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Vartan Gregorian is one of the most gifted and accomplished men of our time, and to have his "journey" in his own words, told with all his sparkle and wisdom, is pure gold.
The New York Times Book Review
What you see is what you get, and what you get is the full account of a worthwhile life that has rewarded thousands of students and more thousands of readers. If the word had not been so badly debased in our time, I would call him a civilian hero.
The story of Vartan Gregorian's journey from the shabby suburbs of the Garden of Eden to the peak of America's intellectual world is personal memoir at its very best. Gregorian writes with such charm and modesty that it's a pleasure to make his acquaintance.
If you are fortunate enough to know Vartan Gregorian personally, you will realize that he is a man of brilliance, wisdom, insight, humor, and, yes, he is even cuddly. If you do not know him personally, his memoir is the best possible substitute I can recommend. Vartan is a remarkable man. This is a remarkable book.
Both my maternal and paternal grandparents migrated to Tabriz from the Armenian villages of Karadagh (Black Mountain). Whether they were the remnants of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Armenian deportees of the Safavid shahs of Iran, or earlier thirteenth- and fourteenth-century deportees of the Seljuks and Mongols, or early inhabitants of the region, is hard to determine. When I was born, many of the peasants of the villages of Karadagh had moved to Tabriz, including my paternal grandfather, Balabeg, and his brother, Tevan, and their families. They owned a caravanserai, a bakery, and a dairy business. Ours was an extended family, and a wall separated the two branches of the Gregorian clan. My grandfather had two children: my aunt Nvart (Rose) and my father, Samuel. Tevan had one son, Grigor, and four grandsons. By the time I was born, my paternal grandmother, Anna, had died, as well as my aunt Nvart, who had married an Armenian notable in Tiflis and left her orphaned son, Bobken, with us.
My grandfather valued education enough to send my father to the American Memorial High School. The same opportunity was not afforded to my cousin Bobken, who worked in the caravanserai and the milk business. He was only able to finish elementary school and later had a terrible accident that burned half his face and body. He became a successful tailor.
My father was very young when he got married. My mother, Shooshanik (Shooshik for short), was very beautiful, with a gentle smile, soft skin, and tender, smiling eyes. She wore practically no makeup. She had married at eighteen. My older brother, Aram, died when he was only a year old. My sister, Ojik (Eugenie), was born sixteen months after me. Our father's ambition had been to continue his education in the United States, but my grandfather had vetoed his wishes. Instead, because of his excellent English and expertise in accounting, he took a middle-management administrative position with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Abadan. My sister and I were brought up by my mother and maternal grandmother.
In 1939, on the eve of World War II, a great calamity befell our family. My seventy-five-year-old grandfather was arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges that he was smuggling arms to Iran. Police searched the caravanserai, the Armenian schools, and other locations and reportedly found one or two weapons. It was not clear to whom they belonged or whether enemies or business rivals of my grandfather had planted them. He died in jail. I am sure he was tortured since there was evidently a great deal of reluctance to release his body to the family. The effort to retrieve his body was left entirely to my mother, including procuring and taking a coffin in a horse-drawn carriage to the central jail. I am told that my mother, in tears, pleaded with Fatullah Khan, chief of the Tabriz police department, for the release of my grandfather's body, so that he could be given a proper Christian burial. According to my grandmother, my mother donated all her exquisite needlework to the police chief's wife.
The imprisonment and death of my grandfather brought an end to the family business. The caravanserai and the milk business were sold. In my father's absence, my mother purchased a house near the Armenian church with the proceeds of the sale. I still remember the number: 1699 Church Street. My grandmother, mother, sister, uncle, cousin, and I moved to our new house.
I have a handful of memories of my mother: being held in her arms, being sung lullabies, being with her in an open-air movie performance in the Arg (Citadel) of the city. I remember only that it was dark, the screen far away, the images blurred, and that I was scared and shut my eyes. I remember a reception at the home of my godfather. I was instructed to behave, "to be a good boy," to take one cookie, not two, above all to be sure to thank our host. I remember following the gaze of my mother and declining seconds. Most important, my sister and I had been told to leave a small portion of whatever we were eating on the plate as a "sign of politeness." This was required etiquette, otherwise we would exhibit signs of being gyormamish, a Turkish adjective that describes someone who is a hick, has not "seen anything," is easily impressed and greedy, is nouveau riche, and has no savoir faire.
I remember our family's trip to Tehran and from there, by train to Abadan, to visit my father. The weather in Abadan was atrocious, very hot and humid. There were big fans on the ceiling of our bedroom but they did not seem to make much difference. I gather the journey was an attempt by my mother to save her marriage and to reconnect us with our absentee father. There were whispers of "another woman" in Abadan. The trip was memorable for another reason: I contracted malaria. After several months in Abadan, we returned to Tabriz.
