How Tavloo Became Shesh-Besh: A Diasporan Experience of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War
On the day Armenians are forced to leave their homes, I decide to play tavloo with my father.
But there is a problem: the backgammon boards are holding up the bookcase, which is about to collapse. There are too many tomes stacked on its sagging shelves — outdated books about the Red Sox and the Patriots, disintegrating paperbacks on health and exercise mixed in with hardcover histories on Armenia and William Saroyan collections. Dad says, “I need to fix that thing,” and I say, “It’s unfixable,” peering at the flimsy, warped cardboard tacked to the back, failing to hold together the cheap pressed wood shelves and frame. The tavloo boards, made of hard oak, are buttressing the bookcase. If I remove one, I’ll have a major disaster on my hands.
It’s November 15th, 2020, less than a week since Armenia lost a war with Azerbaijan over land — known alternately as Artsakh or Karabakh by Armenians, and Qarabakh by Azerbaijanis, and Nagorno-Karabakh by the rest of the world — that has been suspended between them in a ceasefire for decades. “Major disaster” isn’t the most appropriate term to describe my parents collapsing bookcase, given that I have spent the last several weeks observing exploding bombs, rubble raining down, loss of lives and limbs, and puzzling over the surreal coverage in the media — all of it resulting in a forced mass displacement of Armenians that I never thought I would see in my lifetime.
I trek to the basement and fetch a third backgammon board that I had previously spied on a utility shelf. All of the boards were made by my father’s father, a carpenter. They are the same size and shape, like a box in which a woman receives a mink coat in an old black and white movie. Two sides of shellacked wood hinged together. A simple design: no latch. You open it up and there are the inlaid triangle patterns with the tokens and dice collected inside.
I wonder when in my grandfather’s life he decided to craft them. And why. Years before I’d heard from one of my aunts that he’d made several of these sets and gave them all away. Someone suggested that he sell them but he wasn’t interested. According to family lore, my refugee grandparents were too proud to apply for welfare, even when they struggled financially during the Depression. It’s clear they could have used the money from the suggested sale of backgammon boards.
I have witnessed similar generosity in my family and across the diaspora and homeland. Sure, people are selfish and self-centered, as they are everywhere. But selflessness is a cultural trait. Why would my grandfather sell a tavloo board that he loved crafting with his own hands? To take money in exchange would somehow curtail the flow of love and erase the joy of sharing.
Azerbaijanis are reputed to be generous like this, as are Georgians and Turks and Kurds and all people who live in the general vicinity, what the world has deemed the South Caucasus, the name of our mountains appropriated long ago for the project of Western racism. I see images on the news of the border towns on either side of the line of conflict: the food, dishes, clothes, and gardens all look the same. And yet generosity doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to land. It would be too easy a comparison to say Armenians and Azerbaijanis are like gangs in the hood, a racist and reductive stereotype, and that’s how the media seems to regard the two nationalities. Ask most Americans and they won’t know where in the world you are talking about, and they probably have never even heard of Azerbaijan, nor can pronounce it.
Likewise, Armenians in diaspora have had limited awareness and access to Nagorno-Karabakh. When I’ve traveled to Armenia, I haven’t made the 8-hour trip south from Yerevan unless I’ve been invited. Even Armenians in Armenia regard Karabakhtsis as different, speaking with a dialect that can be hard for them to decipher. (Such a distinction goes over my head, with my limited Armenian language skills.) Being Armenian is a complicated matter in itself, as most of us are diasporan (with 8 million Armenians in diaspora, and 3 million in the homeland), cut off from our cultural heritage to varying degrees. For Armenian Americans like me who are multiple generations removed, our identities and interests often reside in what we know of our ancestors’ pasts, how they survived the Armenian genocide of 1915, and how Armenia survives now with its tiny parcel of land in a post-Soviet reality. Admittedly, the ghetto metaphor is one I have often subscribed to when encountering xenophobia, mistrust, and fractured communities within Armenia and the diaspora — especially as a progressive, a feminist, and a queer. Through this lens, Artsakh often seemed like a project claimed by the most nationalistic and patriotic, though the lives of Karabakhtsis are much more complex than flag waving and chest thumping.
