Some days on the commuter train are more interesting than others. A few weeks ago, as usual, I took the commuter train home from the downtown station. I was in store for an eye-opening trip, little did I know.
Living in a part of town where the Armenian population is relatively dense, I am used to sharing the ride with a number of compatriots. Some I am personally acquainted with, and others have become familiar faces along with the rest of the train’s regulars. Either way, I am always overcome with a sense of comfort when I hear random words in Eastern or Western Armenian through the train’s mild tremor—disconnected, muffled sound bites like ayo, lav eh … vaghuh guh desnuvink … desar inch eghav? (yes, it’s fine … see you tomorrow … did you see what happened?) I know I am almost home…
Interestingly enough, a considerable number of Armenian commuters, including myself, all converge to the first wagon, at the head of the train. Just as I can count on the train leaving the downtown station at 6:20 p.m. during rush hour, I can rely on a handful of fellow Armenians being on that first wagon, almost like an unspoken meeting point.
I think of this convergence in the first wagon as an impromptu Armenia/diaspora conference, where sometimes local, Armenian, and Middle Eastern politics are passionately debated, while others try to drift off and disappear in the constricted space of public transportation. Jewelers, engineers, students, bankers, architects, and storekeepers, all from different parts of the diaspora and Armenia, are all sharing views, stories, and a ride….
Similar to many other days, I embarked on the train a few weeks ago, taking my usual seat in the first wagon. I plopped down on a window seat and was ready to retreat into calm reverie after work, when nearby shuffling noises awoke me. Upon opening my eyes, I saw an elderly man with blue eyes and sunburned skin, accompanied by a middle aged man with darker eyes and hair carrying a newly purchased flat screen TV, taking their seats right across from me. It is worth mentioning that the train’s seating arrangements make for some intimate space sharing, with people sitting barely two feet across from each other.
After acknowledging one another’s existence through eye-contact, I returned to my state of lull. With my eyes closed, I started to hear what sounded like Turkish. Even though there is absolutely nothing alarming about this, considering I do befriend Turks and Turkish is just one of many idioms on the tree of languages, all hopes for a tranquil commute vanished instantly. Instead of slipping into daydreaming mode, I fell into an agitated whirlwind of thoughts, keeping my eyes closed and hoping that the lights going off in my mind were not coming to surface through my facial expressions, for the two men less than two feet away to notice.
My inner tumult was on several levels. I wanted to strike a conversation with them.
A political dialogue maybe? No, that wasn’t it. I felt a familiarity with them. Where in Turkey were they from? Is it really my business? Then, my grandfather came to mind. I wanted to blurt out to these unsuspecting strangers, that “Just for the record, I’m Armenian!” at which point I knew I was overreacting to the most mundane of circumstances. During moments like these, I come to terms with the idea that I likely carry some sort of collective post-genocidal trauma, though not to be confused with inherited victimhood.
I opened my eyes from time to time and just glanced across at them. They would look at me and I would just stare back. Uncomfortable with my reactions, I had set off to evacuate these thoughts when, amid the Turkish dialect, I distinctly heard the words Ermen and Los Angeles and satellite (likely connected to the TV they had just purchased). Just as I was trying to make sense of what I had heard and let my imagination loose, Armenian words were being uttered.
Despite my proximity to these two Armenian men from Turkey in the train, I suddenly felt so distant from the reality of the Armenian community in Turkey. For years, we, in the diaspora, have struggled to reconcile justice, truth, and history, perhaps isolated in a sense from those Armenians who are living in the country we are at issue with. That day, I became aware of a potentially pronounced gap between Armenians living in Turkey and the rest of the diaspora.
Even though I perhaps have a bird’s eye view of the Armenian cultural heritage in Istanbul, particularly when Armenian art and literature flourished, I thought, what do I really know about being an Armenian in Turkey today?
Armenians residing in Turkey are geographically and socially close to the heart of the matters at hand. During that train ride, miles away from both Armenia and Turkey, I thought of how easy it is to lose sight of other communities, particularly the Armenian one in Turkey, which is a keystone for not only the diaspora, but also for Armenia, which has vested economic and diplomatic interests with Turkey.
The train came to a halt, it was my station, and I barely made it out the doors in time…