Notes From Hairenik

Armenian politics stopped being interesting for me several years ago. It was 2014, the day after President Serzh Sargsyan announced that he was reneging on the Associating Agreement that was just about to be signed with the EU. His ministers and chief of staff were stunned by the decision and tried to spin things, claiming they were in on the decision. It was quite clear that they weren’t, and I waved bye-bye to the political scene altogether. Turns out I didn’t really miss much. The public transportation fee hike protests were in 2013 (150 dram up from 100), which resulted in the authorities rescinding their decision. I missed the Electric Yerevan movement in 2015, since I was in the US at the time. I was also in the US for Sasna Dzer, which in retrospect was a desperate, indeed heartbreaking attempt in reclaiming justice for Armenian citizenry. Then came “My Step.”

Like many people, no one knew what to make of Nikol’s latest gimmick to gain attention for a meaningful cause—who didn’t want Serzh Sargsyan to disappear and take the whole Republican party with him? It seemed foolhardy—he would walk to Yerevan from Gyumri, spread his message along the way in small towns and villages. At the time I thought, OK, good for you, Nikol, have fun with that. I was shocked by the momentum it gained a week or two later.

Footage on YouTube shows him on Vartanants Square on March 31, a sunny, chilly afternoon judging by his black windbreaker zipped up to his chin. He looked as dorky as ever, balder than ever, clean shaven, tidy. And he had that old, indescribable charm about him. I wanted to take him seriously, yet I couldn’t help but smile, too, and give him a bear hug. I’ve had that same feeling about him since I first saw him in 2007. I never walked up to him and introduce myself, perhaps interview him (although I tried to arrange one in 2012). I regret that now.

Back in 2007 he had his Impeachment movement and the editor of the daily Haykakan Zhamanak. His protests started in late afternoon, about every day, raving incoherently into his iconic bullhorn, advocating for the downfall of Robert Kocharian, Serzh, the oligarchy. He sounded like a total nut. Perhaps that was the point—he wanted to reel people in. And it worked. His movement grew and they threw their weight behind Levon Ter-Petrosyan in his unexpected political comeback to retake the presidency in 2008. Nikol paid the price after March 1—he went into hiding for 16 months, then gave himself up and was promptly imprisoned. He emerged a hero, and in 2012 he won a parliamentary seat on the Armenian National Congress (ANC or HAK) ticket. You couldn’t help but applaud the guy.

But he really ticked me off when he went back on his word to protest the outcome of the parliamentary election results, which everyone agreed were fraudulent. Instead he decided to shut up about it (I was there when he and the other ANC people announced the decision) and get to work in the National Assembly. We all forgave him. Since then he’s tried to take the spotlight in opportune moments, like during the Electric Yerevan and Sasna Dzer movements (he was mocked and sent home during the latter).

I was skeptical about “My Step” and its transformation in mid-April in Yerevan. The acts of civil disobedience—blocking intersections and occupying squares—seemed endearing to me at first. Then the riot police started showing their face, which really began to concern me. I’ve been braver in the past when riot police came out in prior mass protests. But in Yerevan they symbolize trouble and confrontation, especially after the Sasna Dzer ordeal. And now, as a dad of two young boys, I want to keep my distance from harm’s way. I don’t want to be in the thick of it anymore. Perhaps that fear hindered me from taking the “My Step” movement very seriously at the time.

Then early morning on April 17, the day of Serzh Sargsyan’s election as prime minister, I saw via a live video feed that the Baghramyan-Proshyan intersection was blocked with razor wire and riot police. I fired off an email to all my students that I was calling in sick and they should be vigilant about travelling to AUA. After I completed my work from home, I roamed the city. What I witnessed blew me away. Not only were protesters blocking intersections, they told off irate motorists driving fancy SUVs who were arguing with them. Even a few provocatively dressed women in stiletto heels told off a driver trying to get through. Then, they just turned their cars around and sped away. People were essentially submitting to this movement. And I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.

Wherever I went that afternoon I saw more of the same. Half of Sayat Nova street was closed, including Place de France, where things were about to wind down within minutes after my arrival, I would come to find out. Two kids sharing the seat of what looked like a Huffy dirt bike from the mid-80s rode in announced, “People, we’re moving to Republic Square. Nikol’s meeting us there,” and sped off to another checkpoint. People of all ages were strolling about, walking up to a coil of razor wire pulled across Baghramyan Ave at the Isahakyan intersection. All of them, like me, were trying to absorb what was going on, and what it would lead to.

When I saw that Republic Square had been closed just before rush hour I knew we were at a point of no return. I was standing near the middle of the square, in broad daylight. The police were nowhere to be found, except for a row of about 50 cadets in front of the Government Building. They simply couldn’t keep up since the protests were so decentralized. A lot of them were distracted by Nikol’s parades around town. It was a game changer moment. 

The evening of April 23, the day of Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, was a time of immense, harmonious celebration. Strangers were congratulating one another. Vuvuzelas were blaring everywhere, and song and dance broke out in the middle of the Yerevan’s main thoroughfares. I roamed the streets until just past midnight, observing mesmerized with I had been seeing. Never before had I seen Armenian citizens so unified in purpose, ecstatic in the bliss of empowerment and accomplishment. It was all quite moving. Upon my arrival in Republic Square I saw some young protesters light small fires within orange paper lamps and watched them float into the starry sky. I turned to the wide fountain pool overflowing into the long drain and reflected on the evening, on the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets for freedom and justice, and similar movements I had personal witnessed over the years that had great promise but ultimately failed. And in that private moment I wept. 

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen on May 8. The Republicans have pledged that they would vote for the candidate for prime minster, without explicitly stating Nikol’s name. They royally screwed up on May 1 by failing to elect him—the paralyzing nationwide protests on May 2 were stark proof of that.

I think it’s too soon to call the “My Step” movement a velvet revolution, despite Nikol’s convictions. The word “revolution” implies a change in the system of governance of a country, along with regime change and political/cultural/social ideology. This movement is unfolding in front of our eyes, and our emotional reactions are leading us to believe that we are experiencing cultural and political upheaval. What we have seen, essentially, was the resignation of the prime minister and former president under intense pressure from countless thousands of citizens participating in public civil disobedience, marches, and strikes nationwide. We are seeing a new generation of millenials—17-25 year olds—who are just being kids, but without inhibitions and the albatross of shame worn around their necks. Instead, they are employing their youthful exuberance to demand the application of their rights to democracy, equality, and justice. We have yet to see a new prime minister, a new interim or permanent government formed in accordance with Armenia’s constitution, freer elections unmarred by fraud, and an amended electoral code. We may see a change in the type of democratic system—perhaps a social democracy—that may replace the virtually unregulated free-market, oppressive system in place. But we still have a long way to go. Perhaps in a year, after having analyzed what exactly transpired during the course of three to six months (we’re only five weeks into this movement) we can appropriately define this as a period of revolution.

But regardless of the label given to “My Step,” this is a momentous, unprecedented time in Armenian history that the entire world is witnessing, and this movement will certainly be an impetus for change in countries worldwide where stark social and economic inequalities have pushed the masses to ineluctably expired patience. The Russians are already using the Armenian model in anti-Putin protests.

For me the real indication of a revolution having taken place will be the imminent passage of legislation that increases the minimum wage to a level commensurate with the current basic standard of living and ever-creeping inflation. Efforts have failed in the past for unproven reasons—the latest promise to increase the minimum wage was made in December 2017. Although the minimum wage is 55,000 dram, or $114, some people, like municipal street cleaners who sweep the streets late at night using what seem like homemade brooms, are purportedly earning much less than that. It is impossible for a family to survive on such a wage. It may have been somewhat adequate 15 or 20 years ago, when the prices of basic foodstuffs like dairy products and bread were much lower than they are now.

Homelessness also needs to be eradicated. The government should confiscate partially constructed apartment buildings financed with stolen money and provide modern, low-income housing to the poor. Corporate greed and high-interest bank loans have disenfranchised too many Armenian citizens, and it needs to stop.

