Once there was and there was not …
1. [[[ dIS aPPEAR fROM hERE ]]]
It’s Tuesday, and he’s on an Airbus, 32,972 feet above land, waiting for a computer network to ping him and beg him to return. Flight SU 106 is racing to Los Angeles from Moscow, where he has had a layover on his journey from Yerevan, Armenia—the faux Homeland—to his real home in the U.S.
Weeks earlier, he had told his new boss in Armenia he was thinking about accepting an unexpected—but temporary—career opportunity away from Yerevan. The three-month break would stall the process of his full repatriation to the Homeland, which actually was not the place his forefathers had been forced to abandon.
The sage advice he received was to just make a decision: stay or go, and just “move on.” It’s a win-win situation for him, his boss had said, but his heart was still torn.
He had flipped a 50 AMD coin to see if he would pack up only months after arriving. The conflict was that he had come to this place to try to fill the large hole in his conflicted heart. It was a black hole carved by events he hadn’t personally experienced a hundred years ago—a genocide against his people in what is now Turkish-occupied Western Armenia, his true Homeland.
Did it matter much how the decision would be made, he had thought, then left the 50/50 probability to the laws of physics, his guardian angels, the flicking force of his thumb, and the velocity of a 3.5 gram steel-plated brass Armenian coin.
Over a pale ale at Paulaner beerhouse on Teryan, he had told a friend that he actually thought the hole in his heart had grown bigger in the few months he had just spent in Yerevan.
Rather than seeing eye-to-eye, the two prison populations often made it a practice to express their disrespect for one another. The holes in the hearts of diasporan prisoners kept widening, while the lust and envy for all things not within reach of the republic’s prison population became more obsessive.’
The fundamental visions he had daydreamed about using mass media to form a stronger connection between the imprisoned diasporan communities and the Homeland were radically different than the values of the radicalized, also-imprisoned natives who wanted to fire their wardens from office.
In his binary mind, there were two Armenias.
His Armenia was of captivity, a stunted and sustained trauma from a genocide still denied.
The second Armenia were a people still imprisoned by a USSR and an Iron Curtain that had never really gone away.
“It was one of the greatest public relations coups in world history,” he had tried to explain to his graduate school classmates and professor. “The Soviet Union has rebranded itself, promoting its rank and file from deputies to the more stylish free-economy businessmen-politicians. The same dozen men who milked the country to sustain their regal lives before the collapse are still milking the country after the collapse.”
It had become quickly obvious how differently the two imprisoned communities tended to view their ethnic identity. Those with the holes in the hearts, far away from Freedom Square, idealized the place and attached to it, with blind love, the centuries-old dream of an independent Homeland under the shadow of Ararat. Except they had failed to understand that their dream should’ve really been of a view from the other side of the mountain.
On ground zero, the national identity of the natives was being crippled by design or by chance, preventing them to be free and to choose by consensus what they needed from a government that was supposed to be working for them and not the other way around. Those who weren’t hopeful about the future of their fledging and young republic were selling the last of their belongings at the Vernissage to pay for any sort of a ticket out.
Rather than seeing eye-to-eye, the two prison populations often made it a practice to express their disrespect for one another. The holes in the hearts of diasporan prisoners kept widening, while the lust and envy for all things not within reach of the republic’s prison population became more obsessive.
He couldn’t help but think that in this hyperconnected modern era, his people were more isolated than they’d ever been since the time Adam and Eve bit the forbidden fruit and felt the rejection of the Maker.
Everyone in the two prison camps seemed more marginalized. Passion existed only when there was a winning football match and the tricolors were raised out of cars cruising Yerevan, or when it was April 24th once again and the nation united to make its annual pilgrimage to Tsitsernakaberd.
The rest of the time, strangers were walking past one another as if living in different dimensions, unaware of the struggles within each of the prisoner communities or within the hearts and minds of each prisoner.
“Now we bite our modern Apples obsessively, every 30 seconds, just to quench the basic psychological and very human need for respect, validation, and dignity.”
He had explained to his nodding friends that because no one was giving or receiving respect, especially in smaller global communities like one’s homeland—where the expectation for validation was even greater—people were being driven unknowingly into narcissism.
“We have to resort to our faux digital footprints on social media to be famous, to get likes and be liked,” he had said before finishing his fourth pint.
“Being ordinary in the 20-teens [2013-19 in the common era] and not calling attention to ourselves is no longer a choice. Welcome to the information age.”
“You mean the age of the misinformed, LOL,” his friend had said. “All we are is selfish, inconsiderate, demanding excessive attention, feeling entitled, and pursuing power and prestige at any cost.”
