~~”The Valise” was published in the fall 2011 issue of American Literary Review. Since then, the publication has gone digital, and the essay is not available in print or on the ALR website. You can read it here.~~
It was a dusty, brown suitcase, the handle broken, the hems unraveled, the edges dented. With its modest exterior and relatively small size, it could be shoved anywhere and used for a variety of purposes. At first, it sat on top of the big bookshelf opposite my father’s drafting desk and was the container of old maps of the Middle East as well as manuscripts in Armenian, the language of our home. My parents had brought the maps and manuscripts with them from Palestine when they had left. Then, it was deposited in the big walnut cupboard in my parents’ bedroom and stuffed with mostly Balkan embroidery pieces and fabrics and sewing implements. In its twilight days, the poor thing was under my bed. There it stayed during most of my adolescent years, at the bottom of the hierarchy of suitcases that had over the years found their way into our home.
Our house seemed to spawn suitcases, and they were everywhere, as if to say that we were always ready to leave or flee, that our home was temporary, a station really, and that my mother, Anahid, was not particularly interested in impeccable housekeeping. Makeshift, everything seemed makeshift, improvised. The smaller suitcases, like this one, were under beds and couches, on top of bookcases and cupboards; there was one on the refrigerator in my father’s dining-room-turned-study. The bigger ones were usually hidden from view. A few had been banished to the attic, where my mother stored the winter bedding every spring.
The suitcase had a name of its own: We called it simply the valise. There was no need to distinguish it from the other suitcases. The others came and went, but the valise was there for good. A meandering, nomadic presence in our midst, it had taken up successive habitation in various rooms of the house before its final station under my bed where it was the container of old family photographs, some harking back to the beginning of the twentieth century.
We lived in Amman, the capital of Jordan. In the early1950s, after fleeing Palestine in 1948, my family—first my father, then my mother had settled in Amman. In the mid-1950s, my brother was born here. A year later, I and then my maternal grandmother, Araxi, had left Beirut for Amman. By the end of the 1950s, our family unit was complete. “Two suitcases,” my mother would note in that immediate way of hers, remembering the departure from Palestine. “Two old suitcases. That’s all we took.” The valise was one of those two suitcases.
Our second-floor apartment was in the Jebel Amman part of town, on Rainbow Street, which was off of a thoroughfare connecting the downtown to Amman’s many jebels (mountains, in Arabic) that made up the landscape of this dusty town. In The Story of a City: An Amman Childhood, the great Arab novelist Abdelrahman Munif describes Amman prior to the 1940s as “a city of stones and empty spaces.” In the early 1950s, when my father had arrived—his feet sandaled, his arm carrying the valise—the town had grown beyond Munif’s description, but it was still pretty drab. Tchöl, that’s what my mother often called it. “It’s a tchöl, this place!” she would say. Tchöl is the Turkish word for the boondocks, the sticks The implied comparison was with the more urban Jerusalem they had left less than ten years ago although Jerusalem, I found out later, was not much of a city during the inter-war years. My mother’s frequent references to this tchöl of a town also suggested other places, distant to be sure, but for her, and for my grandmother, more refined, perhaps civilized: the Balkans, for instance, from where my grandmother hailed, or even Western Europe whose history my mother taught at my high school, the Ahliyyah School for Girls, a beautiful building surrounded by eucalyptus trees in the heart of Old Amman.
The valise had an uncanny hold over me, especially after it established settlement under my bed. Like other bulky objects in our house, it had been subjected to several improvisations and changes of fortune and in the process had accumulated not only a reputation larger than life but also a mysterious, almost mythical glamour. But unlike the boxes, baskets and tin containers, the valise was well-heeled, had history on its side, and the looks to prove it too. It had persisted despite the twists and turns and upheavals. The miserable thing had somehow managed to endure journeys and escapes, dislocations and demotions. Now, in its old age, it was the container of fragments of embroidery and manuscript, photographs and fabrics, maps and scrap of letters—remnants that often pointed to places near and distant. It was a vessel of wonders and surprises, and like a magnet, it had the capacity to gather and pull us in, to create togetherness, to keep at bay, at least for a while, our quiet waywardness and the dust and noise of the street. It was geography and history lesson, family album, and moral education rolled into one—focus and distraction, medium and destination, raft and compass.
