Fathers, Love Your Daughters

By Taleen Mardirossian

In 7th grade, Jason Miller asked me to be his girlfriend. The bell rang during our game of two on two so we returned the basketball to Coach N and started walking to 5th period when he grabbed my hand and completely blindsided me, “Wanna be my girlfriend?”

At the age of twelve, I didn’t know that having a significant other was even a thing. Sure, Jason and I had a lot in common; we both loved skateboarding, were fans of Sugar Ray, and reveled at Jason Kapono but that’s why we were friends. In all honesty, I was more prepared for a 9.6 magnitude earthquake than Jason Miller’s suave proposal. At least then I would know to drop, cover, and hold but no one had given me a step-by-step guide on how to reject a prospective suitor. To be fair though, my mom had kind of, sort of, not really warned me that this would happen.

“Boys are going to like you,” she would tell me, “but no matter what they say or ask, you always answer no.”

“Even if I like them?”

“Especially if you like them.”

“Mom, that makes no sense.”

“You want to know a secret?”

Of course I wanted to know a secret. Asking a girl if she wants to know a secret is like asking a sweet tooth if it wants sugar.

“Here’s how you pick the right boy.” Now she had my attention. “If you tell him no and he moves on to another girl, he doesn’t deserve you. But if he fights for you, then that means he loves you and only you.”

I must say mom was on point, but this didn’t become my dating mantra until years after that day in 7th grade. Had I listened to my mom when Jason Miller asked me out, I would have simply said no and walked away. But what I did in that moment had nothing to do with my mom and everything to do with my dad.

My dad and I never had a conversation about boys. He was your traditional Armenian dad; protective to a fault and untrusting of every human being I ever came in contact with. However, he was more modern in his thinking then he’ll ever realize.

During that year that Jason Miller asked me out, I had an almost unhealthy obsession with the show ER. I’d be up before the sun watching back-to-back episodes while my dad drank his coffee and read Asbarez. One morning, as I watched George Clooney charmingly hand out miracles to his patients, I confessed my change of heart.

“Dad, I think I’d rather be a surgeon than a lawyer.”

“Who said we can’t be both?”

In our conversations, my dad always used (and still uses) the word we; never you or I, but always we. We would figure things out, we would go to law school, we would become president one day, if that’s what I wanted, and although I was aware that these were all things I would have to do on my own, I always knew that we were in it together. And if I was going to have anyone on my team, I was glad it was my dad.

He’s the charismatic type, the what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong kind of guy who speaks his mind even if he knows he’s going to offend the person sitting right next to him. I admired him and was always in awe of his strong character, never phased by anything or anyone.

Despite his intimidatingly perfect mustache and resilient nature, this hardy man would smother me with kisses, whisper I love you in my ear when I pretended to be asleep, and spend hours at a time just talking to me. According to him, I was the best at everything I ever did. He oohed and aahed at my every move and if I knew anything growing up, it was that I was the smartest, most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He taught me my worth and made me believe that I was invincible, capable of anything and deserving of everything.

And heaven forbid, if anyone were to ever lay a finger on me, or make me feel uncomfortable, my father encouraged me to recollect my savored scenes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and similarly, strike at the antihero.

And so when Jason Miller made me feel uncomfortable that one day in 7th grade, I instinctively slapped him. In hindsight, Jason was hardly an aggressor, nor a villain, but my twelve-year-old self was naïve and unnerved nonetheless. His blue eyes froze, as did the gel-soaked spikes in his hair. With my luck, the principal happened to be standing only a few feet away, bearing witness to my “socially unacceptable behavior” and immediately demanded an apology.

“I didn’t do anything wrong so I’m not going to say I’m sorry,” I shot back, my voice trembling with fear.

This was another lesson I had learned from my dad, never apologize for the sake of apologizing. And so I stood there with my arms crossed, hearing the gasps and whispers of the girls huddled around us. She doesn’t want to be Jason’s girlfriend?

As Jason disappeared into the crowd of students, I took my first walk of shame to the principal’s office. My heart was beating out of my chest as I felt my cheeks turning red. Good students weren’t supposed to be in the principal’s office and I couldn’t help but feel like this was the end of my life.

“You shouldn’t have slapped Jason,” he stated assertively.

“And he shouldn’t have grabbed my hand and asked me to be his girlfriend,” said my timid but attitude-filled voice.

“You should be flattered that a boy likes you.”

At this point, I felt like I was under attack. I had been taught to be ladylike and I was pretty sure slapping someone was far from it. And Armenians are all about respecting their elders and I was also smart enough to know that answering back wasn’t a form of respect. So I was beginning to question whether I was the one at fault.

“Listen, you’re either going to walk into class and apologize to Jason or I’m going to call your parents.”

Looking back now, my principal must have thought that this choice would be a no brainer and it was. After all, isn’t that the ultimate threat? What kid wants the principal calling their parent? But my immediate response caught him off guard.

“542-7321.”

I may have been on the verge of hyperventilating but there was no way in hell I was giving a public apology for something I wasn’t sorry for. After all, if I was in trouble, we were in trouble.

He walked me out and told me to take a seat in the secretary’s office while he made the call to my dad. I never found out what was said during this conversation but he came out minutes later and told me I was free to go back to class.  Just like that.  And I remember grinning from ear to ear because this meant that all those times my dad had said we, he had meant it.

For me, that day was less about Jason Miller and more about my relationship with my dad. It was my dad’s influence that kicked in when I panicked and it was my dad’s love and support that gave me the courage to do what I thought was right.   Where other parents may have scolded or punished their child for not obeying an authoritative figure, my dad carried me on his shoulders and paraded me around the house as though I had just won an Olympic gold medal. That day marked the beginning of a series of life decisions that were made solely on what I felt and believed was right, never taking into account what others might think or say.

