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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Antonina Mahari's example of courage and hope through years of Soviet torment makes me feel very lucky but also a bit ashamed

We’ve all seen James Bond films, so we’re familiar with the character of the evil genius who threatens the world.
I doubt such villains really exist. The great threat to life and liberty is more likely an idiot who has acquired the trappings of authority: a title, a uniform or, God forbid, a gun.
I was reminded of this as I read My Odyssey by Antonina Mahari. It is a pain-filled account of the author’s life journey from Lithuania to Armenia by way of Siberia beginning in 1944 when she was 20 years old.
Her native land lurched between Russian and German occupations while she was a teenager. She was a law student at Vilnius University when the Russians returned with a vengeance.
Antonia was arrested on suspicion of being an anti-Soviet agitator, although how or why she had fallen under suspicion was not clear. Such things were never clear.
She endured nightly assaults by a screaming interrogator standing beneath a portrait of the ever-smiling dictator Joseph Stalin. Although beaten and humiliated, Antonina did not confess to any imaginary crimes so the interrogations continued.
All of the women who shared her airless cell experienced the same horrors.
“Every night, women who were beaten during the interrogations were thrown into our cell half dead,” she wrote. “A Polish woman died. Her kidneys were crushed. A seventeen-year-old Lithuanian girl named Genute went mad . . .”
Antonina wondered what the torturers could possibly have meant to accomplish, as prisoners knew confession would likely result in a visit to Vanya the executioner. In the years that followed, she experienced a great deal more pain and witnessed many pointless deaths.
She came to understand there was no sense in any of it.
Eventually judged incorrigible, Antonina was consigned to Siberia. There she toiled and shivered among a multitude of other suspected free thinkers from all the captive nations: artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers, scientists, military officers.
Many of them had been good Communists, or thought so until they were dragged from their homes. They had the talent and intelligence to rebuild their shattered homelands but those very attributes made them a danger to their rulers.
In this topsy-turvy world, complaint was forbidden. A sigh in the company of an informer could lead to further torture. Everyone was expected to sing songs in praise of Stalin, even as his minions drained their lives of joy and purpose.
It was in this stifling atmosphere on a collective farm in 1952 that Antonina fell in love with Gurgen Mahari, who sang folks songs of his native Van as he worked. He could smile because Stalin was absent from the lyrics, and because he could sense humor in the irony of his miserable circumstances.
One of Armenia’s greatest writers, Gurgen was forced to herd pigs.
“Now, those who once raised pigs write poems, and we have taken their place with the pigs,” he told Antonina.
Mahari had been arrested in 1937. He was hardly a subversive, much less a revolutionary, but his love for Armenia showed boldly enough to make his work incompatible with Soviet internationalism.
The state prescribed 10 years of confinement to improve his exuberance for Communism. Within a year of his release, Mahari was arrested again and sentenced to life in Siberia.
But this did not keep Mahari from his work. Exhausted and bone cold, he wrote each night by the fire in his tiny log hut even though none of his poems or stories could be published.
The writer and his work might have been buried together in the tundra except for a great stroke of luck: Stalin died in March 1953, and the torments he fostered stopped along with his cold heart—for a while, at least.
Antonina and Gurgen, now married, were released in 1954 and given an apartment in Armenia’s capital. The great writer was once again celebrated not only by the public but by his fellow writers, who visited often and joined him in spirited literary dialogues.
Antonina worried that the great volume of cigarettes and vodka he consumed during these sessions would shorten his life but these excesses merely weakened him. It was his friends who finally killed him.
In 1966, Gurgen Mahari published his master work. The novel Burning Orchards was set in Van and followed events leading up to the siege of 1915 when the Armenian population was slaughtered and their homes reduced to rubble.
The author’s close friend, Paruyr Sevak, another of Armenia’s most honored writers, denounced the book. He argued that Mahari had portrayed Armenian revolutionaries in a way that blamed them for inciting the Genocide. He made a speech calling his comrade “a traitor and a servant of the Turks.”
Other writers joined Sevak, and a crowd burned the book in front of Mahari’s home. The Writers Union demanded Orchards be rewritten. Mahari complied despite his wife’s objections but his concessions did not improve his standing.
No one spoke in the author’s defense because no one dared to. Mahari became deeply depressed, and his wife kept close watch as he threatened to jump off the balcony. “Antonina, there is nothing worse than seeing your literary creation being dragged through the mud and to know that your friends, your beloved countrymen, are doing it.”
He died in 1969, broken by the unrelenting torrent of hate.
No one could blame his widow if she had moved back to Lithuania but she didn’t because her beloved Gurgen had begged her to stay in Yerevan. “You are the only person who can tell the truth about me.”
He told her to write about their cruel experience in the fool’s paradise. “Write, and have no mercy on anyone. It is very important for history.”
So she wrote, and she waited. Although Stalin was gone, obedient comrades still sang to his memory and saluted his statue. The secret police and their informers still made notes of sighs and whispers. People still disappeared into the Siberian wilderness.
So Antonina guarded her notes and the papers Gurgen left behind, and she finished My Odyssey in secret. A manuscript was smuggled out of Armenia and an abridged version published in Beirut in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Armenia was finally free, but no publisher there would touch it.
“All the publishing houses were filled with former comrades,” she wrote. “They were holding their posts and settled very comfortably.” None of these brave editors thought it would be a good idea to stir up unpleasant memories—and none thought it would be wise to point fingers.
Antonina persevered until Armenia was finally ready to read her story. Her memoir was published there in 2003. The following year, she had the good fortune to meet Ruth Bedevian while Bedevian was visiting Yerevan.
Bedevian had learned about Gurgen and Antonina Mahari while researching an article on Armenian writers. Antonina subsequently asked Bedevian to help have her memoir translated into English, and Bedevian agreed.
It was not a simple request to fulfill. Bedevian assembled an impressive group of experts who were able transcend literal translation by lending context to unfamiliar times and places.
The result is anything but a conventional memoir. The chapters don’t follow common structure or order. The book is filled with obscure references. Most striking to me is the unfamiliarity of the central subject: Have you ever read anything by Gurgen Mahari?
I haven’t, but I found his life story fascinating—inspiring, depressing, infuriating all at once. I felt privileged reading the book, and I felt ashamed thinking about how often I complain because my computer is acting up or because my den is a bit too warm or because someone’s making a racket mowing the lawn.
Now when I have such silly thoughts I will think instead about Gurgen writing by weary hand in his Siberian hut, and Antonina wrapping her manuscript in an old swim suit and folding it into the bottom of her suitcase to hide it from the secret police.
It is wonderful to live and write in America. We certainly have no shortage of idiots, but they can’t send me to Siberia for sighing deeply at the thought of them. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Shish kebab may not sound Armenian but it makes me happy -- and that's what counts.

