It was particularly cold one winter when I must have been 12 or 13 years old and for some reason visited my paternal Aunt Mary’s dwelling more frequently in “Khan el Borghol” (Cracked Wheat Inn), which was located at the far end of the labyrinth of Aleppo’s old souk. This was the Khan where merchants bought and sold cracked wheat only. By the time the ancients had gone and I had arrived, the Khan was used by black marketers who smuggled goods across the northern border of Syria. Toys, gum, candy, and cigarettes were all wrapped into second-hand clothing, hauled onto trucks, and moved overland on mules to be sold in southern Turkey.
Aunt Mary was a large woman due to her overeating and immobile lifestyle; she had developed a disorder of a constantly expanding stomach and elongated intestines. She could have been classified as the first obese woman in Aleppo, if such a notion had existed then. She spent the winters in her “tondir room,” a wooden chamber that unfolded from the main structure and sort of hung in mid-air. From the windows I would watch the merchants hurriedly working to tighten the plastic straps on the packages down below. The ceiling was disintegrating, however, and her husband, Uncle Baghdasar, had ingeniously pinned large cardboards to prevent any debris from falling down. Strangely the space between the ceiling and cardboards had been taken over by bats that screeched during the day, and flew in and out at night. Taking off the cardboards wasn’t an option: The bats and the debris would have fallen on our heads. We therefore had to make do with the unbearable sounds during the day and vacate the room during the night, leaving it for the happy bats, young and old.
Mary had designated this “Bat Hotel” for the tondir, as she called it, instead of tonir, a large metal container on four legs welded to the main body with a sinking belly that contained ash for the shimmering firewood coal known as manghal—a BBQ grill in Baghdasar’s garden in the summers. This heating tool was placed under a small, short-legged table covered with multiple layers of blankets. A heating technology inherited from times immemorial in the plains of Cilicia, it kept us warm as we sat on minders (cushions) around the table, tucking our legs under the table with air-tight blankets extended from the tabletop onto our waists. If not careful, though, we could’ve entered a dizzy sleep from the imperceptible toxin gas.
Mary had her highs working out some sort of crochet while listening to the sharki, or passionate Oriental love songs—beaming from Turkey. A deep male voice speaking in Turkish would say, “Su anda Cukurova Radyosu’nu dinliyorsunuz” (You are now listening to Chukurova Radio station). More talking would follow before the sharki would kidnap her soul to an invisible world where no one could detect her, except for her patriarchal mother, Zabel Nene.
I have the impression that this ritual took place on Friday afternoons, though I could be wrong since my recollection is from an immeasurable distance. The songs blasted from the many glass tubes housed in a brown wooden box. And we heard the melancholic divas Hamiyet Yuceses and Safiye Ayla. This was back when the radio was a piece of furniture and hand-sized transistors were just born, to the ignorance of my elders. Mary once explained to me that the songs were coming from a deep valley with strong winds—since chokhour meant deep and hava wind in Turkish. The sound waves were coming to us with the help of strong winds that had the capacity to send voice and music from such a far-away magical place, and when Zeki Muren came on, a “Sshhh, Zeki is singing” quickly silenced me. “Sharki demak Zeki demak” (To say sharki is to mean Zeki).
Mary knew the songs by heart and mumbled along to the lyrics, moving her head gently from left to right, expressing subdued melodramatic anxiousness instead of talking about a film we had recently watched. At times she’d shed a tear, leading me to imagine if she was in love with a Turkish man—such a sin that Zabel Nene would have surely committed suicide—and wondered if Baghdasar knew about it. I never asked, she never explained, I told no one.
This was during a time when the Armenian community was engulfed in a Stalin-like campaign to clear out any Turkish influences still lingering among the older generation, thereby preventing the younger generation from inheriting it—an attempt to purify the post-genocide Armenian ghettos in the Middle East. Mary had no clue that Zeki Muren, the legendary man, was becoming a woman with song after song. She had no idea that Chokhurhava was actually Cukurova, the Turkish name of Armenian Cilicia, and that the transmission had nothing to do with deep winds—it was actually stationed in Adana.
Not long after, a new female, Nese Karabocek, blasted upon us singing sharki from the radios in our homes, from the portable Philips cassette players of hip teenagers, the transistor radios in workshops, and the windows of Armenian-owned cars in Aleppo, making the leaders of the community shell-shocked and aggressive in stopping the epidemic brought by the Turkish sex bomb.
But Mary’s virtue was untouched by this campaign, hidden in a room at the deep end of long serpentine streets, at least until I said goodbye to her. We moved from Aleppo to Beirut on our way to Boston in early October 1973, when the war between the Arabs and Israel was in full rage.
