Saturday, April 24, 2010

April 2010: Istanbul Journal & More

April 6, 2010: I am going to Turkey.

I am going to Istanbul. I am very excited and apprehensive. It is like a trip home that is no longer, actually never was, home. The country was once home to my grandparents. It was where they were born and where countless generations of ancestors were born. It is where I might have been born except for… well it is my April letter.

I am going to Turkey to speak at a conference. It is not on anything Armenian, Turkish, or Armenian-Turkish. I am going to speak at a professional conference on Supply Chain Management.

April 7, 2010: Late last year, I received an e-mail announcing a series of conferences to be held in Istanbul in 2010 and soliciting speakers. It was clear from the tone and style of the e-mail that the conference organizers were casting a wide net and had used the directory of a professional society that I belong to: the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals. I wrote back and inquired. I got a most favorable response and indication that they would pay for the trip and provide a stipend to make it even more enticing.

Before committing I wrote a friend, Nurhayat Ulucan, of mine who I knew at Colgate when she was in NY on a short term assignment. She is no longer with Colgate. She wrote back and said that Boğaziçi Eğitim ve Danışmanlık (Bosphorus Training and Consulting) was a known organization running conferences featuring speakers from Europe and the US. That was good enough for me.

I sent a proposal to give a conference presentation and workshop on Supply Chain Physics my company’s, Cadent Resources Group, approach to Supply Chain Management. They accepted with a caveat that they could cancel within ten days of the conference if registrations were not where they needed to be. That was fair enough.

I have my confirmation for plane and hotel. I am leaving in two days and will land “in the city”, στην Πόλη, stin polis. Istanbul. Bolis to the Armenian’s… simply the city. I am excited and anxious. I want to experience where Armenians had once lived and thrived in great numbers. I want to see the classic sites, the grandeur that was the Ottoman Empire. I want to see the Armenian places that still exist. I want to feel the city, The City – Bolis, that I might have been living in had our history been different.

Istanbul is the fifth largest city in the world with a population of 12.8 million. The population was 2.7 M in 1980, 6.6 M in 1990, and 8.8 M 2000. The city has experienced phenomenal growth. It is interesting to note that in 1914 the population of Bolis was 900K and in 1927 it had dropped to 680K. Were there 220K Armenians and Greeks who “chose” to leave as the empire crumbled and the Republic was born?

But this is not meant to be a lament or a normal April letter. It will still be about Armenians and Turks. It will be about this Armenian, who could have been a citizen of Turkey, visiting a place he has long yearned to go. It is about a businessman going to make a presentation at a conference. It is a mix of this and the first time being in a Moslem country. This is nothing new. I am not the first Armenian to make this kind of trip, this pilgrimage.

It is sure to be the longest letter in this series.

April 22, 2010: April 24, 2010 approaches. It is ninety-five years since the day it all began in 1915 when the Armenian intelligentsia and leadership were arrested in Istanbul the first phase of what Armenians refer to as the Genocide. I have dedicated every April letter since I began this project to this topic. That trend continues this year.

I just returned from a week in Istanbul. I was there from April 10 – 16. I was there to participate in a Supply Chain Summit organized by Bosphorus Conferences. I delivered a short speech on Supply Chain Physics on Wednesday, April 14th and a more extensive half day workshop on the same topic the following. In short, I was there for work.

Well… officially I was there for business. While I was very happy to be there for business, I was delighted to be there period. As my son Aram told me, “Dad, I am glad you are finally able to go to a place that has figured so prominently in life.” He was absolutely correct. Aram was, of course, referring to Turkey including Istanbul and Anatolia and the Armenian Highlands. This trip only took me to Istanbul and for that matter only the European side. That was more than enough, plenty rich enough, for this first visit.

I wrote and posted my impressions and thoughts every day on my blog. Please feel free to read those postings as an extension of this letter. These postings are part of this month’s letter.
Reading and thinking about a place is one thing. Talking to people, watching youtubes, and watching travel logs are bascially the same. They all give one an intellectual feel of a place. They create an impression in one’s mind. That is all good but there is no substitution, whatsoever, for actually going someplace to see things in three dimensions, smell, hear, and experience what you think you might know about the place.

This may sound like a total… duh? It is obvious but a lesson I am reminded of every time I go someplace. I believe this “lesson” is what makes some people want to go and experience the far reaches of the world first hand.

Istanbul and Turkey are no different in this regard. It was no different than going to Buenos Aires, Bogota, or Lima for the first time. I had a perspective before I went and I very different one upon actually seeing the place and interacting with the people… even in the limited capacity afforded by the nature of a business trip.

