How to Survive a Genocide

by Lori Yeghiayan Friedman

Nonfiction


 

First, be born to Armenian parents in Santa Monica, California―

Not in Armenia―the landlocked, stone-covered, shitty piece of the Caucasus bequeathed by the Allies and the Ottoman Empire via the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres to the Armenians, which becomes a Soviet Republic.

Not somewhere in the Middle East―like Lebanon or Egypt or Iran—where Armenians fled during ongoing massacres and, finally, an attempt at total extermination by the Ottoman government in the early years of the twentieth century.

Not even in Glendale or North Hollywood or any of the other Armenian-dominated neighborhoods of Los Angeles where the largest population of Armenians outside Armenia reside.

Your family will have survived the attempt to wipe out your kind: their loved ones slaughtered or starved, their homes and lands stolen, their dreams smashed, histories erased. You will rise from these ashes, untouched by the Catastrophe, so ensuring the continuation of the race will be on you: an American.

Still, your Armenian father will not want you to grow up with the “riff raff” of the Los Angeles Armenian community, so you will live in West Los Angeles where you will go to public schools in a very white, very affluent part of town where, to most of your classmates, your last name is exotic and possibly Asian. Know zero Armenians, other than your own family members.

When visiting your cousin in Fresno, have her teach you dirty words in Armenian, like eshegg (jackass) and vorig (tushy). Enjoy having a secret language none of your friends at school know.

Be excited to share your favorite food, yalanché―cold rice wrapped in oily grape leaves―with Mr. Felhandler’s fourth grade class for international day at Brentwood Elementary School. Your classmates will think it looks disgusting, even worse than the sushi Minako brought. Overhear one kid whisper to another: Who eats leaves?

Grow up in the shadow of Hollywood. Be aware of Armenian entertainers and sports stars: Mike Connors, Cher, Andre Agassi. Know that you are required to be proud that they are Armenian. Tell everyone you know that so-and-so is Armenian. Watch American TV: The Great Pumpkin, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Love Boat. Be enthralled watching a movie in which a young woman with brown hair and braids sings on a Kansas farm. Dream of going over the rainbow like the bluebirds, like Dorothy―of being an actress like Judy Garland, transporting people away from their gray, stormy reality into the clear beauty of a Technicolor dream.

Have your mom drive you to Armenian school on Saturdays at a temple in Santa Monica―rented out by the Armenians―where you draw strange shapes that look like hieroglyphics onto dotted-lined paper, tracing them over and over like you did in kindergarten, only now you’re nine years old and you already know how to read and write―in English. Perform a dance for the parents where you lock pinkies with the other kids and move together in a circle, while wearing a traditional costume and long braids fashioned from brown yarn. Enjoy performing. Understand none of it.

One afternoon, have your mother try once again―this time in junior high school―sending you to an after-school language program at a nearby elementary school. You will be the oldest student in the multi-purpose room, with tables that reach your knees. The students―little kids―will be bent over their papers, coloring their hieroglyphics with crayons. Cover your embarrassment, try to laugh it off by saying to the young, plump, fresh-off-the-boat teacher with Brillo pad-like hair:

Just consider me an American. Ha ha.

Out of the corner of your eye, see her arm shoot out. Feel her muscular fingers clamp around your wrist with urgency, like she’s a boat captain and you’re a passenger gone overboard. Look up in time to see a flame light up in the center of her black eyes, her lips pressing tightly together. She will stare into your eyes and say, in her slow, Dracula-sounding English:

I will consider you an Armenian who has not learned Armenian … yet.

Turn to stone, paralyzed first by humiliation, then rage. Make it through the hour, somehow. When your mom picks you up be sure to tell her you are never going back.

Meet your friends in Westwood later that night. Over pizza at BJ’s act out the scene between you and the Transylvanian transplant. They will say, on cue: What a bitch! Appreciate their loyalty and commitment to playing their roles with conviction. Want your friends’ reassurance to make you feel better. It will. Also, it won’t.

Stumble into doing theater at Paul Revere Junior High School. Your best friend Katie[1] will not want to take the theater class alone, and you will need to pick an elective anyway, so sign up. Dazzle everyone when you steal the show during the school play―you, strangely named, short, round, bad-skinned, un-dazzling you.

Decide that theater is your life and that becoming an actress is everything. It’s a phase your parents will hope you outgrow.

Be a lawyer, your father will say. Armenians make good lawyers.