When I touched her soft, marble-like, smooth, and moist cheeks for the last time, she said that I should keep listening to Zeki on the radio until I was old enough to know what his words meant. Little did she know that in Boston there would be no such radio stations; no one would know Zeki nor Turkish well enough to understand him. It was a sad cold day when we said goodbye. She was standing in her large living room next to her firewood stove with a teakettle on top whistling for attention, all amidst a few explosions heard in the distance from Israeli jets breaking sound barriers and shaking the floor beneath our feet. “Namag yaz, unutma” were her last words, as I rushed out passing by her Greek neighbors, unable to see anyone to wave goodbye. (Like everyone else, they had their window glasses painted in blue or black.)
One Sunday in late January 1974, I took a ride on the City Point bus through the knee-high snow that covered the Irish neighborhood of South Boston to the Red Line to visit my newly discovered bookstores in Cambridge. I rushed into the warmth of the Harvard Coop’s book section to browse through the plethora of publications on cinema, in a language I would soon consume, and then to the music section’s international counter to find anything familiar. There, in the French subsection, I found LP’s of Aznavour, Adamo, Piaff, Brel, Russos, Mouskouri, Moustaki, and Masias. My browsing hands led me from the empty Arabic and Armenian slots to the Turkey section filled with Chiftetelli, Oriental Belly Dancing, Harem Nights, Exotic Dancing, and the lone standing Zeki LP.
With limited money to spend, I returned home late on that snowy Sunday, no longer shivering from the cold in my wall-to-wall synthetic yellowish-green carpeted room. With a hot cup of Tetley tea I had made on our gas stove, I retired for a treat: I quickly unwrapped the cellophane from Zeki’s face and subjected the grooves to the needle of the Technics turntable I had bought a week ago with my first paycheck, with my Jewish boss’s (Myron Sands) John Hancock on it. While a student at South Boston High School, during what is widely known as the “bussing year,” I had toiled in Sands’ nickel and dime store to make ends meet and learned the anthem of the South Boston ghetto (“Southey is my Hometown”) by heart. I plugged my headphones into the unit and fell on my bed to listen to and relive a past buried an ocean and a sea away.
Zeki was now clear and crisp in my ears with his/her familiar lyrics from the distance of Mary’s “Bat Hotel,” which was often visited by her Greek neighbors Helena and Elias. I had named them “LemonEllas” (Lemon may you be), for she was yellow like a lemon peel and he was soft and submissive. They had four children; one, Sophia, was a year younger than me and was an outstanding beauty in contrast to her siblings. They often joined Mary for coffee on the tondir top to practice their common Turkish, providing me the chance to sneak out and meet Sophia (or Sofiki as everyone called her) for young teenage intimacy.
Sofiki stood at her half-open, ancient wooden door in pale, worn-out azure. Her right leg circled around her left knee and she rested her foot on an elevated limestone. There, at the perfect position for a footrest, her heel, liberated from the slingback, dangled in the air, breezily expressing an inexplicable urgency that must have been itching under her olive skin. Looking down, her hair fell ahead of her veiling and I saw her black almond eyes perched under dense eyebrows, her small nose with round nostrils, and her puffed lips like perfectly shaped popcorn. Her shoulder bones were always visible; the left, slightly lower than the right, leaned on the edge of the door to support her. The oversized sleeveless and dark blue dress sloped from her neck down to slightly below her knees. A row of white buttons scaled down from top to bottom, with the top ones always unhooked. And if there was a breeze…
The tanned naked heel, the blue hem, and the loose ends of her charcoal hair moved in equilibrium, welcoming the shifting air that pushed the neckbands apart. She was always innocently uncaring, yet adamantly inviting. Like a mega-magnet she pulled my confused feet to her gravitas… Before completely reaching her, she stepped down and walked away with her slender arms swinging in the air—as if they were just liberated from a Greek marble where she had been trapped, a young Aphrodite leading Heracles for a sin. When she stopped all movements, she leaned against the ancient wall’s stones at the forgotten corner of “Khan El Borghol,” where she lifted her head and tossed away her thick hair, swiftly repositioning her neck and exposing a pair of eyes…
Zeki sang melancholy songs, the neighbors chatted and sipped coffee… With sticky lips and red tongues we compared the same strawberry-flavored lollipops generously given to us by the merchants below. Her Greek and my Armenian were useless, our common Arabic needless… Sweet Sofikova~~~
Weeks raced to compile time: Mary got larger and sadder, Helena thinner and incessantly talkative, Elias deafer and wider, and the volume of the radio much louder. Sofiki’s sisters were married off hurriedly within the same year and sadly the end of the weddings dispatched her to an unknown destination, perhaps cheated by her own compass. I was later told that she was sent to a monastery of Catholic nuns located somewhere near Damascus.
