As an adult, my Armenian last name attaches me to a broken family and a culture that has never had much meaning for me as a youth. No one gets it the first time they hear it, and I always have to repeat it. I find myself having to explain that it’s an Armenian name. Most people don’t even know what an Armenian is, so I explain that Armenia used to be a republic within the old Soviet Union. It’s now an independent country. It borders on Turkey and its sacred mountain, Ararat, belongs now to Turkey. It’s an ancient culture that has officially adopted Christianity as its religion.
There seems to be two kinds of Armenians: those who change their names and those who don’t. Cher (Cherylin Sarkissian) changed hers, Raffi (Cavoukian) just uses his first name, and the famous Armenian-American painter Vostanik Monoog Adoyan changed his name to Arshile Gorky.
A few years ago, I was having breakfast with a friend, when over scrambled eggs and sausages he asked me what I thought of Atom Egoyan’s movie, Ararat. I told him that I hadn’t gotten around to seeing it yet. He was shocked that I hadn’t, as if I was one of a handful of Armenians and should have received a personal invitation to opening night. I told him I was interested but that I was never brought up Armenian, except for the food, and maybe the religion and some strict discipline.
My friend scolded me for not wanting to know more about the Armenian genocide. However, I did know the story, or at least the one told to me by my father. According to dad, my grandparents were young teenagers during the genocide of 1915 in which nearly 2/3’s of the Armenian population was slaughtered. My grandparents were trapped on a mountain with very little food. The Turks tried to scale the mountain but a fog came down and gave the sight advantage to the Armenians. My grandfather and others fought the Turks off with a few muskets. Then someone spotted the flag of a French ship in the sea and sent the young men to swim for help. Apparently one of those young men was my grandfather.
The French rescued the trapped Armenians, brought them to Egypt as refugees and enlisted the young men, including my grandfather, in the French army during WWI. My father showed me the medals my grandfather earned in the war. After the war my grandparents married and had four children, my father being the youngest. Unfortunately, my grandfather died when my dad was only four, and left his family in Lebanon where many Armenians settled after the war.
My friend was impressed. To him, I’m what an Armenian is, pointing to my huge eyes and dark curly hair. At that moment over breakfast, after I told the story that was told to me, my name meant more to me than ever. Suddenly I was linked to a family that was broken two generations ago and to a culture that I thought I never knew.