Observing Life Through Polarized Glasses
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FEBRUARY 3, 2012 1:52PM

The Persistence of Prejudice

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My great grantparents, grandfather and great uncle.

My great aunt, great grandmother, great grandfather and grandfather, about 1903


There is a city in eastern Turkey called Harput. It's not much more than a remnant of a middle sized city. It was from there that my grandfather, Ohannes Peshekerian, his brother, Avadis, and a sister, Araxi, immigrated to the United States. They came to the US sometime just before the outbreak of World War I, but they were not unfamiliar with violence. In the half century before that war, Armenians were a persecuted lot. My grandfather and his siblings have long since passed away and so I never knew in great detail what the circumstances of his arrival in the USA included. I was too young when he died to ask significant questions about his background. All I do know is that he was apprenticed to a shoe maker in the old country. Were his parents expected to make the trip later? Did they even have notions of leaving their home in Harput and try for a new life in a distant land? I don't know and chances are I'll never know; nor will my own children.

What is certain, though, is that his parents died at the hands of the Ottoman Turks sometime during that war. According to my grandfather, they were murdered by the Turks. His brother, whom we all just called “Uncle,” corroborated that event much later, when he was in his 90's. I never knew how they were murdered but the systematic destruction of Armenians throughout Anatolia for nearly a hundred years was accomplished by various means. Reports by western diplomats and missionaries which still exist are full of accounts of atrocities; atrocities later to be repeated in Europe itself just a couple of decades later.

I was the apple of my grandfather's eye - possibly because I was the only male born who carried his own blood. My sister certainly never had the relationship with him that I did. It wasn't a bad relationship, just not as full as mine was with our grandfather. I spent hours with him in his later years, when he lived alone in downtown San Francisco.

He had a small, one man real estate office in North Beach, in the heart of the Italian community, and in those hours we spent alone, I learned about Armenians. I learned about the atrocities; about his parents – my great grandparents, being destroyed. I was taught the Armenian alphabet, a few words, and even some songs he took with him from the old country. My grandfather told me stories of Armenia. He described it as some kind of paradise of fruit orchards and vineyards full of lucious grapes; a place of bounty. He told me of the two great lakes, Van and Sevan, and of Mount Ararat, where Noah's ark finally came to rest. And he told me, ever so proudly, of how Armenia was the first nation to officially adopt Christianity in Roman times.

“The Turks,” he would tell me, “are animals! Beasts!” And he would go over the chapters and the verses of what has come to be know as The Armenian Genocide. Barely 10 years of age, I was held rapt with the stories. Sometimes, when he had work to do, he would sit me at his old Underwood typewriter - the kind where you could see all the moving parts beneath a heavy iron frame – and I would pound away names, words, and endless lines of XXXX's.

One day, probably in the early 1950's, while I was engrossed in a line of X's, a man come into the office, presumably to do some business with him. I noticed him coming in, but I quickly returned to my typing. I then heard my grandfather shriek, “Get out of here, you God damned Turk! GET OUT!” and he came out from behind the counter and practically kicked the poor guy out the door. I looked up, at once scared and shocked to see the scuffle.

I had never seen my grandfather with such anger. “He's a god damned Turk, Bobby! He's an ANIMAL! NO Turk comes into this office.”

To look at me, you'd never know I'm an Armenian. I don't have olive skin; nor did I, in my younger days, own a thick mop of dark brown hair. The recombining of my Armenian mother and my Irish-German father's DNA awarded me – for better or worse - a ruddy complexion, green eyes and blond/brown hair, and above-average height. A male version of the Kardashians I'm not, nor ever was, even on my best day.

Yet, as probably every human being who has Armenian blood flowing in his veins knows, learning “the story of the massacres” is part of growing up. There isn't a single person of any kind of Armenian background who hasn't some story to tell of their ancestors, some distant relative who suffered at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in the late 1800's or during World War I. Even the newly created Republic of Turkey, in it's earliest days continued with the killings. To most Turkish people, Kemal Ataturk is credited with bringing a new nation into the 20th century. To most older Armenians, though, he is certainly not. He was just another in a long line of powerful Muslim men who persecuted the Christian Armenians.