“Let’s post a selfie,” he had said, and they had laughed.
2. [[[ dA sCRUB dOWN iN dISNEYLAND-YAN ]]]
On the faux-wood flooring of apartment 47 in his faux Homeland, the 50 AMD coin had landed heads up, so his fate had been decided.
He had hard-wrapped the latest episode of his reality show, Repat Life in the Homeland.
Many diasporan prisoners who were fighting a hard battle against genocide deniers, were themselves in denial and often denying: They denied that their ethnic pride equated to racism and xenophobia in the open arms of America, Europe, or Australia.
They denied their men could ever beat their women. They denied some of them were emotionally bankrupt, materialistic, and narcissistic.
They denied the validity of arguments or perspectives coming from outside their mini-tribes and from those outside the immediate circle of their own branch of the church or political community.
They denied anything they did not understand, like their children pursuing non-traditional careers or lifestyles.
They denied that among them could be addicts, abusers, depressives, and the anxious. They denied that members of their holy, chosen people could be fraudsters and turned a blind eye to the fraud that some accepted as a normal way to do business and have fancier cars.
They even denied they could easily rob one another and exploit the masses and the tricolor to gain power and prestige.
Not far behind, many natives of the new Homeland would get pissed every summer with the influx of tourists. They’d mouth off among themselves about the free-spirited and privileged gor-gors, who would sit around in their cafes, populate their restaurants, and treat the city as their summertime Disneyland.
They thought taking a pumpkin to the presidential palace on Halloween or throwing firecrackers during a protest would make their impotent selves topple the stranglehold of a Soviet government.
Both prison populations often denied the other’s existence, dissed, disrespected each other, and even denied fellow prisoners respect, grace, love, validation, and dignity.
Now he was moving away from those two prisons, away from his role as a Repat and on to his newest role as an American Expat in the newest city being built.
Doha, Ad Dawha’s skyline was rising fast and furiously on reclaimed land, where 10 years before had been the waters of the Arabian Gulf.
Tens of millions of cubic meters of sand were dredged from the sea to create a new promise-land near the desert.
“With no new worlds to explore, the new cool was creating your own land, where no one could’ve ever gone before,” he had written contemplating his obsession about his ancestral turf, his birthright on Earth, stolen from him by the Ottomans.
3. [[[ dOWN dA rABBIT hOLE ]]]
A few months after his life-altering flip of the coin, he would be grateful and happy he wasn’t around for the onslaught and multiple versions of “ordinary folk” recreating Pharrell Williams’ slick dance moves on the streets, in libraries, at parks, and cemeteries in Yerevan.
His seventh floor apartment with its half-obstructed view of the Mountain is cleaned out.
Everything that can’t fit in his one suitcase has gone down the chute. But he’s leaving his landlord the camel-motifed, quintuple-priced comforter a neighborhood home-goods shopkeeper sold him a few days after the cold weather had arrived.
She was laughing at the stupidity of yet more diasporan riffraff (with their dollar-sign-tattooed foreheads) coming for their annual Disneylandyan holiday-pilgrimage, short-or-long-term idealized repatriation to the place where everyone she knew wanted to escape and was escaping.
His Vivacell number, 098 511 844, has been turned off with no voice mailbox. He has committed Facebook suicide. And he hasn’t bothered to download the reel of made-for-instagram memories that could prove how happy people were in their lives, if said lives didn’t exit the boundaries of the confined prisons of social media posts.
Down the 4 Koghbatsi apartment building garbage chute, he’d also thrown the smashed up external drive that contained half-written essays and MP3’s of meticulously collected revolutionary songs and playlists of Nune and Arabo, which local elitist-activists-prisoners had laughed at and dismissed with the blanket, catch-all Rabiz label.
Perhaps the most damning material on the crushed drive—now stored somewhere on NSA supercomputers—were the volumes of journal entries about the lowest among his people, like those who couldn’t grasp the concept of courtesy.
So much for civility in an ancient civilization—“the first Christian nation in the world.” If diasporans squinted just a bit harder, they’d see the true colors of a view obstructed by their manic love affair with a homeland. They’d realize this was just another place on the face of a planet with many places. They’d see the cracks in the seemingly flawless panorama of Ararat-Opera-Republic-Freedom-Northern-Avenue-Cascade.
To him it seemed there was a void in the city—a lack of compassion and spirituality. Some would rev their engines and gun for the elderly trying to cross the street. Others were unable to think of splitting their four-strong human-chain while walking arm-in-arm down city sidewalks.
