Mother Armenia

By Melineh Merdjanian (Guest Contributor)

Ancient nation
you created me
from a pomegranate seed
and carried me to life
on the wings of a crane

And when I cried
from a distance
your elusive hand
wrinkled with hills and valleys
wiped my tears
while the haunted rhapsodies
of our holy mountain Ararat
and river Arax
flowed from your cavernous lips
like a duduk
scraping my soul
leaving me aching
to embrace you

I was taken from you
by hands too calloused
to feel my vulnerability
and extradited
from your blossoming orchards
your sun-drenched lakes
and golden fields
of abundant wheat

I have stumbled into homes
seeking shelter and warmth
but all felt like rough, woolen shrouds
against my flayed skin
incomparable to your gentle caress

But my legs grew strong
like roots of the tree
that bore me

The years pass like centuries
yet dust will never gather
on the memory of you
for you shine and pulsate
a beacon to guide me home.

_

Melineh Merdjanian has had a passion for writing since the age of 12 and dreams of visiting Armenia again someday. 

Pulling Teeth

By Melissa Lake

Growing up, my Aunt always used to say that getting Turks and Armenians to interact amicably was like “pulling teeth”. And by all literal comparisons, she was completely right- it was often a bloody, difficult, painful task that left things sore and only slightly better off than when they started. And call it fate, or divine intervention, or the cruel tragedy of the reality of my life, but I discovered first hand in a literal sense the symbolic meaning behind the “pulling teeth” struggle between the Armenians and the Turks.

I was born with a rare genetic defect that caused two of my adult premolars to never form and thus the baby teeth remained to serve as my pseudo-adult teeth. For generations this issue has existed within my mother’s family and it has never been a large cause for concern. For 20 years, my soft fragile, baby teeth remained in my mouth, slowly being eaten away by everyday use- decaying and softening. And then the time came where it was finally time for them to go and my uncle (who has the same problem) assured my mother that he “had a friend” who could take them out for me and place an implant in.

And thus began the most illegitimate medical experience of my entire life. The dentist was an Armenian, with only a foreign dental license so consequently he was forbidden from legally practicing in the U.S. He had been running an under-the-table dental operation within the heart of the largest Armenian diaspora outside of Armenia itself and his clientele were mostly older Armenians. The “office” was located in a warehouse; it shared the building with an auto repair shop and metal factory. There was no sign, nothing that would indicate that any sort of medical professional worked in the building. The only thing that would possibly allude to the fact that there was more to this building than heavy metal work was an Armenian last name pasted onto the glass front door in faded and peeling block sticker letters. When my uncle rang the doorbell, a large man with a thick mustache and a white apron I’ve only ever seen butchers in meat markets wear opened the door. My first instinct was flight, and as my knees tensed ready to help me escape, my mother smelled my fear and pushed me in.

The office looked exactly as how I always pictured a third-world dentist office would look. The machinery had at least a good 20 years on me, sharp metal instruments were lain strewn about. The paint was peeling from the walls and directly in front of me was a large canvas painting of a countryside with Armenian lettering scrawled on the bottom. I was terrified. I had spent my whole life in professional dental offices to come here- a place where I could almost hear the echoes of the screams from previous patients reverberating off the walls. “If there was a God, he could not help me now”- I thought to myself in panic as the large dentist examined my tooth, his gloveless hands in my mouth. All I could see was his thick mustache moving as he talked in Turkish to my mom and uncle, the panic in me swelling. He X-rayed my teeth to confirm what I had known my entire adult life- that the baby teeth were all I had-no adult teeth would be making an appearance to take their place. And as he was explaining this to me, he reached into one of his drawers and pulled out a set of pliers that I pray were designed solely for medical use and looked at me as he said in a broken, accent stained English “the tooth needs to come out today”.

