Tag Archives: Armenians

The duck and okra and Armenian massacre chapter from Loxandra — “shit happens” — my translation

4 Sep

It’s actually hard to say which came first: whether Maria Iordanidou’s Loxandra was the first literary manifestation of the archetype of a Greek woman of Istanbul, or whether life imitated art and Politisses started unconsciously behaving like Loxandra.  Joyful, funny, hovering and caring around all her loved ones but even strangers – even Turks – worldly for her degree of education and fundamentally cosmopolitan if even unawares, obsessed with good food, and always finding happiness and beauty and pleasure in the world, despite her people’s precarious position in their wider environment.

Iordanidou’s novel captures more perfectly than any other literary representation what Patricia Storace has called the “voluptuous domesticity” that Greeks associate with life in Anatolia and Constantinople.  But what’s always moved me and struck me as so intelligent about the novel — each of the some ten or more times I’ve read it — is that it’s not all fun-and-games and yalancı dolma and Apokries in Tatavla and Politika nazia.  Right along side the pleasure and humor rides a brutally honest portrayal of the “tolerant” and “diverse” Ottoman society that is a favorite fantasy of certain progressives, on both Greek and Turkish sides of the coin.  Iordanidou doesn’t fall into that trap, just as she doesn’t fall into the alternate trap of portraying all Turks as murderous animals, along the lines of Dido Soteriou’s Matomena Homata (Bloodied Lands) or Veneze’s Aeolike Ge (Aeolian Earth).  She simply goes for the starkest realism: Ottoman Turks/Muslims and their subject peoples didn’t live together in harmony but rather lived in parallel universes that rarely intersected; the novel takes place at a time when – as Petros Markares points out in his essay in the book’s latest edition – “life was heaven for the minorities and hell for Muslims.”  But even in that paradise, when the two parallel universes collided, the result was hellish for everyone.

I’ve translated the chapter that takes place during the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in 1896, particularly the shockingly urban episode that occurred in Istanbul.  In August of that year, the Dashnaks, Armenian freedom-fighters-cum-terrorists took hostages at the Ottoman Bank in Karaköy and the operation turned into a mini-civil-battle with groups of Armenians and Turks taking up position on either side of the Galata Bridge. 

From Wiki:

Massacres:

Retribution against the ordinary Armenian populace in Constantinople was swift and brutal. Ottomans loyal to the government began to massacre the Armenians in Constantinople itself. Two days into the takeover, the Ottoman softas and bashibazouks, armed by the Sultan, went on a rampage and slaughtered thousands of Armenians living in the city.[11] According to the foreign diplomats in Constantinople, Ottoman central authorities instructed the mob “to start killing Armenians, irrespective of age and gender, for the duration of 48 hours.”[12] The killings only stopped when the mob was ordered to desist from such activity by Sultan Hamid.[12] They murdered around 6,000[1] – 7,000 Armenians. Within 48 hours of the bank seizure, estimates had the dead numbering between 3,000 and 4,000, as authorities made no effort to contain the killings of Armenians and the looting of their homes and businesses.

Loxandra and her family live through the massacring of their Armenian neighbors in Pera in terror, hiding inside their shuttered house for a week, till they finally run out of water and have to start interacting with the neighborhood vendors.  Iordanidou does take a swipe at Turkish passivity and fatalism though in the closing part of the chapter as Loxandra hears repeatedly from the Turkish merchants she has to deal with, in reference to the killing: “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”  This “Yağnış oldu” chimes like a bell or rather a kick in the gut on the chapter’s last page.  Thousands dead, “their homes looted, their churches destroyed… Yağnış oldu”

Shit happens, in other words.

Loxandra soon starts to forget, or at least pretends to.  In the end, the chapter is a disturbing look at the compromises we make in order to go on living with the Other, despite the evil he may have done you, or you him.  Otherwise life would be intolerable.  For “…too much sorrow doth to madness turn…” Loxandra concludes in the final sentence.

Loxandra: Chapter 5

Glory be to God, because To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to be born, and a time to die…a time to break down, and a time to build up…”

Loxandra just figured that for her to suddenly find herself living in the Crossroad*(1) that meant that her time had come and that this had to be her world from now on.  She accepted her new life the way that she accepted Demetro’s death.  What can you do?  That’s how that is.

The Crossroad was nothing like Makrochori, and the beautiful old life she had there – it was like a scissor had come and snipped it off — slowly became a sweet receding dream.  Cleio started to yearn for twilight in Makrochori, the sky, the sea, their garden and the shade of their plane tree.  She had even lost her father’s library, because during the move to Pera, Theodore had pilfered most of it and now all she was left with were Kassiane, Pikouilo Ali Ağa and Witnesses at a Wedding.  She started to avoid the cosmopolitan life of Pera, which she at first had thought heavenly, and she lamented her lost paradise.  Exactly opposite to her mother.

Because Loxandra never wept for lost heavens.  Nor did she ever go in search of joy.  It was joy that went in search of Loxandra.  And it would usually pop up in the most unexpected moments.  The angel would suddenly descend and stir the waters in the fount of the Virgin of Baloukli and for Loxandra it was like she had been baptized anew.

Glory be to God.  And great be the grace of the Virgin.

The fat little ducklings of August and the okra make good eating.  It’s a sin to let August pass without eating ducklings with the okra.

So on the eve of the Virgin’s Loxandra bought ducklings to cook them with the okra, and despite her exhaustion, she went down into the kitchen to start preparing the birds.  She was especially tired because the day before she had stocked up fuel for the winter.  She filled the cellar with charcoal, and then she’d call the Kurds to come hack up the lumber she would use for the stoves.

In the City at that time, just as your milkman was Bulgarian, your fishmonger Armenian, your baker from Epiros, so your lumber supplier was a Kurd.  So Loxandra called the “Kiurtides” to come chop up her winter stock of lumber.  Early in early morn’ — όρθρου βαθέος — they would dump a good thirty “chekia” of tree trunks and thick boughs and then the Kurds would come, brawny giants from deep in Anatolia in salwar and black kerchiefs wound around their fezzes and with their shiny, well-sharpened cleavers to chop up the wood.  The Kurds were meraklides when it came to their blades.  Even all the way in his village in the depths of Kurdistan, the Kurd could never be separated from his cleaver, and when the time came for him to emigrate his mother would present his cleaver to her son, the way a Spartan woman gave her son his shield.  And when a young Kurd got to an age of fourteen or fifteen and started feeling the first longings of his youth, he never took flowers in hand.  Instead he’d take his knife and go about the mahalades crying out: “Dertim var, dertim”… “I’m in pain, in longing” and would look around to see if any of the shutters or windows all about would open.  The young girl that would first answer his call would open her window and cry: “Dertine kurban olurum”, meaning “I’ll sacrifice myself to your longings”.  And the young man would exclaim: “Bende baltaim burada vururum”, meaning “And so I nail my knife here.” Then he went home and sent his mother to retrieve his knife and at the same time, get to know her future daughter-in-law.

That’s how important the cleaver was for a Kurd.  And you’d be better off cursing out his Prophet rather than saying anything offensive about his cleaver.

Loxandra was afraid of Kurds, just the way she was afraid of Turks.  But when it came to important things like her yearly supply of firewood, well…there was no holding her back nor kid gloves to wear in treating them:

“Does this fit, you son-of-a-dog?” she’d yell, suddenly fearless and waving a big, bulky knot of wood above the Kurd’s head.  “Does this fit, bre, in my stove?”

She would get so angry that she almost might have said something about his cleaver.

But oddly enough the Kurds never got angry and never felt insulted by her, and would do any favor she wanted.  They would stack the chopped up lumber in her cellar and their departure was always warm and accompanied by the usual güle güle and reciprocal good wishes and a light winter, may-it-be, and here…take this for your little boy and here take this for your wife, and all the rest.

That night, Loxandra was exhausted and all night long she saw bizarre dreams of sharp meat cleavers and a big butcher’s block piled with chopped meat.  She just attributed the dreams to her experiences that day with the Kurds.  “Oh”, she thought upon waking: “Ιησούς Χριστός Νικά” “Jesus Christ Victor”…and she went down into the kitchen to brown the ducklings.

