Petty & ProudBy: Varak Babian | Posted on: 12.02.2014
“Are you Turkish?”
“No, I’m a Kurd.”
“Perfect. I’ll take a doner combo to go.”
In that moment I managed to feel both petty and proud.
I was flirting with a multitude of emotions while breathing in the Berlin air. The city struck me as being unassuming- practical and powerful. Guidebook armed, I tried to wet my whistle with the important tourist destinations. A discernible narrative seemed to make itself clearer with each site we visited. A humility best described as a sense of being proud of the present, while remaining mindful of the past.
The Holocaust Memorial. A mazelike structure as far as the eye can see, each brick representing a lost life. Uniformed police patrolling the vicinity, making sure the grounds were respected. Making sure people were acting… kosher, if you will.
The Berlin Wall. Constant reminders of an unfortunate past, not tucked away …Proudly on display: a representation of change, physical proof of a once conflicted national identity now serving as a beautiful canvas, bitingly emblazoned with anti-fascist, anti-war folklore.
The Underground Transit. Dramatic, over-sized posters offering a cash reward for any information on octogenarian, ex-SS culprits posted up alongside subway stops. Clear messages of restoration and reparation are everywhere.
I was jealous.
While I indulged in this Bavarian metropolis, one of the cosmopolitan capitals of the world, I just couldn’t seem to get over the broad Turkish tint marking the city. Whether it be snippets of floating phrases or lavish posters promising the best lehmechoun outside of Anatolia, I was shocked to feel so anxious, so defensive. I tried to reason with myself, to come up with excuses of why I was feeling so uneasy. Understand why my back remained so bristled. My internal pep talk was interrupted by an uneasy narrative.
I strongly believe that change can only happen effectively through discourse- from within Turkey. The new generation in Turkey will help battle years of nationalistic pride and ignorance and we will rise out of this denial together. This will lighten their own psyche, balance out their universal karma and it needs to happen just as much for the culprit as for the victim.
These are not groundbreaking “Aha!” moments and they have all been discussed with friends over an array of double doubles, but there I was- feeling threatened. The elderly Turkish man with the sweet smile selling cigarettes curbside made me uneasy. Did he see me as an enemy? Did he know I was Armenian? Was the cabby blaring Ibrahim Tatlises in his rusted Toyota really a threat? I am jaded, I am stubborn. I manage to feel both petty and proud.
I scratched my head, often enough until the itch seemed to tide and I recognized what had the hairs standing at full attention. Here I was in the city that seemed to write the book on how to atone for past mistakes, how to reconcile and move forward- and the only thing that I seemed to be able to see was the overwhelming population that represented those who refused to admit, to atone and to reconcile. The Turkish diaspora in Germany is remarkable- in numbers and daily influence. They presently make up the largest ethnic minority and the loosening of trade and immigration policies seems to nearly guarantee that these numbers are on a steady incline. They have influenced daily habits with doners and lehmecun overtaking brats and wurst. I nearly stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a very blonde, very Aryan looking German miss the closing doors of the subway tram. Not because he had miscalculated (a stereotypically very un-German move) but because of the swear words that tumbled out of his mouth afterwards. All very blue, and very Turkish. Though seemingly inconsequential, daily vernacular and street food say quite a bit about the cultural makeup of a city.
How had the reverse affect and influence not taken a foothold? Why were Turks living in Germany not absorbing and assuming the modern sensibilities of admitting, atoning and reconciling and exporting them back home on the same track which they seemed to be using to import their Anatolian conventions?
* * *
17 Hardenbergerstrasse? Yes…very close.10 min away, right beside the zoo.
I was making what seemed to be a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage to an address that I had come across over the years. In history books and in anecdotes, it was a place that seemed to invoke a sense of national pride, a place where strength and dignity were restored.
A text message response to whether or not the address was familiar to those back home. Of course, was the immediate response. “The place where the beast fell”
The very place that marked the end of Talaat Pasha’s life.
The very place that seemed to end a sort of pilgrimage.
Pouring over court transcripts, first person accounts, journal and diary entries – a route is planned. We know that a young Soghomon Tehlirian turned his life over to this act of redemption. He rented a room a stone’s throw away and plotted his life’s great calling. A candle of some sort, to light at the altar of all those who has perished. Alternatively, a chance to spit in the devil’s eye.
I walked, making my way to what would have been his apartment. Soghomon was a young man, close to my own age. Did he know that his actions would have been not only remembered, but paid homage to so many years later? I felt my heart race. This was the place where my idol had hung his hat while wrestling with the horrific memories of slaughter. Talaat had lived across the street, a few steps in a single direction. How many times did he stand just where I was standing, and ponder his fate? I starting hitting pavement, crossed the same crosswalk, walked towards the same merging street. 17 Hardenbergerstrasse. It took 7 minutes to get to that spot. The streets had gone through many facelifts since then. I looked for a plaque- tried to find some documentation, some proof. I felt my body tense up as I tried to put myself in his position. 24 years old, standing above the man who helped orchestrate the genocide of his people, of our people. I flashed back to the present and realized I probably looked a tad out of place. Taking pictures of a residential street, pacing back and forth on the same block, trying not to discount my revved up emotions.
Tombs for unknown soldiers.
Altars and incense.
* * *
Berlin was impactful and while I was there, a thought blossomed that I return to now and again. Several months later, I seem to revisit the same romanticized images. I desperately wish that one day I am able to walk the streets of Turkey. Pay my respects and soak in the Armenian Genocide memorial, read the plaques shedding light on a gruesome past and the promise of decades of humility. Visit the old Armenian quarters and Museums of Genocide and Tolerance.
I want to not feel threatened by a middle aged Turkish couple. Be able to argue to merits of the best lehmacun outside of Anatolia, maybe even bob my head to Ibrahim Tatlises. As much as I can dream of a smooth existence and exterior, I will always have an emotional scar, one that will never heal.
I’d love for that scar to stop being pricked and fade to a light pink. I think we would all benefit from some imported Anatolian ointment.