Thursday, April 19, 2012

Losing My Religion

My world was filled with all things Armenian.  My parents spoke Armenian, we ate Armenian, we listened to Armenian music, went to Armenian "affairs," we went to an Armenian Apostolic church every Sunday  the hub of Armenian life But all of a sudden when I was eight years old, we just stopped going to church. No explanation. No acknowledgment of this great change in our routine, our social life, and the loss of many things Armenian.
I was in the office working on a manuscript when someone ran in to my cubicle and said, “Hey there’s a big parade down Third Avenue and it’s the Armenians!” because they knew I was Armenian and so I took the elevator down five flights to the street where hordes of people were massed on the sidewalks, waving banners and flags and shouting 

        “Down with the Turks!” 
        “Make them admit it was GENOCIDE!”

In my overalls and saddle shoes I was swept into the frenzy of people cheering and waving on the marchers  men, women, children, some very old covered in black like old ladies in mourning, carrying posters with enlarged grainy black-and-white photos of swarthy men who reminded me of my father and my uncles and my Grampa Joe.  All seemed united in this march to have their voices heard, to make the world listen to their pleas, to speak out for those for who were silenced so many decades ago.

I had grown up hearing stories of the Turks massacring the Armenians. It was a mantra throughout my childhood:

Turks are barbarians.
Turks are murderers.
Turks stole everything in their culture from someone else.

Once when I was in Studio 54 or Bond’s in a fiery red halter top and black shiny leggings with black strappy high-heeled sandals dressed to the nines for a night of dancing, I spotted a young handsome dark-haired guy — very good looking and very short; reminded me of my Uncle Onnik with his black curly hair and his bright white grin. I thought, “This guy really wants to dance but he’s afraid to ask because he’s short and doesn't want to be turned down.”  So I marched right over and I yelled above the ear-splitting sound, “Do you wanna dance?” and he lit up like a 1000-watt bulb and we danced onto the floor and in a flash we were both smiling and laughing, having a great time.

Over the blasting music I leaned into his ear and shouted, “So where are you from?” and he replied, loudly, “Istanbul, Turkey” and I had to laugh.  In a city of eight million people I asked a guy to dance who was a Turk. 

I shook my head, leaned back and yelled, “I’m ARMENIAN!” and his animated face drained of color, the smile slid from his mouth, and he frantically gestured while yelling back, “I am NOT Turk!! I am NOT TURK!  I am Kurd!  I am KURDISH!  Do you know Kurds??  We hate the Turks!"  And I gestured to him to move from the dance floor into a hallway where the music wasn’t quite so loud and you could hear each other without screaming.

“Of course, I know what Kurds are  you're mountain people from the eastern part of Turkey.”

And then looking somewhat relieved he said, “I only say Istanbul because in America most people don’t know Kurds or what Kurdish is.  I say Istanbul because that is all they know of Turkey."

"So where are you from?"
"I am from Diyarbakir.”

And then the color drained from my face.

“MY grandparents were from Diyabekir. I can’t BELIEVE that you are TOO!! That’s CRAZY!  Out of all the places in the universe, how could it be that you’re from Diyarbakir?” and he smiled broadly and began to tell me about himself and how he ended up here.
“In Turkey I was conscripted to Army so I moved to Istanbul where I became surgeon.” he explained in his heavily accented voice.

“A surgeon?”  I asked.

“Yes. Surgeon, I was surgeon in Turkish Army for two years!" he told me proudly.

“But did you go to medical school?” I asked incredulously. I mean I knew the Turks weren’t to be trusted but still, making someone a surgeon who was going to operate on their own kind  in less than two years?  That sounded really unbelievable.  Even for the Turks.

“No.  No medical school. Just Army.”  He didn’t get why I was reacting the way I was.

“I can’t believe you were a surgeon,“  I insisted in disbelief.  “Well, how was it when you operated on people?”

“Operated? I don’t understand this word.”  he said with a perplexed face.

“You know,"  I said gesturing with both hands in a slicing motion, “when you cut people open to fix them and sewed them back up?”

He looked at me in horror. “I did not CUT people, I was SURGEON!”  he insisted emphatically.

I just shook my head.  “Then I don’t know what you mean, because in our language, a surgeon is a doctor.”

He just looked at me with his black eyes wide and repeated, “I was not doctor. I was SURGEON!” and then all of a sudden I laughed out loud and said, “OH  you were a sergeant, a SERGEANT in the army  ” and he smiled and beamed, “Yes, I was Sergeant in army!” and that was that.

The crowds on Third and 50th pushed me blocks away moving downtown and as the crowd continued its march, my eyes were filling with tears, my throat was stifling cries and I knew I needed to get back to work.  I rode the elevator up to my floor still overcome with emotion, unable to control the flood of feelings welling up inside. I burst from the elevator (to the astonishment of those nearby) and ran to my cubicle past my coworkers, surprised at my obvious state of distress.  They bombarded me with questions:

“What happened?!”
“Are you alright??”
“Did someone hurt you?”
“What’s wrong???”

I couldn’t answer.  I couldn’t get any words out. I just continued sobbing uncontrollably and then Susan, came up to me.  She worked around the corner from my cubicle, was more senior, so we didn’t know each other well, but she simply wrapped her arms around me, hugged me fiercely while repeating, “It’s alright. Everything will be alright.” She gave me great comfort without asking a thing in return.

It was a day before I could explain to Susan what came over me, how the sight of all those Armenians, all those voices rallying to be heard made me feel ashamed  that I didn't go to Armenian church; that I didn't speak Armenian; that I wasn't out there protesting. This parade was to commemorate the deaths of hundreds of thousands who were forced to endlessly march through the desert until they dropped from thirst and starvation.  And yet the only thing Armenian about me was the food I ate.     What kind of an Armenian was I ? 
Did this family survive?


  1. This story is so powerful! You should be proud everyday that you are Armenian. The little stories inside the story are all so relevant and fit together like a puzzle. I don't know why our parents didn't teach us their "language". My dad didn't even learn English until he went to grade school. Yet none of kids learned a word of Italian (except Nonni for Grandma). It's a shame we aren't bilingual. Congratulations on a great story.

    1. I too am sorry that I didn't learn Armenian,,,

  2. It is not easy to teach your kid your own language, it's like the whole world do not want you to do so, believe I am in a such situation.
    Redouane B.