How could she know what the future had in store for them?  How could she know that the treaty that was signed eighteen years before in San Stefano had been revised and revised again so that Bulgaria could be an autonomous state, Romania and Montenegro were now independent, Russia took Kars and Ardahan and Batumi, Britain took Cyprus, Greece got Thessaly and a part of Epiros, but the Armenians got nothing out of all that had been promised to them, and they started an uprising, so that Sultan Hamid roused up his people, and he brought Kurds with their cleavers and they had organized a massacre of Armenians…right there…in the middle of the streets of the City…on the eve of a feast day like this…the Assumption of the Virgin…  How could she possibly know all of that?

So, blissful and clueless, she went down to prepare the ducklings, and she was in a happy mood, but in just such a good mood that morning.  The day before they had received a letter from Giorgaki asking for Cleio’s hand in marriage.  The letter was a bit nutty, but what was important is that he wanted to marry Cleio.  It started like this:

“In these difficult moments my mind races to you and only you, my refuge and haven, my peaceful port…”

And riding on that inspiration – and drunk – Giorgaki wrote that he missed his boat and that he had gotten stuck in Genoa with Epaminonda, alone and abandoned and penniless, because, being human, they had had a bit to drink to forget their dertia and night had fallen on them in the alleyways of Genoa, and in the dark Epaminonda had started bugging a Catholic priest: …psss…psss…thinking he was a woman, and the neighbors had gotten all riled up and Epaminonda had gotten arrested, but the Greek consul in the city was a countryman of Giorgaki’s and he got the authorities to release Epaminonda from the holding pen, and in a few days the consul would put them on a ship to Constantinople to celebrate the engagement — that is, if Loxandra accepted him as a son-in-law.  And before closing, he added: “My lips will never again touch even a single drop of alcohol.”

How could she not be happy?!  She set the pan on the fire and as soon as the birds started to soften up, she tasted the sauce to check the salt.  Suddenly she heard the stomp of running feet in the street.

Bre, Tarnana, get up and go out and see what’s going on”, she said to him.

But Tarnana was too tired to go see because to see he had to climb up onto the sink because the kitchen was in the basement. So all he could see the was the sight of running feet.  But Loxandra grabbed a chair for herself and climbed on top of it to get a better view.  And what does she see?  A Kurd with his cleaver in hand was trying to break down the door of Monsieur Artin.(**2)

HA!  The bloody dog, may-a-wretched-year-befall-him!

She got down off the chair and grabbed the large soup ladle.

“Just wait and see what I’ll do to him!”

She gathered up her skirts and ran up the stairs.  But she came crashing into Cleio.

“It’s a massacre, mother, a massacre!” cried Cleio in a semi-faint.

Loxandra paid her no mind.

“What massacre shmassacre you talking about, bre?  Some Kurd is looking to break down Monsieur Artin’s door. Get outta my way!”

Sultana came down too and along with Cleio and Tarnana they stuffed up her mouth so that her cries couldn’t be heard on the street.  They closed the shutters and they all hid in the charcoal cellar.

But even in the cellar you could hear the blows from the street, the running feet, and the dying cries of the wounded.  There would be a short few moments of quiet and then it would start again.  Any time there was a bit of silence, Loxandra would grab her ladle.

“It’s just the Kurds for heaven’s sake, may-the-Devil-take-them-and-carry-them-off! Let me go see what’s happening!”

When the frenzy finally stopped an employee from Thodoros’ office came to bring them some groceries and to see how they were.  He said there had been a mass slaughter of Armenians but that no Greeks had been hurt unless they were harboring Armenians in their house, and Thodoro sent the message that God forbid anyone find out you’ve got Tarnana in the house.  In the Crossroad things had calmed down, but the killing was continuing in the suburbs.

That was enough to finally scare Loxandra and she hid Tarnana under her bed.  She was afraid to get near the window or even open the shutters.  The street vendors started to come by as usual.  The salepçi (***3) came by.  The offal-vendor came by, and as soon as they smelled him the cats started growling.  She locked them up in the charcoal cellar.  “Shut up, bre, they’ll come and cut your throats too.”  The milkman came and knocked.  No one inside made a sound.  We’ll do without milk.  Drink tea.  But on the seventh day the water supplier came by and she had to open up because they were running out.  Hüseyn came in limping and emptied two goatskins into the clay amphora they stored water in. 

Hüseyn says good bye sweetly and soon the egg-seller comes knocking on her window.

“Kokona (****4), Aren’t you going to buy any eggs?”

Loxandra cracked open the window, took a look at him, and thought: “Could my egg-vendor Mustafa be a Hagarene Dog (*****5) too?”

The next morning the street watchman came by to say hello, expecting his usual cup of coffee.

Haydi, Tarnana, make him some coffee.”

She opened up the front door and sat on the steps, thinking again: “Is he or isn’t he?”  Finally she couldn’t contain herself:

Bre, Mehmet, I want you to tell me the truth, but, I mean, I want the truth, ok?  Were you out on the street the other day with the killings?  But tell me the truth.”

“Valah! Billah!  Mehmet wasn’t involved.”

“Oooff… And I was going to say…” And she began to sob.  “Why such madness?  What did poor Monsieur Artin do to them and they slaughtered him like that?  No, Tell me!  What did he do?”

“Vah, vah, vah”, Mehmet said.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the liver vendor a bit later.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the chickpea vendor too. “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”

Some ten, some twenty thousand people were murdered.  Their homes were looted.  Their churches destroyed.  Whole families were wiped out…“yağnış oldu.”

The dogs licked the blood off the sidewalks and life started again as if nothing had happened.

Tarnana came out from under the bed too, Elegaki came over too and they all got together in the kitchen to prepare the sweets for Cleio’s engagement.  Loxandra wiped her tears and made sweet out of sorrow, because that’s how that is.  And let me tell you something, too much sorrow doth to madness turn.  I mean, there are limits!

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*(1) The Crossroad, Το Σταυροδρόμι, (above) is what Greeks called the spot in central Pera where the now Istiklâl Caddesi (the Isio Dromo or the Grande Rue) intersects with the steep uphill Yeni Çarşı Caddesi (never understood what the New Market, which is what Yeni Çarşı means, refers to) coming from Karaköy, and the Meşrutiyet Caddesi which then takes a curve at the British consulate and ends up — now — in one of the most dismal urban plazas in Istanbul and a run-down convention center, that were built over a pleasant little park that was built in turn over an old Catholic cemetery. Mercifully, one side of the street is still architecturally intact and you still get one of the most splendid views of the Horn and the western part of the Old City from there. By the Gates of Galatasaray Lycée, that’s still the starting place for demonstrations and protests — whatever are allowed, anyway… By the Cité de Pera arcade and the central fish market (never understood why the fish market is up at the top of one of Istanbul’s hills and not on the seafront somewhere) that is full of both trashy, touristy restaurants and really good meyhane finds as well, once almost all owned by Greeks and Armenians.

If Pera is the center of Istanbul, the Crossroad is the center of Pera. And in Greek usage it meant the whole surrounding neighborhood as well.

The old Meşrutiyet Caddesi
The Gates of Galatasaray

(**2) Artin immediately registers to a Greek-speaker as an Armenian name.

(***3) Salep (Salepçi is a salep vendor) is a hot drink made from ground dried orchid tubers, milk I think, and cinnamon on top. It’s supposedly fortifying — in what way common decency prevents me from saying — but aside from the fact that “orchid” comes from the Indo-European root for “testicle” (as in “αρχίδια,” or as in “στα αρχίδια μου”) the finished drink has a slightly creepy, slippery texture and translucent color that definitely reminds one of semen. I happen to really like it, but I don’t know if that’s just because of its status as a historical remnant or oddity. You can find it in Athens too, like on Ermou, still. But it’s a hot drink, meant for wintery consumption, so it’s weird for Iordanidou to have a salepçi coming around on the street in the middle of August.