To this day, when I think about our second floor Amman apartment on Rainbow Street, the valise is one of the first objects that I see—in a corner, on top of a bookshelf, but most often, under my bed. A scene comes into focus, a scene which has embedded itself very deep in my consciousness, some variation of whose import I have tried to re-capture on these North American shores, in this house where I keep vigil over the detritus of my childhood and adolescence some of whose residues are in big plastic boxes I have bought at my local Target store, or hung on walls or placed on bookshelves. A secret thread —fragmented and frayed to be sure but a thread still—connects all these objects to each other; connects their original homes to the one here, this Boston suburb where I live; connects my childhood and adolescence memories to my present home where I write these words. Here, I have tried to create again—like my mother and grandmother, like the waves of human beings in the grip of dispersion and displacement—some semblance of home, some variation of the original home I have known, or imagined, or recovered through the curtains of memory.
You, the last and the first, the one who stands at intersections. You, the first in your family to have made the crossing, the perilous passage; the first to have traversed, irreversibly, seas and cultures; the first to have befriended and loved persons foreign and other; the first to have written in a language other than your mother tongue. You, the last of the old world, the one you carry in the marrow of your being, in the chambers of your fractured heart, in the tissue of your daily life. You, now in a Boston suburb—the photographs on your walls, the faces vigilant and austere; the embroidery pieces spread on your tables and chairs, or tucked away in boxes in your attic; the knick knacks and objects of the past arranged, distributed, somewhat haphazardly. In your own home you are a wanderer. You, your eyes are lakes of tears, your throat a bundle of sobs, your heart aflutter the way it was that day, when you first crossed, to the other side of the fence. And now, here. And you, in the midst of it all, putting together something utterly new, something akin to home, but not quite, not quite. You.
It is Sunday, afternoon. My classmates and friends are out with their parents or at the Orthodox Club or the cinema.
“Let’s bring out the valise!” one of us, usually my mother, says. The words always seem to come out of thin air, as though one of us thought of them for the very first time, the repetitions neither having blunted their freshness nor muffled their resonance across the years and the passages. In an instant, the valise is installed in the center of our sphere of attention—then the click.
The surface is dusty and soiled with water stains, but we are so eager to open it, we don’t care. We move the top flap open; the hinges make a squeak. The interior lining is of silken, shiny gray material with a design of thin, wheat-gold strokes; it has small, pleated pockets on two sides and a larger pouch in the middle of the top flap. We steady the flap, and soon the moment is almost complete, but not quite, not quite. We are not used to such proximity as we gather around this sad little piece of luggage—three generations. But we are a small family, that’s what we are, and my father is away at the office. The outside world is always impinging on us and our little rituals. The traffic on Rainbow Street—all day long the honking cars and their blaring radios—is loud even for a small town such as Amman. And at night, The Rainbow night club next door is in full swing—the music, the tapping and the loud noise of the patrons, the smell of fried food.
But we are nothing if not resourceful, have had to be. Around the valise, out of maps and fabric and photographs, we create something new. An event, a project, a path, an anecdote takes shape; a unknown, distant relative is made visible; an ancestral detail becomes real, becomes vital. From bits and pieces, words and mutterings, names of people and ports of call, dates of departure and arrival, songs and limericks, we manage to improvise something larger than its constituent parts, something both delightful and weighty, something which steadies me but also nudges me into other worlds, my steps tentative and forehead exposed.
Although the valise was everywhere, in every story whenever the talk turned to our family’s travels in the Eastern Mediterranean, its origins were unknown. No one could tell who had bought it and when, but my mother never missed an opportunity to repeat with great aplomb and studied exaggeration the incidents and details of its illustrious biography: The valise had traveled with my grandmother and her two children (my mother and older uncle) every summer, as they went by ship from the hot climes of the Eastern Mediterranean to the Balkans to visit my grandmother’s family by way of ports that had strange-sounding names like Niche and Pireaus and Varna. It had been the one my father had taken with him when he left Jerusalem for Paris in the early 1940s to study architecture, shortly after he and my mother were married, his departure the spark of gossip and rumor in the community. It had come with him in the passenger car that had taken him from Beirut through Damascus to Amman on that night in 1951, his pocket a hole, as the saying goes in Armenian, his lustrous hair ending in a gentle wave at the neck.
But the most dramatic episode in the valise’s biography was the flight from Jerusalem in May 1948, three months after the death of my maternal grandfather, Hagop Oshagan, a writer of great stature and renown in modern Western Armenian literature. He had succumbed to a massive heart attack in February while on a visit to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Less than four months later, we had left Jerusalem in one night. My parents had stuffed the valise with books from my grandfather’s library and a few of his manuscripts that they could salvage from the Armenian Convent in the Old City. The convent had received fire during the fighting, and my grandfather’s study had been hit. In the second suitcase, they packed their clothes and a few valuables—my grandmother’s Balkan embroidery, two carpets that my grandfather had bought in Egypt, a few pieces of jewelry. In her purse, my mother carried a tan-brown travel document with a passport-sized photograph of her and me, two faces that circumstance had squeezed against each other, hers—full of apprehension.