He’d often step into the mud next to the sidewalk or stop dead in his tracks to see what the real Rabiz, seed-spitting men or the self-absorbed women would do or not do as they either noticed or didn’t notice an older gentleman trying to walk the opposite direction on the typical 36-inch-wide (91.44 centimeter) sidewalk they were hogging.
The coin-flip also relieved him of always having to jockey for a spot at the SAS cashier when trying to pay for his stale bread or razors. Maybe the masses in his Homeland were no more or no less than the discourteous and rude masses in India, Arabia, or Appalachia.
The best part of closing up shop at Koghbatzi was going to be not having to listen to the obnoxiously loud, daily 1:00 a.m. Skype calls his next door neighbor, the dentist, and his wife would make to their son attending medical school somewhere overseas.
He’d be in bed, trying to sleep, and through the poorly constructed wall that separated his bedroom from the dentist’s living room, he would be forced to listen to the couple screaming into their desktop or laptop’s microphone. Their son’s voice, more playful and energetic, would bounce back—from Israel, he was almost certain—broadcasting from a speaker turned up extremely loud.
And every night, like clockwork, the couple would what he had for dinner and how he did on his latest exams and labs. The dentist would recall something funny from the day, always starting with, do you remember so-and-so from such-and-such place?
When the daily cache of topics would deplete in approximately 15 minutes, the family’s Skype call would veer into the zone of discomfort for all those involved, including the accidental eavesdropper. The dentist would begin his nightly diatribe about conspiracy theories that ruled his life, his nation, and the world.
“Amen ban manipulatsia e,” was a typical red flag that would end one intangible theory before he would bring up another theory. (“Everything is manipulation” was the family’s battle-cry as victims of a disrespectful world.)
Their solace, thought the accidental eavesdropper, was their awareness that the masses were being played by their governments, which were always being empowered by corrupt media.
4. [[[ dA gLENDALE hILTON, rOOM 1523 ]]]
He didn’t want to unpack his banged-up suitcase when he arrived in the U.S. to volunteer on Thanksgiving Day, since he was only going to be in Glendale for a week.
Out of the jumbled mess of clothing and toiletries in his bag, he fished out Tom Samuelian’s translation of Narek’s Book of Prayers moments after his mother told him her sister had died in Memphis.
Sirvart was the oldest of his Erzurumtsi grandmother, Heranoush’s four daughters. Before starting her post-1915 life in Beirut, Heranoush, also known as Siranoush, had watched her tall, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, handsome, and charismatic brother get murdered.
Heranoush was Erzurum aristocracy. She was of the famous-ilk of yesteryear. She was one of those who came from respected families in a land where all families were respected.
She hadn’t earned respect because of selfies on Facebook or glam shots in community newspapers.
Heranoush was respected because she had been a student of the Hripsimiantz Girl School at the Sanasarian College before the genocide. Her lecturers on Armenian history were the likes of Simon Vratsian. She had taken meticulous notes when Armen Karo Pastermadjian was at the lectern, and her diploma had been signed by the founding fathers of the ARF.
Then came the Catastrophe, and she ran for a chance at life, leaving behind her birthright, her family’s real estate and wealth, photographs, carefully collected and much-prized books and the hand-me-down family traditions of who sat where at dinner, who said grace, how a cube of sugar would be taken before a lady took a sip of tea, what coins and jewelry would decorate a headdress, and how her parents would have accompanied her brother if the day had ever come for him to ask for Heranoush’s future sister-in-law’s parents for their permission to marry.
She would never recreate these traditions for her new family and her offspring like the family at 4 Koghbatzi and the after-midnight Skype calls they enjoyed. She would never pass to her grandchildren the tradition of how to sprinkle powdered sugar on the beeshee dough they would panfry as treats to mark special occasions and holidays.
The four daughters of a headstrong Erzurum girl had carried on only her bullheaded will to live, be-it traumatized and at times depressed. She was going to live, because they had wanted her to also die.
Heranoush had taught her four daughters that they should stay busy at all times. She had taught them the prayers she had learned and instilled in them the fear of God. After her eventual death from diabetes and old age, three of her four daughters had battled and/or succumbed to cancer or heart disease.
Heranoush had struggled to ensure her children were honorable, model Armenians, hard-working and impeccably dressed, and exercised their great love for their culture and literature. She had taught them to be respectful of all people, no matter their personality, physique, wealth, or lot in life.
She was the woman who had personified, for him, the abstract concept of genocide. She was the individual face that could explain the enormity of the catastrophe if her nightmare was felt and then multiplied by two million other unique stories of death, destruction, human trafficking, and traumatic heartbreaks that several lifetimes couldn’t cure.
