Our Old Backyard

By Nora Serghany (Guest Contributor)

Let the night vie and struggle to shadow the land, but the light of truth will always pierce the darkness.

Nora Serghany is a 22-year-old Buffalo native who subsists off coffee fumes and late night studying.  She is currently studying medicine and has a passion for writing, inspired by Russian novelists.  More of her work can be found here.

Turkish Delights and Armenian Plights

By Avo John Kambourian (Guest Contributor)

Throughout my childhood I knew, quite extensively, about my Armenian heritage. My understanding of culture came from observing my family members. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were like the lens of a camera through which I saw and experienced the world.

My parents met in Los Angeles after fleeing during the civil war in Beirut. Similarly, their grandparents had no choice but to flee from their homes in historic Armenia; places like Ourfa and Marash in present day Eastern Turkey. Whether it was enduring the horrific days of the genocide, struggling in the Middle East, or immigrating to the United States, each generation faced its own unique set of challenges but never failed to preserve our ancient culture. Knowing about these struggles made me cherish this rich culture that had been passed down from generation to generation.

But there were moments in my childhood that left me confused. Occasionally, I would hear my parents play Turkish songs or notice my grandparents transfixed by the compelling drama of a Turkish soap opera. This was a stark contrast to what I had been taught growing up: to consciously refrain myself from enjoying anything Turkish (because of Turkey’s lack of acknowledgment that there was a genocide), with the exception of Turkish delights, because no one with taste buds can avoid enjoying these. This duality struck me in an odd way.

In 2009, during my second year of college, I watched a concert film called Dave Chappelles Block Party, directed by Michel Gondry. This was a film about a block party in Brooklyn, NYC, hosted by world famous comedian Dave Chappelle.

Chappelle had musical guests on his sketch comedy show, which helped spread the word about artists like Kanye West, Mos Def, The Roots, Common, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu, pretty early on in their careers.

So when I watched the film, two things happened. First, I became transfixed by the way live music was being shown in the film. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I got very much into photographing shows and concerts solely because of it. Second, I started listening to some of the artists, primarily Brooklyn based artist Mos Def because I felt so aligned with his words about life, humanity, and injustice.

Saying that Most Def’s album The Ecstatic blew me away is an understatement. That album helped define a lot of my core political beliefs. What drew me to that album was Def’s interesting mix of diverse beats and sounds paired with his dark poetic lyrics.

Here’s his single off that album, called Supermagic, with a short intro by Malcolm X.

The song was somewhat of a revelation for me. It sounded so familiar, yet was like nothing I had ever heard before. After a quick search online I found out that Mos Def had actually sampled a Turkish song.

Why would he open his album with THIS song? Why? I was appalled, but I was also curious. When I looked up the translation for the lyrics I remember being very skeptical about what they might be. I was thinking it was probably about something I couldn’t relate to, but boy was I wrong.

I found out that the original song, Ince Ince, which means flaked in Turkish, is a song from the Turkish psychedelic folk artist Selda Bagcan. She is widely regarded in Turkey as a prominent left-wing folk singer.

To me she’s like a fusion of Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And I was amazed to read about such a prominent leftist figure in Turkey. I couldn’t stop listening to her music, and I couldn’t help but feel like a kid with a box of Turkish Delights.

The song, as it turns out, is about the mistreated minorities of Turkey, the people that were flaked by their government. In the second verse, Bagcan even calls out her government by saying:

Why isn’t Ourfa like your Istanbul?*
Poor Marash, dry Ourfa, what about Diyarbakır?
We’re doomed, we’re dead, a drop of water
Come now sir, please

It was like the song was calling out to me since the beginning. The mentioning of Marash and Ourfa, my ancestral villages, really struck a chord with me. Suddenly it all made sense, I understood why Mos Def had chosen to use this song to open his album and why Selda’s music resonated with me, even before I knew what the lyrics meant.

Here is Ince Ince in its entirety:

To me this song is about a region of the world still affected by its past, an oppressive government that continues to marginalize a vast majority of its population.

When we talk about Turkey, it’s important for us to remember that we’re talking about a country built on the spilt blood of our ancestors. But we shouldn’t forget about the many other minorities who are still being oppressed in that country today.

What I realized is that we, Armenians and Turks, aren’t all that different. I believe it’s vital for us to find a commonality between ourselves and our so-called enemies, not in acts of forgiveness, but in order to seek a common understanding. Although cultural identity may be established during the first few years of one’s life, I think any good work of art has the power to open eyes and connect people of all backgrounds; whether it be music, writing, or film, as long as it’s done with respect for telling a common story, something we can all relate to.