Amman was the valise’s final station, and our house the terminus. The world around us was dusty and drab, and political turmoil was seething across the region, but the valise offered us all—especially me, hours of idleness, instruction, and digression. It made no difference which crisis seized the region, the valise was for all political seasons. During my adolescence in the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, the entire Arab World was in the grip of nationalism—from the revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Iraq; to the struggle against colonialism in Algeria; to the Suez crisis; to the 1958 civil war in Lebanon—all this against the background of the loss of Palestine. Across the region, people huddled around their radios, listening to reports, speeches and communiqués by coup d’etat leaders, patriotic songs and recitations from the Qu’ran.
For my mother and grandmother, much of what came across the airwaves was difficult to understand. We were Armenians—an ethnic Christian minority, new arrivals of deportees and survivors—not Arabs. My mother and her mother spoke a patched-up, embarrassing Arabic from which I wanted to flee every time we were at the downtown vegetable market or post office near our house on the First Circle. But my parents, like everyone else, were avid consumers of radio news (you could call them news junkies), and they were inextricably tied to the region, especially to Palestine whose wounds were still so raw, the expulsion less than a decade old, their memories of Jerusalem so vivid and laced with beauty.
On this October night, the news comes on our big Grundig radio about armies moving, attacks being launched and casualties on both sides of the Suez Canal. The BBC is broadcasting the news which I translate to my grandmother, who wants to know every single skirmish and troop movement. (I will continue being her translator and interpreter of the world, as well as my mother’s, all through my adolescence—at the First Circle post office, the downtown vegetable market, the bakery, the fabric store.) My mother takes the Bartholomew map of out of the valise and lays it on the dining room table, motioning to us to come closer. She places my two-year-old teething brother, Hratch, on the table next to the open valise, and he begins tossing the maps out on the table and then back in again, his eyes sparks of light and mischief, his bottom gleefully shifting from side to side. She is the voice of geography and history to my father’s political analysis; she knows terrains well, points a pencil in the direction of the Sinai Desert or the Suez Canal.
Two years later, the scene around the valise will repeat itself as my father places a small map of Baghdad on the table. It is one of the city maps he has been bringing home from his business travels in the region and in Europe. His action is occasioned by the bloody overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958. While I peer at the crisscross of Baghdad streets, the most terrifying part of the Iraqi officers’ revolution comes across the air waves—how Nouri al-Said, the prime minister, disguised in women’s attire, is caught and meted out his punishment by being tied to a lorry and dragged through the streets of the Iraqi capital. It is an image which will keep me up at night for many nights. Almost five decades later, whenever Iraq is discussed, the image will force a cold, slime-like fear down my spine, jolting me back, throwing me off balance, bringing me face to face with one of my most intense though vicarious experiences of fear—there, at the dining room table of our second floor apartment.
As the region lurched from one political upheaval to another, these little gatherings around the valise continued. But not all was immediate crises. True, maps were tools of knowledge about places and events of a political nature, portals of pleasure and terror in equal parts, but I suspect that my parents, especially my mother, may have had a less obvious motive. When the big Bartholomew map came out of the valise, a landscape of immense proportions—the Ottoman realm, from Turkey in the west across to the Caucasus and Armenia— came into focus. It was a landscape beyond the immediate political convulsions of the Arab world, harking back to a circuitous and complicated ancestral path, echoing with names and events that were at once mysterious and terrifying. My parents, especially my father who had borne the brunt of the Ottoman atrocities unleashed against the Armenians, were parsimonious and muted in their words on the events. Sometimes, the women would release an outburst about the Turks—the lost lands, the horrors—but for the most part they put up a civilized front. They had to live up to their self-proclaimed distaste for the tchöl.
Now, in hindsight, I think that my father’s economy of words and frequent silence on this subject was a matter of circumstance as much character. My father had survived genocide, known the searing heat of the desert sand against the soles of his feet, the terror of the clean slate, and landed here, in this town of a village where he had found an inexpensive hotel one night, his pocket a hole.
Stay low, don’t make much noise, be on guard. If need be, have several lives, and keep them separate and disguised for the most part, if you can. Be smooth but not cynical, circumspect but not servile, parsimonious but not stingy with words. Irony and distance are your allies, but so are generosity and humanity. Most of all, you are alone even when you are with others, heartlessly alone.
