Of the many cups of coffee I had today in Manchester, the most interesting one (albeit not the tastiest one) was the one I had at the end of my first ever Armenian dinner.
When I looked at the menu earlier in the afternoon, I saw many familiar items, such as "foul bi-hummus," which, to the credit of the proprietors, was attributed to Egyptian cuisine. Many other items were known to me through various Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, yet there was something about the combination that led me to decide to wait for the restaurant to open at 5:15 and dine there.
The foul/hummus combo was not bad, but the "Armenian Goulash" was mouthwatering. But beyond the food, I was intrigued by the cultural and geopolitical context of it all. Two of my colleagues and friends at F&M are of Armenian descent. So I have had some exposure recently to both cultural issues (mostly through Sylvia, from whom I've learned a bit about the evolution of popular Armenian music in the diaspora) and political ones (through Susan, who makes sure we all remember the Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottomans).
As I sat down, I heard in the background what sounded to me like the kind of mediocre pop music that I heard in a recent presentation by Sylvia on campus. I remembered that she had told us that since most of the Armenians in the Turkish diaspora spoke Turkish, there music, too, was sung in the language of their occupiers/hosts/future genocide executioners (uh oh, now I'll be denied entry to Turkey on Saturday...). I tried to find a sensitive way to ask the restaurant owner about it. It occurred to me that uttering the word "Turkish" might be insensitive, so instead I asked him, "what language is that song in, Armenian?" He paused for a few seconds and replied, "yes, Armenian." I immediately suspected that he wasn't telling me the truth. I even recorded some of the music on both my digital camera and my BlackBerry, so that I could later play it to Sylvia and a Turkish friend of mine for language identification purposes.
However, since I was almost the only patron in the restaurant at the time, the owner and I began talking about where we were from, and so on and so forth. It turned out that he was born and raised in Istanbul and loved the city, and moved to England when he was seventeen. One of his brothers actually lives in a suburb of Philadelphia. And his wife, my waitress, was from Poland. I reminded him of my question about the song and confessed that I had been cautious not to bring up Turkey and Turkish, but he assured me that he had no problem talking about it. In fact, the next set of songs that was playing was in the language of Armenia's next occupier – Russian.
Of course, I mentioned that I, too, lived near Philadelphia, that I was from the Middle East and recognized many of the food items on the menu, that my grandparents were from Poland, from which they departed before their people were subject to genocide, and that I had Armenian friends with whom I have recently been discussing these issues. I mentioned the Polish friend with whom I was staying, and pretty soon the wife/waitress joined in too, and we found that as different as we each are, we really had a lot in common.
The interesting thing for me personally is that ten years ago, I probably would have kept my mouth shut. I think that a combination of my training in ethnographic and sociolinguistic fieldwork and a certain selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor that I've been ingesting daily for the past six years has helped me be more inclined to engage people in such conversations and explore issues about which I am curious. I also noticed that I had probably adopted some variety of American political correctness, which was superfluous for these people, who have chosen a different home away from home.
It's bedtime for me. Tomorrow (or rather, later today) – Liverpool!