Origins are an important element in this part of the world. The Middle East, particularly the Armenian community, relies heavily on this information when meeting strangers. Toros, after living in Kessab for over thirty years, still says he is a Sassountsi from Halleb. He is fifty seven years old with a thick bushy moustache, almost a hundred pounds overweight and has a penchant for languages. He speaks a smattering of several of them like French, Italian, English and Thai. “I hear something once and I can remember it.”
He lives in Kessab because he likes the slower pace of life. “Believe me, when it gets busy here in the summer I hate it,” he says referring to the population explosion that occurs during the summer months when the number of people in the village exceeds ten thousand and walking or driving down the street becomes an obstacle coarse. Kessab has become a popular destination for people to spend their summer holidays away from the heat and dust of the big cities.
Toros is a driver, an occupation he learned from his father. In the winter he drives the bus for the Armenian school, collecting students from the various ends of the region, and contracts with various groups to drive their members to their regular scheduled club meetings. He loves to drive, particularly long road trips to discover new places. In the past, when he drove a delivery truck, he always request new routes so he could see unfamiliar locations. This is how he traveled and discovered the breadth of the Gulf States. Recently he planned to drive all the way to Armenia but was thwarted by the closed Turkish border. “I hope Gul’s (Turkey’s president) visit this week will help (open the borders),” he says referring to the Turkish president’s visit during the much debated Armenia vs. Turkey soccer game.
It all started in 1968 when, at 17 years old, he left Syria for Lebanon to avoid the mandatory military service. “It used to be very hard in those days,” he says of the time spent in the army. He stayed in exile for two difficult years in Beirut but finally concluded that he would be willing to serve his time if only he could return to his birth country. He did his five year tour of duty during which time the war of 1973 broke out with Israel. “My parents were very worried for me and my brother. But we survived.”
In his mid-20’s he bought a car and worked in the Gulf for a short while. He saved his money and returned to Kessab to buy a house. “Kessab then became my base. I never went back to Halleb.”
In 1985 he married a Christian Arab woman from Jordan whom he’d met during his business transactions. “But it didn’t take,” he says with a wry smile. He attributes it to his wife’s intense jealousy which drove a wedge between them that he never could dispel. “I don’t think I changed,” he says reflecting on his former marriage “I even cut down on the length of my travels.” By the time the two parted ways in 1995 they had two children, Vartoug and Apo,. Vartoug went with her mother to Jordan while Apo stayed in Kessab with Toros.
He and Apo visited Vartoug often but suddenly three years ago she cut off all contact with her father. He called his ex-wife, a rare occurrence, for an explanation. “She told me not to be upset. That’s her (Vartoug) living her own life. How can I not be upset? I’m not an animal.” He continues to call her but she won’t acknowledge him. “I heard she (Vartoug) got married,” he says of the little news that does reach his ears, “but I couldn’t find out for sure.”
Toros’ friends tell him he should get married again, that he shouldn’t be alone but he worries that a woman would get jealous of the attention and the resources he allocates to his son. He wishes that society was less rigid in Kessab so he could consider the option of dating or living with someone. “Here you need a title like ‘Uncle’ or ‘Brother-in-law’.” He used to dream of a large family with lots of children underfoot. He used to observe the families of his Arab friends with their eight or nine kids and enjoyed being in their midst. He likes the energy and commotion of kids running in and out of the house but that was not his fate. “My son almost didn’t happen,” he says and sometimes wonders it would have been better for Apo if that were the case. “It’s hard on him (Apo) growing up without a mother especially on holidays like Mother’s Day.”
Now Toros is in love with a local Armenian woman. It’s an open secret in the small village. After three years of growing affections he has asked her to marry him but she’s refused. “She wants to but is concerned about her family’s reaction,” he complains. His girlfriend is in her early fifties but never married. She still seeks her mother’s council who believes that her daughter has no business with “a divorced man.” She is the only daughter amongst three sons who have married and have families of their own. “I think they (the brothers) are very selfish for not encouraging her to be with me,” he says. “They should be happy that someone loves her, who she loves back, and wants to marry her.”
Toros has some hard decisions to make in the near future: to stay with a woman he loves but who will not openly commit to him or move on and find someone who will even though he may not love her. “This subject has been coming up a lot lately,” he explains that because of his work he meets many new people when they visit Kessab and need his services. Several times this past summer he was approached by various people who wanted to play matchmaker and introduce him to eligible women from Halleb. He’s considered taking them up on their offer.
In the meantime he’ll continue to plan his road trip to Armenia with Apo.