I have since realized that without a doubt, it was my mom who built the foundation of my very being but it was my dad who built me up from there. Where I could have easily become lost in the loud voices of the bold, patriarchal men of my family, simply fading into background noise, my dad raised me to become a woman whose voice was just as loud, if not louder, than his.

Love In 1915

By Taleen Mardirossian

Based on a true story.

Male or female, a lion is a lion.”

The only difference between my mother and father was one thing; my father did not fall prey to the expectations of society.  At eighteen years old I had committed the sin of all sins, as my mother would say. I had rejected a man’s hand in marriage without good cause; a sin I repeated time and time again.  And she rightfully blamed my father for my fervor and tenaciousness.  Father raised me, his only child, as he would a son.  While the girls my age were already married, I was committed to my books. They had all mastered the art of cooking while I had acquired the skills necessary to hunt and skin animals in the nightfall.  I knew how to handle knives before learning to properly hold a spoon and preferred wild horses to tamed ones. To my mother’s dismay, I openly shared my views on topics that were off limits; politics, religion, and love. When other prominent leaders would gather in our home for dinner, father would seat me right across from him, at the head of the table.

And if my mother dared to question his intentions, which she often did, for teaching his daughter to partake in tasks inappropriate for a lady, he’d remind her, “Male or female, a lion is a lion.”

It was sometime in the spring of 1914 when father joined me in his library as he did every morning.  He handed me a stack of letters, “Read these and speak of them to no one.  I want you to be aware, always aware.”

So I read every single word of every letter, not once, not twice, but ten times. These words revealed the social, political, and economic conditions of Sassoun, a neighboring village where there were mountains upon mountains, where its people were often without food but never without arms.  I immediately recalled father speaking so fondly of this place, “The only thing that stands taller than Sassoun’s mountains are its people.”

Freedom fighters had been protecting their lands from the Ottoman Government’s persistent desire to oppress, and eventually, occupy Sassoun.  They had already twice resisted in the last two decades against Kurdish and Turkish invasions, marking them a threat to the Ottoman Empire.  Mush is not any less of a threat than Sassoun. We must arm our fighters and our people.

Never had I read words crafted in such an eloquent and articulate manner.  It was evident that while most men sought comfort in false naivety, this writer, whoever he was, found solace in confronting the enemy.  I searched the letters for a name, but I found only a single letter, M.

“Father, who wrote these letters?”

“Moushegh.”

I had never met Moushegh but I knew of him.   The men in our village described him as the young man who did not know that such a thing as fear existed.  He was orphaned at age six when his father was killed fighting Sassoun’s first resistance in 1894.  “Just like his father, an untamed tiger disguised as a human,” father would add.  And my mother, for some reason, always felt the need to make a point, “Unfortunately, a man who is willing to die for his people cannot make a good husband,” as though she had some kind of premonition.

The words in his letters and the words spoken about him told me one thing; this man was capable of striking with his words as meticulously as with his sword.  If he cannot make a good husband, then who can?

If it is at all possible to fall in love with people you have never met and places you have never seen, then I was in love with a man named Moushegh and a place called Sassoun.

Several weeks had passed when I heard a knock on the door late one night. I had been cleaning father’s knives in my stained skirt, half of my curls still intact while the remaining half was flouncing out of my bun and onto my shoulders. I answered the door only to find a man with an unfamiliar face.

His skin was as white as the clouds in a clear sky and his hair as dark as a winter’s night.  He was tall with piercing blue eyes and he looked like no one I had ever seen.  He stood, staring at me, completely silent.

“Are you lost?” I asked.

He shook his head, no.

“Are you here to see my father?”

He nodded, yes.

“Is he expecting you?”

He nodded once more.

“I’m Manouchak.”

As he gently took my hand in his, he finally spoke, “Moushegh.”

I must have forgotten to breathe because instead of inviting him in, I stood there, my hand in his, staring into his eyes.  My stomach was turning, head spinning, as I realized that this beautiful face belonged to an even more beautiful mind. I was at a complete loss of words and he wasn’t helping.  The man who filled pages and pages with words, stared back at me and said nothing, that is, until father came to the door.

His presence filled our home as he spoke to my father with such grandeur.  He was self-less, undeniably brilliant, and passionate beyond belief.  Evidently, he was more than capable of carrying conversations, as long as they weren’t with me.

That year, he came and went often.  We seldom exchanged words, mostly glances, which is why he caught me off guard when he followed me into the garden one night, grabbed my waist, and softly whispered, as though he was telling me a secret that even the flowers and trees were forbidden to hear, “Marry me.”

There was no ring, no priest, no one to witness that these words were spoken.  And with my word in exchange for his, we were engaged.  His hopes were now mine and my dreams were his. Our love was of the kind that despite belonging to someone, made you feel free.

Whereas other women viewed his fearlessness and daring nature as indicators of a man to admire, not marry, these unparalleled traits of his had quite the reverse effect on me.

Between the two of us, there existed no logic or reason or sensibility, only impulsively wild recklessness.  There was not a regime in the world that we couldn’t overthrow, not a war we couldn’t win, together. We were inseparable, until we were forced to be apart.

