Monday, April 23, 2012

The Night of the Blind

(In light of April 24th, I thought I would post this piece about the night of my father-in-law's arrest)

Sidney Robertson Cowell

If this were a movie, the first scene would play this music.*

It’s the evening of October 28th, a Friday, and the weather is gray and wet. It’s getting cold. Galata Tower has it’s head in rain clouds and a ring of tourists stare down at us from its parapets through the eyes of their camera lenses, like a troop of cyclopses, their flashes white flares against the ever darkening sky.

We’re hurrying down to a dinner-theater called Karanlıkta Yemek (Dıning in Darkness). Our friends Cari and Stephen come running behind us—we might be late. (But then this is Turkey—one is never late!) We’re wearing false smiles so as not to ruin their evening, and just maybe to trick ourselves. But the sense of menace clings to us.  

Karanlıkta Yemek was founded by a group called the Blind Photographer’s Project, and like many similar projects around the world, was designed to fight prejudice against the blind by immersing customers in their world for the night.

On this October night, they are serving mulled wine and putting on a concert in memory of the Armenian composer Soghomon Gevorgi Soghomonyan, better known as Komitas Vardipet, who died in a Paris asylum 76 years before on the 22nd. He was deported from Istanbul at the launching of the Armenian Genocide on April 24th, 1915, when 250 Armenian intellectuals were arrested throughout the city and sent to a camp in Çankırı, a way station on the road to extermination in the deserts of Syria’s Der Zor. Though summoned back from annihilation through the intercession of powerful friends, Komitas never mentally recovered from the things he’d seen on the trip out. (And just what had he seen?)

Deportations and round ups, random arrests of people branded as traitors and terrorists based on their ethnicity. Made up charges and hidden plans. The past is never past in Istanbul. It keeps cycling back, like that mythical Kraken whose existence the villagers deny, but that nevertheless rises out of that murky lake to eat one of their daughters every year.  

Well it was our turn this year. We’ve given that sacrifice this year. We’ve seen the monster below the dark waters come for us.

Unbeknownst to our friends, just an hour before, Delal and I were in the Istanbul Eminiyet Müdürlüğü, the Security Bureau—we were trying to get news of her father who had been taken that morning in a nationwide round-up of Kurdish intellectuals and their supporters. Delal had brought a blood-sugar test kit. Her father was diabetic, but honestly it was just an excuse to make contact—without a medical emergency of some kind, any and all communication would be forbidden during the first 48 hours of detention. I couldn’t get the dottering old security guard’s grinning reassurance out of my head—‘Don’t worry, they will treat him well. They don’t torture or mistreat like they did in the old days.’

The old days.

The old days are what cast such long shadows on the events of today. There are the nearby old days filled with faili meçhul –the ‘perpetrator unknown’ assassinations of Kurds and leftists by secret government orders. And then there are the faraway old days of the Armenian Genocide—with all the massacres and pogroms before and between—the Hamidian massacres, the Dersim massacres, the Greek pogrom of 1955, the Alevi massacre in Maraş, the fire at the Madımak Hotel.

They’ll tell you there’s no monster in Turkey, they’ll assassinate you for talking about it, but then the surface of the waters will start to tremble.

The lobby of Karanlıkta Yemek is bustling with people checking their coats and having one last chat on their cell phones. A Braille Turkish Playboy lies on a coffee table. Photographs fill the walls—black and whites, abstracts. The time to start is called and we banter with our friends as we descend the stairs into the restaurant of the blind.  We are all chattering excitedly. What will it be like?  Will I knock over a table on someone?  Will Stephen spill his wine? Will we freak out?  There are black lights at the entrance that make our teeth and eyes glow—we laugh and make toothy Joker grins at each other. I had done this before in Atlanta with my mother and niece—I figured I’d be okay. 

We are escorted inside as a chain of blind souls—each with his or hand on the shoulder of the person in front. We wind around a maze of tables through the scent of spice and wine. I see only one single red spot of light in the far corner—a camera? An exit sign? Our escort seats us with a shove down on our shoulders and then explains that our wine is on the table already. We gently spider our fingers forward across the table cloth until they close around the stem of the glass. 

The program begins with a biography of Komitas. He was born in Kütahya.

Now I have this penchant for finding connections—they aren’t always so meaningful, history wise, and yet I find them haunting. They’re like déjà vu’s—fleeting, sharp, and yet elusive. The more I try to get at their meaning, the less focused they seem.  For example, Komitas being born in Kütahya.

I first came to Turkey because of a friend from that city—in fact, he has played a pivotal role in my life here and I have spent several Bayram holidays in Kütahya with his family. I’ve trekked the mountains outside of the city, bathed in her hamams, had tea on the ruins of the old castle as the ezan echoed around the cliffs. I’ve visited the Mevlevi dervish lodge, the Roman ruins, sat in on a zikr with Rifai mystics. I’ve tasted his mother’s exquisite breads and böreks, her divinely inspired mantı. Yet there was no mention of Komitas while I was in the city, no mention of Armenians at all—no brown historical sign, no plaque in the city museum. I remember only the book on my friend’s shelf which told me all I needed to know about how the subject was viewed at home. It was by Samiha Ayverdi, a mystic and writer revered by his family. The book was titled ‘Turkey’s Armenian Problem’.  ‘We have remained silent,’ the back cover reads, ‘While this campaign of groundless lies and slander snowballs out of control.’

