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10/04/2022

The Knights and Daughters of Vartan continued their “Back to the Homeland” Mission Trip for the 6th year. More than 20 Knights, Daughters, and friends joined the pilgrimage on September 18-24th to visit the homeland, their mission partners and projects in Armenia.

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An Armenian Christmas Tradition

Diaspora Armenian communities have gotten used to reading almost daily news in mostly Armenian media about yet another attempt in Turkey to desecrate historic Armenian properties, like churches and cemeteries. These mostly clandestine acts of retribution are being committed by ill-informed Turkish youth who know nothing about Armenians and Armenia’s millennia-old presence on sacred grounds of Anatolia which they call Anadolu. If not an act of retribution to destroy or desecrate those sacred grounds, it is open insults directed to those gâvur (infidel) Armenian community leaders in Turkey. The lives of those leaders are under constant threat because they maintain a stance to protect national treasures of historic Armenia located on ancestral lands from pilferage and deliberate destruction.

Truth to be told, life wasn’t that perilous for most non-Muslim minorities living in population centers like Istanbul where I lived during better part of my childhood and young adult years. Growing up on city’s European side during the fifties and early part of the sixties was different for me in many ways. Armenians lived in relative harmony with their Turkish, Geek, and Jewish neighbors in multi-cultured neighborhoods. Greetings were respectfully exchanged during religious holidays and people paid social visits to each other’s household bearing gifts of baked goods or sweets. Traditions were respected, never condoned. Now and then some ignorant insulted members of city’s minority groups, especially the Armenians, but defamation of their property was rare. Armenians strived to keep a low profile in the community and were known to be hard-working, law-abiding Turkish citizens.

Amidst constant broadcasting of calls to prayer from minarets of city’s numerous mosques, church bells could also be heard on Sundays in neighborhoods mostly inhabited by Armenians and Greeks. Christmas chanting by Armenian youth in city’s mostly Armenian-occupied neighborhoods like Samatya and Gedikpasha were not unusual occurrences, they were tradi-tional! I looked forward to celebrating Armenian Christmas (Dzenunt) in early January while visiting my cousins Hagop, Dikran and Vahram, and their Armenian buddies from old city’s (Constantinople) Gedikpasha neighborhood, just to sing our traditional Zenunt song in Armenian. We sang towards houses we knew were occupied by Armenians. My cousin Hagop, being oldest among our group of young singers, played his prized dumbeg (a small percussion instrument) with great gusto. The rest of us just sang the traditional Armenian Zenunt song  loud enough for all to hear!

We joyously sang during much of the early evening hours of Zenunt day which extended into the night. Heads of households would be at home having a joyous family dinner and our chance of being tipped for our singing with a few extra pieces of coins would be better. Our joyful singing always ended with wishes of happy new year and merry Christmas, Armenian Christmas that is. We were sure the Mayrig (Auntie in Armenian) of the household was joyfully listening our well-practiced a Capella singing. On a few occasions we would be invited into large houses to sing in the foyer. We would oblige ceremoniously as if we were asked for a private audience! Those were rare occurrences when the tipping would be generous, and we would bow clumsily and thank our patrons with smiley faces. Our much anticipated tip, a few coins wrapped in a piece of newspaper, would frequently be thrown out of the window towards us on the street below. We would jump up to catch it in flight before landing on the pavement. Alas, oftentimes the wrapping would be torn open and the coins scatter all around us. After sundown, searching a few coins in darkened streets was difficult. We had no flashlight, just good eyesight, and a burning desire of finding a few more coins.         

Infrequently the household would be Turkish in those mostly Armenian neighborhoods. It was Armenian Christmas time, and they knew who we were. Most patiently listened our musical performance but did not respond. Some would open their door just to say they were Turkish as if excusing themselves from what they thought was a polite way of saying “We don’t understand”. Those were the times in Istanbul when we sensed the existence of a certain level of civility between people of different ethnicities and religions.                                                           

Our streetwise singing started with words announcing arrival in Bethlehem of the Three Wise Men, Malcom, Caspar and Baltazar, to pay homage to baby Jesus in the manger. Sometimes we improvised the message by adding a few words which only improved the rhyming. Here is that song in transliteration so one can read Armenian, followed by its translation from Armenian to English, printed in script, so the reader can understand what is being sung:

Melkon, Kaspar, yev Baghdasar, avedis avedis.     

Malcom, Casper, and Baltazar, good tidings, good tidings.

(Repeat)

Aysor donn e Surp Zenentyan, avedis avedis.

Today‘s feast day, of Holy Birth, good tidings, good tidings.

(Repeat)                                                                                   

Epe mayrig epe toniri pilaf, hima baban guka anoti zarav.

Cook mayrig cook, pilaf in tonir, father will be coming soon  hungry’n thirsty.

Babayin basdone dune mnatzer, hima baban guka anoti dzarav.

Father’s walking stick’s been left at home, father will be coming soon hungry’n thirsty.  

And of course, in closing, season’s well wishes would be sung at a much higher volume:

Mayrig mayrig, shenorhavor Surp Zenunt. Shad darineru, oorakh oreru!

Mayrig mayrig, happy Holy Christmas. Many returns, happy days!

Later in the night proceed of the evening’s street performance was carefully counted by Hagop amidst pleas for a recount just to make sure. Hagop’s warning would settle the dispute and evening’s proceeds would be divided among the fretting choristers in almost equal amounts. Whatever we got would seldom be enough money for any of us to go to the movies, even with our student discount pass! We always made advance plans for next Zenunt, predicting better ‘collection’ if our streetwise singing were to start earlier in the afternoon and covered a larger number of households in Geikpasha’s Armenian neighborhood.                                                                                                           

Things are very different now in Istanbul, let alone rest of Turkey. Church bells can toll during funerals only and briefly at that. Sound of bells’ tolling is considered ‘interference’ with amplified calls for prayer from city’s mosques and thus prohibited. What is being broadcast loudly from mosques is in Arabic, a language not spoken or understood by the public, and is repeated five times a day. Audio discordance created in pitch and volume of call for prayer sounds coming from multiple directions reverberates in this grand city’s streets.

How unfortunate it is that followers of country’s official religion, Islam, have grown bereft of the tolerance and goodwill towards other people, who believe in one God but in differing ways, has gone by the wayside. Once practiced by their parents and grandparents, virtues of peaceful coexistence, tolerance and goodwill towards man has given way to acts of vengeful extremism being tolerated with indifference and lip service at best.

Gone are the days of my childhood years when singing Melkon Kaspar yev Baghdasar in the streets of Istanbul’s Armenian neighborhoods was an act of open celebration of our Lord’s birth, and in Armenian at that! Memories linger in my mind and I hear Hagop striking his prized dumbeg while singing on top of his voice with the rest of us.

NS Nishan Dulgerian                                                                                              

28 December 2021, Irvine, CA