I had an impression of the place before I left. I have another impression upon having been there. I am certain, if I am fortunate enough to make another trip that the impression will evolve. This is how I view the world.

History books and social commentaries give us the big sweeping picture. They address politics and leaders and the forces of change in those rarified circles. These are the changes that sweep the bulk of the population along whether they care to take the journey or not. Novels try to give us more of a slice of life, but novelists are not normal people and thus their slice of life is often more intense than what one might generally find on their own.

Why this long preamble? I am not exactly sure, but with apologies to all of you, I am not stopping here.

I am a US citizen. I am an Armenian American. Am I more American than Armenian? It is a relative term. To some Americans, colleagues I have worked with, they are amazed that I cling to so much of the heritage. They are baffled. In the Republic of Armenia, I met Armenians who literally viewed me as a foreigner… which I was and was not. These perceptions that one has of themselves and the degree to which others agree or disagree affect how a place, a new place, is viewed.

I felt very at home in Istanbul. I am pretty convinced that part of the feeling at home there is the constant realization that it is a lot less an Armenian or Greek city than it ever was and part of a country whose policies, while in a state of flux, are not entirely inclusive of Armenians.

April 23, 2010: I am glad yesterday has past. I am not sure what exactly I was writing about. I do believe I was under the influence of one Orhan Pamuk. I have been reading his novel Snow. While, through Ka we meandered about Kars trying to make sense of the forces of change in Turkey. It is indeed a society in a state of flux struggling with the Republicans, the Islamists, and the Kurds. I am sure I have totally oversimplified this. There are no doubt other factions and sub-factions within the three groups I mentioned.

The novel started off slow. But Pamuk did not win the Nobel Prize for nothing. The man can weave an intricate tale which soon entangled me in its alluring web. Pamuk set the story in Kars, a town that borders Armenia and is close to the ruins of the ancient Armenian captical of Ani. Pamuk notes the Armenian heritage of the city but only in noting that this building or that was owned by an Armenian merchant.

Armenians call the city Khars. When we first went to Armenia in 2001, our driver assigned by the Menua tours was a wonderful gregarious fellow named Manvel. His family was from Khars. He lives in Yerevan a mere 125 miles from Khars. I asked him if he ever wanted to move to the US, as lots of Armenians were leaving Armenia for LA at the time. Manvel immediately answered, “This is where I am from, my heritage is Khars… why would I ever leave.” I felt proud, inspired, and sad all at the same time. Khars could have been part of Armenia as countries were being drawn up at the end of World War I. It, obviously, did not work out that way.

Over the past few weeks I have read some very interesting Op Ed pieces coming from the Turkish press. These pieces were circulated through the University of Michigan Armenian ListServ which has been featured in more than a few of my April e-letters. I read moving pieces by Ahmet Altan, Erol Özkoray, and Cengiz Aktar. When I was in Istanbul, I read editorials in the English language Today’s Zamaan as both Erdoğan and Sarkisian were in Washington, DC. The topic is in the open and openly debatable… by those that care to debate it.

I do not agree with everything that I read. What impresses me is that the topic is being discussed in Turkey. That is a change. Certainly, there are a wide variety of agendas both among Turks and Armenians. It will be amazing if, one, a solution is ever reached and, two, if everyone is happy with it.

I posted the links to my travel blog on the Armenian ListServ. Immediately, two editors one Armenian and one Turkish wrote and asked that I let them know the next time I go to Turkey. It was a great offer and I do plan to keep in contact with both. I may well end up visiting Istanbul again in September.

The past few days were also very strange day on the University of Michigan ArmenianListserv. There has been a lot of controversy over the editorial by Cengiz Aktar. The debate became intense and turned personal. It was pretty ugly and depressing to have a scholarly forum look more like a teenage chatroom. It was tough to read petty personal attacks so close to day of commemoration.

April 24, 2010: It is the day. On April 24, 1915, it all began. Whether the ‘it’ was genocide, ethnic cleansing, deportations, massacres, or atrocities, it all began that day. This was the day that that accord to the LA Times:
Every important Armenian leader in Istanbul — writers, poets, intellectuals, scholars, you name it — [the Turks] arrested them and killed them. The Turks were thinking, "Once we kill off the leaders, the rest are sheep without the shepherd.'',0,2982530,full.column
I do believe that is exactly what happened.

I get a daily mailing from the History Channel. It gives the historical highlights of the day. For today, there was nary a word about the Armenian Genocide. I did learn, however, the Easter Rebellion began in Dublin in 1916, Winston Churchill was knighted in 1953, the Library of Congress was established in 1800, and in 1982… Jane Fonda released her workout video. Hmmm…. The Jane Fonda Video. I am sure this will come up every year from now on. It will help me put things in perspective.