If I had ever felt fear before in my life it was nothing to what I felt then. Every muscle ached as they strained to fight every one of my survival reflexes and remain seated while adrenaline pumped through my body. I turned to my mother and begged “Please just knock me out”. They all laughed, like captors laugh at frightened prey. He pulled out a needle and assured me that I wouldn’t feel a thing and as he poked my gums with it and injected the liquid into the base of my tooth, my eyes shot daggers at my mother. As he waited for my mouth to numb, my mom asked him in English about his children, probably thinking that my panic would subside hearing a language I could understand (she was wrong). He talked about how his daughter was going to dental school, how she would be the fourth generation dentist in the family. And my mother, who could never pass up an opportunity to pry deep into someone’s past, asked him about his grandfather who had practiced in Istanbul. He asked me about how numb I felt, reached for his pliers and told my mom, “My grandfather was the best dentist in Istanbul. The Turks would never admit it, but even they would go see him and deny it if anyone asked.” At this point, the pliers were snug around my tooth, wiggling back and forth, and then accompanied by the most horrifying tearing sound you could imagine. I could hear every tendon ripping and I could feel nothing. When the tooth was finally out, after my mom made sure to ask if she could keep it, the dentist had me rinse my mouth and while I was bent over spitting up blood, he patted my back and jokingly said, “Aren’t you glad you’re Armenian? Any other dentist would have taken twice as long.” My mom and my uncle both laughed and I gave my best attempt at a smile, the half-numbness of my face causing me to look like I was suffering a stroke.

If I was capable of speaking, I would have told him I’m happy to be Armenian every day, maybe just not so much on days that it means brutal medical procedures. I’m happy and proud and honored to be part of a people who have faced and still face callous discrimination and are able to move past it and through it with grace and dignity. And the day may never come when relations between Turks and Armenians are free from enmity and vehemence, where Armenians are no longer seen as inferiors, where seeking their help is no longer a thing of shame, but we have always been a strong people and we will continue to be a strong people, one tooth pulling at a time.

Ermeni

By Taleen Mardirossian

You can count on two things when bad news is dispersed in my family; synchronized gasps and my grandmother’s voice, “Asdvads tushnameeyis chee tsutsuneh.”   If someone has been diagnosed with cancer, or a life has ended prematurely, or an elder is placed in a retirement home, God forbid, my grandmother makes a plea to God to save everyone, even her enemies, from whatever tragedy has taken place.  One time when I was young, I confronted her, “What about the Turks?”  They had, in fact, killed our ancestors and stolen our lands, and based on the morals instilled in my household, good people didn’t kill, hate, or steal, so the Turks couldn’t possibly be good people.  And so I wondered if her wishes to God extended to them too, or if they had earned themselves a category far worse than “enemy”.  Being an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth kind of person, her response surprised me, “Even the Turks.”  So I imagined, there must be some good ones if my grandmother prays for them too.

Unfortunately, my first encounter with a Turk was not a good one and the ignorance, hatred, and utter disrespect I experienced made me question why my grandmother was praying for people who wished nothing but the worst upon us.  After being prey to a merciless predator for so long, one would imagine that almost a century later, hatred would be replaced with remorse and empathy. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; or so I once believed. Among the very short list of people who have earned my utmost respect is the name of a Turk, Taner Akçam. I am not oblivious to the fact that there are Turks who acknowledge the Genocide and have even risked their lives for the sake of publicly making it known to their very democratic government.  But it always seemed as though this was a rarity since I had never come into contact with a Turk who accepted the wrongdoings of their predecessors or wished Armenians well. That is, until now.

After painting the perfect shade of pale pink polish on my nails, I carefully opened my laptop, and sorted through the unread messages in my inbox, while waiting for my nails to dry. And there it was, a response to one of my previous posts, from an unfamiliar name that I recognized as being Turkish. Clicking on the name, I already knew exactly what this was, another unpleasant message from a Turk.  The entire message was written in Turkish so I didn’t understand any of it, none but one word, Ermeni, meaning Armenian.  I instantly knew I was being attacked for not only being Armenian, but for expressing my thoughts about a genocide that, apparently, never occurred.  To be quite frank, I’ve never cared about the opinions of others, and this was no exception.  I didn’t know what these words meant and I really didn’t care to find out so I closed the screen, slipped on my Toms, and went about my day without giving it a second thought.  The following morning, my dad said something in Turkish.

“Dad that reminds me, someone from Istanbul sent a message.”

“Saying what?”

“I don’t know. Probably talking shit, what else?”

“Let me see it,” he responded nonchalantly.