Now Heranoush’s oldest daughter was dead, and he hadn’t been able to talk to her one last time, just as he wished he had talked to Allen and Sose one more time before their unexpected departure to the sweet hereafter.
The newlywed couple’s deaths had prompted his sudden move to Yerevan from his 38th floor digs in paradise. He had been living the American Dream, on an island in the middle of the Pacific.
Now, all these deaths seemed connected, thanks to a human’s keen ability to post-rationalize anything.
Heranoush’s brother, her daughter, and her other daughter’s son’s friends were all dead. Perhaps it made sense that her other daughter’s son was destined to lead a lifetime of counting the dead and asking why they were dying.
5. [[[ dA sHOW mUST gO oN ]]]
“You’re a professional. You can hold it together,” said Mike, the executive producer of the annual Thanksgiving Day tradition that he had adopted as one of his own traditions and observed devoutly for two decades.
He was crying.
The man to his right, Vache, was crying.
The teenage girl to his left, Natalie, was crying.
All on LIVE television, broadcasting from a Burbank studio.
His aunt was dead. His two friends were dead. His newest, recast dreams for the Homeland were dead.
Vache was the groom’s best friend and also happened to be the bride’s brother. And the groom’s only sister, Natalie, had joined the two men to talk about the Sose and Allen’s Legacy Foundation.
He had introduced a videotaped segment about the couple’s dedication to the Cause. The soundbites strung together offered a lesson for the living, who still had a chance to dream, create new dreams, and pursue new scenarios for their lives and for their Homeland.
While the video ran, a hush settled upon the studio.
He remembered a recent weekend and walking to every spot the couple frequented in Yerevan. Mike had asked him to snap pictures of the couple’s apartment, gym, favorite café, and the trees planted in their honor at Lovers’ Park.
At the telethon, he realized the assignment had been less about the photos he had snapped for broadcast but Mike’s way to prepare him for this very specific, very public and painful moment on live television.
The phones had stopped ringing. Maybe everyone at home was also crying?
What was he going to say when the video ended? How was he going to control the pain, the tears, the rage? How was he going to run away this time when he was in the spotlight and on camera with no exits or outs?
6. [[[ mOVENPICK dOHA, rOOM 1804 ]]]
Wednesday and Thursday are spent packing on one continent and unpacking on another, then arranging and rearranging his hotel closet on a parcel of land reclaimed from the sea.
Dockers: classic cut, wide cut, traditional cut. Aloha shirt. Aloha shirt. A Keep Calm and Carry On T-shirt his sister had brought him from London. Ugly ties tied by his father before his father’s death, never to be untied. A cardinal and gold film school cap. A copy of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, Andre Gide’s diaries, and Aharonian Marcom’s Draining the Sea.
His first day at the new freelance gig is on Saturday, and seeing the global headquarters of the world’s biggest international news operation is like a religious experience.
He prays to the news gods living in the Octopus software that keeps track of his words and starts to dissolve into real-time news. His sentences tell the stories of anti-government protesters in Europe and Asia, of modern-day genocides in South Sudan, Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, crimes against humanity proceedings in The Hague, rebels stopping the flow of oil from Libya, and ISIL battling the Kurds for the northern territories of Syria.
The death toll in a country that was once Cleopatra’s wedding present from Anthony, Before the Common Era (BCE), had reached 125,835, water cannons and pepper spray were the tools of the trade for Turks in power in Istanbul, and another 31 had died in Afghanistan that day alone, while simultaneous car bombs in Iraq had leveled farmers’ markets and killed dozens and dozens and dozens.
No, make that 42 dead in Afghanistan. Wait, the latest line says it’s 57 dead in Iraq and also 57 in Afghanistan. Police have killed protesters in Bangkok. Snipers have taken out police and protesters at Kiev’s Maidan Square. Activists in Yerevan are protesting the handover of the republic’s gas infrastructure to Russia. Wait. The new death toll in Yemen is 24.
Murder in his family, the death of Heranoush’s brother, multiplied by two million had dumbfounded him. The ethnic cleansing campaigns in a place he had yet to visit had led him to be a world’s chronicler of the dead, if only for 11 hours at a time.
And every day at the computer he tried to imagine the thousands who had lost a loved one as part of the news of the day. Were the families and friends of each of those representing a whole digit in the death toll experiencing what he was going through with the deaths of his aunt and Allen and Sose?
And back home in the U.S., on the network newscasts from New York—videotape delayed by three hours for the West Coast and five hours for Hawaii—a “Fast & Furious” celebrity’s fast and furious death was considered the only noteworthy death to mark for American audiences.