My last glimpse of my mother was when my sister and I were ushered to a room where she lay motionless. She was very pale and cold. Her long black hair covered her shoulders. Her beautiful eyes were shut. She did not hug us, she did not greet us. Everyone was crying. We began crying, too. Something was strange. Something was very wrong. Everyone was extremely nice to us but wanted us to leave as soon as possible. We were told to bid good-bye to our mother because she was undertaking a long journey: she was leaving for America, a beautiful faraway land.... I did not know she had died. I had no clear ideas about death. I had been told people die when they are very old. But my mother was not old. She was so young, so beautiful, so tender, so warm.... I did not even know she had been ill.
Only a few years ago, I learned that on the way back from Abadan my mother miscarried twins, lost a lot of blood, developed pneumonia, and died without doctors or appropriate medicine. She was twenty-six. All of a sudden, my sister and I were essentially orphaned. In retrospect, it is both sad and strange that my sister and I never addressed her as Mother or Mama or our father as Father or Papa. Instead, we called them by their given names: Shooshik and Samuel. This was because we lived in an extended family where the authority was vested in my paternal grandfather, Balabeg, a widower, and my maternal grandmother, Voski (Gold). We called them Papa and Mama.
Following the death of my mother, her brother, my uncle Harootiun, age twenty-nine, died. He was devoted to his sister and had traveled with great difficulty from Tehran to Tabriz to be with her. His car had been confiscated sixty miles from Tabriz and he had to walk for some time before he was able to hitch a ride and attend my mother's funeral. He contracted pneumonia, too, and, again in the absence of proper medical care, succumbed. Within the span of less than two years, I lost my grandfather, mother, and uncle.
On August 25, 1941, military forces of the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded Iran following Allied accusations that Iran was collaborating with the Axis and harboring pro-German sympathizers. The Soviet Army entered Iran in three columns: the first occupied Tabriz, the second occupied the northeastern border province of Khorasan, and the third occupied the Caspian coastal towns. I remember the Soviet propaganda leaflets that showered over Tabriz. The British forces occupied Iran's oilfields. Reza Shah was forced to abdicate. The Allies gave assurances that they had no designs on Iran's territorial integrity, independence, or oil, and expressed the hope that Iran would not resist the Allied advance. They did not have to worry as the Iranian opposition proved negligible. Despite the Iranian army's communiqués that boasted of the army's excellent morale and its successful resistance, the Iranian military resistance crumbled. Many officers deserted their units; many units abandoned their arms and melted away. The Allied occupation of Iran was accomplished within a few days.
My father was in the Iranian cavalry regiment dispatched to the north to face a Soviet mechanized division. I remember his departure, on a white horse. As he was getting ready to bid farewell to us, we were asked to sit down and then to get up together as one. This was to prevent the evil spirits from knowing who was leaving our home to journey to the unknown. As my father left on his horse with his rifle on his shoulder, he was asked not to look back. To ensure his safety we poured buckets of water after him. This was to cover his tracks in order to prevent the evil spirits from being able to follow him.
A few weeks later, as war broke out, panic spread throughout Tabriz over Iranian military losses. Rumors were rampant about Iranian soldiers, including Armenian ones, who had died fighting or were captured. My grandmother was told that my father was possibly a dassaleek, a fancy word in Armenian meaning someone who had deserted. We did not know what it meant, except that it was not good news. We all started crying. We thought our father was dead, too.
A week or so later two peasants with their donkeys were passing through our narrow street when one surprised my grandmother, who was on her way to stand in the bread line, by addressing her in Armenian and calling her Mama. Evidently my father had traded his horse and rifle and uniform for peasant's clothes and a donkey ride to town, following the decimation of his cavalry unit by Soviet mechanized forces. We were happy that he was alive but I was ashamed that he had fled. For the next month or so, my father stayed in bed or at home trying to "recover" from a "wound" caused by his rifle. People came to visit him and expressed their sympathy for his being wounded at the front.
My maternal grandmother was an extraordinary person. She was of medium height, with big, dark brown eyes. Her broad forehead accentuated her fierce, penetrating eyes and eyebrows. Her hair and neck were always covered with a black scarf. She wore several layers of cloth, covered with a long outer dress, which reached her ankles. Under these layers, she carried a flat bag holding keys, money, safety pins, needles and thread, and, occasionally, candy. She was an illiterate peasant who spoke a vernacular Karadagh dialect of Armenian, as well as Turkish.
My grandmother and her sister knew which day, week, month, and hour they were born, but, oddly, not the year. We were only told of an extraordinary event that occurred during the year of grandmother's birth: a red cow had been born in their village in Karadagh. She and her sister quarreled occasionally as to who was the younger. It was only when she died, in 1964, that we found out that she had been born in 1882. I gather she married early and had seven children. Four of her children died when they were very young, victims of epidemics.