Avo John Kambourian is a filmmaker from Sherman Oaks, California. He holds a degree in Communication from UC San Diego, and claims to be really good behind the grill. His favorite films are Back to the Future, Godfather II, and Boogie Nights. Hes currently working on a documentary series called Echoes of Survival, which follows a diverse group of Armenian artists in the United States, whose works are directly influenced by their Armenian identity.

These Miraculous Hands

By Natalie Kamajian (Guest Contributor)

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These miracle hands that breathe life into inanimate cloth // these hands that warm my soul // the hands that live by an imperfect perfection. Love. These seamstress hands that speak the language of Art // that root me on this earth // that have affirmed me with ancestry, with stories and with belonging. The seeds that have rooted me in place // Armenian hands that I call home // I hear each and every work of art underneath her soft wrinkles, I visualize the generations of women that have come before me, their stories floating through each movement as I watch her work. She breathes. Two miraculous hands snip and align; pin and shift. Patience and fearlessness leave me awed. Wisdom // Knowledge // Dignity. She speaks in libraries without saying a word. Hold up. Redefinition of Power. Maybe if I watch her long enough, my hands, too, will learn to speak.

Natalie Kamajian works at a community and economic development organization designing innovative solutions to responsibly revitalize low-income, urban areas around Los Angeles. After living in Հայաստան for a year she unearthed, as Charlemagne once put it, “her second soul.” She is an inbetweener: never here nor there, never making sense and never wanting to and liking it that way. Natalie loves to write but she feels life moves too fast, its moments too precious sometimes to do anything other than live it. Lover of lavender ice cream, homemade halva and handmade soaps; Gardening’s worst gardener and biggest fan; and best friend to both the young & elderly but not really the folks in between causing all the trouble. She practices traditional Armenian ethnographic folk dancing and will revel at any chance to do a mean Մշո Խըռ to some live dhol and zurna. She will gladly bring out her inner թագուհի when necessary and believes that only when she contradicts herself, is she able to seek truth. 

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.

Survivors: Helen and John Demerjian

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Aintab // Helen Demerjian 1889-1975 // John Demerjian 1910-1978

Emanuel Demerjian lived in Aintab with his wife, Lussia Minassian, and their five children; Helen, John, George, Garabed, and Artin.  Helen was born on June 23, 1889 and John was born on April 15, 1910.  The Demerjians were a wealthy and well-known family in the region, as their grandfather, Manouk Demerjian, was the Turkish ambassador to Persia. They owned a vineyard and a factory located near the Copper Bazaar, where pots were made.  Helen managed the Congregational Orphanage of Aintab. The orphanage was once an American college but was turned into an orphanage after the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896.  It has been estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 Armenians were killed during this time, leaving many children orphaned.  When the deportation orders were announced in 1915, John immediately ran to the orphanage to be with Helen and her two young daughters, Lucine and Agnes.

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Helen with the orphans of Aintab.  (center, plaid dress)

The rest of the family was deported to a concentration camp where they lived miserably. Lussia died at the camp, and Emanuel, along with his sons, found their way to Aleppo.

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The Demerjian’s (the family members Helen and John left behind). 

John, Helen, Lucine, and Agnes were deported to Deir Zor along with three hundred orphans.  They lived in dire conditions during this time, having nothing to eat but grass and drinking their own urine to survive. Helen dressed John in women’s clothing so that the Turks would not kill him. With the help of the French and the Near East Foundation, they managed to escape and survive, finding their way to Syria and later to Lebanon. From Lebanon they moved to Algeria, then France, until they finally found their way to the United States.

Helen resided in Washington D.C. and eventually married John Kazanjian. John lived in New Jersey for some time before moving to Montebello, California where he served on the city council and successfully operated a dry cleaning business, providing a comfortable lifestyle for his wife, Arax Arjanian, and their four children: Joan, Carole, John, and Gary.

Ironically, the Demerjian residence in Aintab, which was seized during the bloodbath of 1915, now serves as a bed and breakfast, advertised as a resting place for vacationers.  Although Helen and John lost their home, wealth, and family members, they persevered against all odds and successfully created new lives for themselves and their families.

