In Passage to Ararat, which received the National Book Award in 1976, Michael J. Arlen goes beyond the portrait of his father, the famous Anglo-Armenian novelist of the 1920s, that he created in Exiles to try to discover what his father had tried to forget: Armenia and what it meant to be an Armenian, a descendant of a proud people whom conquerors had for centuries tried to exterminate. But perhaps most affectingly, Arlen tells a story as large as a whole people yet as personal as the uneasy bond between a father and a son, offering a masterful account of the affirmation and pain of kinship.
About the Author
Michael J. Arlen is also the author of several other books. He lives in New York.
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Passage to Ararat
By Michael J. Arlen
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1975 Michael J. Arlen
All rights reserved.
At a particular time in my life, I set out on a voyage to discover for myself what it is to be Armenian. For although I myself am Armenian, or part Armenian, until then I knew nothing about either Armenians or Armenia. That is, almost nothing. My father had been Armenian — a child born of Armenian parents — but he had been brought up in England and educated in English schools. His citizenship had been English and, later, American. More to the point, he seemed to have virtually no connection with Armenia. At home, he never spoke the language. He rarely talked about Armenia. Professionally, he was a writer of romantic novels that were set for the most part in English society, and with hardly more than one or two exceptions he never wrote about Armenia — or Armenians. The exceptions were mainly deprecatory or amusing. One of his lines went "Now who would claim he was an Armenian if he was not?" Indeed, at the age of twenty-one he had changed his name from Dikran Kouyoumjian to Michael Arlen.
My mother (who was American and Greek) sometimes called my father Dikran in private, and this was the only way I knew as a child that he was something other than — or in addition to — English. "It's an Armenian name," she explained to me one long-ago afternoon. For a while, I thought this referred to the kind of name — a private name. I understood that some of my far-off uncles were called Kouyoumjian — an odd and difficult word for a child to scrawl on a thank-you letter. But my father, while he was well disposed toward the uncles, evidently detached himself from the name. Reluctantly, and usually with a grimace, he would tell me again how to spell it. "It's ridiculous and unpronounceable," he once said, and I had reason to agree. For the most part, my father's Armenianness was a hazy and remote matter that rarely intruded into family conversation: a youthful stage of his life that he had apparently long since passed through — had passed through successfully, as if with a school degree — and now there was clearly no point in talking further about it.
It was at an English boarding school, when I was nine, that I first realized that I was myself in any way Armenian — or, at least, half Armenian. Before the Second World War, we lived in Europe — English expatriates in the South of France. But if in those days I thought at all about identity I thought that I was English. We were English. We spoke English. We traveled on English passports.
At school, I was assigned to room with a cheerful, towheaded Scottish boy, MacGregor.
"Are you French, or what?" MacGregor asked me one day.
"Of course I'm not French," I said.
"You have to be French. You live in France."
"I'm English," I said.
"You can't be English!" said MacGregor.
The headmaster's wife helped set us straight. We sat at her table in the school dining room — a chill and drafty chamber where ancient uniformed waitresses clattered in with trays of dry toast and sardines, or sometimes baked beans, and on Sundays with silver platters holding pieces of bread covered with gravy. The headmaster's wife was a lady of cultured interests, who was active in the local theater group, and who often discoursed to us on the larger life that she glimpsed through avid reading of the London magazines and sometimes through abrupt, disastrous excursions to audition for historical pageants in the county seat. On this occasion, she announced that she had read somewhere that my father had recently published a new book. I never had much to say to such announcements. I knew that my father "wrote books" in his office, but writing in general, and his in particular, was another subject on which very little family conversation existed or was encouraged. She had not read any of his other novels, she continued, but she was sure they were very interesting. Wasn't The Green Hat the famous one? She had heard many good things about it. It must be fascinating, she said, to have a father who was a well-known writer. Did I, too, speak Armenian?
This last question took me by surprise. "No, I don't speak Armenian," I said. I think I added, "I've never heard anyone speak Armenian" — which was true.
"But I know I read somewhere that your father was Armenian," she said, with a bright smile. "I thought all Armenians spoke Armenian."
Later, in our small room, MacGregor glanced up from the comic he was reading. "Har-meenian?" he said. "What kind of sports do they play there?"
"I don't know," I said. "I've never been there. Probably the same sports as here."
"Not cricket," said MacGregor.
"Yes, cricket," I said. "Anyway, I'm English."
"You can't be English," said MacGregor.
At midterm, 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, but I didn't know how to ask.
Months later, home on vacation, I asked my mother instead. "Are we Armenian?" I felt that it was a daring question.
