Normally I reserve this newsletter for topics concerning agriculture and local food. I’m going to make an exception this week because something of importance to the Armenian-American community, of which I am a member, happened on Saturday.
Every April 24th, Armenians all over the world commemorate the genocide perpetrated against the Ottoman Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. On that day 106 years ago, the Ottoman government arrested and murdered over 200 intellectuals and leaders of the Istanbul Armenian community. What followed was a massive, organized campaign to exterminate the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. They were deported to the Syrian desert, were told that they were being relocated for their safety, were forced to march in no particular direction in the scorching heat, and massacred along the way in accordance with orders coming from the top levels of the Ottoman government. Approximately 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated.
The Turkish government, to this day, denies that this ever happened, although the vast majority of historians understand it to be undeniable. I’m not going to go into the specifics, but, considering the amount of evidence that we have, denying the Armenian genocide is akin to denying the Holocaust.
Up until this past Saturday, US presidents have not called the events that took place in 1915 a genocide. The last several presidents: Bush senior, Clinton, Bush junior, Obama, and Trump all campaigned to label it genocide but reneged since they did not want to strain US-Turkish relations. On Saturday, President Biden was the first ever president to say the word.
There are so many more details that I can go into about this topic: what led up to the genocide, the reasons for denial, and the strategic importance of American-Turkish relations, but I’m sure these were explained on the news on Saturday. What I’d like to share here is what all of this means to me on a more personal level, and how my identity led me to become a farmer.
Armenians have a very strong sense of national identity and pride. It’s just a matter of time after meeting an Armenian that you’ll hear about the food, the 3000 years of history, the fact that Armenia was the first nation to formally adopt Christianity, and, most importantly, the genocide. We have a real fear that if we do not strongly hold on to our culture, the original aim of the Ottoman government will be fulfilled ex post facto. As a child, I went to different youth groups and summer camps where we waved flags while passionately singing patriotic songs, loudly proclaiming our survival and what it meant to be Armenian.
I disassociated myself from this community when I became a teenager for two reasons. First, the extroverted tendencies of these youth groups were in conflict with my more reserved, introverted personality. Second has to do with the fact that whenever members of a group have a strong sense of who they are, with it often comes a strong sense of who they are not: in this case, the Turks. In the groups that I was a part of, this often translated to hatred of Turks, something that I did not share. I hadn’t even met a Turk before.
I struggled with my Armenian identity afterwards. At times I felt close to my culture, and at other times I felt distant. While at Ursinus College, I felt so distant that I decided to reconnect by switching majors from chemistry to history my senior year. I dived into every book written about the genocide during my last two years as an undergrad (I stayed for 5 years). I even read the books written by denialist authors to understand the strategies they’d use. Eventually, I started to realize that the Armenian Genocide was not the only unrecognized genocide in history. In fact, out of all of them, only the Holocaust is widely recognized and accepted by the perpetrating nation. This led me to study genocides comparatively. I learned to place them all within the context of wider historical movements, namely mass democratization, globalization, and nation building, things that were going on all over the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In graduate school at the University of Bremen, I dived deeply into some of these wider topics of modern global history, and one of the most compelling things I learned about was how quickly we urbanized and industrialized in the last couple hundred years. For most of world history the vast majority of us lived in the countryside and engaged in some form of subsistence gardening/farming. Within the span of 150 years, this all changed. Due to the sudden, rapid pace of industrialization and urbanization, a lot was inevitably lost.
In one of my seminar classes in graduate school, someone gave an excellent, truthful presentation about the Armenian Genocide. Afterwards, I approached him and asked, “Are you Armenian?” He replied, “No, I’m Turkish.” That was surprising. In Turkey it is illegal to acknowledge the genocide under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which imprisons anyone who “insults Turkishness.” Many Armenians in Turkey have been murdered for speaking publicly about it, and many brave Turks who speak the truth have been imprisoned. Here was a Turkish citizen who was risking his freedom. His name was Olur. We became best friends. He invited me to his hometown during a spring break. I remember his mother served me a number of traditional Turkish dishes. As she brought me the food, one by one, she began to explain to me how special and unique that specific dish was. And one by one, before she finished, I announced the name of the dish in Turkish and said, “I grew up eating this.” She was taken aback. We have the same culture, I told her.
During my visit, Olur took me to a foundation in his hometown that cared for children who came from families who were either abusive or who could not care of them financially, or who were orphans. I was fascinated by the place. Children running around, chickens, sheep, and cattle everywhere, a farm where they grew much of their own produce. After I completed my graduate studies in Germany, I contacted the foundation asking if I could volunteer there. They invited me, and I ended up living and volunteering there for six months. I occasionally worked on the farm. It was the first time I stepped foot on tilled ground. I remember harvesting peppers alongside one of the farmhands who was surprised as to why my Turkish was broken:
“I’m from the United States.”
“But you look Turkish,” he replied.
“I’m actually Armenian.”
After a brief pause, he looked at me and smirked sarcastically, “So what are you doing here??”
We both laughed. I had this same exact interaction with many others.
While I was in Turkey, I recalled some of the fondest conversations I had with my mother. She had told me about her childhood in Soviet Armenia: her father grew most of the vegetables they ate while her and her mother and her siblings preserved the harvest; my uncle would make spirits from mulberries and apricots that they grew in their backyard; chickens would freely enter and exit their house; and the neighbors would raise sheep and sell the meat for profit while they would pay the KGB to turn a blind eye.
It wasn’t at that time that I decided to become a farmer. I still wanted to be a history professor. But I realized that everything that I learned in school coincided with the fact that I am only one generation removed from some degree of subsistence agriculture.
My time in Turkey “planted the seed” to become a farmer, and my time there has everything to do with my Armenian identity, which indeed has shaped much of my life. President Biden’s declaration on Saturday closed a big circle for me, as it did for all Armenian-Americans who have their own stories to tell. It has helped me remember the suffering of my ancestors, has opened the path towards healing the wounds of the past, and has given me the courage to share with you how my identity has inspired me to bring to you local food.
Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter
Weekly sales, recipes, new product announcements, and the latest news from Dave's Backyard Farms.