EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris Bohjalian’s latest book, “The Sandcastle Girls,” will be released on July 17. Prior to that, on July 16 ANC-Grassroots will kick off Bohjalian’s national book tour with a luncheon and a public gathering. Bohjalian kindly provided an excerpt from his book for publication in Asbarez. It is the Prologue to his novel, which is about the Armenian Genocide. Please read and share.
BY CHRIS BOHJALIAN
When my brother and I were small children, we would take turns sitting on our grandfather’s lap. There he would grab the rope-like rolls of baby fat that would pool at our waists and bounce us on his knees, cooing, “Big belly, big belly, big belly.” This was meant as an affectionate, grandfatherly gesture, not his subtle way of suggesting that if we didn’t lose weight, we would wind up as Jenny Craig testimonials. Just for the record, there is also a chance that when my brother was being bounced on Grandpa’s lap, he was wearing a white turtleneck shirt and red velvet knickers. This is the outfit my mother often had him wear when we visited our grandparents, because this was the get-up that in her opinion made him look most British – and he had to look British, since she was going to make him sing the 1965 Herman’s Hermits pop hit “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am.” The song had been popular four years earlier when she had been pregnant with us, and in some disturbingly Oedipal fashion she had come to view it as their song.
Yup, a fat kid in red velvet knickers singing Herman’s Hermits with a bad British accent. How is it that no one beat him up?
I, in turn, would be expected to sing “Both Sides Now,” which was marginally more timely – the song had been popular only a year earlier, in 1968 – though not really any more appropriate. I was four years old and had no opinions at all on love’s illusions. But I did, despite the great dollops of Armenian DNA inside me, have waves of blond spit curls, and so my mother fixated on the lyric, “bows and flows of angel hair.” I wore a blue mini-skirt and white patent leather go-go boots. No one was going to beat me up, but it is a wonder that a social welfare agency never suggested to my mother that she was dressing her daughter like a four-year-old hooker.
My grandfather – both of my grandparents, for different reasons – was absolutely oblivious to rock and roll, and I have no idea what he made of his grandchildren decked out for American Bandstand. Moreover, if 1969 were to have a soundtrack, invariably it would have depended upon Woodstock, not Herman’s Hermits or Judy Collins. Nevertheless, the only music I recall at my grandparents’ house that year – other than my brother’s traumatizing refrain, “Everyone was a En-er-e (En-er-e!)” – was the sound of the oud when my grandfather would play Armenian folk songs or strum it like a madman while my aunt belly danced for all of us. And why my aunt was belly-dancing remains a mystery to me. The only time Armenian girls belly-danced was when they were commandeered into a sheik’s harem, and it was a choice of dying in the desert or accepting the tattoos and learning to shimmy. Trust me, you will never see an Armenian girl belly-dancing on So You Think You Can Dance.
Regardless, the belly dancing – as well as my grandfather’s affection for his chubby grandchildren – does suggest that their house existed beneath a canopy of playfulness and good cheer. Sometimes it did. But equally often there was an aura of sadness, secrets, and wistfulness. Even as a child I detected the subterranean currents of loss when I would visit.
That belly dancing may also give you the impression that my childhood was rather exotic. It wasn’t. Most of my childhood was unexceptionably suburban, either in a tony commuter enclave outside of Manhattan or in Miami, Florida. But my grandparents’ house was different: My aunt really did belly dance until she was forty, and there really were hookah pipes (no longer used, as far as I know), plush Oriental carpets, and thick leather books filled with an alphabet I could not begin to decipher. There was always the enveloping aroma of cooked lamb and mint, because my grandfather insisted on lamb chops even for breakfast: lamb chops and a massive cereal bowl filled with Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Puffs, eaten with yogurt instead of milk. My grandfather loved American cereal, a culinary quirk that my grandmother embraced because it made her life easier. After sautéing the morning chop, my grandmother would refer to my grandfather’s breakfast as a “king meal.” My sense early on was that anything with lamb was a “king meal.”