Now that violence has been targeted against Artsakh Armenians, who are arguably the most geographically vulnerable Armenians in our world community, a unified energy from all Armenians — from the diaspora and Armenia, young and old, men and women, left and right, queer and straight — has been focused to defend their land and indigenous rights to self-determination. For the past several weeks, I have been trying to catch up, to re-learn, and to read as much as I can — and to speak out. But it’s not so selfless an act. I also can’t help but feel attacked.
How have my parents wound up with a bounty of three tavloo boards? I don’t know how many my grandfather created, but I’m guessing that my aunts took one board to the apartment they shared on Boylston Street in Boston. My grandparents possessed another. So did my parents and our nuclear family, living in the suburbs. After my grandfather died, and my aunts and grandmother bought a new house together, they consolidated their backgammon holdings with two boards. Now, as my grandmother and aunts have successively passed away over the years, the boards have united here at my parents’ house, like Armenians finding community in diaspora.
The region of Artsakh is incredibly mountainous, jagged, a pocket of land that jabs the sky. It has been portrayed by Western commentators as a site of ancient feuds, of smoldering tribal tensions intermittently igniting pogroms and massacres. In reality, after World War I, when Stalin placed the majority Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan proper and made it autonomous, it was most likely in order to divide, conquer, appease, and control. In the late 1980s, Glasnost and Perestroika gave the majority Armenian population of Artsakh, who had been oppressed by Azerbaijanis for decades, an entry to make their case to be attached to Soviet Armenia. In 1988, major protests ensued, the Soviet Union began to collapse, and a wave of hatred and violence erupted: Armenians were massacred in Baku, Sumgait and elsewhere, hunted down by mobs in the streets. When war was declared, Armenians living in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis living in Armenia and Karabakh fled the violence, their lives irrevocably disrupted as they traded places (I’ve read estimates of 300–500K Armenians and 600–700k Azerbaijanis.) Perhaps this fate could have been a uniting force of sympathy, but there has been too much bad blood. A particularly stubborn stain: the massacre of a few hundred Azerbaijani villagers in Khojaly in 1992; Azerbaijanis often portray it as a genocide and Armenians often try to dismiss it, sometimes in contrast to the overwhelming deaths and loss of culture they sustained in the Armenian genocide by Turks — a word they use to slur and conflate the Azerbaijanis.
Armenians eventually won the war in a ceasefire in 1994, claiming the territory, along with several surrounding regions in Azerbaijan as a security buffer zone and a bargaining chip for future negotiations. Since then, Artsakh has never been widely recognized as an autonomous country by any UN member state, including Armenia (though Armenia supports Artsakh economically, militarily, etc.), given that the UN Security Council called for the withdrawal of Armenian forces. Armenians and Azerbaijani citizens largely haven’t spoken to each other, their governments demonizing each other for decades. As the Azerbaijani oil industry has grown, so did their government’s corruption, outpacing Armenia’s, repressing freedom of speech and engaging in “caviar diplomacy”. Mediators from Russia, France, and the U.S. in the OSCE Minsk Group have failed to broker any peace agreements. Meanwhile, world powers have pandered to corrupt oligarchic regimes, profiting however they could from the ceasefire status quo, such as Western development and dependency on Azerbaijani oil, and gas pipelines that bypass Armenia. And Russia selling arms to both countries.
The conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians thus cannot be reduced to a simple case of rivals — as the media has repeatedly portrayed through false equivalence — without considering Western imperialism and post-Soviet realities, given the allegiances that have shifted underneath and around them for decades.
I don’t remember who taught me to play tavloo nor when, and there have been times in my life when I haven’t played it for years. Sometimes, in the big cities where I have lived, Los Angeles, New York, and Yerevan, I have walked down the street and stopped by a park or an open door to encounter aged men playing it, their realities seeming so distant from mine.
One enduring image of the game: when relatives visited Armenia in the late nineties and early aughts and reported back on how much the country was struggling. All the trees were missing from the parks in Yerevan, chopped down by locals to help heat their homes in the “dark years” during and after the war. Armenia was struggling economically, released from the support of the Soviet Union, its infrastructure ailing, its resources diverted to the conflict. Markets were empty, no one had jobs, and men sat in Republic Square all day playing tavloo. The game took on a kind of pity and shame.