We’re living in extraordinary times. Never before have I seen so much hope in people’s eyes, so much compassion shared for others. Optimism has finally eclipsed fatalism. Here’s hoping that this sense of empowerment that Armenians, especially the youth, are now feeling is sustainable.

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March 24, 2018

On a recent trip to Paris I found myself thinking of my two young sons nearly every corner I turned in search for the perfect crepe sandwich in the Latin Quarter or an appealing, modest glass of Côtes du Rhône. While I toured the city on the Big Bus I kept imagining what they would ask me as it approached the Arc de Triomphe for instance, or how does one get to the top of the Tour d’Eiffel. Each time I bit into one of three or four croissants consumed during the day I imagined them eating their own alongside me, completely content, speechless in delight. They were with me on my metro rides, ecstatic to be on a train, and they were with me at the bistro, pleading with me to move on. Sometimes I wonder whether I am obsessed with my own kids, and whether that obsession—if that is even the proper word—is healthy for a man my age—a middle-aged divorcé.

Being a single father in Armenia indeed has its challenges. Modern Armenian culture—within the republic, anyway—does not accept the father as a sole caretaker. For two years after my wife moved out I found myself having to prove to society that I could handle parenthood on my own, without the micromanaging Armenian mom hovering in the background. Fathers are not supposed to cook and clean for their children—that’s the mother’s or grandmother’s job. Fathers might play with the children at home. They might carry them to the park, cigarette dangling from the mouth, spitting phlegm along the way. They aren’t expected to wipe their kids’ asses and pick up after them. They discipline with idle threats of beatings and bullying. Some parents threaten their kids with claims that they would suffer a heart attack out of shock, for instance when they suddenly break out into a sprint down the sidewalk. Fathers bark out humiliating orders—come here, sit, stay, don’t run—in the most reviling way. Some are offended when their children want affection, by hugging their knees for instance. Don’t do it, they respond, behave. Some Armenian dads never seem to smile.

I find myself compelled to break this conventional stereotype every day I am out in public with my sons. Not only do I chat with them in a casual, carefree manner as I would with my own friends, I give them near constant affection, by putting my arm around their shoulders and holding them close, grasping their tiny hands in mine, sometimes growling like an ailing mutant wolf-seal in their ears. I aim to be a model father while trotting down the wide, Caucasian oak-lined sidewalks on the way home, as if to demonstrate how it’s done to all the bitter farts that may be watching.

I don’t mean to brag, but for a 45 year old man in Armenia I look good, at least 10 years younger. Many Armenian men, by the time they reach my age, look at least 60, out of shape, usually obese, smoking thin cigarettes, wearing a perpetual grimace, screaming into their cell phones to some sorry sod that is compelled to hear them rant about missed payments and petty feuds related to disastrous business transactions (“where’s the money”, “I said that you must…”, “I swear on my mother/father, if you don’t do this…” blah, blah). I don’t dress like Armenian men and I certainly don’t go shopping where they do. They all seem to dress alike, wearing the same charcoal gray padded jackets, some longer than others, some with wider patterns than others. They wear blacks and faded or bright blues for contrast. They sport thin, striped crew-neck sweaters at least one size too small to accentuate their curves. They crop their hair short, no matter how low the hairline, as if they just stepped out of a time/space wormhole originating from the 1950s. And they don’t smile. When they do share humor with each other, it’s about some inside joke between them that isn’t funny to begin with, probably not even to them, but they have to go through with fawning appreciation for the joke, or the potential it could have had. By default, they’re gruff and discontent. When they are out and about with their kids, it seems like a chore, as if they’re going to have teeth extracted. The warm intimacy between father and child in public is disturbingly seldom.

And, being a single dad, meeting women is also a challenge for me. They don’t understand why my ex and I couldn’t work it out, or why we split with two small boys in the picture. My status as single father is a red banner that binds me taut like a sarma.