(4****) “Kokona” is a term used in historical literature to address not just Christian women, but Greek women, Ρωμιές “Roman” women, specifically. It’s never used to address Armenian or Jewish women, for example. It appears in literature and various accounts dating from even early Ottoman times. In the Byzantine Museum here in Athens (the name of which, at some point recently, was changed to the Byzantine and Christian Museumin case we forget that Byzantium was a Christian culture 🙄) there are several pieces of ecclesiastic embroidery: priests’ stoles, Epitaphio shrouds — that date from the 16th and 17th century, and are attributed to specific women: Kokona Angela, Kokona Marigo, so it was more than just a slang term of address. No one I know can tell me the root of the word, nor can anyone say why it was used just for Greek women and not other gâvur/kaffr women.

(5*****) “Hagarene Dogs”Αγαρηνά Σκυλιά – is an obviously unpleasant term used as far back as mid-Byzantine times to refer to Arabs/Muslims. The rub — as Hamlet would say — is that it was the first peninsular Arabs and Muslims who themselves identified with the term. Hagar, as we know, was the slave wife of Abraham, who bore him a child, Ishmael, because his own wife, Sarah, was already 80 years old plus and unable to have a child. Then the angels came to visit and told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a child; Sarah heard from the kitchen and laughed. But indeed, she did bear him a son, Isaac. And Abraham promptly tossed Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert, but they were saved by an angel that descended and struck the ground out of which a fresh spring of water gushed:

Hājar or Haajar (Arabic: هاجر), is the Arabic name used to identify the wife of Ibrāhīm (Abraham) and the mother of Ismā’īl (Ishmael). Although not mentioned by name in the Qur’an, she is referenced and alluded to via the story of her husband. She is a revered woman in the Islamic faith.

According to Muslim belief, she was the Egyptian handmaiden of Ibrāhīm’s first wife Sara (Sarah). She eventually settled in the Desert of Paran with her son Ismā’īl. Hājar is honoured as an especially important matriarch of monotheism, as it was through Ismā’īl that Muhammad would come. [my emphasis]

Neither Sara nor Hājar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, but the story is traditionally understood to be referred to in a line from Ibrāhīm’s prayer in Sura Ibrahim (14:37): “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.”[20] While Hājar is not named, the reader lives Hājar’s predicament indirectly through the eyes of Ibrāhīm.[21] She is also frequently mentioned in the books of hadiths.

I have no idea why early Arabs chose — not that it was a conscious process, but being unconscious makes its function even more powerful — out of all of Jewish scripture, to consider themselves and Muhammad (all together now: Peace be upon him) descended from a scorned slave woman and her unwanted son, especially given how Ishmael is described in Genesis:

Genesis 16:12 “He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him.”

Unless “a wild man” suited their needs. Almost to an archetypal degree, conquest narratives justify themselves as retribution for a historical wrong, or as a necessary process by which the morally and ethically superior impose themselves on the inferior: from the Israelites and Canaan, to the Romans taking revenge for their defeated Trojan ancestors, to the Turkic Conquest of Rum and the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, to the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, to American Manifest Destiny, to Nazi lebensraum to the current Islamist and Turanian rantings of Mister Erdoğan and the bitchy historical insults he’s constantly hurling our way.

So the Hagar and Ishmael story might be perfect soil for the sprouting of Sunni Muslim triumphalism. And if that triumphalism hits the wall of modernity and suddenly finds itself not in charge anymore, if the triumph narrative doesn’t go the way it should, well then we get the Nietzschean man of resentment and we can talk about that forever. But the prophecy that “He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him.” certainly seems to have been fulfilled, as we find so much of the contemporary Ummah stewing in rage and rancid testosterone and convinced that the purpose of the rest of humanity is to deny them their Allah-given superior place in the sun.

And the rest of us just don’t get it. But their mission is that we do.

And wouldn’t you know, just today, Mr. Erdoğan gives us a Friday sermon that pretty much says it all and in language far less wordy than mine:

“Turkish Conquest Is Not Occupation or Looting – It Is Spreading the Justice of Allah”

Loxandra, of course, doesn’t know any of this. She’s just heard the legends of the “Hagarene Dogs” growling at the walls of the City before the conquest, and imagines them to be real barking dogs who can take human shape and turn into her milkman or egg vendor.

Betty Valasi as Loxandra in the 1980 Greek TV serialization of the novel

And now I need some good salsa, ’cause the legacy of “our parts” — τα μέρη μας — can weigh on you like a glob of hardened lead.

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Photo: Sophia Loren by Ara Güler, Armenian İstanbullu photographer, date unknown

1 Sep

Christ, she was breathtaking…

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X. doesn’t like my post on “The insufferable entitledness of bikers” — or lots of other things I’ve written

12 Nov

…or, how does one react to the tiring self-righteousness of certain left-dudes.

bikes

X. (I want to respect anonymity) is a journalist who I generally like personally, whose work I respect, and whose opinions and judgements about the Middle East I value and find extremely useful; he’s my go-to guy, especially about Lebanon, a country I find particularly fascinating.  But he’s called me a few times too many on what are supposedly my biases, which generally consist — sorry to be crude — of my not being “brown enough”, in a way I find not just a little offensive.

I call it “not-brown-enough” because though his criticisms seem to indicate that he believes I’m on the right side where the oppressed are concerned, he also seems to think that I’m not on the side of those he considers the really and truly oppressed.

For one, he’s patently impatient and irritated by my concern for Middle Eastern Christians — though that’s par for the course when dealing with post-Christian Western intellectuals who, at best, have only traumatic memories of growing up Catholic or Lutheran and see any defense of Christianity as a racist and irrelevant leftover piece of creepy reaction. So for X., someone worrying about the survival of Eastern Christianity seems to be tantamount to being Pat Robertson.  For my part, I don’t think that, being Greek Orthodox, I should have to apologize for caring about the losing battle that eastern Mediterranean Christians are fighting.  (I would take a guess and assume X.’s unspoken attitude basically consists of: “Oh, so many millions are truly suffering and displaced and dying and you’re worried about 60 old Greek ladies in Istanbul”; well, yeah, somebody has to worry about those old Greek ladies in Istanbul too, ok?  No apology).  Nor do I think that I should have to apologize for believing that that battle for survival is real — or apologize for believing that it’s an ancient battle that dates back to the glorious entry of Arabs and Islam into the Greco-Roman-Christian and Sasanian worlds — or apologize for believing that that “entry” was anything but an unalloyed good — or apologize for believing that sectarianism in the region has a long and bloody history way before any blood-letting was caused or provoked by Western colonial powers.  I should probably send him a copy of one of Walter Dalrymple’s early and brilliant books: From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East.

Holy Mountain

But in an exchange about this issue, he had the gall to refer once to what he calls “elite minority supremacism”.  Remember that phrase; it’ll come back to haunt us all.  This means that it’s racist, on some level, and politically incorrect of me, to care about the rights of minorities — Orthodox Christians, Maronites, Jews, Copts, Armenians, the Alawites of Syria, the Shiites of southern Lebanon and the Bekka — when it’s really the Sunni majority of the Levant and Iraq that are the true victims.

Sorry.  The Sunni Muslim majority of the region were the politically, socially and economically privileged majority group until the late nineteenth century and specifically 1918 — that tragic year when Turkey capitulated and the Ummah and Caliphate were humiliated by the boot of the kaffir West.  That tragic humiliation is what left us with the likes of Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, all so enraged and humiliated and boiling over with rancid testosterone.

