Archives for posts with tag: Armenia

Two (Relatively) Recent Mainstream Novels about the Armenian Genocide: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak and Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

I’ve recently read two novels about the Armenian genocide and its rippling effects on the Turkish and Armenian families who witnessed it. One of these novels was written by a Turk, the other by an Armenian (though both the writers have global biographies). The writing styles and literary genres of the books were different, as were (obviously) the plots, but nonetheless there were undeniable similarities between the two books. Both were powerful and compelling reads. While The Bastard of Istanbul had a dreamy feel to it, Orhan’s Inheritance was more of a page-turner. Both are recommended, though the different styles are likely to appeal to different readers.


The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (image from GoodReads)

Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul: A Novel. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and e-book editions; English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops.

The Bastard of Istanbul tells the story of the many generations of the Kazanci family, particularly the women including their youngest member, Asya (most of the men have mysteriously or tragically died). Entwined with this family’s saga is Armanoush and her family’s own tale. Armanoush is an Armenian-American who decides to secretly visit her grandmother’s home city of Istanbul as a way to better understand her Armenian heritage. She contacts her stepfather Mustafa’s family, the Kazancis, and she and Asya become friends despite Armanoush’s (and her online community’s) skepticism of Turks. Asya’s mystical Auntie Banu becomes curious about the truth of the Armenian genocide and consults her djinn to show her the truth of Armanoush’s family…and later to reveal her own family’s secrets. A family emergency in America leads Armanoush’s mother and step-father to come to Istanbul, the stepfather’s first visit in 20 years, where Auntie Banu’s knowledge brings old events to a head, leading to shocking events that permanently change both families.

I particularly liked the structure of this book–with each chapter titled with the name of an ingredient that is used in Mustafa’s favorite food, ashure. The titular ingredient of each chapter also make an appearance within the chapter, and a recipe for ashure is provided in the latter part of the book. This dish even plays an important role in the plot. Other foods are also described in mouth-watering detail. This is very much a novel for foodies.

The author Elif Shafak was put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” because of this book. If you like reading as a way of fighting the power, this novel is a great choice.


Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (image from GoodReads)

Ohanesian, Aline. Orhan’s Inheritance: A Novel. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2015. Kindle e-book.

Availability: Available in the US (physical and e-book) and UK (physical book); English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops

Orhan’s Inheritance made many lists of the best books of 2015, which is where I first heard of it. Like The Bastard of Istanbul, the novel features a multi-generational Turkish family, though unlike the Kazanci family, the Turkoglu family is oddly lacking in women. When the family’s patriarch, the title character Orhan’s grandfather, passes away, his will leaves the family home in the village to an Armenian woman no one has ever heard of. Orhan travels to an Armenian retirement home in California, where he meets his grandfather’s surprise heir, Seda Melkonian, and ultimately learns her story which gives him the explanation as to why his grandfather has left the house to her.

Much more of the action of this novel is set in the past as Seda’s story is told. Her story is, unsurprisingly, quite upsetting, but Ohanesian’s writing is compelling, and I wanted to get through the tragedies to find out how Seda lived and learn the mystery of why she inherited the house and how she came to be living in California.

One thing I particularly liked in this book was the interactions between the characters from different ethnic groups, both in the past and in the present. All the characters had flaws, and many were prejudiced against other ethnicities, but in the end the main characters were all people and recognized the human core in others, even when they disagreed. In this way, Ohanesian makes an argument for tolerance, even when the past cannot be forgotten.

My Grandmother (Image from GoodReads)

My Grandmother
(Image from GoodReads)

My Grandmother: A Memoir by Fethiye Çetin 

Çetin, Fethiye. My Grandmother: A Memoir. Trans. Maureen Freely. London: Verso, 2008. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and ebook editions; originally published in Turkish, and translated into many other languages.

