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My Name is Shamiram

Special for the Armenian Weekly

Hundreds of people in a well-lit room dotted with tables, and somehow I’m discovered amidst it all. I’m the shy, 14-year-old being approached by a short, stubby, eager man with graying hair and a face carved with wrinkles. He’s smiling.

Ara and Shamiram, 1950 – paper, water color, pencil. By Gevorg Grigoryan (National Gallery of Armenia)

On second thought, it’s not all too surprising. I’m a blonde in a room full of Armenians.

“Are you Shamiram?”

He speaks English—a relief. I smile sweetly and nod. The man beams and thrusts out his arms—ta-da!

“I am Ara!” he says, “You know the legend, yes? We must have a picture!”

We pose and smile. I’m too timid to make conversation with him and he melts back into the crowd.

I’m at an event with my Auntie Pauline and Uncle Armen, celebrating the donation of an osteoporosis machine to an Armenian hospital by Auntie Pauline’s brother, John Bilezikian. The machine is the reason for our trip, as its donation is in honor of their late mother Zabelle Bilezikian. We make up a little posse of Bilezikians and Barooshians: John and his wife Sophie, their nephew Greg and his wife Nancy, Uncle Armen Barooshian, Auntie Pauline (a former Bilezikian) and me, Shamiram Barooshian.

There’s also Larry. His last name is Mowat. He’s here for work, representing the company that makes the osteoporosis machine. He’s not Armenian.

***

Roughly three thousand years ago, on the banks of the Tigris River near modern-day Baghdad, there lived a beautiful woman named Shamiram.

Shamiram was queen of the city, then called Ninevah, which was part of the great Assyrian Empire. Queen Shamiram was rumored to be a sorceress, the daughter of a fish goddess, and is famous for her beauty and sexuality.

On the northernmost banks of the Tigris lived Ara, called “The Beautiful,” Prince of Armenia.

Word of Ara’s beauty had spread across the region, and soon reached Shamiram’s ears. She quickly fell in love with the idea of the handsome Armenian prince. She desired to marry him, and began lavishing him with gifts. He would be her second husband. Sources say her first, Ninus, left her in a rage because of her infidelity; others say he was killed in battle.

Ara was already married. He refused Shamiram’s proposal and, one by one, sent her messengers and the tokens they brought back to her.

***

There’s a name for people like Larry Mowat who aren’t Armenian: odar.

I learned it at AYF Camp Haiastan, where my cousins, brothers and I went later that summer. One of the counselors—we called them unger or ungeroui, the word for “friend” or “comrade” in Armenian—was a non-Armenian. Everyone gossiped about the odar. They wondered why he’d want to be a counselor at an Armenian summer camp if he wasn’t Armenian.

He left after the first week. No one was surprised, really, me least of all. I felt bad for him. Armenians have a way of knowing each other, mostly through the church but also through youth organizations like Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) or the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). I quickly discovered that most of the campers not only knew each other, but had also been going to Camp Haiastan since they were little. And, many of them spoke Armenian. I’d always been jealous of my classmates at school who could speak more than one language. I had a strange childhood fantasy of needing to call my parents from school and switching to Armenian to communicate with whoever answered the phone.

Being at camp, I was glad that I knew at least a little bit. I’d spent the last two years walking up to the Armenian Church with my brothers to take language lessons. Our teacher’s name was Miss Emma. We’d meet her, my dad, and a few other students in one of the Sunday School rooms and practice writing and speaking. She taught us simple words like gndak (ball), kapik (monkey), and lolik (tomato). This was enough vocabulary for me to parse aghchik shun, something I kept hearing some of the older campers saying to one another. Aghchik is girl; shun means dog.

Still, more often than not, my brothers, cousins and I were lost. We mouthed our way through morning prayers: the Hayr Mer, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Jashagestsook, a prayer said before meals. I didn’t know the steps to the dances at the camp socials. I’d even missed out on the history, hearing about things like the Battle of Sardarabad for the first time when my cabin sang a song about it on Song Night.

Even though I’d been to Armenia, eaten plenty of chorek and pilaf and kebabs, even though I had an Armenian name and Armenian blood, I was something of an odar at Camp Haiastan. My friends referred to me as the albino, albeit endearingly. My blue eyes stood out in the sea of brown ones, winning me an award for best eyes by default.