Helen Demerjian passed away on March 31, 1975 and was survived by her two daughters and four grandchildren.  John Demerjian passed away on February 18, 1978.  He is survived by his four children, nine grandchildren, fourteen great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

Honored by Joan Ainilian McClendon, Carole Ainilian Crone, Gary Ainilian, and John Ainilian

Lost in Translation- Part I

By Christopher Yemenidjian (Guest Contributor)

Among the first Armenians who immigrated to the United States and the succeeding generations of Armenian-Americans, there have been phrases, terminologies, mannerisms, and behaviors that hold distinctly different meanings from those of non-Armenians. My non-Armenian friends have slowly learned the difference between Pacific Standard Time and Armenian time. They have seen our tables filled with food and wondered if more would be joining us. We aren’t the most straight-forward group of people, and we require a bit of conditioning to be properly understood. This series is intended to provide the necessary insight into how Armenians think, act, and operate, a means of bridging the gap between ourselves and our non-Armenian counterparts.

Disclaimer: The notes below are based on real-life experiences. They are not intended to insult, disparage, or disrespect Armenians or non-Armenians in any way, shape, or form. They may not reflect the views of every Armenian, and are not intended to do so. This piece is purely written for entertainment purposes. 

  1. “I will be there in 15 minutes”

Ordinary Meaning: I am about 10 – 20 minutes away.

Armenians: I am just now about to get in my car and should be there within an hour or two.

  1. “My dream is a small intimate wedding”

Ordinary Meaning: Similar to an elopement with less than 100 people (being generous).

Armenians: At least 300 people, and you just broke your mother’s heart because now she can’t invite this couple whom you have never met. However, the couple invited your parents to their daughter’s wedding 8 years ago, and are therefore obligated to send them a wedding invitation. Not to do so is considered an insult of epic proportions.

  1. How to greet distant relatives

Ordinary way: With a handshake and a verbal greeting.

Armenians: Calculate the age and degree of consanguinity or affinity. Then select from the following list: handshake, a nod of the head, hug, or kiss on the cheek. If it is a kiss on the cheek, you must determine who will be the first to lean in. A slight miscalculation and you are left in an awkward position, and run the risk of offending your relative.

  1. A weekend barbecue

Ordinary Meaning: Hamburgers and hot dogs, and maybe a salad, properly apportioned to the number of guests.

Armenians: Beef Kebab, Chicken Kebab, Hummus, Lebne, Tabouleh, Fattoush, Rice, Basterma, Baba Ghanoush, Grilled Veggies, and a few other dishes that vary from house to house. Apportioned to feed about 3 villages in a 3rd world country for multiple days.

  1. The Mother from “Everybody Loves Raymond”

Ordinary Meaning: An overbearing, pain in your butt woman who does not exist.

Armenians: A mellow, toned down version of our mother or mother-in-law.

Christopher Yemenidjian graduated with a degree in Rhetoric from U.C. Berkeley and is currently a law student in Portland, Oregon.  He spends his free time playing video games, watching movies, and driving his family crazy.  He’s had vegan powers for the past four years and counting. 

Surviving

By Leta Stagno (Guest Contributor)

“The bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.”

                        – Juliette Lewis

I wish I could say being born Armenian meant there was something inherently different about me biologically; that my ancestry caused redeeming and admirable characteristics like bravery and strength and altruism to be woven into my genetic code. I wish I could say that just the sheer fact that my ancestors were Armenian conditioned me to be the dynamic mesh of character traits that I am. But it didn’t. Had I experienced a severe cultural disconnect as a child, had I been raised with different moral ideals, had I grown up ignorant of my mother’s culture, a lot of my admirable (and not so admirable) qualities that I had so unwittingly attributed to my heritage would no longer define me, or exist within me at all. Brutal honesty, impossible stubbornness, loquacious tendencies- all personality traits I had attributed to my mother’s Armenian nature, all of which I had, without thought, assumed I had been born with. And yet, now, I’m acutely aware that had I been raised apart from my mother, had she not been such an integral and vital part of my upbringing, I may have turned out to be a very different person.

I think the only inherent trait I can directly attribute to my Armenian genetics is the unwavering determination to survive. While this is a basic biological trait, all species on earth are programmed with some genetic marker for self-preservation, something caused a genomic augmentation within Armenian DNA. Somehow the chromosomal allele mutated and adapted, making the will to survive an indestructible and distinctive factor woven within my interlocking ladders of nucleotides. Because of this genetic mutation, Armenians are an intrinsically hardy people. We are hard to kill, especially in spirit- a people that refuse to die. Where others would be motivated by hope, we are motivated by pride and the singular driving force of bitterness or spite is enough to fuel us to a near impossible end. We survive, we push through, we continue on through insurmountable odds and immeasurable strife. We are brave even in the face of death, vengeful to a fault, determined and unyielding.