Granted, not much sympathy from me there.  And the fact that the non-Sunni or non-Muslim minorities of the region might have found that “humiliation” to have been a liberation of sorts, after centuries of discrimination by said Sunnis, seems perfectly natural to me.  There’s a reason Maronites and Syrian Christians turned to France in the mid-nineteenth century and especially after 1860.  There’s a reason Syrian Alawites became the French Mandate’s mercenary force.  There’s a reason Serbs looked — somewhat ambiguously, with their typical wariness and sense that they don’t really need or think they should trust anybody else’s help — to Austria, and that Bulgarians and Armenians looked to an Orthodox Russia for most of the last two centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans and Anatolia.  They took a route that they believed, rightly or not, would give them protection from the ethnic and religious groups that had systematically marginalized and persecuted them.  So the result is that the 20th century and modernity come around and Syrian Alawites become the dominant military and therefore political force in that country.  The 20th century and modernity come around and most Maronites and other Christians in Lebanon are generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Lebanese Muslims.  And there’s a whole set of reasons that the 20th century came around and Ottoman Greeks, Armenians and Jews were also generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Ottoman Muslims except for a small elite.  Is the colonizing West entirely to blame for that too?

What fantasy world do intellectuals and journalists like X. live in, where everyone in the Near East loved each other and lived in harmony until the evil West and its divide-and-conquer policies showed up?  I would love to believe that but it’s just not supported by the historical record.  It’s a common academic trope of intellectuals from the region because it jibes with leftist anti-colonial discourse and it absolves regional players of any responsibility.  (See Ussama Makdisi‘s Aeon article Cosmopolitan Ottomans: European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab worldor Ottoman Cosmopolitanism and the Myth of the Sectarian Middle East, or any of his other work for classic examples of this fictional genre; it’s his forte; he’s made a career of the argument.)

Screen Shot 2019-11-12 at 7.35.58 AM“European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab world”

And wait a minute; let’s backtrack: you discriminate against a minority group; you bar it from conventional access to power and wealth; you confine it to the interstices and margins of your society, and in those interstitial niches they develop the skills and the talent that enable them to survive, and not only to survive, but to come out on top once they’re emancipated — and then that only makes you hate them even more — I’m sorry, but is that not the fucking textbook definition of anti-semitism??!!  Call it “elite minority supremacism” if you like.  It’s the same thing.  And just as nasty, racist and toxic.

Then there was a persnickety exchange about minorities — again — in Turkey this time.  X. disagreed with an eccentric but actually quite informed and smart Byzantinist Brit on Twitter, because he tweeted that “the state of minorities in Turkey is not a good advertisement for dhimmitude”.  “Dhimmi” in Arabic, or “Zimmi” in Turkish and Farsi pronunciation, is a term that specifically — and very specifically — means the non-Muslim subjects of an Islamic state.  X. thought that it was “epistemologically sloppy” of him to refer to the now practically vanished Christian and Jewish minorities of Turkey and ignore the intra-Muslim (for lack of a better word) minorities, like Kurds, Alevis, Zaza-speakers, or the Arabs of the south-east and Antakya (X. calls it Hatay, but I refuse to use the place-names of Turkish science-fiction nationalism).  Again, the Byzantinist Brit was supposedly being biased because he lamented the fate of Turkey’s non-Muslims and ignored its persecuted and more deserving of pity Muslim “minorities”.  But that’s his right to do and feel — and mine.  And, in fact, there was absolutely nothing “epistemologically sloppy” about his analysis.  By simple virtue of the fact that he used the word “dhimmi”, he made it unequivocally clear that he’s talking about Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities; he’s not using a “dog-whistle to mean Christians,” as X accused him of in one tweet.  He’s stating it very loud and clear that that’s what he’s concerned with.  But for X. that makes him biased and probably an Islamophobe, while all that he — and I — were doing was simply pointing out the fact that there was/is a qualitative and taxonomical difference between the status of non-Muslims in Turkey and sub-groups within the Muslim majority in Turkey.  And proof of that qualitative difference is born out precisely by the fact that the Christian and Jewish groups have practically vanished; “elite minority supremacism” apparently didn’t save them.  Tell me what X.’s objection was, because I can’t make heads or tails of it — talking about “epistemologically sloppy”.

Then we go to New York.  I post this piece: The insufferable entitledness of bikers :

“The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that helmets be required for all bicyclists in the U.S., but some advocacy groups say putting the recommendation into law can have unintended consequences.”
[Me]: How ’bout we let them crack their heads open, and then maybe they’ll think about how biking — in a city like New York at least, not Copenhagen — is a deeply ANTI-URBAN, elitist, yuppy phenomenon that makes our cities’ centers more and more inaccessible to borough dwellers who can’t afford to live there, to street vendors, to truckers, to commercial traffic, to theater-goers and to everything that makes New York New York and not Bruges, all dressed up in the pedantic Uber-Green self-righteousness of a bunch of rich vegan kids from Michigan?
Walt Whitman would be turning in his grave.
Blows me away that more people don’t see that.
I immediately get a response from X., because he’s one of those people who always has a pre-printed ravasaki in his breastpocket with an analysis and a supporting, supposedly proof/text for almost any political issue.  You’re concerned with Christians in Syria?  X. is right there on the barricades to call you an elite minority supremacist.  You suggest there seems to have been a shortage in the Arab world of leaders able to successfully create a solid civil society and functioning democracy, X. immediately has a long list of names for you, even if that list includes more than a few murderous dictators.  You wonder what suddenly caused Syrian Sunnis to stand up to the despicable Assad regime, X. tells you part of the issue is agriculture and water supply.  You accept the fact that environmental conditions might have been what literally and figuratively sparked the civil war, and then X. tells you water and drought have nothing to do with it.  You articulate an opinion on the mating habits of homosexual penguins in Antarctica and…well, you get the point.
Hey, maybe that’s what makes a good journalist, but it also leads to dizzying instant analyses and superficial opinions, without a single “well…” or “maybe…” or “Shit…I never thought of that” or any even remotely multi-facetted take on things.  Sorry to be channeling Sarah Palin — never thought it would come to this — but so many exchanges with X. immediately degenerate into “gotcha” discourse.
So, he responds, with lightning speed:
Actually most bicyclists are low-income immigrants. Which is why upscale white people love to shit on them.
Not everyone can afford first-world privileges like taking taxis. Even riding public transportation is too expensive for a lot of folks.
With an informative link attached:
Except, I don’t know any upscale white people who shit on bikers.  As far as New York is concerned, I don’t have statistics, but my visual gut observation is not that there are multitudes of immigrants riding bikes around, but almost exclusively young white guys — the “upscale white people” who supposedly shit on bikers.  ?
And here I think it’s important to point out that it’s a bit disingenuous of X. — if not just a total misrepresentation of facts — or maybe even a teeny-weeny bit of what we used to call lying — to send this particular article because it refers almost exclusively to Houston and totally exclusively to Sun-belt cities and southern California: all cities that are of radically lower density than New York, which is the city the discussion was about, and that, incidentally, have kinder weather.  Bikes there may not cause a problem or may be mostly for lower-income city-dwellers.  But in New York they’re a nuisance.  And I see and know very few poor people using them.
I wrote back:
“Very possibly low-income immigrants, ok, but do we have and how exactly do we get statistics about that?  [As it turns out we don’t; we only have statistics from Houston]  But even if that’s true, they don’t demand that a modern, industrial city, built and designed to be a modern, industrial city, change itself and cater to a mode of transportation that such a high-density city [like New York and unlike Houston] is not designed to accommodate.
“And as for taking taxis, or even the subway, I am and have always been a borough-boy, who couldn’t and can’t afford to take a taxi to get into Manhattan, nor could I tolerate a commute to and from a two-fare zone, which is what we used to call neighborhoods where you had to ride the subway line to the end and then pay a second fare to take a bus, like Whitestone, where I spent my teens and twenties.  I used to drive into Manhattan (20 minutes instead of 2 hours on public transport) and parking was easy to find even on a Saturday night in the East Village.  And while we’re on the subject of poor immigrants, have you asked a Sikh cab-driver how he feels about the pedestrianization of Times or Herald or Madison or Union Squares?  Or — while we’re weeping for the working class — have you asked a truck driver who has to negotiate backing his truck up into Macy’s loading platform with Herald Square blocked off and 35th street narrowed by a biking lane how he feels about that?
A superfluous number of pedestrianized zones, biking lanes, Citibank bike stops, farmers’ markets, happy piazzas for office workers to eat their $15 prosciutto sandwiches from Eataly, Bloomberg’s unsuccessful plan to put tolls on East River bridges — a flagrant fucking attempt to keep the non-rich out of Manhattan — because his constituency wanted less traffic and less noise in their neighborhoods, have all contributed to making Manhattan less accessible for me, because I, like your immigrants, can’t afford to live there.
“And even if there are more Mexicans delivering Chinese food on their bikes than there are entitled pricks from Indiana using bicycles, the Mexicans don’t give me attitude about how I’m not respecting their hobby.  They’re too busy working.  Plus it’s hard for me to imagine that taking care, storing, maintaining and protecting your bike from theft or vandalism in New York is cheaper than taking the train.
“You know that long passage between the E train at 42nd Street that connects to the 7 train?  Would you, at rush hour, let a toddler free there?  Obviously not.  Because you wouldn’t let a being of radically different size and speed go free in a space where he’s more likely than not to get trampled.
“Nor could you possibly ask NYers rushing to work to watch out for that toddler.”
Again, I’m progressive but not quite progressive enough for X.  Poor, brown immigrants should be entitled to ride their bikes anywhere at any time, though that’s a sociological type that barely exists in New York.  But a white, working-class, ethnic-American kid from outer Queens like me can go fuck himself (the implication that I was ever rich enough to take a cab into the city on a regular basis is infuriating) and I can be denied access to the pleasures and resources of Manhattan, even as Manhattan becomes a sterile playground for the rich on one end and and hip enough to let hipsters and X.’s poor immigrants ride their bikes supposedly on the other end.  No room for me, who falls in the middle of that spectrum.
Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.  If you’re from there you know that; if you’re not, it might make you a little nuts and you might long for parks and greenery and bike-lanes.  And it’s almost always non-New-Yorkers who are clamoring for these pleasantries that will remind them of Madison, WI.  Density; it means cars and street traffic too — and noise — things that give access to the maximum amount of people, cities you can get to easily and that let you in.  Not obnoxious, exclusive enclaves like Georgetown or Cambridge, MA, where you need to prove you’re a resident to even park on one of its streets.  Look at what pedestrianization has done to Istanbul, where Erdoğan has transformed Taksim, Tâlimhane and the upper Cumhurriyet into a concrete wasteland with all the charm of a Soviet plaza in a city like, let’s say, Perm’. 
A city needs to breathe, even in its crowded chaos.  That’s why I posted the Whitman poem in my response to X.:

