Once there was and there was not … that place 100 years ago that my ancestors survived, where teenaged boys were dressed as girls, young women married off to foreigners and infants given up to Kurds so that they would all be spared. Those handful of survivors, who wanted to live at any cost, did just that so that I could be here, typing on a Mac, having you as my audiences, living in a clean, well-lit room and enjoying a front row seat to world history.
When those survivors lost their parents, siblings, homes, mental health and happiness, they found themselves in orphanages in Aleppo or Karantina, the quarantined garbage dump in Beirut. They found themselves with no belongings, no sense of place or self, and with no closure for the crimes they witnessed. But they marched ahead, rebuilt their lives and made us promise to be ‘Armenian.’
My grandparents didn’t have anything to show for their lives before the death marches. They had no photographs, no gold crosses, no physical, tactile, tangible remnants of their past or the pasts of the generations that came before. Somehow their forced detachment from material things became part of my DNA, leaving me overwhelmed and uncomfortable with the idea of owning or collecting things.
The younger of my two sisters started a bullet collection after fighting began in Beirut. She scoured the streets for spent bullet shells and exchanged them with friends from the neighborhood. My collection was of Matchbox model cars I would buy for 10 Lebanese pounds when I was given an allowance.
When there was no electricity, when cow carcasses were floating in sea across the street from our home, when school was cancelled and there were shortages of food and fuel, I abandoned my model cars and my sister abandoned her bullet collection the day our parents spared us from an uncertain future and moved us temporarily to safety in the U.S.
In my new life in Tennessee and then California, I didn’t start collecting things like others my age. I didn’t save stamps or coins or souvenirs. I didn’t buy comic books or make mementos of ticket stubs from the movies that were like religious experiences in my youth.
Before there was MTV and CNN, I would get lost in the world of make-believe through the silver screen and then write about those experiences in spiral-bound journals. These volumes of meticulously handwritten, artful penmanship piled up over the years and became the only collection I had for decades.
I began journaling on Pearl Harbor Day in 1979 — long before the date became synonymous with the Gyumri Quake — as an assignment for Mrs. Dias’ English class at Hamilton Junior High School. I kept these notebooks as my only keepsakes from my existence before there were personal computers, blogs, the internet and Facebook.
Decades later, in New York City, as a wiser and self-critical, self-aware adult, I couldn’t carry the burden of notebooks full of childish musings with miniature doodles in the margins. I didn’t want to have these carton boxes traveling the world with me, so I forced myself to tear the pages from the notebooks and throw them down the garbage chute of a building owned by the man who is now making a mockery of the place that for millions of refugees like me was a haven from the chaotic world of war. Had I known this man with his Twitter vitriol and verbal diarrhea would be the leader of the free world, I wouldn’t have rented a room from him or dumped my personal history into the 9th floor garbage chute of one of the buildings on Riverside Blvd that bears his name.
This diatribe about the separation of self from belongings, for me, is rooted in how my ancestors walked away with only the clothes on their backs, and how my family left Beirut with only one suitcase. Not wanting things is not unique to me. It’s a shared trait by millions, including one Vietnam veteran whom I interviewed on the streets of downtown Fresno in the mid 1990s. He explained how vets like him couldn’t stand the idea of being boxed in a room and how they preferred the streets.
Standing outside a soup kitchen in Fresno, the vet told me he had been diagnosed with “shell shock.” This was the term used before the acronym PTSD entered pop culture. The vet explained those suffering from shell shock are in a constant fight or flight mode, a state in which millions in the postmodern world are living because of hypercompetitiveness and hyperconnectivity, a state that millions of refugees and displaced people are being forced into because of terror attacks and wars in places like Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and South Sudan. In this state, there is no room for belongings. Survival, crossing borders into Europe, not drowning in the Mediterranean leave no room for thinking about owning things.
The journals I threw down the Trump Place garbage chute contained the stories of my first years in a new country, my attempts to understand my place in a large, complicated world and my aspirations to shape the clay that was my life.
Chronicled in those pages were the crass interactions with my racist peers in public school, the Saturday nights I helped Gloria Moraga at Channel 30 write the evening news, three years of accelerated university life in Los Angeles, breaking into mainstream broadcast news in Fresno and begging to be allowed to tell stories.
For the adult who was writing the headlines at ABC News in the Big Apple, proof of aspiring to be more than a hack responsible for 20 second summaries of the news was too humiliating and too unforgiving. I could not face the child who wanted to be legendary like William Saroyan or Peter Jennings, the man whose empty office I walked past every morning as I left work after overnight shifts and hours before he would appear. So down the chute went what had been my only collection of things. Erased from history were the decades between Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day in 1979 and Labor Day in 2004.
