Friday, May 31, 2013

M A S A R A «Մ Ա ՍԱ Ր Ա»

M A S A R A    «Մ Ա ՍԱ Ր Ա»   -   

by Vahe H. Apelian

On October 20, 1906 Miss Effie Chambers, the beloved the missionary of Kessab, alluded to masara in her letter to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in The United States on whose behalf she was doing mission work among the Armenians. The letter pertained to the schools in Kessab.Before elaborating on the headline of this article it is worth to note that Miss Chambers                                                          
claims that there were a total of six schools in Kessab before the Genocide. Kessabtsis supported four of these schools. There was
another school that was supported jointly both by the local Kessabtsis and The American Foreign Mission for preparing students to further their
education in Aintab. Undoubtedly many became beneficiaries of this joint venture, among them Dr.Avedis Injejikian as his son Gabriel attests.
 It would not surprise me that Dr. Albert Apelian and Rev.Bedros Apelian were also beneficiaries of this college level preparatory school.

The other of these six schools was for the girls. The school was entirely supported by The Foreign Mission. This school is so telling as to how open Kessabtsis have been in matters of gender and education that over 100 years ago they let a foreign mission run a school to educate their daughters. Not every community in the Ottoman Empire, as Kessab was part of it then, whether Armenian or not, whether Christian or not would
have been so open to trust their daughters to be educated by a Foreign Mission. Miss Chambers also writes that Kessabtsis have been supportive to her and have lent a helping hand to her. However she also voices a complaint in the same letter and sends it all the way to her Board in America letting them know that getting the students attend school in the fall gets difficult. I quote her:

“The first part of the term is greatly interrupted by gathering in the vineyard
products and the making of molasses, which is a sort of general good time for
everybody, makes it difficult.”

Miss Chambers is not a Kessabtsi therefore she does not know the term of what she describes as the “making of molasses” is in fact what Kessabtsis call masara and that it remains to this day a “sort of general good time for everybody”.

What is a massara?
It would almost not be possible to find someone who claims to be a Kessabtsis who does not know what massara is and yet it may be that newer generation born to a Kessabtsi parent who has moved elsewhere may not have heard of the word or not attended to its preparation. Massara remains one of the major social events that bindKessabtsis together.
Massara is “making (grape) molasses” but it is not a chore, however tedious the preparation is. It is rather a time to be merry. The process starts with collecting grapes for the vines. I would not be surprised that parents looked for the help of their children who would be the more agile to climb and reach the grapes up on the far end branches of vines wrapped on trees high above. It would not surprise me also that the kids in turn made ample use of their parents’ disposition to skip school. I sure would have been tempted as well.

 After the grapes are collected they are sprinkled with an earthen clay like material,
covered and let standing for few days until the grapes have ripened for the juicing to start. The juicing consists of stepping over them bare-footed. Young men would wash their feet and get into the troughs and started tramping on the grapes until the
grapes are completely juiced. The juice flowing from the trough is collected in a container. The remaining pulp would be a good source of nutrition for the animals.

  The grape juice that contains the earthly clayish dirt is placed in a deep container and warmed. The dirt settles down taking with it all non-soluble components in the grape juice leaving a clear supernatant above it that is collected and placed in a container that would have a shorter rim and place it over fire. There were designated ovens for the process. The juice is then heated by burning wood until it is cooked well enough to be syrupy.
The process takes hours. It gives time for the people to sit by the fire, relax, chat while periodically replenishing wood to keep the fire going. Throughout the heating process the grape juice being cooked is constantly scooped with ladle made from gourd and checked to make sure that the juice is heated no longer than needed.

Once it is determined that the grape molasses, Kessabtsis call eroup-is formed it is
transferred to holding container. That transfer is the climax of the process and that would be what all would have been waiting for. Shouting of –prpor, prpor- would break the stillness of the evening or the night inviting all to taste the exquisite, one of a kind tasting foamed grape
molasses, the prpor. In order form foam and  maximize the foaming, the hot molasses is scooped with ladles made of gourd, poured from a distance through a perforated metal plate attached to a wooden handle back into the container creating yellowish foam thick foam that covers the hot grape molasses.
The best way to taste prpor – which means foam - is by scooping it with laurel - gasli – tree leaves. Some would simply snatch a leaf from a gasli tree branch and fold it to taste the prpor. Others, specially the kids, would have been more inventive having shaped different kinds of wooden spoons with the gasli leaves while waiting for the masara to complete and have the prpor to taste.