City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!

City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede,
whirling in and out, with eddies and foam!

City of wharves and stores! city of tall façades of mar-
ble and iron!

Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extrava-
gant city!

“Mettlesome, mad, extravagant…” 

More later — maybe.  This gets exhausting.

4a08193u.jpgMulberry street, c. 1900 — “Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Jadde’s homepage photo: Sergei Paradzhanov

12 Nov

I had thought that maybe I would permanently keep the photographs that I first posted on the blog’s homepage when I started it (Turkish refugees from Rumeli in turn of the century Istanbul and adorable kids in Samarina in 1983), as sort of a trademark, or what obnoxious “Ok, millenials” call a “meme” — which is just a mystified/jargonized term for what used to simply be called an “image”.  But when you don’t have any new ideas, you make up fake new words to cover for the fact.

Then I saw footage from a Paradzhanov film that I love, and remembered that he’s among my two or three favorite directors.  It’s strange that I hadn’t thought of him before, because he was essentially obsessed — possessed would not be an exaggeration — with the visual beauty of our parts, of the Jadde world.  He was almost an our parts pornographer, in the most beautiful sense of the word, fixated on the image of our cultures’ physical (and I mean that sexually) and material beauty, more interested in the fetishized gaze and tableaux than in editing or the syntax of cinema.  In our world today, where cinematic and video language has been so perverted and debased that the average viewing time between editing cuts is less than three seconds — we’re kept watching by the fact that we’re not allowed to actually look at anything — Paradzhanov granted us the delicious luxury of lingering over every beautiful detail his cinematic mind generated.

So, I decided that every month I’m going to change the homepage pic with one from his various films.  This one is from his 1969 The Color of Pomegranates, widely considered his masterpiece, though it’s not my favorite.  That would be his 1965 Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, though Pomegranates is without a doubt a beauty.

Hope you enjoy them as much as I like to watch them and post the stills.  Unfortunately, the crappy Soviet color film stock they were shot in and the abysmal curatorial conditions these films were kept under for so many decades means that some of the stills will be soft or just not of optimal quality.  But I hope you enjoy them anyway and look out for opportunities to see them, and hopefully on a real screen and not your Mac…

Color of Pomegranates 2_DxO

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

P.S. Armenians & Kurds — “Atoning for a Genocide”

30 Oct

150105_r25970 armenian churchEaster Mass in Sourp Giragos in Diyarbakır, 2014. Because the church still has no priest assigned to it, a priest flies in from Istanbul. Pari Dukovic

From A Century of Silence: A family survives the Armenian genocide and its long aftermath.:

“As the villagers fled to Diyarbakir from the surrounding areas, it became a Kurdish city. In time, the Diyarbakir Kurds began to recognize that their role in the genocide was a kind of original sin in their modern political history. “I remember this one Armenian priest,” Demirbaş told me. “A Kurd was insulting him, and this priest told him, ‘We were the breakfast for them, you will be the lunch. Don’t forget.’ And that was important for me.'””  [My emphasis]

While we’re on Armenians, at a time when Syria plunges more deeply into hell than we had ever thought possible, when the West abandons the Kurds to Erdoğan and Assad, proving again that the U.S. is Turkey’s hamali, or that Turkey’s tail wags the dog, if you prefer, a historical reality check might be called for.

The American and almost every other media might be too superficial or too impatient to dig so deep historically because they’d lose their audience, but there is one, and one big thing that disproves Donald Trump’s assertion that Turks and Kurds have been fighting each other for centuries and are “natural enemies (see video below).  And that is the fact that perhaps the greater portion of the massacres of Armenians and other Christians in eastern Anatolia during the last decades of the 19th c. and first two and a half decades of the 20th c. were conducted by Kurds.* Not by the Ottoman military, but by Kurdish para/irregular forces or just Kurdish tribal chieftains craving more land and authority and wealth, and conducting/justifying their campaigns of mass murder with the rippling green banner of Islam, under which Turks and Kurds were just brothers in defense of the faith.  Only when the forces of modern nationalism started displacing the older bonds of religion and empire, did Kurds arguably start to feel themselves a separate entity from Turkish Muslims, and did the power of clan loyalties shift from semi-feudal to Kurdish nationalist ones; it’s even arguable that Republican Turkey’s anti-ağa, anti-religious and Turkification campaigns stoked the fires of the new Kurdish nationalism more than anything else.  (Somewhat of a similar process occurs between the Ottomans and Muslim Albanians in the early 20th c., and Orthodox Greeks and Orthodox non-Greeks: Bulgarians, Macedonians, Vlachs, Albanian Christians — as the latter groups discovered/invented new identities to replace the old religious-institutional bonds.)

Armenian_woman_and_her_children_from_Geghi,_1899_(edit).jpgAn Armenian woman and her children who were refugees of the massacres and sought help from missionaries by walking far distances.  Photo unknown provenance.

So I’m sorry that couldn’t counter Trump’s claims of eternal Turkish-Kurdish enmity with something pretty about how — on the contrary — eternally well they have gotten along but rather by implicating both parties in coordinated mass murder.  And forgive me the occasional snicker at Greek pro-Kurdish poses and the general sanctification of Kurds that we’ve witnessed in the past couple of decades.

Armenia22hamidianArmenian victims of the massacres being buried in a mass grave at Erzerum cemetery.  Photo unknown provenance.

