Monday, April 16, 2018

We Were Not Unprepared

Vahe H. Apelian


This past April Friday thirteen brought back memories of events that changed the course of my life and altered it forever. I was reminded of the deadly confrontation that happened on Sunday, April 13, 1975, between the armed members of the Lebanese Phalange (Katael) party and Palestinians.  On that fateful gorgeous Sunday afternoon, I was returning from Anjar, the Armenian inhabited village of former Moussa Daghtsis. I was held in traffic as I approached Beirut. I asked an armed civilian who was directing the traffic what was the problem? He said that there was a military clash between the armed members of the Phalange (Kataeb) Party and Palestinians. The details of that deadly encounter appear to remain murky to this day. That day and that that incident is generally accepted as the beginning of the Lebanese Civil war as a result of which, a year later, on July 9, 1976, I set foot in the NY Kennedy Airport as another immigrant.
I am born and raised in Lebanon. My parents had me enrolled in A.R.F. Papken Suni Badanegan Association (Myuoutiun) when I was in elementary grade. From there on I became a member of the A.R.F. Zavarian Ashagerdagan (Pupil) and then Oussaneghogand (Student) Associations as I graduated from Elementary to Middle and then High School and entered the American University of Beirut and took my vows to become an active member of the Tashnagtsoutiun (A.R.F).
In a few weeks, the Lebanese will elect the members of their parliament. The first and the only election I participated in Lebanon was the one that took place in the latter part of April 1972. The Lebanese Parliament then was carefully crafted and comprised of 55 Christian and 44 Muslim members with each of the two religious denominations having its share based on its demographic constituency. The Armenian Orthodox community was allocated four seats, the Armenian Catholic Community one seat and the Evangelical community one seat. Traditionally the candidate for the Armenian Catholic and Evangelical seats was reserved to the Phalange Party. During that election, the dominant Armenian political party (A.R.F.) was able to secure the candidacy of the first Armenian Evangelical, Antranig Manougian, M.D.
The A.R.F. had adopted a cherished tradition of appointing only one party member and reserving the other three seats to prominent individuals who were understood to represent the other segments of the great Lebanese Armenian Community. Melkon Eblighatian. M.D. represented the A.R.F. and acted as the representative of the Armenian Parliamentarian bloc. The other three were Souren Khanamirian, the prominent philanthropist who represented the Armenian business community; Khachig Babigian, the prominent lawyer who represented the Catholicoate of Cilicia and Ara Yerevanian, the consul of Gabon, businessman, and philanthropist, represented the none-A.R.F. fraction.  

Standing LtoR: Tsolag Tutelian, Hovsep Seferian, Antranig Manougian, MD, Souren Khanamirian, Melkon Eblighatian MD, Sako Karkodorian, Arpi (Baghdassarian) Shahinina, Garo Sassouni, Mary (Bakalian) Arevian, Khatchig Babigian.  LtoR: ? Hovsepian 9/), ?, Yetvart Eloyan, ?, Hourig Panian, Vahe H. Apelian, ?, Zvart Sarhadian.
Sometimes in the later part of 1974, Dr. Melkon Eblighatian presented to the A.R.F. Zavarian Student Association his experiences as a parliamentarian. He had succeeded Movses Der Kaloustian who was the longstanding member of Lebanese Parliament. Dr. Eblighatian gave much tribute to his predecessor noting that the greatest challenge he faced was being accepted as the one who will be filling Der Kaloustian’s vacant seat. Among the wheeling and dealing Lebanese descendants of the merchandizing Phoenicians, Movses Der Kaloustian had stood apart with his unblemished impeccable conduct through the many years he served as a parliamentarian.
The second part of Dr. Eblighatian’s lecture constituted analyzing the political situation in Lebanon. A heightened political mood prevailed in the country. He concluded his lecture saying, I quote verbatim, “hot days await us during the upcoming spring”. The ensuing turn of events, starting with the “bus incident” on April 14, 1975, proved that he was prophetic indeed.
Sometime in early 1980’s Dr Melkon Eblighatian visited New Jersey where his son Norayr lived with his family. I interviewed him and recorded it. Norayr and I then transcribed the interview. I wrote an introduction and presented it to “Hairenik” Daily where both my interview and introduction were presented on the front page.  My contention in my introductory remarks was that the Lebanese civil war had far more destructive ramification to the Armenians than to the rest.
March 2011 is usually regarded the time that sparked the current civil war in Syria. One year and a few months later, in November 2012, the Syrian Armenians in Aleppo convened to best figure out how to best brave the ongoing civil war.
I cite these to make a point. Often times we, as Armenians, criticize ourselves that we historically lack political foresight. I do not believe it to be necessarily so. In both of these cases, the Armenian leadership anticipated the upcoming and prepared the community to face it but surely did not visualize the magnitude of the ensuing destruction. I doubt that if anyone could have possibly anticipated the level of destruction in these civil wars, still ongoing in Syria.