Feel inside like you are Shakespeare heroine Cordelia from the play King Lear―Lear’s loyal, sweet youngest daughter, the source of his redemption. Be cast as Goneril, the eldest sister, the one who poisons her other sister Regan and suggests plucking out the eyes of an old man, her dad’s friend. It will be the curse of the ancestral tragedies you carry in your DNA―along with your dark hair and dark eyes which equal dark heart in a world that believes light is the same as good―to be cast this way.

You are Dorothy. But your long nose, square jaw, and bushy, dark eyebrows will make you a shoo-in for the Wicked Witch of the West.

Try to enjoy getting the juicy, non-ingenue parts throughout high school, even though no boy ever fell for the girl who played witch-accuser Ann Putnam in her high school production of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.

Be a high school senior when a 6.8-magnitude earthquake kills 45,000 Armenians in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. On TV, see old Armenian women that look just like the ones you see ambling down the aisle of St. Garabed Armenian Church leaning on their sons’ arms during Easter services. Like the church women, they will wear dresses of heavy dark cloth, heads covered with lace. The TV women, however, will be weeping among rubble, speaking that impenetrable language.

Graduate high school. At commencement, sing the alto part in a choral version of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.”

Plan to flee as far as possible for college―to the Ivy Leagues, to the East Coast, to the Pacific Northwest, anywhere but Southern California, a place you’re sure you don’t belong.

Stay in Southern California for college. Manage to live in the region of the world with millions of Armenians―the largest population of Armenians, in fact, outside of Armenia―without running into one.

Run into one. Attempt to bond over being Armenian. I’m Armenian too! you will say to people you meet with Armenian last names (that end in -ian and -yan) to see if, like the quote from the writer William Saroyan (that you sometimes see printed on posters in people’s houses), you will not create a New Armenia.

Nope. Having not experienced being Armenian as a novelty―like a distinctive-looking hat―they will look at you like: Good for you.

During your freshman year, live through the birth of a new world order when the Berlin Wall falls. The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic will be among the first to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Be aware of this fact. Feel it has nothing to do with you. Have little interest in finding out.

Get a little interested. Join UC San Diego’s Armenian Club. Go to two meetings―one at a Middle Eastern restaurant and one at a member’s parents’ enormous house in Poway where you enjoy eating louleh kebab like you’ve had at Carousel Restaurant in Hollywood and tabouli the way your medz mama makes it. Don’t relate to any of the members, who all speak Armenian, grew up with Armenians, went to Armenian schools, will marry Armenians, know the history of Armenia, understand their roles as propagators of Armenian genes. You? You’re as American as a Kansas farm girl.

Study literature, your mother will say. Write the next great American novel.

Study theater. Know you will be an actor after you graduate. Believe, at first, that being vaguely foreign-looking is a plus for a career in theater, TV, and film.

I’m so lucky―I can play a bunch of different ethnicities! you will think.

Come to understand the downside of this. Why cast you instead of a person of who is actually of a certain ethnicity? When they are looking for a white woman, why cast someone who looks vaguely foreign?

Move to Hollywood. Find a manager who believes in you and can send you out for real acting jobs. Stand firm when he suggests you consider changing your unpronounceable Armenian last name. You think of all of the Italian actors’ names and think: This is how it gets normalized. Let them figure out how to pronounce it. Has it stopped Elizabeth Mastrantonio? Chloë Sevigny?

Say to him: Besides, casting directors find it unique and always ask me about it. It’s a conversation starter!

Start to get acting work: bit parts in famous TV shows and in movies. Get cast easily as cops, detectives, school principals: your serious face, dark eyes, and wide hips easily imbuing you with a sense of maturity, authority. Learn to mumble and whisper your lines, throw them away, so on camera it will seem small, like real life, though what you always loved about acting was the heightened sense of reality, its ability to transport through the beauty of language. You will feel conflicted about making things small and just throwing the words away.

Master the art of knowing how you’ll be seen in the only profession where it’s perfectly OK― required really―to hire someone based on their ethnicity, and height, weight, hair color, eye color, bust size, etc.

Remember that Judy Garland got hooked on diet pills during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.

Spend casting sessions saying: Yup, that’s really my name.

Realize the whole thing’s racist.

Keep auditioning.

Perform in interesting new plays in dingy black box theater on the fifth floor of a crumbling building in a seedy part of downtown Los Angeles where you only cancel that night’s performance if there are fewer than five people in the audience. That night’s performance will get canceled from time to time.