Another way of putting things in perspective is as through personal contacts and friendships. In the opening of this letter, I wrote about my friend Nurhayat. She drove an hour each way to meet me at the Supply Chain Summit. She was supposed to come for lunch but her own work made her time short. She could have called and said she could not make it. Instead, she still fought Istanbul traffic to see an old friend, to say hello. I appreciated that so much. It also puts into perspective the relationships of Armenians and Turks. We can be friends, we can agree, we can agree to disagree at least on personal levels. State wise… who knows.

Here is a link to watch a video summary from the commemoration ceremonies held earlier today at the Genocide Memorial, Dzidzernagaperd, in Yerevan.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April 15, 2010 – Istanbul Journal

It is my last evening in Istanbul and my last personal blog on this trip. I will write about the conference on our work blog. You can read that early next week on

Today was the workshop. I presented a three hour session on Supply Chain Physics, a concept I have coined to enhance communication across the various functions in the organization and thus foster improvements. It was very good. The attendees were very engaged and asked great questions.

I got to see my friend Nurhayat Ulucan. She was supposed to come by for lunch but work and traffic had here coming by just as lunch was ending and I had to start my workshop. She drove an hour for a short visit. I really appreciate her doing that. She worked at Colgate and had a short term assignment in New York where we became acquainted. It was really good to see her again, see photos of her son, and hear how life after Colgate has been for her.

The most interesting part of this day was during lunch. Jim Ayers, another speaker from the US, and I sat at a table with two ladies: one a professor of engineering and the other a management consultant with a Big 4 firm. Both ladies had spent several years living in the United States. When they learned I was Armenian, they both commented on the meetings in Washington DC between Sarkisian and Erdoğan. They asked where I stood on these issues. I stated my position as politely as I could and it was clear that we disagreed but agreed to disagree. Both ladies related a very interesting story about coming to the US and living experiencing their first April 24th. Their stories were the same and independent. They were shocked and surprised at how their country was being portrayed. They were taken aback and unaware of any of this history. As a result, they both began to read and learn.

I do not think they were reading Taner Akcam, Richard Hovannisian, Michael Arlen, or Ahmet Altan. Basically, they believe that this issue is mostly one championed by the American-Armenian Diaspora. In a sense, we are the vanguard of the movement. But it is not just us. It is the entire Diaspora: the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those that survived. If the Genocide issue were somehow resolved, they wondered what the Diaspora would have to rally around. They also both gave the argument that it was a time of war and many people on both sides were sadly killed. There are a lot of gaps to be bridged and closed. If I learned nothing else on this trip, it is that perceptions right or wrong exist on both sides. I reflect on my own trepidations, mostly unfounded, about coming here. I really understood, intellectually, that there would be no issues with my last name, being Armenian here, or speaking Armenian openly for long periods of time.

I really believe there is a winner-loser psychology going on here. A hundred years after the facts, the winners don’t really take things as seriously or gravely as the losers. I have likened this before to the Americans and American Indians and I believe it is apropos. As an American, I feel bad about what was done. I cannot even say what we did as my people were not in any way involved. I feel empathy but I cannot see me taking a big stand. It is history. I am sure there are large numbers of American Indians who do not see it the same way. It all sounds eerily familiar.

It was a great experience. Istanbul is a great city and I had a wonderful visit. I look forward to making another trip here soon.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April 14, 2010 – Istanbul Journal

Today I spoke at the Supply Chain Summit sponsored by Bosphorus Conferences. This is the reason I am here after all. The speech went well and I am looking forward to my workshop tomorrow. This will probably be a much shorter posting simply because there was not a lot of exciting things in a Supply Chain Conference to write about. A waiter did not drop a tray of water glasses; there were no problems with the AV, or anything notable to write about the meetings. Not surprising, and this is something I learned from years of business travels, except for language hotel conference rooms around the world have a certain sameness about them.

I was impressed with all the speakers. They were talented professionals doing impressive work here. But that is not a surprise; the Turkish Supply Chain professionals I met while at Colgate were very talented. The conference was most professionally organized. All the attendees I met and talked to were very nice and we had great discussions during the breaks and lunch.

Music and food sidebar: I am watching a TV commercial for a supermarket, Tansaş, featuring cartoon grocery bags dancing soorch bar style. The music? What else? The heaviest version of Dali Lolo I have ever heard. I am almost getting used to this. At lunch at the conference, the buffet included imam biyeldi, suboreg, eech, and both kinds of halveh. It may be culture shock when I return to the US on Friday.

