Paradise Lost: Remembering the post-Genocide years in Lebanon
Published: Sunday June 10, 2012
Paradise is our native country, and we in this world be as exiles and strangers.
Richard Greenham (1535-1594)
I. "Cursed be the boat that brought you to this country "!
I was born in Beirut, Lebanon 68 years ago of Armenian parents.
My parents lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in one of the more popular sections of Beirut that was mostly inhabited by Arabic speaking people of modest means.
Lebanon is a small and ancient country known in history as Phoenicia that has always had a broad mixture of different religious communities that represent the ancient and historical divisions of both the Christian and Muslim faiths in all their denominations, complexities, specific traditions and contradictions that often defy a logical explanation. To live in Lebanon requires a mix of interpersonal and human skills where flexibility and resilience, business acumen and "joie de vivre", opportunistic attitudes and deep-seated religious convictions and a belief of being Arab world's only window into the western world define the national psyche. More specifically, it requires from all levels of the population, no matter how sophisticated, poor or illiterate the individuals in question are, a degree of acceptance of others that is based more on instincts of practical accommodation rather than on tolerance.
Although Armenian by birth, our family lived among Arabic speaking population. This was not uncommon in those days, though the majority of Armenians lived in areas east of the city, mostly inhabited by other Armenians and named after their original hometowns in Cilicia. My brother, my sisters and I spoke Armenian at home but were fluent in Arabic and as children had no inkling that we were different from the neighborhood kids, so great was our integration into the social environment we were born and raised in. Indeed, hearing us speak Arabic no one could for a moment believe that we were non-Arab Arabic speakers. In those days the majority of Armenians had difficulty learning the local language or mostly spoke a broken Arabic confusing the masculine and feminine genders in their speech when they meant the opposite. In that respect, we belonged to the privileged few among Armenians as far as Arabic was concerned. We conversed correctly with others, played with the children of the neighborhood, had the same toys, dressed like them, were welcomed in their homes and went to the same neighborhood school. People knew me as Joseph, and by my nickname Zouzou, the equivalent of Hovsep in Arabic.
What happened next was indeed unexpected.
I was 8 or 9 at the time and the event has marked me forever. In fact, I still carry the scars deep down my heart and my memory.
On that day, as usual, we were playing football (as we called our little game in our daily parlance in that part of the world) in the courtyard of the houses where we lived, when a minor incident among some of the children took an ugly turn. Soon the quarrel turned into a scuffle, blows were exchanged, cries were raised and the commotion brought out to the courtyard some of the parents who intervened to separate us. Seeing her son with a bloody nose, one of our neighbors, Um Suleiman, (it meant the mother of Suleiman, one of the kids involved in the melee) without ever making an effort to establish the identity of the real culprit, addressing herself to me said in anger: "Cursed be the boat that brought you people into this country"! Saying this, she dragged her son away screaming and crying, with a hateful and an angry look on her face that I have never forgotten.
I was stunned.
This unexpected outburst, the crudeness and coarseness of the language used on that occasion , and the harshness of the tone had a devastating effect on me. For the purposes of the article I have sanitized the uttered curse here, but whoever has lived in Lebanon knows that Lebanese, whether man or woman, especially of Christian origin, have an incredibly colorful and graphic way with their verbal expressions when angry. Um Suleyman's curse left me speechless. We had known her for years as a neighbor, a kind woman though given to quick temper. She came from Deir el Kamar, a historical fiefdom of feisty people in Mount Lebanon , and on account of this she seemed to have a chip on her shoulder.
People in the neighborhood had always liked me, had always been kind to me and had treated me as a "good kid". Hence, this unexpected tongue-lashing in public caused a deep humiliation and utter shame to me because the idyllic world of adult approval that I had enjoyed until then had been shattered. I felt as if I was dethroned and had been brought down from the pedestal of the high esteem where I was held since I remember walking the streets of the neighborhood. Therefore, my first reaction was a feeling of deep shame, and at the same time anger for I did not deserve the scorn! I had nothing to do with the scuffle but had been trying to separate the two fighting sides. However, I could not, on the spur of the moment , find any words to protest and proclaim my innocence.
The tension hung in the air throughout the evening until my mother called us home for dinner. The incident bothered me because I did not understand the meaning of what the neighbor said, although the words were clear to me. I felt something sinister was in store for me. Naturally, at the dinner table I turned to my mother, told her what happened, and asked her what the neighbor had meant. At first my mother did not react, but explained that we were Armenians and therefore we were different from the rest of the neighbors. However, she never explained to me why we were different from the neighbors, and what actually these words had meant.
At night, before he went to bed, my father had a few words with the neighbor. Things were patched up apparently, because the next morning Um Suleiman, when she saw me in the stairs going to school, smiled and said to me: