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.

One thought on “Coming From Nothing

  1. This and many other pieces are so beautifully written. This struggle between being Armenian and an Armenian American is truly real. I work with many other ethnic groups and wonder if this cultural balancing act is as hard for them as it is for our set-minded culture. Working in mental health, I am always trying to understand why Armenians do what they do, why they think the way they do. There are perfectly good explanations, mostly due to experienced oppression whether by Muslim rule or the Soviet Union, which have resulted in many generational traumas that we might even pass down to our children. Armenians are the way they are because of history – something we have no control over and something that will take many generations to change. Knowing this, I try to encourage others not to take Armenians way of being personally (rudeness, way of looking at the world through a borderline process, ethnocentrism, which shouldn’t be confused with racism because they don’t just like a specific group, they don’t like anyone other than Armenians. Period) People take on a way of being because of what they have endured and use this “way of being” as a coping mechanism. So even things boiling down to their tone of voice, how they communicate, body language, being distrustful of systems, even acts of fraud or deception were functional in some point during our history. Now, you would think just as many others who adapt to change, we would try to eliminate some of these pathological ways of being or thinking but even this resistance to change is a trait that Armenians needed to latch onto in order to survive under Muslim or Soviet rule. Now, despite of trying to understand all these traits of being an Armenian, I, along with many others find it difficult to find the right balance. I find it so interesting that although you understand and have a lot of insight into the “problem,” your articles almost end in a defeat- as in “well… I guess it is what it is.” Maybe, this is the way to do it as opposed to being so solution focused. I mean, I did say it’s much bigger than us, right? Who knows…

    Like

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