MAY 11, 2018
Empty your pockets / of the noise you carry, of your family scattered / like spilt rice, nightmares you mumble in sleep.
— Lory Bedikian
I’M WITH MY older sister, walking down the strip of a small town in Massachusetts. Across the street is a storefront, the fabric overhang with scalloped edging and a black sign bearing its name in gold lettering: ARTINIAN JEWELRY. My sister points a finger. “That used to be our last name,” she says. “What?” I ask. “That was our last name — before,” she says. This, as with so much of my knowledge about the Armenian portion of my family history, is a surprise — a sliver of information in what is otherwise a murky unknown that comes forward, glints, and then retreats. “[T]he stubborn murmur of your blood / still revenges my ear” (Siamanto, trans. Peter Balakian).
Armenian names are usually appended with the –իան/–ian or –յան/–yan suffix, meaning “son of he” (akin to the Scandinavian “John-son”). As a child, my mother told me “Arterian” meant “son of he who rose from the dead.” “Survivor,” she said. “We’re survivors.” I carried this like a talisman for years, something to remind myself when things were particularly chaotic or difficult — in need of surviving. But later, when my brother serves as a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia and learns the language, he tells me that isn’t true — it’s some Ellis Island name that means nothing. A local friend of his there explains “ter” implies someone who holds an official role in the church, but that’s all I get. I figure confusion on my mother’s part, or elision by my grandfather — a collapsing of truth to fit our story.
I poke around. There are almost no other Arterians. I find one small family with two daughters who have married and assumed the names of their spouses. Their parents still have the surname, but they are in their 80s. If the name doesn’t mean “survivor,” perhaps the scarcity of our direct kin suggests otherwise. “I am the open forehead of our ancestors” (Medaksé). Are not all progeny of Armenians today survivors? Our ancestors having by luck or effort fought death off despite rape, death marches, torture, murder — genocide all around them?
The poet Peter Balakian describes “the historical unconscious, the deep, sacred place of ancestral pain, the place in the soul where we commune with those who have come before us.” This place is simultaneously vibrating and obscure to me. The ability to pass knowledge in my family was only through brief generational overlaps. I am the child of a woman who was not particularly young when she had children, as was the case with her parents. And my great-grandfather was not a young parent either, dead before his son had children. Even if my own grandfather had not died before I was born, today he would be 111 — a living miracle beyond his father escaping violence over a century ago, and then starting a family. This survivor demanded his Assyrian wife and three boys only speak Armenian in the home in Queens, where he ended up. Yet my great-grandfather apparently often remained quiet and rarely spoke, if at all, about what he endured. My knowledge of what happened is limited, diffuse — impossible to verify.
There is a story. A shepherd boy, 13 or so, has a dozen brothers. His family lives in a small village near a large mountain. One day the boy is gone — with his flock, or to complete a chore, or perhaps even to find a safer place for the family to stay. He returns and finds everyone in the village dead. His brothers are all decapitated, and his father, too. His mother raped by attackers and dead by suicide. Over many years, he makes his way, somehow, halfway across the earth, where he marries a woman from a country near his homeland. They have three sons, none of whom marry. Until one of them does, at the age of 41, to a woman who is 38. They have two daughters, one of whom tells this story to her children for as long as they can remember.
The poet Susan Barba interviews her grandfather about his family’s murder as well as her grandfather’s capture and eventual escape during the genocide. He tells her, “All the time teacher said, ‘Boys, girls, you have got to know your country like your five fingers in front of your eye. Front of your eye. Sometime that will save your life.’ So I hid myself in the bamboos and ditch. When it started dark I started toward the mountains.”
This story of the shepherd being our own, the parts few enough, simple enough, one might think it worth telling time and again. And we did, often, my siblings and I. Yet on closer inspection there are parts on which I want to place a delicate finger and ask for more information. Where was he during the violence? How did he know the Turks raped his mother? How did he know she committed suicide? Poet Lory Bedikian writes, “I’ve come to see what lies just at the edge of memory.” How did he survive, alone?
Home from college, years ago, I remembered the story wrong — thought my great-grandfather was older, already settled in New York when he got the news. “No, no,” my mother corrected. “He was still in Armenia. He found his family.” “But how did he survive the attack?” “He wasn’t there.” “Where was he?” “I don’t know — with his sheep, getting a plow — I don’t know. He just wasn’t in the village.” At one point Balakian’s aunt tells him, “We say in Armenian: When the past is behind you, keep it there.”
Barba: “What did they do to your father, Papa? // They killed. // Right there? In front of you? // My father only have a dagger […] // What did you do with your father? // […] Was far away the water and the river. Honey River. Is sweet water and soft yellow sand. I pulled my father close to the water and with hands I dig the sand and I rolled my father in and covered with sand.”
My great-grandfather had also been a boy. Only 13, maybe 14. Did he try to bury the dead? Were there too many bodies? The whole village just death … “The rope looped itself / around the neck of my childhood / and hung it over / a dark canyon” (Hamo Sahyan).
