Sunday, April 24, 2011

Armenian Genocide: A tear a day

By Naeema Zarif (
The Armenian Genocide is not something I usually talk about casually with my Armenian friends. Ninety-six years since, it is still a subject that hits a raw nerve and I am never sure it is the right time to inquire deeper.

Today, April 24, commemorates the Armenian Genocide carried out by the “Young Turk” government of the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1916. One to one-and-a-half million Armenians were killed during the Armenian Genocide – through wholesale massacres and deportations consisting of forced marches -- out of two-and-a-half million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Armenians all over the world commemorate the tragedy on April 24, the day in 1915 when 250-300 Armenian leaders, writers, thinkers and professionals in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, were rounded up, deported and killed. The Ottoman military then uprooted Armenians from their homes and forced them to march for hundreds of miles, depriving them of food and water, to the desert of what is now Syria.

It is unfortunate that this year the remembrance falls on the same day as Easter. Being in Beirut, the subject of the Genocide came up a couple of days ago with my best friend and soul mate Zepure Hamparian Mansour and another friend, Marlen Salbashian. It is something we have never discussed, even after 36 years of friendship. I asked both friends to contribute their thoughts on the day, for Mich Café.

It wasn’t easy for either, but here is what each had to say:

Zepure Hamparian Mansour:*

Commemorating the Armenian Genocide is always linked with my grandmother, one of the survivors.

Haiganoush, Haigo to us, was a young widow when she was forced to leave her home in Erzurum and begin the long march to Syria. She had two children: Hasmig, nine; and three-year-old Arpine (my mother). My grandfather, Dikran, had passed away before the deportation. I remember Haigo telling me how lucky he was to have died of Typhus rather than be slaughtered by the Turks.

Haigo, like thousands of Armenians, marched towards the unknown. But she and her two daughters were among the lucky ones who made it to Aleppo.

My mother Arpine, married another survivor, Garo, and they settled in Tripoli, north Lebanon. Hasmig remained in Aleppo. Haigo shuttled between her two daughters. She spent her last years and died in Tripoli.

Zepure in the arms of her grandmother Haigo, Arpine, Garo and her siblings
As a little girl, coming home from school to find Haigo visiting from Aleppo always made me ecstatic. My homework was done quickly so I could sit next to her, cuddle her and listen to her fairy tales. Whatever the story, she would always end talking about the deportation.

I was still young. The words massacre, rape, hunger, deportation, refugee camps… meant nothing to me. Haigo would describe every single detail as if it had happened the day before. Her memory was so vivid and she relived every moment while recounting all the stories.

I still remember her telling me she had some gold coins (called Osmalieh) saved and how she had to use them, on the deportation march, to pay for a loaf of bread the Turkish soldiers would sometimes trade off.

It has always been a mystery to me how Haigo and her daughters survived. Was it luck? Were my mother and aunt too young to be snatched away?

When they finally made it to Aleppo, my grandmother found a room in an old house. She said it had a fountain in a central court with the rooms all around. A couple of years ago, on a visit to Aleppo, we were invited to a trendy restaurant called Sissi House. The minute I walked in, it was just as Haigo described her lodgings. All these old houses are now boutique hotels and restaurants to wipe out the memory of the misery of the thousands who used to live there.

One of the most poignant stories I remember Haigo telling me is how, every morning, she filled a big pot with water and pretended to be cooking something. She was doing some embroidery for the Immaculate Conception nuns. Hasmig was in school and my mother played in the courtyard with the other toddlers. But one day, a curious child removed the lid and told everyone that Arpine’s mother was only boiling water. Haigo had too much pride to show anyone her misery.

My grandmother was special to me. As a child, I’d ask her why my ears were so big. She would say: “Look at my ears, look at your mother’s ears. We all have big ears. Intelligent people have big ears.” And it’s true that Haigo was an intelligent, confident and strong woman. She was a survivor.

Haigo, my cherished grandmother: your husband Dikran’s wedding ring with your names engraved on the band is now on my beloved husband Yorki’s finger. Haigo, you are with us forever.

*Zepure is the Program Coordinator, Radiologic Technology Training Program, American University of Beirut Medical Center

Marlen Salbashian*:


You’re walking under the Syrian Desert sun.  You are cradling a one-week old baby girl in your arms. While trying to shield her from the burning sun, you’re trying to hold on to the hand of your 12-year-old daughter. 

What will you do if she is killed in front of your eyes? 

You still haven’t wiped away the image of your three other daughters, raped and slaughtered in their own beds by the vicious Turks. You still haven’t found the tears to mourn them. Dehydration has left your eyes tearless. 

Then you remember your elder son, your only son, beheaded, just because…


Marlen Salbashian
The baby starts crying. You have no more milk in your breasts to feed her, your heart aches and you feel the child’s pain crippling you. You feel helpless but will do anything just to give her some comfort. But what?

Suddenly, you brother-in-law is by your side. He looks at the child. With a decisive voice he orders you to leave the baby in the middle of the desert. You can’t even imagine doing something like that, but calmly he explains: If you walk through the desert with the child in your arms, she will die of starvation. But if you leave her in the desert, there is a slight chance some Arab nomads might find her and give her a home.


How can he say something like that? This is your daughter, you’ve carried her in your womb for nine months, you’ve given birth to her, and you love her. 

You love her. That’s the keyword. You love her and have to leave her; leave her to coyotes, or some good-hearted Arabs, whichever comes first. But then at least she would have a chance.


That’s how my aunt was left in the desert. 

My grandmother lived till the age of 92. Not a day passed without her shedding a tear for this daughter, whose fate is still unknown. 

And today, after 96 years, I still shed a tear a day for my aunt.

*Marlen is Assistant Coordinator, Radiologic Technology Training Program & Radiation Safety Program of Diagnostic Radiology at the American University of Beirut Medical Center