The Movie, the Cross and the Harissa Dinner

Catherine Yesayan
Catherine Yesayan

Catherine Yesayan

BY CATHERINE YESAYAN

My cousin Dena, who lives in San Francisco, introduced me to the Bay Area Armenians Facebook page.

I must say I’m very impressed with this group’s networking. They strive to raise awareness about the Armenian cause. Their posts cover every happening related to Armenians in the Bay Area, from food festivals, to concerts, to educational forums, and more.

As I planned my trip to San Francisco, I quite sensibly contacted one of the group’s active members, Anna Iskandarian, to get information about Armenian Genocide commemoration events and activities during my stay.

Anna told me there would be a private screening of the movie “The Promise” in San Mateo, which is where I was going to stay, with my other cousin Eda.

Anna connected me with the organizers, a San Mateo couple, and I received an invitation to the event. Lori and Ara Jabagchourian had bought out an entire movie theater to share the film with their Armenian and non-Armenian friends. The theatre seated 282 people, of which 180 were non-Armenian guests.

Private screening of "The Promise"

Private screening of “The Promise”

My cousin Eda and I attended the private screening, on April 20, 2017, a day before the national release. We enjoyed meeting many people. That’s how the Armenian Genocide commemoration activities in the Bay Area began for me.

I loved the much anticipated big-buck Hollywood movie, which had a relatable storyline of a love triangle while also encapsulating the catastrophic situation of our people during WWI. It accurately depicted some of the atrocities committed by Turkish forces on Armenians. It revealed how, under the veil of “relocation”, the Turkish government forced Armenians out of their ancestral homes and systematically killed them.

It goes without saying that the film impacted me a lot—I left the theatre with wet eyes.

****

Boys Scouts at Mount Davidson Cross in San Francisco

Boys Scouts at Mount Davidson Cross in San Francisco

The Cross

Sunday April 23, 2017, Bay Area Armenians marked the 102nd anniversary of the Genocide, honoring the memory of 1.5 million martyrs and acknowledging the demands of their survivors for justice.

My cousin Dena took me to Mt. Davidson, the highest peak of San Francisco, where a huge 103 ft. concrete and steel cross stands as an Armenian Genocide memorial.

I first learned the history of how the Armenians of San Francisco came to acquire the monument through Dena’s parents Ed and Elo Aslanian. Many years ago on a visit to Los Angeles, uncle Ed with a lot of zest told us about the many twists and turns the process of acquiring the Cross took and how the community fought tooth and nail until finally they could purchase the Cross from the city of San Francisco. I will make the story short.

The Cross, a San Francisco Historical Landmark, was erected in 1934 by the city of San Francisco on the highest point of Mt. Davidson. Easter Sunrise services were held at its foot every year, and they were broadcast nationwide by CBS from the 1940s through the 1970s.

In 1991, several organizations, including the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sued the City of San Francisco for owning a religious symbol on a public land, and several court battles ensued. Eventually the courts forced the City to either tear down the cross or sell it to a private entity.

Mount Davidson cross in San Francisco

Mount Davidson cross in San Francisco

The sale of the Cross went on the ballot as Proposition F. On November 4, 1997, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved the sale of the cross and the 0.38 acres of Mount Davidson Park, including the land upon which the cross is located.

The Cross was auctioned, and it was purchased by CAAONC (Council Of Armenian American Organizations Of Northern California) for $26,000. CAAONC became the legal owner of the cross. Today at Mt. Davidson, the Cross is perched as a memorial to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

At the base of the monument a bronze plaque is installed with this inscription:

“If evil of this magnitude can be ignored, if our own children forget then we deserve oblivion and earn the world’s scorn.” – Avedis Aharonian (writer and educator, 1866-1948.)

The English translation is by Diana Der-Hovanessian. The Armenian language version also appears on the plaque.

The Cross is lit up every Easter and every April 24th, and it can be seen from many areas of the city because it stands on the highest point of San Francisco. I might be a bit biased, but I think this is the best Genocide memorial monument outside of Armenia.

At around 1:30 p.m., Dena parked her car on a residential street next to Mt. Davidson.  We climbed the numerous deep steps leading to the over powering Cross. These steps are constructed from wood planks and logs, and are surrounded with lush vegetation.

