On June 9, the world woke up to headlines announcing the discovery of a single shoe in the village of Areni in Armenia. Scientists say it was from nearly 5,500 years old, placing it right at the time when Armenian mythology was born. I pondered who it may have belonged to from the gods of the Armenian Pantheon—after all, it was unearthed in the heart of where Armenians have been roaming for eons—as I assessed how crucial of a find one single insignificant shoe could be, recalling my own finding of a leather sole, nearly 10 years ago, in the cave where Mar Maroun spent years in seclusion, at the springs of Labweh where the Orontes River (Aasi in Arabic, the only river in the region that flows south to north until today) rises in the East Beqaa Valley of present Lebanon.
I was there with a skeletal group of friends to make a film on a teabag string-budget called “Baalbek,” in which I acted as an Armenian journalist in search of a concert held by Sabah Fakhri, a famed Syrian singer. As filmmakers, we quickly invented a scenario that the shoe could have belonged to Mar Maroun, who may have left it behind fleeing persecution. But Shareq, the Bedouin boy from a nearby encampment who helped carry our equipment, did not accept our educated imagination and threw it in the river, saying it belonged to a shepherd and that such finds were common for them. Not having a seasoned archeologist amongst us to determine otherwise, our imagination and the Bedouin boy’s take could have been equally right and wrong, as a potentially great piece of history sunk to the bottom of the Orontes.
Looking closely at the image of the shoe found in Areni, I realized that only a few days before I had strolled the streets of Aleppo for the first time after 37 years of absence with my friend Matig, and that I was wearing a pair of walking shoes so similar to the one that was 5,500 years old. We had walked, talked, and recalled the people, characters, incidents, dates, and all that comes with it. At one point, we posed for a photo by Dorsounian’s shoe store, where my mother had bought me a pair of brown-leathered ankle-high shoes with creamy white rubber soles called crêpe, fashionable at the time. She did not pay for them since my father had an agreement to pay later to the storeowner, his friend. The shoe did not last long, as my only pair to walk, run, play, and kick balls with. Through the serpentine interlaced and weaving streets, we reached an offshoot street of Jedeiah. I proudly pointed out where a tiny little shoe shop had once been, manned by the one-eyed shoemaker Svaztzi Garabed, and proudly told Matig how, as sprouting teenagers, we played football daily in the makeshift dirt fields or the stone-covered streets in place of the non-existing playgrounds. My normal soft shoes did not help me much in securing the ball and kicking it well, and gained me worries at home for wasting money with my foolish feet and air-filled ball.
I convinced my grandmother Asdghig to finance my new venture: having Garabed make me a pair of football shoes that would be much cheaper than the ready-made European ones. Garabed labored for days to reproduce hand-made football shoes for my tiny fragile feet. I walked the cobblestone streets to show off my footwear, regardless of the many times I skidded and restrained myself from falling in a show of durability and strength. The rawhide and nails from the hands of Garabed lasted for only a few days. It was the last time I ever owned a pair of them, particularly when my father found out and gave me hell for convincing my grandmother to join my game.
When I switched from playing football to playing tennis, I bought a pair of Star sneakers from the famed Baliozian Brothers store located near Cinema Aleppo, but they did not last long. When I gave up playing after a heated argument with my coach, I broke my Spalding racket and dumped the Stars—I don’t remember where exactly—and savored the couple of furry balls for hand games.
When we were too young to be noticed, my friend Hrant, a talented artist and designer, and I wanted to be independent and finance our own extracurricular activities. We approached storeowners and proposed redecorating their shops. I did the convincing and Hrant produced the work. Our first venture was to redo a shoe store near Cinema Ugarit, where at the end the owner cheated us and declined to pay, and gave us each “modern” shoes in place of pay. Hrant got the onionskin and I got the cherry color. In a city where all shoes were black, we looked liked a pair from another universe wearing what could not have been sold. Impressing ourselves being avant-garde came to a short end when my skin became pickled by the excessive salt stored in the cheap leather, and I discarded them.
In contrast, I was always proud of my khaki camouflage Czechoslovakian-manufactured rubber and canvas boots I had for a couple of years, wearing them with my army uniform when we were in high school and when we were members of the compulsory Syrian Student Army known as “Ftou-eh.” The boots traveled with me to Lebanon during the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973. Right before immigrating to the United States I gave them to Mgo, the younger brother of my friend Hrair, both of whom were later involved in militant activities that swept the Middle East (and who now live in Paris, I am guardedly told).