Live with your mother and your medz mama the first year out of acting graduate school to save on rent in Los Angeles. Get to know the rhythms of their life together.

Be with them on New Year’s Eve. Learn that your medz mama puts out walnuts and dried fruit to celebrate the coming year. At Easter, watch her boil onion skins to dye the eggshells red. Learn to say what Armenians say: Christos hayav ee mere lotz―Christ has risen from the dead. The other person says: Tezi Mezi medz ava dees―to you and to us much happiness.

Move out, to a tiny, dark studio in Silver Lake.

Keep auditioning. In each waiting room, in the interminable time you wait to get into the room and throw the words away, imagine yourself in the same waiting room in ten, twenty, thirty years, the yellow brick road leading you in one giant circle, back to the start.

Be thirty-one when your mother wakes up one day with back pain. Try to ignore the dark funnel clouds gathering speed in the distance.

The clouds will be unignorable when the storm rips right through you, when, at thirty-two, your mom dies a shockingly quick death―two weeks from diagnosis to buried―unexpectedly leveling whatever you’ve managed to build, leaving you tether-less, like a hot air balloon let loose. Begin to wonder if you really knew her: Who was she? Who are you?

Feel untethered in other ways. Wonder: Why am I doing theater on the fifth floor of a crumbling building in a seedy part of downtown Los Angeles where the people onstage outnumber the audience? Why do I go on TV auditions, waiting for hours sometimes, just to throw my lines away and be assessed on my face, my height, judged always on my genetics and not on what I can contribute, achieve?

Feel a vague feeling creeping at the corners of your consciousness, like you’ve woken up in a life you don’t want. Remember in college how funny you thought the T-shirts that fellow theater majors would sometimes wear that said “I can’t. I have rehearsal.” were. Find it less funny. Wonder what you would do with all your time if you weren’t an actor. Maybe you’d see the world, go river rafting, bake desserts, date! See that you might be at the end of a kind of a (yellow brick) road. Vow to wait a year before quitting acting.

When the year is up, quit.

Quit all of it.

In this contextless, now motherless, fatherless life (dad will have died years ago), you will be no one’s child, nothing will anchor you, you will belong nowhere but where you decide to, with your people who are … who?

To find them, go over the rainbow and land in another world.

In other words, move to Glendale.

When you find the perfect, spacious one-bedroom apartment―for just about the same monthly rent as your tiny, dark Silver Lake studio―call your tall, redheaded best friend and say: Let’s just be clear: I am not moving here because I’m Armenian, OK?

Move to Glendale somewhat because you’re Armenian.

Get a job, a regular job in an office in the communications department of a nonprofit that helps people in need, where they issue you a laptop and you get promoted within six months.

Sign up for HyeSingles, an Armenian dating website―“hye” is short for “hayeren” which means Armenian in Armenian. When the site asks for your fluency level, check the box that says: I speak no Armenian. When it asks how important it is that your future children speak Armenian, check: Not important.

Get few Hye dates.

Still, through the site, meet a nice Armenian guy who wears dress shoes, slacks, and a belt for your coffee date at Starbucks in Burbank. It will not be a match―for either of you. He will be lovely, though, and will invite you to become a mentor like he is to at-risk Armenian youth in Glendale.

The day you show up to the first mentor meeting, the first person you meet will be the Armenian man you fall for: a man-child with sad, foreign eyes and a reckless smile named Vartan who, at 40, is proud of all he has not committed to. Later you’ll remember you should have listened to your uncle―who married into your family―who said: never trust a man with a name like Vartan. Your one hundred percent Armenian uncle’s name will be Dennis.

For the first time in your life, make good friends who are Armenian: global citizen Mariam who grew up in Glendale after coming to the U.S. from Iran in 1979 after the fall of the Shah, with an MBA from Cornell and an interest in Myers-Briggs personality assessments; good-hearted Lisa from Fresno, California, whose parents run a fruit farm and who dreams of opening a spa and being free to marry anyone she pleases; community-minded Armen who was born in Armenia but grew up in Glendale and runs the mentorship program, still in touch with what it’s like to be young and feel like a stranger in a strange land; soulful Lusine whom you will meet when she’s fourteen and you’re thirty-four. She will be from Armenia. You will be Lusine’s mentor, her Big Sister for four years, and you will show her another way to be a woman in the world, a way she likely would never have seen. She will teach you how to be someone’s ally even when you think they are wrong. The last time you see her she will have just gotten an equal-sign tattoo on her ring finger, and you will coax her into feeling safe enough to come out to you, and you will nearly die of pride, feel acutely the privilege of having played a small part in someone else’s becoming.

