“Where do you come from?” asks the teacher of the adult class in Leopoldville, where I am registered for a course in Lingala. I hesitate.
It is a simple query that puts me in a quandary. Should I state my origins, nationality or citizenship?
“From my mother’s womb,” I want to tell him in short, but resist the urge.
Nobody asked me that kind of question in Cairo where I grew up. We were a known minority. The usual question was, “Are you Greek?” “Italian?” “Armenian?” or “What nationality are you?” if my name had not given it away already.
Now in Leopoldville, on an expatriate assignment with the United Nations, I stand out with my foreign accent, wavy hair, and possibly body language, gestures and all.
“From Egypt,” I mutter, to keep the conversation short. I wonder why he doesn’t ask the same question of the other students in class – half a dozen from the United Nations, five from the Swiss Red Cross and two businessmen.
“Egypt! C’est vrai?” he exclaims in French. “I thought they were all black!”
I feel uncomfortable in my skin but remain silent.
“Is your husband Egyptian too?”
“I don’t have a husband,” I blurt out, embarrassed to my core. At the ripe old age of thirty I am shelved as an old maid, all hopes gone.
“I want to show you to my friend. He has never seen an Egyptian.”
My cheeks burn. Am I the first Egyptian in town, the discovery of the century, or an antique from Pharaoh’s tombs? Should I be put on display with a distinct label slapped at my feet, “Imported African. Rare species. Handle with care”? How can I explain to my Congolese teacher that I am not a real specimen?
More than three thousand years of history define me as an Armenian, a descendant from the people living at the foot of Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark settled. The mountain was in Armenian territory for centuries. Politics moved it beyond the national boundaries and we became immigrants. How shall I explain that the DNA in my Armenian blood will survive forever, irrespective of the citizenship I have?
“I’m . . . not a real Egyptian,” I mumble, trying to avert a misconception.
Fourteen pairs of eyes stare at me as if I have just come out of ghost town.
I look at them and shrink at the task ahead of me. How will Idefine in two sentences our family history? My parents are survivors ofthe waves of “ethnic cleansing” that swept the Ottoman Empire fromthe 1890s through the 1920s. Under the pressure of reform, demanded by the foreign powers to improve the lot of minorities, the OttomanGovernment “solved” the problem by reducing them in massive, harrowing, so- called “displacements” into the Arabian deserts of the Middle East. Thus, the “starving Armenians” came into existence – skeletal, homeless, wandering survivors seeking refuge wherever acountry offered asylum. Thanks to this “solution,” half the nation now lives in countries around the world, constituting the Armenian Diaspora.
“Who remembers the Armenians?” exclaimed Adolph Hitler to his officers on the eve of his invasion to Poland. We, and the membersof my parents’ generation do, suffering in silence. The effects of genocide were present in my mother’s glassy eyes and in my father’s angry temper. It affected us all and will probably have its effect on a few more generations. We are the extra- uterine children of Motherland with different citizenships. Once transplanted, always a foreigner. Migration is not our family business, nor is it a national pastime, but circumstances forced us abroad to create a safe haven elsewhere. Icannot explain all this in two sentences. Nobody will understand my dilemma.
“Not a real Egyptian? What do you mean? Where do yourparents come from?” asks a man who eyes me curiously, taking over the queries from the teacher. The determination of my nationality takesprecedence over Lingala. “They come from Turkey.”
“Are you Turkish?”
“Then what do you consider yourself?”
Good question. I have been a floater all my life, a thin cloud flirting with the sun, daring it rather to disperse me. How can I explain my ethnic longevity? “Armenian,” I say, with a smirk. I know it will not register.
“Armenian? With an Egyptian passport?”
“It’s complicated. I’ll explain after class.”
The teacher takes over. We start the first lesson in Lingala. I sit there like a freak of nature. How did I end up here?
I am going through a period of adjustment in Leopoldville and an intense degree of cultural shock, coming from a conservative country. I am lost in this Babylon of United Nations. Last week I invited two compatriots from Egypt to lunch as a payback for their courtesy on my arrival. In this remote city of Leopoldville, one suddenly becomes friends with strangers holding similar passports. They treated me likek kin, even though I do not speak Arabic well. They advised me that life in Leo is built around entertainment, to escape boredom. So it was my turn. We walked home at noon, all three of us, from across the street, the United Nations headquarters, to find my meticulously prepared hot lunch in the refrigerator! I was indignant beyond control.
“Why didn’t you cook it?” I hollered at M’bala, the houseboy.
“You say one o’clock!” M’bala shot back angrily, showing his index and grumbling in an incomprehensible language. My instructions were to cook for one hour.
I joined this class as a last ditch effort to communicate with him and other locals. Sometimes, in my ivory tower of despair, I question myself: is this the expatriate experience I dreamed about? Have I done the right thing by changing the course of my destiny?
Living alone should not be a problem, I thought, before setting out on this journey. I lived in Alexandria on my own, about three hours away from home. Working with the United Nations was an honorable solution to leaving the parental roof. I didn’t care for Father’s iron rules but I missed my conversations with Berj, my younger brother. The older one, Kev, had repatriated to Armenia, fifteen years ago. He was only eighteen then. He hoped to find a better life in Motherland and meet our Aunt Ebrouk there, Mama’s much-talked-about sister, who repatriated from Lebanon. Was he looking for the same thing I was – a place to fit in?