I frantically woke from my sleep thinking I was having a nightmare, only to find that the screaming voices ringing in my ear were real.  I heard the doors of the corridor opening and closing, footsteps barging in and out of rooms accompanied with deep voices yelling in Turkish.  I knew it was just a matter of seconds before my bedroom door would swing open.  I quickly pulled the blanket over my bed as if no one had slept in it, pulled my shoes over my feet and jumped out the window, closing it behind me.  My window led to the fields behind our house where father and I had built a safe haven below the ground.  It was in this small cellar where we hid our gold and weapons, along with a generous amount of walnuts and dried fruits.  It was pitch dark inside as I silently climbed in, familiar with every centimeter of this confined space.

Study your surroundings and never attack with blind eyes, father had taught me.  As I began to carefully pull out weapons, I was trying to make sense of what was happening while I counted the number of voices to determine how many men I would be going up against.  I could hear commotion coming from inside the house but I couldn’t make out words until the voices came closer to where I was.  And so I began counting, one, two, three, four.

“What am I being arrested for?” father screamed but there was no response. I could hear mother’s cries as I loaded the ammunition.

Four against one, I could do this.

“We want your daughter.  Where is she?”

Five voices.

I brought my ear as close to the entry as possible.  What do they want me for?  And then I heard my sweet father’s voice speak with conviction.

“She is not here.”

“There is no need to lie.  We don’t kill beautiful girls.”

Six voices.  How many more of them could there be?

“We know better than to waste that kind of beauty.  Where is she?”

Seven voices.

“There are fifteen of you and only two of us.  You think my daughter would be hiding if she were here?”

And it was in this moment that I buried my face in my hands, unable to control my emotions.  Father knew exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing.  He knew I could never leave him.  He knew I was counting voices and he knew I would attack.  And this was his only way of letting me know that there were too many of them and only one of me.  He was indirectly asking me to stay in the cellar, pleading and begging for me to listen to his words instead of my heart.

As I was sinking in an overwhelming range of emotions, I noticed my mother’s cries stop at the sound of a gunshot.  She was killed, gone in an instant, her life used simply to provoke my father and I.  My father yelled and screamed, asking questions that would forever remain unanswered.

“Now, are you going to tell us where your daughter is?”

“She’s not here!  God himself cannot make her appear.”

My father knew me all too well. He knew I would reach an uncontrollable point, that my impulsive nature would force me out of the cellar. And so, he was reinforcing my decision to respect his words, demanding me to stay put no matter what would happen next.  I put down my weapons, covered my ears, and closed my eyes and felt the enormity of love I held for my father.

It was this love and utmost respect for him that kept me in that cellar while they slowly tortured him to death, hoping that I would emerge to save him.   And God knows, I almost did.  I fought with myself, eyes drenched in my own tears, as they cut each of his fingers.   Those fingers that had held mine, that taught me to count and write, dance and pray, fell to the ground one at a time.  How he screamed, how he screamed God’s name, how he called for God’s help.

And while he endured excruciating pain, he spoke his last words to me.

Gyankud talar lini lao.”

These words were followed by silence, until a voice finally spoke, “She definitely isn’t here.”

But I was.  I was below them, cowardly listening as my parents were killed and I couldn’t tell if I felt more shame or guilt.

I didn’t leave the cellar that night; partly because the footsteps and voices remained in the distance, but mostly because for the first time in my life I was afraid.  My chest was moving but I couldn’t feel myself breathing.  How could I find bravery within me to escape when I knew death was waiting for me?

I stayed in the cellar for four days, hoping that Moushegh would return for me. He had left to Sassoun the day before the attack; he should have arrived two days prior. Moushegh never came. As soon as the sun set on the fourth night, I climbed out of the cellar and witnessed a view that I could have never prepared myself for, an image that would never leave my mind.  There laid two bodies, belonging to my parents, half-eaten by stray dogs and the remaining flesh rotten by the scorching sun.

I collapsed, unable to hear my own screams, unable to feel my legs, or trust my own eyes. I placed my bare hands into the dirt, digging graves for my parents.  I dragged what was left of them, said my goodbyes, and buried them beneath the earth.

I returned to the cellar, cut my long locks of curly hair and changed into a set of father’s spare clothing. I took only as many weapons, food, and gold as necessary, before leaving the land that belonged to me. In four days, this sacred land had been turned into a roadside slaughterhouse. The prosperous population of Mush had become casualties. The corpses of children lay wherever I looked, their faces peacefully asleep, their bones protruded out of their skin. Wherever I looked, each glance was worse than the one before.

I dropped to my knees when I noticed three bodies hanging from afar. What if Moushegh is one of them? What if he had been hanged while I sat waiting for him in that cellar?

I picked myself up and ran towards the hanging bodies. I never knew that one could feel relief and pain simultaneously. Moushegh was not among these men but I knew all three, all prominent leaders and friends of my father who I had grown up with. These were the men who accepted me among them, who dined with us on our table, who brought me books, who asked me for my opinion before sharing their own.

With the little strength I had left in me, I cut the ropes that had suffocated the life out of them, and buried them alongside each other, paying my last respects to the immaculate men of Mush.   They deserved at least this much, to become one with the soil that they had died to protect.

For my own sanity, I began to hide during the day and walked only at night, as I oddly found comfort in the darkness that concealed the devastating realities of this inhumane world.

Two weeks had passed before I spotted an elderly woman collecting berries just as the sun was rising.  I watched her from a distance as she raised her hands to the sky and spoke words that I couldn’t make out, before bringing three clenched fingers to her forehead, then her abdomen, crossing her heart. I was in an unknown place with an unknown destination but I was able to breathe for the first time in weeks because this simple gesture told me she was an Armenian.