The Armenians you meet will be from everywhere.

You will come to understand there are “kinds” of Armenians. Armenians from Egypt are called Yegipta-hyes. Armenians from Iran are called Barska-hyes. Armenians from Armenia are called Haystansis. You will be christened an Amerigya-hye.

There are Dashnaks—short for Dashnaksutyun, a political party affiliation from the old country, which means you send your kids to the Armenian Youth Federation. If you’re not a Dashnak, you associate yourself with the Armenian General Benevolent Union.

Marvel at the insularity, the shortsightedness of this way of thinking. There are maybe five million Armenians in the world, and it makes sense to divide ourselves into factions? No wonder we can’t get a U.S. President to use the word genocide when commemorating the Armenian Genocide every April 24th when the rest of the world (except Turkey) acknowledges the truth: that 1.5 million of us were killed by the Ottoman Turks in an attempt to annihilate the Armenian race.

Learn the language. Discover that there are two main dialects: Western Armenian, that your family speaks, and Eastern Armenian, which is spoken by Armenians in Armenia now (which is a lot like Iranian Armenian, which is a little bit its own thing). The alphabet is thirty-six letters. It was invented by Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD to translate the bible. It has enabled Armenians to survive as a minority, without a country, for so long. That, and the Church.

Take an Armenian language class at Los Angeles City College. It will be full of twenty-year-old Armenians who live at home. You will think they are taking it just for the easy A. But someone will explain to you that, though they’ve grown up speaking it, it’s likely that they don’t know how to read and write it.

The girls will all sit in front, on time, notebooks out, eyes forward. The boys will roll in late, sit in the back, fuck around, make jokes about the teacher. Many of them—someone will tell you—will be rabiz, a derogatory term, a Glendale term, referring to that group of young Armenian men in Glendale who wear tracksuits and sunglasses, drive ostentatious cars, are known for speaking a Russian/Armenian slang mash-up and wearing shiny, pointy dress shoes.

The instructor will spend lots of class time lecturing the boys in an attempt to save the Armenian race.

Look at these girls! He will say, gesturing to the front row. They will become pharmacists, lawyers, medical technicians. You think these girls are going to marry you?!

Date Vartan. Be compelled by his Armenian-ness, attracted to his self-destructive nature, his need to be saved from himself. Six months into it, you will still never have met his father nor any other members of his family nor any of his friends, besides the ones you have in common.

One day, while shopping with him in Pasadena, you will run into a coworker of yours. She will greet him warmly and express pleasure at finally getting to meet him. He will offer a smile (without teeth) and shake her hand―but he won’t take off his sunglasses.

You will know he just doesn’t love you when while breaking up with you he can’t bring himself to tell you the truth: that he just doesn’t see himself with you, that after trying you on for a bit he’s realized you’re simply not Armenian enough for him. Instead, he will attempt a metaphor, something about closing drawers. In the driver’s seat of his parked car, he will literally mime closing little drawers, as if the steering wheel is a miniature armoire, as he strains to explain to you something about his emotional life. It will come across as overwrought and improbable.

Heartbroken, seek the wizard, soaring up, up, up into the sky―careful to evade the flying monkeys―on your way to the Emerald City, the homeland: Armenia. Be shocked at its bracing beauty, like a splash of cold water on your face. Feel strangely like you belong, even though everything’s very Russified and you don’t speak the language and you definitely don’t belong at all. Still, your eyes look like theirs.

The women will be beautiful, faces fully made up while walking through the streets of Yerevan in artfully styled jeans and stilettos. Some of the men you see will be leather-jacketed, two-by-two, coming out of dark-windowed SUVs, performing their shakedown rounds. But most of the men you see will be young friends, holding hands, affectionate with each other―or men out partying with their families in the open-air plaza, young and old, matriarch and toddler, on warm summer nights, drinking, eating, dancing, celebrating the longer days, the not-winter.

Kids will follow your tour group of young Armenian professionals from America like groupies, wanting to take photos with you. A hot priest will give you a tour of Tatev Monastery, all the ladies of the group smiling at each other and swooning. Schoolchildren will perform instruments for you—the violin, the duduk, the oud—while a young woman performs an interpretative dance as a tree. Old women will try to sell you trinkets―ceramic pomegranates, keychains shaped like miniature Khachkars (intricately carved stone crosses that will be everywhere)―at the entrances of the churches you will visit.