Then there was the pair of Yemenis handmade from camel hide and colored in bright red. They had identical shapes and had to be “tamed”: It took them some time to adjust to my feet and assume their corresponding titles of “right shoe” and “left shoe.” Having tossed my worn-out pair away, I had taken a fresh pair with me to Boston and then to New York, and had it hung on a wall in Astoria as an ethnographic decoration that registered my exoticness with my newly found non-Middle Eastern classmates, until they were borrowed as props for a student film and I never saw them again.
And the Hushpuppies! Oh yes… Hush… Puppies… A few days after I started my cinema studies at the School of Visual Arts (with the help of a beautiful young Daphne Kalfaian from the AGBU’s employment office), I landed a job as waiter at the Dardanelle restaurant located on University Place. I learned how to serve demanding New York connoisseurs in return for tips and footache. One day, Oscar, the Cuban-born Chinese and American citizen and lifetime waiter, led me to purchase a pair of Hushpuppies from a store on the 7th Ave. The bulky pair lasted for the next five years giving comfort to my tender feet and helping me run from table to table with Armenian Istanbul-ian specialties like Media dolma, Harpout kufta, Lule kebab, and many others mastered by the great chef Melkon—who, I was told time and again, had introduced halva to the USA many years ago. I don’t know who engineered this workhorse for a foot, which helped me pay for my tuition, rent, the films I had to make, the dates I had to finance, and my travels to Europe, with enough leftover to help my folks back in Massachusetts. I used my Hushpuppies well into the end of my New York stay, when I locked my suitcase and threw away the shoes in a garbage bin on Long Island’s 32nd Ave. When the rubber sole had already split from the upper leather, the timing was perfect. I shed off an old pair of shoes for new ones and drove west to LA.
When I decided to go to France as an American joining my girlfriend during winter break from UCLA in 1983, I bought a pair of Texas boots from a store on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, Calif. They were tough to put on and tougher to take off, and taming them was more challenging than dealing with the Yemenis. When we were at the Gare de Lyon, a couple of pickpockets tried to steal her wallet from her handbag. I ran after them and got hold of one, and a fight ensued with fists and kicks. In the commotion, I hit the wall with my right foot instead of the thief’s belly. The police arrived, the kid ran away, and we were calmed and sent away by the intruding crowd. Hours later when we arrived to her flat in Grenoble, I could not take off my right booth, my ankle had swollen and I was in deep pain. I cut through the leather with a sharp knife and placed ice on the bruised joint. The next day I purchased walking shoes manufactured by child laborers in some far-away South Pacific country; it must have been an early version of today’s fancy and expensive brands.
In 1990, when we were visiting New York, she bought me a pair of moccasinsmade from cowhide, so soft and delicate and naturally very costly that I was afraid to wear the dark olive greens freely. I cherished them devoutly and used them minimally for important functions. In 1992, when her film was being shown in the Marine County, Calif. film festival, we rented a car to drive up (since hers was totally damaged in an accident). I had taken the fragile pair with me in a bag to wear during the opening of the film. When we returned to the motel, I carefully untied them, stuffed them with soft tissues, and replaced them in the bag and then in the trunk. The next day, when we returned home after dropping off the rented car, I realized that the shoes were not among our belongings. We immediately called the rental company to fetch them, but they were not found, they said. She was upset I had lost the costly gift, and I was upset at her for being inattentive when unloading the luggage. And so they, too, disappeared somehow, perhaps taken by the liking of an attendant at the rental agency.