I would like to start a club of single Armenian fathers in Yerevan but the membership would likely include all but one man. Sometimes I wonder where the long-term support is for guys like me, emotionally attached to their kids, no relationship prospects, destined incompatible with any and all women (although there’s that amazing corporate-level CPA who lives only 7,247 miles away). The fact that I consider myself a relatively young, active single father of two young boys is enough reason for women to run away shrieking. Never mind that I have a history of being a cantankerous, moody, major pain in the pass (although I’m mellowing, really). Dating has always been awkward for me. Dating has led me down the paths of disastrous relationships with women with whom I shouldn’t have been socializing to begin with because there was no common ground on subjects that were of such supreme importance to me. I had been willing to sacrifice my personal musical tastes in hopes that compromise would lead to long-term gains on emotional and spiritual levels. Now I cannot imagine being in a relationship where my partner does not have any appreciation for John Coltrane’s music. This has become my bar to set. If after a few dates at the most if I realize that the woman I’m courting is indifferent to Coltrane’s music, then it’s time to stop. What’s the point of dating someone who isn’t moved by the trance-inducing “My Favorite Things” or, particularly, the sacred, symphonic work “A Love Supreme?” There’s simply no use. I haven’t met one person worth my while who has listened to “A Love Supreme” from start to finish and wasn’t moved by it. Better to stay home curled up with Chi Chi, and drink a hearty Armenian red blend or Kozel Pale out of half-liter bottles, and munch on shelled walnuts, sulghuni cheese pressed sandwiches, dark chocolate, Gemlik olives, labneh sprinkled with crushed mint and cayenne pepper or zaa’tar and drizzled olive oil. That’s way better than an insipid date. The only problem is that it gets old after a while. So I try again, and become disappointed again so I can appreciate anew how good I had it. You learn to weigh the seemingly insignificant things in life. Will it be a shimmering, intoxicating plate of labneh or a shitty wine date with an unexpectedly shallow woman? Labneh, by all means. I remain faithful to my labneh.

But what I tell myself each morning is that the only thing I can control in my personal life is to be the best father I can be. That’s enough. Never mind the idyllic romantic relationship that won’t pan out. I am a dad of two amazing, funny, extraordinary children. They have my name, and the family heritage continues. They are learning about their roots, they are just starting to understand where they come from. They know both English and Armenian fluently, for their age, and are picking up Russian. My older son even discerns the nuances of Western Armenian versus Eastern. They know two cultures—east and west. They have two extended families located both east and west. They love Hot Wheels and Spider-Man and Play-Doh and Ernie and Bert. They love their commie cartoons and all the other commie kids stuff that Armenian parents are still into but I don’t get and never will. They love their spaghetti covered with supermarket canned Parmesan cheese that I buy two for five bucks on each trip to Boston. And yes, they dig Trane. That’s enough.

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September 21, 2016

Twenty-five years of independence. Let's see what these dudes manage to accomplish in time for the Armenian republic's 50th anniversary.

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On October 24 I took advantage of the opportunity to see Onnik Dinkjian perform live with his son Ara Dinkjian in Istanbul. The concert was one of the most emotional, inspiring musical experiences I’ve had thus far. The entire performance from beginning to end was a tour de force.

Onnik is by far the greatest interpreter of Armenian traditional and folk music alive today. He is now in his mid-80s and he still passes for a man at least 20 years younger in terms of appearance and vitality. I never recall him hearing him sing so well, not in performance and not on his recordings (I have them all). Perhaps the clarity of his voice that night was attributable to the sound system and acoustics of the hall. Most of the time, when he does sing live, he does so in ballrooms and gymnasiums where you can’t really hear anything since the sound is so muffled or distorted.

Onnik took to the stage on fire, wearing a silver gray double-breasted suit adorned by his signature French cuffs. The night after his Istanbul concert he performed in Vienna with the band, the same that played behind him on the latest recording he made of songs from Dikranakert titled Diyarbekiri Hokin / Ermenice Diyarbakır Şarkıları (which incidentally is by far the best music project he has ever been a part of, not only due to his talent but also to Udi Ara’s masterful arrangements).  Onnik also sang other old favorites, notably “Hey Oualla,” a song from an early recording he made that still endures, and “Hay Herosneri Yerk,” which is an old patriotic song that pays homage to monumental figures in the Armenian revolutionary movement of the early 20th century. This song brought the house down, despite that a large part of the audience was Turkish.