October 20, 1906, the day Miss Effie Chambers  dated her letter, turns out to be a Saturday. It is the 293rd day of the year that makes it in the later part of the year when the masara would have already commenced or would be commencing soon. The word has much, much changed since then, especially for the Armenians who would experience the Genocide six years later.Amidst all these changes, masara has remained.

To this day Kessabtsis hold masara not so much for preparing stable for a rich source of energy for the winter ahead, as it was done once; nor it   is prepared nowadays for commercialization, as it was done once   with the surplus. Masaras nowadays are done for keeping the tradition and the social bonds going on among the Kessabtsis in and outside Kessab. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


by Vahe Apelian

For an onlooker, Sunday was no different from any other day of the week in Keurkune. 
There was no traffic in the village to see less of it on a Sunday.
There were  no shops in the village to see them closed on Sundays .                 There were no people working in  the village to see them not working
on the Sabbath.    The villagers toiled in the fields.
Yet Sundays were all different from the other six days of the week,
 especially in our grandfather’s house. I will come to it later.

Honestly, Sundays were a drudge to us boys.First and foremost there was the issue of the

attire. Even though dressing for Sunday meant a white shirt tacked in the shorts we mostly wore on Sundays but it became too confining. Hunting was forbidden on Sundays.We were not allowed to use rifle and debkh, the sticky sticks we used to catch birds, on Sundays..Even the animals were not grazed during Sundays confining Papken and me, as I used to accompany him often.
Our inclination would be to have the animals grazed in the Keurkune’s gorge,
Then there was the chore of attending the Sunday service,sitting for what seemed to be eternity on the front seat on the left hand side row of pews where most of the men sat having entered the sanctuary from the left hand side door reserved for the males. It did not make difference whether married or single, men entered on the left hand side door and the women from the right hand side door. Then came the wait to have what appeared to be an endless service end while gazing outside from the windows. The fields were open then. There were no buildings to block the view that came into view from the left hand side church windows extending all the way to Chakaljuk, the village nearest to Keurkune.
The audible difference of a Sunday in the village was the sound of the bells that broke the stillness over the village.There were two kinds of bells. There was a resonating piece of metal that was hung from one of the three olive trees in the church courtyard. It was rung signaling the start of Sunday service for the children. It was a small piece of metal but it made a surprisingly clear sound that was heard all over the village. I hope that piece of metal is saved and preserved,
 The other was the sound of the church’s bell that alerted the start of the Sunday service
 for the grown ups. The bell was rung when the pastor was ready for the service, as he serviced both churches on Sunday, the one in Ekiz Olough and in Keurkune.In a spirit of fairness the church service was held early in one church and later in the other on a Sunday and the order was reversed the next Sunday. There were no cars then so the pastor had to hurry from one church to the other on foot. Some pastors may have had the luxury of having provided a donkey on a Sunday most to my recollection did not.
  Sunday was marked with my grandfather’s ceremonial shaving. I do not think  
that  he shaved every day and I do not mean to say that he shaved only on Sundays. But shaving on the Sunday for the church service created the Sunday mood in the household. He had what appeared to be a bar of soap in a
    small kettle that even had handle. He foamed the soap with his shaving brush, applied it on his face and shaved using a small mirror he had. He shaved on the balcony or elsewhere.
 We had become accustomed to another ritual on Sundays. Kids came to our house brining their larger coins and asked for change. Our grandfather was the life long treasurer of the church and kept the church’s treasury in a tin can in one of the cavities on one of the walls in the house. He would bring the tin can down on Sundays
for the inevitable need for change for the Sunday’s offering we called khatcamboer.
 I am not sure if the word is Turkish in origin or it is anauthentic word of Kesbenok,  the  dialect Kessabtsis speak