Under the house

When my grandfather died, I was around 18 or so years old. After he passed away, my father and I cleaned out his hotel room on Grant Avenue. There were stacks of books which we dutifully collected and then stored in the basement of the house we lived in down the peninsula in a suburban little town; and there they stayed for another 30 years or more, untouched, gathering dust and subjected to the ravages of damp winters, mold, and paper eating bugs of one kind or another.

One day, in my late 50s, as my mother's health began to fail, my curiosity about those books was somehow piqued enough to go under the house, among the spider webs and nails hammered through the sub-floor above and take look at them. They turned out to be a treasure trove of books long out of print but written by famous men of the day. And nearly all of them had some relationship to the Armenian genocide. There were eyewitness accounts of the killings by Viscount James Bryce, Henry Morgenthau, and Arnold Toynbee, as well as works about Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. It was, in fact, a literary snapshot of a particular time and event in history. I even found a copy of T.E. Lawrence's “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” (I later came to surmise that my grandfather was not so much interested in Lawrence of Arabia's war exploits as he was his accounting of his torture by the Turkish bey after having been captured.)

Paging through the bug-eaten and water damaged books, I found margin notes in nearly all of them, written in pencil by my grandfather. They either underlined or opposed some statement by the author. There was plenty of “god damned Turks” interspersed with his commentary. There was even some writing in Armenian (which I never learned to read or write). Clearly and understandably, for my grandfather, he was unable to rid himself of the demons of his youth. His anger and hatred for anything Turkish was as fresh and strong on the day he died as it must have been on the day that he learned his own parents were destroyed decades before. It was a complete hatred, absolutely devoid of reason. Though he escaped death, he was an emotionally damaged man for the rest of his life.

The legacy

For me, this instilling of what my grandfather's experiences were as a young boy, and certainly his own attitude about his oppressors, dripped inevitably into my own views. In some vague, hard to define way, the very word “Turk” carried with it the sad and angry remembrance of what had happened to my grandfather and his family. For most of my life, I'm sorry to say, I have carried a certain reservation about Turkish people and even the nation itself. I am intellectually very aware of this emotional hesitation to fully accept Turkish people. I understand that I am three generations removed from what happened to the Armenians, yet there is that nagging, cloying, emotional memory of my grandfather throwing that Turkish fellow out of his office.

The trip

My sister and I are all that is left of our own family. Mother and Father are both long gone, along with our grandparents. From time to time, we talk about our “Armenian-ness” to each other. Both of us still have unanswered questions. Many times, when the subject comes up, it is usually because our own kids are now asking questions about their great grandparents. They are wanting to complete their own circles of knowing who, exactly, they are.

And so we are planning a trip to Turkey and the modern republic of Armenia for the spring of 2013.We are taking our children to Istanbul (where our grandmother was from), to Harput (which still exists) and then on to Armenia. The kids are doing all kinds of research into putting the details together. They are excited. I am somewhat hesitant but my curiosity overrides any notion of not going along. This will not be a cruise on the Aegean by a long shot. We may be backpacking – or sub-backpacking – on this trek.

We will meet plenty of Turkish people, I'm sure. And maybe then, in doing so, I can drop the vestigial prejudice handed down to me. Honestly, it's really about time.


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armenia, prejudice, turkey, travel

