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ARMENIAN REQUIEM : A Fine Sense of Survival : THE FIRST ACT OF HONORING HISTORY IS TO HEAR THE STORY. THE SECOND IS TO MAKE IT YOUR OWN.

April 26, 1992|Bernard Ohanian | Bernard Ohanian is a Berkeley-based writer whose recent work includes "A Day in the Life of Italy" and "Baseball in America," both published by Collins.

My obsession began on a day shortly before my 25th birthday, when my father brought his Aunt Eva to visit me in San Francisco. We stood on the deck of one of those silly bay tourist boats, Eva with a scarf wrapped tightly around her head, my father translating into Armenian the recorded commentary, and me bundled up against the wind. Suddenly I grabbed my great-aunt, wrapping my arms around her tiny frame from behind, and teased her in English, with words so simple that I was sure she would understand: "Watch out, Auntie," I said with a laugh. "I'm going to throw you overboard." "Oh," she said, far more serious than I. "Just like my babies." I backed away, aware that I had just touched fire.

That evening, I asked my father for an explanation. He had heard a story long ago, something about Eva as a teen-ager, giving birth to twins on a boat and watching as sailors dropped their dead bodies into the Aegean Sea. He didn't know how the babies had died, or where Eva was going, or where her husband was. But we both sensed that the twins were part of a much larger story, which began April 24, 1915. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Turkey, under the cover of World War I, became what many historians consider the century's first genocide and what our family had always referred to as "the massacres," or more succinctly as "the Turks."

The Turks had always been present in my life, lurking like monsters under a child's bed. For my fourth birthday my grandfather--Aunt Eva's older brother, Sarkis--gave me a water pistol. "If you see a Turk, sonny," he told me, "you shoot him." Sometimes, when I stayed overnight at grandfather's house in El Sereno, I would wake up late at night and wander into the living room. There I would find a roomful of men shouting in Armenian, crying and jabbing their fingers into the air. "It's the Turks," my grandfather would say as he scooted me back to bed. "The goddamned Turks."

But my grandfather's tears were never my own. My childhood was standard San Gabriel Valley middle-class. Like millions of immigrants' children through the years, my father and his sister and cousins had chafed under their parents' expectations that they would somehow maintain an Old Country life in the new country. They broke their parents' hearts by marrying odars , or non-Armenians, and leaving the Armenian church. I only saw Armenians other than my relatives a few times a year, at giant picnics where the women cooked pots of pilaf, while the sad-eyed men barbecued shish-kebab and sat at tables under the trees, smoking and playing endless games of tavloo , or backgammon.

The world of Armenians seemed to me a lost world, mysterious and intriguing. Growing up, I felt a visceral pull to Aunt Eva, though I knew as little about her as I did about the strange and beautiful language she spoke with my father. When she visited, she brought grape leaves, homemade baklava and the wonderful cheese pastry we called boereg . After dinner she'd retire to the living room to listen to Armenian music while leafing through photos of her children, grandchildren and late husband. Wearing headphones so as not to disturb the rest of us, she would sing along softly in Armenian, tapping her feet. Sometimes I'd sit with her, holding her hand.

After I moved to Berkeley to go to college, I saw Aunt Eva less often and lost even that tenuous connection with things Armenian. I wore my ethnicity like a decoration, a conversation piece. By then I'd learned what was behind the rage of my elders. It was bad enough they believed that a million and a half Armenians had died at the hands of the Turks between 1915 and 1922; even worse that every Turkish government since has insisted there was no genocide, that fewer than half a million Armenians died and that both Turks and Armenians were victims of a civil war, famine and disease. But the massacres, an open wound to my grandparents' generation, remained academic to me, as distant as the ritual slaughter of lambs for community feasts.

Then came Aunt Eva's visit and her cryptic comment about the twins. The image of babies being hurled into the sea began to haunt me. I imagined their deaths to be a sign, a brutal symbol that the terror and hunger of life in Turkey was over. I still didn't know much about that terror, but I became fixated on finding out what it had to do with my life. It was time I entered the lost world of my people, my mysterious tribe.

"I KNOW WHY YOU'RE DOING THIS," AUNT EVA SAID IN ARMENIAN AS MY FATHer and I set up the tape recorder in her living room in Pasadena. "I'm 80 years old. I'm the last one left, and you want to know the story before I die." She settled into her favorite chair, where she sat most days watching television and the activity on the street beyond. "I never told this story," she said in English. "Nobody knows."

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