The civil wars in Syria and in Lebanon fundamentally changed the course of the Armenian Diaspora. These two communities remain the bastions for the preservation of the Western Armenian culture in spite of the fact that they remain mortally wounded. Nowhere else, be it in Diaspora or in Armenia, the Western Armenian language and literature have a better chance of preservation. Who knows? It might be that it’s in our stars that we should be subjected to such destructive forces far from our ability to contain them. I am no sure if it is a common metaphor but my late father used to say “the horses stamped and they mass up the green grass”. We were patches of the green grass in these two courtiers and we were not unprepared but forces far greater than our ability to control or contain caused havoc and perilously altered the course of the post-genocide Armenian Diaspora.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Haleb in its Hey Days

Translated and abridged by Vahe H. Apelian

Levon Sharoyan posted this article in segments on his Facebook page during June 2014 and titled it “Ո՞ւր Կը Կայանայ Հալէպահայ Գաղութին Արժէքը” (What Constitutes the Worth of Aleppo Armenian Community?) and wrote in the present tense. I had the article translated and posted in Keghart.com titling it “Glorious Armenian Aleppo”.  I changed the title to “Haleb in its Hey Days”, because I am reproducing the article in my blog. Much changed in the Aleppo Armenian community during the past four years. I retained the verb tense but opted to use the term Armenians use for Aleppo, Haleb.


Armenia and the Diaspora for decades perceived the post-genocide Armenian Aleppo as an isolated, self-contained and traditional community. It did not have the luster and the flamboyance of the Paris, Los Angeles and Beirut Armenian communities. The latter regarded Aleppo a backward village. For consolation, Aleppo had been crowned the “Mother Diaspora Community”. We were happy with the designation.
The unprecedented turn of events in the last three years due to the Syrian Civil War and especially the deliberate destruction of Kessab and of the Aleppo Armenian neighborhood of Nor Kyugh, focused the attention of the Diaspora on the “Mother Diaspora Community”, the “Dreamy Haleb”. Armenians began lamenting the possible loss of the community. Armenian Diaspora was mobilized to save its Haleb community and to safeguard its values, but alas …" after breakage”…
What were the characteristics of this community that the Diaspora is intent on safeguarding? It is one of life’s unmistakable order
s to appreciate the value of something after its loss. But let us, for a moment, ponder about the values of the Haleb community. What were its characteristics? What did the Haleb Armenian community offer that the others do not as well? I will present a cursory listing of these characteristics and let readers do the critical and in-depth evaluation. 
1.  Community’s religious and church life.
Haleb hosts eleven Christian denominations, among them the three mainstream Armenian denominations: Apostolic, Catholic, and Evangelical. Each denomination is organized and active. The religious and church lives of the Haleb Armenian community has always been exemplary. The Holy Forty Martyrs Church of the Armenian Apostolic denomination dates more than five hundred years. Our churches have always been filled to capacity on Sundays and on holidays. Should you ever have attended the early mass during the holidays you would have remained mesmerized by our all-volunteer large choirs. I would like to emphasize the "volunteer” designation because in Europe and in the United States even the scribes (դպիրներ) are paid. Weddings and baptisms had to be booked months in advance because there were so many them. I insist that the Haleb Armenian community’s rich and traditional church life may have come second only to Istanbul’s. We had a very rich church life here. No wonder that the seminarians in Antelias liked to come to Aleppo to perform mass. No other Armenian community could possibly have matched the regal reception the community extended to the visiting catholicos during his pontifical visit.
2. The Organizational Structure of the Community.
The organizational structure of the Aleppo Armenian community has passed on from one generation to the next unchanged for almost 150 years. It is based on the fundamental tenants of the Armenian National Constitution adopted in Istanbul in 1863. Accordingly, the Armenian Apostolic Church National Prelacy is the official body that represents the Armenian community to the government and is its nerve center and trigger. The prelate, in addition to being the spiritual head of the community, acts as its temporal leader and thus shoulders dual responsibilities. This is a unique form of representation that has been inherited from the Ottoman days. It has advantages because it centralizes the administration of the community and its dealing as well as it establishes bilateral relations with the government. If you were to look carefully at the administration of the National Prelacy of Aleppo you would find that it is a veritable government within a government. It's interesting to note that at one time Sultan Abdul Hamid II suspended the Armenian National Constitution for this very same reason... that it acted much like a government within a government. 

The legislative body of the National Prelacy is the National Representative Assembly. As the name indicates, the community elects its members. This body appoints and oversees executive boards in matters of education and administration of schools under its jurisdiction, religious education, judicial, financial, social services, real estate holdings and others. The effectiveness by which the Haleb community is governed can stir the envy of not only the other Armenian communities but also local Christian and Muslim communities: Compare the functioning of the Armenian community of Aleppo with those in North America, Latin America, France, Britain and Australia... and you will find that the Aleppo Armenian community is more effectively organized and administered.
The National Prelacy is the backbone of the community. 
Our elders speak of a time when the community was even more vibrant. I remember reading an interesting article by Antranig Dzarougian in his “Nayiri” weekly where he reminisced, as a young reporter in '40s, about attending the open-door deliberations of the National Representative Assembly where opposing viewpoints would converge to a middle ground and form a consensus on how to run the community.
With the passing decades, much water has flown under the proverbial bridge. The picture nowadays may not be the same but the organizational structure of the Armenian community in Aleppo is one of its distinguishing characteristics and is worth preserving and emulating. 

