BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
In the 1920’s the Ottomans began to purge Izmir (then Smyrna) of its Greek and Armenian residents. The residents, fleeing the burning buildings, found themselves at the harbor. It was the end of the line and, with nowhere else left to flee the sword, they began to dive into the water of the Mediterranean.
Luckily, the Italian navy, present in the area because of the tumultuous times of World War I, fished many Armenians out of the water and transported them to Bari, a port city in southern Italy, for safety. A large park in the center of town, renamed Park Arax in their honor, was allocated for the use of the refugees. Each family received a small house with a bit of land and a loom for making rugs, thus giving them a means to support themselves and perhaps help set up a rug making industry in Italy. Whether the Italian government’s actions were altruistic or self serving is an issue better left for experts to debate. This narrative has a different direction.
Years after these events, my father, Nazareth, happened across an obscure almanac while in Greece that described the long ago events along with the reference to Park Arax. Having been to Bari many times and never knowing about this park, he began a quest to find it. He began questioning friends and colleagues in the area but none had heard of it and with each subsequent visit, he made sure to spend some time in the city of 1.3 million residents to search even deeper into the city.
Several years after the launch of the hunt, he finally found it. The park is located off a large highway with an arched entranceway made of stone. On the side is a brass plaque designating it as a refuge for the Armenians. The narrow dirt road, more like a wide driveway, into the park leads to the hospital located in the heart ofit that is now owned and operated by a cloister of nuns. The only two remaining Armenian families live across the dirt road from each other just inside the entrance, the other emigrated to other countries, reunited with family elsewhere, dispersed throughout the city, the rest of the country or simply assimilated into the general population.
On the day of his first visit, Nazareth got out of the passenger side of the car and knocked on the gate of the house on the right. An old man responded to the persistent doorbell, walked to the gate and gazed at my father suspiciously who has begun introducing himself in Armenian.
“No parlo Armeni (I don’t speak Armenian),” he said gruffly so Nazareth switched to Italian and began explaining the purpose of his visit.
“Go talk to those people,” the man said, cutting off my father in mid-sentence, pointed to the gate across the driveway, and abruptly turned and walks back into his house slamming the door behind him.
Surprised at the old man’s reaction but not discouraged, Nazareth gamely made his way to the other gate and started the process all over again. This time, the old man, hearing the purpose of his visit, invited him in, served coffee and gave him a tour of his small orchard, the dusty ancient looms, all the while maintaining a steady chatter. Slowly his personal story emerged: rescued by the Italians, settled in Bari, the ups and downs of immigrant life, his family, his son – the current police chief of the city – his granddaughter’s renewed interest in the art of rug weaving. On and on the rich story unfolded.
“But how come your neighbor was so rude with me?” Nazareth asked.
“Forget about him,” the old man responded, “we haven’t spoken in forty years.”
“Why?” asked Nazareth but the man couldn’t answer the question. The details of the disagreement were forgotten long ago and these two neighbors, living a mere twenty feet from each other for all these decades, the last holdouts of a vibrant community with a shared history of survival, remember only the habit of not speaking to each other.
As absurd as the story seems, the practice of holding grudges is not an uncommon one amongst Armenians. Almost every family has an anecdote of familial grudge holding, some existing into the 21st century.
Armenians have a long history and our collective memories of long ago historical events are as vivid today as the day they happened. In contrast, our individual stories are but a drop in the overall timeline of our narrative. Our daily ups and downs, prickly interactions with others have no place except within our own hearts yet hurt those around us and ultimately are rendered meaningless as soon as we are gone. Who really wants to remember the details of their great-grandfather’s feud with his brother? Who really cares?
“With age comes wisdom” is a common enough saying and as life doles out its bits of painful experiences such as a devastating illness or unexpected death of a loved one, it is time to reexamine the habit of perpetual anger. We take pictures to memorialize birthday parties, family reunions and wedding – all happy events. These are the moments we pass down from generation to generation when our progeny begin examining their family trees. Is it worth remembering hurtful words said in a moment of passing anger or the details of a long ago inheritance or even which sibling was the parent’s favorite? If none of these examples apply to you, then pick your own story but the question still remains the same: does this act of holding on to painful memories enrich your life or the life of your loved ones in any way? If the answer is no, then it’s time pick up the phone and let bygones be bygones.