"Rest of the World 2013-14" story # 20

Erzurum, Turkey           December 21, 2013

One of my students in Erzurum got mad at me, because I never wrote about her.
     Her name was Pinar (meaning: "Fountain"). She was tan-skinned and fragile, with a soft voice. Black strands of hair snaked out from her ponytail, which was as wild and disorganized as mine. I first thought that she was a weak girl, the type of person who would be manipulated by life instead of making it what she wanted.
     But, I was wrong. As she hung out with me and her other teacher, Walker, her English improved greatly. I realized she was confident, strong-willed, and brave.
     She'd been the first guest at my first party. (She seemed uncomfortable, until two Turkish boys arrived.) She was studying to be a nurse because her parents had forced her to, yet she still dreamt of doing other things. She hoped to study abroad in Poland. She picked a snowball fight with Furkan, a smily gentleman of a student who practically lived in tea-houses; she stubbornly said she was better than him in backgammon, even though he destroyed her.
     And she got mad at me, because I never wrote about her.
     "I'm going to write about you," she said. "'I met a man named Justin. I went to all of his activities. But, still, he didn't write about me."
     I asked if the final line was going to be: 'I hate him.'
     But, she didn't hate me. She was a good friend. She was also an energetic student. Once, all of her fellow class-mates were absent from class. She took advantage of this opportunity to have a one-on-one lesson with her teacher.
     I asked, "Can you tell me something about Ataturk?" She, in a purple checkered flannel shirt, stood up and gave me a ninety-minute history lesson. The theme of her speech was Turkey's national hero: Ataturk. I listened, and wrote down her grammar mistakes.
     "In World War I," she said, "Turkey was poor. We had become dependent on European factories - for clothes and blankets, and things. One woman, a hero, was transporting a cannon for our soldiers. It rained. She took her baby's blanket and put it on the cannon, to keep it dry.
     "The war was horrible," said Pinar, who disliked the sight of blood and therefore didn't want to become a nurse. "Sometimes, a soldier would be hurt. An enemy soldier would pick him up and carry him back to his side, so he could get help. And then ... they would go right back to killing each other.
     "Turkey was losing the war. Many people thought, if we would lose the Canakkale War (battled near the Bosphorus Strait), we could lose much of our territory. European countries thought, they will surely defeat us.
     "Ataturk was a general. He gave us hope. He took a boat from Istanbul to Samsun (a city on the Black Sea) and rounded up troops. He did the same thing in Erzurum and Sivas, and so on.
     "In the Canakkale War, his military strategy was important. The European countries had more soldiers than us. But, Ataturk knew where the best places were. He knew where to hide. Sometimes, the European army would arrive in a field, but they saw no Turks there. Our soldiers were hiding, and we surprised the Europeans. Thanks to Ataturk, we won the Canakkale War."
     During her speech, Pinar made one reference to the Turkish-Armenian conflict of her region.
     "In World War I, our men went to fight. Our women and children stayed in the villages. Armenians were killing our women and children."

Thanks, Pinar.
     The last part of her history lesson was especially helpful to me. Ever since visiting Armenia's Genocide Museum, I'd been gathering other opinions of the Turkish-Armenian conflict ...

A Georgian man told me his country had taken tons of Armenian refugees from Turkey, because Armenia itself wouldn't take any. Other people said, "No, Armenia had taken some refugees. But, it also needed Georgia to take some, because it couldn't acommodate the large number of Armenians fleeing Turkey."
     Another Georgian said his country's Armenian population wanted to claim the land they'd moved to. They said, "This is our land." He contrasted them with his country's past Jewish population. The Jews had said, "This is our mother-land."

Not far from southern Georgia and its large Armenian population, an elderly man gave me a ride in northeastern Turkey. He said:
     There had been many Turks living in southern Georgia. They were sent to Siberia by Stalin, during World War II. When they came back, they found Armenians living in their houses.

I asked my boss, Serhat - one of The Goke's business partners - about the Armenian conflict.
     He said, I had to understand: France and Europe were fighting Turkey, during World War I. They promised the Armenians land, if Turkey lost. Armenians in Turkey were working with Turkey's enemies.
     Serhat and I, on a business trip that took us near the Armenian border, passed the town of Sarikamis. "In this town," he said, "we lost 80,000 soldiers in World War I without a shot being fired." He explained how the soldiers had arrived in Sarikamis by train, from Yemen. Sarikamis - today a ski resort - was one of the highest towns in Turkey and regularly got Siberian weather. The soldiers didn't have warm clothes, and they froze to death before they could battle the Russians.

