I published this in AGBU News Magazine back in April 1999 but I haven’t looked at it for ages. I came across it earlier this year and decided to repost it on my blog for April 24.
BY HRAG VARTANIAN
Even though I was born in Aleppo, I really grew up in Toronto, which was a vastly less coherent Armenian community than the one my parents grew up in. Toronto during that period was a largely immigrant city. Everywhere, particularly in neighborhoods where my family lived, there were refugees and families making new lives for themselves and everyone had a story to tell–Macedonians complaining about Greek oppression, Lebanese fleeing an escalating civil war, Jews one generation away from the Holocaust and refugees from various Eastern Bloc nations. Not growing up in an Armenian community, the Armenian Genocide seemed rather fictional for me. No one, with the exception of my family, knew what that meant. Never mind not knowing what a “genocide” was, no one knew what being Armenian meant.
Because of this lack of awareness, I think my identity and any awareness of the Genocide took a back seat to the trials and tribulations of youth–being named Hrag in an Italian-Irish-Caribbean-South Asian neighborhood in Toronto seemed more traumatic than the events of the Genocide.
Occasionally, my mother would attempt to explain what genocide meant–but in reality their explanations sounded the same as the stereotyped explanations offered to me at Armenian Saturday school (which I attended for years). Why were Armenians killed? Why did no one in my life and outside the Armenian community seem to know much about it? I didn’t know and no one gave me a convincing answer.
Only in grade seven did I begin to understand the full grasp of the Armenian Genocide. I was 12 and our teacher decided to teach a unit on genocide. In retrospect, it was rather amazing that we were going to learn at such a young age about the historical genocides of the Beothuk (in the colony of Newfoundland), the Cambodians and more importantly for me, Armenians. My teacher was convinced that the best way to teach the unit was through class presentations and she insisted that I cover the Armenian Genocide–I agreed.
I don’t think I realized at the beginning how crucial that project was going to be to my life. I never knew my paternal grandparents, they lived overseas or had died before I was born. I interviewed my parents and asked them about my grandparents’ genocide stories–my research was different from the research the other students were doing.
My maternal grandparents, both of whom I knew while they were still alive, witnessed fighting and had their stories of escaping from Marash and Aintab to Aleppo with only some of their belongings. I even remember that my grandfather would point out a bullet hole in his arm from a stray shot during that period–though I don’t quite remember how. My grandfather kept the deed to his family home until his death, a house that his father built with his own hands. But their trauma seemed pale in comparison to what I learned about my father’s parents.
It was my paternal grandparents which posed a greater enigma. Strangely, my father didn’t know his parents’ stories very well. The information he could offer me was sketchy at best and seemed to be seeded in a great deal of pain and discomfort–both for my grandparents and their children. He mentioned that it wasn’t something they talked about and everything he knew he had heard through other siblings (he is the youngest of four). He knew that his parents both lost their first families, they met after the Genocide, and my grandmother had tried to kill herself. My father’s family was from the village of Zeitoun, a village that served as a stronghold of Armenian identity for centuries. Their stories remained incomplete to me for years.
When I gave my presentation I cried a little in front of the class, not much but enough that everyone noticed and tried to comfort me. During the act of verbally presenting I realized how these horrible things, which I thought only happened in films, occurred to my family and somehow I felt the wounds during my class presentation.
Years after, I occasionally wrestled with my father’s memory and insisted that he ask all my uncles and aunts so that I would could learn the whole story. After years of sewing together tidbits of information from different sources I have probably acquired the most complete picture of anyone in my family.
My paternal grandmother was born in Marash and was betrothed to a man from Zeitoun where they moved after their marriage. They had a home and children in Zeitoun but then soon the massacres and deportations began. Forced to leave their village, her husband and children were butchered, no one seems to remember the details and perhaps she never told anyone the truth. My grandmother did remember running through the village with an in-law. As they ran hand in hand to escape the terror of soldiers she felt something heavy pulling down her hand and it had been the arm of her relative which had been hacked off by a soldier’s blade. She escaped to the mountains and was discovered by some Muslims who forced her into their home as a servant. For months she was forced to serve her captor family. The only other Armenians she would see were at the local spring where she would come across other enslaved Armenian girls fetching water for their Muslim masters. One day, they made a plan to escape. That evening they would meet by the spring and flee together into the mountains. My grandmother escaped that evening and waited at the spring, no one else came–only one other Armenian girl arrived to tell her that she would not join her. Alone, my grandmother fled into the mountains where for months she lived on her own and was forced to eat grass to survive.
During her months alone she came across a group of Armenian refugees from her town. She joined the group and they traveled together until Mosul in present-day Iraq. Many members of the group had died but the others arrived on the outskirts of the city naked and destitute. On seeing the group, the city’s government officials could not believe that they were human, months of wandering had taken its toll. Each member of the group, which now was a fraction of their original number, was given a potato sack to wear and the women were employed to work at sewing clothes. My aunt recounted that at the factory my grandmother would collect small remnants of fabric which were left over from the cutting of patterns and sewed herself a skirt with the delicate pieces. When the other women saw my grandmother’s new skirt rumors spread that she had stolen material for her new garment. When the foreman approached her with accusations of theft my grandmother turned over the skirt and demonstrated that it was constructed of otherwise useless textile pieces. The foreman was amazed and said, “You Armenians will never die.” This story was recounted to me by my father’s sister as a very empowering moment in an otherwise sad story.