Spread out on the dining room table, the Bartholomew also represented the difference between our present circumstances in this town of a village and the places beyond that had such a hold on the women’s sense of identity, more so for my grandmother than my mother. It was the landscape beyond the tchöl: For my mother, it was Europe, whose history she taught at the Ahliyyah School for Girls, and whose minor habits (Golden Syrup, tennis shoes, sun hats) she adopted enthusiastically to my frequent embarrassment, and whose sports and games (mainly tennis and later Bridge) she perfected over the years, with mixed consequences. Her first heart attack at the age of sixty had come after she had played an energetic game of tennis at the Orthodox Club; at least three of her half dozen episodes of acute angina in the last two decades of her life had happened while she played Bridge at which she continued to excel until her last days.
For my grandmother, Europe was the Balkans to which she owed such quiet loyalty. True, she mentioned her ancestral past judiciously, never in excess, but when she did, she wanted you to know that she was not from these parts but from somewhere else, somewhere better. No matter that the Balkans were the backwater of Europe, she thought and acted otherwise. Her coquette looks—hazel-colored eyes, a light complexion —helped too.
Late at night, my grandmother would fiddle with her small transistor radio until she found the faint sound of Radio Sofia, which came on in Bulgarian. After the news, the singing would begin, those plaintive, high-pitched songs that were the craze in the early 1990s in the US and Europe. Night after night, my grandmother’s Bulgarian songs competed with the loud music from The Rainbow next door. She herself had a small, lyrical voice and would sometimes hum along in a language which was foreign to me but to which I felt deeply connected because it came through her being, gathering in its delicate cadences my grandmother’s courageous romance and remarkable life.
My grandmother Araxi—who had fallen in love with and married a penniless man, a fugitive from the Ottoman genocidal machine, the man who was to become the pre-eminent prose writer and literary critic of modern Western Armenian literature;
Araxi—who had left her entire family of six brothers and sisters in 1919 in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, her Philibé, and cast her lot with him on foreign shores and among “uncivilized” people;
Araxi—who continued to call her native city Philibé, the shortened version of the Macedonian Phillippopli, long after the name had been changed to its Slavic variant, Plovdiv;
Araxi—who died in Los Angeles at the age of ninety-six, her mind ravaged by dementia, her eyes vacuous, her lips slightly parted, ready for the final breath.
“Life is sweet,” she had said to my cousin Ara , when he had visited her at the Ararat Nursing Home only a few days before her death in 1987. Life is sweet , and then she had returned to silence, her body clothed in a polyester, grayish sack of a dress.
In the bedroom of our second floor apartment on Rainbow Street, she murmurs a diminished song, plagal and muffled. Outside, The Rainbow is wild with noise and excitement, but my grandmother glides through the room as though she were not here, but somewhere far away. From my bed, I watch her as she undoes her hair; it falls to her tiny waist. She begins her quiet prayer. The first person she mentions is her dear Hagop—whom she lost in February 1948; the fugitive who arrived at her ancestral home in Philibé one day; knocked on the door; asked if there was a room for rent.
Hagop—who did not have a suit to wear at his own wedding, and continued his defiance of church protocol and social convention all his life; who never wore a tie, made do with one suit for more than two decades. A peasant, by his own admission;
Hagop—whose nightmares she learned to pacify with tenderness, whose sweat-drenched chest she dried with towels she kept handy, her arms cradling him, stroking his white hair, a lullaby at her generous lips;
Hagop—whose manuscripts she and I copied diligently, faithfully, the two of us straining to read his tiny, illegible handwriting, a magnifying glass in hand, the sheets of paper fragile under my hesitant fingers. “Ink mixed with water,” she tells me. I am not sure I understand the point of her comment.
This is our daily devotional work for an entire summer: We bring out the valise, take the manuscripts out of the bottom, place them on the dining table and begin our work. “That’s why the color is so faint,” she tells me.
Ink mixed with water, I will find out years later in a casual conversation with my mother—to make the bottle of ink last longer, make it go further. I am twelve years old, interpreter of mysterious, faint signs that my grandfather, whom I know by reputation and legend and presence, from the photographs in the valise, has scribbled with such fast fury on these pages—the dip of the tip into the dark, thinned-out mixture, the hurried scratch on the paper, the heave and saturation of words.
Life is sweet, she had said, and then turned her face away and into silence.
The Bartholomew map displayed the entire shifting landscape of our family’s itinerary: from Bulgaria in the far left corner to the eastern Ottoman province of Erzurum-Garin; from the village of Bursa south of Istanbul on the other side of the Sea of Marmara to Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and now Jordan.