When we reached the Cross at the top of the hill where the land was level, to my eyes, it looked beyond astonishing. The organization had set up 300 chairs. People began to fill in. I calculated the crowd to be about 600 people. After hearing so much about that cross, it came as no surprise that I got chills when I saw it for myself. I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

The program began around 2:30 p.m., with the presentation of colors by Homenetmen Scouts and then the National Anthems of the U.S. and Armenia. I always get goosebumps during that part of the ceremony.

We had perfect weather. The sun was shining, and the deep blue sky had some patches of white clouds. It was neither chilly, nor hot, and there was an occasional breeze.

 Nanor Balabanian the mistress of the ceremony and her students from Eastside College Preparatory School


Nanor Balabanian the mistress of the ceremony and her students from Eastside College Preparatory School

Opening remarks by the Mistress of Ceremonies, Nanor Balabanian, focused on remembrance, renewal and dedication to the universal campaign to end the cycle of genocides around the world.

Many organizations, including AYF, Homenetmen SF, ARS Garin & Erepuni Chapters, AGBU—YPNC, ACYO & KZV School and the Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief (SOAR), presented wreaths at the foot of the cross. In attendance were also two dignitaries from the City of San Francisco: District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee and District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

The program continued with songs, poems and heartfelt messages by youth. The most impressive and profound moment came when Nanor introduced her students from Eastside College Preparatory School. Students had written two poems about their reflections on the Armenian Genocide. She had invited a dozen of her non-Armenian students to the event.

The ceremony ended as clergy offered prayers for the Sanctified Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide. The one-hour program renewed my sense of pride.

***

The Harissa Dinner

Eating “Harissa,” the thick porridge, has a special connotation for Armenians. It is a symbol of Armenian courage and resistance.

Monday, April 24, the day after we visited Mt. Davidson for the community-wide commemoration of the 102nd anniversary of the Genocide, the St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of San Francisco with the help of Genocide Committee had organized a Harissa dinner with blessed meat to remember the 1.5 million perished souls.

Harissa dinner at Saroyan Hall

Harissa dinner at Saroyan Hall

My cousin Eda and I attended the dinner at Saroyan Hall. About 300 people filled the hall which is connected to KZV School, the only Armenian school in the Northern California. The Krouzian-Zekarian and Vasbouragan School offers bilingual education from Preschool through eighth grade.

After dinner was served, the program began with a flag ceremony by the Homenetmen Scouts, and the National Anthems.  Mistress of ceremonies Valina Agbabian welcomed guests and introduced Reverend Nerses Balabanian of the Calvary Armenian Congregational Church as keynote speaker.

Reverend Balabanian, inspired by the recent movie, “The Promise” had prepared a unique presentation about the resistance of Armenian villagers at Musa Dagh, or Moses Mountain.

Although I knew how the Armenians had defied deportation from the villages around the Musa Dagh area, how they had fled to that mountain, and how they had defended themselves from Turks until French warships could rescue them, I didn’t know how people made a flag emblazoned with a Red Cross. The story elicited a lot of emotion.

Reverend Balabanian, on his power point, shared with us the story of the flag which guided French warships to the Armenians stranded on the mountain against the sea.

The flag with the red cross displayed at a home in Anjar, Lebanon

The flag with the red cross displayed at a home in Anjar, Lebanon

Today, the real flag is stored in a small home in Anjar, Lebanon. The flag was made out of a white bed-sheet and the red cross on it was made from pieces of the boys church choir robes. During the day, the flag was displayed on the mountain slope and at night they lit a fire for passing ships to notice and to come closer.

I asked, “How could people carry choir uniforms with them to the mountains?” He said,”During the night, people sneaked into their homes in the villages and brought back things they would need.”

As we had seen in the movie, after resisting for more than a month, a French rescue warship landed and evacuated the survivors. About 4,000 Armenians were taken to Port Said in Egypt.

Reverend Balabanian said that he personally knew Pastor Antreassian, who was featured in the movie. Today, the granddaughter of Reverend Antreassian, Dr. Ani Darakjian, lives in Southern California. To refresh his memory, Balabanian had contacted Dr. Darakjian to obtain more details.

After being rescued, Reverend Antreassian wrote a book about the ordeal: Musa Dagh: The Banishment of Zeitoun and Suedia’s Revolt (it is available from the Armenian Missionary Association of America’s bookstore).

The Harissa dinner concluded my stay in the Bay Area.  The following day, I took the Megabus back home, having quite a lot to think and write about. During the ride, I reflected on the close ties and unity of spirit I found in our Northern California Armenian community.

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