You will be treated to a home-cooked Armenian meal in a woman’s house in rural Dilijan, which you will eat by a babbling brook of beautiful crystal clear water that you will wade in afterward, jeans rolled up. The whole group will be shocked when at the end of the meal, the host and her daughter throw everything into the brook: the leftover food scraps, paper napkins, empty Pepsi cans. You will all want to intervene—whispering to each other, Should we say something?—but you will not want to look like asshole Americans crying over a fucking brook, especially after visiting Gyumri, the epicenter of the 1988 earthquake, where piles of rubble still stand as if it just happened, where you visited a soup kitchen where old women talked of neighbors who died because they couldn’t afford heat in the winter, and you didn’t protest then.

You will dance, drink cognac, sip pomegranate wine; swim in Lake Sevan; visit the orphanage where your mother’s in-lieu-of-flowers donations will have gone toward building a room (there will be a plaque with her name on it); visit a bombed-out church in Shushi in the disputed territory of the Republic of Artsakh where the war with Azerbaijan has been going on since the 1980s; see the words “System of a Down” spray-painted onto a low stone wall in a field; visit Khor Virap and feel too claustrophobic to climb down into the deep pit where Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned; go on a hair-bending trip through the hills at night on your way to the Republic of Artsakh from Goris where the cab driver―a grizzled soldier, survivor of war, who drives like he’s already lived nine lives and expects to live nine more―will tell stories while a cigarette dangles from one corner of his downturned mouth, which will only turn up when he laughs at you and your fellow travelers sucking in your breath around each hairpin turn; solemnly lay roses at the Genocide Memorial admiring the woman who sweeps there, keeping it spotless, her way of honoring the many dead; light a candle at Saghmosavank, a thirteenth-century monastery.

You will be processing many losses. You will be depressed.

Nevertheless, on the last night the group will elect you to represent them at the final dinner toast. You will be dressed in a casual, strapless, brown summer dress with embroidered trim. Your hair will cascade down your shoulders in brown curls. You will look scrubbed and shiny. You will remember it as one of your happiest, most complete moments. They chose you.

You will know that Armenia―yes, the landlocked, stone-covered, shitty piece of the Caucasus that the Armenians were bequeathed by the Allies and the Ottoman Empire via the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres; but, also, its soul―does not belong only to Mariam, to the lady who squeezed your wrist, to the tracksuited rabiz, to the members of the UC San Diego Armenian Club, to the “riff raff,” to the people on HyeSingles, to your cousins who speak Armenian, to Lusine who was born there, to the young people who take Armenian language class at Los Angeles City College, to the young professionals who went on the tour, to the women in high heels and jeans, to the children who sang for you, to Vartan.

It’s yours.

Return home. Time will pass. You’ll evolve.

After some river rafting, baking, dating, and seeing the world, wonder if you are still an actor. Flirt with a return to the theater. Reconnect with a former theater colleague. Consider joining the theater company to which he belongs.

One night, go see a photo exhibit about poverty in Armenia with your friend Mariam. The photographs will be life-size depictions of families digging for scraps at the dump, a medz mama darning socks in a chair by a stove, sweeping the floor of a spotless shanty.

After the exhibit, drop by your former colleague’s theater―where there’s a party to celebrate the opening of the new space―to say hi.

Without realizing it, step your (ruby-slippered) toe on the start of a new road. Meet your future (non-Armenian) husband at the party. He will be a friend of your former theater colleague’s. Chat with him by the table of cookies, noting your unborn children gleaming in his eyes. Feel the rules about who you are and could be melt like a water-splattered witch.

Later, after you have largely resolved in your own heart how your Armenian family―whose loved ones were slaughtered or starved, their homes and lands stolen, their dreams smashed, histories erased―now live on through you, as you become the Armenian that you are, born where you were born, speaking what you speak, loving who and what you love―be amazed at the storybook-journey arc of it all: how you had to leave home to find it, to understand that, like Dorothy and those damn ruby slippers, the power to survive a genocide was with you the whole time.

 

[1]Names have been changed.


Lori Yeghiayan Friedman was born and raised in Southern California and has an MFA in Theatre from the University of California at San Diego. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Post Road Magazine, The Nasiona, and XRAY Literary Magazine. Twitter: @loriyeg

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