And yet, when I ventured back to my family in Boston to encounter family matches, I couldn’t help feel layers of hope, like the memorable moment when my brother, who didn’t normally spend much time with children, taught a young cousin with one Armenian grandparent about this ritual of togetherness.
Recently, I moved from New York to the Boston area to help care for my parents, who both have dementia. One way I spend time with my father is through backgammon, an activity that encourages cognitive, cultural, and family connections.
My father’s parents, Kevork and Zanik, were born fourteen years apart in the same small village in a province called Sepastia. Their families had lived in this region for generations, increasingly enduring oppression under Ottoman authority. Their parents and grandparents saw what was coming and tried to get them out. Kevork’s father immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century and brought his family over in subsequent years. My Zanik’s father sent his two eldest boys to the U.S. but most of the family who stayed behind perished in the Armenian genocide of 1915. My grandmother was just a ten year old child when her father was shot by Ottoman Turks. She was forced on a death march through hundreds of miles of eastern Turkey, losing her mother and sister on the way to the Syrian desert, where she was meant to perish. Turkish authorities had claimed they were just relocating the Armenian population, rather than executing them, but when they were done, 1.5 million Armenians, Assyrians, and other tribes they deemed not Turkish enough had died.
Miraculously, another older brother of my grandmother, who had escaped an Ottoman labor camp, was able to track her down in an orphanage after World War I and united her with their brothers in the U.S., who soon arranged her marriage to my grandfather. Though they had been born in the same village, they had never met before: Kevork had left for America before Zanik was born. Now in the U.S. together, she was a teenager and didn’t want to marry him, but her brothers insisted because they wanted a stake in his family’s dairy farm. When the farm’s business faltered, the brothers wanted to call the whole thing off. By then my grandmother must have had a change of heart. She argued with her brothers and decided to marry him. I often wonder about this story as she told it to me: was Zanik re-casting her role in the story so that she could have agency? Or did she really claim a newfound power to decide whom to marry? Nevertheless, I think of them now, strangers to each other, alienated by a global war, trauma and violence, making a leap of faith to unite.
I was told by my aunts it wasn’t an easy marriage: after all, my grandmother was a traumatized teenager. Nevertheless, they raised a family of five in a small town near Worcester, Massachusetts, subsisting on his carpentry jobs as best they could. Their children were given American names at school and assimilated to American life, then married and raised children. We all learned my grandmother’s story of surviving the Armenian genocide when she would tell us in fits and starts at our family gatherings, while people ate and laughed and argued and played tavloo, the dice clattering over the board, the tokens tapped with varying force depending on the mood of the player.
The board I have retrieved from the basement is made of blonder wood than the others. Upon opening it, I notice the woodwork isn’t as refined. The points on the triangles are flat, like the top of a Mayan pyramid. I imagine the backgammon board project as one of necessity — isolated in the Massachusetts woods, they couldn’t easily buy one, and no one was able to bring one over from “the old country.”
“This isn’t as sophisticated as the others,” I observe aloud. Before I can guess that my grandfather’s skills improved over time, my father explains, “You know, my father did these all by hand,” defending his honor. I imagine Kevork taking on a new challenge at his workbench, scraping and sanding and fitting and gluing, a light bulb hanging over him in the dark. In a stroke of bad luck, he’d quit his carpentry job before the Depression in order to build his own house; he wanted to build it right, to last. By the time the Depression hit, he had a good house and no money. But his parents lived on the top floor with his younger siblings, and his kids helped him tend to his backyard garden and picked blueberries in the woods. In other words, the house was a haven.
Near the end of her life, long after she’d moved to the city with my aunts, my grandmother wanted to return to live in the house that they had poured so much love and care into, but it wasn’t possible, too far away from my aunts’ jobs. After she died, the house was sold, and it’s no longer with us. The backgammon boards are the only vestiges we have of my grandfather’s talent and determination, built to last. They predate my birth, and they’ve granted me a lifetime of memories, of victories and losses.
