Sunday, January 22, 2012

What I Don't Want To Hear

Last night we saw the film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and it led me to share the story below which I wrote long ago and is related to 9-11 in a peripheral way, but also to say that in the film, a secondary character (William Black, played by Jeffrey Wright) shares with nine-yr-old Oskar (the protagonist, beautifully and skillfully played by Thomas Horn) that he was never close to his father and still how hurt he was that his father, at the end of his life, never reached out to him   to say he was sorry, to say he loved him. Even though it was only a movie, someone penned those lines for that actor.  It pains me that so many people share that sadness with me.
My mom had always been the one who recognized that an education was the way out of living paycheck-to-paycheck. Sweating in a drycleaners (in the hundred-pound pressure of steam needed to press clothes), she wanted better for me.  Going to college in Boston had already been a traumatic event for my parents. They had never let me go to sleep-away camp and barely to slumber parties. It was not in their nature to have their children out of reach.  Along came an extraordinary opportunity to visit Lebanon for ten days — plane fare, hotel, most meals, all for just $300. It was beyond the scope of what my mother or I could imagine. A chance to go to the Middle East — despite their reservations and objections  I WAS GOING...

In 1971, I was an almost-18-yr-old- freshman at Northeastern University, first in my family to leave home and attend college. Months later, I had an extraordinary invitation to visit Lebanon for ten days and be part of an Armenian-American delegation traveling to Beirut to celebrate the opening of a youth center built with American dollars. In the 45-member US group, I was the only one who didn’t speak Armenian, so I felt fortunate to be included. I couldn’t believe how exciting it would be to travel halfway around the world. 

Just a week before leaving that April, a bomb exploded on the borders of Lebanon and began the civil war that continues today. That explosion shattered my parents’ consent. My mother called me in Boston. “You’re not going,” she said shakily, “it’s not safe.” But I persisted; I would never get this chance again. It was an opportunity-of-a-lifetime. It was highly educational. Eventually, she gave up arguing.

So anxious were their good-byes that I was one of the last to get on board and as a result got bumped up to first-class for the first leg of the trip to Paris. What luck! First-class was luxurious. The “stewardesses” served champagne and shrimp — it seemed a privileged fantasy. But 22-hours later, when we landed in Beirut, the picture changed drastically. Military men with stern faces lined every corridor, shoulder-to-shoulder, shouldering large rifles. We were on one side of a thick glass wall and those meeting the arrivals were on the other. Everything was being searched. I had never seen anything like it.

“Hey!” someone in our group called out, “people are looking for you.”

“That’s impossible, I don’t know anyone here.”

“Well, they’re holding up your picture.”

As I was guided down the length of the wall, there, pressed to the glass, I saw a picture of me taken at a wedding in Boston, less than three months before. There I was in my sleeveless, black-velvet, A-line dress with the fuchsia satin bow and three over-sized fuchsia satin-covered buttons. Bewildered I looked at the men and women, unknown to me, holding my photo. Somehow, I was known to them

After customs, I came face-to-face with this smiling, gesturing mother, father, two sisters, and a best friend — the family of two brothers who had emigrated to the US and were in the Armenian dance troop I belonged to. I knew the brothers, grown men 28 and 32 years old  but still, none of it made any sense to me. Finally someone who spoke Armenian got the full story. The brothers had written home (picture included) to tell the family that one or the other was planning to marry me.  They hadn't decided between them which  but as far as “the family” were concerned, I was the prospective daughter-in-law come to visit.

Though I objected that much as I liked both of them, I wasn’t marrying either of these men, over the course of the ten-day trip, my protestations were persistently brushed away. Each day, assorted members of this loving family escorted me everywhere — to and from the scheduled activities of the group, then shepherded me from house to house, cousin to cousin, one “showing” to the next. Though I kept trying to tell them otherwise, this was a culture where the men led and women followed without question I was showered with affection and presents for me and my family — handmade tablecloths, homemade liquor, suede shoes, and jewelry. I was drawn deeper and deeper into their fold.

Never speak until first spoken to.

Never refuse a drink (even if it’s 11 am or the third house you’ve visited that day).

Always kiss your hosts good-bye on both cheeks. I had more to learn.

Driving from Baalbek back to Beirut, I was sitting sandwiched between the two sisters when our car was pulled over by men in uniforms with guns and grenades. The trunk was opened; the car was searched, papers and passports had to be produced. 

“Wait a minute,” I protested, “you can’t do this. We haven’t done anything. Why are you searching the car?”

Both women elbowed me as the guards became very angry. The men in front turned ashen. They began to speak pleadingly in Arabic and gestured quickly with their hands; the only word I recognized was “American.” After what seemed to be an eternity, angrily the guns indicated we could leave. 

“What just happened?” I cried, but no one answered. 

The hour-long drive back was silent, except for my crying. When we arrived at my hotel, Dicran escorted me inside and gently explained. “You are American; you are used to speaking out. Your passport may protect you here, but it couldn’t help us. Here, we could be taken and never heard from — never, never, never do that again.”

Now, with the Twin Towers missing from Manhattan’s skyline, I go back to that moment forty years ago. Confronted with the possibility of routine searches and possibly the presence of the military in our everyday lives, I wonder: Is this the price that we must pay? And for some reason, in my head, I hear the names of seven people.  Seven people aboard American Airlines Flight 11 and United 175 — people I will never know but can’t forget: Alfred Marchand, Sonia Puopolo, Wolfgang Menzel, Betty Ong, Albert Dominguez, Garnet “Ace” Bailey, and Jesus Sanchez—and I worry, Yes.


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