And these are the qualities that kept me alive.

The problem with society today is that we always believe that bad things will never happen to us. Television and film have desensitized us, numbed us to the real horrors of the world. Things that should cause us to live in constant states of paranoia do the exact opposite; we sleep easier at night believing we are immune to the catastrophe around us.

So I grew up believing I was safe.

I spent my whole life hearing that I was strong; that I was strong-minded and strong-willed and that I was more than capable of taking care of myself. So I grew up both pitying abuse victims and sympathizing for them, but I was incapable of empathizing for them. I sighed deeply and judgmentally with the rest of the world when Rihanna confessed to still loving Chris Brown after he had beaten her. I saw her inability to disconnect from and resent her abuser as a sign of weakness, I saw her as frail and pathetic- what kind of woman is incapable of leaving the man who hit her? Even as a teenager I was bold and forthcoming- I was upfront and honest about what I wanted. I never backed down without a fight, I was never afraid to make enemies. So I never thought it would happen to me.

You hear it over and over again, the story about the frog in the boiling pot. It states that if you put a frog in boiling water it will instantly jump out, cognizant of the danger and pain it faces imminently; however, if you put a frog in a pot of tepid water and then slowly increase the temperature until it is boiling, the frog will remain there until it dies, indifferent to its own demise. The moral of this story is the same justification given to victims of abuse for why they stay with their abuser. So when I was 19 and sat in my own pot of tepid water, by the time my flesh was charring from the scalding waves of my reality, it was too late.

All I can remember is that he was striking. My god, he was beautiful. And I was just a teenager, still shedding the skins of my over-extended awkward phase. I was both deeply unaware and uncomfortable with my new found sex appeal, like a child trapped within an adult body. He was grossly flattering, to such an extent that would now set off red flags, but then it felt like a real-life manifestation of my favorite romance novel. I think my naivety was part of my allure; the idea that he could be the first to break me was enticing to him.

It started off perfect, my tepid water bliss. I was smart, I was beautiful, I was wonderful. He built me up into some ethereal goddess. He was excessively dedicated and exceedingly attentive. I fell asleep to goodnight texts and woke up to good morning messages. I was his princess, his baby, his perfect girl. Until I wasn’t. I wish I could say I don’t remember the exact details of how it first happened. I wish I could say it was all one giant, horrible blur. But if there’s anything in my past I can recall with near crystal clear accuracy, it was the first time. I also wish I could say it was the last.

I already mentioned I have always been argumentative. I hate hearing I’m wrong, I hate people thinking I’m wrong. But I know when to bite my tongue. So for weeks, I bit down-hard. But as I grew more comfortable and as I felt safer, I became more vocal. I voiced my opinion, I spoke my mind, and for a short while it was fine. It was refreshing to be able to say things and know someone wanted to listen.

But one day, I said the wrong thing. We were alone in a parking lot, talking about something unimportant when he asked me if I would go home with him. I turned my head and laughed, jokingly proclaiming, “Never in your wildest dreams.”

There are still days where I have to fight myself to remember that it wasn’t my fault, that I couldn’t have known that a lighthearted, flirtatious joke would end with a hand wrapped around my throat and me gasping for air. I could never have known that I would discover what it feels to know I’m going to die with hot tears streaming down my face while I choked up pleas for my life at 11:30 at night in a movie theater parking lot.

It was over quickly. I was more stunned than injured as I collapsed onto the pavement and sucked in more air than necessary. He crouched down while I kneeled on all fours, like a wounded animal at his mercy, and he tucked my hair behind my ear while he whispered, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“I’m sorry” was always his phrase of choice. Sometimes he would say, “I can’t help it”, others, “I wasn’t always like this”. At a certain point I think he just started to run out of things to say and would just resign himself to wiping the tears off my face. I spent more of my relationship wearing scarves and layering foundation, covering up hand marks where other girls would have covered up hickeys, than I spent happy.

But I couldn’t leave. It wasn’t because I loved him or because I was afraid he would hurt me if I left, it was because he did to me what most abusers do to their victims, he made me feel worthless to everyone but him. When the physical abuse started, so did the verbal abuse. I was fat and no one else would ever want to be with someone like me. I was grossly unattractive. I was a dumb slut who was a waste of everyone’s time. But he professed that he had somehow found it in his heart to see past all those things and still want to be with me. So I stopped waking up to good morning text messages and instead woke up to pictures of me where he would critique every flaw and say he was the only person who could learn to live with them. He valiantly confessed I should pity him for not only putting up with me but for the fact that he had been so damaged by his previous relationship that it was obvious justification for destroying me. I lived every day in abject misery, incapable of escaping because I wholeheartedly believed that what he told me was true.