I desperately approached the woman, confiding in her that I too, was Armenian.  She immediately threw her arms around my neck, kissing my cheeks, as if she had known me all my life.  She introduced herself as Tello, while grabbing my hand and urging me to follow her.  We walked through the shrubs of a nearby field where there sat two young women and a child.

“We found an Arab man who knows a shortcut to Syria.  He will be fetching for us as soon as the sun sets.  I have already paid him four gold coins, I will give him another and you will join us.”

“How can you trust him?”

“My sweet girl, tell me, do we have any other choice?”

We remained in hiding until the sun came down and silently began walking towards the olive tree, where we would meet the Arab man.  But we all stopped in our tracks at the sound of Turkish voices.

Tello peeked through the shrubs and whispered to me, “That’s the Arab man.”

I put my finger over my lip, demanding that the others remain quiet while I took a few steps closer, intently listening to the words that were being spoken.  Two Turkish soldiers were pressing the man for information, “Are you hiding Armenians?”

To my surprise, the Arab man denied every accusation, leading the soldiers to tie his wrists.  I reached for my knife, thinking that it would be only a matter of seconds before the Arab man confessed and put our lives at risk to save his own.  But he never did. His hands restrained, each soldier took out a knife and I knew his death would soon arrive. Although the world had lost its conscience, I still had mine. For weeks, I had been haunted by the screaming voices of my parents and I couldn’t stand idly by again.  Muslim, Kurd, Arab, Turk, whatever this man was, whatever God he did or didn’t believe in, was irrelevant to me.  He was a good man with a good heart who was risking his own life to save the lives of complete strangers.  So I did what I knew I had to do, I attacked.

I killed two men that night taking two malice hearts to save a kind one, but even this justification didn’t change the fact that my hands were stained with blood, my soul tainted and numb, desensitized to human tragedy.

Soon thereafter, we crossed into Syria’s borders. I became a foreigner in this land and a stranger in my own body. This place was not Mush and I was no longer Manouchak.

While Tello and the others were healing in this so-called sanctuary, I constantly found myself suffocating; while both awake and in my dreams.  Sometimes I was drowning in the deepest end of the ocean.  Other times, I was back in that cellar surrounded by darkness that grew heavier and heavier on my soul.

I allowed myself to drown in my own misery, pushing away anything and anyone with enough buoyancy to possibly pull me up to the surface. All the help in the world can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.

And so I started living in my own mind, where Moushegh and I were together, where father and mother were alive, and where I was still a human being.  Tello would drag me to church on Sundays.  And there I would sit, surrounded by a sea of people, people who had suffered the same black fate as me, yet I felt completely alone without him.  While Tello helped at the church, and cooked for the orphans, trying to save the world around her, I selfishly cared about the well-being of only one person.

The fighters of Sassoun have been captured and killed, I heard over and over again.  But I preferred to relive through the horrendous realities I had already come face to face with then accept the fact that Moushegh was dead.

A year came and went but nothing changed, except that the value of every second, minute, and moment of my life was depreciating. After rejecting seventeen suitors, Tello had decided to try another tactic, instilling guilt within me.

“You must marry, have children, and pass on your story. God saved you for a reason.”

“I never asked to be saved.” My loyalty was to Moushegh, not God.  And if there was a God, I was afraid we had nothing in common.

“We have a guest tonight for dinner,” she casually mentioned one afternoon.

“Who?” I shot back, frustrated with her inability to give up on finding me a husband.

“A young man.  He helped me at church today and I insisted that I prepare him dinner.  But don’t worry, I didn’t tell him about you.  He said he’s not interested in a bride, I asked.”

Of course you asked, I rolled my eyes.

My hair was finally growing back to the way it was before and my scars were finally healing but I was still far from possessing that bold personality that once belonged inside of me. I was missing Moushegh and mother and father. If I could only hear father’s voice say once again, Male or female, a lion is a lion.

There was a knock on the door. Lost in my own thoughts, I answered only to find a familiar face. My knees grew numb, my heart stopped, my eyes froze at the sight before me.

It was Moushegh, but I had fallen so deep into my profound thoughts that I couldn’t trust what my eyes were showing me. We were staring at one another, much like the first time we had met, until he put his hands in my hair, his lips on mine, and we both realized that this wasn’t another dream. He pulled me to him, as we both fell to the floor, entangled into one another.

But moments later he pulled back, as if he came to some kind of realization. And the expression on his face made me feel sick. Reluctantly, he grabbed my two hands and gazed at each finger as if he was studying every nerve, wrinkle, and cut while searching for something. As he finally looked up, I noticed the tears streaming down his face, witnessing vulnerability in his eyes for the very first time, as he finally gathered the courage to ask,

“Did you marry someone else?”

I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move.

Tello stood with her mouth cupped in her hands in disbelief, as she realized what had just transpired, “She turned away seventeen men and she waited for you. She’s been waiting for you.”

The untamed tiger came back to life with a smile on his face.  He jumped to his feet, kissed Tello’s forehead before pulling me up to him.  He carried me, walking hastily as we left the building, heading to church to be married then and there. He kissed every inch of my face, as I rested my head on his shoulder.  I had been frail and broken for days, weeks, months, a year, and all it took was one moment, one person, one act of God, to bring back the person I once was.

The Benefits of Being Raised Armenian

By Taleen Mardirossian

I see the new generation of Armenian parents repeatedly shying away from Armenian traditions, culture, and even, language. And the reasoning behind this somewhat intentional abandonment of identity seems to be one and the same, to make it easier for their children to integrate into society. Here’s my take on this trend; you’re not doing your kid any favors.

This is probably a good time to mention that I’m not a parent and by no means is this meant to be a parenting guide on how to raise your children. These are just the thoughts and experiences of a twenty-six year old, raised to be Armenian in a city where most people would ask, what’s an Armenian?

