Recently, as I went through a large cardboard box in the basement full of old magazines and newspapers, out came a stack of old Hairenik Weeklies and Armenian Reviews. The newsprint of the Weeklies had turned a dull yellow and brittle at the darker edges. The Reviews, printed on better quality stock, had weathered the time—around half a century—better than expected. As I skimmed through them, I came across a poem of mine that the editor, James Mandalian, in a moment of generosity, had agreed to publish in the Review. It was a short poem; it went like this:
Sleepless in the night,
I wonder if the birds
Will make their flight.
With open eyes
I keep wondering
If the sun will rise
In the morning…
It went on like that for a couple more stanzas, indicating a time of youthful doubts and self-involvement induced by the turbulent times of the 50s in the Middle East and the seemingly unattainable dreams of a young man in his early twenties, employed as an art director at the Publications Dept. of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in Cairo, Egypt.
Alone in that basement, I held that issue of the Review as one holds on to the brighter moments of one’s past, not just with my hands, but with my entire being, lest all that was connected with it, the time, the faces, the sounds—now come alive—suddenly disappear forever, leaving behind mere printed pages… And it all came back, with its laughter, humor, now—as memory fades—misty in a heart breaking aura of nostalgia for a time long past, for faces and voices, tastes and smells all couched in just a few crumbling mementos in a musty cellar…
It was a bright spring morning, clear skies and the Egyptian sun almost at its zenith, bathing everything around the Embassy compound in its unblinking light. I was busy at my drawing board when the publications officer, Al Malchow, a tall, relaxed veteran of the Depression, Prohibition and World War II, walked in holding a bulky envelope in his hand:
“Hi, Tat,” he said, “you have mail from the States.”
“Really?” I said, my eyes fixed on the pen and ink illustration I was finishing for the Arabic language “American Quarterl” USIA/Cairo published in those days. “Who is it from?”
“Some publishing house in Boston, Massachusetts,” he said, “called ‘Hairy Neck,’ I think… no, I think it’s ‘Hairy Nick. ‘Why would any one call a Boston publishing house by that name…?” he mumbled almost to himself as he handed over the envelope.
Why indeed. I took the envelope and thanked him as he walked out the door, shaking his head. I put the envelope on the drawing board unopened. I kept looking at it the way one looks at a mirage in the desert, with disbelief and a slightly racing heart. I realized I had been waiting for this moment since I had received Mandalian’s letter on a Hairenik Publishing letterhead emblazoned with the Hairenik building logo, received months earlier, informing me that my poem would be published in the next issue of the Armenian Review and welcoming me into the Hairenik Family, as he put it.
That evening, right after work, I rushed to the ARF “Navasard” club not far from the famous “Shepherd’s” Hotel, with the green covered Review under my arm, proud as can be, to receive the kudos of my comrades, friends and particularly one dark-eyed young beauty, whose admiration, at the time, meant more to me than all the rest put together. I managed to maneuver her to a corner, away from the others and gave her the Review. With a devastating smile, she took it and took her time turning the pages and reading the titles, stopping here and there to read a paragraph or two. Finally she turned to the page where my poem appeared. After what seemed an eternity, she looked up with a bland look. My heart stopped. “Well?” I said, “What do you think?”
She stared at me and said, “I don’t see me in there…”
The Armenian Weekly
Dec. 27, 2008