At one point nearly half way through the concert the audience was so riled up by the music that dozens of people engaged in the traditional line dancing through the hall’s aisles. So the vibe suddenly transformed into the same spirit of the thousands of Armenian youth balls that Onnik has performed at, mainly on the East Coast for at least forty years.  

The concert closed with a gorgeous father and son performance of “Garod,” a heartbreaking song that Onnik first recorded on his Just For You album in the late 70s, and it also appeared on the enthralling Voice of Armenians - Live in Jerusalem album from 2007. "Garod" is also incidentally the title of an excellent documentary available on DVD about Onnik and Ara and their first visit to Diyarbakır. I have trouble listening to “Garod” these days because I usually can’t get through the song without breaking up. It is such an intense, morose song about longing and lost love. Naturally, I began to weep last Saturday night. Just the fact that I was there at all, combined with the somber mood of that ballad, was all too much to take.

It was my first time hearing Udi Ara perform in concert. Although I have listened to his recordings countless times the depth of his music cannot fully be appreciated without seeing him play oud in person. The concert opened with "Diyarbakır Peşrevi," the opening track and an instrumental piece from Onnik’s latest record. While Onnik took a short break to catch his breath Ara and the phenomenal ensemble played some favorites from his catalog, such as “Picture,” the title track from the first Night Art album. “Picture” was incidentally rearranged for the second The Secret Trio recording, a sublime masterpiece that was released at the beginning of this year. I have tremendous admiration and respect for Udi Ara and his moving music, particularly his original compositions, and I was privileged to meet him very briefly backstage. He takes after his father as being a true gentleman, a very cordial, welcoming person. I hope I’ll have a chance to discuss music with him soon.

It is a great pleasure to finally see Onnik perform on the international stage. His credit as a world-class professional vocalist is long overdue, and his extraordinary talent I believe has not been fully appreciated during much of his career in the US. There isn’t anyone who can sing traditional and popular Armenian songs like him, not with the same verve and deep-felt passion, and certainly not with that rich tenor voice that becomes more intense with age, like a fine Bordeaux. 

I am thankful to Onnik for introducing me to Armenian song when I was a little boy, in the days when I was obsessively listening to his legendary album ONNIK that was recorded the same year I was born. He was my hero then, and he still is to this day. I’m relieved that I finally had the courage to tell him so as I embraced him Saturday night.

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April 24, 2015

My grandmother Clara Movsessian Russian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide‬, is 100 years old, born October 28, 1914. She still lives in her home of 70 years in Arlington, Massachusetts. 
She was born in the village of Yegheki, located in the kaza of Harput within the province of Mamuratul Aziz-Harput. Her father Nishan was deported when she was only a few months old. She survived poverty, famine, typhoid, and always kept hope alive. Against all odds she made it to America by age 11. She married Hagop “Jack” Russian of the village of Sousoury, located just beside Yegheki. She was a founding member of the St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Massachusetts and served on the Ladies’ Auxiliary for two decades. 
But she's more than just my grandmother, she's my heroine, my fount of inspiration. She taught me determination, resilience. And I love her very much.

Below is a fragment from her memoirs, which I am still in the process of editing.


Clara standing beside her mother Haigouhi to the right. The woman seated on the left is unidentified. 