"Of course not," she replied, her tone kindly but brisk. "Your father's family have Armenian blood, but he is English and so are you." She showed me his passport.
As time went by, I went to other schools. In fact, as a result of the war, we moved to America, and I became more and more American, finally, at twenty-one, becoming an American citizen. 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. And so I, too, said that it did not exist.
I remember, as an older boy at school in New Hampshire, watching terrified from a fire escape while a gang of sixteen-year-olds taunted and pushed about one of their classmates, a sallow, spidery boy called Gordon, who was supposedly Jewish. What was I so terrified of, I've later wondered — for it is not an enhancing memory. I think probably this: I had gradually become aware that to be Jewish in certain Anglo-Saxon milieus was to be "different" — that is, to be alien and unprotected — and I knew that I, too, was "different," although I was somewhat protected by the camouflage of an accepted Anglo-American manner. But I felt that it was no more than a camouflage and might disappear any day. I know that as I looked down from that fire escape at poor Gordon, I thought: There but for them go we. Who were we? The truth is that for most of my growing up, and for much of my life, I didn't try very hard to find out. There seemed to be something slightly dangerous or second-rate in being Armenian; otherwise, my father would not have been so determined to move beyond it. And so I took the hint and followed him. Armenians were somebody else.
I remember also, years ago, in New York, around the time of an expected visit from my Uncle Krikor, who lived in Argentina, my father angrily brandishing some recent communication from Buenos Aires — probably a change in plans. "Why can't these Armenians ever do things simply?" he said. And "Now, isn't this just like an Armenian!" Evidently, Uncle Krikor was "just like an Armenian"; my father was something different. And, in fact, when Krikor finally arrived (a short, wiry man, with a definite nose and a face tanned by the Argentine sun) I felt him to be different from my father — darker, somehow more "Eastern" — although actually the two men were of the same size and build, had similar features (except for the Argentine suntan), and spoke impeccable English. At one point, Krikor addressed a few words to me in Armenian, which I naturally couldn't reply to. "Why, you haven't taught the boy any Armenian!" said Krikor, in genial reproof. We were having dinner in Krikor's hotel.
My father in those days had a carefully trimmed mustache and wore a flower in his jacket. "Well, it's an impossible language," he said, scowling.
Krikor smiled good-naturedly. "Ah, Dikran," he said. He was the elder brother.
In all my life, I never heard my father speak a single word of Armenian, unless one counts the occasional times we went to an Armenian restaurant and he would read, with a certain offhand professionalism, from the exotic menu, with its kebabs and dolmas, which, I later found out, were mainly Turkish. On the whole, I met few Armenians in his company, and most of these I thought of as being associated with a particular Armenian restaurant in New York, which we went to en famille perhaps once or twice a year. It was called the Golden Horn and was a small place in the West Fifties. Its proprietor was a large, warm-hearted man — Aram Salisian, a former wrestler, as wide as he was tall, with immense, gnarled hands and a square, roughhewn, kind face, which invariably seemed to be smiling. When we entered, he always embraced my father; I think he was just about the only man I ever saw do so. He bowed to the rest of us. He told me that someday he would teach me how to wrestle.
I liked the Golden Horn, because it was a nice place and because as a family we were generally happy there. I also had a special, secret feeling about it — and still have to this day, although the restaurant itself has disappeared — for it was the only region or territory in which I can recall my father's being at ease with his Armenian identity, even halfway accepting it. "So-and-So was here the other day," I can remember Salisian saying, stopping by our table, rattling off an Armenian name.
"Is that so?" I can hear my father's voice reply. "Well, how is he? Say hello to him from me."
Say hello to him from me. Not what one might describe as reckless bonhomie, but in those rare and periodic moments I believe he showed more affection for his Armenian background — our Armenian background — than most other times that I can remember. Now and then, other guests in the restaurant, or at the bar, would come over to chat for a few minutes. Talk of families, of sons and daughters in school. George, the bartender, I remember, had a son studying with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute of Music, who later became the pianist Eugene Istomin.
It was a strange and friendly time — strange because the men and women there for the most part looked to me so different, as if they were from another country, and yet for a moment we were part of them, their group, whatever they might be. I had a sense of "Armenia" as a fragile network of restaurants inhabited by people who seemed to live elsewhere — in somebody else's country. All that seemed real to me was the affection, the mysterious bond. On the walls of the restaurant, I remember, there were photographs of various Armenians who had "made good." One of them was a picture of my father with William Saroyan, the Armenian-American writer from California, whose plays had been appearing on Broadway and winning prizes. In the photograph, the two men were seated at a table with drinks in front of them, smoking cigarettes, staring rather glassily into the flashbulb — the usual night-club snapshot. It seemed to me a romantic and heroic moment: my father together with Mr. Saroyan. My eyes always turned to it — that glimpse of an Armenian comradeship.
