The Parched Armenian
“Mom, I want you to check my schedule against yours, and make changes where necessary. Tomorrow we have a matinee at New London Theatre to see War Horse, with Matt’s parents. Next week we will have dinner at Pierre’s, he is very excited about seeing you again, and perhaps one night we may try the Nepalese restaurant that you so much like, or would you prefer Indian food? … ”
“Wow, Ani, let me catch my breath … ”
“And, by the way, I met an Armenian guy in my neighborhood. He wants to meet you. He has not spoken Armenian with anybody since his mother died two years ago. You’ll see him at the children’s party. His son is only a year older than Raffi. I’ll tell you all about it.”
Ani, my daughter, is babbling this information a mile a minute, while preparing the evening meal, re-introducing me to five-year-old Raffi, and texting her husband, Matt, about my arrival. I am getting dizzy already.
“Can I help you with something in the meantime? Shall I slice the tomatoes for salad?” I feel guilty sitting idle amid the buzz, and overwhelmed with the social activities ahead of me.
“Why do you say ‘tomeytoes’”? Raffi cuts in. I feel like an alien.
I explain the American and English pronunciations of “tomeytoes” and “poteytoes” versus “tomah’toes” and “potah’toes,” and I seize the moment to come up with their equivalents in Armenian. “Lolig” sounds easy but “kednakhentzor” is a mouthful for him. After three tries he loses interest and wanders away.
“Go ahead, Ani. Where did you meet this Armenian guy?”
“At the park where I took Raffi to play. The children started talking to each other, he heard me say ‘hokis’ and we clicked.”
“Why doesn’t he attend community events? He could mingle if he wanted to, just like you did.”
Ani’s tone warns me that there is something amiss in my logic. Of course, I am the quintessential ex-Middle Easterner, raised in a guarded Armenian community in Cairo, with Armenian schools galore. Even though there was mystery around Armenia — did it really exist behind the Iron Curtain? or was it a place on the moon? — our roots were robust re-germinations of the ethnic tree. Churches, alumni clubs and cultural organizations further strengthened our basic ties.
“He’s a special case. With a foreign name like Doug O’Mally, how well would he be accepted in an Armenian circle? Besides, his wife is an Anglo, you know.”
“Be accepted” hit a chord.
“You’re absolutely right. I know how it feels. Yes, it would be interesting to exchange views.”
Both in New York and in Los Angeles, I had endured my compatriots’ suspicious looks as a newcomer. Even though I had an Armenian surname and spoke English fluently, I was considered an “odar” in the well-barricaded Armenian circles, church included.
“Fine. Is it OK if I invite them for dinner? We can cook an Armenian meal!”
The following Saturday, I meet Doug and Evelyn at Raffi’s fifth birthday party. Their precious son, Justin, is an O’Mally alright, without a trace of Armenian blood in his red hair. Doug has an outgoing personality and it doesn’t take long to establish a bond. We agree that they will come over for dinner the following Friday.
We are anxious to serve this parched Armenian a quasi-ethnic meal, with due respect to his vegetarian wife. So our dinner consists of chi-keufte, the Armenian equivalent of steak tartar, countered with tofu keufte, a vegetarian imitation concocted by me by replacing raw meat with tofu, which passes Ani’s close inspection. Leg of lamb, mock sou-beoreg, mixed vegetables and salad follow, with generous rounds of wine, courtesy of Matt, our excellent host. The fact that Doug cooked hadig for the occasion indicates the level of his nostalgia for Armenian traditions. I make baklava in a rose pattern, a lighter version of the original recipe, to suit their Western palate. The children love the chi-keufte, even though at first Raffi wouldn’t touch the “carnivore meal.” Evelyn seemed to enjoy its white counterpart peppered with green onions and parsley. Wine unties our tongues. A few Armenian words thrown in enliven the conversation. All in all, it turns out to be a successful evening.
As our guests prepare to leave, “do you still drink Armenian coffee?” Doug asks.
“Sometimes,” I reply, wondering if it is a gentle reprimand or a casual question.
“I would like to have coffee with you like in the old days,” Doug suggests. “I’m off on Wednesday. Are you free on that day?”
“Sure.” I am somewhat uneasy. What could we possibly talk about? At reviving his Armenian soul, about nostalgia for the good old days? Or would we have a political debate on issues in the Diaspora with which he is probably unfamiliar? I hope he will not ask me to read his coffee cup!
Wednesday morning Doug is there at 11:00 a.m. sharp. After the initial civilities and a simple lunch, to be topped, of course, with left-over baklava, Armenian coffee, and the fresh chocolate éclairs that he brought, we reminisce about his childhood. He is still very much conversant in Armenian. He relates that he lived with his mother and grandmother in Cyprus, speaking Armenian at home. He attended the Melikian kindergarten there. He remembers helping his mother by pounding huge amounts of green olives with a stone, to extract the core and pickle them later for winter preserves. Later, Doug spends his adolescence in England, in a boarding school, with occasional hops to Cyprus, to join his grandmother for vacation, or his parents wherever they are stationed, since his English stepfather is a diplomat. They reunite in England after his stepfather’s retirement. Then he goes off for extended stays in Canada, several cities in the United States, and returns to England where he marries and settles down.
