Special to the Armenian Weekly
I was recently asked to help a journalist from a Prague-based radio station do a report on the Syrian-Armenian refugees in Beirut. She wanted to meet all sorts of folks—wealthy, poor, young and old—who were trying to make a go of it with what was left from a fragmented life. I took her to Bourj Hammoud—Little Armenia—where many of them could be found, and to a restaurant serving the much-cherished Aleppo cuisine.
We met one of the owners, a young, charming man with the freshly acquired acuteness of a businessman. He quickly invited us to a table and asked about our preferred drink from a list of American/global soft drinks. We settled for cold bottled water with a local name, though it was surely owned by some international conglomerate.
The journalist was originally from Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorno Karabagh Republic (NKR), which was born from a brutal war with Azerbaijan that saw more than 30,000 killed on both sides. She had been born in the midst of that war, during the unfolding of the Soviet Union. And here she was covering a new war with its own displaced Armenians.
While she was preparing her recording device, I had already begun to engage this man, almost a third my age: Which neighborhood of Aleppo was he from? How did he make it to Beirut safe and sound? What school had he gone to?
His words took me back, step by step, to my youth in Aleppo.
He had attended the Haigazian kindergarten and elementary schools, and the Karen Jeppe high school. When I told him that a generation ago, I had lived in the same vicinity and had attended the same schools, a sparkle shined in his eyes, followed by an unwilling smile of comfort: He had at last met someone who could relate to his demolished past. It was a moment of consolation between familiar strangers.
He asked when I had left our beloved Aleppo. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, I said, but didn’t hear his response as my mind was spectacularly taken back to my own war and departure. I’m not sure how the meeting with the young reporter took shape. I was fixated on the notion that in this part of the world, every generation has had a war and has felt its mark.
My generation witnessed the many internal upheavals that gave us nothing but panic and fear every day, as coup d’états spread young army conscripts like ants through our streets and alleys. Then we had the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when we moved to Beirut and then the U.S., leaving my grandmother and aunts behind. They, in turn, survived the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975 and lasted 15 bloody years.
My grandmother had been a survivor of World War I, which gave us the infamous Armenian Genocide. As a four-year-old, she was forced to walk from her ancestral village in Sepastia through the scorching Syrian desert of Der Zor, to the unwelcoming streets of Aleppo. All this, with her younger brother, orphaned, thirsty, barefoot, and with hardly any clothes on, witnessing horrors that made their generation speechless for decades.
My father, who was born in Aleppo, lived through the wars of Syrian independence from the French mandate, and then the internal wars over control of the city among various armed groups, until it was time for World War II. As a young man then, he joined the British Army. He was first sent to Palestine, then Egypt, and eventually to Bologna to fight to liberate Italy. He returned to Aleppo as a handsome, war-experienced 19-year-old with limited knowledge of Italian, which he had acquired from his girlfriends, and a mark of being westernized.
This same man, now with a wife and three boys, had to take up arms again in the early 1960’s to defend Armenian neighborhoods when the short-lived Egyptian-Syrian union was being dismantled.
“Every generation has his war in the Middle East,” I heard myself saying to no one in particular as I came back from my mental tour of the past century.
The young restaurateur turned to me in a gentle move from the reporter’s microphone, as if continuing his interview. “This is a destiny we have, to live out wars and upheavals, genocides and massacres in the Middle East. This century has been bloody for us, in Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, where we settled after the Turkish massacres and found a life from the start. Yet we have to deal with being killed again and again. For a century now, we have not found peace and calm,” he said, sipping from his glass of a soft drink overfilled with ice.
The ensuing, dense silence in noisy Bourj Hammoud was broken by his conclusion, uttered in the humblest of voices: “Me and my other two partners had a great life and spent every night in restaurants and clubs in Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, and Beirut. We were entertained as if we were kings. Now in Beirut we work day and night to make our customers feel like royals. This is the reversal of events, if you survived at all. We are lucky and thankful, but thankful to whom and why is what I do not know.”
I had no words, no ideas, on how to soften his pain when teardrops fell from his eyes, while he insisted that we choose anything from the menu as his guests. Only someone who has experienced a walk through Dante’s Inferno and come back alive could offer such generosity.
The journalist had to make another appointment to complete her interview, this time without my presence, my personal interjections and musings.
This is just one story of too many to be told, and so it goes…