Back in Erzurum, I visited the city's archeology museum and its exhibit on the Turkish-Armenian conflict.
     The exhibit said that Turks had been treating Armenians well, ever since 1000 A.D. A Turkish ruler named Mehmet II the Conqueror (he sounded like a friendly guy) established an Armenian Patriarchy in Istanbul. In 1461, it began governing the Armenian-Turks. Apparently, Armenians in Turkey had many opportunities, spoke Turkish well, and became rich.
     In 1859, supported by Napoleon, the Armenians revolted. Over the next fifty years, they kept revolting. Bishops imported weapons. Clergymen recruited people to revolt.
     In 1876, the Armenian Patriach Nerses said: "If the Armenian nation has been protected as a nation till today, and is keeping its belief, church, language, historical and cultural values, these are all thanks to the support, help, and charity the Turkish government has granted them." But, was Nerses working for the Armenians or for the Turks? He added:
     "Fate has tied Armenians to the Turks."
     At the beginning of World War I, Armenians were still known to Turkey as a "faithful nation". But, they deserted the Ottoman army, killed Turks, and joined Turkey's enemies.
     The museum said that the following were WWI orders for Armenians, when the Ottomans battled Russia:
     "If the Russian army proceeds from the border and the Ottoman soldiers withdraw, a rebellion will be made everywhere with all the available means; the Ottoman army will be left in cross fire, state institutions and buildings will be bombed; the governmental power will be interiorly occupied; the supply convoy will be hit; if the Ottoman army proceeds on the contrary, the Armenian soldiers will join Russians with their weapons."
     The Russians, indeed, penetrated Turkey as far as Van City on Lake Van. The museum said that Armenians rebelled and burnt the Muslim part of the city.
     Meanwhile, the Genocide Museum in Armenia said that the Turks had burnt an Armenian town near Van. And it showed pictures of a town in which all the buildings had been destroyed except two mosques.
     Hmmm? History was a tricky bitch.
     So, how did Turkey respond to the revolting Armenians? I wanted to know!
     Disappointingly, the museum said nothing about Turkey's actions. It just said the Ottoman government made the Transmittal and Settlement Act, moving Armenians "from war zones to safer places". For example, to the middle of the desert?
     The museum did have photos and information from archeological digs, in places where Armenians had apparently slaughtered Turks. In one place, three hundred Turkish villagers were gathered, killed, and burnt. The museum wrote: "Armenian forces leaving Erzurum took revenge of their defeat on people in villages."
     Elsewhere, Turkish children, women, and old men were put in barns, tortured, and killed with axes or bayonets. Mass graves included as many as five-hundred seventy, or two thousand, Turkish skeletons. These murders had taken place between 1915 and 1919.
     Fate was a tricky b*@:! sometimes, too.

The final word regarding Turkish-Armenian relations came from Mr. Tolga, a doctor who gave me a ride when I was hitchhiking recently.
     He came from western Turkey, but he was completing his doctor's obligation to work a year and a half in the underdeveloped east. He was stationed in a town not far from Erzurum. It had taken him six months to be able to understand the eastern Turks. Their language, he said, was closer to the Turkic languages of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, maybe even Kazakhstan.
     Sometimes, he was surprised to see men going to the hills with shovels and digging tools. What were these eastern Turks doing? Looking for treasure. Rich Armenians - when fleeing Turkey and emigrating to Armenia during World War I - had buried their treasure in the hopes that they'd return for it. One Turk had found treasure and was now rich, living in Istanbul.
     Mr. Tolga admitted that Armenians had a claim to Turkey's land. The Turks had arrived only one thousand years ago. At that time, Greeks and Armenians were living here.
     He summed up the Turkish-Armenian conflict best when he said:
     "We killed them, they killed us. The important thing isn't who killed more nor the numbers, but that we both did terrible things."
     Mr. Tolga seemed so wise that I asked him a question which was about another subject, but which was very important to me.
     "Is Turkey Central Asia?"
     Living in Erzurum, I had often joked that I was getting to know a Central Asian culture. This would mean I was getting to know a piece of a large and special part of the world. Walker and my other American co-workers made fun of me, saying, "Turkey's the Middle East!"
     But, Dr. Tolga said, "Culturally ... still (Central Asia)." All right! This made me happy. He added, "Turkey isn't Europe."
     Of course, I knew Turkey wasn't Europe. I pushed my luck. "Is Turkey the Middle East?"
     "Turkey is a cosmopolitan country," he said. "Kars (a city next to Erzurum) is Central Asia. Konya is the Middle East. Western Turkey is the Balkans."
     "And Erzurum?"
     "Erzurum is half Central-Asia, half Middle-East."
     What!? Only half Central-Asia? Mr. Tolga didn't know anything! He probably wasn't even a real doctor!
     Just kidding. I was happy with a half.

On an evening of fresh falling snow in Erzurum, I went to get revenge on my co-workers.
     Our language institute was near to the "Ataturk House".
     Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, after winning the Canakkale War, had gone on to become president. He continued to do good things for his country. He gave Western freedoms to women. He spoke of the importance of freedom in education. He visited Erzurum for fifty days, on a mission to organize and unite eastern Turkey.
     He stayed in this stone house, now preserved as the "Ataturk House" Museum.
     I wasn't working this day.
     Fifteen minutes before my language institute closed, I went to the Ataturk House and made thirty snowballs. I climbed onto the stone wall of the Ataturk House. And waited.
     Walker came walking down the street first. His hands in his coat pockets, and not a clue what was about to hit him. Now. Get him!
     I rapidly fired six snowballs at him, as he ran for cover behind a car. Chris from Australia came next. This poor guy from the tropics didn't stand a chance.
     As I waited for Jack from Detroit, Walker tried to sneak underneath me. He suffered two icy snowballs to the chest. But, he stole one of my snowballs. "Drop the snowball," I yelled like a madman. "Dropittt!!!"
     Jack came. He'd played baseball as a pitcher, and he threw like it. Soon, I was battling all three of them. They hid behind the wall. I stood on it.
     "I have the higher ground, a well-stocked arsenal, and the element of surprise. Though outnumbered, I have a superior strategy. I learned that from Ataturk!"
     "I noticed you chose the Ataturk House for the scene of your grisly massacre," said Chris.
     Chris was observant.
     Too observant!
     I threw a snowball at him.

peace and snowballs,
Modern Oddyseus

Did Ataturk ever say, in the middle of a battle:
     "Okay, guys. I don't have any more snowballs left. Let's stop and go home."

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