Armenian Eyes

19 April, 2021

To com­mem­o­rate annu­al recog­ni­tion of the Armen­ian Geno­cide on April 24th, TMR is pub­lish­ing two columns, Her­itage by Aram Saroy­an and Armen­ian Eyes by Mis­cha Ger­a­coulis, each of which takes the read­er back through per­son­al mem­o­ries of fam­i­ly and belong­ing, in the Armen­ian and Amer­i­can dias­po­ra. See also our Resource Guide to Armen­ian Cul­ture for a rec­om­mend­ed list of writ­ers, artists, film­mak­ers and more. —Edi­tor

Mischa Geracoulis

Though it had been on my read­ing list for years, I’d held off enter­ing into Aram Saroy­an’s Last Rites: The Death of William Saroy­an (William Mor­row & Co. 1982) until recent­ly. Fac­ing his account of the last months, weeks, and days of the life of his leg­endary father, William Saroy­an (1908–1981), would be some­thing of an homage to my grand­fa­ther, Lev­on Stepan­ian (1910–2003).  Hav­ing all but sin­gle-hand­ed­ly cre­at­ed the Amer­i­can mul­ti-eth­nic lit­er­ary genre, William Saroy­an is renowned among Arme­ni­ans and non-Arme­ni­ans alike. He paved the way for the rest of us, not the least of whom is his son, Aram Saroy­an, pro­lif­ic writer, poet, and artist of his own mak­ing and fame. 

Spring­time, Great Lent in the Chris­t­ian cal­en­dar, and the lead-up to the annu­al April 24th Armen­ian Geno­cide com­mem­o­ra­tion is a peri­od that lends itself towards reflec­tion. That my grand­fa­ther made his tran­si­tion one April, and that Last Rites takes place dur­ing anoth­er April, sig­naled that this would be the April to read the book. 

Last Rites   from Aram Saroyan (1982)

 For about 24 hours after fin­ish­ing Last Rites, I was in such a weird space — relat­ing to the push-pull emo­tion, fam­i­ly dra­ma, and gen­er­a­tional trau­ma, “some­thing unnamed in the pit of the stom­ach,” as Aram describes it — that I reached out to him. It had been at least 10 years since our last communication. 

Over email as we recon­nect­ed, I remind­ed Aram of the time that my grand­fa­ther Lev­on had host­ed his father in Philadel­phia in the 1930s. With an Amer­i­can pub­lic school eighth grade edu­ca­tion under his belt, at age 14, Lev­on embarked upon a speak­ing cir­cuit with the Rotary Club, an inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an orga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes peace, good will, and social jus­tice. He trav­elled by bus, and depend­ing on where he was in the U.S., deter­mined which sec­tion of the bus he rode. Often, it was in the back.  Upon arriv­ing in a new city, Lev­on did what his father before him had done upon arriv­ing fresh off the boat in New York. He went to the phone direc­to­ry and searched for Armen­ian sur­names. Lev­on’s mantra, “Armen­ian peo­ple, good peo­ple,” instilled in him by his moth­er, embold­ened his search for lodg­ings with Armen­ian families. 

By the mid-1930s, Lev­on was gain­ing momen­tum as a pop­u­lar speak­er. William, mean­while, hav­ing had one or two books pub­lished by that stage, was enjoy­ing sig­nif­i­cant noto­ri­ety. It was around this time that Lev­on host­ed William Saroy­an at the Rotary Club of Philadel­phia, who, as the sto­ry goes, spoke to a packed house of enthralled atten­dees. After­wards, the Rotar­i­ans entrust­ed William to Lev­on for a night on the town. 1930s Philly was an epi­cen­ter of cre­ativ­i­ty — from Art Deco to jazz and speakeasies to cui­sine and mer­can­til­ism of myr­i­ad sorts. Recall­ing old pho­tos of Lev­on and William, it’s easy to spec­u­late that the two twen­ty-some­thing Armen­ian bach­e­lors cut debonair fig­ures in Ital­ian pin­stripes and fedo­ras as they stepped out into the evening. Appar­ent­ly want­i­ng to impress, Lev­on took William to din­ner at a Chi­nese restau­rant. Though my grand­fa­ther’s ren­di­tion was scant of much fur­ther detail, the impli­ca­tion was that the goal was succeeded. 

In 1997, I was in Yere­van, which coin­cid­ed with the grand open­ing of the first-ever Chi­nese restau­rant in Arme­nia.  A friend and I went for din­ner and wit­nessed an awk­ward clash of cul­tur­al palates: Arme­ni­ans, new to Chi­nese cui­sine, were dis­tressed by the absence of lavash. Unfa­mil­iar with the Armen­ian sta­ple, the Chi­nese restau­ran­t’s open­ing night suc­cess was blunt­ed by unmet cus­tomer demands for the eth­nic flat­bread. I lat­er heard that as a mat­ter of basic sur­viv­abil­i­ty, the Chi­nese restau­rant added lavash to their menu. 

The author's grandfather Levon, circa 1965.

Imag­in­ing the con­ver­sa­tions that my grand­fa­ther and William might have had in the Chi­nese restau­rant in 1930s Philly, I asked over email, “Aram, do you think those two Arme­ni­ans expect­ed lavash with their Chi­nese din­ner?” Doubt­ful. Unlike the Arme­ni­ans of post-Sovi­et Arme­nia, the Arme­ni­ans of Lev­an­tine Turkey were quite cos­mopoli­tan; until the Ottomans. As Elia Kazan explains in his film Amer­i­ca Amer­i­ca, Ottoman rule ren­dered the Greeks and Arme­ni­ans sub­servient, sec­ond-class citizens. 

William’s and Lev­on’s fam­i­lies had sim­i­lar tra­jec­to­ries, zigzag­ging west, east, west.  Their fathers were world­ly poly­glots, coex­ist­ing plu­ral­is­ti­cal­ly long before “coex­ist” would become a trendy bumper­stick­er; until the Ottomans.  Far from Fres­no, Cal­i­for­nia, far from Smyr­na, think­ing of those two sons of Ana­to­lia hav­ing din­ner at a Chi­nese restau­rant in Philadel­phia in the 1930s, I am awed by the con­nec­tions that have wound their way down through the gen­er­a­tions. Aram and I mar­vel at their brav­ery, and that of their gen­er­a­tion. Recall­ing the open­ing scenes from Kazan’s Amer­i­ca Amer­i­ca, with Mount Ararat, sym­bol of free­dom, in view, Kazan pro­claims that he’s Greek by blood, Turk by birth, and Amer­i­can because an uncle made the jour­ney. Cross­ing oceans on steam­lin­ers, crammed into steer­age, deter­mined not just to sur­vive, but to thrive, they were all brave. 

My grand­fa­ther con­fid­ed sto­ries in me that bypassed his own chil­dren. When I was lit­tle, he’d take me to vis­it rel­a­tives and friends from the Old Coun­try. Old Man Krikor was from “our tribe,” and spoke no Eng­lish. I was prob­a­bly four years old, and though I don’t have many mem­o­ries from child­hood, I remem­ber vivid­ly this one vis­it in par­tic­u­lar. A man of few words, Old Man Krikor stared at me intent­ly as I squirmed in my chair. He even­tu­al­ly spoke. Hold­ing my hand, my grand­fa­ther trans­lat­ed. “He says you’ve got Armen­ian eyes. And Armen­ian blood. He says not to let you for­get.” There was some­thing about the way they both looked at me, looked into me, that impart­ed a sense of import.  I did­n’t quite under­stand, but I sat up a lit­tle taller. 

As Lev­on’s first­born grand­child, the torch was passed, and inter­nal­ized.  Inter­nal­ized too would be the syn­co­pa­tions of an ancient lan­guage, music, and dance, the mys­ti­cal chants of the Armen­ian Ortho­dox church, the inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma of Geno­cide, and duty towards its recog­ni­tion. Of course, I would­n’t become cog­nizant of any of this until much later.

Not unlike William Saroy­an, my grand­fa­ther Lev­on had a larg­er-than-life per­sona, and a tem­pera­ment that could swing high and low. In the sourest of times, my moth­er referred to the fam­i­ly as “screamin’ Arme­ni­ans.” And in the best of times, Lev­on was a show­boat who loved to joke and tease. At fam­i­ly gath­er­ings, an old stan­dard was his ver­sion of Mar­lon Bran­do: Ste-lla! Lev­on would shout out to the Greek rel­a­tive famed for her cook­ing. “You know the Arme­ni­ans taught the Greeks how to cook, Stella!” 

There was a stretch of time when my grand­fa­ther would say that his peo­ple came from “rocks and sand.” Giv­en to dra­mat­ics, he’d say that his home­land had no name.  When I’d insist that every place is some­where and every place has a name, “Asia Minor” would be his reluc­tant reply, with a wav­ing of hands, affect­ing a forced guess. After Arme­nia gained inde­pen­dence from the Sovi­et Union in 1991, with great fer­vor, he and his broth­ers would cheer, Get­seh Hayas­tan! (“Long live Armenia!”).