And yet despite beginning the day with a big bowl of Cocoa Puffs, there was also a relentless formality to the house. My grandfather was an immigrant who, like many immigrants from the early part of the twentieth century, never quite mastered the art of Wasp casual cool. He was the polar opposite of his Presbyterian in-laws from Boston (and the genetic wellspring of my blond hair). Until he was a dying, bedridden old man and his wardrobe had shrunk to pajamas and a Scotch plaid bathrobe, I never saw him wearing anything but a shirt and a vest and a tie. He might strip off his jacket when he would play his beloved oud or trim the hedges or clean the oil burner in the basement, but he was still very likely to be wearing a white dress shirt. This is a guy who never owned a v-neck tennis sweater. When I study the pictures of him in old family photo albums, my memories are corroborated; in almost every snapshot, he is wearing a suit. There is even a series of him on vacation at a bungalow by a lake in upstate New York, sitting with his legs extended into the tall grass before him, his back against a picnic table, wearing a gray pinstripe business suit. In one of the images, he is at that picnic table with other Armenian men in black and gray suits, and there is a cluster of closed violin and oud cases on the wooden tabletop. The men look like Prohibition era mobsters on the lam.
And it is interesting that even in 1928, when he was building the elegant brick house in a New York City suburb that may have been my favorite of all the houses anyone in my extended family ever lived in when I was growing up, he looked almost as bald as the very old man I knew in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I presumed until he died in 1976 and my father corrected me at his father’s funeral that the man I called Grandpa had been born a senior citizen.
“No,” my father said, “he wasn’t born old.”
That evening, when we returned home to Bronxville after the reception that followed the internment, my father for the first time told me small bits and pieces of my grandparents’ youth. Soon my grandmother would tell me more. And so while I have begun this story with a moment from 1969, the reality is that I could have begun in 1976. Or, like all Armenian stories, I could have begun it more than a half-century earlier. I could have begun it in 1915.
Nineteen-fifteen is the year of the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About. The anniversary of its commencement – its centennial – is nearing. If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and the massacres: the death of a million and a half civilians. Meds Yeghern. The Great Catastrophe. It’s not taught much in school, and it’s not the sort of thing most of us read before going to bed. And yet to understand my grandparents, some basics would help. (Imagine an oversized paperback book with a black and yellow cover, The Armenian Genocide for Dummies. Or, perhaps, an afterschool special.) Years ago, I tried to write about it, never even mentioning my grandparents, and that manuscript exists only in the archives of my alma mater – where my papers are stored. I was never happy with that book and never even shared it with my editor. Only my husband read it, and he came to precisely the same conclusion that I did: The book was a train wreck. Didn’t work in the slightest. It was too cold, too distant. Instead, he said, I should have shamelessly commandeered my grandparents’ history. After all, they had been there.
He didn’t know the details of their story then; neither did I. Once we knew the truth, years later, he would change his mind about whether I had the moral authority to exploit their particular horror. By then, however, I was obsessed and unstoppable.
And so now I am indeed telling their stories, once more focusing on a corner of the world most of us couldn’t find on a map and a moment in history that – though once known – is largely forgotten. I begin by imagining the mountains of eastern Turkey, and a village not far from a picturesque city and a magnificent lake called Van. I see a beach in the Dardanelles. A townhouse in Boston’s Back Bay. And, most often, I see Aleppo and the absolutely unforgiving Syrian desert that surrounds it.
I am making my family’s history sound downright epic, aren’t I? I probably shouldn’t. My sense is that if you look at anyone’s family in 1915 – an era we see through a haze of black-and-white photographs or scratched and grainy silent film footage, the movements of everyone oddly jerky – it will feel rather epic. And I honestly don’t view my family’s saga as epic. If I were forced to categorize it, I would probably choose romance. Or, when I look at the photos of me in my miniskirt or my brother in his red velvet knickers in a living room that looks like the Ottoman annex at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I might even suggest comedy.
But for my grandparents in 1915 and 1916? Their sagas looked very different. When they met, my grandmother was, quite literally, on a mission. She was an essentially directionless young woman from what had to have been one of Boston’s most priggish families, suddenly witness to relentless slaughter, starvation, and disease. She had a spanking new sheepskin from Mount Holyoke and a crash course in rudimentary nursing when she accompanied her father into the inferno. She could speak, thanks to Boston do-gooders in the Friends of Armenia, a bit of Turkish and a smattering of Armenian.
Meanwhile, my grandfather, after enduring all of that slaughter, starvation, and disease – after losing almost all of his family – would finally fight back. He would enlist in an army, joining men who knew little of Armenia and cared mostly about defeating a dying empire for reasons that had nothing to do with a blood feud. And neither of my grandparents would have seen anything romantic or comic at all in the world that summer of 1915. If they had been forced to categorize their stories at the time, I am quite certain they both would have chosen tragedy.