I don’t remember when it was that I realized my relationship was going to kill me. Whether it be the eating disorder, the violent physical abuse, or such severe mental atrophy that I would eventually choose to give up entirely, I knew that I was going to die. It’s a sobering thought, to feel yourself on the precipice between life and death, aware that you are the only one capable of saving yourself.

Albert Camus wrote multiple philosophical books on the idea that the hardest decision we make as humans is choosing between living and killing ourselves. For years we have scoffed at this idea, a generation that sees mental illness as more a personal weakness than a debilitating disease. For almost my whole life I too fell victim to the negative stigma, I saw suicide victims as both gravely sad and terribly tragic, but also selfishly frail. So when I too was caught in Camus’s philosophical net, torn between continuing my life and dying, I finally understood what I had been so ignorant of before.

The thing about wanting to die is that it makes you explicitly aware of exactly everything you’re living for. And that made me exceptionally angry. I was so young and so brimming with potential; my future was blindingly bright and all I could think about was how badly I never wanted to see it. So where before I had been possessed with a crippling sense of worthlessness, I was now filled with seething bitterness.

I didn’t decide to end the relationship that was slowly killing me because I woke up one day with a new found self-worth. I didn’t choose to continue my life because I saw through the haze of lies and manipulation meant to trap me. I didn’t realize I could do better. Instead, I woke up one day pissed the fuck off.

I don’t know if the fact that I’m only half Armenian is to blame for the fact that my genetic coding to “proceed through all costs” kicked in a little later than expected, but it did. Where other abuse victims can say they chose to leave through new found self-love or through support from friends and family, I chose to do so because my ancestors didn’t break their backs for centuries so their most privileged descendant could be ruined at the hands of a ridiculously insignificant man. So it was also pride. I was bitter and vengeful and full of spite. And it was also shame, to be a living member of a generation that was never meant to exist, to have grown up among stories of such immense courage and bravery and resilience and yet somehow, through all of my gifts and privilege, still manage to possess enough inherent frailty to let the empty words and actions of an emptier man erase my family’s history. How my ancestors must have wept from their unmarked graves while I let him treat me with the same physical brutality that they had died to show me I could overcome.

And thus I overcame it. Like an alcoholic weans himself from the poison in his cup, I slowly went through remission, gradually and painfully removing myself from the source of my misery. I less and less let myself fall victim to both his words and his fists. I saw myself more as what I could be and less of what I was in that moment. I acknowledged my own mental and physical willpower and I left my abuser, battered and bruised and broken but stronger than ever.

Because this is not a sob story. This is not a tale of tragedy, of immense grief, of loss and suffering; it’s a story of survival. Because that’s all I did, I survived. And while it would be wrong of me to say that the only reason that I did was because my ancestry can be traced back to a small country in Eastern Europe, it would be just as incorrect to say that my heritage had nothing to do with my ability to remove myself from chains I had watched being formed. I am no hero but I am also no victim, I’m just a girl who used her courageous ancestry as a source of strength in a time of dire need. I’m just a girl who already had markers for persistence pre-programmed within her genome and who just needed a catalyst to drive them out of dormancy. I’m just a girl who was lucky enough to be born Armenian.

Leta Stagno is a graduate student currently pursuing a Masters in Biology. Originally from Florida, she now divides her time between her old home in Fort Lauderdale and her new one in Chicago. She enjoys baking and writes love notes with cooking utensils and oven mitts.

How Basketball Came To Be My Armenian-American Identity

By Angela Koussian (Guest Contributor)

Two years ago Kobe Bryant became the campaign ad for Turkish Airlines’ direct flights from Los Angeles to Istanbul. As Armenians, some of us felt uncomfortable and disappointed that one of our favorite athletes would support such an endorsement. Some of us even went as far as ditching the purple and gold jerseys and giving up tickets to games entirely. It was a fresh wound, the kind we would get as kids, a scrape after we would spend hours playing basketball outside. The kind our moms would tell us in Armenian, medznasneh geh mornas, which translates to “when you grow up you will forget it happened.”