As the years passed, Get­seh Hayas­tan! would be pro­claimed with renewed zest and nov­el­ty, as hap­pens with the short­en­ing of short-term mem­o­ry. Each rep­e­ti­tion of Get­seh Hayas­tan! would be exclaimed with all the vig­or and vol­ume of one with dimin­ished hear­ing, loud enough to wake the dead. And maybe that was the point.  There were, after all, so many dead. 

Aram writes in Last Rites, ”Arme­ni­ans, under­stand­ably, love and adore [William] Saroy­an as their poet, their spokesman, their cham­pi­on in a world that has been full of ter­ror and deprav­i­ty…”  He’s a nation­al trea­sure, and through his writ­ing, has brought recog­ni­tion to Arme­ni­ans as much as to him­self.  For a peo­ple “sub­ject to geno­cide, both phys­i­cal­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly,” Saroy­an’s sto­ries are redemp­tive (Saroy­an, 1982).  Accord­ing­ly, Lev­on was a Saroy­an loy­al­ist, and though details fad­ed over time, we loved his recount of the Chi­nese din­ner sto­ry as much as he loved recounting. 

“The Armen­ian and the Armen­ian,” an essay from William Saroy­an’s sec­ond book, Inhale & Exhale (1936), speaks to the Armen­ian Geno­cide in which 1.5 mil­lion+ Arme­ni­ans were killed. Appar­ent­ly, a first writ­ing of the essay was in some­what coars­er lan­guage than the pop­u­lar­ized G‑rated ver­sion. Ven­er­at­ed on posters and cards, the lat­ter reads like a procla­ma­tion of Armen­ian sol­i­dar­i­ty, and has served to fur­ther immor­tal­ize William Saroy­an as Arme­ni­a’s and Fres­no’s favorite son.

I should like to see any pow­er of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unim­por­tant peo­ple, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose struc­tures have crum­bled, lit­er­a­ture is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered.  Go ahead, destroy Arme­nia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert with­out bread or water. Burn their homes and church­es. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet any­where in the world, see if they will not cre­ate a New Arme­nia. 

Arme­ni­ans the world over know these lines like a prayer. It was no sur­prise then that my grand­fa­ther kept a small pho­to­copy stashed in the top draw­er of his office desk where he showed up every day at 7:00 am sharp, almost to the end. For a sea­son, I had a job near­by that allowed for ear­ly morn­ing vis­its, dur­ing which he’d often pull out the old pho­to­copy, fray­ing at the folds, as if ful­fill­ing his promise to Old Man Krikor. It was only fit­ting that it should be his swan song, and that I would read it at his funer­al in 2003.

Dur­ing the funer­al week­end, a woman from the com­mu­ni­ty pulled me aside. She con­fid­ed that her then-teenage daugh­ter had been adopt­ed from an Armen­ian orphan­age in Beirut, and that my grand­fa­ther had been instru­men­tal in the process.  What’s more, she said, her fam­i­ly was­n’t the only one he’d helped with adop­tions. I tried to ascer­tain more infor­ma­tion, to no avail, alas. Aram describes his father as an enig­ma, one with sta­mi­na, tal­ent, and ele­ments of genius (Saroy­an, 1982). Dit­to for Levon. 

The torch was passed from Saroy­an to Saroy­an, from Geno­cide sur­vivors to their descen­dants, from one gen­er­a­tion of sto­ry­tellers to the next.  We are wield­ers of truth of a geno­cide denied, keep­ers of faith in a new Arme­nia, and as Der Hayr Mes­rop Ash of San Fran­cis­co’s St. John Armen­ian Church con­fers, we have a sacred con­tract to ful­fill. We are descen­dants of Ana­to­lia, of old Con­stan­ti­nop­o­lis, of Smyr­na, of the Lev­ant and Mediter­ranean Sea, daugh­ters and sons of the sun and sea and rocks and sand, and we are two Arme­ni­ans exponentially. 

Riff­ing off anoth­er favorite son of Arme­nia, G. I. Gur­d­ji­eff (~1870–1949), these “meet­ings with remark­able men” hold us to the promise to nev­er to for­get, and nev­er again, and Get­seh Hayastan!

Aram SaroyanArmenian American cultureArmenian Genocide

TMR contributing editor Mischa Geracoulis is a writer and educator of critical media literacy, English for speakers of other languages, and those with learning differentials. Her writing, teaching and approach to life are informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of her topics of research include the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, restorative justice, equitable education and child welfare, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in Middle East Eye, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Review of Books, Colorlines, Gomidas Institute, National Catholic Reporter, and openDemocracy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MGeracoulis.

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