Though the details of our ancestors are vague, my mother ingrained in us serious regard for my great-grandfather’s survival and our Armenian heritage. This pride, if you look at us (almost all blond and pale save for my brunette sister), might be bewildering for its disjunction with our genetic expression. From a very young age I wanted to visit the country nearly expunged from existence by a systemically brutal enemy with which it shared a border. “The old country. The phrase came up now and then. A phrase that seemed to have a lock on it” (Balakian). A decade ago, with my brother serving in the Peace Corps there, I have the opportunity and go for a week. My visit is incredible, a childhood wish fulfilled. My brother takes me everywhere, and I experience the ancient and rich culture in landmarks, lighting candles in a 12th-century church, enjoying homemade wine, vodka, cheese, lavash. We sit at the side of the road, patiently waiting for the taksi to get fixed as it breaks down every few hours, hold long conversations with the people who are so important to my brother in his time there.
When my mother tells me, “If you have one drop of Armenian blood they consider you Armenian,” she has not yet been to the country herself. To the people in the old country I clearly was not, nor was my brother (I experience this similarly, now, in the Armenian diasporic communities in Los Angeles). Despite the engagement and connection, the trip makes me feel, for the first time in my life, that I have small claim to the place. While there my hair is a short auburn-dyed mohawk and I bear a fresh lip ring (much to my brother’s chagrin). Child and adult alike stare at me openly in the street, the tatiks in my brother’s village take me for a potentially valuable bachelor. Yet my brother, too, straight-laced as he appears, fluent in the language and chatty with everyone, is clearly apart from the Armenians there. He bears my father’s Scottish surname, never tells anyone the story. But if he had, he still cannot pass as a local, or even a returned member of the diaspora. They all tell him he looks like a Russian television actor.
At one point in the Armenian epic poem David of Sassoun, the character Mher is in a state of crisis.
He went to his mother’s tomb and called:
“Mother, come back. Mother wake up.”
A voice from the tomb answered:
“My son, what can I do?
My son, what can I do?
Color and contour have gone from my face.
Light has gone from my eyes.
Snakes and scorpions nest in my heart.
Enough of your wandering in this world.”
(trans. Manoug Apeghian)
I begin to interview my family members, one by one, about the story. There are vague shifts in events, chronology, whole swaths of unknowns. I ask my aunt her sense of my great-grandfather, though they never met. Her sense of him through her father: “Very sad and quiet,” she says. In all likelihood, what we know is through his Assyrian wife. “[T]he events of the past were not only too painful, they were beyond words” (Balakian). The mother telling my grandfather, rather than his father telling him directly.
Everyone points to everyone else as perhaps knowing more, holding the finer details. Some contain information regarding portions of time the others do not. I try to stitch them together, unsure what is accurate or simply compelling as a narrative, moving between horror and interest in my impulse, our impulse. “[A]s if the piece of the snake’s tail that was swallowed by the mouth / made the full-circle of history” (Balakian). I try not to give them versions of events others have provided; instead, I listen to what they remember.
What I can gather is my great-grandfather Shahan was a child in a poor family living in the Caucasus. (“At the foot of Ararat,” my mother says. “Sure, like white Americans who say they came over on the Mayflower,” my brother says.) There is certainly a mountain nearby, at least. My brother gives me what no one else can — the name of a village: Pelas. “It’s probably not on a map anymore,” he mumbles with a wave of his hand, and he’s right. Shahan’s family sends him out to find a safer place to live or a different place to farm for the season’s change, or he goes to herd his sheep or the sheep of another villager for money (my sister: “This part I never understood”). This period of time (days? hours?), his absence, is the void the story circles around and around. “It was possible to hoist an object / out of a black hole with a rope — / this bit of knowledge I was hanging on to” (Balakian). He comes back to find all the villagers killed.
This violence is all decades before the 1915 genocide, an early wave of killings. The men and boys had their heads cut off. Shahan’s mother is dead too, my mother claiming she “died of shock.” I ask how we know the attackers raped her. “You can infer things,” my mother says. “She was probably raped and killed herself — but that’s not the story” (“the story” her refrain). “What happened to her // They. She had. Kurds … had take her. So. They had. After escaped. She had run. Throw herself in river. Honey River. Deep river. Killed herself. River. So.” (Barba). This suicide is the focal point for my older sister — was it from shame? She learned this when she was 10, maybe. “Children shouldn’t know this” (Balakian). So Shahan fled.
The Russian czar opened the border to Christians so they might avoid the killings that were becoming more and more prevalent. How did Shahan gain this knowledge, I wonder. “People learn things,” my mother says as explanation. “He had to escape.” When he was younger, he had run away to a city to get an education, his father retrieving him to herd and help the family. Barba on her grandfather: “He was a boy living in the eastern province of Muş (one of the earliest centers of historic Armenia), within the Ottoman Empire, when the mass killings began in 1915; he was the only member of his family to survive.” Did Shahan make his way to the city again? News of the border opening there? Walking, forever walking?