For lack of better description , nickels and dimes may best describe the coins cast on the offering plate during service. The offering plate appeared to be brass and the drop of the coins on the metal plate made a distinctive sound during the collection. Our grandfather would be late coming home after the service. He and the pastor would count the Sunday’s meager offering and I presume recorded it in a ledger. He would then bring the day’s treasury home to pile it in the tin can. At times before he put the coins in the tin can he would have them on his bed. There would be a lot of excitement in the house should there be ‘paper money” among the collection. We would speculate as to who may have offered the ‘paper money”. The speculating usually would center on villagers who lived out side, such as in Beirut, and were visiting the village for the summer or happened to be there that Sunday . Faith more so than finances have perpetuated the Keurkune church over three centuries , having been built in 1898.

  The rest of the Sunday would drag on. In hindsight it was a truly a day of rest for the villagers having toiled in the fields for the preceding six days to resume their work the following day making their living off of nature’s gifts: soil, water, sunshine and labor.
   Wednesday, May 29, 2013
 Loveland, OH

Monday, May 27, 2013


Under the Same Roof
(Our Paternal Grandparents’ House in Keurkune)

by Vahe H. Apelian

I spent most of my teenage summers in our paternal grandparents’ house with them and with my Uncle Joseph and his family as one extended family. In fact my brother Garo spent a year or two in his early childhood in Keurkune year around.

My paternal grandfather Stepan had become the natural inheritor of the house as he was the only survivor of his immediate family. The house is built with double layered stones. On the outside, the walls remained uncovered and each stone block remained visible. The inner surfaces of the outer walls and as well as the inner walls partitioning the rooms were covered with a special mix the villagers made to plaster the walls. It was a mix of minced wheat stalk and clay that put a heavy white to off-white plaster coat on the walls. In hindsight I realize now that the coat acted as an excellent insulator against cold and moisture. On one of the inner walls there was a cavity that probably was made by design by not placing a stone there. The cavity served as the treasury of the Keurkune’s church where my grandfather kept the meager Sunday offerings of nickels and dimes in a tin can.

The width of the outside walls is such that, as a kid, I used to sit in the window and gaze at the mountains. The windows had wooden panels for cover but no glass. The floor and the ceiling were made of wood. Wooden logs extended from wall to wall. On these wooden logs wood was nailed. Some, if not most, of the ceiling logs were blackened over time. It was also said that the blackening was also due to the attempted torching of the house. Turks, who had taken over the house after forcing the local Armenians out had attempted to torch the house when they vacated the region and fled as The World War I was ending with the defeat of Turkey that would lead to the dismemberment of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. Among the blackened wooden logs across the ceiling few silkworm cocoons had remained lodged. They were yellowed a bit but remained very visible against blackened logs. My grandparents had raised silk worms at one time.

The roof of the house was covered with special blue dirt the villagers called "kuyrock". There were few quarries around the vicinity of the village that yielded this bluish stone. These blue stones are light and easily crushed. They were overlaid on the roof and rolled over with a big round stone that used to be found on the roof of each house. During rain the roof would leak at times. The next day I would see my grandfather laying more blue dirt at the spots and go over them with the roller.

The house, much like the other houses had a special place for clay water jars. My grandfather filled the earthen jars with water he fetched from the spring. It was my treat to have him seated me on the saddle of our donkey on the way to spring. He fetched the water in four tin containers. Two tin cans were placed on each side of the saddle. After he filled the tin cans with water, he capped them with small gasli - laurel – tree branches with leaves on them. On our return I would trail the donkey with him. At home he poured water from a tin can into the two earthen jars we had at home. As I grew older I could tilt the jars myself and fill the brass cup we kept next to the jars. We all drank from the same brass cup. Water from the jar remained refreshingly cool to drink. I later learned that it is due to evaporation as the clay jars were porous and they would ‘sweat’ and evaporation kept the water surprisingly fresh and cool to drink, in a natural cooling process, during the hottest days of the summer.

