Translated by Jennifer Manoukian
The following passages are taken from Antranig Dzarougian’s 1980 memoir, Ethereal Aleppo (Երազային Հալէպը). One of the foremost writers and editors in the Armenian Diaspora, Dzarougian lived and worked in the Armenian communities of Syria and Lebanon. Born in 1913 in the Ottoman town of Gurin (modern Gürün), Dzarougian was rescued during the massacres and brought to Aleppo, where he was raised in an Armenian orphanage. He is best known for a memoir about that period in his life, People without a Childhood (Մանկութիւն չունեցող մարդիկ), as well as for his long poem, Letter to Yerevan (Թուղթ առ Երեւան), and for the various pieces of prose and poetry published in Nayiri, the Aleppo-based, and later Beirut-based, literary journal that he founded and edited.
When Dzarougian passed away in 1989, Aleppo still bore a resemblance to the city that he had known as a young man, the city that he describes with such pride in Ethereal Aleppo. Through the following selections, we are transported to the mid-20th century when Aleppo was a thriving center of Armenian life, a haven for Armenians as they slowly rebuilt their community. In this memoir, Dzarougian shows us how, in many ways, Armenians adopted the city of Aleppo as their own.
The Armenian community of Aleppo in the 1940’s and 1950’s was culturally vibrant, and the city continued to serve as a stronghold for diasporan Armenian identity into the 21st century, with its various cultural organizations and schools that have instilled in young Armenians a sense of responsibility in maintaining their language and culture. Today many Aleppo-Armenians teach in Armenian schools throughout the diaspora, imparting enthusiasm for Armenian culture to their students wherever they go. It was in fact thanks to the dedication of an Aleppo-born Armenian teacher that I developed a love for the Armenian language and learned the skills needed to translate texts like the following.
Aleppo has molded community leaders and educators who have enriched Armenian communities across the diaspora for three generations, but its future is now in great peril. The magnitude of this loss has the potential to devastate not only the Armenians of Aleppo, but the entire Armenian Diaspora. It is essential that diasporan communities extend a hand to Aleppo and lend their support to protect one of the last bastions of diasporan Armenian culture left today.
Nights in Aleppo.
During the summer, my mother would take our mattresses out of our rooms, so that we could sleep out in the open air. On those deep dark nights in the city of Aleppo, we saw the sky’s brightest stars and the world’s fullest, most radiant moon. From the infinite silence of the night emerged a wandering display of shooting stars, a confusion of lights that left a trail of silvery feathers in its path.
Nights in Aleppo.
In Aleppo, there were still no buses to shake the ground and the old walls; cars were a rare sight and served only to transport people out of the city. It was the horse-drawn carriages that would circle around the streets; we would hear the rhythmic stamping of hooves on the black cobblestone, but this sharp tune would grow softer before it reached our sprawling third floor roof, and as the night drew on, it too would disappear. We had to listen very closely to hear the distant sound of the night patrol whistling from one street to another, or the dull clanking of caravans coming and going on the outskirts of the city at daybreak. These sounds seeped into my dreams, lulling me into the sweet slumber of the morning hours.
For me the sky became a diary, even an illustrated book of memories, where the day’s events and people, and the things they did and said, would parade past me once again. It was to such an extent that I had to wait until nighttime—lying on my back with my head on a pillow and my eyes fixed on the stars—for the events of the day to become simpler and clearer in that calm, quiet environment, even though I had seen or participated in those events during the day. My daily routine replayed over again at night, like a film reel rotating for the second time; people and events appeared sharper, and I saw details, subtleties and hues that had eluded me during the first showing.
And when I reminisce about the past, about my dreams and days in Aleppo, people and events come to me not in their proper places and moments, but in the vast night’s sky on the roof of the Marsilia Hotel. The boiling, crazy, foolish adolescent episodes of my youth in the streets, homes and gardens of Aleppo calmed over the years, but the sky saved copies of them, surrendering them night after night to create a pristine album…
It is written that first loves do not come of anything and, even if they do, rarely do they end well. Being that they are the first, they stay pure and ethereal, like a lingering sunset in a haze of sweet sorrow…
The star-studded sky of Aleppo—a close confidant—reminds me, one by one, of my first loves, crises and inner feelings. I reminisce about those days; in reality, about those nights. And as I write these lines, my eyes instinctively look up in hopes of finding the sky, but there is only a white ceiling above me…
From very early on, my distinct comprehension of life, which matured over the years and took root in me, was born out of the sky and the stars above the Marsilia Hotel.
On that rooftop, it was not dawn that announced the morning, but the call heard from below: haleeb!
It was the milkman.
They never mixed water into the milk, and in my days, Aleppo as pure as that milk.1
Easters in Aleppo…
There are thousands of Armenians who have left Syria and Lebanon for all corners of the world; from Armenia to Canada, from Argentina to Australia. And among them is a generation in their forties and older for whom Easters in Aleppo have remained an indelible memory. For a whole twenty years, the city of Aleppo was the heart of the Diaspora, and during the three days of Easter that heart beat with national pride. Two or three thousand Armenian boys and girls, coming from all over the region to a sports field, transformed the city into a garden full of flowers that perfumed the air with freshness and Armenian identity. These days recalled the feasts of Navasart2 that we had read about in books, and after the games and competitions, the children paraded down the city’s main boulevard like a torrent, accompanied by the roaring, rhythmic sounds of the brass instruments in the marching band.
Easters in Aleppo would remain the greatest source of joy for every Armenian who experienced them, wherever in the world they happen to live now.
On that field, I have seen Hagop Oshagan,3 who was given a standing ovation by twenty thousand Armenians. As he was being invited to the microphone, he squeezed my arm with such emotion that it stayed blue for days.
I have seen Shavarsh Missakian,4 who momentarily forgetting modern Armenian, muttered, “Oh, take me to the days of Navasart,”5 in classical Armenian, as if he were praying.
I have seen Dro,6 his eyes accustomed to seeing parades of soldiers, put his large, bear-like hand on my shoulder and say, “I want to fly among these children and hug them close.”
Easters in Aleppo…
1 In the original sentence, Dzarougian plays with the words haleeb, the Arabic word for milk, and Haleb, the Arabic and Armenian word for Aleppo.
2 Navasart was a pre-Christian festival and athletic competition that marked the beginning of the new year each August.
3 Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948) was one of the most prominent literary critics and one of the most prolific writers in the history of Armenian literature.
4 Shavarsh Missakian (1884-1957) was an editor and journalist best known for founding the French-Armenian newspaper Haratch in 1925.
5 This is a verse from a poem from the pre-Christian era entitled, “The Dying Words of King Ardashes.”
6 Dro (1884-1956) was the nickname of Drastamat Kanayan, an Armenian general, revolutionary, and politician.