As a Diasporan Armenian connected to Armenia, as well as historical Armenia (currently in Turkey), part of the multitude of attachments I carry is with Kessab, a region and a town located in the northwestern part of Syria, on the Mediterranean Sea, at the Turkish border. Apparently, it has been inhabited by Armenians since the 11thcentury, going back to the Cilician Armenian Kingdom.
Kessab remains a predominantly Armenian enclave to this day. A drive down a narrow, winding road through towering mountains eventually leads to my father’s village Karadouran, located directly on the Mediterranean Sea. The untamed, mountainous backdrop is now being populated with modern condo developments alongside ancient stone houses. The most valuable resource in the area is the fertile land, and villagers subsisted mainly by selling their harvest, initially with non-mechanized and rudimentary processes.
Karadouran is where my grandmother, Kalila Yaralian-Manjikian, lived until she quietly passed away last week at the age of 104.
I was fortunate enough to have visited her—to have heard her wisdom, laughed with her, answered her questions, heard her answer the questions I had about her life, hugged her, and experienced her sense of humor and inquisitive mind first hand. The last time I saw her was during her 100th birthday celebration in October 2007. I was in the presence of a century lived, and Kalil Nene inspired me with her strength and resilience.
She was unquestionably the doyenne of the village. Visitors, friends, and family, from near and far, would always make the mandatory stop to see Kalil Nene, to receive her blessings, to answer her inquisitive questions of what they were up to and where they were in their life—and this, until her very last days. Even filmmakers, who for some reason stopped in this remote area, were taken by her degree of lucidity and her life trajectory, as they sought to preserve her and her words on film.
When I last saw her, I was amazed by how “with it,” self-sufficient, and mobile she was at 100. Her level of awareness, her intact memory that recalled the finest of details, her sharp, inquisitive mind, and her wit, were remarkable. At times, she had critical words to offer; at other times, she was very categorical about what she wanted. Most of the time, she would voice her opinion and would then let it go with a simple “Eh, took keedek” (as you wish, or, you know best). She always knew the whereabouts and status of everyone in the village, and those who had left and were abroad.
Named after the Biblical Galilee (the Armenian variant of her name was Kalila), Kalil Nene was born in 1907 in the village of Karadouran, near the town of Kessab. My grandmother was one when the Adana massacres were carried out by the Turkish authorities. Along with her immediate family and many of the other villagers, she fled Karadouran for a brief time. Upon their return to Kessab, and as soon as they had rebuilt what had been pillaged, in 1915 the Armenian population of Kessab was once again confronted with displacement, alongside the massive deportation orchestrated by the Ottoman Turks who forcefully removed the Armenian population from eastern Turkey. My grandmother’s family, along with the rest of the Armenians of Karadouran, made their way to Damascus on foot. After a short rest, the caravan of the displaced headed towards Jordan, to the Salt and Mahas regions. In Mahas, Kalil Nene’s father passed away.
In 1918, when the British army entered Jerusalem, her family moved there. She bore a tattoo with a cross and the year 1918 as a memento from her time in Jerusalem.
Her family moved yet again, this time by train, to Port Said, in Egypt. A number of other Armenian inhabitants of Kessab from various regions, as well as some from Musa Dagh, where established there. It is in Port Said where Kalil Nene learned the Armenian alphabet.
After World War I, at the beginning of 1919, the Armenians residing in Port Said began to resettle in other regions or returned home. Kalil Nene’s family was taken by train to Aleppo, Syria, where horse wagons took them to the region of Antioch. From there, they made their way back to Kessab, and then to Karadouran on foot. The Armenian population of Kessab that survived the mass killings and deportations was able to begin rebuilding their destroyed homes and villages.
Kalil Nene married my grandfather, Hovsep Manjikian, in 1927 and they had three children. In addition to her motherly responsibilities, she worked hard with her husband in all the demanding village tasks.
When Kalil Nene turned 100 years old, one of her grandchildren asked her, What is the secret to living so long? She simply replied, “Lead a clean life.” There is a multitude of ways one can interpret her statement.
During her 100th birthday celebration, she refused everyone’s help in getting to the party: On her own, she went down the 10 stairs from where she lived with my aunt, then walked quite a distance from the car to get to the “honor table” at the birthday venue, a restaurant at the edge of the Mediterranean. We all watched as she took one solid step after another, with her two wooden canes.
She was a long-standing member of the Armenian Relief Society—a member for 80 years—as well as a supporter of Armenian schools in the Kessab region. She even attended the opening of the new school building recently and contributed to the project.
How did she live such a long and healthy life? Perhaps it was the clean air, her genetic make-up, the arduous physical labour in the village for years, or the fact that she was a strict vegetarian and preferred to eat grains, such as bulgur and lentils, that granted her a long life. Maybe a bit of all of that, combined with her overall positive and healthy outlook on life and her sense of humor.
Although twice forcefully displaced, Kalil Nene had returned to her ancestral land. She was born and raised there, she tirelessly worked the land there, and she passed away there peacefully after living a healthy life for more than a century, only to be buried in the land she laboured so hard on. Life came full circle for her, as it will for all of us. Yet, living within a diasporic reality, to be born, raised, to work and die on one’s ancestral land, close to one’s roots, is a rare gift.