“It’s like screw the rest of the world and its death tolls,” he told his Armenian counterpart on the Telethon. “In the U.S., we only respect the death of a celebrity, thank you. Who cares about the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Ukrainians, the Nigerians, the South Sudanese, the Armenians, the Turks, and all the common men of the Common Era.”
Marathon shifts consisted of writing, rewriting, choosing soundbites, voicing translations of history-making quotes in foreign tongues, script editing, interrogating reporters at various ground zeros sprinkled throughout the world, and requesting graphics of maps and two-line straps to be placed on the lower thirds of the 220 million TV screens.
The non-stop stream of e-mails with ever-flowing facts pinged his Dell computer as he ran between edit bays, where he would ask for a precisely timed montage of video from the field, and Creative Services, where he would ask designers for specific wall images to populate the monster wall behind the presenters (anchors).
He would look through the news wires for the latest facts, scour for the best frames of video fed from the scene, amend, update, edit scripts the news presenter would read, always making sure the number of the dead was accurate.
This chaos was his mental tonic to help ease the pain of being, to help distance himself from the American Dream, the Armenian Dream, the aspiration of both the diasporan prisoners and the captives in his faux Homeland, the identity crisis of the Armenian Diaspora and the inherited 100-year-old burden of surviving the genocide because #TURKEY_failed_ME.
“Buy you a pint,” asks the Irishman.
“Sure, but why the Hilton,” he counters.
“Only a few hotels are allowed to serve booze on the peninsula.”
“Hilton or the Four Seasons. You decide,” he says.
He finds himself with the United Nations of English-speaking expats on loan from their lives and respective countries. He figures his new coworkers also don’t want to find themselves in their 5-star rooms, alone, battling their own demons of self, identity, spirituality, narcissism, materialism, belonging and belongings.
-1. [[[ pREFACE ]]]
The singer’s driver had picked him up at the Armenia Hotel before it was called the Marriott. It was extremely cold that February in the late 1990’s, and his nose wouldn’t stop running.
The singer’s gray Mercedes had gracefully maneuvered through the pot-holed streets in the outskirts of Yerevan, way past Jrvezh.
She was going to give him an interview, and his piece would be about an up-and-coming pop star overcoming the abuse and the odds. He was interested before meeting her, because he thought the story would be an uplifting read.
The following year and annually thereafter, he kept going back to the Homeland, just to see her. He would attend every one of her concerts and do more interviews.
The singer’s voice was the home he had never been able to find anywhere in the world. Her being was the love for a homeland, personified.
To him, she was the united, independent, and free Armenia. She was the soulful singer channeling Komitas and Sayat Nova and enjoying the affection of Armenians from around the world.
Her shows got more extravagant; one had 360 people on stage at the same time. The adjectives he used to describe her became more flowery, and her faux self-image became greater than her reality.
In between his annual pilgrimages to see the singer/the Homeland, he would catch her shows when she toured North America. He watched her record songs in Yerevan, Toronto, and Los Angeles. He even took her to see Sarah McLachlan in concert at the Staples Center so she could be inspired and pick up a trick or two.
They would correspond. She would ask for his input and feedback on new songs. In the pre-Facebook era, her respect was the most enjoyable he’d ever experienced.
But he knew there was no future when there was not much to talk about while they sat at VIP tables at Yerevani cafes.
Then came a specific moment when he finally realized they had nothing in common, could never fully understand one another, would never see the world from each other’s perspective or truly walk in one another’s shoes. That moment was when she had pulled off her uncomfortable high-heeled boots in the presidential booth of the Spendaryan Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet halfway through the “Anoush” opera.
In that opera he had waited for decades to see performed in Yerevan, Anoush’s brother kills her lover. She goes mad and throws herself off a cliff.
During the show’s most climactic moments, long after the singer had removed her high-heeled boots, the future chronicler of the dead decided he would have to start being outwardly agreeable but underhandedly unaccommodating, obstructive. He had to be a lot more passive-aggressive like many of the prisoners were, in order to survive.
The only way to deal with her—the singer/the Homeland—the only way to control the uncontrollable was by avoiding confrontation and allowing her—the singer/the Homeland—to call the shots that he wanted called.
“I’m going to marry A,” she would say years later. “Even though he is very young.”
“Why him,” he would ask rhetorically, feigning surprise.
And three apples fall from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.
Paul Chaderjian is a broadcast journalist who works with Al Jazeera International in Qatar and CivilNet in Armenia. He likes to draw doodles with Pilot Precise V5 pens on 3×5 unlined index cards. He appreciates all e-mails received via [email protected].