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Thank you very much for this account on genocide on the Armenians.I am sure you know that up to this day,the official side of turkey still denies it.I have a good idea how you could prepare yourself for this trip.I'll send you a PM.
What you might not be aware of is that Turkey has excellent writers
and wonderful music.
Armenians like the Kurds,are supposed to be a very proud people.
Yashar Kemal is Turk,isn't he?He has written excellent books for children,but I have read them as an adult,and I found them fsscinating.
Armenians and Turks have been (cousins) related by customs and intermarriages.I would say it might be interesting for your kids not only to look into the history but also read literature of that region.Doing so,allows them to enter the magic world of the Orient.
Here is the name of a famous writer.He lives in Istambul.He is a liberal men,and it would be good for you to contact him now.You might be able to meet him.
Good luck Cache - Ähnliche Seiten
The brutality of the turks is also in the collective subconscious mind of Western European countries.
There is a hesitation letting them join the E.U.that cannot be denied.Generally speaking,the Turks I have met are very friendly people,but I have once met one old father of a very young girl who illtreated her in public,downtown central place with a lot of witnesses.There was so much hatred in this man that I myself refrained from interferring. geben hierfür öffentlich +1. Rückgängig machen
Originalsprache: Englisch
Flylooper, this is a superb piece of writing. I wish you could send it individually to everybody online today. Why? If you go take a look at Mimetalker's post of the day and read the comments, you will understand. There are people who don't seem to understand how bigotry and prejudice are passed down through the generations, tier after tier after tier. You are to be greatly commended for recognizing your own, deep-seated bias and for planning to do something that just might break the chain. I am looking forward to reading your report of that trip.

A sad story, but one that needs telling. I wish you well on your journey of discovery.

Whether it's the Turks and Armenians, or the Turk and Greeks, or Jews and Arabs, or Jews and Germans, or Serbs and Croats --- or White Folks and Redskins in this country, dividing the world in to Us and Them always eventually results in atrocities. Until we humans can get past the Us and Them -- if we can get past that -- the Thems of this world will continue to suffer.
Flylooper I read with great interest a history I was totally unaware of. The world is getting smaller and I love history but I love a first person account of the history because that is where the humanity of it lies isn't it? I hope your trip renders the outcome you are hoping for and that those feelings long instilled in you can be laid to rest with those who gave them to you.
Not prejudice on your part--wariness. Justifiably so. My great-uncle, an Irishman, and a boxer, killed an Englishman in the ring, Galway, around 1912. My aunts were so proud. Yet, the Englishman may have been a good guy. Or not. Such hatred arrives via nurture, not nature. My brother-in-law was a Turk, born in eastern Turkey, and a jet pilot in the Turkish air force. He was mortified by the Armenian genocide. Your uncle was right to fear, even to hate. Yet two or three generations later, well, those people have to be judged on their merits--their Actions--not on their grandparents' merits, or lack thereof. The human condition. Fine piece.
I was on a tour to Turkey a couple of years ago - loved it, loved the food, the people were charming. However, when we first landed, before we could go anywhere we had to pay some kind of entry fee, which varied according to visitors' nationality. The fee for Canadians was the highest. I joked to my friend that it was because of Canadian recognition of the Armenian massacre, which may well have been the case. And I added that while in Turkey we should be careful not to say anything about Armenians, Kurds or...damn, I've forgotten the third one. There was a third group...

Hope you enjoy (if that's the word) your ambitious trip to the land of your forebears.
Safe journey to you. I hope you find what you seek, and your children do, too. It sounds like a fabulous adventure, and a good way to connect with your children.
I think by writing about all this you are exorcising some of memories of your grandfather. Learn what you can from those memories and remember. The idea of traveling there is a good one. This might help you arrive at your own conclusions and feelings. Safety of your family first on this trip, remember that. I think you will experience many delightful surprises and kindnesses. I wish you well.
Tom,nice to see you here.What you said is the eternal truth.
I was not aware of a new name for coloured people in the US,and I find it even worse to call coloured people "Them";it's discriminating ,much more than calling a Black "Negro" because as far as I know,this means nothing else but Black.(or Nigerian
Sorry to be disagreeable, but personally I DON'T think it "it's about time", etc. Not while Turkey is still conducting Genocidal type acts against various minorities, mainly Kurds (I guess they can't find enough Armenians left to be worth killing). Are you familiar with the case of the first Kurdish reperesentative to the Turk Parliament? She was arrested in the bldg. on the spot for daring to suggest that there WAS such a thing as minorities in Turkey. And she was merely suggesting that they should all work together from now on..etc, etc.
It is highly instructive to remember the role, during the entire Genocidal Period, of the mired in Antiquity (Sick Man of Europe) Ottomans' absurdly iconoclastic Harem System- all these murderous decisions made by incoherent Sultans living in what Jihadis claim to be heading for in the next life while all the while being influenced in every way by concubines and eunuchs!!! All the way to 1923! While Hobert Heever was getting ready to give Americans chickens in every pot and cars in all garages the Turks were still administrating in a near Bronze Age manner. While modern Turkey has all sorts of good aspects, the sheer hatred of all Christians by some authoritarians (of course rooted in the huge bundle of insecurity living in an Istanbul built for and entirely by Christians and still crowned by the Hagia as a daily reminder) extends to all Armenians and includes the Greek Orthodox- the real Christians overall!