Maybe I was thinking of backgammon when I kept telling myself that anything was possible — that Armenia could win — as the war raged for 44 days. Now it seems so naive, in retrospect: the game was over before it began. News reports announced on September 27th that both sides were blaming the other for the initial attack, but in Armenia’s case, it didn’t make much sense. Why would a country of just 3 million, with a limited arsenal, attack a much larger country of 9 million — during a pandemic — with greater power and military might? Especially when Turkey, an even larger country with even more money and might, was supporting Azerbaijan with equipment and mercenaries they imported from Syria. I watched day by day as advanced drones decimated Artsakh, praying that an international intervention would make headway, but all ceasefires were ignored — again, with media reports that both sides blamed the other for the breach, eliding analysis of what Armenia could possibly gain by doing so.
Even though the media acknowledged the situation was different this time because Turkey was involved, there was very little mention of the genocidal history of the Turkish government — their involvement was seen mostly as a challenge to Putin’s influence in the Middle East, given that both Turkey and Russia were embroiled in conflicts in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. And yet these forays into the Middle East can be seen as a result of Erdogan’s increasing authoritarian power and hopes to forge a neo-Ottoman Empire — one that can’t be fashioned back together with Armenia in the path between Turkey and Azerbaijan. On September 27th, when Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh, Erdogan claimed that Armenia was the single biggest threat to peace in the region. It was obvious to all Armenians everywhere that such a brazen attack was only possible when a genocidal regime has never been held to task for over one hundred years.
When I sit down to face my 90 year old father, I also face memory. I have to search online for how to set up the tokens on the triangles on the board. I used to rely on him, but with his mild cognitive impairment, his knowledge is fading. Still, he knows how to play: he has always been a master of the game. He knows when to advance and flee and when to attack and protect. He knows when to build fortresses and how best to collect the spoils. I’ve tried to learn from him but I’m still not very good at it.
Unfortunately, the Armenian army had no viable strategy for this war after oligarchs had depleted the funds for the military for years. The oligarchs benefited from the status quo, never imagining — or caring — that the situation would one day blow up in their faces. Their pumped up masculinity was worth more than the future of their country. On the other side, a similar situation played out: Azerbaijan had an easy scapegoat in Armenia whenever corruption surfaced; they often kept refugees from the first war in shoddy conditions, dreaming of their return to their homeland one day.
As we begin the game, I set an intention for how to play, either conservatively or aggressively, and then I ask myself after each toss of the dice, “Okay, how can I accomplish my goal in this situation?” I try not to be tempted by my opponent’s vulnerabilities. An opportunity to take advantage of my opponent can quickly turn into my own vulnerability with the next roll of the dice. Revenge is also a bad motivator, clouding other opportunities to move forward. Invariably, I find myself giving up on my goal; it just never works as the luck of the dice gets in the way. Sometimes when things look bleak, I just do the most outrageous moves to shake things up for the hell of it. I let go of winning, which I hope will make the game more fun. But it never does. Because the end goal, fundamentally, is to win.
I really do think I came as close to losing my mind as I ever have in my life when the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, announced on November 9th that he’d surrendered and Azerbaijan would take over the surrounding territories and half of Nagorno-Karabakh. Shocked Armenians everywhere dealt with the news in various ways. Some believed that Pashinyan had no choice, and that he had to do something in order to not lose everything. Others argued he was to blame for the whole fiasco. He had been a beloved leader of a Velvet Revolution that ousted corrupt leaders in 2018. And he had revived and entered negotiations with Azerbaijan soon after assuming his position of Prime Minister. When he told a mass gathering of Karabakhtsis that Artsakh was Armenia in August of 2019, something no previous prime minister had done, red flags were raised. Why was he taking a seemingly hard line position? At the time, he was at odds with Karabakh’s leaders, yet he wanted them to be at the negotiation table with Azerbaijan, so perhaps he was centering the people in their cause for status, security and self-determination, and not the heads of government. Or maybe his ego was getting to him. In any case, those words would come back to bite him and give Aliyev the fodder he needed to smear Pashinyan during the war.