3. Our Unmatched Schools
Can Haleb breathe, let alone survive, without its schools? Such a scenario is impossible to imagine. Haleb loses its glitter without its schools and its vivifying graduates. We would not be mistaken in stating that the Armenian schools are the Aleppo community’s very lungs.
 Without them, we would suffocate. And what glorious schools we have: the Karen Yeppe Armenian College (Քարէն Եփփէ Ազգ. Ճեմարան), the historical Haigazian (Հայկազեան) and Sahagian (Սահակեան) schools, the more recently built Gulbenkian (Կիւլպէնկեան) and Grtasirats High School (Կրթասիրաց-Չէմպէրճեան) school, the A.G.B.U. Lazar Nadjarian-Calouste Gulbenkian Armenian Central High School (Լազար Նաճարեան), the Cilician (Giligian) (Կիլիկեան) Armenian High School, the Mekhatarian (Մխիթարեան) school and others.
For Haleb Armenians, their homely and lovely community life is best illustrated through the unfolding of the academic year. We witness the buses of the Armenian schools, each bearing in large Armenian characters the name of the school, crisscross the city from one neighborhood to next, traversing the thoroughfares of the city collecting the students to bring them to school.
Throughout that season I remain overwhelmed by a burst of emotions at the scene. 
Our schools are much like beehives, where every morning bees enter and work diligently to produce honey. The Haleb honey is just that, authentic and unadulterated. We have always shared our honey generously with our blood relatives overseas. Our honey is sufficient for all. Diaspora communities, big or small, have their schools, in Istanbul, Beirut, Tehran, Cairo, Athens, Marseilles, Paris, Los Angeles, Montreal, Sydney, and Buenos Aires. I will muster the courage and state that the Armenian schools in these cities cannot possibly compete with ours in imparting to their students an Armenian education. Can you possibly name an Armenian Diaspora high school that can equal the Karen Yeppe Jemaran? Could you point to any other Armenian Diaspora high school that had the same pre-Civil War enrollment of 1,400 students we had at the A.G.B.U. Nazarian-Gulbenkain Central High School?
Speaking Armenian in schools, however, changed these days, is still predominant among our students even out of school.  
Some may claim that the Education Ministry of Syria has curtailed the number of classes in the Armenian language. 
In my modest opinion, that allegation is not devoid of lapses in judgment. The Armenian language and literature have always maintained their rightful place in the overcrowded curriculum of our schools. These subjects are properly taught with much care. We have some schools that have voluntarily abrogated the educational privileges granted to them and have curtailed the number of such classes or have completely eliminated some. It would be unproductive to dwell on this phenomenon now.
The raging destructive war in Syria is testing the Armenian schools in ways they have not been tested before. Their very existence is at stake, especially due to the economic collapse. The situation is alarming and its consequences dire. It is vital to assist the Haleb Armenian schools financially so that they, as the beehives of the community, continue to produce honey.
4. An Armenian Diaspora Treasure Chest.
Let us take a rapid trip through the Armenian neighborhoods of Aleppo and visit our social clubs. We will find the names of these clubs in a bilingual inscription at their entrances: Aram Manougian People’s Home, A.G.B.U. Tekeyan Cultural Association, Kermanig-Vasbouragan Cultural Association, Ourfa Compatriotic Cultural Association, and tens of others such associations and social clubs.
All of these associations have extended an open arm to embrace our Armenian compatriots who, having graduated from the local Armenian schools, come to socialize under their roofs to maintain their umbilical cord with their nation. The denominational affiliation and the political partisan leaning of the person do not matter, neither do the types of interest a person has for there is an Armenian association and a social club for the person.
Do you like to sing? Then come and join the Hamzakayin’s “Zvartnots” choir.
Do you have acting talents? Then A.G.B.U.’s “Atamian” theatrical group or “Zavarian” will be welcoming you.
Are you interested in dancing? There are two to three dance groups for you.
Is your interest to serve the Armenian literature? Then you may join the Syrian-Armenian Writers’ group monthly meetings.
Are you interested in or do you want to hone your skills in painting or photography? You may join “Arshile Gorky” or “Sarian” art academies.
Are you athletic? Knock H.M.E.M’s door and it will be open for you.
Are you a scout or do you like to bring your child as one? You have the options of having your children to tough it out with excursions and camps organized by H.M.M’s or H.M.E.M’s athletic clubs.
Do you want to contribute to the current youth movements? Syrian Youth Association and Dkhrouny clubs are there for you. 
Are you interested in preserving your grandparents’ heritage? Among many, you have the option to join, Marash, Kilis, Dikranagerd, Zeytoun, Daron, Ourfa compatriotic organizations.
Are you interested to render social services? The Syrian Armenian Relief Organization might be the place for you.
Haleb Armenians often have to choose from the many concurrently ongoing events. All these events take place in splendid social halls that we, as a community own, the likes of which other local organizations do not have. Our halls get filled to capacity.
In a city of 4-million residents, we as Armenians, present a unique communal picture. The non-Armenian communities with whom we co-habit have not been able to build what we have built and hence do not have the means to offer to their community what we can. That is why Haleb has become the ideal community to preserve the Armenian heritage where an Armenian is born as one and is interred as one.
No wonder the Haleb communal life stirred the imagination of the eminent writer  Dzarougian who penned his recollection in “Dreamy Haleb”. The newly appointed director of the AMAA (Armenian Missionary Association of America) Zaven Khanjian was born and raised in Haleb. He also penned his memoirs in the recent "Aleppo, First Station" about growing up in the city. Undoubtedly, the Aleppo Armenian community is the “Little Armenia” of the Diaspora, even though it has not been named so in an official capacity.
Indeed, the Armenian Diaspora has all the reasons to be alarmed by the ongoing war in Syria whose consequences may be disastrous to the once-thriving Armenian community of Aleppo and by extension to the beehive it was that provided bees and honey to the other Diaspora communities.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Aleppo Armenians Convene


Translated and abridged by Vahe H. Apelian, 7 December 2012


The attached is an abridged translation of a report from Aleppo that appeared in "Hairenik Weekly" (Nov. 30, 2012). The two letters accompanying the article are presumably the initials of the author’s first and last name. Who would have guessed then the conflict they were experiencing would last this long with no end in sight yet.