But then after dinner we all walked out of the Golden Horn, saying goodbye to Mr. Salisian, leaving Aram Salisian and his world behind — and were back in our own world. On a few occasions, perhaps encouraged by our moments at the restaurant, I later questioned my father about Armenia, but I tried this rarely, because he so visibly wished not to be connected with the subject — in fact, brushed off such simple questions as I might have put — and because, indeed, I had no strong wish to be connected with it myself. Once, I remember, I asked him to come to the phone to take a call from a Mr. Hagopian, an Armenian professor who wished to discuss a literary project. "Tell him I'm out," my father said coldly. Afterward, I asked him why, for Hagopian and he had clearly never met. "He'll only want to talk about Armenian problems," my father said. "He'll go on for hours. They end up boring you to death." Later, more casually, he said, "They're a sweet people, but you can't let them get too close."
For the most part, I was content to leave things as they were. I was only slightly curious about my Armenian background — or so I thought, although, if I had understood how to acknowledge such matters, I might have known that I was haunted by it. Mostly, I was afraid of it. (What were "Armenian problems"? I supposed they must have to do with "Turkish massacres" and "starving Armenians," and such — distant and repellent events that I had vaguely heard about and that obviously had little or nothing to do with us.) What was I afraid of? It's difficult to remember now. Probably of being exposed in some way, or pulled down by the connection: that association of "difference," one's own "difference," with something deeply pejorative, with sin. I can't say that I felt sinful in any explicit sense, but I felt somehow marked — even to the extent, for much of my life, of considering myself unnaturally dark, so that a few years ago I was astonished to hear a skin doctor describe my skin as "light." And in the end (as perhaps in the beginning) I came to hate my father for my fear. It was not the only emotion I felt toward him, for I loved him, too; though he was seldom an emotionally expressive man, I knew, he was kind to me. He was my father. But also I was afraid of him. Something always lay between us — something unspoken and (it seemed) unreachable. We were strangers.
* * *
When my father died, nineteen years ago, I felt we were no closer. Even as on his deathbed he talked with me amiably and we held each other's hands. Even as, later, I wrote about him — for I myself had become a writer, although not a novelist, and tried to make a kind of contact with him, and with my mother, by writing about their life together and his career. As I remember, his funeral service was held in a Greek Orthodox church (my mother's church), rather than in an Armenian church. "All his life, he wanted to be free of the Armenians," my mother said. I missed him, although it was a relief to me in some ways that he was gone. Absent. In truth, I dreamed about him often, usually in the same scenario, or in dreams with the same feel to them: a feeling of distance between us. Sometimes he called to me and I couldn't hear what he was saying. Sometimes he merely stood apart — a solitary and somehow disapproving figure. We were still strangers.
* * *
By the time I had turned forty, my mother was dead, too. My own identity as an American seemed to me fairly definite — at least on the surface. I had an American wife and American children — a satisfactory American career and life. Then, one day, out of the blue, I was asked by an Armenian group in New York to come down and give a talk about writing. I was surprised and flattered by the invitation — for my lecture services were not in great demand — and said yes.
I can remember the evening vividly. The talk was given in an auditorium of the Armenian Cathedral, on Second Avenue — a place I had never before visited. The audience sat before me on little chairs — middle-aged Armenian men and women, for the most part, the men generally stocky, the women wearing old-fashioned flowered dresses. What I said was undistinguished, but all of a sudden I myself felt greatly moved. I remember standing at the lectern gazing into the rows of clearly Armenian faces — more Armenians than I had ever before seen together — and experiencing an extraordinary pull. My eyes told me that these people were different from me, but I knew that they were not so different. I didn't know what else I knew.
Afterward, an old gentleman with thick white hair came up to me. "An interesting talk," he said. "Although you didn't mention any Armenian writers. It's too bad we never saw your father here."
"I don't think he thought of himself as Armenian," I said. And as soon as I had said it I realized that it was untrue.
"Of course he was Armenian," said the old man. "You are Armenian. It is not such a strange thing to be Armenian. Come, have some coffee."
I think I thought something like, You can go forward here, or stay where you are. And so I went with him and had some coffee.
Excerpted from Passage to Ararat by Michael J. Arlen. Copyright © 1975 Michael J. Arlen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Books by Michael J. Arlen,