Do you own the food you eat?

I’m not asking to see the receipt for the Big Mac and fries you wolfed down at lunch. I’m talking about ownership in the broad, cultural sense. I’ve heard the question asked a number of ways—occasionally profanely—since my wife and I created seven years ago.

Our goal was simple: to preserve the recipes we treasured while touting the glories of Armenian food. Our definition of Armenian food was just as simple: anything Armenians eat.

In my case, that would include lasagna and hot fudge sundaes. But I’ve always shown more discipline in writing than in eating, so we’ve been able to focus on the dishes that bring back memories of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ kitchens.

That still adds up to a long and incredibly varied menu. Armenia’s history of repeated invasions brought the tastes from many pots to the homeland while scattering refugees across the globe.

Traditional Armenian recipes evolved in different ways in all those places. So did Armenians’ palates, and so did Armenians themselves. We hear almost every day from readers with Irish or Italian names who want help recreating a dish they remember their “Armenian grandmother” used to make.

What better way to stay connected to each other as well as to our shared past?

For me, and for many Armenians, there’s no food memory more powerful or more mouth-watering than shish kebab. My family ate Armenian food almost daily when I was growing up, but shish kebab always signified a special occasion.

Or maybe it just made any occasion special. It’s a far simpler dish than many that Mom made more often but the ritual involved all of us.

The meat had to come from an Armenian or Syrian butcher who knew lamb and had the skill to cut it properly. My mother was in charge of seasoning and marinating the meat overnight, then skewering and salting it just before cooking.

When I was old enough, I got into the act by making the fire, always starting with kindling wood because Dad said lighter fluid ruined the taste of the meat no matter how long you waited for it to evaporate. And make no mistake, the kebab had to be cooked outdoors over a flame, never in the oven.

Rain might delay the meal but it was never an excuse to cheat. My wife remembers her father moving the grill into the garage as they tried to chase the smoke out the open door. I remember my father hoisting ours into the back of his station wagon and finishing the kebab as we drove home from the park in a downpour.

Like all Armenian fathers, mine was in charge of the actual kebab cooking, turning the skewers regularly so the meat seared evenly. Mom, meanwhile, prepared the bulgur pilaf and salad but I never wandered far. I’d stay by the fireside breathing in the smoky aroma of roasting meat, onions and tomatoes while waiting to taste the first piece and pronounce it done.

Then I’d watch Dad slide the meat off the skewers using a ragged chunk of bread as a cushion. Every Armenian father did the same, and every Armenian kid kept his eye on that bread as it swelled and softened in the juices at the bottom of the pot. 