He does walk for what must have felt like forever — across his country, into Russia. There he walks more and struggles to find work, then works on railroads for a time, finding it terrible, and so he walks again — to France. It takes years and he is alone and poor when he takes a boat from Marseilles to New York. “The name of his birthplace has disappeared from the map, and the meaning of that map, too, has disappeared. I picture him leaning over the railing […] the Atlantic Ocean in the background” (Balakian). He makes some Armenian friends. Soon word travels that Armenians can return home as the Young Turks have deposed the brutal sultan, but Shahan doesn’t trust it. These friends of his go — and die. In a New York tenement building he meets an Assyrian woman who similarly fled death and whom he will marry. He starts a family and they live in Harlem. “[T]hings were never written of her survival then, and soon, she’ll forget how the story went” (Bedikian). They move to Queens. “I carried my life like a flag / up from the dark pits […] I carried my burden like a flag / up from the dark pits” (Kourken Mahari). He paints railway cars in a factory for work, the (lead?) paint filling his lungs daily, killing him by middle age.
“I don’t know if it was true or not, but it was part of the story.”
“If I remember correctly.”
“I don’t know if that’s my invention.”
“I don’t know where I’m getting this from.”
“I feel like I’ve always known it.”
“It shaped who we were. I remember telling lots of people.”
“If you try to imagine death here, the detail is not whole — the whole disappears. The cave is a black gullet swallowing itself” (Balakian).
My great-grandfather told my grandfather stories — of a shepherd boy named Shahan and his dog, Shun. In one, the dog and sheep are attacked by something vicious, Shahan spreading clumps of cool mud on the dog’s wounds to heal him. In another, an old man, a shepherd, who has been a kind of guide to Shahan, is in a desperate state and needs water. He tells Shahan to go to the top of the nearby mountain for ice, which melts for drinking when he gets back to the bottom. My grandfather got these stories, stories of his father Shahan’s boyhood with Shun, and asked for nothing else. I picture him in bed, his fingers in neat little lines at over the edge of his blanket, listening in the dark.
As an adult, my grandfather started a children’s book entitled The Little Armenian Boy based on the life and adventures of Shahan and Shun. “If there is no one to listen to the story, what’s left?” (Balakian). He never finished it. Perhaps my great-grandfather wanted to pass these stories, instead. The life before the violence.
My aunt digs up the family tree documented in a careful script by my German-American grandmother. “Artinian” is what is in the New York City census, my great-grandfather naturalized as “Shahan Artinian” when he arrived. On the swooping bracket there are the three brothers (my grandfather, then John and Harold). My grandfather is noted as “Hagop (Jacques) Arterian” — the sole bearer of that surname. This stirs up more questions of when and why — how a boy named “Hagop Artinian” became a man named “Jacques Arterian.” He had been the eldest boy, the one bearing the obvious Armenian name “Hagop” (or “Jacob”). People called him Jack. “I think he liked the way it sounded more,” my aunt says. (Strangely, this feels accurate, as both Armenians and non-Armenians alike often compliment my name.) “I think he wanted to reinvent himself,” she goes on. “He was careful not to have a Queens accent.” This reinvention only after his father’s death. My grandfather was in his early 30s then. All of this information none of us knew, or at least no one remembered. “I learned that there was another kind of memory, too. A kind of memory that was connected to something larger than my life […] implod[ing] my present at the strangest moments” (Balakian). To reinvent himself in renaming — a small twist of Roman characters to create a name that doesn’t exist, anywhere. In Armenian, it looks as if two characters simply invert, from Արտինիան to Արտերիան.
With this kernel of information, my brother tells me Artinian is Anglicized, an Ellis Island invention. It was also often reshaped into Hartoonian. But these variants are derived from the same name: Հարուտյունյան or Harutyunyan. “Harutyun” meaning “resurrection.”
A Note on the Sources
Below are the texts of Armenian diasporic poets, writers, editors, and translators whose work I reference in this essay. They shed a light on experiences regarding Armenian exile and survival I had known but did not know how to articulate (as well as those unknown to me). What surfaced again and again is the interconnected experience of survival and exile — how far back that goes, how far forward it reaches. What we as the descendants of the diaspora inherit, no matter how small percentage of that blood is in us, as long as the stories are passed. I am grateful to have had Der Hovanessian and Margossian’s remarkable Anthology of Armenian Poetry in my hands. All the works from Armenian poets in this essay whose translators are not cited were translated by Der Hovanessian and Margossian. Through their anthology, I learned the term “անդոունի / andouni,” which means “homeless” or “longing for homeland” in Armenian, but is also an Armenian category of song for or about exiles.
Balakian, Peter. Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir. New York: Basic Books, 2009.
—, ed. “The Armenian Genocide.” In Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forché. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
—. Ozone Journal. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
—. Ziggurat. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Barba, Susan. Fair Sun. Jaffrey, New Hampshire: David R. Godine, Publisher, 2017.
Bedikian, Lory. The Book of Lamenting. Tallahassee, Florida: Anhinga Press, 2011.
Der Hovanessian, Diana and Marzbed Margossian, eds. Anthology of Armenian Poetry. Translated by Diana Der Havessian and Marzbed Margossian. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
Diana Arterian is the author of the poetry collection Playing Monster :: Seiche (1913 Press), the chapbooks With Lightness & Darkness and Other Brief Pieces (Essay Press) and Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse), and co-editor of Among Margins: Critical & Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet).