The magic of a boring sandwich: Reflections from an Armenian cemetery in Kharpert
May 25, 2018
In the hearth of Kharpert, Western Armenia
The matriarch endures scorching heat and religious fasting to make for strangers a delicious homemade meal. (Photo: Lilly Torosyan; Graphic: h-pem)
If you could have dinner with any person in the world—dead or alive—who would you choose? My answer, every time, is my great grandparents. Many of us have us wondered how we would feel if we ever ventured to the lands from which we have collectively been exiled for the last four generations. Upon returning from my trip to Western Armenia, I encountered the spirit of our ancestors and their will to build again, love again, and rejoice again, in the most unlikely of places: a sandwich.
They say that it is the most universally loved smell in the world. Just the mention of the word and images stream from our childhood like a film reel: in the symphony of your kitchen, admiring mama kneading dough with her strong fists, in awe of how much energy could be expelled from such a petite woman; long tables with each square inch covered by food or drink, and old mustachioed men making toast after toast, while you excitedly anticipate their cold vodka glasses pressing against your nose; Sunday afternoons spent in your favorite bakery, deciding which selection of goodies to engorge on while your parents wait, impatiently but lovingly, by the register. Ah, yes, the smell of bread: It’s at once familiar, warm, and safe.
Yet, for something so universally beloved, there is no word for the scent it gives off. Cakes smell like butter and eggs; one whiff of a doughnut and the odor of fried dough and sugar overwhelms the senses—even pickles have a distinct, pungent aroma. Bread—this universally beloved staple of almost every cuisine—and its universally beloved smell and all of the happy memories that go with it, is left indefinable, inexpressible. Wordless.
I look down at my little luxuries—a few strips of prosciutto, sliced provolone cheese, and a hearty loaf of warm, flaky childhood memories. Setting my plate down on the table, I admire my creation. I’ve made many a sandwich in my day; nothing about this one was particularly noteworthy, but I could not bring myself to munch on it—not just yet.
Outside, sidewalks are draped with snow and homes are strewn with decorations, lighting up the night sky. But my mind is neither there nor here; it is thousands of miles away, nestled between two mountain peaks in the Armenian Highlands.
It is the middle of June. We are in the east of Turkey (henceforth, Western Armenia) during Ramadan. Scorching heat from an angry sun and limited access to food has me thinking twice about this entire trip.
Somehow, we find ourselves in the hut of a local Kurdish family in Kharpert. In the middle of the room is a cheerful middle-aged woman—seemingly oblivious to her torrid hearth, with a scarf swathing all but her eyes and nose—and her baking arms, hard at work, rolling out lavash in her tonir oven. Within seconds, I feel my scanty clothes sticking to my skin and my throat congesting.
Moments earlier, we had left the only remaining Armenian cemetery in Kharpert. To my surprise, it was not from the genocide era, but still functioning, with graves dated as recently as the year 2013. Two members from our 10-person group made incense, while another led us all in a recitation of the Hayr Mer (The Lord’s Prayer) with a recording of a sharakan, or church hymn, in the background. Something we all had recited thousands of times in our diasporan churches, thousands of miles away, seemed to take on a new meaning in these lands. Praying for the souls of our departed brethren in the lost homeland felt like an appropriate way to say goodbye.
We move out of the little shack and sit down at the table outside. A young woman swiftly brings out that mouth-watering bread we were eying just seconds before, and eagerly pours us glasses of ayran, or as we call it, tahn—a cold, refreshing yogurt drink. She watches us come back to life through her offerings, in which she cannot partake until sundown.
Our group leader, Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, tells us the story of this family—that the patriarch was arrested years ago by Turkish authorities on suspicion of ties to the PKK, that controversial Kurdish organization that has led a four-decade long armed campaign for Kurdish rights and protections in Turkey. Dr. Mouradian visits the family often on his frequent trips to Western Armenia. Through his translating, we feel at ease with this Kurdish family. What better peace offering than breaking bread together (Or, in this case, just gifting us the whole thing to eat ourselves)?