* From Wiki:

(“In 1890-91, at a time when the empire was either too weak and disorganized or reluctant to halt them, Sultan Abdul Hamid gave semi-official status to the Kurdish bandits. Made up mainly of Kurdish tribes, but also of Turks, Yöruk, Arabs, Turkmens and Circassians, and armed by the state, they came to be called the Hamidiye Alaylari (“Hamidian Regiments“).[16] The Hamidiye and Kurdish brigands were given free rein to attack Armenians, confiscating stores of grain, foodstuffs, and driving off livestock, and confident of escaping punishment as they were subjects of military courts only.) [my emphasis]

And not just eastern Anatolia.  Istanbul’s Kurdish population played a major role in the 1896 Hamidian Armenian massacres in the City, where hundreds were killed right there in Pera, in ab-fab Beyoğlu, in the middle of the elegant, Beaux Arts, now garish and overlit Istiklâl.  Referred to this before and to how brilliantly these events are handled in the “Duck with Okra” chapter in Maria Iordanidou’s Loxandra.

Only fair, however, that I include a reference to this 2015 article from The New YorkerA Century of Silence: A family survives the Armenian genocide and its long aftermath. by Raffi Khatchadourian, in which the then mayors of Diyarbakır and the separate municipality of the Old City, Osman Baydemir and Abdullah Demirbaş respectively, apologize for the Kurdish role in the Armenian massacres and rebuild and restore the city’s main Armenian church, Sourp Giragos (Hagios Kyriakos in Greek) and allow it to function (see photo above) for the handful of Armenians left in the city.   Khatchadourian‘s article has some beautiful photos too by Pari Dukovic.

“We Kurds, in the name of our ancestors, apologize for the massacres and deportations of the Armenians and Assyrians in 1915. We will continue our struggle to secure atonement and compensation for them.”

150105_r25971

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

NYT: Armenian Genocide — “For too long, Turkey bullied America into silence. Not anymore.” — Samantha Power

30 Oct

Not 100% sure how I feel about this; see “Screamers: Genocide: what is it and why do we need the term?.  I voice my major apprehensions there.

But “bully” is such an apt term for the Turkish Republic and the Turkish body politic (“thug” also comes to mind), that I think anything that puts Turkey in its place is a positive development.

29Power-sub-superJumboCredit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Power’s money quotes:

Although Turkish officials may see the vote as retaliation for Turkey’s recent forced displacement of Syrian Kurds, that operation — as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sweeping human rights crackdown in Turkey and his purchase (over American and NATO protests) of a Russian air defense system — simply reduced the impact of Turkish blackmail.

……..

First, as a baseline rule, for the sake of overall American credibility and for that of our diplomats, Washington officials must be empowered to tell the truth.

Over many years, because of the fear of alienating Turkey, diplomats have been told to avoid mentioning the well-documented genocide. In 2005, when John Evans, the American ambassador to Armenia, said that “the Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” he was recalled and forced into early retirement. Stating the truth was seen as an act of subordination.

When I became ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, I worried that I would be asked about the Armenian genocide and that when I affirmed the historical facts, I could cause a diplomatic rupture.

Second, when bullies feel their tactics are working, they generally bully more — a lesson worth bearing in mind in responding to threats from China and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish government devotes millions of dollars annually to lobbying American officials and lawmakers: more than $12 million during the Obama administration, and almost as much during the first two years of the Trump presidency. Turkish officials have threatened to respond to genocide recognition by suspending lucrative financial ties with American companies, reducing security cooperation and even preventing resupply of our troops in Iraq.

On Friday, the Turkish ambassador warned that passage of the “biased” House resolution would “poison” American-Turkish relations, and implied that it would jeopardize Turkish investment in the United States which provides jobs for a “considerable number of American citizens.”

It is easy to understand why any commander in chief would be leery of damaging ties with Turkey, an important ally in a turbulent neighborhood. But Turkey has far more to lose than the United States in the relationship. The United States helped build up Turkey’s military, brought it into NATO and led the coalition that defeated the Islamic State, which carried out dozens of attacks on Turkish soil. Over the past five years, American companies have invested some $20 billion in Turkey.

If Mr. Erdogan turns further away from a relationship that has been immensely beneficial for Turkey in favor of deepening ties with Russia or China, it will not be because the House voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. It will be because his own repressive tactics are coming to resemble those of the Russian and Chinese leaders. [my emphases]

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Ara Güler photo exhibit opens in New York — (Thanks to S. for the tip!)

2 Oct

5d89beff18c7731aa4a2059c

If you’re even remotely interested in C-Town or the Jadde world generally: DO NOT MISS THIS EXHIBIT.

Güler shows up in a post of mine: Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013 :

* Two more of Güler’s most famous photographs:

Guler1

D-amp-K-PASAJ-KAHVESI-BEYOGLU-ISTANBUL-ARA-GULER__51726491_0

While there’s no documentation that the subjects of these photos are Greek, the period, the neighborhood they were taken in and — well — just their look, seem to say so.  Ara Güler was a prolific photographer whose work has been sadly overexposed by excessive postcard-ization.  He once famously said: “Today, 13 million people live here. We have been overrun by villagers from Anatolia who don’t understand the poetry or the romance of Istanbul. They don’t even know the great pleasures of civilization, like how to eat well. They came, and the Greeks, Armenians and Jews, who became rich here and made this city so wonderful, left for various reasons. This is how we lost what we had for 400 years.” [my emphases].

Yes, “…left for various reasons.”

He was called a racist by many leftists for that comment.  But who pays them any heed?  His website: Ara Güler: Official Website.

Too bad Erdoğan, who babbles on throughout the review of the exhibit, doesn’t believe anything Güler did.  In fact, he’s set the final seal on the destruction of the Istanbul that Güler documented and lamented.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Time Out’s cities: Astoria! and…Kypsele? No Pera propaganda, brother Turks of mine :( — and Belgrade…

29 Sep

Ok!

Time Out has come out with the fifty coolest neighborhoods in the world, and two — arguably three — of them are Greek; one in Athens, Kypsele, and another in the capital of the Greek diaspora, New York: Astoria.  (Yeah, Melbourne…ok…chill).  Now there are only what, 14 or 15 million of us in the whole world, and we corner 8th and 16th outta 50.  Not just not bad, but figures that make it clear there’s a connection between Greek-ness and urbanity — even Greek villages are really just tiny Greek cities — the polis and everything political life implies, that runs deep.

Ditmars

AstoriaAstoria

KypseleKypsele

What if you have no Greeks (or worse, no Jews).  Well, brother Turk, take a walk, or a nerve-wracking tourist shove, down what you’ve turned yourİstiklâl” into: its new garish, overlit, Gap-outlet, Gulfie, Saudi hideousness…  And weep.  That we left.

Oh, and what’s arguably the “third” Greek neighborhood…  Ok, I scrolled down the list, nervously expecting to find Pera (Beyoğlu) there, the formerly, largely Greek mahalla — the formerly Greek, Jewish and Armenian heart of the City actuallybecause Turkey’s American public relations firms deserve every dollar they get from the Turkey accounts and they manage to shove a fictitious Turkish tolerant multiculturalism in our face whenever they get the chance, and Pera has, for about the past 15 years, taken pride of place in this masquerade of Istanbul hipness and Turkish cosmopolitanism — quite an accomplishment since the Midnight Express days. (Too bad Turkey itself reverts back to Midnight a little bit more every day.)  And Pera wasn’t there, not on the list!

istiklal-caddesi-nde-insan-seli-3273337

The old Grande Rue — Pera

And…  Well, and…a few years back I wrote a post here called: Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013.  And perhaps the biggest stinger in the article was:

“All – I thought a lot about whether I should use “almost all” in this sentence and decided against it –because all the hippest, funkiest, most attractive, gentrified neighborhoods in the historic parts of İstanbul are neighborhoods that were significantly, if not largely, minority-inhabited until well into the twentieth century: not just Pera and Galata, but Cihangir and Tarlabaşı, and Kurtuluş — of course — and up and down the western shores of the Bosphorus and much of its eastern towns too, and central Kadiköy and Moda and the Islands.  (And if serious gentrifying ever begins in the old city it’ll be in Samatya and Kumkapı and Fener and Balat; I wouldn’t put any big money into Çarşamba just yet.)”