In 1991, I was in Armenia covering the first parliamentary elections ever held there as the Soviet Union was collapsing. A group of us took a break and went to the countryside with one of the candidates, who took us to one of the closest border points between Armenia and Turkey. It was on the banks of the Arax River in a village called Yervandashad, the historical seat of the first rulers of Armenia known as the Orontid Dynasty, which ruled a vast expanse of land from the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD. (The Orontes River in present-day Lebanon is named after them.) Arriving early in the morning, the village folks welcomed us with freshly made yogurt and lavash bread. In the excitement typical of diaspora folks, Hasmik rushed to help a young peasant girl in the barn carry the load of flat bread and awkwardly fell on the ground, breaking her stiletto, which shot away and hit a sheep that was being kept in the barn for being unwell. We spent the day walking and wondering if we were being taken to the barbwires erected by the Soviets as a most potent portion of the Iron Curtain separating NATO from The Soviet Union. Beyond the barbwires was no man’s land, and then the Arax River, and beyond that a Turkish-populated village whose dwellers rushed to the river’s edge and shouted profanities at us, correctly guessing we were Armenian. The villagers who were guiding our tour told us that they actually hailed from the village on the other side of the river—the original Yervandashad, (Orontid Ville); a few even identified the homes their grandparents had left behind when they escaped the massacres. At a heated point, Serop, the Lebanese Armenian who spoke Turkish well and was one of our drivers, took off one of his shoes and gesticulated throwing it at the hyper-rude NATO citizens—an act aimed at humiliating the opponent, which many years later would be made famous by George Bush ducking from a shoe thrown at him in Baghdad.
When we returned from our adventurous and semi-confrontational excursion, the shepherd had returned his herd. A young woman with a low cut V-neck dress was milking a goat while her own breasts fell out on the goat’s back, making the animal nervous and hard to control. Delirious, I dashed ahead with the intention of helping her and that’s when I stepped on some freshly dropped cow dung, ruining my shoe. I tried to clean it all the way back to Yerevan, which took us more than two hours, and headed directly to the bathroom, placing my footwear under the stingily running faucet where the very eventful shoe day in Yervandashad came to an end.
On a visit to Montreal in 1995, my friend Araxe (named after the river) insisted that I buy a pair of boots from the famed Roots store that had my size in dark brown and fit perfectly, tight at my toe tips and up between my knee and ankle with a long yellow lace. Her insistence that with time the leather would relax and expand never happened, causing trauma to my toe nails until I tossed them away in Beirut after two years with them and a visit to a doctor who prescribed pills to rehabilitate my damaged toes.
By then Dr. Martens were in fashion with the help of Pope John Paul II, who popularized them when he made use of a pair. My partner C.H. insisted that I should own a pair when they were not yet available in Beirut. When I visited my folks in Boston that year, I purchased a pair from the Watertown Mall along with a pair of Birkenstocks. My Dr. Martens further damaged my Roots injuries. I quickly gave them away to Hussein, the son of the woman who cleaned my house once a week. André Burke, may God rest his soul, introduced me to Birkenstocks with the advice to keep them away from water, and indeed they lasted far longer than my relationship with C.H.
In 2004, I went to Yerevan along with Dima on a fact-finding mission for my film “Ayroum.” While waiting to board the Armavia plane that was delayed for 12 hours, we spent our time in the duty-free shops where I spotted a pair of skintight airlight walking shoes made from blue synthetic leather. I tried them on; they were so comforting and made my foot very happy. Dima instantly paid for them from our research budget, and I walked all over Armenia searching for locations. In the summer of 2006, when Israel attacked Lebanon and I was stuck in Armenia, I had the same pair and walked everywhere with them; my foot became more recognizable than my face. My friends at times would tell me that they had seen my blue shoes under a table of an outdoor cafe in the city center, while a parasol blocked my face.
During that same summer, my friends from San Francisco were visiting Armenia and one day we went sightseeing in a Korean van. Garbis, being as loud as he is with his paramount energy, loudly read aloud the sign of a village as we passed by, exclaiming “GOSH!” “What is Gosh,” one of the Hyundai tourists shouted. “It must be a village named after someone who must have had a very big shoe,” Garbis responded, as ever the possessor of an imaginative mind. The laughter of the group was memorably loud… One of the Armenian nouns for shoes is goshig; “ig” normally is diminutive, so in this sense goshig would mean little shoes, and therefore gosh would mean the big mother of a shoe. But in fact gosh in Armenian means a group of…a fist of fingers. Could it apply to toes?
I recall once winning free drinks in a Cambridge bar, when my brothers had invited a few friends and I out for a drink in Harvard Square. Above, the barman had hung a small blackboard chalked with a question for bar hoppers to answer correctly and win a free drink. The daily question had not been changed for weeks since no one had the correct answer, according to the blonde southern bartender. If I guessed right, he said, he would give free drinks to everyone in the bar. “Shoes,” I replied to the “What do women change most frequently?” question before he wiped it off with a green sponge.