The most interesting fellow I met was actually born in Elaziğ the city, then Kharpert or Harput, where three of my four grandparents came from. Semih Seçkin works for Turkish Aerospace Industries as a manager in charge of subcontracting. He was delighted to meet me as I was to meet him. We had a great conversation. He knew of all the little villages my folks hail from. He asked if I had heard the CDs of Enver Demirbaş singing the songs of the region. I, of course, bought that CD last year. We laughed about my last name.

I found most of the people I talked to, that were educated, knew enough about what happened in 1915. All of them said that it was politics and the government and they should all let the people just simply get along. I guess that is OK and I can relate, in a way. This is how I look at the American genocide of the American Indians. It was tragic but long ago. We need to admit the truth and move on. I related in a way to the reaction of these people living their lives and working. They/we stop, sigh at the tragedy, and move on. I really wish the government would admit things and, I don’t know, give us Ararat and Kars. That is not going to happen but it is just me being naïve again.

I missed hanging out with Siragan today. What a great fellow. He and his brother Bedros are from the same cut of cloth. He took me all over for three days. I worried I was taking him from his work but he would not hear of it. He wanted to show me his city and I greatly appreciate the camaraderie and attention. I hope I can reciprocate in the states someday.

Did I mention it is Tulip time in Istanbul?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

April 13, 2010 – Istanbul Journal

Last night just before posting my travel journal on my blog, I wrote that, for Armenians, Istanbul is “a city, easy to love, in a country with policies that strain that relationship. “ I wrote this knowing that I would feel this more as the initial euphoria of first being here wore ebbed. I wrote this as a prelude to commentary I knew I would have to address later this week or in my April letter. I did not know I would be addressing it at 6:30 am, a mere seven hours later.

As I do not understand Turkish, all I could do was watch the video of the headline news. The headlines this morning were of the meeting yesterday of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. Actually, I watched these two leaders shaking hands over and over again along with the obligatory pregnant pause that allowed the cameras to take close-ups of their hands. I decided to look at the New York Times on-line. There was no coverage as yet. I looked at, there was a story on their home page reporting that the Turkish Prime Minister will not support US led proposed sanctions against Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear programs. Embedded in that story was a reference to the Erdoğan trying to navigate carefully to push his point on Iran without irritating the US House of Representatives to the point where they pass the Genocide Resolution.

It will be interesting to see how this colors my day and impressions of Istanbul.

As it turns out, it had zero influence whatsoever. I am sure, though, I will reflect on this later.

It was another great and last day of being a tourist. This morning I went with Siragan to Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and saw the obelisks. Aya Sophia is a most impressive space. This building first a church and then converted into a mosque with the conquering of Constantinople is a most impressive space. It was built by the Emperor Justinian and opened in 537. I was simply amazed that they built such a large space with such an amazingly large and high dome with no machinery. I was thinking that the local residents of Constantinople had to be simply astonished at this great building when there was nothing to remotely compare it to. Siragan and I were impressed even though Istanbul is full of large and larger buildings old and new. There were two other churches built on the same spot but had burned down. The edifice has grown over the years as structures to buttress the building for both earthquakes and to help the structure to sustain its own weight. The Ottomans added most of these fortifying structures as well the minarets, a women’s gallery, the sultan’s loge, and an ablutions fountain which made the church into a mosque. As the walls and domes are being cleaned, they are also restoring the Christian artworks that have been long covered.

I heard there is a movement to make Aya Sophia into an active mosque again. I would love to see this grand building become a religious center again. I will reveal my complete naïveté and total optimism by wishing it could be both. I would love to see the Greek Orthodox and Moslems using it for high holidays. It would be great but I realize the very low probability of that happening.

We next ventured to the Blue Mosque. It is also called the Sultan Ahmet Camii for the Sultan who commissioned it. Silly me, I thought there were three significant historic mosques in this Sultanahmet region of the city until I realized that the Blue Mosque and Sultan Ahmet were one in the same. Unlike Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque is an active mosque. When we went in, we had to take off our shoes. The interior is beautifully and decorated with blue Iznik tiles. It is quite serene. Being fully carpeted, the noise is also dampened which definitely contributed to the serenity. The mosque was designed by the imperial architect Mehmet Agha and to me is in a style complementary to Aya Sopia creating a Byzantine/Ottoman form.

The Obelisks were nice. There were three. I thought the Ottomans brought them to Istanbul but they were, in fact, Byzantine plunder. The Egyptian Obelisk, circa 1500 BC, stood outside of Luxor until Constantine had it shipped to his new city. This one piece obelisk looks brand new. I wonder how they shipped this gigantic stone statue in the 4th century AD. And I think I am a logistics expert! The Serpentine Column, 479 BC, was at Delphi and commemorated the Greek defeat of the Persians. The last is the Brazen Column as it was coated in Bronze. It is the worst looking of the obelisks down to the base bricks. It is because the Janissaries used to scale it to show off their bravery.

