- Posted January 15, 2014 by
Impressions of a Homeland
I never thought I would have either the facility or opportunity to visit Armenia. The trip from America always seemed too much trouble: too costly and time-consuming considering the sparse vacation days we get in that country. Life in Dubai has changed my perspective, however, with Armenia situated only 3 hours away. I owed it to my ancestors to visit what I have always thought of as hallowed land.
I grew up in a hybrid household of German-American and Armenian influence. Unfortunately, my dad Peter never learned to speak Armenian, and obviously, by default, I did not learn it either. I remember being very young at my grandfather Archie’s rug store on Madison Ave. in New York, and hearing this strange “gibberish” for the very first time. Archie had taken over the rug business started by his father, Mugerdich, who had established it in the early 1900’s after fleeing his birthplace, Palu, Turkey (part of ancient Armenian homeland) in 1895. Mugerdich fled Turkey to escape the “mini” massacres of Armenians that, now as history tells us, came to presage the better-known Armenian genocide of 1915.
Still fresh in my memory, at the turn of the decade in 1969-70, are the sights and smells of rugs piled high in the store and spread unmethodically on the dark, bare-wood floor, strong cigarettes and Turkish coffee, and the blurred murmurs of adult Armenian conversation and negotiations for the best price. I never understood a word, but I did not care. I felt safe within those walls. Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame was among the many celebrities who bought from Chamalian and Son.
After he retired, Archie moved his most treasured leftover pieces to his home in Leonia. (Peter, my dad, did not follow in the family business.) He kept them piled neatly on his chilly porch in case of moth infestation, the scourge of anything made from wool. We would often go through the pile together to reshuffle the rugs, spray for the tiny pests, take a peak once again at their brilliant colors and designs, recount a story or two, or if a former associate or customer came by to look or simply sought a cup of authentic coffee and conversation. Archie was a master negotiator and often the visitor would leave empty-handed. I don’t think he really wanted to sell the rugs anyway. They were his most beloved possessions, and he loved them with the greatest passion I have ever seen in my 47 years. In 1919 he failed out of Cornell engineering school because his father Mugerdich would send him rugs to repair, preventing him from concentrating on his studies. Years later, after my dad passed, the same scenes were replayed in my house in Cresskill when Archie and Ethel, his wife, moved in to raise us.
I learned as much as any kid could want to learn about his heritage growing up. The German-American part of me was easy to grasp, as I lived it in every aspect of my life at school, with friends, etc. The Armenian part required more work; it meant I had to be more proactive, more inquisitive, even be a pest by exploring further. Archie left me many memories, but there was much about his childhood and his parents and heritage that, now upon further reflection, I realize he chose to forget and therefore resisted burdening me with. At this point in my life I understand how this was both a shame and yes, a mistake: both by him for neglecting to share important aspects of his past or not sending me to Armenian school, and by me for being more concerned with my next pick-up baseball game than making the effort to question why I was who I was and what it meant to be Armenian. Lucky for me I have a second cousin that knew Archie and even remembers his parents, and she has enlightened me on so many things I had always wondered about. These insights prepared me very well for the second half of this discovery: my recent trip to Armenia. These last few months of reflection and connecting with family have helped rectify these errors a bit. They opened windows to my heritage that I thought had been permanently painted shut. It exposed someone in me that I never believed existed.
Now for my perspectives on this journey…………
We learned something very quickly about Armenians when checking in for our flight to Yerevan. 99% of the people on line looked different than the typical Dubai resident and were obviously Armenians. Each of them was checking in at least two large flat screen tvs, which told me that electronics were expensive in Armenia and residents of that country found it necessary to come to Dubai to do their heavy-duty shopping. One guy had several bags filled with Zatar bread and seemed confused about how to manage his overweight luggage. This was our first insight into what awaited us.
After landing we met passport control. The agent was a pretty blond Russian woman who looked more like a famous actress than anything like the pictures I had seen of Armenian people, nor did she have facial features even closely resembling any of the passengers we had just flown with. Our first interaction in Armenia and we get a Russian? She looked at my passport and then looked at me for verification. “Where is your Armenian nose?” she inquired. I asked her how to say “thank you” in Armenian and after a brief pause she said, “Shnorhakalem.” I thought the whole scene was odd but, as we would learn later, it presaged some of the experiences that awaited us.
The Sudanese cab driver who took us to our hotel explained to us that Armenians are racist against blacks. I was taken aback by this comment, as I had never heard this before; however, he was obviously speaking from experience. He had been there now 16 years but it was difficult for him at first due to this issue. He fought a lot when he felt threatened but through time and age he came to understand that it was just ignorance. Now he lets it roll right off his shoulders and doesn’t experience it much anymore, as people have come to know him around town. He married an Armenian girl years back, which caused him problems as well. Armenian women are discouraged from associating with black men, argued our driver, and they can be ridiculed and chastised for it by their male family members and acquaintances. Nevertheless, he finished, Armenia is very safe for women to walk around at night without fear of harassment. This despite what a good friend told me before my trip, that men could even be aggressive. Nonetheless, I didn’t see any evidence at all of racism nor maltreatment of women in Armenia.
People stared at us in Armenia. I could even see them snickering. Perhaps because they all wore black—they love black—and we westerners cannot resist the use of color in our wardrobes. Not only this, Yetty being Asian and me being a giant white guy may have contributed to the quirky fixations. We did not see one Asian during our trip and it being March, tourist season had not yet started and the European and American tourists were not yet strolling the streets. We obviously stood out like sore thumbs. I observed that the people did not seem to make their way in a carefree manner. There’s a stress in their eyes as they strut purposefully on their paths. Their facial expressions reminded me of the Russians I observed on my trips there in the 80’s. Another common denominator of the Armenian collective countenance is that they look pleasingly, yes, refreshingly homogeneous. I hadn’t seen that quality in a people in quite some time. “The women are pretty but the men are ugly,” said a friend of mine, and I have to agree. It’s not that the men are naturally ugly; it’s more that they wear their hair flat, almost dorkishly, with very straight bangs hanging down their foreheads. An odd fashion statement, to say the least.
Please read the rest @ http://dchamalian.wordpress.com/