And so, happily, I didn’t find Pera being prostituted again by Turkey as a symbol of a multiculturalism that the Turkish Republic eradicated, exterminated, expelled and that no longer exists.  But I scrolled a bit further down…and there was Kadiköy and Moda, #42, also, until well into the 60s, heavily Greek and Armenian.  More sweet justification!

(I’ll take Egyptians on for the empty, dingy Alexandria they got stuck with after our good-bye party in another post.)

KadikoyKadiköy

Finally, came the sweetest of all, my beloved Dorćol in my beloved Belgrade.  50th on the list of 50.  You have to be pretty attuned to the Serbian soul to know what coming in 50th out of 50 means.  It doesn’t mean being last.  It means: “You think we’re cool?  Who asked you?”

img_0828.jpgThe Rakia Bar in Dorćol

Plus, Belgrade comes in in way first place over all of these cities in one important way: the guys.  No joke.

Some restaurant notes:

Don’t go to Çiya in Kadiköy.  Unfortunately, the food is spectacular, and I’m a sadist for posting this picture:

CiyaBut the unfortunate part is that Çiya is owned by a sociological type: the newly comfortable, if not rich, provincial, pious middle-class; that’s the AKP’s and Erdoğan‘s political power base.  What that means on the ground is that your great food is prepared by puritans who won’t serve you alcohol, so you can’t have a leisurely rakı or beer dinner, but have to scarf it all down and leave, paying with dough that might indirectly end up in the AK’s coffers or ballot boxes.  The same goes with the otherwise excellent Hayvore in Pera.  Amazing Black Sea dishes but no booze.  Go ahead if you want.  You can go to Saudi too if you want.  I refuse to.  Even if I didn’t want to drink: just on principle.  And they — Hayvore — make one of my absolute favorite dishes which I can’t find anywhere else: an anchovy pilav.  But I’ll live without.  Or make it myself.

.Screen Shot 2019-09-29 at 9.33.28 PM

And then, a little less geopolitically charged, there’s the completely baffling phenomenon of Cyclades in Astoria.  I can’t argue with the fish.  And if fish is their mission statement then fine, because it’s always fresh and expertly cooked — even if the owners are Albanian and hadn’t seen the sea till they were sixteen.  But you do want to eat something along with the fish and everything else is awful.  The cacık and eggplant salad is made inedible by that crazed Greek overuse of raw garlic, so that all you have is the bitterness of the bulb and not even the taste or aroma.  The zucchini and eggplant are fried in old oil.  The raw oil served for greens or salad is horrible — cheap, and I’m not even sure it’s 100% olive.  And in a Greek fish meal, where almost everything is dressed with raw oil, it really needs to be the best quality or everything else is shot.  The bread — and one thing we do well, γαμώτομου, is bread — is nasty and old.  This place reminds me of food in tourist traps in the old days before the foodie revolution in Greece in the 00s.

And they commit one incomprehensible abomination.  They serve oven-baked potatoes — with lemon, fine… But. With. The. Fish.  These are potatoes, that according to the taxonomy and order of Greek food, if such a primitive cuisine can be said to have such order, are baked in the oven with meat in a composite dish or casserole.  It’s a sin of commission to serve them with fish, with which they haven’t even been cooked, unless you’re going for plaki which means tomatoes and a whole different palate.  And they taste as if they’ve been soaked overnight in lemon.  And I dunno, but the yellow color is so suspiciously bright that it looks like yellow dye #2.  Investigate them; I’m sure I’m right.  And, of course, everything comes garnished with piles of more lemon wedges, to satisfy that deep Greek urge to obliterate the taste of everything else on the table.

And people — Manhattan people — come out to Queens and wait, for over an hour, malaka, to get a table at this Soviet cafeteria (the lighting is awful; the music is deafening).  They’ll often go cross the street to wait to be called, to get a drink at Michael PsilakisMP Taverna, where the food is phenomenal.  It’s only slightly reinterpreted Greek — it’s deeply faithful to the roots but Psilakis — I dunno — freshens things, and combines traditional ingredients in ways that make you wonder why no one else had ever tried this.  It’s generally full and has a great and friendly bar that looks out on the bustle of Ditmars Boulevard.  But it should be a destination spot and it’s not.  And Cyclades is.  It makes me think that white people will eat bad food if they think it gives them woke and authenticity street cred.  And convince themselves it’s good.

He dicho.

comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

P.S. on Kamyar Jarahzadeh’s piece on Sayat Nova

9 Nov

Thank you Kamyar for your posting.
Your comments however are somewhat incomplete.
Sayat Nova, born name “Harutyun Sayatyan” would have been a perfect peace ambassador in today’s Caucaus region. As far as I know, only Armenians have honored his true work for people. He was a true peoples’ singer, musician besides being accepted in Georgian court. It is sad that Azeri’s don’t appreciate the work of a genius.
He became a monk in an Armenian monestery (Haghpat) after he was expelled from Georgian court. Because he refused to convert his religion to Islam, he was killed and beheaded by the order of Persian king Agha Mohammad Khan of Ghajar during his invasion to Caucasus…

Sorry.  Kind of a moral mission on my part: can’t let celebration of cosmopolitan, tolerant Islam (or any monotheism) get away with exaggerations.

A tableau/scene — the still, fabulous compositions of Paradzhanov’s style, that make so much of his work “our parts” pornography, in essence — from Color of Pomegranates:

sayat-nova,jpg

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From the Ajam Media Collective: Sayat Nova by Kamyar Jarahzadeh

9 Nov

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The Bard of the Caucasus” by  

A popular rendering of Sayat Nova.

For those unfamiliar with his legacy, Sayat Nova’s story can seem like the stuff of myth. His life is fascinating even in broad strokes: he was an ethnic Armenian musician and Orthodox Christian who lived in the Caucasus in the 18th century. He created a unique style of music, and wrote hundreds of songs in Armenian, Azeri, and Georgian. His talent was so great that even though he was born in a humble background, he rose to become the court musician of a Georgian king and founded his own school of musicians.

Sayat Nova was part of a tradition of bards known in Armenian as ashough — synonymous with the Turkish aşiq or Persian ashegh, terms used to refer to travelling musicians but literally meaning lover. Such bards worked across a vast cultural landscape that included the territory of modern Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and similarly transgressed the Persianate, Armenian, Azeri and Georgian speaking cultural worlds.

Just like other artisans, during this era being an ashough was like joining a class of professionals. But Sayat Nova’s style of music was unusual, he created new musical forms and compositions in all three languages.

Despite the formidable and cosmopolitan legacy of this bard, his appreciation has largely been confined to the domain of Armenian cultural heritage. Sayat Nova is mostly associated with and remembered for his works in Armenian. The reasons for this are largely due to what history has passed down to us (or failed to preserve), but that still begs the question: what more could we understand about Sayat Nova, if we were to further explore his story and music beyond his Armenian identity?

A Sayat Nova composition being performed by a modern ensemble.
To understand how an 18th century bard could create such a corpus of work, it helps to start with the basics of the musician’s biography. Although there is contention over the details of his life, Sayat Nova was likely born in the northwest of modern-day Armenia. Supposedly, he was to become a trained weaver only to instead travel to India and fight in one of Nadir Shah’s invasions of the Mughal Empire. He eventually returned to enter the ashough guild and officially gained the moniker Sayat Nova, from the Persian sayyad-i nava, or “hunter of songs.”

As he rose to fame for his musical ability, he became the court musician of King Heracle II of Georgia in Tiflis (modern-day Tblisi). He composed and performed his famous repertoire of work during this period, until legend has it he was kicked out of the court for falling in love with the King’s sister. He lived out his final years as a monk.

A map of the Afsharid dynasty detailing their campaigns against the Mughals in modern-day India. Sayat Nova is claimed to have participated in these battles.

In the 17th and 18th century, despite conflict between empires of different ethnolinguistic makeup and demographics, linguistic and cultural cosmopolitanism was the norm in royal courts. Sayat Nova was particularly valued in the Georgian Court for his ability to contribute Persianate culture and Persian-style music (although the music he performed in the court was almost exclusively in Georgian, Armenian, and Azeri).