My dad is a man of a million remarkable qualities, one of them being his ability to maintain a calm demeanor, even in the midst of ferocity. Being my father’s daughter, I knew just by peering into his eyes that he was angry. As we entered our favorite restaurant, the hostess escorted us to our table as I fumbled for my phone in my large bag, overfilled with everything from highlighters to pepper spray. I handed my phone over to my dad, and watched his facial expression change as he read those Turkish words.  Seconds later, he gave me the “Really Taleen?” look.  I was confused and he could tell. He then started reading the message out loud in Turkish, before finally translating.

“I will forever be with you Armenians, until the end. Signed, with love always.”

Wait, what? If it weren’t for the smile on his face, I would have thought that this was a really bad joke. Even after a minute of trying to process this information, I still didn’t know what to think so I handed the phone back to my dad, demanding that he read it a second time, at which point, he was offended that I was questioning his fluency in Turkish.  But there’s no way.

I automatically placed you in the “brainwashed” category without even understanding the meaning of your words. I allowed the actions of a few Turks to taint the good intentions of another.  I admire you for seeking your own truth, when buying the one your government tried to sell you was a cheaper option. I now realize that your kind and loving words should not have come as a surprise. After all, my grandmother has been praying for you all of these years.

 

Coming From Nothing

By Missak Artinian

“Who took the money?” baba yelled.

“I don’t know.”

“You stole the money from your mama’s purse, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

“No.”

“Don’t lie to me, Jirair.”

“I swear. It wasn’t me,” I cried.

“Who else is there? Tell me. Who?” he screamed, as he raised his hand.

“It was me!” David barged in through the door. “It was me. I stole the money.”

Baba turned his sights on David and dragged him by his ear into the other room, while unbuckling his belt. He shut the door. I could hear every grunt, every whimper, every cry through the thin wall. I could hear David’s pain. Pain that should have been mine.

David wasn’t afraid of pain. In fact, he had learned to accept it. Growing up, my parents always misinterpreted David’s passion and outspokenness for temperament and disrespect. He had no reservations speaking his mind and exposing my parents for the materialistic, self-entitled people they were, even if that meant adding a few more lash marks on his back.

Whereas I was terrified of baba and his heavy hand, David was never one to appease. If baba said the world was flat, I’d say, “Baba, you know best.” Not David. He’d say, “Baba, you’re an idiot.” But even at a young age, I knew my parents were much too deluded by an overinflated sense of pride to ever change.

That never stopped David from trying. He believed the best way to affect change was to hold a mirror to my family’s face and show them their flaws. He said as much one night at the dinner table. My mama’s response: “Go hold a mirror to the Turkish government, Mr. I-wanna-change-the-world.”

Yet despite his rebellious nature at a young age, nothing could have prepared my parents for what David was going to do after graduating from college. As far as they were concerned, he committed the most unimaginable sin a son could commit against a proud Armenian family. He married an odar.

Upon hearing the news of his engagement, and after multiple failed attempts to convince him to find a nice Armenian girl, he was disowned from the family. I was forbidden from ever seeing or talking to him again, in fear that his progressive views on love and equality would influence me to follow his example and shame the Boghossian name by marrying a non-Armenian as well.

Last I heard, he moved to Boston with Susan. I’ve only seen her in pictures. I think she’s pretty, but my parents are harder to impress. I overheard baba talking to mama one evening back when they were still engaged. He said, “David must be blind. Who does he think she is, Brigitte Bardot?” I wanted to retort and say, “Was mama Brigitte Bardot when you met her?” But I held my tongue, as usual.

If David loved Susan enough to marry her, I knew she had to be special. He had this ability to see through the surface, and appreciate the deeper complexities of a person’s character. In a letter he wrote to me back when he was still engaged to her, he said she challenged him to be a better person, and she understood him in ways my parents never did.

For my last birthday, David sent me a picture frame with a picture of him and Susan. I put it in my room as a reminder that one day, I’d be happy too. A few days later, mama threw the picture away and replaced it with a picture of her kissing me on the cheek at my birthday party.

I wanted to replace the picture. So I snuck into my parent’s room and found some old photo albums they kept in a worn-out cardboard box. One of them was full of pictures from the day I was born. My favorite in the album was near the end. It’s a picture of me as an infant gently wrapped around David’s arms. He was five then, but based on the way he was holding me carefully like an adult and smiling like a saint, he looked much older.

