Across the Armenian-Turkish divide

In 2001, I wrote a story for the Los Angeles Times about April 24, the annual Armenian Day of Remembrance, that had this lead: "The Armenian genocide."

That was it, the entire first paragraph.

I was proud of it because it didn't say "the alleged genocide" or "what the Armenians consider a genocide." It just called the 1915 massacre of a million Armenians what it was, even though the U.S. government — in deference to official Turkish denials and our air bases in Turkey — won't use the word.

When I was a teenager, I used to go with my grandfather Nahabed to April 24 protest marches on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and later on Wilshire Boulevard. I've been to maybe 25. I'll probably go again this week.

I heard the tales of horror from both pairs of grandparents, Nahabed and Siranoush, from the city of Kharpert, and Moses and Siran, from a village near Van. Siranoush saw her pregnant sister bayoneted, the fetus coming back out on the blade. For my other grandmother, Siran, there was never enough distance to completely wipe away what happened. It all enraged me, eliciting a young man's desire for revenge.

When 19-year-old Hampig "Harry" Sassounian shot and killed the Turkish counsel general at a stoplight on Wilshire Boulevard and Comstock in Westwood in 1982, I mostly admired him. What a bold thing to do, I thought then, to kill this Turkish official who denied the ultimate crime.

In those years, whenever I saw or heard about anything Turkish, I hated it. Even Turkish Taffy. I'm not joking. On Redondo Beach Boulevard near Prairie Avenue there was a bar called Turk's Grass Hut. I doubt the owner was even a Turk, but every time I drove by at night, I considered shooting out the sign with my .38.

When I met Turks, which happened a few times, I immediately said I was Armenian. It's an example of my vast ignorance that I was always surprised when they didn't recoil in hatred.

One of them said he had been engaged to an Armenian girl, but her parents wouldn't allow the marriage. Big deal, I thought. Why would anyone want to marry a Turk anyway?

I knew, of course, that all Turks weren't bad. My Uncle Harry and Uncle Aram told me that many had helped Armenians in their darkest hour. But the rest of them had killed my ancestors, or stood by and then denied the atrocities.

Years passed. My anger eased. And I met Murat Kayali.

He was a delivery driver for the restaurant my girlfriend owns. When I saw this new guy lingering in the parking lot, I introduced myself. As I do with just about everyone I meet, I challenged him with a "Where you from?" (I've probably been hanging out in Watts too long.)

"Turkey," he said.

I said, "I'm Armenian."

And his face lit up.

He told me of the many Armenian friends he had back home in Ankara and how much he loved the Armenian people. He had this engaging smile and a contagious exuberance. We talked for a while.

I walked into the restaurant thinking, "Hmm, I liked that guy. I like that Turk."

Every time I saw him, he greeted me with "Michael, eench bes es?" — the phonetic version of "How are you?" in Armenian. I started to seek him out.

Turned out he had a UCLA engineering degree and was working at the restaurant to put away some money. His goal was a good job in his homeland. He invited me to his wedding at home in Ankara, promising me I would be treated like family.

How could I not like him? How could anyone not like this guy, even someone like me?

On the afternoon of the Oscars last year, the to-go orders were piling up at the restaurant. I went into the kitchen to help. Organize the time sequence of the orders for the delivery drivers, I was told. Soon, Murat joined me, sorting the tickets.

"Check it out," I said loudly to the staff. "An Armenian and a Turk working side by side."

"And having fun," Murat said. "Someone take a picture."

We laughed and gave each other a hard sideways five. Pop. The sting felt good.

Murat finally moved back to Turkey. Two weeks ago, he Facebooked me. He had his dream job as an engineer in Ankara. His marriage was a delight. He was happy. I was happy for him. He wrote, "You are one of my best friends in USA." He told me to come visit. Again.

Imagine that. Me going to Ankara to see a Turkish friend. Maybe I will. Maybe there's hope for the planet after all.

Michael Krikorian, a former Times staff writer, is the author of a crime novel, Southside, due to be published in November.

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