In my South Boston room, Mary landed into my eardrums like a wind from Aleppo. For the first time I began to understand her devotion to these sharki, listening as she did while pushing her needles, knot after knot, with her hued yarn creating little daisy-like units. She’d sew them together to make quilts, pillowcases, or table covers, and give them to the few visitors she had. She even made killims from the colorful fabrics dropped on the floor by my father’s scissors—my father who would hand-sew dresses for the ladies of the city frequenting the elite nightclubs that he could not enter.
On a visit home to Watertown, Mass. from New York City one long weekend in 1979, I was told I had news from Aleppo waiting for me: My Aunt Mary; my paternal grandmother Zabel, who only spoke Turkish yet forbade her daughter from using it and from listening to Turkish radio; and Helena and Elias had all passed away. Uncle Baghdasar—once a humorous storyteller who often filled my imagination with invisible heroes, supermen, adventurers, and kind-hearted hoods; a gentle gardener who tended every single plant and flower in his garden, and who readily forgave me when I plucked a rose carelessly; a generous man who tolerated Mary’s solitude and gave me toys and cold tamarind drinks from his poor pockets, and who took me to Aleppo’s zoo on a few Sunday afternoons, or along to his friend Sanasar’s to drink arak and recall their childhood in Khozat—was now a confused, disillusioned, and senile man, homeless and stalking the streets of Aleppo begging for cigarettes and handouts. And Sofiki was now one memory too many…
From under my desk (privatized by my brother during my sabbatical), I pulled out the cardboard box filled with my LP’s, which I had left behind when I moved away to attend the School of Visual Arts. I placed Zeki’s LP on the turntable… “Write letters, don’t forget” ringed so present when I envisioned Mary speaking in her mix of Armenian-Turkish vocabulary. But how could have I written to a person whose near-illiteracy had caused her a lifetime of silence rooted in sadness, bloomed in betrayal, flowered in deception, and fruited in nostalgia? Now that I was removed from her grave by thousands of miles, I was told that she had once been in love with a handsome, young Armenian orphan, who had in turn loved her—my once-beautiful, thin, tall, pale-skinned, blonde, and very attractive Aunt Mary. He had immigrated to France like thousands of young Armenian men and boys from the post-genocide orphanages in Syria and Lebanon, to labor in French mines and factories. The lovers had corresponded for a while through letters dictated by Mary and written by a female friend of hers. Under every single letter written in Mary’s first-person, the friend had signed her own name instead, altering the words as she found fit for her interests. This friend would read Mary the letters coming to Aleppo from southern France; eventually, Mary was told, the young man had fallen out of love. Her writer-reader friend soon after disappeared until news came that she had gone to France and married the man instead of Mary. The literate had cheated and betrayed Mary, the lovelorn, childless angel inherited by my Uncle Baghdasar, whom I cherished for endlessly kissing and calling me “Ghourban’et Ellam… Ghourban’et…” (May I be your sacrifice, your sacrifice).
Uncle Baghdasar Kupelian was born in Khozat, a village in Harpout Province. His family had been killed during the genocide, yet Baghdasar, along with a younger sibling Sahag, had survived the march through Der Zor. Sahag, however, succumbed to tuberculosis at a very young age, leaving Baghdasar completely orphaned. And thus Baghdasar—the man who took me to watch Chaplin and Keaton, and from whom I inherited the gift of storytelling—passed away homeless and unnoticed, on an unnoticed corner of an ancient Aleppo sidewalk near the Forty Martyrs Armenian Church (where he once owned a popular coffee shop). He was collected by the city, which turned his body over to the Armenian Patriarchate, who in turn buried him in the grave of the anonymous in the presence of some friends, who in turn informed my parents of his passing, who in turn informed me by a phone call when it was just about midnight, having just returned to my Astoria apartment after finishing my shift at Dardanelle’s restaurant on University Place in New York.
After a long, sleepless night awash in memories, with the accompanying sound of my Iranian-Armenian roommate’s black and white TV blaring news of unfolding events in Tehran (the Shah’s fall, the rise of the clerics, American hostages, all with Ted Koppel as the airwaves’ emperor), I washed up and headed to my early morning class on American cinema history. I arrived late with a cup of coffee I had picked up from a doughnut shop on the corner of 23rd and Lexington. William Everson, perhaps the finest cinema historian, was concluding his lecture on Chaplin to my class. I nodded apologetically and took my seat as the lights went out and the projector beamed for many fresh eyes that had never seen the film before—but I had, when Uncle Baghdasar had purchased me a ticket and ushered me to Cinema Al Hamra in Aleppo years ago. As my classmates laughed and gave comments, I was with them yet somewhere else. Sipping my cold coffee I thought, What could be a better tribute to Uncle Baghdasar than this, watching “The Kid”?
My vision turned blurry, but in that blurriness I was able to see another film, called “Chokhurhava Afternoons.”