Fortuitous timing also gave Sayat Nova the space to create his particular repertoire and be appreciated. In the 17th century, Western and Eastern Armenia had been split by the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, respectively. The Safavid Empire fell to Afghan invaders in 1722 who were then overthrown by Nader Shah and his Afsharid dynasty — the rulers of the empire during the century between the Safavids and the Qajars.

The multiple transfers of power allowed the Kingdom of Georgia a chance to shake off years of Persian meddling, tribute taking, and general interference. While the Afsharids were occupied fighting against the Mughals in the East, Georgia had a chance to cultivate its own court culture — enter Sayat Nova.

A Sayat Nova composition in Georgian from a film biopic about his life. The Armenian version is titled “Dun el Glkhen.”
Many parts of Sayat Nova’s musical legacy survive to this day. His songs are still widely performed in Armenia, with countless recordings available in a variety of formats. But the nature of his enduring legacy doesn’t match the transcultural life and music of Sayat Nova: most of the available recordings of his music are exclusively in Armenian.

The significant cultural projects that attempt to continue his legacy are tied to the Armenian community and diaspora, including the upcoming Sayat Nova festival that will be held in Yerevan. While there are Sayat Nova monuments in Armenia and Georgia, there is no monument to Sayat Nova in Azerbaijan, even though the majority of his surviving poems are in the Azeri language. Most of his Azeri and Georgian poems, in their original language, are out of print or nearly-impossible to find.

Part of this is due to the difficulties of historical preservation. We have many of Sayat Nova’s lyrics in all languages thanks to his biographers and the documents gathered by his son, but his melodies are less well-preserved. Musical notation was not common in Sayat Nova’s time and milieu, so the Armenian melodies that survived were passed down orally for 150 years until they were finally notated. The projects to track down these melodies (that continues to this day) were mostly Armenian initiatives. While it is likely that Georgian and Azeri melodies of his still survive and are being performed, they are not as widely available as his Armenian repertoire.

It seems unfitting that Sayat Nova is solely remembered through the lens of Armenian culture. Of his surviving works, scholars have located 117 Azeri poems, 72 Armenian poems, 32 Georgian poems and six Russian poems. It is this cosmopolitan legacy that arguably makes Sayat Nova unique.

Sayat Nova compositions notably used Persian and Arabic poetic meters with Armenian melodic structures. With these techniques, Sayat Nova founded the Tbilisi “school” of ashough, a tradition that was notable at the time for performing Georgian music in the Persian style. Even people unfamiliar with these languages, when listening to a Sayat Nova composition, will notice that the final couplet of his ghazals often refer to Sayat Nova in the third person — a trademark of the ghazal form that many associate with Persianate poets such as Hafez and Rumi.

At the end of this song, Sayat Nova refers to himself in the final couplet. This is very common in the ghazal form in other languages as well, such as Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Urdu.

 

A bialphabetical Sayat Nova manuscript from his notebook. The text is one composition written in both the Armenian and Georgian scripts.

Sayat Nova was unable to read the Perso-Arabic script, but his Armenian poems often blended Persian words with the language. This speaks to the role Persian played as a language of high culture: it was a language of literacy in the Caucasus that transcended ethnic boundaries.

In his handwritten manuscripts Sayat Nova would even switch between scripts mid-poem. Picture this: his Azeri poems are written in a mix of Georgian and Armenian scripts, and his Armenian poems are often written in both Armenian and Georgian scripts. His songs in colloquial Tbilisi Armenian were written in the Georgian script, and the Armenian script was reserved only for the classical Armenian language — widely considered “sacred” by devout Armenian Christians.

Why then, are the cross-cultural celebrations of Sayat Nova so few and far between? Azeris and Georgians have just as much to celebrate in Sayat Nova as the Armenian cultural mainstream.

Unfortunately a more pancultural perspective of Sayat Nova is not just difficult due to the historical record, but politically fraught. This video of an Azeri version of Sayat Nova’s song “Kamanche” highlights the vehemence of the arguments that often accompany celebrations of Sayat Nova.

An example of a Sayat Nova composition adapted into Azeri Turkish, framed by the uploader as an example of “plagiarism.”
The video shows clips of the song being used to celebrate Azerbaijan and Turkey’s form of pan-Turkic ideology that arose in the 20th century  — an incarnation with anti-Armenian ideology — while criticizing Azerbaijan for cultural theft.

This is doubly confusing: Azerbaijani nationalists using Sayat Nova for pan-Turkic goals, while Armenian reactionaries respond by disavowing the fact that this bard actually had strong ties to Azeri culture. Comments on a video of a Georgian translation of an Armenian Sayat Nova song meanwhile try to excuse or explain his non-Armenian works, rather than acknowledge that they are a significant part of his canon.

This is a tragedy, as some of the most integral parts of Sayat Nova’s identity were linked to his non-Armenian cultural capital. For example, 19th century Sayat Nova biographer and documenter Akhverdian recorded a story in which the ashough, as a retired monk, hides his identity in order to meet a young new ashough visiting the city in search of the infamous Sayat Nova.

When the youngster meets a disguised Sayat Nova and asks where to find the renowned bard, Sayat Nova’s answers are a series of Azeri plays on words: bilmanam, tanimanam, and gormanam, Which could either be translated as “I don’t know,” “I don’t recognize him,” and I “have not seen him,” or, “know, I am him,” “recognize, I am him,” and “see, I am him.” The beauty of this word play brings the young bard to surrender his instrument to Sayat Nova, to show that he has been humbled in the face of the master.

These sides of Sayat Nova’s legacy are often forgotten or glossed over. It appears that Sayat Nova’s Georgian and Azeri sides have been both lost on accident and forgotten on purpose over the course of time.

The Sayat Nova Project, now renamed Mountains of Tongues, seeks to document and explore musicological phenomena in the Caucasus beyond a nationalist lens.

There is great interest in reviving a multicultural Sayat Nova. Mountains of Tongues (formerly known as the Sayat Nova project), is a multicultural ethnomusicological research project that attempts to document the region’s musical heritage while breaking free of nationalist tropes. But that work has unfortunately become politically tenuous. The borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan remain closed in the face of the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Funding for Caucasus-based musical research is often tied to a single culture and involves the explicit practice of nation and identity building. If Sayat Nova was alive today, far-right nationalists from all three communities in the Caucasus would likely denounce him for daring to perform in the languages of the “others,” whoever they may be.

But just as a modern Sayat Nova would be denounced, there would perhaps be those awaiting his return. Could there be a radical, transformative potential in remembering the multicultural Sayat Nova? Over three centuries on, the natural cosmopolitanism that Sayat Nova embodied seems lost to us. In the face of ethnic homogenization and conflict in the Caucasus, there are no easy answers. The clichés of past cultural fusions are no panacea for the contemporary political problems that the region faces. Cultural dialogue and civil society is important in such a situation, but it is important not to overemphasize the role of shared cultural heritage in examining contemporary political problems.

But at the very least, the very work of filling out our collective image of Sayat Nova could bolster a longstanding cultural unity in the region. The mix of knowledges it takes to appreciate Sayat Nova’s oeuvre is no longer easily found: people knowing Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Persian and Russian is no longer as common as it once was. Perhaps filling our mutual gaps of knowledge could bring fans of this famous ashough together to at least remember what once was, and dream of what again could be. Until then, the very least that fans of Sayat Nova can do is heed his own hand-written introduction to his second written song:

“This divani (type of song) is very good

If you learn it, pray for my soul.”

And here is the poem he was humbly boasting about:

Special thanks to Hasmig Injejikian’s dissertation on Sayat Nova. Please refer to her publication for more specific information on Sayat Nova’s life and the academic discourse surrounding his biography, works, and legacy.

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Odd that this piece left out two masterpieces of Georgian-Armenian Soviet director Sergei Paradzhanov; one: Aşık Kerib, that tells the story, in Azeri, of exactly the kind of bard-troubadour-“lover” Sayat Nova was:

He directed the Armenian-language stunner, The Color of Pomegranates, which was a highly abstract biography of Sayat Nova (below):

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