Both ends of our loyalties—the ancestral reaches of our national consciousness and the local, immediate minority obligations of our life in this village of a town—were equal sources of irresolution. These days, ethnic minorities, even in the Middle East, often speak and act with visible pride about their roots. In an ever-changing Middle East, ethnic identity is an emerging construct , supported no doubt by external and internal forces bent on reshaping the region in more hegemonic and fragmented ways. But in the 1950s through the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 and beyond, minority identity was limited to a community’s religious life (a carry-over from the Ottoman millet system) and modest observances of national holidays and commemorations, free of the imperatives of heightened expressivity. In the case of our family—literate, secular and open to the political currents of the region—identity was an issue of interiority, of literature and poetry, and culture primarily; it was something we did not discuss. At the center of this interiority was language—the Armenian we spoke at home, that we read, that we recited and sang—neither of my parents particularly good at display and zeal, their new home a swiftly arranged space, their sense of continuity tested at every turn.
My parents had arrived as refugees, and for the first generation, refuge is always a subdued, guarded place: the survivor who looks over his shoulder, the newcomer who makes up for the deficit by hard work– the “neck a bit crooked” as the saying goes in Armenian. We were new arrivals here, welcomed by our Arab hosts, but arrivals still.
All this I must have observed and absorbed, there in the hidden spaces and psychological gaps of our home life and beyond, at school and in social gatherings where my deep love for my schoolmates must have been mixed with muted envy but also a longing for something else, something beyond these jebels.
In hindsight, perhaps the scenes at the dining table—the map spread out, my parents’ fingers outlining a route or pinpointing a specific place, all of us close to each other—were emblematic of something that mitigated this sense of the unsure step, and which I came to understand fully much later in life. In my mind, they meant to compensate and equalize what I seemed to lack in other ways: During these afternoons, around the valise, we were in a common orbit, open and vulnerable to a fluid, expansive and often dangerous world, the long journey a perilous undertaking but also noble somehow, full of responsibility and obligation. It transcended the regional or national path onto which we had been shoved; it was something beyond the here-and-now, part of the human itinerary.
For my parents, Jerusalem would remain the center of this itinerary, the locus of so much emotion and wistfulness. My mother was not a sentimental woman; she did not shower affection on those around her, pinching cheeks, scattering endearments in her path. But when the talk turned to Jerusalem, my mother invariably seemed more relaxed, as if she had let go of something. A waywardness would be evident in her gaze; her voice would soften a bit, but she would quickly pull back from the edge of melodrama, which she abhorred.
Then she would spring from her chair and bring out the Palestine maps. She had a favorite, which now hangs in my study here in Boston—a weathered, beautiful one of the Old City with deep folds and brittle, fragile edges. She would spread it out carefully, and point the pencil at the Armenian Quarter, the location of the Jarankavorats (Seminary school, in Armenian) where her father, the writer, was teaching at the time of his death. A hand-drawn line in black ink runs through the center of the map, from the Armenian Convent in the Armenian Quarter, through the narrow streets, to the Mount of Olives. Someone must have plotted a path, forged a modest design, perhaps an escape. Walk, hurry, move.
Life’s ironies are such that in the 1960s and until the 1990s, my father, as resident architect of the renovations of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, would make regular and frequent visits to Jerusalem. Not once did my mother accompany him to the city she loved so much. I did not ask her why she did not go visit Jerusalem with my father until I was much older. On a return visit from the US, sitting on the veranda, the question came up.
“Well,” said my mother, her voice turning softer, its edges carrying a hint of sadness, “your father liked to travel alone. He loved Jerusalem, you know. “
Alone. The world around my father whirls with noise and incantation, with the toll of church bells and the mu’azin’s call to prayer, and the steady thud of thousands of shoes on the cobblestone paths of the Old City, and my father—his generous forehead turned toward the ground under his feet, his black hair moving with the gentle breeze, his hands behind him fingering black worry beads, his shoulders asymmetrical. A diminutive man, really—my father walks slowly the narrow streets, dissolves into the human waves of the faithful, becomes invisible under the searing sun.
One day, my mother took the valise down from its perch in the study, emptied it of the maps, and carried it to the bedroom I shared with my grandmother and brother. From the bulky cupboard opposite our beds, she brought the embroidery pieces, the DMC threads, the tulle and London linen, as well as an assortment of ordinary fabrics and scraps of material, zippers, buttons. The embroidery included a few very intricate smaller pieces my mother had embroidered as a young woman in Jerusalem, as well as some larger but equally stunning work that my grandmother and her four sisters had done in their youth in Bulgaria. My mother placed everything in the valise and put it on the bottom shelf of the cupboard, next to the sewing basket. Demoted, the valise stayed in the cupboard until its last transformation.
