Bedros Keljik’s Armenian-American Sketches: No Good Comes from Having Children in This Country
The following is the first of 21 stories, which make up the contents of Armenian-American Sketches by Bedros A. Keljik, translated and annotated by Aris G. Sevag. This volume was published by Garabed Aramian, owner of Yeprad Press, in New York in 1944. They are preceded by the author’s introduction, as well as a preface by Dikran P. Saraganian.
Accompanying the first published translation of one of these Sketches, entitled “Chicago Characters” (Ararat, Winter 1997, pp. 20-22), by Lou Ann Matossian is the following biographical sketch of the author.
“Bedros Arakel Keljik (1874-1959) was a native of Kharpert, where he was strongly influenced by one of his teachers, the Armenian realist writer Tlgadintzi [Hovhannes Haroutiunian]. Not the only writer in the family, Bedros was also the brother of “Devrish” (Krikor Arakel Keljik), an Armenian-American novelist and poet popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
“After emigrating to the U.S. in 1890, Bedros was employed for two years in factories in Worcester and Fitchburg, Mass., then moved to Boston, where he became known as a fiery orator for the Hnchag Party. Through his involvement in Armenian literary circles, he became a collaborator of Alice Stone Blackwell, providing her with literal translations of Armenian poems, which she then rendered into English verse. These were published in book form by Roberts Bros. in 1896.
“After the presidential election of that year, a series of entrepreneurial adventures landed Bedros in Chicago, where he sold Oriental rugs in a department store, stumped for the Democratic Party, and somehow found the time to attend law school, graduating in the spring of 1899.
“In November 1899 Bedros Keljik arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, becoming the first Armenian to settle permanently in that state, and started a family Oriental rug business now in its third generation. He is considered the founder of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Armenian community.”
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A Few Words from the Author
This volume contains a sampler of sketches taken from Armenian-American life, which constitute one part of the history of this Armenian community covering the past half century. They were written during the past twenty years.
I belong to that group of the old generation, which came to America in scant numbers more than half a century ago.
Over these many years, not only did I not forget my mother tongue, which unfortunately turned out to be the case for many, but, on the contrary, I developed proficiency therein by waging a struggle against the oppressive, complex and turbulent life of this country. By keeping up with Armenian literature and the Armenian press during the period in which our vernacular was born and developed, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction, which is totally different from the pleasures I derived from tapping into the wealth of foreign literature.
My second satisfaction arose from the fact that, by not forgetting my mother tongue, I fulfilled a moral obligation, one which my teacher, the late Tlgadintzi, placed upon me and my friends— “observe our surroundings before looking afar.” It was Tlgadintzi, in front of whom we sat in a kneeling position and savored the sweetness of beautiful Armenian literature, as well as the supreme value and depth of our classical language. Tlgadintzi expected us to maintain the Armenian literary tradition and to give a realistic depiction of Armenian life, even in a foreign environment, no matter where we were.
In my writings, I have changed the names of living persons, without at all diminishing the true value of the sketches; I have done so, considering the hypersensitivity of the Armenian public with regard to the actual names.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Garabed Aramian, the owner of Yeprad Press, who not only encouraged me but also undertook the laborious job and expenses of publishing this volume, thus rendering a special service to Armenian literature and a partial compensation for the sacrifice of the Armenian-American community.
— Bedros A. Keljik
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It has been said that “literature is simply the description of a people’s inner world.”
Bedros A. Keljik’s Armenian-American Sketches is the description of that inner world, which serves to fill a large void in the literature of the Armenian-American community.
The author’s stories begin from the period of the 1890’s and come down to the present. One group of his sketches tells the story of Armenian immigrants who had come to the “Land of Canaan rich in milk and honey” to earn money and then return to their native land. These men, who were unfamiliar with the language and customs of America, relied on compatriots who were known to be more or less literate, to guide and assist them when necessary, only to find themselves frequently exploited in the process.
Keljik is one of the scrupulous individuals providing such guidance and, through his association with these immigrants, he has been able to understand their mentality, inner world and aspirations.
This is the product of a special aptitude, a realistic and humanistic spirit, whereby the author has described the trials and tribulations, emotions and hopes of the fellow Armenians in his midst, following the noble precept that “there is nothing higher than man.”
Keljik has also encountered charlatans, mammonists and various other types of Armenians, who are authentically presented in these sketches of his. Today, he is reviving an older generation that is on the verge of disappearing, by committing his memories to paper, thus offering a unique service to Armenian Diasporan literature which has already become enervated and is in the throes of death.
Often English words, and sometimes provincial and Turkish expressions, are used by the author, solely to add some spice to the stories. However, his fluent style and manner of description are captivating and pleasing, and any Armenian reader will be glad to read them in one sitting without becoming bored.
On this occasion, Mr. Garabed Aramian, owner of Yeprad Press, is to be congratulated for having undertaken the publication of this beautiful and valuable work through his own resources.
— Dikran P. Saraganian
New York, 1944
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No Good Comes From Having Children in This Country
Yes, Yeghiazar Abrahamian was Armenian, but his name took you back to Mesopotamia and Palestine. Even if his name were Haig Mamigonian, you would still think of Palestine since he resembled a Jew, from head to toe, both in terms of his appearance and his uncanny shrewdness. After describing this man, I’m sure the reader would have wanted to see this unusual individual, if he hadn’t already passed on.