***

Shamiram was outraged but undeterred. She led an army to Armenia to kidnap Prince Ara. Though she and her soldiers won the battle, Ara was killed in the fighting. Devastated, Shamiram called on the gods to resurrect him.

“I have prayed to the gods to lick his wounds and heal him,” she told the angry Armenians, “Ara will revive.”

He didn’t and, devastated, Ara’s countrymen tried to avenge their Prince’s death.

***

I’m talking about myself as different. Having studied difference and outsiders in history and literature, I feel uncomfortable using this word. I am blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white, American, native English-speaker. But I’m also something of an odar outside of camp because of my name.

“What was that?” I repeat it two, three, four times. They say, “Where is that from?” or “That’s a unique name.” They try to sound it out. “ShAM-ee?” “ShAR-mee?” “Sham-ee-RA?”

“ShAHmee,” I say. I’d repeat it over and over on the first day of school each year. By high school, I learned to raise my hand and say “Shami” when teachers paused at the “Sh.” I avoided pronouncing the full “ShAH-mee-RAHm” because I felt embarrassed.

As I’ve gotten older, it’s not the uniqueness of my name that shocks people, but the fact that my remarkably non-Armenian face is attached to it. When students sign up for tutoring appointments with me, there is no picture next to my name. More than one, at some point in the session have said something like, “I thought you would be Indian.” One of those was Indian himself. A boss I had a few summers ago thought she’d brought the wrong resume to my job interview.

The place where I am proud of my name is amongst my family, as I am named for one of its most endeared members. My great grandmother Shamiram was a source of incredible strength and love in the Barooshian family, and she is still spoken of as such, missed by everyone who knew her.

I learned recently that friends and acquaintances that couldn’t pronounce or spell her name called her Charlotte. I go by Sarah, but only at Starbucks and Panera and other places that ask for a name to go with your order. It’s easier than spelling out Shami three times and then cringing as the person who puts my order on the counter fumbles over the pronunciation. Sometimes, when I say Sarah, they ask “with or without the h?” and I don’t know how to respond.

When I was younger, it used to drive me crazy that my name wasn’t on keychains and stationery. Now it feels special. I’ve never met another Shami or Shamiram, so it’s a conversation piece, a topic for my college essay, something memorable. Sometimes it’s nice to feel like one in a million.

***

To stop the fighting, Shamiram dressed one of her men as Ara and presented him before the Armenians, who believed her magic had saved him. Legend has it that, on her return to Ninevah, Shamiram buried Ara at the foot of Mount Ararat and his spirit rose, giving the mountain the shape of his sleeping form.

***

I’m not one hundred percent Armenian, by blood or in practice. I go to the Armenian Church on rare occasions, my language skills are no better than they were at camp, and I don’t participate in the network of Armenian youth in my area—partly out of shyness, partly because I don’t speak the language or go to church, and partly because they do and are closer because of it. Who am I to call myself Armenian, except that my name suggests it?

And even the name Shamiram is not a name common among Armenians because Shamiram herself was not Armenian. She was an Assyrian Queen who plays a part in an old legend about an Armenian prince named Ara. She fell in love with him but he didn’t return the affection, so she did what was sensible in the ninth century BCE and invaded.

I think about that word—invasion—as I write about Armenian people, food, traditions, and secrets, and me with only a 25 percent claim to them.

 

11 Comments on My Name is Shamiram

  1. Here’s mount Ara — Արայի լեռ:

    https://goo.gl/maps/b24VgMvJMT92

  2. avatar Marjorie K. Nanian // June 28, 2017 at 2:18 pm // Reply

    The rock that Ara the beautiful was laid on is in the village Ara Lezk. Lezk means to lick. It is near Van in Turkey. It is also the village that two of my grandparents came from and was known for its fair Armenians. Both my grandparents had blue eyes, and so do I. I also had sandy blond hair when I was younger, now it gets help from Clairol. I am 100% Armenian and I look northern European. Maybe this is what the ancient Urartu’s looked like? If you would like, I can send you a photograph of the Ara Lezk rock.