Together, the basket and the valise would in time become a movable workshop for my mother and grandmother and for me, their apprentice. Every so often, my mother or grandmother would bring the valise and the basket out, place them on my bed next to the desk which also doubled as a sewing table . Their projects ranged from the very modest to the extended and unfinished, and included everything from a wool-stitched vest for me adapted from a Balkan embroidery design, which I still keep in a cupboard here, on these shores, to a beautiful, jacquard black sweater for my maternal younger uncle, to cross-stitched pieces to cover side tables, to tea cozies with simple flower patterns on the front, little pantaloons for my toddler brother, dresses, skirts and blouses for my grandmother and for me. In these projects, my mother was always the initiator and supervisor, jumping into the day’s work with unbridled energy that never diminished from one project to the next.
The valise is open; our bedroom is transformed into a makeshift atelier: My mother begins early in the morning, puts my grandmother to work by giving her the pinning and basting, does one or two provas (fittings), sews the whole thing on her old Singer sewing machine. As she pushes the fabric under the needle, she hums a little tune through the pins which she holds between her lips. My grandmother wants to tell her to take the pins out of her mouth, but my mother is totally involved, oblivious. She is determined to finish quickly.
By early afternoon, my grandmother’s dress is ready. My poor grandmother does not stand a chance in the face of her daughter’s enthusiasm and speed; there is no way in the world my grandmother can try to promote her way of doing things, of trying to instruct her daughter in the more feminine virtues of grace and pace. (The Turkish word for this virute is hunér , a word which connotes a combination of talent, grace and femininity. My grandmother is hunérli, practitioner of hunér, but not my mother). So, my grandmother goes along every time; sometimes she is the butt of my mother’s jabs, especially as these relate to my grandmother’s refined habits.
“You are such a fino, Mam!” my mother says, with a wicked smile forming at the edge of her mouth. “You want me to be a lady, but I am my father’s daughter—a peasant!” Then she holds up the finished piece, her arms spread out wide, her face a huge, proud smile.
“It’s done!” she exclaims with pride. “But don’t look at the back; it’s a mess!”
The back is a real war zone, with threads going back and forth, some unknotted, others pulled too tightly. As for the cut of the fabric itself, my mother is not terribly concerned about straight lines. “I am left-handed, I can’t help it!” she says.
When my mother is finished with her project, she gets up and walks out of the bedroom; she has little patience with the cleaning up, the gathering of the pins, the stray threads, and the pieces of fabric that have all fallen to the floor. That’s our job—my grandmother’s and mine.
The clothes my mother sewed for her mother and for herself were a complete contrast to what my father brought for her from his travels, and so she had no qualms about putting her spurts of sewing mania also to the service of domesticating the stylish, vitrine-bred suit from Rome or Paris. She would begin a few days after my father’s return. She would clear the dining table, bring out the valise and put it on one side of the table or on a chair close by. She would place the dress or suit or blouse on the table and plan her intervention. She had little patience for clothes that fit tightly around the neck and for long sleeves with flaps and tiny, pearl-like buttons. So, she would often tackle those problems first, deepening the neck or cutting the sleeves off at the elbow with a swift motion of the scissors. Her meddling was really meant to make the suit or blouse more easy to get in and out of, less of a fuss, more utilitarian. She shortened and lengthened, added a pleat, removed a line of buttons, loosened a tight waist.
The reconstituted version was not that different from the original; the changes were not major. Because my mother’s sewing skills were average at best, the alterations were neither radical nor transformative. My father seemed stoical about everything related to home and family, always a bit distanced and quiet, unless we had company or he had had a few drinks. Perhaps he had resigned himself, at least on the face of it, to my mother’s excessive energy and improvisational zeal. If he did notice the changes she made to what he brought from Europe, he certainly did not show any displeasure. In fact, he continued his shopping habits , and my mother persisted in her interventions though from time to time she did make half-hearted efforts to live up to my father’s ideas of elegance and style.