I know siblings who fought over it every time. I was never luckier to be an only child than at kebab time.

Whenever I make my own kebab, my head swells with memories of these countless childhood barbecues and picnics – and, of course, of my parents. My wife has the same reaction. Making kebab together is a very real and wonderful way of sharing our early lives as we tell kebab stories until we’ve swallowed the least bite.

Apparently lots of folks share this experience or, perhaps, wish they did. Back in 2010, I posted a video on YouTube titled How To Make Shish Kebab. I got an email the other day notifying me that the video had passed 100,000 views. 

This astounds me as much as it pleases me that I somehow lured 100,000-or-so people away from the latest zombie movie or Wheel of Fortune rerun to watch me broil lamb the Armenian way.

Because YouTube allows comments, I know lots of folks found the video informative and enjoyable. Many added their own thoughts about seasonings or cooking techniques – all to the good. As I say on the video, every family has its own ideas about the “right” way to make kebab, and I’m happy to sample them all.

But while the reaction from most has been quite positive, some of it was downright nasty. A handful of comments were so ugly that I deleted them to keep the site family friendly. The gist of the crankiest complaints was that shish kebab is not Armenian and that Armenians “stole” not only the name but the very idea of skewering meat from Turks.

It’s clear some of the rowdies hadn’t watched the video. In my narration, I explain that shish kebab is known as khorovatz in Armenia. But how many views would I have racked up with a video called How to Make Khorovatz?

What's the origin of the common name? I’m no linguist, but I can use a dictionary pretty well and I’m a master Googler. The etymology is usually explained as a fusion of Persian kebab and Turkish shish (skewer) – and please don’t bother “correcting” the spelling. Both were long ago anglicized and adopted into American usage.

If you travel, or like to sample various ethnic restaurants, you’ll need to broaden your kebab vocabulary. It’s shashlik to Russians, lahm mishwy to Arabs, souvlaki to Greeks – all remarkably similar in concept, although the type of meat varies by local tradition, availability and religious practice.

Armenians historically favored lamb, but cheaper and more abundant pork is common fare at khorovatz stands in the homeland today. As Muslims, Turks shun pork in favor of lamb, so their kebab is more to my taste. 

The idea of skewered meat is generally ascribed to ancient soldiers who used their swords to butcher and roast stray sheep over a campfire. Whose army was first to be so fortuitously hungry and inventive at once?

The Persians make a strong case, while Turks are quite insistent that Turkic tribesmen were wielding shish as well as sabers when they thundered out of Central Asia.
Nobody can be certain, as kebab predates Instagram so we have no photos. But there are drawings that support Greek claims to have invented what appears to be the main ingredient of a souvlaki platter. (I can’t be sure, but I believe the inscription actually says, “No substitutions.”)

Archaeologist have even dug up ancient Greek barbecue grills with holes for skewers.

Until the case (or the kitchen) is closed, I’ll back my own peeps. I believe the legions of King Dikran were first to feast on sizzling swords of lamb seasoned with wild mountain onions and marinated in Armenia’s celebrated red wine.

The less-than-amusing subtext to all this is the international food fight being waged by various nations over claims to the origin of popular dishes. Making a successful legal claim can mean big profits for marketers as well as enhanced prestige for the cuisine’s chefs.

Someone came up with the clever name gastronationalism to describe the intense competition. In recent years, Greeks have successfully put their stamp on feta cheese, as the Lebanese and Israelis grind away at each other over the proper provenance of hummus.

Armenia has joined the battle in response to repeated taunts from Turkey and Azerbaijan. Between them, they’ve claimed just about every dish on the traditional Armenian menu as their own.

After 600 years of occupation, it’s hardly a surprise that Armenians share many food names and customs with Turks, just as we do with Persians, Greeks and other neighbors. But it’s a mistake to automatically attribute Turkish origin to any common dish or technique.

In fact, Armenian chefs were an important presence in Ottoman kitchens until the First World War. There’s no doubt Armenians influenced what’s now known as Turkish cuisine in important ways, just as they influenced other aspects of Ottoman culture.

Like other Armenian achievements, however, much of our culinary inventiveness has been obscured. With so many outside influences, it’s sometimes hard even for Armenians to know if we’re eating our own food.

At least now there's a serious effort underway among experts in Armenia to identity and promote Armenian cuisine. I wish them luck but I won’t be taking part because I’m not equipped – and besides, I’m more interested in eating than in arguing.

I have some lamb marinating right now, and I’m going to fire up the grill just as soon as I finish typing. I can’t think of a better incentive to keep this short.