CALIFORNIA – I really was not expecting to eat the best lahmacun of my life on the western coast of the United States. (Lahmacun, a sort of thin pizza with minced meat, is prominent in Turkish cuisine.) However Jack’s Bakery, a small family restaurant in the greater Los Angeles area, went beyond all my expectations. Not only its lahmacun, but everything I tasted here were both very delicious and very “Turkish.”
When I learned more about the story of 51-year-old Jack, whose big moustache does not overshadow his big smile, I got it all. His original name is Agop, and his family is from Kilis, an ancient town in southeastern Turkey. They were one of the hundreds of thousands of Armenian families who used to live in Anatolia until they were tragically deported to Syria in 1915 – a painful episode in history that I call, and condemn, as the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Armenians.
However, while you can take the Armenians out of Anatolia, you apparently can not take Anatolia out of them. Jack was a living proof. He was speaking to me in perfect Turkish with a barely noticeable accent and a beautifully native body language. “We always spoke Turkish at home,” he told me, remembering his days in Kuwait, where his family migrated to after some decades in Syria. “I perfected my Armenian only in school.”
The curious story of Jack reminded me of how Turks and Armenians lived side by side peacefully as neighbors for almost a thousand years, before the dark side of modernity befell upon them. In these times, Turks were considered superior, but thanks to Islamic law they also recognized Armenians as “people of the book.” The Ottoman Empire turned traditional Islamic pluralism into the “millet system,” in which all “millets,” or nations, such as Muslims, Jews or Armenians, had a certain degree of autonomy.
In fact the Armenians were so well integrated into the empire that the Ottoman elite called them “the loyal nation.” Armenian architects were the creators of some of the most beautiful mosques in Istanbul. Thanks to the introduction of full equal citizenship in 1856, many Armenians also joined Ottoman bureaucracy and even the Parliament.
However, this Ottoman pluralism would soon be challenged, and ultimately destroyed, by a very un-Ottoman idea: nationalism. The modern (and largely secular) belief that every nation should have a sovereign state of its own led to rebellions, wars and ethnic cleansings throughout the empire. Armenians got their terrible share in 1915.
Since then, unfortunately, Turks and Armenians have been bitterly opposed to each other. Turks have wrongly chosen to dismiss the Armenians’ tragedy, whereas the latter decided to blame all Turks for the acts of the Young Turk government of 1915.
“How can I hate you for what happened decades before you were born?” Jack asked me, shattering many myths that we Turks have about “the Armenian diaspora,” (we are told that all of them hate us). He gave me hope that perhaps the gaps between our peoples are not that unbridgeable.
Not at all, because things are changing, at least on the Turkish side. No matter how belatedly and slowly, more Turks are realizing that 1915 is not something to be proud of. And even more of them are understanding that there is something gravely wrong with the nationalist paradigm that has ruled Turkey for a century. In their “neo-Ottomanism,” I believe, lies the key for Turko-Armenian reconciliation.