Armenia: My Illusion
By Meltem Naz Kaşo
A week after a three-month stay in Armenia, I am once again at home in my green room in Istanbul, Turkey.
“Men must live and create. Live to the point of tears,” a quote from Albert Camus, is written on my wall. To me, Armenia seems like an illusion now. An illusion I lived and created to the point of tears.
For a Turk, going to Armenia seems a crazy idea. It’s not like going anywhere else with a Turkish passport.
I was selected by the Hrant Dink Foundation to be a research fellow in a Yerevan-based NGO, to contribute to cross-border understanding. Just as Turkey has racists, Armenia has its own.
“Somebody can intentionally hurt you, or even kill you, just to make a point,” a friend of mine said. My cousin who works for the UN claimed that Yerevan was a safe city. “But not for a Turk,” he added. I recalled the Armenian terrorist organization ASALA’s killing of Turkish diplomats around the world in the seventies. They did it to force discussion of the Armenian Genocide. Hurting a young Turkish woman in Yerevan during the centennial anniversary of the Genocide, I imagined, could be equally useful. “Make sure they don’t cut you,” a Turkish friend said ominously when he wished me farewell.
Immediately after arriving in Armenia, I met a local surgeon who expressed interest in me. Smelling the white roses he brought me, I consoled myself in the knowledge that, were my fears realized, I had a surgeon on my side. He wasn’t a bad guy. Not once did he come after me with a gun or a knife, or a cross word. But there was a gulf between us. To him, we were two attractive bodies. To me, we were souls being pulled towards each other by unknown forces. He saw magnetism, I wanted magic.
Armenia offered less consuming, and more substantial, delights. Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK), the LGBT rights advocate NGO for which I worked, was a temple of joy. I still hear, in my world of illusion, Nvard’s screams of “Meltushiiii” as she hugs me to welcome me to the office. “Hi darling,” Kolya used to say nonchalantly. His openness encouraged me to be at ease with myself. Soon, Kolya became my alter ego. When faced with challenging circumstances, I developed the habit of asking myself: “What would Kolya do in this situation?”
Never will I forget my host Nouneh either. She opened her house to me, giving me her daughter’s old room. Now, only after a week, the names of the streets of Yerevan are disappearing from my mind. Facts are becoming illusionary. But what stays with me is the proportion of Nouneh’s eyes, nose, and lips. Her familiar face made me feel at home when we cooked recipes she had learned from her deceased mother. Out of generosity and love she shared her legacy with a stranger.
I was lucky enough to know the Seferian brothers as well. One evening, I invited Nar over for dinner. I provided the food while he brought memories to laugh about and information on history and politics. With his inquisitive eyes, he looked around and found something wise to say about the architecture of the house and the future of Armenia and Turkey. His older brother, Naz, frequently read my written work before I dared share it with the rest of the world. To him, I exposed my most vulnerable self: my stories.
During my last week in Armenia, the Seferian brothers, Naz’s wife Mariam, his little son Mikael, and I went to a restaurant. It was called Aintab, a city in today’s southeast Turkey, and branded itself as a provider of “Western Armenian Food.”
It was right then and there, sharing appetizers and kebab with them, that I realized the price of the Genocide and the forced departure of Armenians. What it must have been then and what it is today. A price in more than land and money. It was the price of home, of proximity and trust, of exchange and empathy. I understood and wished that, somehow, the Seferians had stayed in Western Armenia, their home, so that we could be neighbors.
Figments of my imagination produced almost-fictional women whom I registered as my “mother Armenias.”Ani, Anna, and Anush – the three of them guided me in fashioning armor to protect me from people or place that sought to do me harm. The armor was in the form of a feminine, home-made apron shield. Ani, two years older than me, accepted my naivety wholeheartedly and guided me to listen to the strong voice inside me and not to give in to anxiety. Anna and Anush, the organizers of my fellowship program had planned my visit with logic and forethought.
During our farewell lunch at the Central Cafe, Anna gave me a book of poetry that she had published. She wrote about what it meant to be a woman. That same night, I read her book under candle light, repeating over and over again two of her poems. She taught me how rationality and intuition can go hand in hand.
On my last day in Armenia, Anush, a green stone I held in my hands for those three months, brought me to the Parisian Cafe on Abovyan Street. We were there the morning after my arrival in Armenia too. We had some coffee. The same waitress served us. Anush gifted me mint tea in a green box. Each time I drink it I return to Armenia, to her arms and her loving kindness.
I wasn’t all that close to the three Turkish fellows that participated in the same program. We had no fights or unpleasantness, but I never felt from them the openness and generosity that I received from my hosts. What did it mean that I was emotionally closer to my Armenian friends than the Turks who came with me?
I offer no overarching conclusion about Armenians and Turks. No two people are the same even if they hold the same national identity. But I accept that, sometimes, friendships can pass closed borders when they cannot walk across a room. In illusory worlds, lived and created to the point of tears, they do.
Meltem Naz Kaşo is a short story writer, freelance journalist, and a social science researcher. As part of the Hrant Dink Foundation's fellowship program to facilitate cross cultural affiliations between Armenia and Turkey, she conducted comparative research for Public Information and Need of Knowledge (Pink Armenia). Meltem received a Comparative Human Development degree and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago.