkification of Armenia? Good thing the bowl of the pipe is small and all this pondering lasted a merciful fifteen minutes.

I may have to get a pipe from a neutral country like Switzerland.

Muzaffer Ertürk: In early February, I was listening to my favorite music on YouTube; that music that is smack dab in the overlap of Armenian and Turkish cultures. Not only that, I was listening to the music of Elazig or Kharpert, what could have been my hometown in the Armenian Highlands now more commonly referred to as Anatolia. I was listening to the music of a relatively unknown but very good singer, Muzaffer Ertürk, and his very very good band. His songs have the names of Husenik, Dersim, and Harput. They are the old songs, folk and otherwise, of the region.

I was mesmerized. Who is this fellow Muzaffer Ertürk? I polled people I thought would know him. I wrote Ara Dinkjian and Ozan Aksoy. No one I know is more connected and knowledgeable about Turkish music and musicians than these gentlemen. Neither of them heard of Ertürk. They both were most impressed with the You Tube videos. The simple fact is that Muzaffer Ertürk was not on any of our radar screens. I went to Tulumba.com to see if he had any CDs I could order. There was nothing. Evidence of his talent to the likes of me is only available on You Tube.

So, I took advantage of the You Tube functionality and sent a message to one of the people that posted these videos. I chose Palulu1907 and sent a You Tube message. He responded and we exchanged a few e-mails.

Palulu is from Elazig and is twenty-one years old. He loves the music of the region as I do and is a major fan of Muzaffer Ertürk. He has posted twelve music videos, ten of them feature Ertürk. I had favorited several of Palulu’s postings so we had a common ground before our e-mails. Palulu did not know Muzaffer Ertürk nor did he know how to get a hold of him. Too bad, I will keep trying.

Here is the e-mail Palulu sent to me:

Hello. I thank for mail. My english very bad. Bende Elazığlıyım. We own same culture with you. Politicians and some people are affected because our brotherhood. I love to Muzaffer Ertürk but I have his e-mail address.I love to Turkish Folk Music. I love to armenian :)
His English is impressively better than my Turkish. Also, his message was clear and heartfelt. I agree with his eloquent thoughts.

Ahçiği Yolladım Urum Eline: Palulu sent me another song he posted, Ahçiği Yolladım Urum Eline. He said it was about a Turkish man in love with an Armenian girl. His original posted has since been removed for “user terms violations.” Needless to say the Armenian in me suspects that the Turkish Government somehow took this down in their continuing oppression of anything Armenian. I know it is paranoid, but that was my first reaction.

Luckily, there are other postings of this same song. Here is another version of Muzaffer Ertürk singing the same song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIGtOV8_pS4. Some were surprised to find this song on the TRT network: Turkey’s one and only public broadcasting network. The surprise was rooted in the abovementioned paranoia as TRT is under the Turkish Government.

My friend Melissa Bilal, an Armenian from Istanbul working on a PhD at the University of Chicago, found the words to the song. She provided a translation which my cousin Sandy’s husband Bedros helped with some of the colloquial points. I provide both below.

Ahçiği Yolladım Urum Eline (Ahçik)

Elazığ-Enver Demirbağ-Zülküf
Altan-Mehmet Özbek

Ahçiği Yolladım Urum Eline
Eser Bad-ı Saba Zülfün Teline
Gel Seni Götürsem İslam Eline

Serimi Sevdaya Salan O Ahçik
Aman O Ahçik Civan O Ahçik

Vardım Kiliseye Baktım Haçına
Gönlümü Bağladım Sırma Saçına
Gel Seni Götürem İslam İçine

Serimi Sevdaya Salan O Ahçik
Aman O Ahçik Civan O Ahçik

Vardım Kiliseye Hac Suda Döner
Ahçiği Kaybettim Yüreğim Yanar
Ben Dinen Dönersem El Beni Kınar

Serimi Sevdaya Salan O Ahçik
Aman O Ahçik Civan O Ahçik

I sent the girl to Greeks place
Soft breeze is blowing on fine hair
Come and I’ll take you to Muslim home

Went to church looked at cross
My heart got tied up to her beautiful hair
Come and I’ll take you to Muslim home

I arrived to the church, the cross above the baptismal water.
I lost the girl, my heart is burning,
If I change my religion, everybody will make fun of me.

The words are nothing special. A Turkish friend said that “the song is very cute.” But for an Armenian, half a world away from an ancestral city he has never visited, the song strikes a deeper chord. It is another point of proof that we were there. That it is still performed and listened to today provides another grain of sand to the long overdue closure process. The Armenian girl is referred to using the Armenian Word for girl, ahçig.

But to me, the music is soulful and heavy. It resonates where, to me, the Armenian and Turkish cultures overlap. It resonated deeply and richly.