I’m publishing this post today as April 24, 2015 is the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide (It’s also my birthday, so…yeah). This memoir was significant as the first book in Turkey to break the silence surrounding the Armenian Genocide. Because of the intended audience, the story shies away from discussing the politics or the big picture, and focuses on one woman’s life and stories. Fethiye Çetin’s grandmother, our main character, lived as a formidable Turkish housewife and materfamilias, but she had hidden her Armenian identity and past, and only revealed it to her granddaughter late in life. Çetin discusses her own reactions to her grandmother’s revelations: the challenge she felt to her Turkish identity, and her confusion over how such tragedies could square with her view of Islam. She also mentions her distant American cousin’s similarly tumultuous reaction to meeting her, a relative who identified as Turkish, and his feelings on the complicated situation. “All my life I’ve been afraid of Turks. I nurtured a deep hatred of them. Their denial has made things even worse. Then I found out that you were part of our family but Turkish at the same time.” (p. 113). This quotation captures what I think is the real message of the book. Though it’s a book about the Armenian Genocide, it’s more a book advocating love over hate, and illustrating that ethnicity is not so important as humanity. (Çetin is a lawyer and human rights advocate in addition to memoirist, so this squares with what I imagine to be her goals). Çetin’s love for her grandmother glows through every word. This makes reading about an incredibly difficult topic so much easier. The writing style is simple and clear, the right choice for this kind of book and message. It’s a relatively easy read (in terms of skill, not emotion): I finished it in an afternoon. Recommended, particularly as a first source on the Armenian Genocide.

Armenia is so close, but I hadn’t managed to make the trip until this spring. It had always been one thing and then another, but this time I had decided, and (despite putting off the trip for a week because I came down with another cold), even my travel buddies backing out didn’t stop me. So I was off on a solo 2-day trip to Yerevan!

My research told me that from Avlabari metro station, you can take either a marshrutka or a shared taxi to Yerevan. I went the night before to change money and make sure that was the case, and was told there were only marshrutkas, and no taxis. Though I have seen the taxi parked there many times in the past, it wasn’t around that day. The next morning, I had a Georgian come with me to see me off, and he was told the same thing (making me feel better about my communication skills, if not about the details of the trip). I’m not sure if the system has changed, or someone was just on vacation that particular week. The “marshrutka” that I took though wasn’t the usual marshrutka, though, it was a mini-van, so maybe it’s just a big taxi? The important thing is that it got me to Yerevan in relative comfort.

At the land border, you leave your vehicle and go through the border on foot. First, you show your passport and leave Georgia (FYI, there are public restrooms on the Georgian side), then you cross the river, and show your passport to enter Armenia.  Armenian visa rules have changed a lot in the time I’ve been in Georgia, but I didn’t need a visa at all, yay! If you need one (check online for your country before you go), the visa-on-arrival office is pretty easy to spot–a bit before the border off the left side of the road. The Armenian border guard was quite suspicious of the extra pages added to my passport, and called his supervisor, who recognized it as normal and let me right through. Made me a bit nervous, though. One of the fellow passengers in my marshrutka (who had been very nicely making sure I went to the right place and did the right thing) had some trouble with his dual Georgian and Armenian passports, and had to pay a fine before he could enter, so we got a bit held up waiting for him. We did wait, though I have heard horror stories of marshrutkas just taking off without any passengers who were taking too long.

It seems there isn’t one direct major road into Yerevan, so there are many possible routes. Friends have told me that they went through Spitak and saw the ruins from the 1988 earthquake. While I suppose that’s interesting in it’s own way, I think I lucked out with the route my marshrutka took. We took an Eastern route through Tavush province, and it has some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen–craggy and spiky, but with lush green vegetation. We went through a pass, and I was surprised to see Lake Sevan on the other side; it looks like a lovely place to go and relax. There was still snow in the mountains surrounding it, which lead to really impressive scenery. It was also a perfect sunny spring day, which helped to leave a good impression. In one of the towns along the road, the van was pulled over by the police for speeding, and the driver may have been asked for a bribe (he neither confirmed nor denied when the other passengers asked him). That was a first.