“What are the dangers facing Aleppo Armenians today and what can the leadership do to circumvent the calamity?”
To answer the above question, the Regional Committee of Hamazkayin Cultural Association in Syria invited Armenian community leaders to a Nov. 11 presentation and a roundtable discussion at the Aram Manougian Community Center of Aleppo.
Among the fifty participants were authors, reporters, Armenian language teachers, and members of Armenian cultural organizations. His Grace Bishop Shahan Sarkissian, prelate of the Diocese of Aleppo participated in the meeting.
Before the start of the meeting, attendees watched some 40 colored pictures of the disastrous condition of the mostly-Armenian Aleppo neighborhoods that have been subjected to rampant destruction. The images, taken by professional photographer Ardo Hampartsoumian, showed damaged buildings, looted stores, burnt cars, torched houses of worship, skies blackened with smoke and among these ruins, people in panic. As chairman of the regional Hamazkayin, Hampartousmian opened the meeting. Krikor Doungian, chairman of the Diocese of Aleppo, acted as moderator.
Before the presentation, the prelate emphasized two fundamental points: The present dire circumstances are being experienced not only by Aleppo Armenians but all Syrians; as a result of the conflict a new culture should emerge not only among Syrian Armenians but also for all Syrians--a culture of collective being, a new way of living.
Four people made presentations.
The first presenter was Raffi Avedissian, from the Committee for the Syrian Armenian Relief. The committee is comprised of representatives from the three denominations, the three political parties and two of the largest benevolent organizations (Armenian General Benevolent Union and the Armenian Relief Society of Syria). Aleppo Armenians have suffered 40 deaths, 66 wounded, seven abductions, and 2 Armenian soldiers whose whereabouts are not known. Approximately 200 houses have been damaged, a great number of workplaces have been destroyed or ransacked and many cars have been destroyed.
It would be impossible to compensate for such losses. However, the committee said Mr. Avedissian, renders aid to meet daily needs. Some 2,850 food hampers have been distributed, residences have been provided to families who live in the most dangerous places. Medical care is also rendered. Young Armenian volunteers are on a round-the-clock watch guarding Armenian-owned institutions such as churches, schools and community centers. He also reported that assistance is being flown from Armenia and fundraisers are being organized in various Diaspora communities.
Emma Azarigian read the presentation of Hraztan Tokmajian. For pressing reasons, the latter failed to attend. The presentation dwelt on the role the Armenian cultural organizations during the conflict. Mr. Tokmajian had written that he had attempted not to sound pessimistic and quoted the Armenian saying “Bad days, much like winter, come and go”. In spite of the difficult circumstances, the A.G.B.U. Sarian Art Institute and the Armenian Studies Center of Hamazkayin had resumed their classes since the beginning of November, reported Mr. Tokmajian.  He said that he was hopeful the cultural life of the community will not be crippled and that the community would resume its vibrant cultural life.
The third presenter was columnist and translator Houry Azezian. She dwelt on the vast cultural heritage Aleppo has inherited, including churches, cemeteries, a museum, archives manuscripts and old books. Azezian noted that we have a responsibility to safeguard the heritage that has been entrusted to us.
The fourth and last presenter was Sarkis Kassarjian, a reporter in the Arabic media. He said that there is a great deal of false reporting in social media and in the mainstream press. He advised the community to stay away from siding with any of the combating sides. He advocated “positive neutrality”--the policy Lebanese Armenians adopted during the civil war there. Arman Saghatelian from “Pan-Armenia Media” also commented regarding this issue.
A question-and-answer segment followed the presentations. The ensuing discussion could have been more informative and useful to crystallize a pan-Armenian strategy to help the community emerge from the calamity with relatively little loss. Most of the attendees refrained from asking questions. Perhaps they were being cautious about airing their views publicly or they had nothing to add to the presentations. This is not to say that there was no meaningful discussion.
One of the attendees suggested that a portion of the aid received from Armenia should be distributed to non-Armenian communities. He suggested that representatives for the Syrian Relief Fund deliver a portion of the aid to local communities. Such a gesture would have a beneficial effect on intra-community relations, he said.
Another noted that despite emigration, the heart of Aleppo has not stopped beating. He cited that this year Sourp Asdvatzatzna Church has registered 85 baptisms and 77 weddings.
Some noted that Facebook accounts favoring the opposition undermine the welfare of the community. The need for a “positive neutrality” policy was agreed to be the safest political positioning for the community.
Following the four-hour presentations and discussion, Prelate-Archbishop Sarkissian noted that the Aleppo community is a conservative and slightly cautious community, which shies away from taking bold stands. The panic and the turmoil in the community are partly the community’s doing. He noted that in spite of the shortcoming, the Armenian community is the best organized among the 11 Christian communities of the city.
The prelate further noted that the Syrian-Armenian community is an inherent and integral part of Syria and hence assumes its share of the burden of the calamity that has afflicted the country. He also noted that Syrian-Armenians should have empathy for the suffering of other communities as well. The prelate said the Armenian community leadership does not abdicate its responsibility toward its own and sides with no faction and called for all Syrian-Armenians to do the same to safeguard the community.




Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Before Apple There Was Tobacco


(Dedicated to my childhood friend from Keurkune: Ara Ghazarian)
Vahe H. Apelian

Very recently Ara Ghazarian asked me if I have written anything about the cultivation of tobacco (tutun) in Keurkune. I checked my files. In fact, it turned out that I have. Here is what I wrote.



Much like Steve Job’s Apple computers that changed the world, apple revolutionized Keurkune’s way of life and living. The transition to apple was not seamless and did not come about without hardship. The fields that became the orchards were used primarily to produce two essential yearly crops to make living possible in Keurkune: wheat as a staple for food and tobacco as the only source of cash revenue. Keurkunetsis teamed, pulled their resources together, braved the years waiting the newly planted apple orchards to come of age to produce the apple.
The cultivation of silkworm in Kessab, for all practical purposes, had subsided if not ceased after the genocide. Tobacco cultivation most likely started in greater Kessab after the First World War, in early 1920’s, during the French mandate, when France became the colonial ruler of Syria and Lebanon. The trade in tobacco was the monopoly of the French in Syria. The tobacco growers could only sell their product to “regie”, which became a household word in Kessab. Incidentally, Wikipedia defines regie as a kind of government monopoly (tobacco, salt, etc.).
The monopolized trade in tobacco in Kessab went this way. Kessabtsis would plant the tobacco. As the plant started growing, at some point officials came and gave an estimate of how much tobacco the field was expected to produce and thus they set a quota. The grower was expected to meet the quota. If the quota were not met, the grower would be severely penalized forfeiting all profits.
Growing tobacco was a messy business. Tobacco was first germinated. I have no recollection of that phase. It was then transplanted to the fields until it matured. The matured leaves were harvested and were brought home and needled through their stem on long needles. Once the needle was full, the leaves were pulled to the string threaded to the long needle. A wooden hook would have been fastened at the end of the string. When the string, in turn, was full of tobacco leaves, it was detached from the needle and another hook was tied. The string laded with tobacco leaves was then hanged on wooden racks made up of parallel wooden bars placed the strings’ length apart. The rack full of tobacco leaves was left outside for drying.
Needling tobacco was a communal affair. Families came together, sat around the huge pile of tobacco leaves, and wore an overall because tobacco leaves left a sticky mass on the hands and on the dress. My grandparents teamed up with their khnamis, uncle Josephs’s brother-in-law Asadour and in-laws Norits and Lydia. I would also join them. I was the first grandchild of my grandparents and my paternal grandparents dotted on me. My maternal grandmother made sure that at the end of the summer when I returned to Beirut, I returned a few pounds heavier. That is why I was always given the easiest part of the needling; the pile of large leaves. The large leaves naturally have larger stems making needling much easier and lessening the chance of pricking the index or the middle finger as the leaves on the needle were pulled on the string mostly with the aid of these two finders. Anytime anyone of them pulled a large leaf from the pile, it would be thrown in front of me.
Needling the large pile of leaves would last long, a whole day if not more. Meanwhile, food would be cooking on the fireplace. Electricity had not reached Keurkune yet. Thus there were no radios. Even transistor radios, if available, had not reached Keurkune. But there would be no need for them. There would be a lot of light-hearted and mundane chatter going on.
After all the tobacco leaves were thus stringed and hung across the racks; they were left in the open air for drying. Moisture, God forbid rain, damaged tobacco leaves. Any time when there was the slightest likelihood that it might rain, the stringed tobacco leaves were collected from the racks and brought home and hanged inside until the weather was judged dry enough to put them out again for drying. I remember one night my grandfather suddenly woke up and asked us to bring the tobacco leaves inside. He had suspected that it might rain.
 I had always remained under the impression that tobacco was dried in open air until, in my late teens, I saw the movie “A Summer Place”, the iconic move classic by Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee. Tobacco in the movie was cultivated under cover and dried indoors with heat. Keurkunets relied on nature. They cultivated tobacco in the open air and dried its leaves in the open air.
Once the tobacco was dried, they were bundled up and weighed. Should the weight fall below the set quota, the Keurkunetsi would look to supplement by purchasing tobacco from the neighboring Turkmen villages. Decades have come and gone by since those days and to this day, whenever I recall those days with a child’s apprehension, I wonder. Why was it that the Keurkunetsis usually could not meet their quotas, while the Turkmen villages would have surplus tobacco? Were the inspectors friendlier to them? The Keurkuenetsis would make an arrangement with the Turkmen and in the cover of night they would head to their village and bring dried tobacco home. Then there came the art of bundling them together in such a way that upon inspection, the purchased tobacco would not stand up from the rest.
Smoking was not uncommon in Keurkune but it was ceremonial. Villagers kept a stock of the best leaves for their enjoyment. The leaves were first minced with sharp knives, fluffed up and kept in a tin tobacco case. The minced tobacco was placed on a thin paper held between the two fingers. The paper was then moistened with licking and rolled into a cigarette.
Kids were always tempted to smoke too. It wasn’t easy at all to get hold of the precious tobacco leaves. There was another source of smoking for kids, dried sentzgan leaves. It is a plant that grows in the wild and probably belongs to the tobacco family. Its leaves are small, the size of olive oil leaves, but sticky much like the larger tobacco leaves and dry like tobacco leaves. I can safely claim that all the kids growing up in Keurkune have tried smoking it in their youth. And when the word came to us kids, that cotton tipped cigarettes had come around we tempted to wrap cotton at the tip of paper without much success.
Apple, for all practical purpose, wiped tobacco planting in Keurkune, ushering the village into a new era.