As soon as he reached maturity, he came to America, before 1890. When being introduced to someone, he wanted you to give his brief biography, mention the town where he was born and raised, which was Marsovan, what he did for a living, and how successful he was, etc. There was no need to mention his birthplace because one look at his ears left no doubt about it. The Armenians called him Yegho, while the Americans called him Abie, short for Abraham.
He was a tall, broad-shouldered individual. His nose was larger than that of the average Armenian; one might say it had completed its “post-graduate” period and achieved the size of a Jewish nose. His large eyes were expressionless; they remained the same, whether it was cloudy or there was lightning, thunder or an earthquake. The American term for such a face is poker face. His ears were in harmony with his Jewish nose and large eyes. Oh, yes, those ears were something to see! Instead of sticking to the sides of his skull, it looked more like they were hanging from them; the lower parts of his ears were twice as long as the upper parts. When he spoke, they moved along with his chin and, when he laughed, they danced the shimmy. His thick mustache covered the corners of his wide mouth, in addition to his lips. His thick eyebrows and mustache were like brother and sister. I shall skip describing his attire, as the reader can imagine what it was like.
As far as his work was concerned, he was one of a kind in America; he had traveled on foot from Albany to Boston, like the peddlers who used to walk from one Turkish village to another. He used to sell zangabans—a word I heard here for the first time. Zangaban was the name of a one-foot-long and six-inch-wide covered box with three compartments—one each for gold, frankincense and myrrh, the first gifts taken by the three wise men to the newborn Jesus Christ.
According to him, these boxes came directly from Jerusalem, and he used to peddle them from village to village, door to door, for a dollar apiece. If someone bought two at a time, he would include, at no extra charge, a bottle of water from the river Jordan; these were very small bottles the size of a thimble, and he would always have a few of them in his pocket. On the cover of the jewelry box were supposedly the pictures of the three bearded wise men. “Look at the face of the man in the middle, he looks exactly like my father,” he would say and, indeed, his face too was a pocket edition of that bearded Jew.
The personality of this unusual individual was inconsistent with his build and appearance. A sweet and sincere smile would cross his otherwise poker face at the sight of children, like a delicate flower blossoming on the side of a rocky mountain.
“One day I’m going to get married and have children, a male child to carry on the name of the Abrahamian family,” he used to say. True enough, he worked toward this goal, saved money and, one day, we heard that Yegho had gotten married to a plump girl from Smyrna. Always set against giving her daughter to an outsider, the girl’s mother had come all the way to America to look after her. By now, Yegho was living in New Amsterdam. Years later, when I visited him, he had two boys; the older one, four years old, was named after his grandfather, while the name of the younger one, two-year-old Hmayag, was selected from a list of new Armenian names.
“Look at my older boy’s eyes,” he would say. “He’s going to be a fine lad, he takes after his grandfather. I’ll retire in a few years; by then, they’ll be earning enough money to take care of me too.”
Yegho went from selling jewelry boxes to selling rugs. Not only had he tired of peddling and become too old to go from village to village, but he also needed more money since his expenses had increased along with the number of family members. His wife felt rather proud too, for now she was no longer just Yegho’s wife but Mrs. Abrahamian—Khaliji (“rug dealer”) Abrahamian.
Yegho was rather successful as a rug dealer. Forty–fifty years ago, you didn’t need a whole lot of ability to succeed in this business; the more unusual your facial appearance and the cruder your English were, the greater the curiosity the Yankees displayed when approaching you. When Yegho entered the rug business, New York’s agha khalijis (“lordly rug merchants,” the most respected dealers) didn’t pay him much attention, as his purchases amounted to a few small pieces. Their faith in the chances of Yegho’s success was so little that they would offer him one of those cheap cigars, while reserving the choice Havana cigars solely for their best customers.
In two years’ time, Yegho became a prominent rug dealer. Before, when he used to visit one of the dealers, they would say, “Oh, no, Yegho’s come and now he’s going to chew our ears off.” Recently, however, as soon as he set foot in one of their establishments, the boss would immediately rush out of his office, holding two Havana cigars, and address Yegho as “Yeghiazar Effendi.” The cheap cigars had given way to Havana cigars, and Yeghiazar Effendi supplanted Yegho.
With the passage of years, I lost track of this unusual man. One day I ran into him on one of the streets of San Francisco. He had changed considerably: he had become hunchbacked and shorter; his thick neck had gotten so thin that it could barely support his large head; the fat of that thick neck had melted and spread to his shirt collar. There was an old rug under one arm, and he was walking slowly and unsteadily. I told myself that this was our jewelry box salesman Yegho and approached him. His once salient ears were no longer visible since he hadn’t been to a barber for quite some time, and his gray hair had grown long, covering the better part of them.
“What a surprise, Mr. Abrahamian, do you recognize me?” I said.
“Yes, sure I remember you,” he said.
“How are you, your family, the children?”
“My poor wife died,” he said, “and don’t ask about my kids. They squandered the money I had accumulated through years of hard work. I sent them to school and gave them an education, only to be subsequently shunned by them. They both found ‘Irish’ girls, got married and left me. No good comes from having children in this country. If you get married, you better be prepared for this; I’m telling you, this is America.”
Yegho’s eyes filled with tears as he was telling me this. I had never seen his lifeless eyes so expressive; they told me of his years of hard work and all the disappointments in his life. At a certain point, he stopped speaking; his eyes were already fully expressing what he wanted to say.
“No good comes from having children in this country,” he said and went off.