We arrived at the Yerevan bus station at about 2:30 and I had to find my way to the hostel. My friend who used to spend a lot of time in Yerevan had told me that it shouldn’t be more than 1000 dram to take a taxi anywhere within the city, so when I was accosted with taxi drivers offering to take me for just 3000 dram, I knew to refuse. They eventually went down to 1500, but I stuck to my guns and went elsewhere to find a cab. My friend had also warned me to take the officially registered taxis with yellow plates, not the ones with white plates, and it took me a while to flag down one of those. When I did, I had a very pleasant driver take me to my destination for just 700 dram on the meter, but it did take a while, and might have been worth it to save the time and pay more.

I stayed at Envoy Hostel, which I found deserving of its stellar reputation. It’s a standard hostel, but they’ve thought of all the little details to make it easy: lockers in the rooms, shelves in the bunks, a place to hang clothes in the shower. The staff were really helpful, and created an atmosphere where other guests were friendly but not over-bearing. And the shower was great and the bed was comfy.

After dropping off my backpack, I headed first to the National History Museum which was pretty good–I particularly liked the exhibit on textiles that had lots of gorgeous carpets. Of course I knew that Armenia, like Georgia, was part of the ancient world and had contact with the major civilizations, but I didn’t realize quite how much. The museum has a series of cuneiform tablets that were pretty amazing to see in person. (The exhibit of stone phalli was oddly extensive). Then I headed to the Matenadaran Manuscript Museum, but they were closing when I arrived, so I didn’t make it in. I’ve heard it’s one of the most interesting tourist attractions, though. On my walk there, I experienced something amazing. As I was nervously trying to cross six lanes of traffic with no signal or underpass in sight, all the cars stopped to let me cross! It was an incredible experience after being in Tbilisi. I wanted to go back and do it again!

Then I walked over to the Cascade, and looked at the statues. I’m a sucker for good public art.

At the Cascade. Took this to prove I was actually in Yerevan, and didn't just steal some photos and stories from the web.

At the Cascade. Took this to prove I was actually in Yerevan, and didn’t just steal some photos and stories from the web.

I had been told that “West Armenian” food was basically Middle Eastern (as opposed to regular Armenian food). So I excitedly went to a random West Armenian restaurant for dinner. The hummus was great, but the sandwich the waitress recommended was just a glorified and marked-up shawarma, which was fine but not what I wanted. I wandered the city a bit in the dark, and celebrated the lovely spring weather with an ice cream cone. I returned worn-out to the hostel, and chatted with my roommate for some advice on the next day’s adventures. It turned out that many of the museums and tourist attractions were closed on Sundays. Oops. Missed that in my pre-trip research.

I woke up that morning, and set off to see the city from Mother Armenia, but I didn’t find the right road before it started raining. I happened to be at the Cascade and next to the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, so I decided to wait out the storm by checking out the collection. Some of the exhibits were paid, and some were free. Honestly, the free exhibits were the ones I found most interesting, but nonetheless the small entry fee didn’t feel like a waste. The set-up is a bit strange, though. To reach certain galleries you have to take the escalator up to a certain elevator, which you then take down to the gallery. It was strange at first, but I got the hang of it quickly. Some of the galleries also required walking across a courtyard. When the rain let up, I went to the Vernissage Market, like my roommate had recommended. It’s not unlike the Dry Bridge here in Tbilisi, but I think it’s a bit bigger. Some of the souvenir handcrafts are pretty similar, but there are also clearly country-specific specialties. In particular, they still make carpets in Armenia, and the carpet section of the market is a really impressive sight. I then went to try to find some food (lots of restaurants were closed, too!). My final stop was a grocery store for “souvenirs”: prepared hummus, cognac, and Armenian chocolates. The hostel had very helpfully arranged to have the taxi/marshrutka (same type of vehicle, but this time they called it a taxi) pick me up at the hostel. We took the same route back, and arrived back to Avlabari at about 8 on Sunday.

