A grandfather, a granddaughter, and destiny
Published: Saturday April 21, 2007 in Living in Armenia
Can genetic material serve as the medium through which thoughts and memories are transmitted? Some would argue that it is scientifically difficult, if not impossible to prove. I on the other hand, have nothing to prove. All I know is that I ended up where he began. Not quite, but close enough. We came from different countries but we were both born by the sea. He fought for physical survival while I fight to keep memories alive. His journey took him to the Sorbonne, mine guided me back to the lost-again found-again homeland. Ours is a strange story. A grandfather and granddaughter that never met yet who had a relationship that defied comprehension. He lived through atrocity, I've only read about it. His gentle spirit allowed me to feel outrage and horror the first time I read about the Genocide. He never got the chance to tell me about it.
When my family moved to Canada in the sixties, my grandparents stayed behind in Lebanon. I was only a child and have no memories of either of them. Living on different continents, worlds apart, my grandfather and I were bound together by the words we wrote in our letters to one another. By the time they decided to join us in Canada, civil war had erupted in Lebanon and they were trapped. My family's story is the story of our nation. Torn asunder, trying to piece together fragments of an existence with no place to call home.
Many memoirs have been written by Armenians about their grandparents' experience during the Genocide. There is a common thread in all these stories - the survivor invariably picks a grandchild to whom to tell their story. My grandfather never got the chance to tell me his story; he died in 1980 before we were able to be reunited. I understand now that he never had to pick me because I was destined to be the vessel through which his story would one day be told. I was the one who returned to the place we call the homeland, a place he yearned for his whole life. Although it's not Cilicia, where he began, it is the lost-again found-again homeland, that elusive piece of geography that binds us to her will and where I find myself now.
My grandfather was born in Haji Hababli, Musa Dagh, in 1900. His family was large and its offspring predominantly males, a condition that continues three generations on. When his village received news that they too would be forced to abandon their homes and join the caravans like the rest of the Armenians living in Anatolia, the village coordinated a resistance. They were mountain people, tough and stubborn, unaccustomed to change and unwilling to succumb to the enemy. They preferred to perish on their lands rather than be forced to flee. Although some of the residents of Musa Dagh obeyed the deportation orders, the majority ascended the mountain and fortified their positions. Musa Dagh was one of the few sites that organized its self defense and thus became the stuff of legends. For forty days and forty nights, the population of Musa Dagh valiantly held back the Turkish army until the last bullet was placed in the barrel of their guns. Finally, lack of food, supplies, and ammunition forced them to make a critical decision which did not include surrender. Off the coast, they could see warships anchored in the bay. The villagers made a banner which read, "Christians in Distress: Rescue." Several young boys were ordered to swim out and warn the officers of the ships of their desperate situation.
After the French and British saved the Armenian population of Musa Dagh, they were transported temporarily to Port Said in Egypt until the French authorities could figure out what to do with them. When they arrived their ship docked at the port and they remained on board for two days. When they were finally allowed to disembark they surveyed their new surroundings. A barren terrain, where there were no plants or vegetation, only eternal stretches of sand. Quickly a tent city was erected with each family assigned to one tent. This temporary accommodation would be where they would live for the next four years. After a time the tents were organized and divided into sections, each one carrying the name from their lost villages in Musa Dagh: Haji Hababli, Vakif, Kabusia, Khdr Bek, Bitias and Yoghun Oluk. Some of the women set up a canteen to provide food and not long after they were supplied with drinking water. To protect the tent city a unit of ten men, comprised of British and Armenian soldiers was organized. The American Red Cross and the Armenian Church helped to establish small workshops to provide employment. Sewing, carpet weaving, and comb-making began to flourish. A hospital was set up with the aid of Egypt's Armenian Red Cross. However within the first two years over 300 souls perished to illness. Just when they were settling into their new lives, they were informed that they were to be sent back to Musa Dagh, which was now under French mandate. After four years in Egypt, whoever hadn't perished from illness or a broken heart began the journey back home.
After the population of Musa Dagh slowly began to return to their ancestral homelands, the tent city was dismantled and the refugees gone. When they returned to Musa Dagh, they found their homes and villages destroyed, their crops ruined. They rebuilt their homes, but twenty years later were deported once again as a result of the annexation of Musa Dagh to Turkey. Thus in 1939, the French authorities brought 1,068 families to Ainjar, Lebanon, where they continue to live today. All that remains of Musa Dagh is the village of Vakif, which continues to exist and according to most accounts is the last remaining Armenian village in Turkey.
Once back in Musa Dagh, my grandfather was sent to Paris by the Gulbenkian Foundation to continue his education, with the promise that upon returning he would dedicate his life to his people. It was a promise he kept till his death. His children never understood the fervor with which he served his community. His grandchildren, most of them born and raised in faraway lands didn't bother much with family history. So why was it that I, among his many grandchildren, felt a tug at my heart the first time I read the word atrocity? Why was it that I left behind my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins to tread the uncharted waters of a newly independent homeland with two young children? I have no logical answers. All I know is that something beckoned me here, to be on this land, to breathe its air, to bear witness to its development and empowerment, and to share the blame for its mistakes. Was it in the encrypted words in the letters of an old man to a granddaughter thousands of miles away attempting to tell his story or was it mapped out in my genetic code?