I grew up in the South Bay, a predominantly white neighborhood where Armenians are a rare find.  I vividly remember my mom calling me one day, hurriedly telling me to tidy up the living room.  To Armenian moms, tidy up actually means dust the tables, vacuum the floors, Windex the mirrors, and set up an impressive arrangement of nuts, cookies, and dried fruits.

“Why mom? The house is already clean.”

“Because I found people.  I’ll be home in ten.”

This either meant that the human race had become extinct since the last time I checked or that my mom meant that she had found our kind of people, which turned out to be the case. Where I grew up, if you heard Armenian-speaking voices in the next aisle while shopping, you’d bring them home for coffee.  So, it goes without saying that I was raised in a town where the norm wasn’t being Armenian, it was having blonde hair and light eyes, and I definitely didn’t fit into this norm. At school, I was often the only bearer of an –ian last name.  And I was always okay with this because instead of indirectly encouraging me to shy away from my identity, my parents taught me that having a hard to pronounce name, thick eyebrows, and a not-so-perfect nose made me different, and that being different meant that I was special. So I grew up loving my name, my eyebrows, and my nose but most of all, I loved being Armenian. I loved being different.

And this “being different” that young parents are now trying so hard to dodge away from, is the very thing that is rewarded in the society they are trying to fit into. Being different is what lands you the job that hundreds of other applicants interviewed for.  Having a voice that’s different, a perspective that’s different, a presence that’s different, is the difference between being ordinary and extraordinary.  The progression of our society is not thanks to people who invest their time and effort into being like everyone else. So, instead of trying to mold into the norms of society, allow your child the opportunity to embrace the fact that they are different.

And I don’t mean to say that being different is always easy, because it’s not. Being the only Taleen in a school of thousands of students wasn’t exactly a stress-free experience growing up, but I attribute a lot of my personality to the fact that I had an uncommon name and here’s why. It taught me to speak up when my classmates dared to call me something different and it taught me to demand respect from anyone who needed to call my name. I learned not to sacrifice something as important as my identity for the sake of not inconveniencing my peers. I learned to be patient and teach others to pronounce my name correctly, think Pauline but with a T, even if it took a dozen tries to get it right. Having an Armenian name taught me to stand up for myself and others, even if it meant that I had to stand alone.

Being raised Armenian also taught me to educate my peers. In third grade, my teacher handed each student a sheet of paper and told us to write down interesting facts about a country of our choice, which we would later present to the class.  Naturally, I chose Armenia and the facts that I found interesting weren’t about Armenian foods or landmarks. Here’s what my third-grade self wrote:

Taleen is a special name in Arminia because in Arminia there is an old village called Taleen and a lot of people live there.  Turkish wanted to fight us because we were the first people to be Christian and the Turkish didn’t want us to be Christian and they wanted to have our land.  Every ten Arminians fought back against hundreds of Turkish soldiers.  April 24, 1915 is a memoriel day for the Arminian people because they killed over one million Arminian children, womans, men.”

Mind you, I didn’t know how to spell Armenia in third grade but I did know that Armenia was the first Christian nation and I did know about the genocide perpetrated against my ancestors.  And in case you’re trying to figure out how old you were in third grade, the magic number is eight. While my classmates went up, one-by-one, educating the class about how the French eat snails and how fascinating the Great Wall of China is, eight-year old Taleen proudly went up and gave a history lesson about Armenians.

Most parents these days would cringe at the thought of an eight-year old having any knowledge about an attempted mass extermination of an entire race but my parents taught me about the history of my people at a fairly young age.  They never sheltered me from the cruelties capable by man and they didn’t raise me with the false perception that there is no evil in this world.  And because I was always acutely aware of my people’s past, I grew up with compassion and a constant desire to right a wrong.  And it is for this very reason that I continuously found myself gravitating towards positions that involved public interest throughout law school.  This constant desire to seek justice for people who are victimized and advocate for those who are oppressed was not just happenstance.  This compassion was deeply rooted to a past that occurred long before I was ever born, a past that nearly annihilated the Armenian people, and being raised with knowledge of this past taught me to care for people other than myself.

Many people rolled an eye or two at my parents for their traditional approach to parenting while raising me and my brothers. Surely, they were told that their children would fall behind in school if they were taught Armenian before English, that they would become insecure if given un-American names, and that they’d be emotionally scarred if they were taught about the devastating past of their people before they were adults. But my parents, each fluent in four languages and raised to be Armenian in the Middle East and Europe, thought differently. They followed tradition in naming their children, raised their kids in a hayeren khoseer household where we only spoke Armenian, and educated us about both the victories and tragedies of our history. I can honestly and confidently say that all those eye-rollers were wrong. My brothers and I were not adversely affected by being raised Armenian, nor were any of our close friends who were raised similarly. Among our group are educated and intelligent Armenians who attended prestigious universities, graduated at the top of their classes, hold influential positions, and are successful entrepreneurs.

It doesn’t mean that a child with an American name or a child who doesn’t speak Armenian is any less capable of achieving success or possessing these qualities. All I’m saying is that if you’re foregoing an Armenian name for your child, choosing not to teach them the language or history, solely because it will be easier for them to assimilate, then maybe it would be worthwhile to think about the positive aspects of gifting them with a unique name, language, and history. Before being so quick in holding your child back from their own identity for the sake of convenience, let’s remember that parents are supposed to build their child’s potential, not limit it.