Together, he and she looked somewhat mismatched: My mother, robust with a resolute step and broad hips; my father, thin and compact. She–restless and vulnerable to occasion; he–deliberate, parsimonious, full of form. She–a torrent of energy; he– measured, even slow at times, his step light and quiet. Such are life’s searing ironies that after my father’s death, my mother, a thin and frail woman in her mid-70s, did transform herself into a stylishly dressed person—her white hair smartly cut, her clothes in deep earth tones, and her scarves always flowing though somewhat carelessly tied into a knot. “Svelte,” she would say, emphasizing the foreignness of the word, “I am trying to be svelte and sophisticated. It’s a bit late…”
I don’t remember when or why my mother decided to take the valise out of the cupboard in our bedroom, place it under my bed and use it as a container for a jumbled assortment of black and white family photographs of varying sizes, as well as expired passports, identity cards, and travel documents. In its final period of demotion, the valise lived in darkness, dormant under my bed, until a Friday or Sunday afternoon when it would undergo one of its regular rehabilitations. I would place it in the middle of the bed and install myself next to it; my mother and grandmother would often join in, pulling their chairs closer. The afternoon sun would come through the window above my bed and cast a mysterious glow on the surface of the photographs and the wheat-gold strokes of the valise’s lining. Imperceptibly, the grey humdrum of our daily life would cease; my anxiety about being stuck at home while my friends were at the cinema or the Orthodox Club or on a family outing would lessen. And from amidst the visual jumble, a lake of faces would coalesce in front of my eyes and at my fingertips.
Some of the photographs were very brittle, with crinkled edges; others were oval-shaped. Some had lost their original luster and turned an eerie, ghost-like blue, while others had retained their sharpness. Some had a deep, scar-like line through the center. A few—notably, the only picture of my parents’ wedding, a 2X2 inch thing taken in Jerusalem—were so tiny that they required a magnifying glass. Ironically, some of the oldest ones seemed to be the most resistant to decay and fading—the photograph’s surface shiny, the image clear, the matting intricate, and the personages and situations often formal, equal to the weight of the photographic moment.
The photographs in the valise covered a span of almost half a century: The two oldest were from 1912, both group pictures: one from Erzurum-Garin in Eastern Anatolia, the ancestral home of my father’s extended family, where the four Voskertchian brothers operated a well-known photographic studio whose clients included high-ranking Ottoman officials and western diplomats. It is a group picture, a gathering of men around a table in the studio itself, complete with bottles of alcoholic beverages and a mandolin player. My paternal grandfather, Yervand, is in the second row, a small man with light hair and plaintive, sorrowful eyes, as though he were avoiding something.
When we gathered around the valise, I could not have grasped the cruel irony of this photograph—the full weight of my father’s orphaned road still something of a mystery to me, muted, incomplete, shaded: that a man—my grandfather Yervand, whom I knew merely as a shadow, a figure in a group photograph– whose profession it was to create visibility, to bring people into the view of others would himself be so distant, hidden even; would be so absent from our gaze, and in our conversations; would have only two pictures to his name—this one in his own studio and another taken in a park in Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, with his sister: The architect who lives in rented homes, the tailor who does not have a suit, the photographer who has no imprint—this was our lot, our path. Ink mixed with water, images burned.
The second photograph is from Malkara in northwest Turkey, on the shores of the Sea of Marmara. It is a picture of the teaching staff of the Armenian school where my maternal grandfather Hagop, a 28-year-old man with literary ambitions, has arrived a year earlier, after the death of his mother, the sole surviving member of his family: the clean slate, the orphaned road. He has been invited to teach in the local Armenian elementary school but will stay only a year or two, moving on to Constantinople only years before the fateful year of 1915. His posture is confident, the kind of confidence which comes with knowing your literary road, and your destination. By this time, he has perhaps made the choice between poetry and prose, and has chosen the latter—and in particular, has chosen the novel as the vessel through which he will re-construct the Eastern Anatolian world destroyed and lost to personal exile and in the next few years, to the Ottoman genocidal process.
The pictures show Yervand and Hagop as young men, in their late twenties or early thirties, on the cusp of life. Hagop is a bachelor, a tall, robust and physically attractive man with a broad chest and an intense expression. Yervand seems less assured, with something resembling a stoop in one shoulder, a background man of gentle, almost androgynous beauty. Between them, these two photographs, whose protagonists were separated by geographic, social and class divides, brought home to me the rudders of our family, fixed the past in a location and scene, but also foreshadowed the expulsion that was to follow a few years later—the scattering north and south of the Ottoman realm and beyond, eventually bringing the remnants to Jerusalem, where my parents would meet, fall in love, and marry in 1943. Five years later, in May 1948, they would move once again—two small suitcases.
Often, when the flight from Jerusalem came up, I would, almost on cue, rummage through the side pockets of the valise for that tiny traveling document that my mother said she carried in her purse when we set out for our journey: a passport-sized picture of the two of us stapled to the left panel of a beige-colored document that Palestinians carried with them. She and I are two faces squeezed against each other as though we are not quite used to that much physical closeness, as though this picture has somehow been forced on us by the sirens of departure. My infant eyes are flickers of innocent light; hers are more apprehensive but full of fortitude. It’s just the two of us, dear girl.
