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:
-You did not need to tell your parents about yesterday. You know I like you. Take this and run to school now.
She dipped her hand into her apron's pocket and thrust in my hand a small bar of locally made chocolate. Off I went to school that morning feeling better.
However, after that incident my father started inexplicably to read to us Armenian books. Whenever he was early home from work, he would gather us around him and he would read to us one of the enchanting Armenian tales he had the secret of bringing alive before our eyes. I loved these tales, whether it was Dork Ankegh, Areknazan or Katch Nazar. These were magic moments and they would end when he told us to go to bed. We had never heard our dad read to us in Armenian before. Our daily life was limited to Arabic and French that we learned at school. We were familiar with Arab and French tales and stories but until then we were totally ignorant of anything that was written in Armenian. There was hardly any discussion or discourse on any thing related to Armenians, Armenia or history in general in our small dwelling. My parents were of limited means and of limited education, although I would see my father reading Armenian books whenever he could find time at night before going to bed. He never talked to us about anything he read. Furthermore, whenever there was any "adult" topic to discuss, my father and mother, as well as visitors to our house, spoke a different language among themselves that subsequently I learned was Turkish. Life for us was mostly limited to our games in the courtyard and to homework due the next day when classes resumed in the Arabic school.
Some other things changed over time too after the courtyard incident. Shortly thereafter, we started attending an Armenian school and with time we imperceptibly "became" Armenians and the difference with our surrounding sharpened. We no longer played with former friends and our circle of acquaintances shifted significantly. My name at school officially changed to Hovsep and I learned to live with two names depending where I was: Joseph or Zouzou for the neighborhood but Hovsep for the Armenian school and my classmates there.
However, it was many years later, when I started to attend the Armenian High School outside the neighborhood where we lived that the meaning and context of the angry neighbor's words became clearer to me and assumed a heart-wrenching dimension.
It was a story, our story as Armenians, and the story of the first generation of Armenians growing up in Lebanon, my birthplace, my country but not my motherland.
I first learned that Armenians had arrived in Lebanon, as well as in the neighboring Arab countries, from their ancestral lands in what today is known as modern Turkey in 1918 as survivors and refugees of the genocidal massacres perpetrated on them by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1918. These massacres had caused the brutal death of 1.5 million Armenians. My parents, like thousand of others, who suffered the same fate and tragedy were among the orphaned survivors who had found refuge in Lebanon and were in the process of rebuilding their lives at the time the incident of our courtyard happened. Once a well to-do, educated, propertied and affluent community in Ottoman Turkey, the Armenians, as a result of the events of 1915-1918 , had become miserable and impoverished refugees across the Middle Eastern countries and they were not always welcome.
None of the Armenian boys and girls of my age, growing up in Lebanon or in the other neighboring Arab countries where the other survivors had found refuge, knew anything about the genocide , and its aftermath in those years. Our parents had avoided talking to us about the genocide and had kept a wall of silence around the events of which they had been the victims.
However, they had one obsession: to survive, to stand on their feet and to carry on. They needed safety and shelter, food and jobs and all their efforts were directed at securing these resources from an economically poor and limited market that offered them few opportunities to exercise their professional skills and knowledge that they had carried with them from their ancestral land. They could not speak the language of the country, they mostly lived in malaria infested slum areas and unlike our family did not mix with the local population and conducted business among themselves.
This was the daily life of the Armenian refugees in Lebanon in the early years and the surrounding local population had difficulty accepting their presence. Indeed, the unexpected and unwelcome arrival of poor, unsightly and sickly Armenians in Lebanon in 1918, weakened by months of forced march in the Syrian Desert, had exasperated the local population that had just come through an incredibly severe famine during the years of World War I. The famine was so severe, so devastating that it had sent thousands of the local population scurrying as immigrants to the Unites States and South America looking for a better future and brighter prospects. Thus, the arrival of foreign refugees at a time of national crisis could not but further strain the meager resources of the country and thus antagonize the local population.
But what about the boat that Um Suleiman had mentioned in her angry outburst?
Years later when talking to my grandmother, a survivor of the Adana massacres of 1905 and a subsequent deportee, I discovered that indeed some Armenians had come to Lebanon by boat from Adana and the Turkish port of Mersin. Um Suleiman may have witnessed their arrival or heard about it from her parents and family members who were not thrilled either seeing a new wave of refugees land in their country at this critical juncture of the history of their country. So cursing the boat, she was also cursing those that came on the boat to her country, including us who had caused so much trouble for her child!