Armenians are a people whose history dates back thousands of years, a people who have lived through kingdoms, wars, and genocide, which means, we’re pretty damn good at persevering when all odds are against us.  And your children are their descendants and they too will persevere. By raising your children to be Armenian, you will be raising them to be kind, compassionate, understanding, loving, and appreciative. You will be teaching them to stand up for themselves and others, to be a leader, and a hard worker. If for no reason at all, raise your children to be Armenian for their sake because being Armenian is a beautiful thing to be.

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Us and Them

By Taleen Mardirossian

The only Armenia I knew growing up was the one I had envisioned in my mind. It was a place I had never visited, neither had my parents, nor my grandparents, yet the language, history, and culture of this unfamiliar place had somehow always been the center of my universe. And the simple fact that my family loved, cherished, and honored a country they had never known fascinated me. But this fascination transformed into fear during my very first flight to Yerevan. I felt sick to my stomach. What if I hate everything about this place?  I had way too much to lose and I wasn’t ready to give any of it up.

Luckily, this fear was short-lived. I fell in love with the open arms of strangers that could warm hearts with their embrace.  I fell in love with the voices of children, yelling at each other in Armenian. I fell in love with the sight of old men playing backgammon on the sidewalks, chewing their sunflower seeds. I fell in love with the wrinkled hands of women who cooked the tastiest meals from scratch. I fell in love with ancient books that had been covered in centuries worth of dust. I fell in love with the generosity and kindness exhibited by villagers who had nothing but gave everything to anyone who knocked on their door. I fell in love with the eyes of the elderly that told a different story with every blink.  I fell in love with the hearts, smiles, tears, and souls of my people. I fell in love with the churches, the mountains, the trees, and the lakes. I fell in love with a place that I had only known in my heart.

Although I felt at home, I quickly realized that I was an outsider to many. The simple fact that I didn’t speak the same dialect of Armenian automatically made me different in a “you’re obviously not one of us” kind of way. When asked about my thoughts on Armenia, I’d say something like I love it here, which turned out to be an answer that made me the subject of disapproving eyes, coupled with mouths that spoke bitter words in sweet tones. Words to remind me that in some way or another, living outside of Armenia’s borders meant that I shared no resemblance to this ‘authentic’ group; that my reflection was and always would be vividly unalike; that I somehow wasn’t entitled to that feeling of being home in Armenia. And so, I remained on the receiving end of strategically concealed comments during every subsequent visit. But it wasn’t until my most recent visit that a comment along these lines left me utterly shocked.

I landed in Yerevan, a hair away from feeling at home once again, and impatiently waited in line to get my passport stamped. As my turn approached, I walked towards the man at the counter, a smile blatantly visible on my face, and handed him my passport. His face was anything but pleasant as he browsed through it and failed terribly at his attempt to speak broken English while handing me a piece of paper.

“Write.”

He held up a form.

“Sign.”

Pointed to where I’m supposed to sign.

“Bring to me.”

He then motioned with his hand for me to move over to the next counter and bring back the form upon completion.

My smile immediately disappeared. It was obvious that he did not speak any English so I was having a hard time understanding why he wasn’t talking to me in Armenian. But then it clicked. He had seen my American passport and automatically assumed that I did not know a word of Armenian. I snatched the form from his hand, annoyed and not in the mood to argue after a 12-hour flight. I dragged my luggage, and myself, to the next nearest stand. Minutes later, I strutted back and dropped the form on his counter, every line filled out in Armenian. He stared at the form, then at me, then back at the form, then back at me, as if I had magically pulled a rabbit out of my pocket. I glared back with my don’t you feel stupid face, as he was having trouble finding words.

“How do you know how to write Armenian?” he finally asked.

“Because I’m Armenian.”

“No.”

He grabbed my passport and waved it in the air, as if I had never seen it before.

“You’re not Armenian. You’re an American.”

And you’re an asshole I wanted to say, but instead, I grabbed my passport and walked away.

He wasn’t completely wrong but he definitely wasn’t right. In the States, my un-American name comes with an automatic presumption that it belongs to a foreigner. So, regardless of the fact that I was born and raised in California, attended public schools my entire life, and speak English without the slightest accent attached to my tongue, I am undoubtedly identified as Armenian. And here I was, in Armenia, being told, by an Armenian, that I was not Armenian, merely because my passport stated otherwise.  Great, I thought to myself, I’m an Armenian in America and an American in Armenia.

Here’s what Mr. Rude will never understand; I can’t be one without the other. Living in America has certainly shaped the person I am today, but so has my family’s past. My roots cannot be unheeded and deemed void simply because I was born somewhere that is not Armenia. Referring to the Armenian diaspora as a population that is not Armenian is comical. These are the very people who preserved a culture and identity they were never directly exposed to. These people built Armenian churches in Muslim countries, stood trials in foreign courts, and created little Armenia’s all across the world out of passion for the land they come from and respect for the people who occupy it. While our ancestors were driven out of their homes, given no choice but to fight for their lives and flee elsewhere, we had to continue to fight discrimination and oppression long after they stepped foot into their safe havens.

There exists a flaw in the way Armenians perceive one another. Citizens in Armenia can’t begin to imagine the struggles faced by the diaspora to keep our identity overseas, and Armenians in the diaspora don’t know the challenges faced by those living in the Motherland, so let’s not pretend to understand. Whether a diasporan or a citizen, a Garabed or a Gary, native speaker or not, one is not inferior or superior to the other.

The soil beneath our feet may be different, but our roots are grounded in the same land. Our ancestors were targets of the same crime. Growing up, our ears heard the same melodies, our eyes read the same stories, our mouths spoke the same words, our hands moved to the same songs. Armenia has been a part of us, as much as it’s been a part of you. We must put our differences aside, move past “us” and “them”, and realize that the world sees us all as one people, Armenians. I think it’s about time we do the same.