Nikol’s appeal to the people now didn’t seem to matter. Previous regimes piled on with criticism, trying to take advantage of the situation. Protesters reacted to his announcement in the streets, asking for his ouster from office. As chaos ensued, we were left shaking our heads in disbelief.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijanis overwhelmingly supported the war. In July 2020, after a scuffle on the border, they showed up in the streets of Baku, demanding an attack on Armenia. During the war they appeared united from one of the few channels we had to decipher, social media. (Azerbaijan has long been repressive to journalists.)
Less than two weeks before the war, on September 14th, 2020, news broke that Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang had identified thousands of fake accounts and pages, set up by the Azerbaijani government, to harass opposition political parties and independent journalists. It had taken months for Facebook to respond, only deleting the fake accounts on October 8th, after the news of Zhang’s mistreatment at the company had been made public.
A friend in Armenia told me that during the war, verified Azerbaijani Twitter users, even those she knew to be progressive, unequivocally supported the war. It was hard to fathom what they had forgotten about toxic nationalism and corruption on the part of their government. After reading so many lies by fake accounts and pages on Facebook, a source they saw as the truth, how much were Azerbaijanis supporting this war out of a sense of revenge? Or out of a belief that the majority wanted a war? How much were they manipulated by the game?
My father narrates the game, announcing each roll of the dice. Acey-deucy is a one and a two. Box cars are double sixes. Snake eyes for two single ones. Now I roll a six and a five and he says “Shesh-besh.”
I look up from the dice at this unfamiliar term.
“That’s Turkish,” he explains.
“Like shish kebab?”
“I don’t know.”
A quick google search reveals that shesh-besh is the Hebrew term for backgammon, but it really does mean six and five — six in Persian and five in Turkish. I don’t know where my father learned it but I imagine from his own father, perhaps from the cousins and friends he played with when the Armenians of New England would hike deep into the woods to picnic. I’m also transported to a worldly place of three other cultures overlapping and entering our landscape, somehow comforting after this week of trauma.
After decades of negotiations, the world shrugged its shoulders at Armenians, suggesting it was totally okay to solve the issue not with diplomacy, but by force during a pandemic, with an imbalanced fight, Azerbaijan with their Turkish and Israeli drones bombing Armenians in their trenches.
Without a functioning military, without an arsenal that matched the opponent’s high tech equipment, without the world watching during the pandemic, with few reliable international news reports, with a genocidal power prompting and sponsoring their ally’s attacks, we had rolled snake eyes when what we really needed was double sixes.
The media kept falsely reporting the war as two equal sides. Yes, Armenians shot missiles that killed civilians. But Azerbaijan did the same using banned cluster munitions, then went ahead and targeted a famous church — twice, not to mention their use of phosphorous bombs that harmed the environment and permanently melted soldiers’ skin. Very few reporters recognized the imbalance of the attacks.
In the end, no amount of cries for help from a fledgling democracy attracted any attention from the Western world. There was almost no acknowledgment that Armenians had risen up through years of grassroots activism to revolt against corrupt oligarchs and install a new democratically-led government in 2018. Very few reports identified Azerbaijan as an autocratic petro-state, it’s president the son of the former president, the current vice president the president’s wife. Not to mention all the shady ways European companies and individuals have profited from Azerbaijani oil money, an industry that not only funded their war arsenal, but Azerbaijani lobbyists and publicists.
Dad knows how to place the tokens on the board without counting each space (unlike me; I just don’t have a mathematical mind or a knack for seeing time and space.) My father sees patterns in numbers. But during this game he makes a few mistakes. He forgets he’s made a move. Signs of cognition waning.
He also gives me tips on how to play. He usually does this very selflessly, essentially telling me how to beat him. But now I can’t shake a funny feeling that he could be leading me astray.
After all, this is what Russia has done in Armenia. They were the ones who brokered the “peace deal” which is really a surrender agreement. Turkey has meddled in their backyard, and this was their way of gaining some leverage, placing “peacekeepers” in the region. In Western media, Russia was repeatedly made out to be backing Armenia, since they had a defense agreement to intervene on any attacks. But Karabakh was never a part of that agreement. Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey have now all won, and Armenians have lost.