It is really no wonder their annual plea for EU inclusion remains unanswered.

Auwe (Alas)
@ shawn disney and oahu surfer:

You make good points. I'm well aware of the problem with the Kurds. Ironically (?) enough, it is precisely for the same stated reasons - namely the desire for autonomy, if not outright independence for the Kurds, that the Turkish government is reacting. I have read of atrocities, yes.

I'm not going to defend the Turkish government/people. But I do not want to indict them so easily, either.

Look, America pretty well snuffed Indians: culture, land, resources. The Brits took care of half of Asia, not to mention Ireland. the Germans the Jews, gypsies, gays, Russians.

The purpose of my piece was not to overlook 5,000 years of recorded history. It was to try to come to terms with my personal demon, which is that I tend to hate an entire class of people. Are there no decent Turks? Americans? Muslims? Russians? If there are - if there is just one,then it follows that my prejudice is misplaced, no?

Should that man in my grandfather's office have been thrown out? Could he have been a good father, a good citizen? Maybe even a Christian!
By the way....The Turks are hardly in any kind of rush to join the EU. It has the hottest economy in Europe. Why hook up with the likes of Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal?
You article was lovely and well written. Thank you and for what must have been painful reflections.
I did have to call my father and thank him for being so great. One of my first political awareness moments was the Munich Massacre. The fear and angry I still remember. My mother crying, on the phone with family, the feeling of vulnerability. Soon afterwards an Iranian family came to dinner, and their daughter and I hit it off, like little girls do. All my life growing up I had Muslim girlfriends who were Arab, Farsi, Afghan, Pakistani, etc. My family made sure that the acts of a few, even though celebrated by many, was not how I was to see Muslims. Today having a Muslim friend is no more a big deal than having a Baptist one, maybe easier since Mirim and I don't have to worry about eating pork, like when we do at our mutual friend Bev's.
Thank you agin
Thanks for your introspective article about how prejudices are passed down. I am in the middle of a article about an Armenian-America labor organizer who was also well acquainted with the genocide. It helped form her views about racial discrimination here in the USA and was an impetus for her work in civil rights and working class struggles for justice.

We should never forget the crimes of the past, but we also need to remember that today's Turks (or any other dominant group) are not the people who live there today. And when it comes to people on the individual level, they vary widely. Some Turks helped Armenians escape the worst of the terror.
You're brave to chance that trust, more than I feel able to attempt on any more than one person at a time. Certainly, I cannot abide the denial of the genocide. Good luck, please tell of your journey, the good and the bad.
Beautifully written. Over the years, I've met people from many cultures that have provoked strong feelings over the last 100 years: Iranian, Japanese, South African, Sudanese, Russian and others. Each experience has added a bit to my understanding of various cultures and how they relate. I prefer to judge each as an individual, and learn more about their culture to understand its influence on them.

I've made a few Turkish friends in recent years and I find them delightful. A few other friends have visited Turkey in the last several years and had fascinating experiences with the local food, music, history and architecture. They observed a lot of resistance to change, especially outside the cosmopolitan environment of Istanbul.

I agree with Heidi Banerjee's recommendation of Orhan Pamuk's writings. He writes in a very open-minded, educated way about modern Turkey. Response to his writings within Turkey has been consistent with what my friends have seen in traveling there. I especially recommend "Snow," which specifically addresses cultural resistance to change in reference to Islam. "The Museum of Innocence" is a very detailed, intimate look at modern Turkish culture through relationships between men and women. I recently picked up a copy of "Istanbul: Memories and the City," but haven't read it yet.

I hope that your journey gives you some answers.