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.

 

Consistently Inconsistent

By Taleen Mardirossian

I was born in the United States but the first words I ever spoke were not English. Ironically, while I was fluent in Armenian, the language of a country over 7,000 miles away, I barely spoke the native tongue of the very country I was living in. Understandably, you may be thinking that perhaps this is because my parents didn’t speak any English. Wrong. Both of my parents spoke English fluently, but not a word of it was spoken at home. By the age of three, I had perfected English thanks to the notorious purple dinosaur and the mini-size humans I interacted with at mommy-and-me classes. Subconsciously, I had trained my toddler self to compartmentalize when, where, and who to speak which language to. This is evident in my embarrassing home videos which depict a chatterbox wearing hot red high heels and clip on earrings, picking up a toy telephone, placing it upside-down next to my ear, demanding, “Pizza man, bring me one pepperoni pizza. Five dollars? No problem.” I knew that in order to place a pretend order of pizza, I would have to do it in English because chances are, the “pizza man” wouldn’t understand Armenian. On the other hand, in order to convince my grandmother to walk me to the park, I knew I would have to ask in Armenian with a little bit of jeelveh.

My parents knew that being Armenian would not come naturally in the United States, so they created their own version of Armenia in our home. Our Armenia was composed of large family gatherings, loud Armenian conversations, all you can eat sarma, Nersik Ispirian’s voice, and men with perfect moustaches. And just in case anyone walked into our home and was still unsure about our nationality, we had an Armenian flag on top of the TV. It’s safe to say that my house may have very well had a Yerevan address but one step outside and everything changed, from language to expectations to culture.

It wasn’t until I started elementary school that I realized I was different. My name wasn’t Ashley or Katie and no other student in my class had an ian attached to their last name. In fact, when teachers would take roll, I was always the girl that raised her hand and yelled “here” before anyone even had the chance to roll my last name off their tongue, crucified. My classmates didn’t speak a foreign language and the fact that I did automatically prompted them to assume that I was born somewhere far away. But they were wrong, and I always felt as though I owed an explanation to everyone. An explanation as to why they had never heard of my name before, why I missed school every April 24, why my mom packed a lebni sandwich for lunch instead of Lunchables, why I went to Armenian school on Friday afternoons, and the whys were never-ending.  What I didn’t realize then was that this was only the beginning.

During my freshman year in high school, I started recognizing the extent of this diversion. I remember being at the school gym one day, reading an Armenian book of poetry and munching on Cheetos, while stretching before dance practice.  The cleanest version of Missy Elliott’s “Work it” came on and that was my cue. I put my book in my bag, took my spot, and my body was moving to the rhythm in counts of eight. My mind, however, was analyzing and repeating a line from one of Paruyr Sevak’s poems I had just read, “Պարզապես մահն է մեզ սիրահարվել.”  What a beautiful way to word the tragic past of our people, I thought to myself. For the next two hours, until practice was finally over, my mind and body were out of sync, as if belonging to two separate people. I slipped on my already drenched Uggs, ran in the rain to the front of the school, and jumped into my mom’s car as she stepped on the gas in an attempt to get me to ballet class on time. Missy Elliott was replaced with Paul Baghdadlian and Cheetos were traded with a Tupperware of monteh. I made it to class with a minute to spare, put my hair in a messy bun, slipped on my ballet shoes, and became lost in the sound of classical music. My toes were aching from repetitive pas de chats and my head was spinning from spotting the red mark on the wall during pirouettes, as I made a conscious effort to control my body, making sure my posture was impeccable in my every move. When my mom and I finally arrived home that night, we walked into a barahantes in our living room and joined my dad in yarxushta, a very unladylike dance that requires giving up all control of the body, free movement of the shoulders, and assertive stomping of the feet to the ground. In a matter of minutes, my life went from feminine, graceful movements of ballet to a masculine driven fighting dance.

This polarity was consistent in almost every aspect of my life and it required balance, something that cannot be taught but rather, acquired over time. Luckily for my parents, I was never the rebellious type. I wasn’t allowed to stay out late unless my brother or cousins were with me, which I preferred anyway. I wasn’t allowed to date, which was also fine because I was more interested in John Steinbeck than any boy at school. I wasn’t allowed to wear make-up, which was a great excuse to give to the dance team when I showed up for half-time performances with a makeupless face. These weren’t the customs of Americans, rather, the traditions of Armenians, which my parents incorporated in my upbringing, regardless of where we were living. Although they were not easy to absorb and abide by, so far away from the source of such traditions, in hindsight, they were worth every bit of effort.

Every parent is guilty of promising their child, “One day you’ll thank me for this,” when instilling a verdict that either conflicts with their child’s desires or simply invites more difficulty into the already difficult adolescent life. For me, that “one day” is today and everyday. As I write this, I can confidently say that I have two homes, am a native speaker of two languages, and an individual with the cultural understanding and experiences of two people; two completely separate people who otherwise live completely different lives at separate sides of the world. Of course, there was sacrifice, a lot of it; but if I could ever put a value on the gain, it’d be a currency that far surpasses any other.

The Dead People’s Conspiracy

By Taleen Mardirossian

Lately, life has been something like a broken VCR player that in spite of missing the pause, rewind, and play buttons, is still very capable of fast-forwarding at an ever-increasing speed. A few days ago, I rolled out of bed after snoozing more times than I’m willing to admit and started what would possibly be one of the longest days of my life. Thanks to LA traffic, it took me over 30 minutes to travel a distance of four miles, causing my already impatient self to bite a nail or two. As I finally arrived in downtown and headed to an early meeting, I immediately contemplated whether to enjoy my short walk in the 15 minutes I had to spare or rush in a desperate attempt to grab a cup of much needed coffee. I chose the latter and began running in what proved to be a very uncomfortable pair of new wedges. Out of breath and completely out of shape, I finally arrived, and with my luck, the always-empty coffee shop was crowded with a line of people.

As an avid coffee shop go-er, I knew what was coming and dreaded the scenario that would soon take place. The barista will hold a black Sharpie as he asks for my name, expecting something simple, then I say “Taleen,” and he stares at me with a blank face, so I repeat it, before spelling it for him once, twice, and possibly a third time, until the cup is successfully claimed as mine. As someone who insists that her name be pronounced correctly, no matter how many tries it takes, you can imagine how a simple task, like ordering coffee, can be a tedious one. I would be lying if I said I’ve never been tempted to come up with a makeshift name, solely used for coffee purchasing purposes. Maybe Taylor, Tanya, or something closer to my name, Pauline perhaps. But every time I’ve considered this, I’ve instantly felt a surge of guilt rush through me, causing immediate dismissal of this thought. But today is different, I convinced myself. I don’t have time to waste. I have a long day ahead of me. I deserve a break.  

A part of me was shaking my head at the mere thought of foregoing my Armenian name, even if only for a few seconds, when Armenians had been suppressed of their language, culture, and identity for decades. I felt as though exchanging my name for an easier one would mean that I surrendered. Surrendered to this unspoken, unwritten, but vividly present notion that the once Ottoman Empire, now Turkish Government, expects us, the new generation, to forget our roots. Go ahead Taleen, do exactly what Talaat would want you to do, when you know very well that although the conspirators are dead, the conspiracy is still alive and well. I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes at myself for how pathetic this was sounding. As if it makes any difference to the teenager at the register whether my name is Tanya, Taleen, or Joe, for that matter. As if using another name for five seconds was going to make me any less Armenian. What difference does it make?

Then the moment finally came and my inability to surrender, even to a bunch of dead people, beat my desire to make life a bit easier, and I responded, “Taleen. T-A-L-E-E-N.” I was shocked at his ability to not only write my name correctly on the first try but also at his perfect pronunciation. As I pulled the cash out of my wallet, satisfied with this unbelievably smooth transaction, he went on, “That’s such a unique name. Way cooler than Denise or Kelly.” No offense to the Denises and Kellys of this world, but this was the start of a conversation that went something like this:

“Does Taleen mean something?”

“It’s actually the name of a village in Armenia.”

“You’re named after a village? Were you born there?”

“No.”

“So your parents were born there?”

“No, they were born in the Middle East.”

Confused look.

It’s complicated.”

He began making my coffee.

I’d love to hear, if you don’t mind.”

My great-grandmother named me. She was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. And the village she chose as my name is where many survivors from her birthplace, a village called Sassoun, relocated after the Genocide. It’s where they started all over again.”

So Taleen became the new Sassoun.”

“I guess you could say that. I don’t think anything compared to Sassoun for her but it must have come close.”

“Did she ever talk about it, the Genocide?”

“All the time. Her life was consumed by it, and how could it not be after watching her entire family beaten to death?”

“To be honest, I’ve heard of the Genocide but I don’t know much about it.”

“Long story short, the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 million Armenians for being Christian, among other bullshit reasons.”

“When did this happen?”

“It’ll be 99 years this Thursday.”

“Geez! Thursday?”

“April 24. It’s the day they murdered Armenian intellectuals. That’s when it all began.”

“I had no idea. And Armenians still care about it after so many years?”

“How could we not? Based on the calculations of the Turks, I should have never been born. If that’s not personal, I don’t know what is.”

For a moment, he had no words.

“You know, they will face consequences someday. It’s never too late.”

“I know.”

As I always do, I silently thanked the Aries in me for my stubborn tendencies because on that day, it was the reason why one more person learned about the Armenian Genocide. As I made my way out of the coffee shop, I thought to myself, having an Armenian name isn’t what makes me, or anyone else, Armenian, so why does it matter so much? I drifted back to a moment from over a decade ago, still vivid in my memory. I was ten years old, sitting next to my great-grandmother, intently watching her eyes as she said to me, “If you don’t remember your history and embrace your culture, who will? And if no one remembers, then 1.5 million people will have died for nothing.” In that moment, I made her my first and only promise, and it remains a sacred promise I can never risk breaking. As I turned the corner, lost in my own thoughts and in disbelief at the turn my morning had taken, I noticed an older woman shivering, wrapped in what looked like an old bed sheet. She was sad, frail, helpless, and most likely, homeless. Her pale face and jewel-blue eyes reminded me of the very person in my thoughts, my great-grandmother. I walked up to her, wished her a good morning, handed her my unsipped cup of hot coffee, and witnessed a miracle in its simplest form, a smile.

Taleen Mardirossian

TM3LOS ANGELES, USA
Taleen Mardirossian will earn a Juris Doctor degree in May 2014, with a concentration in criminal law.  While in law school, she worked as a law clerk at the Orange County and Los Angeles District Attorney Offices, served as a legal advocate to children with disabilities, and, most recently, taught Street Law to junior and senior high school students.  Taleen has an addiction to coffee shops, books, and movies she’s already seen a dozen times over. She loves calmness and թաշխալա, consistency and spontaneity. Whether in the busy streets of Los Angeles or in a run down village in Armenia, she is home.