  3. avatar Garen Yegparian // June 28, 2017 at 2:21 pm // Reply

    Jump in, Shamiram!

    The Armenian waters are a fine temperature for all those like you who feel the need to swim in them, but are skittish.

    The more people who share your dilemma jump in, the better off we all are, stronger in numbers, talent, and insights.

  4. My Grandmother’s name is Shamiram, During the Massacres, when she was in Armenia, She was sent to school out of town, from her family and sisters. All of her family and sisters were Massacred, She was the only survivor, because whe was in a different city. When I asked her about it when I was a boy, she told me the story and could not stop crying. I love you Mez Mareeg Shamiram – Sha Sha Ma Ma. She would always say that when you get older you will remember me. I will never forget. God Bless you. That is a terrific name

  5. Absolutely loved the end! I got the chills.

  6. Shamiram, a beautiful name. Everyone of my generation schooled in Armenian schools know the story of the Assyrian queen Shamiram and Ara, the handsomest Armenian king. The martyred poet Rouen Sevag who was a medical doctor by profession and wrote prose as well, was married to a German. They had named their daughter Shamiram who passed away recently at the age of 102,

  7. Thank you for the story Shami! Unlike Shamiram of the Assyrians, Ara’s traces still remain in the mountain. So does our country. We just need to hold on to what we have today and not end up like the Assyrians. 25% Armenian yet in Armenia and writing about her experiences is a story of survival. Maybe one day you can lead us to reclaim our historic lands.

  8. Shamiram Jan
    Thank you for a very touching article.
    To me, you are full Armenian and I am proud to count you among us.
    Have you heard of Birthrightarmenia.org ? Try them, they will take you no question about this. It is your birthright.
    And, when you come to Armenia, make sure to visit us on the top of our mountain in Yeghegnadzor. We would be happy to receive you YRH :-)

  9. avatar anglo armo // June 30, 2017 at 9:14 am // Reply

    Shamiran, I enjoyed reading your perspective.
    It’s time for you, Shamiram, to invade and conquer your own country and identity.

    I’m substantially older than you, more than 60 years old, and a proud second generation American. I’m also 100% Armenian and look every single percent of it. I don’t speak Armenian because that was the educational trend during the early 1960s in public schools. We all had to stop speaking our ancestors’ language until we mastered English. I do understand, yet my understanding of verb conjugation is terrible!

    My children do not speak Armenian and wish they could. They’d taken classes throughout their childhood and adulthood. They read and write very well, but don’t really understand what it is that they’re reading. Like you, their names are not Anglo, theirs are Armenian, and they insist that people say them properly.

    If people can manage to pronounce names like Eun-Hee, Ahmed, Moisha, and Gianna, why not our names? They can! They’re just lazy. And if they don’t take the time to get it right, in my opinion, they’re just not deserving of having our ancestors’ names on their tongues. Make them say your name, keep our ancestors alive.

    I’m sad that you felt like an outsider at Camp, or anywhere else for that matter. My children felt very much like insiders at Camp, and still do. It feels like home to them. Their best memories and friends are from Camp and the AYF, and mine are my AYF friends. For us, those bonds will never be broken.

    Shamiram, we, humans, all feel like odars somewhere.
    It’s time for you, Shamiram, to invade and conquer your ancestral country and identity.

  10. avatar Zaven Darakjian // July 3, 2017 at 8:05 pm // Reply

    Queen Shamiram ( Takouhi ) you must be proud of your name, my cousin’s son Vramshabouh ( Takavor )
    His blue eyes and fair skin with stunning blond curly golden hair, standing almost 6.3. He is proud of his one in a million name. No this is not a matchmaking agency lol.
    If they care about the person they must learn your name .

  11. Dear Shamiram, thank you for sharing! Do not worry about looking “Armenian” or “being” Armenian. The diaspora is obsessed with identity. Even if you would be half Armenian, or fully Armenian, there will be those that will treat you different because of trivial things(not speaking Armenian well, unusual surname, appearance).

    The age and setting does not matter, can be kids or people in their 50’s or older, a youth camp or Birthright. That’s just the way it is.

    Just be proud of yourself and keep improving your Armenian language if you wish, and in due time you will speak much more Armenian than many who are “Armenian-looking”.

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