During my adolescence, I could not have foreseen the enduring power of the scene around the valise, a scene that repeated itself many, many times over the course of seemingly endless Fridays and Sundays. Now, more than four decades later, the scene has lost none of its pull and significance: the three of us, casting a wide ancestral net, creating anew each time something which is disjointed but not diminished, ruptured but not broken down, something aiming perhaps for a sustaining narrative, but never quite achieving it.
In place of narrative sweep and energy, my mother and grandmother had ample reserves of meticulous care and devotion. They had made it a habit to annotate each picture with the date and location of the event, scribbled on the back. Malgara, Tiflis, Erzurum, Philibé, Cairo, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Aleppo—all stations of our family’s wayward paths, dots on the wide expanse of the Bartholomew map, names which have been carved in my consciousness. Others still with less familiar names like Salonika, Izmir, and Edirné and the ominous sounding Podromo, the word scribbled in Armenian on the back of a picture of my grandfather Hagop. The photograph’s skeletal simplicity is still arresting, after so many years: Podromo, summer 1934, when my mother’s family lived in Cyprus and would summer in Podromo. It’s the year my grandfather has completed his magnum opus, Mnatsortats (The Remnants), which has been serialized in an Armenian-language publication from Cairo. My grandfather is seated cross-legged on the floor in his pajamas, his shoulders stooped and his eyes focused on a book on the floor, his seasoned hand suspended over the page, the sunlight from the open door falling over it. The setting is a simple, modest arrangement—the edge of an iron-frame bed to the right, some clothes hanging from the rack behind him, and in the center is my grandfather—the great prose writer of Western Armenian literature, the forger of hundreds of new Armenian words, the chronicler of lost worlds—in the solitary, intimate act of habit and receptivity. A peasant.
Hagop and Yervand—lost ancestors, pictures in a suitcase. Ink and water, image and ashes—this heaviness that hangs over things, that gathers us in its wrinkles, that persists here, in Boston, on these foreign shores where I speak and write in a language other than my ancestral tongue. The scratch of the pen against the thin paper, the click of the photographer’s camera.
The end of the valise was as inauspicious as its beginnings. At seventeen, I had left Amman for university in Beirut and then on to the US. Some four decades later, on one of my visits to Amman, we were sitting on the veranda, my mother and I. I asked her what had happened to the valise. The question came out of nowhere, and she did not have an answer. Perhaps she had given it to the building’s maintenance man, or she may have thrown it in the garbage, or disposed of it when they moved from the house on Rainbow Street to this one. My mother had a propensity for getting rid of things which she had no use for, only to regret her action soon thereafter.
Not given to sentimentality, she did not seem to care much for the way it had fizzled out of our life. And the old photographs and Balkan and Kurdish embroidery? “They are in a big box in my bedroom,” she said. “You can take them, if you want. What are they going to do here?”
A few days later, my mother helped me wrap the photographs in a tight package and put them in my suitcase. The day before, we had washed the embroidery and placed it on the drying rack on the veranda.
It was dawn when I left my mother’s house for the airport. The taxi driver turned on the engine, I looked up one more time and saw my mother as I will always remember her for the rest of my life—waving at me from the veranda, the webbed whiteness of her thin fingers against the magenta of the sky, a gesture of defiance, but not quite, not quite. I saw her as I had never seen her before—vulnerable, apprehensive, but ready. They are all gone, scattered, she had said. It’s just you and me, dear girl.
Soon after I arrived in Boston I took the embroidery out of my suitcase and put it in the shade to aerate it. The maps I placed in a plastic container, which I installed on the top shelf of the kitchen pantry. Some weeks later, I took my favorites among the photographs to my neighborhood frame shop for their second rehabilitation and restoration. The owner, an Armenian immigrant from Aleppo called Hagop, was stunned by their vivid, fiery beauty—the solemnity of the faces, the sheen of the surface, the clarity of every single little detail and line.
I went back to pick them up some weeks later; he had hung them on a side wall by themselves, away from the pictures of flowers and cats in armchairs and children on swings and newly-weds cutting gaudy-colored cakes. He took them down and wrapped them quietly. We talked a little, from here and there, as is the habit of immigrants—about Aleppo in its glory days.
When he handed them to me, he cautioned against exposing them to too much sunlight. “For an old picture, sunlight is corrosive, like salt on a wound,” he said in Armenian
—For S. M.