Monday, April 2, 2018

Under the Same Roof

(Lest it will be forgotten)
Vahe H. Apelian

I spent my teenage summers in Keurkune, Kessab in our paternal grandparents’ house with them and with my Uncle Joseph and his family as one extended family. In fact, my brother Garo spent a year or two in his early childhood in Keurkune year around.
My paternal grandfather Stepan had become the natural inheritor of the family’s ancestral house, as he was the only survivor.  The house is built with double layered stones. On the outside, the walls remained uncovered and each stone block remained visible. The inner surfaces of the outer walls and as well as the inner walls partitioning the rooms were covered with a special mix the villagers made to plaster the walls. It was a mix of minced wheat stalk and clay that put a heavy white to off-white plaster coat on the walls. In hindsight, I realize that the coat acted as an excellent insulator against cold and moisture. On one of the inner walls, there was a cavity that probably was made by design by not placing a stone there. The cavity served as the treasury of the Keurkune’s church where my grandfather kept the meager Sunday offerings of nickels and dimes in a tin can. 
The width of the outside walls is such that, as a kid, I used to sit on the window sill and gaze at the mountains. The windows had wooden panels for cover but no glass. The floor and the ceiling were made of wood. Wooden logs extended from wall to wall. On these wooden logs, wood panels were fastened. Some, if not most, of the ceiling logs were blackened over time. It was said that the blackening was also due to the attempted torching of the house. Turks, who had taken over the house after forcing the local Armenians out had attempted to torch the house when they vacated the region and fled as The World War I was ending with the defeat of Turkey that would lead to the dismemberment of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. Among the blackened wooden logs across the ceiling, a few silkworm cocoons had remained lodged. They were yellowed a bit but remained very visible against blackened logs. My grandparents had raised silkworms at one time.
 The roof of the house was covered with special blue dirt the villagers called "kuyrock". There were a few quarries in the vicinity of the village that yielded this bluish stone. These blue stones are light and easily crushed. They were overlaid on the roof and rolled over with a big round stone that used to be found on the roof of each house. During rain, the roof would leak at times. The next day I would see my grandfather laying more blue dirt at the spots and go over them with the roller.
The house, much like the other houses of the village, had a special place for clay water jars. My grandfather filled the earthen jars with water he fetched from the spring. It was my treat to have him seated me on the saddle of our donkey on the way to spring. He fetched the water in four tin containers. Two tin cans were placed on each side of the saddle. After he filled the tin cans with water, he capped them with small gasli - laurel – tree branches with leaves on them. On our return, I would trail the donkey with him. At home, he poured water from a tin can into the two earthen jars we had at home. As I grew older I could tilt the jars myself and fill the brass cup we kept next to the jars. We all drank from the same brass cup. Water from the jar remained refreshingly cool to drink. I later learned that it is due to evaporation as the clay jars were porous and they would ‘sweat’ and evaporation kept the water surprisingly fresh and cool to drink, in a natural cooling process, during the hottest days of the summer.
Almost every room of the house had a fireplace. My grandmother and Aunt Asdghig prepared food on the fireplace in the room we used as the kitchen and the dining room. The fireplace in the other rooms was used for warmth during the cold days of the winter. At times my grandmother would cook in these rooms as well. Smoke coming from the chimney of a house meant life. Woo (վայ) to the house that had no smoke coming from its chimney. Hence comes the common Armenian expression we use to this day: Moukh Marel, մուխը Մարել (extinquish one’s smoke).
 The house is two stories high and each floor was an almost exact replicate of the other with a center hall with a door opening into each of the four rooms on the second floor. Two rooms of the first floor did not have a door that opened to the central hall and could only be accessed through its adjoining front room, each of which had a door that opened to the central hall. For a while, we used the lower right-hand side room as the kitchen and the dining room. We sat on the floor around a round floor table. A kerosene lamp illuminated the table during dinner. Its adjoining inner room was used to store hay for the animals. We called the room hartanots.
For many years the lower left-hand side room, which also had a door that opened to the courtyard, served as the stable along with its adjoining inner room and housed our chicken, donkey, and cows. The ceiling of this front room that served as the stable i.e. the floor of the upper room had collapsed during the baptism of my father and had remained unfinished up to my early teens. Therefore I would view, by looking down the door on the second floor, the stable below on the first floor. I have seen our cow give birth to a calf there and our chicken nest and end up with colorful chicks that immerged from the eggs to my utter impatience and periodic checking with my grandmother. These naturally raised chicks were colorful and beautiful indeed, unlike the dull off-white colored chicks grown commercially nowadays. The animals and we lived under the same roof.
The courtyard was walled. The oven – toneer – was located on the right-hand side of the entrance. Further to its right was the outhouse. My grandmother baked bread in the oven.  Every week she would prepare the dough a day before and make a cross sign on the dough and cover it to ferment. The next day she would bake the bread by plastering the handful pieces of wetted dough on the inner side of the upright oven heated by burning sticks.  It was customary for us kids to visit the ovens of the village after the baking was over to fish charred bread pieces remaining on the inner wall of the oven. We called these charred and blackened pieces of bread kurmush. Charred as they were, but they tasted great! Later on, my Uncle Joseph had a bakery erected on the same spot and operated it for many years. He ran the bakery once a week and more often during Christmas and Easter. The villagers would bring their dough there to bake bread or the different pastries they made on special occasions.
There was a mulberry tree in the courtyard, a remnant of those days when they raised silkworms. The tree also supported the grapevine that gave succulent red-colored grapes we called ouzoumlek. These types of grapes are not used to make grape molasses and are only for consumption as fruit for dessert.
The courtyard would become busy in the evening as our grandfather returned from the fields. The cows would be milked and then driven to the staple. The chickens would naturally head there in the evening and get their sleep above ground on logs. My grandmother would collect the eggs the hen laid. She could tell that a hen had laid an egg by the hen’s vocalization during the day. I later learned that hens lay eggs only during the day. That is why the lights remain on day and night over the commercial coops for hens to continue laying eggs day and night.
The house had a wooden balcony on the second floor. Spectacular view came into view from the balcony and the far ends of historical Antioch where Apostle Paul reached proclaiming the Good News. An invisible border separated Syria from Turkey.  Parts of the serpentine road that connected the region to the world beyond also came into view. We used to call the road zivti Jampa, which means the paved road. It was then the only road in the region that was paved and connected Kessab to the outside world. I believe the road was laid and paved by the French during their colonial rule over Syria after the First World War.
Our grandfather Stpean was born in 1897 and was driven out in 1915. He never alluded to the house as having built after he was born. In all probability, the house was built in the later part of the 19th century. The house is well over 100 years old and bridges three centuries, 19th to 21st. The house had remained as it was up to my early teens. Additions and renovations have changed the house. However, the main structure of the house is the same as a testament to its solid stone foundation. Rarely has a house remained with an Armenian family for over 100 years. I am not sure if our paternal grandfather was born and raised there, but three generations of his descendants were born in there: my father Hovhannes and uncle Joseph, my cousins, both of whom studied in the American Universit of Beirut. Stepan, studied agriculture  and Ara studied medicine; and Stepan’s children Tsolag, an engineer with a Ph.D. degree, Shoghag and Hovag, still in high school, being the last.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Aram Manougian