For some reason, my father and I keep rolling the same patterns after each other. He gets a one and a six, and I get a one and a six.
On December 10th, after denying Turkey’s military support of Azerbaijan, Erdogan will stand with Aliyev at a military victory parade in Baku and summon Enver Pasha, the mastermind of the genocide of 1915, and Aliyev will claim that major portions of Armenia are actually Azerbaijan. Through the winter, agreements to exchange prisoners of war will be denied, and horrifying videos will surface on social media of tortured Armenian soldiers and murdered civilians. It’s hard not to see the historical pattern from 100 years ago manifest in the present.
The point will be made in even more gruesome detail in April, when Aliyev is pictured in a “Military Trophies Park”, striding through an exhibit of the helmets of Armenian soldiers who were killed less than five months before. Exhibits will show caricatured mannequins of Armenian soldiers terrified of bombs falling from the sky and worse, chained in a cell, a particularly sadistic display when widescale abuses of Armenian prisoners of war have been reported — and there are still Armenian prisoners of war that Azerbaijan refuses to release. It’s all the more horrifying to know that this is a popular destination for families to bring their children. Few media outlets will recognize that this isn’t actually a memorial, but psychological warfare.
When the war continues, how can the pattern end?
Dad narrates his own maneuvers as he liberates his tokens from the board. At one point, he put one of my tokens in jail, and his board is a fortress. For a few of my turns, I have to forfeit and can’t even roll the dice because I don’t have any options. There is nowhere for me to move on the board.
“She’s stuck now, she can’t get in. She can’t get past the fortress,” my father narrates. He wins the first game.
Today, November 15th, is the deadline for Armenians in Karvachar, the first of the outlying territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh proper to leave their homes, to never return. Major news outlets who ignored the news for weeks to cover the U.S. election are sure to cover this dramatic story: winding caravans of cars weave around the mountains. Armenians are taking everything with them and stripping their houses before burning down the empty shells. The BBC shows one family carting a toilet onto the back of their truck. It’s an unfavorable portrait of those forced to flee their homes. Their cameras don’t show those who took their family members’ graves for fear they would never be able to visit them again. The news doesn’t ask their history: some had fled Azerbaijan during the first war and now they are being displaced again. The news doesn’t ask what their lives had been like in a remote and unrecognized place, dangerously riddled with land mines.
It seems to me that some of them likely burned down their homes not to be spiteful, but because it was the only way they could have a form of control over such enormous loss.
My mother and sister are watching a film about Fiddler on the Roof in the next room. I turn it on, thinking it will be more interesting to hear in the background than the sports radio talk my father listens to everyday. But Dad becomes captivated by watching the ways Jewish musicians and playwrights were exploring their roots with the story of love, tradition, and family expectations on the stage. I watch as he observes people praise Jerome Robbins, the gay Jewish choreographer, and wonder what he thinks. I’ve had to repeatedly come out to him as bisexual my entire adult life; forgetting my queerness was a convenient form of denial. I found a sense of closure several years ago when he saw me give a talk about LGBT Armenians in Armenia and the Diaspora, and he beamed with pride. But this memory might have slipped through the cracks of his dementia.
Or it might not — my father seems to connect to the stories of outsiders. He doesn’t often admit it to me, but over the past year, as his brain loosens, his memories bubble to the surface, giving more contour to his life story of an immigrant’s son who achieved the American dream. He tells me how he was paid less than the other appraisers in his division at an insurance company as the reason for striking out on his own. He tells me how he came back from Korea to apply to the local police department, who told him he wasn’t qualified as Armenian — in Massachusetts, only Irish need apply to be cops. Most surprisingly, as we hear a show about PTSD on the car radio, he suddenly relays the sympathetic story of a Black soldier in his troop in Korea who escaped to Seoul to have a love affair with a local man; the soldier had a nervous breakdown when the local man was killed.