Now it looked as if f I had left my identity behind and more than that. Old friendships, community presence, extended family, and a world of minor pleasures taken for granted, like a handshake, a nod of recognition, eye contact with an acquaintance, a smile from across the street, or a hug from a friend had disappeared. Did anybody miss me? Was I already forgotten? Perhaps I should not mention my origins at all, but then I don’t want to mislead this man who wants to show me around as an Egyptian. I know some of my new classmates will corner me with more questions by the end of class. I am not mistaken.
“That’s interesting,” says Walter, the Swiss gentleman sitting to my left, engaging me in conversation as class disperses. He is intent on finding out who I am. Fair hair, blue eyes, five foot eight in height, strong muscular build, he is attractive enough to shake my soul. “How can you be Armenian when you’re Egyptian?”
“Have you heard of Armenians?” I ask.
“Yes, vaguely. I really don’t know who they are.”
“Armenia is in Asia Minor, right below the Caucasus, but we live all over the world.” While I wait for the information to gel, I add, to ease the process. “It’s part of the Soviet Union, you know.”
An eerie silence hangs in the air for a moment:
“Are you a communist?”
“No, for heaven’s sake.”
“I still don’t understand. What’s Armenia like?”
“I don’t know. I never lived there.” “Then where did you grow up?”
“How was it growing up in Cairo?” “We had pharaohs for teachers and rode camels to school.”
Walter’s hearty laughter eases my tensions. I can’t imagine that working for good grades, fighting with siblings, rebelling against parents, and waiting for a knight in shining armor is any different elsewhere. Am I mistaken? For the first time in my life, I feel like a hybrid, not knowing exactly what the Motherland looks like, what our original traditions are and what superimposed customs have seeped into our culture. This class teaches me more than Lingala – the need to redefine myself.
One of the independent businessmen has heard our conversation.
“Did you say Rumanian? I didn’t really catch it,” he butts in.
Good Lord! With such titans as politician Anastase Mikoyan, composer Aram Khatchatourian, and writer William Saroyan, Armenians should have carved a page in history, but they haven’t. Raised eyebrows size me up. I realize that if I make a wrong move now all other Armenians around the globe will be judged by my behavior. I may not be a chip off the old block. In fact, I may even be the black sheep of my community, but, to the uninitiated, I am now the single specimen that represents the mass. This “where do you come from?” scenario follows me during my vagaries, from the Congo through travels in Europe, my transfer to Togo, my attempted stay in Lebanon, and to my permanent residence in the United States.
As an immigrant, I am the suspicious new strain of virus wherever I settle. The immunization system of the local community produces antibodies to arrest the spread of invasive elements of my type. Landlords look for the transient in me. Educational institutions detect an accent and frown upon certificates earned abroad. They devise elaborate schemes to deny me college entrance, but they don’t know how stubborn and persistent this strain of virus can be. Employment agencies shrug off my international experience as they give me an obscure slot. To preserve dignity, I hoist my ethnic pride and pray. Will I ever be accepted as an integral part of the local community where I will feel comfortable in my skin?
“Why can’t you give up being Armenian?” Caroline, a roommate in my migrant life, asks. Like my classmates in the Congo she is puzzled.
“How can I?” I reply. “My forefathers were massacred for their Christian faith and identity. I can’t betray them.”
I wonder if she understands what it is like. Can one expect pears from a transplanted apple tree? Heritage runs in my DNA. It squats in my womb. I need to keep language and ethnicity intact in order to keep the communication lines open with my extended familyand between the generations strewn across the world.
“My best friend never invites me to her Armenian Club,” acolleague complains. “She’s so clannish!” “She’s doing you a favor,” I offer, “do you blame her?” “How’s that? I find it rude.” “Wouldn’t you feel left out in a community where everybodyspeaks his ethnic language, down to the dialect? Most know each otheranyway.” “I never thought of that.” Should I mention that we treat the seventh generation still asfamily? That nobody is once or twice removed? That our theory ofrelativity is more complex than Einstein’s? Where does all this leave me? Like all children born in theDiaspora I persist on foreign soil by standing close to the local ethnicoasis, the expatriate Motherland, where I feel safe and secure in beingme, while making forays into the local culture. We cajole our parents,but keep pace with the world. We end up living a double life,externally the law-abiding citizen, internally the conservativetraditionalist. No wonder the question “Where do you come from?”follows me from the Congo to California, where I have lived longerthan in Egypt. This book defines my roots and perhaps will help promoteawareness of the problems of many immigrants like me who, forvarious reasons – ethnic cleansing, political dissidence, unfamiliarreligious practice, or, simply, lust for the unknown – travel the world insearch of a haven where they keep their splintered souls together.
Read more…Mary Terzian
Author: The Immigrants’ Daughter
Winner: Best Books 2006 Award
Finalist: National Indie Excellence 2007 Book Award, both in multicultural, non-fiction category