There is another Ottoman architect of great renown: Koca Mimar Sinan (1491 – 1588). I only saw the exteriors of his great works such as the Sülemaniye Mosque in the Bazaar Quarter. Sinan was a Christian. I understan the Ottomans would regularly round up Christian youth who showed talent and bring them to Istanbul for further training and, I suppose, Islamification. Armenians all believe Sinan was an Armenian and claim him as our own. He was named imperial architect and then mentored and funded by Süleyman the Magnificent. As a result, Sinan was prolific and built 131 mosques and 200 other buildings. He is known as the Ottoman Michelangelo or Michelangelo is known as the Italian Sinan… depending on your point of view. The architecture college next to Dolmabahçe is named for Sinan.

My last truly touristic activity was to go to the old Bazaar. It is the oldest and probably largest of its kind. It is a maze of old narrow streets walled and covered and filled with shops of every kind. It was set up by Mehmet I in 1453. Today it is full of jewelers, rug merchants, and souvenir stores of every price range. I went there to see the place and to buy gifts and a few CDs. My friend Mike Isberian gave me the name of a family friend, Erol Kazanci, the owner of Gallery Shirvan inside the Bazaar. We stopped to see him. Erol was a gracious host. Siragan and I spent two hours drinking tea and discussing the relationship of Armenians and Turks, life in general, and looking at some beautiful Armenian pieces that Erol has collected in his storied career. Like Cengiz yesterday, I made a new friend in Erol today. In fact, I put Erol and Cengiz together as Erol has some antique ouds he wants to have appraised. It is a most wonderful thing to experience this kind of slower paced, get to know each other well, style of business and friendship.

This evening I met with Funda Eresken. She is the contact and coordinator of Bosporus Conferences which is the company hosting the Supply Chain Summit that I am speaking at tomorrow and the Supply Chain Workshop I am presenting on Thursday. It was nice to finally meet her. I guess I am back to work tomorrow, but truly it is an extension of this great adventure.

Monday, April 12, 2010

April 12, 2010 – Istanbul Journal

Could my second day in the Polis be just as exciting? Inchu ché? Why not, as we would say in Armenian.

I began the morning in the gym again. There was no music on TRT this morning. The news was all about soccer. Galatasary beating Diyarbekirspor 4-1. Galatasary is the only team I have ever heard of. Every Turk living in the US seems to be their fan. In lieu of TRT providing the sound track, I had my iPod and listening to the early recording of Udi Hrant. I especially liked listening to his rendition of Kemani Tatyos Effendi’s Huseyni Saz Semai. Listening to Hrant Baba is always grounding, humbling, and most enjoyable.

My guide and cousin in-law, Siragan, picked me up at the hotel again at ten. We took the tram and subway and to Seraglio Point, the heart of the old Ottoman Empire. We walked through the spice market, it was a rainbow of shops, colors, and especially fragrances. From there we toured the Basilica Cistern built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532. The vast vaulted cistern was designed to collect water for the demands of Great Palace of that empire. It is impressive to walk through the cistern especially with how the Turks have lit the base of each column. It is amazing with what could be constructed with no machinery but an abundance of really inexpensive labor.

Sidebar: As I am typing this, I saw a commercial for a financial concern: FinansEmeklilik. What is the big deal about a commercial for a bank or brokerage or something? To me, it was huge. The background music in this thirty second spot was a beautiful rendering of the chorus of Kemani Tatyos Effendi’s Bu Aksam Gün Batarken Gel. Amazing. It just makes me realize what living in a place where the dominant culture is heavily laced with things I highly value. Here is another case in point, I used to love my grandmother’s suboreg. She used to labor hours to make this delicacy. She served it about twice a year. Today, I walked by at least ten restaurants that had pans of it in their windows and sold it by the slice to passers by as if they were Ray’s Pizza in New York.

After walking through the Basilica Cistern, we ventured to Topkapi Palace, the oriental predecessor to
Dolmabahçe. Topkapi was built between 1459 and 1465 by Mehmet II upon his conquest of Constantinople. What an impressive compound of opulence and power that was in the hands of Sultans. The meeting and receiving chambers were ornate and tiles with blues and whites. I felt the power of the Ottomans much more in Topkapi than in Dolmabahçe. They had collections of jeweled, well everything, that were gifts, plunder, or commissioned by the Sultans. There were chalices, pitchers, cradles, candlesticks, stands to hold Korans, thrones, and hand mirrors to mention a few were made of gold and jade. They were encrusted with rubies, diamonds, and emeralds some as big as the palm of your hand. To further emphasize the militaristic nature of this empire was the collection of jeweled swords, sabers, and daggers. I even saw the dagger featured in the 1964 movie Topkapi starring Peter Ustinov and Melina Mercouri. They had the kaftans and ceremonial garb of various sultans.