As I flipped through the dusty pages of the album, I saw younger versions of the people I used to call my family. They’re all there: mama, baba, my four uncles, three aunts, nene, dede, cousins, and some other people I didn’t recognize, all crammed in the tiny hospital room.

Most of them are still alive, except nene. She died three years ago from a brain tumor. Baba took her death pretty hard. Mama pretended to care at the funeral, but I knew she didn’t because when she got the news over the phone, she said hamdouleh after she hung up, which is Arabic for thank God or something.

Mama didn’t like nene because she was Halebtsi, among other reasons. Mama used to tell me and David stories of what nene used to say to her when she was first engaged to baba. Like, when mama tried to help nene and my aunts cook dolma, nene turned to my aunts and said, “Look, girls, the filth from Beirut wants to taint our food.”

The stories were always ancient history, but she’d tell them with such passion and vivacity, capturing the accents of her characters and pacing the action in a perfectly Aristotelian manner. If only the themes were as memorable as her performance, then maybe David and I wouldn’t have gotten sick of listening to her all the time.

Mama always said she couldn’t believe how she married into such a hasarak family. It took me a long time to understand why there was so much bad blood between her and nene. They were both ethnically Armenian, after all. But their issues with each other extended beyond cultural differences between Syrian and Lebanese-Armenians.

I think the real reason mama disliked nene, along with the rest of the people from my baba’s side of the family, was because she was jealous. Every birthday party, Christmas party, and New Year’s party was always spent with my baba’s side of the family, while all of mama’s side of the family was left behind in Beirut during the civil war. She only saw them once every few years when she flew back to Lebanon.

Nene, on the other hand, disapproved of mama because she married baba, which meant that baba had to move out of nene’s already packed house. Moving out of the house after marriage is not only expected, it’s encouraged. But because baba was the first of four brothers to get married, nene had a hard time coping with the idea that her eldest son would be eating another woman’s food. That baba married a Lipanantsi over a Halebtsi perhaps added more heat to the fire.

Nene died in 2005, the same year Lebanon’s prime minister was assassinated. That was the year Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon after twenty-five years of occupation. If you ask mama, God was responsible for both blessings — Lebanon’s independence and nene’s death.

The Syrian army drafted baba when he was eighteen. He doesn’t talk about what happened while he was on duty, but mama said he saw a prisoner tortured to death. After that, he abandoned the army and escaped to Lebanon with his family. That’s where baba met mama. When the civil war broke out in Lebanon, they immigrated to California, where David and I were born.

The best advice baba ever imparted to me and David was to live life in moderation. Given his immoderate food consumption, he never came across as a man who led by example. To cover his double chin, he grew out a thick, unkempt beard, which was a fine way to conceal his fat, until it wasn’t. After 9/11, I was embarrassed when he’d drop me off at school because a lot of kids said he looked like a fat Osama Bin Laden. He kind of did.

Mama is less than half the size of baba. She stays skinny because unlike baba, she doesn’t let food stay in her stomach long enough for digestion. It’s obvious to everyone but her that she also pays visits to the plastic surgeon one too many times. Her wrinkled neck is at odds with her plastic complexion. When she first met baba, she had beautiful black hair, which matched her dark eyes much better than the unnatural and ugly blonde color she has now.

David was actually born with blonde hair. Mama said he takes after her great grandfather, who had blue eyes and a fair complexion. His name was Manook. Among Armenians, he was a well-known political activist in the Ottoman Empire who fought for social equality for Armenians during the first World War, which is one of the reasons why he was of the first victims of the Armenian Genocide.

“Hey, you awake?”

“Yeah,” David whispered, as he turned over in his bed and faced me.

“Can I ask something?”

“Sure.”

“You promise not to tell mama and baba?”

David raised his head off the pillow. “I promise.”

“Is Santa real?”

“What makes you say that?”

“When I went downstairs to get some water last night, I saw mama wrapping the Power Rangers toy I asked Santa to get me.”

“Listen, Jiro. Maybe it’s time you started thinking of Santa like he’s a character in a story.”

“So he isn’t real?”

David paused for a lengthy moment, thinking how to answer me. Finally, he looked into my eyes, and said, “No.”

