January 19, the Christmas of the Jerusalem Armenians

Originally posted on Passages Home Blog:

~~On the occasion of the Christmas of Jerusalem Armenians, here is a re-posting from the archives.  Holy Christmas to all who carry Jerusalem in their hearts. ~~

On the evening of January 5, across the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, Christians  participate in the re-enactment of the Nativity Story, and  break bread around a simple, mostly vegetarian meal.  All over the world, in churches that belong to the Eastern Christian denomination, the sweet fragrance of incense mixes with the voices of the faithful, the chants of the choirs with the tolling of the bells, the murmur of prayer with rustle of the cymbals and censers.

So, too, in places far away from the locus of the Christian story, here in Boston, for instance, the Orthodox churches are the sites of illumination and chant, prayer and good wishes for the new year. And while the rest of the world has gone back…

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Re-reading “Passage to Ararat” by Michael Arlen Jr.

~~There is a handful of works of literature–poems, novels, criticism– to which I return every few years the way I return to an old friend.  Michael Arlen Jr.’s “Passage to Ararat” is one such work. I read it first in the late 1970s, in Iowa City; then again in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and one more time since then, here in Boston. This will be my fourth reading which I think may be the most weighty. I have begun it only a day or two ago, of this year, the year which marks the centenary of the Ottoman Genocide of the Armenians.

A chronic marker of pages, I have already several pencil lines in the margins of this lovely gem of a book by a master stylist.  Its pages have already–and again– taken me in, taken me into Arlen’s tremble of emotion.  Unadorned, at times self-effacing and at others gently assertive, Arlen’s voice seems as powerful as it did when the book came out in 1976, the passage of the decades having neither diminished their import nor its relevance.

From time to time, I will post from the book, passages which I have loved. Familiar, yes, but also unexplored, new as though it was a first reading–which it is, of course.~~

9780374530129_p0_v2_s260x420~~At mid term, my father came alone to visit me, arriving in a chauffeur-driven car and carrying a box of chocolates.  For the first time in my life, I thought him strange–almost a stranger. I remember looking at him surreptitiously, sneaking glances at his face–looking for what?  I don’t  know.  I wanted him to tell me that we were really English, bu I didn’t know how to ask….I felt generally American, or perhaps for a while Anglo-American, but, clearly, there was also something missing. Something missing or added. I became conscious of being accompanied by a kind of shadow of “being  Armenian,” which other people sometimes noticed, or casually commented on, but which my father had said, in effect, did not exist.~~

~~Such small beginnings. That evening, for the first time, I met Armenians on my own.  Armenian women who laughed and asked too many questions. Thick-chested men who seemed always to have their arms around each other. Too many cups of coffee and small, sweet cakes. I was there–wherever there was. It was an uncertain beachhead, for I kept fighting off the desire to bolt.  Never let them get too close! But I also knew that a corner of some missing piece had briefly become visible. 

As I finally made my way toward the door, a voice called out, “You will come back!” I couldn’t tell whether it was a statement or a question.

“I will,” I said.

The journey had begun.~~

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Like Breath

A second “dispatch” from Paris in The Common.




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A city, a melody, and the past….

~~My “little” essay, Petite Fleur, has just been posted on The Common.


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Ja’afar Toukan (1938-20014)

~~I read today that Jafar Toukan, the eminent Palestinian-Jordanian architect, has died in Amman, the Jordanian capital.  Toukan’s vision was modernist; his commitment was to local culture and building materials.  He was a man of immense cultural knowledge, humility, and grace.  He was also a family friend, across the decades–first as a professional colleague of my father (who was also an architect), and then, with his wife Ihsan Toukan, as a friend of my mother.  Whenever I visited Amman, I would see Ihsan and Jafar, and we would while away the afternoon over lunch and coffee, in good conversation.

SOS Children's Village. Photo:archnet

SOS Children’s Village. Jordan.  Photo:archnet

Born into a prominent Palestinian family of poets (Ibrahim Toukan was his father; Fadwa Toukan was his aunt), Jafar Toukan was an architect of local education (a graduate of the American University of Beirut) and practice, and open to the world.  His buildings stretched across the entire Arab Middle East, from Libya to Palestine; included government, cultural, educational, financial, commemorative and residential structures; and reflected some of the distinctive characteristics of their designer–clear, uncluttered lines and self-consciously restrained forms, but most of all an esthetic that was devoid of ostentation, excess, and aggressive visibility.

Jubilee School. Photo:archnet

Jubilee School. Amman, Jordan. Photo:archnet

Today, Amman is a hodgepodge of many rather ugly building, their opulence bordering on the obscene, sustained no doubt by the wishes of the affluent who fled the two Gulf Wars.  Yet the clutter and excess coexist with another category of structures, harking back to those years when architects, among them  Jafar Toukan, and earlier my father, stamped the city with a honeycomb of buildings which draw attention to themselves for their marriage of the local with the international.  They arrest you in your tracks, these buildings, for all they show of stone and texture and perspective and contrast– the blue sky against the white limestone, the esthetic principle against the local materials, the grand design against everyday functionality.

Residence. Amman. Photo:archnet

Residence. Amman. Photo:archnet

The earth, light on Jafar Toukan, a great architect and humanist.~~

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Autumn at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge (2)

It was cold today, the wind howling, the leaves wild, and the Mount Auburn Cemetery crowded with pedestrians and cars and performers and singers and warblers.  We even heard an accordion player and watched awestruck a majestic hawk, indifferent, perhaps even oblivious to our amazement.  (He’s in the penultimate picture.)

Soon snow will set in, and all will be inert for months and months and months.  Today was a festival of sorts, the burning sun before the dark, the animation before the long silence of the dead, the exuberance before long wait.  But even in winter, in the bone-chilling cold of winter, Mount Auburn is a beautiful place, the living–most of them–having left, and the dead in full domination, reminding the few daring visitors that to befriend the dead is to know life, life which is its own reward, its own spring.

P1000146P1000144P1000143 P1000140P1000139P1000138*

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Autumn at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge

Yes, there are the small, quaint towns of Vermont, the daunting heights of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, but there are also beautiful spots of color and energy here in our city, in its downtown and its suburbs.  Mount Auburn Cemetery is one such place, one among half a dozen or so, and today this home of the dead was all life, a dance of shade and wind on an unseasonably warm day.

P1000127 There isn’t much to say about this jewel of a place on the Cambridge-Watertown line.  Easy to get to, welcoming, and stunningly beautiful all year round, but most of all in autumn.  Today was Mount Auburn Cemetery’s day–sunny, yes, but also just windy enough for the constant downward turn of the leaves, one after another, like a blanket over the dead, a preparation for winter’s snow.

P1000126I come to Mount Auburn Cemetery often, to visit a person I love who is buried here, yes.  But also to be with all the dead, the famous and the lesser-known, those who were snatched too early and those who lived into ripe old age, those who sacrificed their life for a cause and those who died in silence, alone.  All here, subject to life’s great equalizer.  But also life’s reservoir of memory and meaning.

P1000132All here, in this expansive, meandering space of the living and the dead.  And a handful of us, pedestrians, lost, stunned, sorrowful, but most of all full of wonderment and awe at a leaf that suddenly begins its journey to the ground, twirls and turns, hangs in mid-air for an instant, then continues its path downward.  At last, it finds its place on the ground, and all motion stops.  Home.

P1000128Farewell, until next time, when the snows melt and spring returns.  But on this miracle of an afternoon, it is life that the dead offer, life which is its own reward, path and destination, fall and rest.

P1000135 *

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