Almost every room of the house had a fireplace. My grandmother and Aunt Asdghig prepared food on the fireplace in the room we used as the kitchen and in the dinning room. The fireplace in the other rooms was used for warmth during the cold days of the winter. At times my grandmother would cook in these room as well. Smoke coming from the chimney of a house meant life. Woo (վայ) to the house that had no smoke coming from its chimney. Hence comes the common Armenian expression we use to this day even though oven and chimneys have long gone into oblivion – մուխը Մարել (Moukh Marel) - extinguish one’s smoke - meaning something has happened. The expression is used passively, threateningly or sympathetically.

The house is two stories high and each floor was an almost exact replicate of the other with a center hall with doors opening into four rooms on each floor. However the two inner rooms of the first floor did not have doors that opened to the central hall and could only be accessed through its adjoining front room each of which had a door that opened to the central hall. For a while we used the lower right hand side room as the kitchen and the dining room. We sat on the floor around a floor table. A kerosene lamp illuminated the table during dinner. Its adjoining inner room was used to store hay for the animals. We called the room hartanots.
For many years the lower left hand side room, which also had a door that opened to the courtyard, served as the stable along with its adjoining inner room and housed our chicken, donkey and cows. The ceiling of this front room that served as the stable i.e. the floor of the upper room had collapsed during the baptism of my father and had remained unfinished up to my early teens. Therefore I would view, by looking down the door on the second floor, the stable below on the first floor. I have seen our cow give birth to a calf there and our chicken nest and end up with colorful chicks that immerged from the eggs to my utter impatience and periodic checking with my grandmother. These naturally raised chicks were colorful and beautiful indeed, unlike the dull off-white colored chicks grown commercially nowadays. The animals and we lived under the same roof.

The courtyard was walled. The oven – toneer – was located at the right hand side of the entrance. Further to its right was the outhouse. My grandmother baked bread in the oven. Every week she would prepare the dough a day before and make a cross sign on the dough and cover it to ferment. The next day she would bake the bread by plastering the handful pieces of wetted dough on the inner side of the upright oven heated by burning sticks. It was customary for us kids to visit the ovens of the village after the baking was over to fish charred bread pieces remaining on the inner wall of the oven. We called these charred and blackened pieces of bread kurmush. Charred as they were, but they tasted great! Later on, my Uncle Joseph had a bakery erected on the same spot and operated it for many years. He ran the bakery once a week and more often during Christmas and Easter. The villagers would bring their dough there to bake bread or the different pastries they made on special occasions.

There was a mulberry tree in the courtyard, a remnant of those days when they raised silkworms. The tree also supported the grapevine that gave succulent red colored grapes we called ouzoumlek. These types of grapes are not used to make grape molasses and are only for consumption as fruit for desert.
The courtyard would become busy in the evening as our grandfather returned from the fields. The cows would be milked and then driven to the staple. The chickens would naturally head there in the evening and get their sleep above ground on logs. My grandmother would collect the eggs the hen laid. She could tell that a hen had laid an egg by the hen’s vocalization during the day. I later learned that hens lay eggs only during the day. That is why the lights remain on day and night over the commercial coops for hens to lay day and night.
The house had a wooden balcony on the second floor. Spectacular view came into view from the balcony and the far ends of historical Antioch where Apostle Paul reached proclaiming the Good News. An invisible border separated Syria from Turkey. Parts of the serpentine road that connected the region to the world beyond also came in view. We used to call the road zivti Jampa, which means the paved road. It was then the only road in the region that was paved and connected Kessab to the outside world. I believe the road was laid and paved by the French during their colonial rule over Syria after the First World War.

Our grandfather Stpean was born in 1898 and was driven out in 1915 as well. He never alluded to the house as having built after he was born. In all probability the house was built in the later part of the 19th century. The house likely is over 100 years old and may bridge three centuries, 19th to 21st. The house had remained as it was up to my early teens. Additions and renovations have changed the house since then. Some of these early renovations came about when I was there. However the main structure of the house is the same as it always stood then as a testament of its solid stone solid foundation. Rarely has an Armenian household remained in the family for over 100 years. I have now known of three generations who were born in the house, my Dad and Uncle Joseph, my cousins Stepan and Ara and Steve’s children Tsolag, Shoghag and Hovag being the last.

Vahe H. Apelian
On this Memorial Day, Monday May 27, 2013
Loveland, OH