If I go back, I would visit the Matenadaran and the Armenian Genocide Memorial/Museum. I would recommend the stops I made, with those additions. It’s possible to see Yerevan in a weekend from Tbilisi–I don’t think I didn’t get a true taste of the city, but a three-day weekend would give you more flexibility, particularly since so many things are closed on Sundays.


The Ghost of Freedom (Image from Goodreads)

The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Charles King 

King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Availability: Available in both the US and UK, both physical and ebook editions. Often in stock at Prospero’s in Tbilisi.

There’s a bit of a funny story regarding how  I read this book at this moment, but if you’re not interested, feel free to skip on down to the next paragraph. The town where my parents live, and I spend lots of time on vacation, has an excellent used bookstore, so whenever I’m in town, I make a few stops there to see what I can get. I usually also volunteer to search for things for friends, since the prices are so good. An acquaintance from university is now teaching elementary school in a low-income community in the US, and she had posted on Facebook asking for donations to her classroom library. Since I had access to a good used bookstore, I figured I would pick up a few things for her kiddos. I also looked at her personal wishlist which contained lots of Russia/Eastern Europe titles, so I thought I’d try to find something for her, too. Imagine my surprise when I saw a book on the Caucasus on her list, and my shock when this was her only request that was in stock at the bookstore! So I picked it up, and I read it first before I sent it along to her.

Now, on to the book itself. I know that back in grad school, I’d checked this book out of the library many times, but I hadn’t read it cover to cover. At that point, I used it as a reference when writing papers–what year was that treaty signed? who was the leader during that event? Although it worked very well for that purpose, that didn’t allow me to appreciate just how good this book is–the writing style and structure are excellent. One of the best parts of the book is the chapter on the creation of the Caucasus in the Russian imagination–King goes beyond the usual discussion of Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy (all of course, very important) and also discusses the effects of mountaineering, ethnographic missions, and the role of Circassians as sex symbols in Europe and the US in this chapter. I also learned a few new stories from this book–the Armenian Archbishop murdered in New York, and Queen Mariam’s refusal to surrender to the Russian military (which I can’t believe no one had told me before). Even though this book was published in 2008 (just before the Russia-Georgia war) it hasn’t lost its relevance.

Verdict: Read it. Read it all!

Another PSA that might be of interest: Kiva and Ladies’ Home Journal are offering 3000 free trials of the microlending program through January 31, 2012.  All these loans are for female entrepreneurs, and there are some in Armenia and Azerbaijan (UPDATE: as of 1/4 there are now many Georgian borrowers) as well as other Eastern European and Former Soviet countries. You can check out the program here.  Because this is a free trial, the repayment on the loan will go back to Kiva, not to you, so this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme.  I’d heard conflicting opinions on Kiva’s usefulness, and thought this was a good opportunity to really see how it works for myself.  I lent money to Rima from Armenia and her grocery store (see photo).  I also saw this as an opportunity to do a Kiva loan without focusing on the financial details–repayment period and likelihood, as I would feel obligated to do with my own money, and just to find a borrower and project that I liked.  I suggest you take a look!

The Caucasus Research Resource Center recently released their survey data entitled “Caucasus 20 Years On”.  It’s a treasure trove of interesting information.  Here are a few statistics that I found particularly interesting:

In Georgia, the religious institutions are the most trusted public institutions, whereas in Armenia it is the Army and in Azerbaijan the President (pages 6-8)

Azerbaijan has the most respondents believing in strong rule of law in their country (page 12).  (I wonder if this statistic surprises me due to differing conceptions of what exactly the phrase “rule of law” would be; I wonder how their translations lined up)

Georgia has the lowest employment figures (self-reported) (page 17), but Armenia self-reports the highest poverty (page 19).

Azerbaijan had a surprisingly high number of respondents who didn’t know what the internet is (page 39)

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