During that period, it appears that my grandmother attempted suicide twice by throwing herself off a bridge and into a river, both times she was saved by complete strangers–even death disappointed her. Months later she went to Aleppo where other Zeitountsis had gathered. An Armenian Orthodox priest decided that the men and women should not be single and gathered up a group of Zeitountsi refugees and arbitrarily paired them off and married them. He had homes for them dug out of the stone in a district later referred to as Zeitoun Khan (in Aleppo’s New Town district). There my grandparents were married, having never known each other before and left to fend for themselves. Last year, I traveled to Aleppo and wandered with some relatives looking for the cave homes of Zeitoun Khan. We came across an Armenian man who was married to a Kurdish girl and he told us that they had been built over only a few years before. The present day Zeitoun Khan was still a slum but now inhabited mostly by Kurdish villagers, the dirt streets were stone or concrete now but little seems to have changed from that time period.
My grandfather’s story has never been told. No one seems to know his narrative and he died before I was born. We all know that he lost his first wife and children to the Genocide but little else. My grandfather was a quiet man who spent most of the last years of his life crippled from a truck accident laying in his bed scribbling in a small notebook. My father remembers that his father always wanted the children to read his notebook when he died, but at their father’s funeral my grandmother placed the notebook in his coffin and as a result, his children never learned his story.
Throughout high school, I grew more aware of my Armenian identity and insisted that every April 24 I would be able to have a commemorative prayer on my school’s PA system. There were bulkhead events during those years which shocked most of the Armenian community of Canada out of complacency and into discussions regarding the relevance of the Genocide to today’s Armenian community. The most drastic was the terrorist attack in the mid-1980s by Armenians on the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa. The event cost the life of one Canadian guard and ignited cross-country indignation. When the terrorists were captured, a suspicious threat, which the Canadian media assumed was issued by other members of the terrorist organization, was issued to blow up the Toronto subway system. I remember hotly debating the issue with friends and teachers, people who all of a sudden seemed to be aware of Armenian issues.
Years later, I helped the Armenian Student’s Association of the University of Toronto stage a small exhibit on Armenians in the main university library. While I worked on the cultural aspects of the display some of the other students worked on displays about the Genocide and “The Armenian Question.” The exhibit was limited but something our small student group could be proud of, until one day we noticed that the Turkish Student Union had put up another display at the entrance of the library supposedly telling the “truth” about “The Armenian Question.” We were all confused, their exhibit purposely refuted our exhibit point for point and wanted to unveil the lies of Armenian propaganda. In the politically correct environment of a Canadian university there seemed to be two sides to the Genocide–we were all shocked.
The fact that the stories were more traumatic in my father’s family was reflected in the family’s relationships. Speaking with my cousins, some of us realize that the relationships with our parents are scarred in personal ways. There are elements of detachment and anger that don’t surface but are perceived by us and no one else. A strange dynamic developed in my family. A clash of values, between the traditional value of humility, respect and honor with the values of monetary gain and economic empowerment. While my father’s family tasted the horrors of Genocide, many families with more money and power were able to escape much of the physical and psychological traumas. My parents always encouraged me to pursue an occupation that would bring me economic success–this they did, or so they insisted, out of “practicality.”
Unlike many of the other Armenian kids I had known throughout my childhood, my head wasn’t filled with rantings of hate and disgust. My mother in particular, always tried to make me feel the humanity of the genocide. It wasn’t us against them, but an evil which as a people Armenians have faced–whether we’ve ever overcome it is still questionable.
How does someone understand something which escapes any logic of understanding? How can something which you cannot fully understand impact your life? It manifests itself differently for everyone. For years I always found it strange that when my mother and I would go shopping together she would dislike telling other people that she was Armenian. Though proudly Armenian, “It’s none of their business,” she would insist. She felt secretive, people don’t need to know. Knowing a person’s ethnicity was not supposed to be a public declaration, one pretended to be like others in public and your family life was no one’s concern.
One day, we were ordering food in Toronto’s Little Italy district and the gentleman behind the counter heard us speaking Armenian–it was obvious he had trouble placing the language. He asked my mother what language we were speaking and my mother said, “Chinese.” The man laughed and asked again. My mother gave the same response and laughed a little herself. She wouldn’t tell him what language we spoke. I said nothing, but I couldn’t figure out why my mother was evading the question of a man who we would probably never see again. I asked her as we walked to the car and she looked at me and said, “It’s always better that people not know anything about you, you never know what happens.”
This entry by Hrag Vartanian was originally published in April 1999 by AGBU and was later republished on Vartanian’s website. A version of the entry has been cross-posted by The Turban Times with permission.