Perhaps the effects of the sustenance just kicked in when we noticed a bearded man, quietly nestled on the opposite end of the table. As handsome as he was brooding, the weathered creases on his face led me to believe that he probably appeared much older than he actually was, like someone who had seen too much and it was all written on his face—if one chooses to read it.
Dr. Mouradian said he didn’t recognize him, and just as suddenly as the mystery man appeared, we carried on as though we had never noticed him. Of course, there was a story here, and our leader was about to get to the bottom of it. It didn’t take long before we discovered that this was the long-lost head of the family—newly released after over a decade in prison for his political activities. No wonder these women were beaming—they had their father and husband back. In these lands, every little luxury is celebrated.
In that moment, I knew that what we were experiencing was profoundly extraordinary, but I couldn’t quite place why. I must confess: I still don’t really know.
What I do know is that sitting with these hospitable strangers outside their home, eating their delicious food while they rejoiced with their empty stomachs and full hearts, was deeply moving. Sharing in their joy for their reunited family—despite a language barrier—was beautiful. And for a family to have sacrificed so much in the hope of a better nation for all of its inhabitants, including my peoples—and to so openly extend all of the little luxuries they had to us—somehow, completed the prayer.
Only now could I say, “Amen.”
As Armenians, we value food. Deeply. In discussions of what constitutes Armenian culture and identity, our ethnic cuisine almost always cracks the top three. All over the global diaspora, lively debates ensue about what is true Armenian food, whose mother makes the best manti or dolma, and which Armenian cuisine is better: Eastern or Western. I will not entertain these questions—sometimes being a spectator is more fun, anyway. Instead, I want to focus on an element of food that is often overlooked.
At the risk of sounding facetious, I firmly believe that making a sandwich is one of the biggest luxuries we are afforded in our postmodern world.
You may, at this point, be thinking that I’m a hare-brained lunatic with no understanding of the vast societal and technological advancements of the last century. While I very much appreciate the instant gratification of a text message from relatives scattered across the world and admire the Godly invention that is video chatting, the art of bread as a meal is at once primal and modern. It is both a familiar staple and a cherished novelty, carrying centuries of history and a lifetime of memories in each satiating mouthful.
Yet, this deeply undervalued form of meal making has become the butt of ridicule in our modern era—from sexist jokes to jabs at millennials who have lost the most fundamental of life skills—cooking, and by that I mean, of course, real cooking.
But it wasn’t a fancily prepared meal that connected me with that Kurdish family. Truth be told, I cannot even remember if we ate lavash or some other form of bread. How silly is that? I do, however, recall its smell and the evocative memories, too bountiful to describe—two wordless sensations that are conjoined, like salt and pepper or mother and child. Whatever it was, I recall how warm and succulent and familiar it was in my mouth. But I shouldn’t be surprised that the powerful ingredient in this formula was one-third of the "holy trinity" (bread, water, salt) that makes up the Armenian home—no, both of our homes.
In college, I came across this old clip of Holocaust survivor, Gerda Weissmann Klein, accepting an Academy Award for starring in a documentary about the tragedy she endured under the Nazis. I think about her speech often, especially since returning from Western Armenia this summer. It is this one line, in particular, that I ruminate on whenever I find myself bored: “In my mind’s eye, I see those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.” Is this not the greatest luxury of all? To be so content with life that we become bored by the mundaneness of its beauty?
Making a sandwich, taking a warm bath, strolling around the block…these little pleasures were—for a brief while, not too long ago—impossibilities for our ancestors. Simple food, basic hygiene, a roof over our heads, even boredom are all magical simplicities that could be taken away from us at any moment. Just as they have been before.
The best way to honor the memories of our loved ones who were not afforded these luxuries, says Klein, is to realize that “each of [us] who know the joy of freedom are winners.”
In my suburban New England home, I silently say a prayer to that sweet Kurdish family, to the souls in that Armenian cemetery, to all who were lost during the genocide, and to all who have since been lost and forgotten on those lands. And now, I enjoy my boring little luxury, while admiring the extraordinary winter wonderland outside of my window.
Making incense (խունկ | "khunk") at the Armenian cemetery in Kharpert
(Video: Lilly Torosyan/h-pem)
Making incense (խունկ | "khunk") at the Armenian cemetery in Kharpert
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