I wrote about the ezan in Kütahya and my first namaz at the Great Mosque in the city center—it was my first published piece about Turkey. And here is a second dimension to the connection I make--one of the first and certainly most moving pieces of music we hear that night at the Dinner for the Blind is a rendering of the ezan by Komitas, who was the first to put the Muslim call to prayer into western notations—an astounding act of humanity if you think about it (and it may have happened while he was listening to the muezzin of the same Great Mosque I unwittingly wrote about). A Christian Armenian recognizing the beauty in the rival faith and committing it to paper. The soloist is Gülay Arslan—a native of Erzincan, Kurdish most likely from a part of the country where Armenians once lived.

One of the last songs of the night has another parallel that is more disturbing—and in that panicky, nervous first night of my father-in-law’s captivity, it completely chilled my heart. Back in the early 20th century, around the time of the genocide, Delal’s great grandfather, Mehmet Suleyman, left his family in Conag and went half-way around the world to the United States. He stayed for nearly fifty years. No one knows what he did while he was there, or how he got there, or why—but given the timing we suspect that he either knew the way because of, or escaped with the Armenians.  He came back in the 1960s when he was already quite old and divulged nothing about his life in America. We do know that he had two addresses, one in Butte, Montana, and one in Lodi, California. California was where many of the Armenians escaping the genocide also settled, and surrounding the address we have for him in Lodi are a few Armenian churches. Suleyman died to a song that Dede played. I wonder if he sometimes sang to himself in America—no one around him knowing the language or melody, just him singing alone as he worked or walked or drove.  Around the time he lived in Lodi, a woman named Sidney Robertson Cowell (wife of composer Henry Cowell) was collecting ethnic music from all around the United States (much like Lomax in the South) but especially from immigrants living in California.  Not an hour’s drive from Lodi, she came serendipitously upon a man named Vartan Shapazian singing a tune in a foreign language as he worked. He was from Harput—modern day Elazığ, the city we fly into to go to Delal’s village, only an hour away. There is nothing but Shapazian’s voice—bare, worn, scratchy...In the background you can hear a dog bark. It was recorded on October 30th nearly the same night as the concert for the blind. The subject of the song is the march to death and doom.

Der zor çöllerinde yaralı çoktur  (The wounded in Der Zor are many)
gelme doktor gelme, çarası yoktur  (Don’t come doctor, don’t come)
bir allah’tan gayrı, hiç kimsem yoktur (There’s no one to help us but God)
dininin uğruna giden ermeni…(Sent away for the sake of faith, the Armenians)

der zor çöllerinde bayıldım kaldım (In the Der Zor desert, I fainted and didn’t get up again)
harçlığım tükendi, evladım sattım  (My money is used up, I’ve sold my child)
ana ben bu candan bıktım usandım (Oh Mama, I’m fed up with this life)
milleti uğruna giden ermeni  (Sent here for the sake of their nationality, the Armenians)

An uneasiness began that night that hasn’t left us, or at least not me. There is a insidious continuity to it all.  The Armenian intellectuals were arrested on April 24th, 1915. All the journalists and writers and poets and musicians and politicians and thinkers and teachers. An Armenian writer, Karin Karakaşlı, gave a speech at this year’s memorial for Hrant Dink. She said of the 1915 arrests, ‘First they took away our voice, so that there would be no one to talk about what followed.’ Delal was there in front of the Agos offices that day. ‘When I heard her say that,’ Delal told me. ‘It made me shiver. It’s exactly what they’ve done to Kurds. They’ve taken our voice.’ Under the same pretenses, and with the same reassurances. Those that can protect them, their lawyers, are taken in the next wave of arrests. Those that protest in the next wave. And it’s all okay because we call them ‘terrorists’.

Every once in a while the last line of that song replays in my head, ‘Sent away because of my nationality.’ Like my father-in-law was. If one never faces one’s history, the old cliché goes, you are doomed to repeat it again and again. It’s that old monster just off shore that no one talks about, and it’s always wandering just under the surface of the water, hunting for prey.


jmchugh said...

Jeff-a very moving piece. This is Joe, your colleague from Boston many moons ago. I just heard about your father-in-law. My thoughts and prayers are with him, you, your wife, and family. I do some lobbying these days on human rights (in Asia) and I'll make a point to talk with my contacts in D.C about Kemal Seven.

Jeff Gibbs said...

Thanks Joe. Any help would be wonderful--apparently the recently released people were released because of outside pressure, but they are famous and have lots of advocacy groups helping them....anyway, hope all is well.

jmchugh said...

Hitting some brick walls but will keep trying. Hope you guys are hanging in there.

Jeff Gibbs said...

Well good luck and let us know how it goes.

Unknown said...

What a great piece! I found it while searching for more information on Vartan Shapazian. Thank you especially for the translation of Der Zor Collerinde. That first song you embed--the instrumental one in this sentence (If this were a movie, the first scene would play this music.*)--is also beautiful: what is it called?

Jeff Gibbs said...

Sofiya--it's called Horovet (though I am not sure that's how you would transliterate the Armenian)