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Excerpt: 'The sergeant ordered that his skin be flayed'

January 12, 2013 13:00 IST

Gray Wolves and White Doves by John D. Balian is the "story of a young boy's quest for identity and belonging."

In this thriller Balian, an American immigrant doctor of Middle Eastern descent, seeks to tell a story against the background of political and social upheavals in the Middle East.

Here we bring you an excerpt from Chapter 24:

Though concerned about this older brother, Jonah was deeply preoccupied with the temporary joys of youth. Over the summer, he had befriended Arto, a relative of Father Abram who was Jonah's age and of a similar bent of mind. They often went to the slums of Bakirkoy to rent mopeds, which they rode at full throttle, like two daredevils, through the dangerous maze of alleys teeming with cars, carts, children, and stray animals. Here, there were no traffic lights. The unpaved roads, replete with ditches and potholes, added to the thrill. Their youthful delusions of invincibility somehow protected them from serious harm.

During one of these reckless excursions, they saw Levon running down the street after them.

'That's strange,' Jonah remarked to Arto. 'Father Abram's wife never lets Levon roam the streets by himself.'

Still a hundred yards away, Levon yelled in Armenian, 'Azad is here!' He waved to them to return home.

Arto and Jonah angrily signaled to the boy to shut up. But he continued to speak Armenian in his high-pitched voice. 'He is here!' he yelled.

'Idiot!' Jonah muttered through clenched teeth. 'Stop yelling and speak in Turkish!'

But Levon was too far away to hear his brother.

The xenophobia and racism espoused by the Turks and their government were far from understated. Official banners and graffiti, splashed all over the city, commanded: 'Vatandash Turkche konush! Compatriot, speak Turkish!' Fervently nationalistic in times of peace, the Turks became even more strident when war broke out. With the political climate so hostile, the last thing Jonah and Arto wanted to do in the crowded streets of Bakirkoy was to attract undue attention to their Armenian ethnicity.

They rushed back to Father Abram's home and found Azad sipping tea at the kitchen table. Jonah hugged his brother hard. Azad was smiling and looked well.

'The first three months were rough,' he explained cheerfully.

'What was it like?' Jonah asked.

'Yes, tell us,' Father Abram chimed in.

'Our drill sergeant pushed us beyond our limits -- and beat anyone who couldn't keep up,' Azad said. 'When we weren't drilling in the snow, we were peeling potatoes, clearing roads, or gathering firewood.' He turned to Father Abram's wife. 'I wore the wool hat, gloves, and socks you sent me, keeping them hidden under my uniform, but they weren't enough.' He turned again to the others. 'One night, when I was doing guard duty in full sight of Mount Ararat in the distance, I got frostbite.'

'Another Armenian saved me,' he continued. 'His mother, a devout Christian, had taken him as a young boy to Jerusalem where he became a haji or muksi.' Azad sought Jonah's understanding look before he continued. 'After he enlisted in the army, the Turkish sergeant ordered that his skin be flayed to remove the tattooed cross -- an indiscreet display of an insignia that supposedly insulted the fatherland and Islam. As a result, he now has an ugly scar on hs right forearm. He advised me to keep my Armenian identity a secret and to ensure that no one learnt of my time in the seminary in Jerusalem. He was with me when I got frostbite and my legs became so numb I couldn't move. He ran to fetch help, while I lay hallucinating on the now-covered roadside. I woke up in a hospital bed with bandaged feet. How they ached! The nurse who treated me gave me a shot of penicillin -- right here!' He winked at Jonah and pointed to his backside.

'When she asked me how old I was, I told her I was twenty, but she said I didn't look old enough to enlist. She figured my father had falsified my age on my ID card -- like all the other peasants back in the village do -- so he could get me back home sooner to help till the land, harvest the crops, tend to the livestock, and all hat.'

'Well?' Jonah asked.

'She was right. I am too young. That needle hurt!'

Everyone laughed.

Father Abram looked at Azad, curiosity lighting up his expression. 'But things got better, no?'

Smiling broadly, Azad stood up and saluted crisply. 'Sir, I am reporting for duty,' he said in mock seriousness. 'Today, we will do conversational English.' He laughed heartily and sat back down. 'I am the General's personal English tutor.'

'You have benefited already from your education at the Jerusalem seminary!' Father Abraham remarked with satisfaction.

'How are your feet now?' the priest's wife wanted to know.

'They're fine They healed well.'

'How about Cyprus, the war?' Jonah persisted.

'The General kept me out of it. I don't know what excuses he made. Thankfully, I'm not in Cyprus. I'm here on leave for a month.' Azad chuckled. 'The General wants to learn English badly, it seems.'

'Doesn't he know that you're Armenian?'

'I am certain he does,' Azad replied seriously. 'My guess is that he's helping me because I'm Armenian.'

'What do you mean?'

'It turns out his mother is Armenian. I heard it from his daughter. By the way, she's very pretty; I think she's in love with me. In 1915, the General's father was a Turkish military governor. He plucked a pretty adolescent girl from one of the deportation caravans to keep as a domestic servant. Later, he decided to promote her to the harem and make her one of his wives.'

Excerpted from Gray Wolves and White Doves (Rs 295) by John D. Balian from Tranquebar Press with the permission of publishers Westland Ltd.

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