Krikor Guetchudian, who was a cunning man, had something in store for my mother that no one had predicted. He cleverly stole a picture of my mother and sent it in a letter to his younger brother Nishan, who was living in New Britain, Connecticut at the time. In his letter, he told Nishan to divest all his assets and invest in Krikor’s flourishing business. Since there were unrest and rumors of war in Turkey, Krikor intended to profit from the situation in flux by investing in provisions such as flour, sugar, olive oil and nuts. He also told Nishan to consider marrying my mother, since she came from a prominent family, was well educated and very attractive. Nishan was a sentimental guy, and he was also very homesick, not to mention lonely. He figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to return to he Old Country and get married. After all, he could always move back to Connecticut since he had been established there and knew the ins and outs of making a living in America. So he left Connecticut in 1913 with gifts, jewelry and fine clothes for his future bride. 
When Nishan arrived in Liverpool, England, where he awaited his ship that would travel along the Mediterranean Sea to Armenia, he just happened to meet a young Armenian woman who was on her way to America. It was a weird coincidence to both of them. 
“Where are you going now?” the woman asked.
“I’m off to Kharpert, to my village where I’m going to get married. My brother found a bride for me.”
“I’m from Kharpert, too. I was born in Husenig.”
“My family home is in Yegheki.”
“That’s where my sister teaches now.”
Then he remembered he had his bride’s photograph in his jacket pocket. He removed it and showed it to the woman. 
"That’s my sister, Haigouhi!" she yelled. Teriz and Nishan embraced in tears. She made him promise he would be a good husband to her and treat her well, otherwise she would come back and severely beat him. Then she hugged and kissed him again, the tears from both of them ruining her makeup, and they parted ways. They would never meet again.
Back in Yegheki, when he felt as though he had saved up enough money, Nishan went to my grandparents’ home to ask for my mother's hand in marriage. A time-honored custom was observed, with the girl having no decision in the matter. There was a very extravagant wedding attended by many friends and family members, and the joyous festivities lasted for an entire week. My mother moved into Krikor’s home with her new husband. 
“What are we supposed to do now?” Haigouhi asked Nishan one day when they were alone, walking through the lush fields. “You know, all this marriage business.”
“We’ll have a family, I guess. What did you have in mind?”
“A daughter.”
“I think we can manage that.”
“What about teaching?”
“You’re a schoolteacher.”
“You won’t stop me?”
“Why would I do that? Besides, I still need to learn things myself.”
“Learn what?”
“Things, you know. English for one thing.”
“What do you mean, silly?”
“I mean, you know… like yours.”
My mother blushed. “Aren’t you going to hug me?”
My father, who was very handsome and dressed sharp in American suits, was 27 years old when he married my mother. He was a self-taught musician, who played both oud and violin. He wept when he sang his melancholy songs, and so did everyone else listening. The instruments were washed with tears, a premonition of the tragic days that would change our lives forever.
I was born on October 28, 1914. My mother suffered three days with severe labor pains and was on the verge of death. My father rode to Kharpert and found a proficient midwife, who miraculously saved our lives. I was christened in our local Armenian church and named Hayastan in honor of our motherland, Armenia. But I wasn’t destined to have that name for very long. After my father gave it some more consideration, he decided to change my name, fearful that the Turks might regard him as a revolutionary. During this time, my mother was reading a book, which included a heroine named Clara, which was how I received my new name.
I was four months old when in January, 1915, the Turks were beginning to arrest all young men and intellectuals. It was the spark of the inferno that would consume the lives of over a million souls and deliver ruin to hundreds of thousands more. 
My father was arrested and imprisoned for many months. All my mother told was that he was arrested under “suspicion,” but they never told her what for. Hundreds of men went to jail the same way, without explanation. Of course, no one yet understood what was going on or could have predicted what was coming. While in jail he contacted typhoid fever and was sent home by the authorities. I guess they were afraid of catching it, too, it’s not like they suddenly cared about his health. My mother tended to his illness until he recovered and was once again arrested and jailed. By now, he was an embittered man and fearful of his destiny. My mother would bundle me up and carry me in her left arm, and we would visit him. We would bring him some sarmasini kufta or something else he liked to eat wrapped in paper, so the guards wouldn’t suspect anything and snatch it for themselves. She would hand him things between the bars when no one was looking. He would hold my tiny hand the same way.
“Will I see the day when my daughter Clara takes a gift from my own hands?” he asked my mother once.
“You’ll come home soon, I know it,” she smiled.
“I miss you in here. It’s getting very hard to take sometimes.”
“It’s a test of our faith. We’ll get through this.”
“I need my wife and my baby by my side,” he cried.
“And we need our man. We’re not going anywhere.”
The fateful day came when a messenger of death announced that all Armenians from neighboring villages, both young and old, were to be deported to the town of Urfa within one month. They were allowed to take with them only as much as they could carry. Before the day of departure, they congregated inside St. Vartan Church to hear Father Mampre’s last mass and sermon. They confessed their sins and received their last communion. With agonizing tears, they embraced each other and prepared for their departure. 
My grandparents and their children came to Yegheki to bid farewell, knowing that they would never see one another again. They and 45 relatives of my mother were deported to the desert of Der-el-Zor in Syria. Husenig’s entire population of 3,000 people ceased to exist. My grandfather did not fear hunger because he had always fasted for 40 days during lent, but he was dreading the unbearable thirst awaiting him in the desert. Two weeks later, my father and his brother Asadour were deported with their fellow villagers from Yegheki. My mother was completely devastated, she couldn’t speak a word for days. As my father was marched away he never turned around to look back. 
No word was sent from my father, and we had no idea where he really went. There were rumors coming that men were being hung, shot in the head, and even beheaded. Then they were being tossed into ravines to rot and eaten by animals. The rivers were filled with corpses and were finding new routes around them. My mother was now a widow at the age of 18 with a six-month-old. She was distraught at the thought of Nishan’s demise and agonized inconsolably, and if it hadn’t been for me she would have given up living. Having been nurtured in a very religious environment at home, she not only lost her faith but also questioned God—"Why?"— just as countless other Armenians begged to comprehend.