Following the outbreak of World War I and Ottoman and Russian invasions into northern Iran, Kurdish and Turkish fighters and brigands had looted the Armenian and Assyrian villages of Karadagh and elsewhere. Thousands of Armenians and Assyrians left their villages for Tabriz. My grandmother was among those who fled with her three remaining children. Her two sisters, Manooshag (Violet) and Sophia, were part of the exodus. My grandmother and her sisters never spoke about their husbands and their fate. Were they killed? Had they abandoned them?
I remember, however, that my grandmother was very proud of her family name, Melik Mirzaian. She told me that her husband's family was part of the elite of the village - hence the title Melik, but more important, she took special pleasure in the fact that Mirza stood for "scribe" in Persian and that although she was illiterate, her family came from a tradition of literacy. It was a sore point for her that while she came from a well-known family, she had no schooling. She made sure, however, that her three remaining children would be educated. My uncle Harootiun graduated from the American Memorial High School, and my mother from the Armenian Diocesan High School. Armenag, my second uncle and an epileptic, received only a fifth-grade education, to the great chagrin of my grandmother. To raise her family and send her children to school, my grandmother worked for many well-to-do Armenian households, cleaning, baking bread, cooking, washing, and knitting.
Even though she was a churchgoing, fervent Christian, my grandmother seemed dazed by the calamities visited upon her by the loss of her husband, loss of six of her seven children, loss of her home and village, loss of a grandson. I had the impression, as I grew up, that she was angry at God or mystified by His actions, and that she lived to protest against Him. Her rudimentary argument with God was that since He is the Author, or at least it is with His consent that events take place in this world, He could have preserved at least some of her children, since she was not so sinful to deserve such a severe punishment. Her grief was private. She never complained; she cried for her sorrow, she cried for her children only in private. Her plight broke my heart.
Since my grandmother did not know how to read, she had no access to the Bible. She knew only a couple of short prayers by heart. She did not know the names of the twelve apostles, nor did she understand the lengthy Sunday sermons of the priests. She went to church to listen to the choir, observe the ceremony, receive communion, and pray. She used to light a candle and stand in front of the picture of Saint Mary, the Mother of Christ. One day after gazing at Saint Mary's picture, she shook her head. Probably they did not understand each other. Eventually she stopped her regular church attendance. Only once a year, on the eve of Good Friday, when the Church had the late-night service Khavaroom (Darkness, the Eclipse), when everyone came to mourn the death of Christ and that of their loved ones, did my grandmother attend the service, weeping in the darkness with scores of others over the loss of her children. She thought she was a "marked sinner."
After the deaths of her children, my grandmother never left Tabriz. She was fearful that she might die somewhere else and not be buried near her children. To be buried next to one's family members is a great blessing, she told us, because during Judgment Day and Resurrection, one must be near one's relatives. My grandmother believed in eternal life. Every Saturday night, she told us, belonged to departed souls. Saturday nights she kept a light on in our room and burned incense to invite departed souls to enter and rest for a while.
Thanks to my grandmother, I was acquainted with a world full of mythology, magic, and fantasy, where everything was simple, meaningful, and often beautiful. Since she could not read books to me and my sister, she spun tales. I learned that the stars were human souls, living in the sky, and that each of us could choose an exclusive star. (Naturally, I chose the North Star as mine.) These stars were our guardians. They not only protected us but had us under constant watch to see that we did the right thing. They were gifts of God, given to each of us upon our births. They served as lamps to light our inner world, enabling us to see its richness. They were the seats of our conscience. They gave us a sense of goodness, love, compassion, tolerance, and justice. The soul lived in the heart in an indefinite shape, as a body of light. The soul was also conceived to be air or breath. It was believed that when somebody died, the soul left the body through the mouth. The individual expired like a candle.
Departed souls could appear as good or bad ghosts. Good ghosts were associated with angels and holy beings; bad ghosts were souls of sinners. If someone had lived a good life, he would die with a smile. If, on the other hand, someone had not lived a virtuous life, one's death was painful, one struggled with Grogh (the writer of fate), and with the Hok-eh-ar, the taker of souls. Good and bad angels prepared their records of the dead for the ultimate Judge. If the good deeds weighed heavier, the soul went to Heaven. The bridge to Heaven (mazer, made of hair) was so fragile that it would break if the sins of the soul weighed it down.
Excerpted from The Road to Home by Vartan Gregorian Copyright © 2003 by Vartan Gregorian . Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction: My Birthplace||1|
|3||The Armenian Community of Tabriz||39|
|4||To Beirut, Le Petit Paris||63|
|6||Stanford University: A New World||107|
|7||The Long Road to Kabul||147|
|8||San Francisco State College||161|
|9||To Armenia: Land of Ararat||177|
|11||The City of Brotherly Love||215|
|12||A Rendezvous with the New York Public Library||267|