The Pavilion of the Holy Mantle was a special place. When Selim I conquered Egypt and Arabia (1512-1520), the sultans also assumed the title of Caliph, the leadership of Islam. Many of the important relics of Islam came into their possession including the swords of the Prophet and his son-in-law Ali. The most important possession is a robe, mantle, worn by the Prophet. 24/7, holy men chant the Koran over the metal chest containing the mantle. It was a very moving and outside of anything I expected or experienced.

After lunch, we ventured to Veysel Müzik Evi, an instrument shop. The owner is Dr. Cengiz Sariku
ş, a maker of ouds and other Turkish instruments. I found the shop on line when I watched YouTubes of accomplished oud players playing the vintage instruments in his collection that also happen to be for sale. He has instruments from the great Greek maker Manol, the Stradivarius of oud makers, and several ouds from the great Armenian makers of Istanbul including Onnik Karibian, Agop Ohanyan, Agop Gudikran, Mgrdiç Karibian, Karekin Kavafyan, and others. The ouds ranged from 50 to 150 years old.

There I was in the same room, sitting on the same couch, where the videos were shot and the vintage instruments were hanging on the wall. I was talking with Cengiz and next thing I know, I was playing an oud, an 1908 Manol once owned by Enver Paşa’s wife Naciye. I held Bimen Sen’s oud (no strings) and Tatyos Effendi’s violin. Cengiz learned his craft from Agop Ohanyan and knew the Karibian brothers Onnik and Mgrdiç. It was an amazing experience. I played Tatyos Effendi’s Huseyni Saz Semai. Cengiz then pulled out a 78 of Udi Nevres Bey playing the same. It was equally humbling as listening to Udi Hrant earlier in the day. I played a variety of ouds both antique and made by Cengiz Usta (master).

We spent the afternoon at
Veysel Müzik Evi. Siragan talked to Cengiz and another visitor a wonderful saz player, Gügor, who gave us a great little concert. Güngor was from Yozgat as is Siragan. They did not know each other but had many common friends. It was a great way to spend an afternoon in Istanbul. I am considering importing and sell Cengiz’s ouds.

On the way back to my hotel, Siragan and I walked around Taksim Square in the heart of the Beyo
ğlu section where prosperous Armenian’s once lived. We stopped and heard two Gypsy clarinet players playing a duet of the kind of music I love. I tipped them and was amazed that here were a couple of great players playing outside for tips. They were better than all of the clarinet players I play with. It was just another example of dominant culture…

I have seen people who look like people I know. I believe we are closer than the religious, political, and language differences. The food is too much the same. The music, to me, overlaps very much. I started keeping track, well at least today. I have seen people who look like my daughter Armené, Garabed Darakjian, Kevork Toroyan, a more homely version of John Harotian, and many others.

I am beginning to fully understand the Armenian dilemma regarding Istanbul. It is a city, easy to love, in a country with policies that strain that relationship.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

April 11, 2010 – Istanbul

It is my first full day in this great old city.

I had the greatest tour guide and dear friend, Siragan Magar. Siragan is the brother of Bedros Magar who is married to my cousin Sandy. Originally from Yozgat, Siragan has lived in Istanbul for many years and knows the city well. I had met Siragan twice before once in New York and another time in Detroit. We hit it off well those times and it was like we had seen each other once a week. He met me at my hotel this morning and agreed to an agenda for the day. We agreed to go to an Armenian Church, go to Dolmabahçe Palace, and then take a boat ride to one of the Prince’s Islands to have dinner.

We decide to go to Surp Vartanants Church because it was, at most, a ten minute walk from my hotel. Surp Vartanants is in the Feriköy section of the city. It was a rather unimposing façade off of the street. It was just a double door in a non-descript wall. The doors had crosses on them and above the door a simple sign: Surp Vartan Kelisesi . I did not know what to expect from the very plain entrance. In walking through the door, I realized the church was inside a courtyard and I felt much better. I realized it is probably better to have a plain front for an Armenian Church in this country. I lit two candles and said a prayer for my grandparents and great-aunts and uncles and those of my wife. These wonderful and special people were all born in what today is the Republic of Turkey. I felt very good and connected doing this as the morning service was ending and the mass was about to begin. The church was full but it was mostly old people. Younger people were coming in and out with their youngsters. There was a school attached to the Church and it had two social halls as well. Siragan told me a lot of Armenians now lived in Feriköy both Armenians born in Turkey and those who had come from Armenia to work.