In Paris, tired of strolling in heavy old shoes, I wanted to buy a perfect, light, affordable pair of shoes. My friend Nanor and her husband Roupen advised me to get a pair of Campers that were favored alike by Birkenstock fans the world over. And so in a threesome we went to the store and bought a pair that I still use today—dark brown, bulky-looking, but light in wear, with the longest red lace running up from the toes to the ankle.
I wanted to buy another pair of skin-tight walking shoes like the ones I had at the Rafik Harriri Airport but was unable to find any—they are outdated, the salesmen said—although fashion was not my object. Adamant to find something similar, I went to ABC Mall in Sassin Square along with my friend Rima. With her help, I bought a pair and used it to walk the streets of Beirut, notoriously unfriendly to pedestrians. That was until I used them as work shoes while shooting a documentary about the assassination of Rafik Hariri for a British company. I used tore them apart in a few days and sent them away to a garbage dump with Sukleen, the company that has the monopoly to collect the country’s refuse.
I bought my second Birkenstocks in Beirut; the brand had flourished there since many western-educated Lebanese repatriates wore them to the Saturday organic market known as Souk al Tayeb, showing their westernization by the footwear. I used the new pair during office hours until Randa, a large women by any definition who cleaned the office every other day, unknowingly used them to dust, clean the glass, and wash the stone floor with soap and chemicals, ruining the cork bottom and expanding the leather with her oversized feet. The next day when I casually put them on my feet, I got lost in them and thought I was wearing a mandolin case by mistake.
I was stunned but not annoyed. The brand meant nothing to this illiterate woman who mumbled a lot and sang traditional and modern Arabic songs to herself, often mixing them and always off key. This is how she found peace after experiencing hell in her life; every now and then she’d allow herself a break and sit next to me, telling me her hardship in tears but always ending with a smile, saying, “But this is how God wants it, I have to live with it.” The most disturbing event of her life is hard to forget: One night she had gone to the hospital all by herself to deliver her second child, leaving her first-born with her lazy husband at home, a shack in a Palestinian refugee camp in the outskirts of Beirut. The next morning when she returned with her newborn in her arms, she found thousands of slaughtered bodies strewn around in pools of blood. Among the massacred were her husband and her three-year-old son. Randa was one of the few lucky survivors of the infamous Sabra and Shattila massacres committed by the Phalange militia with the helping blind eye of Ariel Sharon’s army in 1982. The silly end of my slippers was nothing next to her tragedy.
Only days ago, when I was in Aleppo again, I wore the pair I had bought with Dima at the airport, this time to walk the streets of my beloved city. While back in Beirut and cleaning them for storage, I saw the image of the shoe found in Areni, with the lace crisscrossing through the eyelets, from the toes to the ankle. I saw a clear resemblance to the one in my hand, and the others that are in my walk of memory. The materials have changed from cowhide to synthetic leather, but the design has remained the same, instantaneously making me feel present in the distanced centuries. And perhaps influenced by my recently engaged readings of Armenian mythology, I imagined this new/old shoe/goshig fits with the birth of Armenian mythology… And the size of the shoe is said to be equal to the American 7 that is more closely related to females. But who knows what the sizes were like then. I, for one, wear size 7.5, meaning it could have been unisex. But how could a god have a shoe, I asked myself…
If mythological gods walked on earth at all, I couldn’t imagine it belonging to Asdghig, the goddess of love and water, for she was always swimming naked and ready to make love with Vahagn—if he wasn’t busy hunting dragons. I can see it belonging to Aramazd or to his daughter/wife Anahid, who had a more tranquil existence in building their temples and nation. Or the later gods and goddesses of the Armenian Pantheon Mihr, Nane, or Kisaneh? Whoever it belonged to and whoever designed it had a great sense of art, for its concept exists today!
Unlike the shoe we had found at the source of the Orontes, the one in Areni was found along with dried and intact brain tissues, dried apricots, prunes, wheat, cereals, grape seeds, wine residue, complete skeletons of four females below the age of 16, and skulls placed in ceramic bowls—an indication of pagan ceremonial rituals.
Had we looked more into the shoe now in the Orontes, could it have yielded more history? The answer is at the bottom of the river…