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The Voice of Armenian Stranger

AN Armenian woman called me last night. A stranger to me, she was also new to our city and our nation. She wanted to speak the Armenian language with another Armenian. She wanted to learn better English, but her conversation centered on finding other Armenians with whom to speak Armenian. To speak with other Armenians, she had gone through the telephone book looking for familiar Armenian surnames. As an Armenian-American with a recognizably Armenian surname, this was not the first time I have had the experience. The first time a stranger called, I nearly hung up the telephone because I had not heard Armenian on the telephone in years and did not expect to hear it. Members of my family are no longer living. I do not live or work in an Armenian community. More Armenians lived in my hometown of 17,000 than in this city of 200,000.

Our conversation evoked warmth and fear for me. We spoke the language within our home and in the Armenian community. During childhood, my family vacationed with other Armenians in Armenian hotels in Armenian-American communities. When English was spoken by family friends, it sounded like the English spoken by Middle Eastern diplomats interviewed today in the media. Within the Armenian community was a sense of drive to succeed in and make sense of this new world while preserving the memories of the past.

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My father received such calls from other Armenians. He was a grocer. Sometimes soldiers stationed at a base near our town called and became our dinner guests for meals of dolma, sarma, pilaf, kebob, paklava. At least twice, Armenian sailors from Greek vessels jumped ship and found my father in the hope that he would help them settle into this country. He did. They did.

We also lived in a very Anglicized world, a small industrial town in a Southern state during a segregated time, a time when the blocks of segregation were beginning to shake. Our name was not Smith or Jones or Lee. My eyes were dark and slightly slanted. My skin tones were different, darker than my classmates. I was called "Turk" and "Nigger."

I understood that prejudice through the lens of a suffering community. I tried to lose the Armenian side of my identity. The richness of that Armenian heritage and culture was lost in that peer persecution. I attempted to stand within the two cultures, never completely at ease in either one.

When she called last night and when Ibrahim called three weeks before and Nerses called the month before that, I lost track of the feelings of personal dread from that ambiguous childhood culture. I began listening to the voices of these Armenian strangers who were trying to find one of their own.

I heard their desperation and despair, their sense of loss and longing. I heard our cultural memory speak of the Armenians massacred in 1915, as many as 1.5 million people. I heard our cultural memory say again that the Armenian genocide was forgotten and the Armenian people were no more. I heard those callers speak as strangers in the United States and of their fear of being branded during the Gulf war as Iraqis. I heard them speak of their fear of a new persecution, a persecution that would lump toget her all Middle Easterners, regardless of nationality or religion. And these Armenians, clinging tenaciously to Christianity despite 1,700 years of persecution because of that Christian faith, fear a repetition of the past that drove them from their country and erased their nation from the maps and from recollection.

TELL these stories to my work acquaintances. They are shocked to learn about the 1915 genocide. They wonder why, despite university educations and graduate degrees, they never heard about the massacre of those Armenians. They are all majority people when compared to the Armenians. They do not receive telephone calls from strangers wanting to speak a native tongue. They have never experienced an ethnic culture quite like ours.

William Saroyan wrote a short story titled, "70,000 Assyrians." In his marvelously energetic style, Saroyan described going to get a haircut. The barber is an Assyrian who is sad because only 70,000 Assyrians remain in the world, the remnant of a once-mighty empire. The story focuses on that sense of loss of a country and a people, of ancestors and a place in history. These telephone calls also speak of a similar sense of longing, the longing for our lost home.

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