“You’re more Armenian than I am,” my grandmother often tells me, with a touch of irony and surprise. On one such day in early May, we were delicately filling grape leaves with ground beef and medium-grain white rice, the traditional Armenian dish, commonly known as dolma.
No one would know that my grandmother is Armenian. She is short, dynamic, and in her 70s. She wears orange-red lipstick, red nail polish, and has blond bobbed hair. Her friends and neighbors know her as Geneviève Tijan—a last name that doesn’t have the usual Armenian suffix –ian. To everyone, she is an elegant French lady, and it is probably how she has always wanted to be seen.
But if people look closely, they can see her olive skin and the brown roots of her dyed blond hair. She makes grammatical mistakes when she speaks because French isn’t her first language. Her maiden name is Garabedian, which includes the suffix that carries centuries of history, including the 1915 genocide.
“Your grandma has never accepted her identity,” my mother says when I asked her why my grandmother didn’t teach her Armenian. “It was shameful for her to be Armenian. She wanted to be French, and she wanted me to be French, too.”
Genik, as most Armenians would call my grandmother, was born in Marseille, a city in Southern France, after her parents fled Istanbul in the early 1920’s. She grew up in a poor immigrant district where everyone struggled to integrate into the French society.
“French people did not have a high regard for Armenians,” remembers my grandmother, making a face and nodding in disapproval.
She learned French at school but spoke Armenian at home. Her best friend was the neighbor’s daughter, and both secretly flirted with boys and visited the dance hall. When my grandmother turned 20, she dyed her hair blond and left her parents’ home to live above the grocery store that her family owned.
At 24, she met and married my grandfather, Jacques Tijan. Also known as Hagop, the Armenian variant of Jacques, my grandfather was from the central Anatolian city of Kayseri. He also was discriminated against and struggled to find a job; the French considered him a foreigner. Before he met my grandmother, he had changed his last name, Chiftchian, to make it sound more French. It was years before my grandmother confessed this to me. It haunted me. How come my grandfather didn’t have this beautiful Armenian suffix? The answer was clear: France welcomed him, but at the expense of his identity—one that was among the oldest and richest in history.
I have become more Armenian than anyone else in my immediate family. My mother was raised with the same shame associated with being Armenian, and she didn’t have the opportunity to question her identity until much later in life. I started questioning mine after my grandfather passed away; I was just 8. He was definitely the most Armenian of us. A single mother in a poor household raised him and his two siblings. The family left Turkey and lived in Beirut for a while before crossing the Mediterranean Sea for the cosmopolitan city of Marseille.
Inquisitiveness made me ask my grandmother questions to which a young boy or even a teenager would never receive answers. I learned about the reaction of my grandparents’ families to their professional success in France, my mother’s education in an exclusive private Catholic school, and other life moments where my grandparents simply buried their identity. I couldn’t understand the shame, but she answered my whys. Immigrants were welcomed as long as they assimilated and became French.
I was discovering aspects of my family that I was never aware of. It was like discovering an unknown part of me. From then on, I needed to know everything. I wanted to be Armenian, but I didn’t know what it was like to be an Armenian. I began the pursuit of my identity through reading, and exposed myself to literature on the Armenian Genocide. I was horrified to learn that my ancestors had been exterminated; I thought that had only happened to the Jewish people. One and a half millions souls were massacred in 1915 under the Ottoman Empire, including my grandfather’s aunts.
I remember watching a rare movie dedicated to the topic by a French-Armenian director. “Mayrig” (“mother,” in Armenian), tells the struggles of an Armenian family that immigrates to France from Turkey after the genocide. It was the story of my family. Indirectly, it was my story. My Armenian ancestry was finally making sense to me.
I told people that I was of Armenian heritage, and spoke about my pride, but no one really understood what I meant. I felt alone, and I wanted to find a community that embraced my identity. When I moved to Paris to study at the Paris Institute of Political Science, I settled down in the Armenian district of Issy-les-Moulineaux. I assumed people would accept me as being one of them and invite me to eat dolma with their friends and family. And finally, during my second year in college, it happened.
In an introductory Jewish studies course, everyone was talking about their background. “I’m Kevin Dubouis. I’m French. I study political science.” I was probably the typical Frenchman to the rest of the class. French father, French last name. No one could tell what I was hiding. “I’m Armenag Tokmajian. I live in Syria, but my heart belongs to Armenia where I was born…” He said it with so much pride and confidence that I was emotionally moved. After class I stupidly asked him, “Are you Armenian? Because I am.” He looked at me and smiled; we understood each other.
Throughout Armenag’s six-month exchange in France, we engaged in many conversations and helped one another learn about a different culture. We discovered how much we shared in common. He was an Armenian from Armenia who lived in Syria; I was an Armenian from the diaspora who lived in France. He invited me to visit him in Syria, where there is a large Armenian community. I willingly took up the offer, and in the middle of January 2011, I booked a direct flight from Paris to Aleppo for 15 days of Middle Eastern immersion.
There is one specific scene I remember from my journey. We were on a road trip from Damascus to the ancient city of Palmyra. We were rolling at what seemed to be too fast for a bus that blended in perfectly with the ancientness of the scenery. The driver waltzed his way around large pits and occasionally hit his breaks to avoid colliding into the Bedouins who were moving their flock of sheep.
I was squeezed between locals and luggage while feeling overwhelmed by the smell of rancid food, musty feet, and heavy air. On the way, my friend told me stories about the region. Two years earlier, Israeli forces had bombed some locations in the desert because they suspected the presence of an underground nuclear base.
I looked through the window and was instantly submerged into the desert’s vastness. I kept pinching myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. The voice of the great Fairuz, a legendary Arabic singer, spoke to the passengers with an acute nostalgia, evident in the way they were singing along. Nostalgic about what, I wondered. No one explains it, but I’ve learned that Arabs often slip into this longing for the past.
Embracing my heritage is important to me, but preserving it is even more important for the next generation. I want this generation to ask me about the warm, soft sound of the duduk, a wind instrument made of apricot trees. I want them to ask me about Mount Ararat, which is the symbol of Armenian national identity. I want them to tell me, “I am more Armenian than you.”
In a way, crossing the Syrian desert would mark my immersion into a new world, a new culture—after which I was sure I would no longer be the same. Just like Ulysses, I was taking on a new path, one that would bring me closer to my Ithaca.
WATERTOWN, Mass. (A.W.)—There was a heavy police and military presence in Watertown on Fri., April 19, as police searched for 19-year-old Dzokhar Tsarnaev. The suspect, a resident of Cambridge, had gone on a violent rampage the night of April 18, together with his 26-year-old brother Tamerlan. After gunning down an MIT police officer and seriously wounding a transit police officer, the brothers carjacked an SUV and drove to Watertown. An exchange of gunfire near the Weekly offices ensued between police and the two suspects, during which Tamerlane was shot and killed. The brothers, who are reportedly from Chechnya, were suspects in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings that took the lives of 3 and injured over 160 others.
Dzokhar Tsarnaev escaped that exchange with police, and remained at large throughout most of the day. As SWAT teams conducted door-to-door searches in a 20-block radius in Watertown, authorities advised residents to stay indoors. Businesses remained closed and streets were eerily deserted while police cruisers, bomb squads, armored vehicles whizzed through the streets, and black hawks hovered overhead. At around 8:45 p.m. on April 19, the manhunt for Tsarnaev came to an end when he was found hiding in a boat behind a house on Franklin St.
Emmanuel Der Torossian and his daughter Julie, 13, whose back porch overlooks Franklin St., ventured into the streets for a stroll soon after the police lifted the curfew in the neighborhood at 6 p.m. Meanwhile, a neighbor spotted a body in a boat behind his house and notified the police. “The police came running through. They told everyone to get off the streets and to go into their homes, but we couldn’t go home… [the police] stopped us from going back,” Emmanuel told the Weekly last night, as police officers worked to apprehend the suspect. The police blocked off the street, preventing the Der Torossians from returning home. Officers evacuated the neighborhood, escorting Emmanuel and Julie to another street, where they waited anxiously for hours. In the midst of the chaos, Emmanuel’s wife Marina and son Joey were taken out of their home and onto a different street.
That part of town, added Emmanuel, is populated mostly by Armenians. “It’s a quiet area and so it’s easy to hide. No one would suspect something like this. He was behind my house this whole time,” said Julie, anxiously looking in the direction of the flashing blue lights down the street. Minutes later, the family was reunited, and together saw the end to an unnerving ordeal.
Marina had a different story to tell. With a father, 83, and a brother in Aleppo, Syria—the site of an escalating human rights crisis—Marina has long been fearing for their safety. When her sister called her on Marathon Monday, asking if she had heard about the bombs, Marina thought her worse fears had come true.
“I thought she meant my father’s apartment in Aleppo had been hit by a bomb. I hadn’t been following the news. My legs got week, until she told me that she was talking about Boston. I turned to the news on TV and couldn’t believe my eyes… All day I was like a zombie,” Marina told the Weekly.
Late on April 18, she heard gunshots, and saw police officers searching her driveway. That night, she and her kids did not sleep. They didn’t the following day, either. Marina was about to leave her house when she saw soldiers rushing down her street towards her house. Her neighbor informed her that the suspect had been located one street over. Marina picked up her phone and called her husband who was out on a walk with their daughter.
“I was on the phone with my husband, when suddenly there were gunshots. I lay flat on the ground and I made my son do the same. I did not know where the gunshots were coming from. Two minutes later there were knocks on our door. There were officers. They told us to leave the house immediately. I grabbed what was there, a pair of snow-boots and a heavy winter coat, and ran outside,” said Marina. The officers then used their back porch as a perch to watch the suspect’s movements.
“My back porch overlooks Franklin St., and I could see the officers advancing. There were five officers behind our house. There were numerous officers on Franklin St., and I couldn’t find my husband and daughter. I was shaking, my entire body was shaking,” she said, adding, “I hope today brings an end to this.”
After hours of being under lockdown, hundreds of Watertown residents came out of their homes. Some cheered, others thanked police officers, and many waived American flags. Tsarnaev was taken to a Boston hospital, and reportedly is in serious but stable condition.