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March 23, 2015

The last three days with my son Areg have been very special. I feel we have really bonded, and the relationship we have built, based on love, mutual respect and enjoyment of life, has become tighter.

A few months ago I went back to Boston for four weeks. It was Christmastime. Not only was I visiting my family, I was also starting my studies for my MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University, taking part in their Low Residency program. That means I have to be on campus for a week each semester and attend workshops and seminars.  For reasons out of my control, I could not take Areg with me, although he wanted to go and was clearly conscious of my intent to travel. Areg is a lot smarter and cognizant of his environment as well as life situations than many in my opinion, including family members and friends, imagine. Although we communicate on Skype as often as possible when I’m away, it’s still not the same as having physical, interpersonal contact. Two weeks into my stay I noticed that he was uncommunicative, meaning he would not converse, although he wanted to show me things and sat attentively in a chair or in the camera’s view for several minutes at a time while I constantly engaged him through discussion, interaction with family members, showing him the Christmas tree up close and so forth. But he wouldn’t answer my questions or comment about anything. We speak almost exclusively in English, but sometimes in Western Armenian so he gets used to it.

When I returned to Yerevan in mid January he kept refusing to talk. And I learned that he wasn’t talking to other members of the family or his peers and instructors at his kindergarten, either. He apparently only spoke with his mother, in Armenian. In fact he was hesitant to return to kindergarten after the holidays, acting as he did when he first started going last August—complaining and hesitant to stay, although everyone there as well as the environment were now familiar to him. 

The lack of verbal communication persisted for another two months. Areg would communicate by pointing and grunting, or with body language—if he needed to sit on the toilet he would hold his rear end, or his crotch when he had to pee. When I asked if he was hungry or thirsty he would either say nothing in response or say “uh huh” when he was. That was it. Areg will turn four on April 1 so his silence was disconcerting. Sometimes he would start to cry for a few moments when I didn’t understand what he wanted. He did sing, but only songs that he had recently invented (a songwriter in the making) and none of the ones we used to sing together. Although I was naturally patient with him and just as loving, it was frustrating not to hear him give his perspective on things in the world, what he experienced or heard. He always had something to say about any given thing, and being his dad, I always probed him to tell me more. Now it was if I were talking to the walls. Oddly, I began to forget what it was like for him to argue with me about the names of colors, letters or shapes—I intentionally give him the wrong name of something so he will correct me, thus getting him to think and focus. Discourse had ended. A psychologist we visited recommended art therapy, which I intend for him to undergo.

Then just over a week ago there was a breakthrough. It was Saturday night. I began suggesting the wrong names for objects or letters and he suddenly began correcting me. Then he wouldn’t shut up. His perspective on things—letters, colors, objects, toys, concepts, whatever—became revealed once again. We linked up with my mother via Skype so she could share in the surprise. It was an ecstatic moment for all of us I think.

