It's all about Rajeh of Lebanon.
Not today's Lebanon, but the one in the frail, ailing days of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Lebanon of village mukhtars, shawishes* and onbashis* determining the social order.
It was thus quite apt that the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement of 2009, in an attempt to clear one final mess from the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, should have come to boiling point in the Lebanese capital Beirut. Armenia's president Serzh Sarkisian was there today to pour his heart out to the Armenian diaspora that while taking no great pleasure, Hayastanim, the Armenians of Armenia, really had no option but to make amends with the modern Turkish republic.
My experience with the Armenian community in Lebanon is quite direct and on a personal, human and sincere level. I know that they are still bitterly angry about the forced deportation and killing of their grandfathers. Yet when I dig a little deeper, I find that few of them have any realistic expectation of exacting a price from today's Turkey other than perhaps hearing a sincere apology. As they drop the heavy political mask, you see all the humanity of the Armenians and can't help but be touched by their still warm yearning for the Ottoman civilization of which they were a respected part. Countless Armenians in Lebanon still carry Turkish surnames denoting the artisanal professions of their forefathers. Many of them still love to chit chat in Turkish and boast that they retain certain regional traits of the Ottoman Turkey much better than today's modern republic.
And not only in Lebanon. I've seen quite the militant types in California. The rich intellectuals, professionals and traders who are hardly well-placed to empathize with the starving millions of Hayastan, Armenia proper. I did get my fair share of verbal abuse from a couple of Californian Armenians. (Think of Kardashians in a real bad mood.) Yet even after their worst attacks, I usually get a strange feeling that this is bitterness between people sharing the same culture, not real enemies. Once things cool down, my Californian Armenian encounters invariably want to sit and chat a little -in Turkish- and want to hear something, whatever, it might be, about the jewel of the shared civilization, Istanbul. I won't forget the young Armenian who cried in my arms in Culver City. He sobbed, sobbed, and asked me just to describe him -in Turkish- how the Bosporus looked today from the hilltop near Rumeli Hisar.
Of course there are militant Armenians who run summer schools to radicalize their youth, spreading the message that Turkey must pay financial and territorial compensation for the mass killings of 1915. Such people continue to give the best ammunition to ultra nationalists in Turkey who tell us that a simple apology will open the gates of hell and things won's stop before Turkey loses a couple of eastern provinces to Hayastan. Both are tall tales. It's a big lie that the majority of Armenians want anything other than a simple apology, and a bigger one that Turkey is in any position to lose one inch of territory, far less due to Armenian summer schools, conferences and lobbying activity.
Now this is exactly where Rajeh comes in.
Rajeh is a wonderfully intriguing character from the musical Baya el Khawatem (The Ring Seller) by the Rahbani Brothers and Fairuz. To cut a long story short, Rajeh does not exist. He is the fictitious invention of the village mukhtar in his perpetual efforts to scare the village folk to submission and obedience. Mukhtar maintains that Rajeh is one part forest monster, one part gangster, killing and maiming people and generally responsible for most of the disasters befalling the village. The village mayor uses a superbly double strategy of spreading fear and calling the Turkish gendarmes to action to deal with the consequences. The mukhtar clearly symbolizes the corrupt local Arab politician. His niece, played by Fairuz, a symbol of innocent purity of the ordinary Lebanese, is fully aware that Rajeh is a fiction and deeply disturbed that her uncle is forcing her to testify to his lies. Mukhtar justifies his lies by saying "ahali (the folks) want a story, I only give them what they want." The tall tale gets intractable due to a series of unexpected events forcing mukhtar's hand.
The story of Rajeh takes various twists and turns but what struck me was its direct relevance to the immense problems for the people in power that one day they should have to reverse their own long tales.
For decades, Armenians exaggerated their enmity toward the inhabitants of modern Turkey. Right now, sustaining this has become prohibitively expensive for the impoverished Hayastanim who need and deserve sympathy and help from everyone but especially from their Turkish neighbors.
But Armenians are not alone in having to suffer from their own Rajeh's. Today's Turkish Republic has a much bigger one in its hands.
For nearly 25 years, the danger from the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish separatist PKK has been exaggerated so much by the Turkish opinion leaders that even if the regime has decided to address the rebellion, now it is finding it every bit impossible to make quick progress.
The constant and consistent denial of the Kurdish identity has become the main stumbling block for the regime's desire to re-invent itself for the better.
The government, the military, a good part of the bureaucracy in Turkey have finally come to the conclusion that Turkey's Kurds should be integrated into the society with their distinct identity. Yet the denial of Kurdish identity has been so severe and so careless that a huge chasm appears to have formed between the Kurds and the Turks.
(In another Newsvine piece I argue that PKK was not a Kurdish organization but it was established and operated by Turks to harm both Kurds and Turks in an illegal political and propaganda war against Turkey's peaceful, moderate masses of all creeds.)
Without doubt, the regime in the past decades fueled ultra-nationalist sentiment which now seems to have turned into a monster and come back to haunt its very father. That's Turkey's Rajeh.
In the movie, while Rajeh is a fiction, a real Rajeh emerges and turns out to be a seller of rings so lovers can get engaged in the marriage season. Mukhtar immediately adjusts to the new reality and sides with Rajeh. Rajeh distributes the rings of love. Yet he exacts his price on mukhtar and walks away with his niece, the only human being in mukhtar's solitary life.
I wonder whether there's a lesson in this for today's Armenian diaspora leaders as well as the movers and shakers of the Turkish regime: Accept the new reality, let your ahali (folks) enjoy the blessings that come with the change, and be ready to pay a price. After all, it's your own tall tales, ghosts of your invention, your Rajehs that have run into the wall and now need to be put to rest.
(*"Çavuş" and "Onbaşı" in modern Turkish.)