Though my father has never paraded his status as a Veteran, he often portrays his time in combat as positive, almost like going to college or belonging to a frat. He has a stack of black and white photos that he took during his time overseas that he pulls out periodically, saying a few words about each of the men. But his most common refrain: “Here are my guns.” He would say this with pride of the cannons he was entrusted to manage.
Throughout my life, I could never make sense of this. He permanently lost hearing in one ear from the roar of those cannons, which killed people. Why didn’t he seem affected?
Sometimes it seems too late to ask such questions, just as I now decide not to ask my father what he thinks about Jerome Robbins. The moment on the screen passes, and we soldier on, playing the game and watching Fiddler segments intermittently. I win a second match and wonder if the distraction has helped me.
I have no direct familial ties to Artsakh or Armenia. All my ancestors hailed further West, from Sepastia and Kharpert over the border in Turkey, and Istanbul, a city they called Constantinople. But I have chosen family in Armenia, friends who are artists and queer people, after living there for a year. I’ve only been to Artsakh twice, to Shushi, for very short visits in 2007, and both times I had mixed feelings. The landscape was otherwordly and breathtaking, and the town felt de-populated and barren, buildings and roads emptied of Azerbaijanis. Without language, I couldn’t speak to locals, but I saw the unenviable conditions in which they lived, many lacking running water. Their generosity abounded as I visited students in classrooms and families in their homes, doctors and nurses in the hospital, all making do with the little they had. But signs of corruption were obvious, with new building projects suddenly halted because local authorities had plundered the funds. I wondered why such Armenians felt they could squander the sacrifice of so many other Armenians.
At that time it seemed the only way forward for Artsakh was not top down, but through grassroots connections that would circumvent governments and connect regular people to find healing, so that Azerbaijanis could return to Artsakh and all people could envision living together again. Idealistic and naive? Yes, but all projects of peace start with the imagination. Over the years, I’d heard of projects conducted by friends and acquaintances: an oral history project with Armenian and Azerbaijani women. A theater project of Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkish women. A letter writing campaign between teens in Armenia and Azerbaijan. A music series uniting Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. These hopeful projects found varying degrees of success, but never had the chance to amount to a movement.
I naively assumed that what happened in Armenia with the Revolution would eventually arrive in Azerbaijan. Perhaps it’s because I know so little of their society nor how deep the wounds are. The rules of the game may largely be determined by outside forces, but it doesn’t mean that human nature won’t revert to base instincts. Someone will always dominate someone else, knowingly, unknowingly, or both, in whatever the situation. What happened to my grandmother is an example: she survived the genocide, yet her brothers, her allies, felt it their right to take her value as a marriageable asset. It didn’t mean she was a victim, though. She told me her story and loved me fiercely, a power I won’t forget. My father, too, inculcated to the myths of war, now spills out secrets in his old age that he had no room to process as a young Armenian American man, an uncharted identity between Black and white. Now that the war is over, how soon will Armenians condemn me, a queer feminist, when they get the chance? In the meantime, my belief in pacifism has been neglected, battered, and bruised.
We decide not to play a third game; it’s too late, time for bed. When I place my tokens back in the case, Dad asks if his father died before I was born.
I see a deep sadness cloud his eyes. This isn’t a moment for “a therapeutic fiblet”, the term for an eluding lie that geriatricians recommend family members tell to protect their loved ones, unable to process their emotions; I cannot fabricate memories for a grandfather I have never met.
I don’t want to see my father cry, to be in pain or to feel any loss. It’s for this reason that I’ve told him very little of the news from Artsakh.
Unfortunately, I can’t always shield him. Earlier that evening, my brother had called and told us to watch BBC News, because they’d announced a report on Karabakh.
The report was about Azerbaijanis who could finally return to Karabakh. They were wailing and mournful because their dead loves ones couldn’t return with them.
I felt for them. I imagined that they were having all kinds of complicated emotions that couldn’t be fully captured by a few seconds of their cries on camera. But anyone watching this program would never know that Azerbaijan had won the war, and Armenians were now forced to leave. Nor was it clear exactly exactly how the Azerbaijanis would return and how, nor what exactly they will encounter. In this biased, binaried report, Armenians were made out to be villains, period. I told my father to stop watching.
