Dignity in the Light of Darkness

Yerevan street art, 2021 (Photo: Elise Youssoufian)

Has something like this ever happened with you?

You are walking down a bustling street, tired after a long week and happy for the little victories. You’ve met all your deadlines, a new project is unfolding, and tonight’s dinner will be a breeze—leftovers. As you make your way to the metro station, home beckons. The people and trees you pass by barely catch your eye. 

You’re daydreaming, of holding a cup of flower tea and putting off impending tasks for a few moments of gentle pleasure. As you walk, you are so caught up in this simple fantasy, the three-foot stick you’re about to trip over is nearly invisible. So is the tiny woman next to it, hunched over, rearranging something in a wrinkled plastic bag. The rustling cuts into your reverie, saving you from a sidewalk tumble in the nick of time.

Is it grace, or fate? you might wonder. I did. I was startled into presence—in this case, from seeing a woman in Yerevan who makes me think of the genocide survivor grandmothers I never knew, and of seniors living on the streets of San Francisco.

To return to our Armenian elder:

In a flash, I take in her clouded brown eyes and the deep lines across her face, her skin like paper. I guess that the wooden stick is probably hers, a makeshift cane. In my childlike Armenian, I point to it and ask her, “Asiga tser pann e? This is your thing?” She nods, so I pick it up and wait until she finishes with her bag, then hand it to her with a smile. She smiles back, and I continue on my way. But my feet feel heavy. I turn to look back at her. The stick is on the ground again.

She sees me looking and calls out something I can’t quite hear. I walk back towards her, feeling lighter with each step. She calls out once more, and this time, I understand she is asking for help to get to the metro station, half a block away. “Anshooshd, Tantig,” I say. “Certainly, Auntie.” Arm in arm, slowly we make our way. 

She is bent low over the stick which seems far too short, even for her stature. I give her my name and ask, “Tser anoonə inch e? What is your name?” She tells me hers and adds, as is custom here, “Hadjeli e. It’s nice (to meet you).” “Oorakh em,” I reply in the usual Western Armenian way. “I am happy (to meet you).”

For a spell, we shuffle along in silence. Once again, I find myself slipping into thoughts of home, and once again, life pulls me back into the moment. She murmurs, “Yes al oorakh em, bayts dkhoor em. I too am happy, but I am sad. Doons choonim. I don’t have my home.” As she tells me her story, though I can’t quite understand her word for word, one thing is clear. She is from Artsakh.

Soon, we see the metro sign up ahead. She stops to rest against a storefront rail and tells me it’s okay if I need to go. I say I’m happy to wait, that I have time. “Vnas chooni,” I offer, softly. “(There is) no harm.” It’s funny how quickly priorities can shift, and distractions can fade. The only thing that matters now is that she makes it to the metro. 

She tells me of losing both her home and her grandson because of the latest war in Artsakh, one year ago. What can ease such unjust suffering? What else has she faced, in wars past? In Armenian, I can listen better than I can speak. Sometimes, this is a blessing. She lets me hold her hand. I try to find the right words, but all that comes out is “Ummm…” Is it fate, or grace? 

Surprisingly, she laughs, teasing me about my stumbles with our mother tongue, and I am grateful for the comic relief. When she’s ready, we resume our procession of three—the elder, the stick, and me—bringing movement and new questions. How are we ever going to make it down the long stairway into the station, and how will she reach her final destination? I tell myself not to worry, that it will work out, but I am a bit anxious. She, on the other hand, seems quite calm. I imagine she’s faced this countless times before, and much worse, besides.

We arrive at the top of the stairs. She looks down, tries to take a step and ends up sitting. She scootches her body across the first step, then drops down to the next. She can’t or won’t stand back up, even with my help. As she makes her way, her long skirt is riding up, revealing impossibly skinny olive-toned legs. I’m not sure what to do, how to support her dignity. People are starting to gather round, staring. I ignore them.

They, however, are not ignoring us. Five women and two men come closer and ask what’s going on. She tells them she wants to go to the metro. They try to convince her to take the bus instead, to avoid the struggle with the stairs, but she knows what she wants. She lets go of my hand as they turn to me and say the Armenian equivalent of “we got this.” With Tantig’s permission, one man takes her right arm, one woman, her left. Like a petite queen, she rises to her full height, smooths her skirt, takes up her staff, and all seven people join her stairwell journey, step by step. 

Eyes and heart brimming with grief and wonder, I watch them until I am certain she is in good hands, then walk back up the stairs. I am not ready to go home. The tea and the tasks can wait.

Author’s Note:

This past spring, I came to Hayasdan uncertain of how long I could stay. Six months on, the start of fall and the anniversary of the 2020 war are upon us. Wounds old and new are still open. It is like the white phosphorus attacks against Artsakh forests and people during the war are still burning. Aggressions against us continue and justice feels like a stranger, with our people and so many others around the world. Reaching for the light within the darkness, the memory of meeting Tantig has become a meditation on the impacts of war and hopes for healing, dedicated to her and all who struggle to exist in ways large and small.

Elise Youssoufian

Elise Youssoufian

Elise Youssoufian is a poet seeking justice, truth and beauty in every language.
Elise Youssoufian

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