Brothers Fighting?: I have a friend, John Vosbikian, he has a unique sense of humor. He is an excellent clarinet player, heavily influenced by the Turkish style. When other Armenian musicians would bring up an artist from Turkey, say Muzzaffer Ertürk, John would often say “you know that he is half Armenian.” The response to this was always, “No! Really?” John would retort, “Oh yeah, his mother is Armenian” or something like that. As John was very convincing, people would often believe him and go forth perpetuating the myth he had just created.

But to me, John did have something. As I watch You Tube postings of this music, I cannot help but think that most of the Turks I see could pass for Armenians or vice-versa. It is not the first time I have thought this and I have even thought it about other ethnic conflicts where the combatants, the opposing sides, all look alike.

The musicians in the Ahçiği Yolladım Urum Eline video could be Armenian as much as they are Turkish. The instruments are straddle both cultures: tar, saz, oud, duduk, and kemanche.

Growing up, I have to admit that I was confused and most certainly naïve in my confusion about the apparent sameness of combatants. When considering the English and Irish issues, I never could understand what they were fighting about. To me, as a youngster I could not tell the difference between them. They looked the same to me. They even sounded the same to me. I just did not understand what all the fuss was about. I was indeed naïve. I now can sometimes see differences in facial features and accents. But overall, my childhood impression still holds.

The same principle applies to other conflicts. Consider the Arabs and Israelis, the peoples are both Semites. Shalom Aleichem. Salaam Alekhum. What gives? A slight difference in pronunciation and they are mortal enemies? How about the Balkans? Are the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians so different?

Yes, some will write me and talk about differences in language and religion and that I have oversimplified the anthropology of the two peoples. They may be right, but this year, for some reason, I am looking more at common ground.

The answer to these questions is, of course, a matter of perspective. The farther one is away from it, the less critical the differences. When you are born into it and reared in rhetoric of the conflict, the differences are glaring.

Bele vs. Lokai: There was an episode of the original Star Trek television series that fascinated me. It was entitled “Let that be your last Battlefield.” It was the 70th episode in the series and aired first on January 10, 1969.

The basic story is of the last two survivors of the planet called Cheron. Their names were Lokai and Bele. They were the last of the two warring peoples of this planet. The two races are half black and half white. Bele is from the race that is white on the left side and black on the right. Lokai is the opposite. The crew of the Enterprise could at first not tell the difference and even when they understood the mirror image physical difference, they could not fathom the hatred. Frank Gorshin played Bele and was nominated for an Emmy for intense raw energy he put into this role.

Well, it was the 1960s. TV was all about reflecting the racial turmoil the country was going through. This episode aired nine months after the assassination of Martin Luther King (April 4, 1968).

I did not watch this episode when it first aired. I watched it well after the show was in syndication. I was fascinated and amazed. It took me back to the creation myth of the Armenian people when the good and righteous Hayk fought the evil dark hearted Bel and won creating the Armenian or Haykakan nation. I kept wondering if there were an Armenian writer on the Star Trek team who decided to name the more memorable character Bele.

I guess this year I am seeing similarities not differences and wishing this space was more populated.


  1. hello there.

    i'm from Turkey, let's get that out of the way first. :)

    anyway, i agree with many, many things you have written, but i wanted to clarify two things here.

    first, Muzaffer Erturk is actually a very talented, and very well known (in the right circles, obviously) Turkish Folk musician. he has, probably, the oldest continually aired Turkish Folk Music show on the Turkish networks. indeed, he is a very talented person, i listen to his every song with much enthusiasm. also you are very right in reading the songs as old; they very much tell of the stories of Armenians, as well as Turks. Dersim, Harput and Huseynik are all our shared, ancestral, backgrounds.

    secondly, the song Ahcik: it is probably one of the most moving songs ever written, for me. your Turkish friends have have misled you unintentionally; the words are far more heartfelt and deep than the English translation allows us to glean.

    i would also suggest listening to Ahcik from Erkan Ogur, he's another talented Turkish musician, who worked with Civan Gasparyan on many projects as well, and he has a much soulful, slower style. The song gains even more meaning listened to from Erkan Ogur. (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dz0LDYWZHOY)

    Turkish Folk songs of old, probably similar to the Armenian Folk songs of old, come from simple people. they are expressed through the simplest of words, to convey incredible emotions. obviously, translations can really never do justice to them, but the emotion can be better translated through the use of other English words, this translation is very literal.

    also, as an aside, i would very much like to learn the lyrics to some Civan Gasparyan songs. i feel the same things when i listen to Turkish music when i listen to him; i feel there really can be no doubt we were brothers and sisters once, and we can be again.

  2. To whoever posted the comment on this letter:

    Thank you!
    I wish I had your e-mail so we could communicate some.