I’m not sure what he had taken in, as he silently held the tv in his gaze, rocking slightly on his feet. Now, as he asks me whether I was born before his father died, as he survives a pandemic in what are likely the last years of his life, I imagine he feels a similar sense of delayed, compounded, complicated loss.
My helpless emotions as I observe the war from afar stem from seeing Armenian lives and culture further destroyed, under threat. Azerbaijani authorities have been defacing and destroying Armenian monuments for decades with impunity; what’s to prevent them from doing so now? In traumatic response, my cloudy mind can’t connect disparate feelings. I mourn for what I didn’t know about the situation before now. And I wonder what happened to my idealistic self who once hoped to connect with like-minded Azerbaijanis, failing all these years to find a door of entry, and if she will ever return.
I seek answers in backgammon, but even this simple game leaves me mystified. How did the term shesh-besh come to be a name for it? There are many combinations to roll the dice. And different combinations have varying value for whatever you happen to need during a game. Sometimes snake eyes are just what one needs, for example. The highest value, double sixes, isn’t necessarily the best. But how, of all combinations, did six and five, in differing languages, come to define the game? It might reflect a sad reality of the world: six is on top of five, just as there are always winners and losers. But I hope not. Perhaps it was an attempt to unite the even and the odd, or to point out the slippery slope of chance, or to push back on the binary of opponents. Perhaps its unevenness is a reminder that within the games we play and the intentions we carry, there will always be instability. Perhaps in its multi-lingual rhyme, we re-learn we are not alone. Perhaps as it bubbled to the surface from the well of my father’s memory, it signifies what can never be lost, even that which has long been muted.
My father once knew that his father died before I was born, holding onto that memory till age has shaken it loose. He has never before expressed any grief over the fact that death has alienated two people he loves. I helplessly try to console my father. “No, I didn’t know your father, but I get to play on his backgammon board.”
When he wanted to teach his children tavloo, and he couldn’t find a decent board nor had the money for one, anyway, my grandfather went to his neighbor and offered to cut down trees that the man needed removed, for free, with the condition that he keep the trunk of a tall oak in return. The neighbor agreed, and my grandfather took the trunk to a sawmill to have it cut into planks. It was a bounty of beautiful, strong wood, and no one could stop him from creating another tavloo board, and another, and from giving them away, once he started.
My father stands up silently and closes the board shut, it’s pieces clattering inside, and places it next to the other two, holding up the bookcase.
Afterword, May 15, 2021:
More friends contact me on April 24th, the day Joe Biden recognized the Armenian Genocide, than they ever had during the forty-four days of the war. Years ago, such a recognition once would have meant a great deal to my younger self. But in 2019, when the Senate and the House sponsored a recognition of the Armenian Genocide after Trump let Erdogan venture into Syria, betraying U.S. allies, the Kurds, it was clear they were just doing it to stick it to Trump and Erdogan. I have nothing against sticking it to Trump and Erdogan, but it was clear the recognition had very little to do with our ancestors’ memory. I question what such politically-influenced recognition means, especially when legacies of genocide live with us every day as cops harass and kill Black people and the federal government continues to erase Native American history, land, and culture, failing to adhere to treaties made centuries ago.
I am right to be wary: two days later, Biden reinstated military funding to Azerbaijan, waiving section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which stipulates Azerbaijan won’t receive military funding if they contribute to instability or disrupt peace in the region. A little over two weeks later, on May 12th, Azerbaijani soldiers advance over the border into Armenia, a clear provocation.
France and the U.S. tell the Azerbaijanis to leave. Russia, who is supposed to defend Armenia in these instances, tells both parties to abide by the ceasefire agreement. News headlines read, “Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of ‘encroaching’ on its territory” instead of “Azerbaijan illegally encroaches on sovereign Armenian territory” or “Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of failing to withdraw from its territory” instead of “Azerbaijan refuses to withdraw from Armenian territory while falsely claiming they are on Azerbaijani land.” No headline reads, “Armenia shows remarkable fortitude in not exploding in trauma in response to Azerbaijani aggression.”
In the six months that I’ve been writing this piece, I cannot bring myself to play backgammon with my father.