From Surp Vartan, we caught a taxi and went to Dolmabahçe Palace. It was first and foremost on the list of Ottoman sites I wanted to see. I have an indirect personal connection to this place. The palace was commission by the 31st Sultan of the Empire, Abdulmecid , in 1856. He wanted a western style palace to take the place of the more oriental style Topkapi Palace which I will visit tomorrow. The architects that the Sultan commissioned were the famous Armenian architects Garabet Balian and his son Nigoghos. The Armenian connection in itself would be most indirect but I know the great great great (and maybe another great in here, I am not sure) of Garabet. First cousins Rich Berberian and John Harotian are good friends and fellow musicians. They played at both my children’s weddings and John and I are in the same band in Chicago. I had to see this place.

In one word… WOW. I was very impressed and immediately thought about my reaction to remotely similar, much less grand, edifices that the Spanish built in Latin America. There is no limit to what you can do with the unlimited wealth gotten in creating an empire. The gilding, the incredible frescos, the English or Baccarat crystal chandeliers weighing 1, 2 and 4 tons, inlay flooring, the Turkish carpets of unreal dimensions, the porcelain doorknobs, the china, and paintings (including a wonderful piece from the renown Armenian artist Ivan Aivazovsky. It was phenomenal. Go to to see photos of this amazing palace.

From Dolmabahçe, Siragan and I walked to the ferry port past a mosque the Balians had also built next to the palace. We had a cup of tea waiting for the ferry that goes to four of the Prince’s Islands in the Sea of Marmara. These islands with are summer retreats and homes of the well heeled of Istanbul. It is like Cape Cod is to Boston and Providence, with the charm of Istanbul, if that even makes sense. The ferry goes to the four largest of the islands Kinaliada, Burgazada, Heybeliada, and Büyükada. We went to Büyükada, the largest of the nine island chain. The ferry ride took an hour and a half. It was great watching people, the coastline, and to talk with Siragan. In Büyükada, we went to a restaurant right on the sea. The food, the entire experience, walking around the streets of the resort island was great.

What are my overall impressions?

I came here both excited and apprehensive. I had only known Turkey and Istanbul through the eyes of others, what I have read, and heard. I was a bit worried about being Armenian in a place that for the past hundred years, for sure, was not kind to Armenians. I was worried about my last name.

I had nothing to worry about. There were no issues. No one gave a second thought about my last name or even questioned it in any way at all. It is a total non-issue. Siragan and I talked Armenian all day everywhere, in public, on the Ferry, in the restaurant, in Dolmabahçe. No one even looked at us funny.

I was worried about being in a Moslem country for the first time. 10-15% of the women have headscarves. No big deal. I heard my first call to prayer at 1 pm. No one within my range of vision even flinched and no one prayed.

The city reminds me of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It is European and it is definitely Turkish. It is a great place to hang out and explore. It is a great place to experience the rich history here and the culture that overlaps the Armenian so much. A good 70% look like we could be related.

It was a perfect cool blustery spring day. I could not have picked a better day to visit this city, this Constantanopolis, this Bolis… Istanbul.

I got up at 7:30 am after a blissful sleep. I went to the gym of the hotel. I was the only one exercising so the nice attendant lady went to change the channel to something she thought I would like such as CNN. I asked her if there was any good Turkish music on TRT. She looked at me sideways but found a folk music concert. I commented that I recognized the singer Bedri Aysli (an Armenian). The lady asked me, “You know Bedri Aysli?” “Yes and I know this song.” She was clearly surprised.

As I exercised, another show came on. It was called Göçmen Kuşların. It reminded me of a show on Discovery Channel in the US called Dirty Jobs in which they explore jobs most people might not have the fortitude for. I thought this because the host followed a garbage scavenger around. This fellow began work in the dead of night with his rickshaw like wagon. He went through the garbage before it was collected and took recyclables and anything he thought he could clean-up, fix, and resell. It was tedious and at times dirty. It could not have been easy dragging that cart, full of refuge, uphill. I asked later what göçmen kuşların meant? It means “migrating birds” which is what the Turks call those people who leave their village to try to make a go of it in Istanbul. They often take on the most menial kinds of work. It was very interesting. They even followed the man and his wife and daughters on their day off to see what they do for recreation. This reminded me of Orhan Pamuk’s depiction of life in Kars in his book Snow which I am reading while on this trip.