“But why would mama and baba lie?”

“Sometimes people invent stories to explain things that are unexplainable. That’s why in Church, they they tell us about Jesus and Moses and God.”

“You mean they’re not real, either?”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. What matters is what you take away from the story. Does it make you feel something? That’s what’s important.”

“Don’t say that, David. God will throw a rock on you.”

David smiled, as if the threat of an eternity in Hell meant nothing to him.“Have you ever heard the story of the shepherd and his sheep?”

I shook my head.

“Once upon a time, there lived a happy shepherd who tended his flock of sheep on top of the whitest mountain in the land. The shepherd cared very much for his flock, and protected them from harm. But at the bottom of the mountain, where it was dark, there lived a jealous wolf, who wanted the land on top of the white mountain for himself. The wolf, clever as he was, knew the only way to take the shepherd’s land was to first kill the shepherd. So one night, he climbed to the top of the mountain, snuck past the sleeping sheep, and ate the shepherd.

As the sun rose, the wolf put on the shepherd’s clothing, and he said to the sheep, ‘Follow me. I shall take you to Paradise.’ Mistaking the wolf for their protector, the sheep faithfully followed him down the mountain. After many days and nights of walking, one of the sheep said, ‘I’m thirsty.’ And another said, ‘I’m hungry.’ The wolf replied, ‘Paradise is only a little further. Food and water aplenty await you there.’ This gave the sheep strength to continue their march.

They marched and marched, until finally, the wolf led the sheep to a barren desert. Their legs weary, the sheep began to lose hope. ‘Where are we? Why are we here’ they asked. It was in this moment that the wolf took off the shepherd’s clothing, and said, ‘Welcome to Paradise.’ The sheep prayed to the shepherd for help and they prayed and they prayed.”

“And the shepherd came down from Heaven and saved them, right?” I interrupted.

David paused for a lengthy moment, thinking how to answer me. Finally, he looked into my eyes, and said, “Yes.”

I lost faith in God a few years after I stopped believing in Santa. As I learned more about the Armenian Genocide, I became convinced that God, if He did exist, was neither benevolent nor kind. And I surely would never worship an all-powerful entity that was indifferent to the pain and suffering of innocent people.

I never told mama or baba about my thoughts on God. They’d never understand, anyway. Mama was the kind of person who thanked God for everything. When she was cured of breast cancer, it wasn’t the doctor who got the credit. It wasn’t even advances in science and medicine that saved her. No. It was only by virtue of God’s grace that she survived.

Sometimes I’m not sure if my parents believed in God themselves. Church, for them, wasn’t just a house of worship. It was their social world. That’s where men talked about their jobs and the new car or entertainment system they just bought, while the women gossiped about who was getting married with whom and provided fashion critiques behind each other’s backs.

Everyone in Church seemed more interested in partying than praying. My parents hosted a party at our house twice a month. Everyone from Church was invited; except for the people my parents hated, which were a lot. It was always strange to me that the same people who took pride in the fact that Armenia was the first Christian nation could hold onto grudges as long as they did.

Back when my nene was still alive, she refused to speak to her brother. They saw each other in Church every Sunday – a place where they preached, “Love thy brother” – and yet they turned a blind eye and pretended they each didn’t exist whenever they were within proximity of one other.

I asked mama once why nene never talked to him. She said my uncle got fired from the family jewelry shop twenty years ago, a shop my nene’s brother happened to own. My uncle was about my age at the time and was accused of stealing cash from the register. I don’t know if it’s true, but if I had a son and he was accused of stealing money from David’s shop, my first reaction wouldn’t be to stop talking to David for twenty years.

It always bothered me when people who I barely knew, and who didn’t care about me or my parents came to our house, pretending as if they were all best friends just because they went to the same Church and could speak the same language. My parents never seemed to care that they were being used, that the only reason the guests came was for the free food. For them, the more people that came over to our house, the more they could flaunt their wealth and social status.

“Let this be a lesson to you, Jirair,” Baba said after beating David all those years ago, when I stole the money out of mama’s purse and flushed it down the toilet.

“Your mama and I, we worked hard for everything that you and your brother take for granted. We came from nothing.”

“And you’ll die with nothing,” is what I wanted to say. But I held my tongue, as usual.