Despite still being a Kobe fan myself, you might be asking what sports has to do with my identity? Well, I never knew an Armenia that existed to me as strongly as I did while playing basketball. I was the young girl who had mastered a jump shot before I even learned how to make sourj (Armenian coffee). Turns out I would need both of these skills to properly socialize into my Armenian culture.

As a kid, I played basketball both for my public school and a city youth league. I grew up in South Bay, a town of beach cities located in Los Angeles with a small, and I mean small, population of Armenians. It was through my agoump (Armenian Center) that I found out about an all-Armenian basketball league. This organization is known around the world as Homenetmen. It might have been the third team that I joined, but it was the first time I was able to have a balance between my love of basketball (a passion shared by all backgrounds) and my culture (shared only among those on my team). I called this my “sub culture win-win,” the birth of my Armenian-American identity.

Each team was named after Armenian historic sites such as Ararat, Massis, Ani, Sassoun and Arakatz. Often times, the other communities had too many players on their roster so they would break in to 2-3 teams. This is because they lived in regions where there were a larger population of Armenians such as Glendale, Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. A game of Ararat 2 vs Massis 1 would be going on, but there was always one Arakatz. We were the team that had to play with six, five or four players throughout the whole game. Through our wins and losses, we learned about the importance of communication.

It isn’t uncommon to see a mutual interest in any activity between siblings and parents, especially in a tight knit Armenian family. My older brother played basketball, so naturally I wanted to too. I don’t have any sisters, and being a part of this team felt like I gained many Armenian sisters. We would come up with plays that were named after Armenian foods, like bahmya (okra stew) which I remember wasn’t a favorite food among many of us. I couldn’t talk about bahmya with my American friends, even if I did compare it to the Armenian equivalent of broccoli.

In the years I spent playing basketball with Armenians, I heard many kids on the court say that their “dream is to be the next Kobe.” Certainly Armenians are not like Kobe.  Growing up, we weren’t told that basketball could be a career.  Instead, our priorities included getting good grades, taking care of our parents, siblings and grandparents, and participating in activities that kept Armenian tradition alive. But, what I never lost hope in was to see an Armenian in the NBA. I want to see someone like me who pursued their love of basketball while still maintaining the benefits of an Armenian lifestyle.

From tennis to football and basketball, we have provided important –ian’s to the world of sports. In 2012, Bleacher Report took notice of this and ranked the 10 Most Influential Armenians in Sports History. Three of these figures include David Nalbandian, Steve Sarkisian and Jerry Tarkanian.

David Nalbandian is the Argentinian Armenian who is known to be in the top 50 best tennis players in the world. But, what really connects us to him is his personal story where “his Armenian grandfather built a cement court in his backyard, where David learned to play against his two older brothers.” Little did a five-year-old Nalbandian know that his future would influence other Armenians to start playing tennis.

Steve Sarkisian, of Irish and Armenian descent, was coincidentally born and raised in South Bay, in the same small community of Armenians where I lived for most of my life. He played football and baseball in college for El Camino College and Bringham Young University. Later, he played professionally for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. Sarkisian is now making his mark as the current head coach for University of Southern California football team.

Jerry Tarkanian or more commonly known as “Tark the Shark,” has his coaching success in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Tarkanian has coached basketball for the University of Las Vegas, Nevada and California State University, Long Beach. He also turned down a position as the head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 and served as a temporary coach for the San Antonio Spurs in the 1992-93 season. Tarkanian faced both controversy and harassment for violation accusations that caused him to resign, but he used basketball to look past it all.

So, it really might be just a matter of time until we have a Koko, Kevork or Karapet who will live out the dream.

Kobe’s contract with Turkish Airlines is supposed to be coming to a close this year and it seems like we have already moved on. The hurt has passed as I have seen many Armenians attend games again.

And my mother was right that my scars have healed from falling during practices in our unstable agoump parking lot. But I never forgot about what those memories taught me, much like the stories of our famous Armenian sports legends. Ultimately, it was the bond between my sisterhood and brotherhood of Homenetmen basketball players that strengthened my understanding of what it means to be Armenian.

Angela Koussian was born and raised in Los Angeles, having Armenian parents who migrated to the United States from Lebanon. She is a writer and content producer for Artest Media Group and Courtsideaccess.com.  Angela holds a Master’s of Public Policy from Pepperdine University and Bachelor’s degrees in Peace Studies and French from Chapman University. Her call of action is to encourage the use of sports as a tool for community relations, philanthropy, diplomacy, and the empowerment of women and children.