The lightness of not having more than two suitcases of clothing and a few books was what allowed me leave New York for Yerevan, Yerevan for Honolulu and Honolulu for the Arabian desert. I was able to travel the world and found myself in seat 14A last weekend with sweaty palms and great anticipation. My flight from the 21st century metropolis called Daw’ha was about to land in a place that had been populated since the 13th Century Before Christ — that place.
Here I was, stepping off a plane in a city, where a blood relative, a physician, had been a member of parliament until April 24, 1915, when he was arrested. Those who had survived to give birth to me ran from this land, and I wasn’t sure what I would experience stepping back on it. Would I feel a connection? Would I feel at home? Would I belong?
The faces of the strangers on the street of this modern cosmopolitan city were familiar. I could see my reflection in the men and women walking around the Sisli neighborhood, on Taxim, and in the Armenian restaurant called Jash in Cihangir, in Beyoglu and Bebek. I saw my reflection on the faces of strangers who were pacing up and down busy streets, sitting in cabs, dining on the patios of restaurants and shopping in antique stores and modern malls.
The colorful, hilly city surrounded with turquoise waters was alive, dynamic. Scooters zipped by, the beautiful people laughed out loud and the speakers of at least two car stereos and one sidewalk cafe blared the thumping beat of Mi Gna, an Armenian rap song that gone viral in this part of the world.
Observing a city full of life made me think what it would’ve been like had it not been for the ‘events of 1915.’ In another dimension, on another tangent of history, I could’ve been one of the hipsters with carefully groomed beards, parading around with sculpted chest muscles and tight shirts and pants.
If what was done was undone, I would have most likely migrated to the big city from my grandparents’ villages in Anatolia, if my parents hadn’t already moved themselves. I would’ve been a sixth generation business owner, a landlord with a getaway summer cottage in the east. I would’ve shared in the bounty from centuries of hard workers and possibly felt at home and belonged to at least one society.
But I wasn’t home; that had been robbed from me. I had never found a home and would probably never find one. I was a migrant worker standing at the front desk of a hotel, stunned for a second when the woman checking me in asked me if I was Armenian.
She was holding my passport and asking the obvious question having read my surname. Her people had dictated the surname of my ancestors, the 14th century travelers from Van who journeyed to Sepastia in a caravan. Their government named them chader for their means of transportation and perhaps their time living in tents. Now I was the traveler being asked about my ethnicity in the land that had expelled my DNA so that it would survive.
Why did I not answer in the split second when I was asked? Was I weak, too worldly or too cautious as the journalist who writes about every single act of terror in the world? Was this a moment of truth or of safety? I looked in her eyes and said American- Armenian. And I knew immediately I had failed on at least one front. She had won. They had won. I had to hide behind my citizenship to answer a simple question without anxiety.
As I wandered the streets of a buzzing city, taking in the touristic sites, hearing about how my tribe had contributed to building this massive metropolis, I felt the sorrow of what could’ve been my other unlife. I felt an emptiness of not being at ease in the middle of millions that looked like me.
Days later, I found out the woman at the hotel who had asked me whether I was Armenian was Armenian herself. She revealed herself by saying Parev. She, too, had been careful not to reveal her identity to a stranger. Her honesty and my hesitation were all part of the aftermath of what could’ve been.
On my final day in the city, a British friend of a friend, a world traveler and history aficionado had an unexpected surprise for me. Over a latte outside the Grand Bazaar, he and his wife presented me with a memento. Wrapped in two sheets of paper was a small, tinned copper plate with engraved Armenian letters that said, Tiratsu Vartivari. The plate had belonged to a married priest, a kahana, named Vartivar, and it made its way from Anatolia to the west. It had been bought, perhaps stolen, sold, confiscated, perhaps lost and finally found in a pile of junk at a swap meet.
I don’t know who Vartivar was, where he had served and under what circumstances he had lost his plate. I was told this relic was used to serve honey in the olden days. I was told people engraved their names on their plates and dishes as a certification of ownership. Every year, the plates would be taken to be tinned to keep the toxic copper from being digested. Without microchips or barcodes, the only way for a silversmith to remember which plate belong to whom was to have the individual plates engraved with the owner’s name.
For a man who has never aspired to have a collection of anything, I was surprised to contemplate keeping what was being gifted to me. A copper, honey serving dish had no place in my suitcase full of a half-dozen Docker pants and shirts, disposable contact lenses, disposable razors and one hardbound copy of St. Grigor Narekatsi’s book of prayers.
But through serendipity or tragedy, this dish from the 18th century had found itself from Der Vartivar’s belongings to me. Even though there may be 9,999 other copies, made in a Chinese factory and shipped west for tourists seeking a connection to their past, I finally had a tangible, tactile relic from the history of my people. I hadn’t been able to feel at home in that big city home to 15 million people, but the city had brought me something I could hold when trying to connect to a past that has always been ethereal and still somewhat incomprehensible, intangible.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.