Aram Manougian
By Mattheos Eblighatian
Translated by Vahe H. Apelian
Edited by Jack Chelebian, M.D.


This segment is from Mattheos Eblighatian’s book titled, “A Life in the Life of My Nation”. His sons Melkon, M.D. and Krikor, Attorney at Law, have edited the book  (1987). The chapter is titled “Aram Manougian”. In 1913 Mattheos Eblighatian was appointed prosecutor general in Van. The community leaders in Istanbul had told him that only Aram and Ishkhan are authorized to contact him in Van with caution.


“Before reaching a resolution of the case, one evening, around 10:30 pm, I was busy studying the dossier when the maid informed me that a visitor by name of Manougian wanted to see me.
At the beginning, the name did not ring a bell. When I looked at the maid quizzically, she said – “It’s Aram Pasha”.
Of course, with much interest, I welcomed the man whose activities in Van constituted the crux of the people’s daily conversations.
He was a bit taller than mid-height, with a thick mustache; broad-shouldered, and looked between 30 to 40 years of age. He was the exact opposite of Ishkhan. From the very first sight, he left a good impression. From the beginning, our conversation took such a turn as if we had known each other for many years.
Alluding to the assassination of the dentist, he noted:
“You left us in an awkward situation. Fortunately a week ago I received a letter from Zartarian, which was a relief. We like people who are cautious, but you took it a bit to an extreme by not keeping any contact with us - and noted smiling – that such an extreme disassociation could have had unpleasant consequences. Zartarian, at your urging also advises us to be cautious. I was waiting for the past few nights for you to be alone for an opportune time to visit you”.
-                “How did you find out that I was alone?’ I asked lightheartedly.
-                “From the maid”, he answered.
Of course, it had not occurred to me until that day, that in my house, I lived under the surveillance of the Tashnagsoutium (Armenian Revolutionary Federation).
It was well past midnight when Aram departed. In those two hours, he amply elaborated on the situation in the countryside and naturally dwelt upon issues that had to do with the judiciary. “Presently the pressing issue – he said – is the retaliation for the assassination of the teacher Raphael. The organization has dealt severely with the perpetrators. A few persons have been apprehended because of it”. Naturally, I promised to study their case.  He also elaborated to a great extent on their mutual relations with the governor. Both sides had established good relations with each other and were keen on keeping the relations on track.
I was extremely appreciative of this candid conversation with Aram because it was important for me to know as how to proceed under certain circumstances. We came to an understanding of my future relations with them. I was to deal only with Aram and Ishkhan and those seeking my assistance should contact me only through either one of them.
And it became that way to the very end. Issues that had to do with the judiciary would be addressed to me by Aram and often in my office. This was not something that would raise any concern for anyone. Aram had free access from the governor’s office to every other official’s. Everyone’s issues would land squarely on his lap. In the market, there would always be a crowd around him. Most of them were villagers whose issues it would become Aram’s to resolve. Let it not surprise anyone when I note that I first heard these things from the governor himself, who visited me a few evenings every month. In close circles, the governor would lavish much praise on Aram’s legendary austerity. He would tell me that the majority of the salary Aram received from the educational department of the Akhtamar region; he spent preparing the pleas the villagers addressed to the government. There would be days when he absolutely had no money is his pocket. There also would be days when he would not have had any food, being so engrossed in his myriad tasks that he would not have the time to think about food.
Indeed, I also ascertained later that at times he did not seem to know whether he was hungry or not. He liked to drink tea without sugar. At times he would place a cube of sugar in his mouth and drink tea that way. When he happened to be in the court at lunchtime we would have something to eat together. I realized that he had lost the habit of having lunch with regularity. That would become more obvious to me when he would have his lunch with me in the evenings. He had a sociable, lively, and a cheerful temperament. But when it came to national issues, Aram’s demeanor would completely change; he would speak forcefully and at times roar like a lion.