The following morning he was silent again, grunting and pointing. I couldn’t figure out why there was a relapse but we continued our routine of dressing, washing up, eating breakfast, watching Mister Rogers (he started getting into it that weekend, which may have had an influence I suspect) and walking Chi Chi. It was a warm day, in the 60s, so I decided to take him to Lovers’ Park, which was a five-minute metro ride away. We strolled down the paths and eventually ended up in the sand pit, where he sifted, piled, poked and stirred. After about 40 minutes he wanted to move on, so we walked around some more in the park. I was desperate to get him speaking again. On a cement wall in the far right along a path where the landscaping ends there was some graffiti art, with “Im Yerevan” spelled out, (“Im” meaning “my”). So the quiz commenced—“what letter is this, is it an X? What about this one, is that a Q?” After a couple of minutes the arguing began. “That’s not an X, it’s a Y. Why did you say it’s an X? It’s not X, it’s Y.” Then he was expounding on the shape and style of the letter. He insisted that the lowercase V in “Yerevan” was actually a lowercase Y because the diagonal stroke continued past the baseline and curled up to the left at the end. I could not refute him, the damn thing was indeed a Y. The artist’s intent was to make it appear as a footpath leading to the front door of a home, but the footpath metamorphosed into a piano keyboard for whatever reason, further complicating matters.  Then we began to study the design of every letter, wondering why windows were drawn within them, and why were they made to resemble apartment buildings, and he gave his feedback willingly. On the way home down the escalator to the train he suddenly announced, “I have chishig” so we went back up to use the restroom in the park (which is remarkably clean). I treated him to hot chocolate at a nearby café in our neighborhood and I ordered a club sandwich for myself, which I ended up splitting with him. Although I intended to keep him overnight and encourage him further, his mom came by and carried him off. We made quite a bit of headway, though. And this past weekend was even better.  

Anyway, here’s some advice to new dads (not like I have everything figured out yet obviously):

1. Engage your children constantly. Throw as much stimulus at him or her as possible through conversation, play, music, reading, visual stimulus like Sesame Street or Baby Einstein—whatever it is. All of it is beneficial, especially talking, playing, and reading.

2. Speak with your child like you would with an adult. Oftentimes you hear people talk to their toddlers with cartoonish tones of voice and condescending, simplistic language, as if to assume the kid can’t comprehend the idea conveyed or the correction. I find this to be the case especially in Armenia. It’s nonsense to talk to kids as if they’re kids. And talk about anything—nature related, the stars and planets, how the coffee machine functions, whatever. They understand things quite well and they’ll pick up whatever you’re trying to illustrate, fast. Not only that, the tone of their voice will sound more mature. That’s what I’m finding in Areg’s case at least.

3. Never tell your kid he or she can’t do something. “Can’t” implies discouragement, and it leads to diminished self-esteem, something no child should ever endure. If you don’t want your son climbing on the future, tell him “no,” or “don’t do it.” I always add “buddy” or “please” when I want to correct him, then I either praise or thank him. Speaking of which…

4. Praise as much as possible, too much isn’t enough. My son thrives on praise; he aims to please. He’ll do whatever it takes for me to tell him how proud I am of him or how smart he is. He expresses his excitement by shaking both hands in the air rapidly like he wants to whip them off his arms and running across the room, squeaking (admittedly I do the same thing to this day on occasion, it must be genetic). He’s hilarious.

5. Laugh and have fun. One of our favorite activities is baking cookies. He mixes the salt and flour in a separate bowl while I measure out the sugar and butter. He also gets the mixer going—it’s stationary—and we have a blast. His favorite part of the process is licking the mixer beaters. We also work with play dough, play a marble run that we construct together, and we draw as well as paint. Areg loves to play with his dad, not to mention my friends that come over, and I bet the same can be said of any kid. He loves to show and describe something that he created, and he loves the attention. Who wouldn’t? 

I think I’m on to something here and I’m eagerly anticipating what’s next. There’s still Shant to contend with. Now if the three of us were only allowed to spend some quality time alone, who knows what would happen? 

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