Conversation rolls in English interspersed with Armenian. He reminds me of my early childhood in Cairo, when Mother and the women in the extended family congregated to make bulgur at home, since it was not commercially available then. In turn, each family unit would have its bulgur day until all had their winter reserves ready. I have my own itinerant story from Cairo to Alexandria, Leopoldville, Lome in Togo, Beirut then New York and finally Los Angeles. I changed residence so often that every time I purchased a piece of furniture I wondered, instinctively, if it would fit into a trunk for shipment. The tribulations of adjustment, language adaptation, learning the unwritten rules of etiquette, nostalgia, frustrations, evening courses and sleepless nights finally led to a more stable life in California where I grow roots.
Between the two of us we represented the typical itinerant life of an expatriate Armenian, victim of politics and circumstances. Home for us translates to a nebulous mass, not a brick-and-mortar abode but a family unit held together with gossamer links. The flow of our conversation is interrupted only by Evelyn’s occasional reports of a holdup near the school our children attend (yes, it happens in London too). Six and a half hours slip by unnoticed.
Doug and I were complete strangers, with at least two decades of age difference and raised in different venues, but we shared the psychic trauma of the homeless immigrant looking for a niche. William Saroyan’s words kept buzzing in my ears: “ … For when two of them (Armenians) meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.” In retrospect, both Doug’s wife and my daughter expressed astonishment at our lengthy communication. Of course they have never been in our shoes.
Doug’s visit reminded me of several re-created “Armenias” initiated or experienced by me. My first experience was in Italy, in the early sixties, when English and French were not common languages there. I ended up “speaking” Italian with gestures, derivations, miming, acting and praying to be properly understood. What a nightmare it was to be unable to converse for two weeks. So, when I saw a Mekhitarist monk at the quay on my way to St. Lazarre, I made a beeline to him.
“Please, can you speak Armenian with me!” I begged. I was so parched for a language I could understand that I forgot all civilities of introductions.
There were several occasions, perhaps not so desperate, where bonding with Armenians relieved stress. In Leopoldville, when our little group of three expatriates from Egypt discovered the latest arrival of an Armenian from Lebanon and found out that he had “aboukhd” and “oghi” in his trunk, we got together and had a feast, even though we barely knew each other; in Bukavu, a lovely town in the entrails of the Congo, I bonded with an Armenian lady from Alexandria, as if we had known each other since childhood; in Athens where I was lost around midnight and could not remember the name of my hotel, I chanced upon an Armenian mother and son who did not let go of me until they found it; in Nairobi, Kenya, an Armenian family, to whom I was referred, sent their car with a driver to take me around town. In the evening, when I met them for dinner, I was treated like royalty just because I was Armenian. These angels carried different names — Doug, Roseanne, Nazenig, Aghavni, Vartan — and were sometimes shrouded with “odar” surnames but the Armenian blood was still vibrant in their veins.
I am sure most itinerant Armenians experience the same exhilaration on finding kindred souls in the most unexpected nooks of the world. In foreign lands, a distant acquaintance of the same origin becomes a bosom friend. How many of these stranded souls actively seek to bond with a person or institution to enhance their sense of belonging? How many others wait, in emotional anorexia, for someone to find them — “groung, ousdi goukas? … khabrig me chounis?” (“crane, where are you coming from? … don’t you have any news?) — rather than take the initiative to reach out to compatriots. Granted, established Armenian groups are at first suspicious of “odars,” Armenian or not. Besides the regular frictions of personal traits, they have to grapple with tinted attitudes and mentalities that the immigrants bring from their country of origin. So the approach is cautious. I found the following to be the regular script, whether in Armenia, Beirut or the United States:
“Where do you come from?”
“From Cairo, Paris, London, Dubai” might perhaps arouse interest when you are a newcomer, but Leopoldville is a shocker. Raised eyebrows and bulging eyes indicate that my mental stability is under scrutiny.
“Where did you say you lived?”
“Leopoldville, in the Congo.”
“Was there a community there?”
“No. Just two or three of us.”
“How did you live there?”
What a strange question. Didn’t our exiled forefathers teach the Armenian alphabet on desert sand? Didn’t they build schools and churches on arid ground? When there are none we create them. For example, during my voluntary exile, I missed Armenian Mass the most. The Greek church close by was alright but did not assuage my nostalgia. In the then dark ages of digital communications, the early sixties, the only remedy I found was Armen Guirag’s solo performance available from New York. For three years, playing that record on Sundays converted my humble abode into a sacred Armenian church. It became the salve for my parched soul.