As I said earlier, Aram and the Governor cultivated an amicable relationship and both wanted to keep it that way. But there were instances when that relationship would cool down, even got strained, because of disagreements about general or specific issues. The most important issue of contention between the two had to do with the Kurds.  Much can be said about the Armenian-Turkish, Armenian-Kurdish, and Turkish-Kurdish relations. Discussing them would take us far and beyond. Suffice to note a few words to shed light on the issues mentioned here.
It is well known that three nations cohabit on our native land, Armenians, Kurds, and Turks. In spite of the fact that the latter was the newcomer and a minority, the Turks had become the ruler of the land and had established themselves firmly. In the beginning, the demography was not what it is presently. But from the very beginning, the Turks had strived to make the Turks the majority in any area. The Turks, who did not discriminate in the means to achieve their goal, had initially acted with total impunity. Massive massacres, displacements, forced Islamization (i.e. Turkification), devshirme, that is to say rounding up four to five years old Christian boys and raising them as Islamized Janissaries and resorting to administrative gerrymandering so that the Turks would become the majority in any province. For example, geographically Hadjin and Zeitoun were not far from each other but each was in a different administrative area, with one being incorporated in the province of Adana while the other in Aleppo. In the same manner, the Armenian inhabited Van was tied to the Kurdish Hakkari and both were incorporated in the province of Van.
The basic policy of the Turks was “divide to rule”.
The situation with the Kurds was different. The government did not move against them with the same zeal. Foremost, the Kurds were Muslims. Consequently, they were spared from the calamities that befell upon the Armenian, and thus, over time, had grown in number. The government was unable to subjugate the multiparous and multifarious Kurds, and hence was obliged to treat them differently although the aim remained the same, that is to say, to curtail their number. First, the government encouraged mixed marriages. By marrying a Turkish woman, a Kurd would become cultured and be part of the dominant race. The government opened a lot of opportunities for them and would allow them to exploit and usurp Armenian owned properties and labor without restraint. The second option was creating divisions among the different Kurdish tribes and alternatively siding with one against the other. Thirdly, by incorporating them in the hamidiye (cavalry), where the Kurdish forces were smothened with kindness. These were exercised for so long that they had become second nature to the Turkish officials. It should be noted that the Turkish officials benefited greatly from such treatment.

After the proclamation of the constitution, the situation undeniably changed. For the Kurds, subjugating the Armenian with impunity became much more difficult although not impossible. Kurds lost some of the ill-gotten gains they had, and the Turks’ influence was diminished. The Armenians gained some freedom to maneuver and out of necessarily took matters into their own hands to respond to the daily realities they faced.
It also became clear that the Kurdish menace did not have final and un-remediable consequences. Ishkhan would explain as follows. During the Hamidian period, the Armenian villagers hardly survived living hand to mouth existence and did not have an extra loaf of bread to offer to the hungry Armenian freedom fighters – fedayees – roaming on the mountains. During the few years of the Constitution, when the Armenian villagers could at the very least harvest what they planted, their misery had noticeably diminished and life had become much more tolerable. Of course, there were a lot of land disputes remaining from the Hamidian period that needed resolution. There was the issue of security that was paramount with the Armenian leadership.  That is to say how to curtail the massacres of the yesteryears when the Turkish government continued to encourage the Kurds and at times even joined them with arms to punish the “traitor Armenian infidels”.
The Armenians naturally did not want the Kurds to remain instruments in the hands of the Turks to be used against them. The Turks on the other hand, having their long-term goals in mind, always looked for ways and means to pit the Kurds against the Armenians. For this very reason, the Governor persecuted fiercely unruly Kurdish bandits but encouraged the Kurds who attempted to subjugate the defenseless Armenians. The Turkish government aimed to make impossible fostering any amicable relationship between the Kurds and the Armenians. Thus, there were inevitable sharp differences between Aram and the Governor regarding such issues vital to the Armenians.