Cursing the "boat" seems a universal human exercise to express one's anger and frustration in a confrontation! Jared Diamond, the author of "Guns, Germs and Steel" puts similar angry words in the mouth of his hero when faced with a conflict: "Damn you, Fred Hirschy, and damn the ship that brought you from Switzerland"! he screams at his interlocutor in a key passage of the book.
For sure Um Suleiman did not dip into a literary text to come up with her colorful expression!
Remembering my childhood years and the misery we endured as offspring of surviving Armenians born in the diaspora as a direct result of the genocidal massacres bring to mind painful memories now.
None of our parents had talked to us about this and we discovered it the hard way. The terrible wall of silence that had surrounded our childhood finally crumbled when we achieved adolescence and youth and now we were faced with the terrible past and the difficulty to adjusting to duality: of being Armenian and Lebanese, Armenian and Syrian and/or Armenian and Jordanian at the same time: in one word being an Arab citizen when we as an ethnic group had nothing in common either with the people or civilization of the countries where we lived.
I do not know whether I have anger towards my parents for having raised us in this world of total silence about the past that is so inextricably interconnected with our being and common memory, or total incomprehension for their behavior and attitude in this matter. However, I discovered similar parental silences and experiences from other generation of Armenians born and raised in different countries of the Diaspora.
One of them, Peter Balakian, a Professor of English at Colgate University and an established American author and poet, has expressed the same feeling of ambiguity, hurt and shock at finding belatedly the truth about his parent's past in his book titled "Black dog of faith" (published by Basic Books in 1997). Like other Armenian children of his generation who were born and raised a continent away in European or Middle Eastern countries, Balakian did not know about the trauma his family and ancestors had endured in 1915 during which more than one and half million Armenians perished, including many of his relatives.
"Except for those infrequent and awkward moments when my father made some kind of gesture that was directed at the meaning of Genocide, no one in my family considered the events of Armenia's recent nightmare a reality suitable for conversation or knowledge" writes Balakian in his book. "The scalding facts of the Genocide had been buried, consigned to a deeper layer of consciousness, only to erupt in certain odd moments, as when my grandmother told me a story or a dream" wistfully remarks Balakian.
II. The weight of silence
My parents as well as Peter Balakian's parents, had shrouded their story of the Genocide with a thick layer of silence and had created an artificial environment, a bubble of sort, where our generation of Armenians lived in relative ignorance, oblivious of the harsh reality and painful experience our parents had lived through and tried to protect us from the psychological consequences that were ours to discover in years to come. Perhaps it was a subconscious effort on their part to protect us from the pain they had endured or a way of safeguarding their mental sanity. That layer of silence accompanied my adolescence through high school and college years.
It was through the study of history and through my individual readings subsequently that I became aware of the Armenian Genocide, the events surrounding the crime committed against my parents and their like and the world's general indifference and amnesia towards its aftermath and consequences. As I went through this painful discovery, I also discovered , like the rest of my generation, how little was known about the Armenian Genocide outside our immediate world and how little did the outside world care about what had happened. The victims had kept silent and the world around them had also conveniently emulated their silence.
It was only in 1965, in connection with the 50th Anniversary of the "forgotten" Genocide that the suppressed anger, frustration and the fury of victims yearning for recognition of their pain erupted in public. Whether it was in Lebanon, Syria, France, Australia or the United States masses of the first generation of Armenians after the Genocide came face to face with their destiny, the internal as well as the external demons of the fate that had befallen them. This was also the first generation of diasporan Armenians who were born in their adopted countries, conscious of their civic responsibilities as well as their rights as citizens, educated in universities across the Western world and suddenly aware of the enormous psychological weight and burden of the "silence" they had labored under while fully aware and cognizant of the worldwide struggle to bring freedom and equal rights to the downtrodden, the neglected and the invisible in many parts of Asia and Africa.
Thus a new generation of Armenians took over the leadership role in communities spread throughout the world, determined to share in the general progress the world had achieved and the promises it held for emerging nations. They understood well the language that the world spoke, and they knew how to articulate their thoughts and ideas through that common language of education, communication and solidarity. It was a new beginning, marked by activism, a new sense of belonging and self-discovery.
It was thanks to this generation of new Armenians that the modern world started to hear about the first Genocide of the 20th century, to take stock of the human toll, the psychological damage, the loss of life, the usurpation of property and confiscation of land as well as the need for justice, restitution and compensation. It took 50 years from the date of the Genocide for Armenians to wake up in 1965 and scream for justice and demand recognition for their pain.
What will the centenary of the Genocide bring to Armenians in 2015?
What will Armenians achieve by 2015?