I am very glad to be here. There is no substitute for experiencing a place first hand.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Opening Day

It was the opening day of major league baseball today. I was completely unaware for maybe for the first time. I knew it was the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. I am watching Duke and Butler battle out as I type this. But, I did not know it opening day until I heard it on the radio about 5 pm.

I find this odd because it was so far off of my radar screen. I used to love opening day. It was my “official” first day of spring. Every fan of every team is hopeful their team will go to the World Series. It is a time of great optimism. It is a time to celebrate baseball.

This year baseball was nowhere on my radar screen. This is sad to me. Am I finally fully grown up? Am I now completely jaded? I wish I could say I was too busy know but that just is not true.

I listen to National Public Radio when I am driving. I love listening to their opening season reporting. It is the Roger Angel and Field of Dreams approach to baseball reporting. They tap into the richness of baseball literature always make me nostalgic and sentimental about the game and this time of year. Somehow this year, I missed their coverage. I may have been on the phone.

It was on NPR that I really leaned to appreciate the timelessness of baseball. I am not referring to the age of the game nor its lasting heritage. I refer to the fact that there is no clock. A team could theoretically win the game with two out and two strikes in the ninth inning if they are down one run or ten. A game could theoretically go on indefinitely. Baseball, unlike football, basketball, soccer, and hockey, is timeless.

I grew up in Detroit. I loved the Detroit Tigers. I could not wait until the season started. I was excited about the new players and, of course, the players I had been living and dying with as long as I had been a fan. The city was full of buzz for opening day. The stadium, Briggs Stadium, was full on opening day. Grown men played hooky from work to be a kid again.
I remember the great 1968 World Series Championship team starters by name.

Norm Cash 1B

Dick McAuliffe 2B

Dick Tracewski SS

Don Wert 3B

Bill Freehan C

Al Kaline RF

Mickey Stanley CF

Willie Horton/Jim Northrup LF

Denny McClain P

Mickey Lolich P

Earl Wilson P

Gates Brown PH

I am some kind of old fogy. My interest in baseball began to wane, I believe, when free agency began. The luminaries, my heroes, were always Tigers. I could not imagine Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, Gates Brown, Dick McAuliffe, or Mickey Lolich playing for anyone else but the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers won the World Series that year. It was a great time for me. I was fifteen and had been a Tiger fan all of the 1960s. It was cool.

In December 1975, free agency came to baseball. The best players became their own brands and went to the highest bidder. There is nothing wrong with that. It is capitalism. But, I had trouble keeping focused on the team when the players, the best players, moved around. I thought that belonged in Eurpoean Soccer not baseball. Many people got used to it but not me. I never liked it. Add to this the designated hitter rule and, ugh, baseball changed for me. I liked Hank Aguirre batting .010, he was a good pitcher and such a bad hitter. I loved Earl Wilson who would hit homers to win his own games. Thankfully, the pros never went to the metal bats.

Jack Morris debuted with the Tigers in 1979. He was a great pitcher. In 1984, on April 7th, he pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox. It was the signal of what would be a great year. He was the ace of the staff and notched 19 victories that year. The Tigers won the World Series that year. It was great. Twice in a lifetime was like a real gift. There is nothing like a winner to bring fans back to the game.

But Morris did not stay a Tiger. In 1991, he went to the Minnesota Twins and led them to a World Series Championship. He moved on to Toronto in 1992 and led them to a World Series trophy as well. I have said since then it was easier to be a Jack Morris fan, which I was, than a Detroit Tigers fan.

A funny thing happened when I moved to Connecticut in 1990. I became a reluctant Yankees fan. It is funny because I hated the Yankees from the 1960s when they used to beat on my beloved Tigers. They were the best team money could buy. They were owned by inflammatory George Steinbrenner who changed managers seemingly at a whim. But, who couldn’t like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and the rest. They were a likeable crew. They were… likeable Yankees. Go figure. After decades of not going to ball games. I went to Yankee games and enjoyed them. I went with my kids. I went with my Latino friends who were working at Colgate in the city. Everyone in the Latin American baseball countries were Yankee fans.

Upon returning to Chicago, I got into both the Yankees and the Cubs. I loved how there was no middle ground. You were either a White Sox fan or a Cub fan. Where I wanted to see a subway series between the two, real Chicago fans wanted their team in the Series and the other to finish last. It is pretty amusing for someone from the outside.

These days, I go to a game or two each year, especially if tickets fall into my lap. The only time I watch baseball on the TV is during the playoffs and the World Series. That is the best baseball and the only thing worth watching.

But, somehow, this year, I missed opening day. What’s up with that?