The Land That My Father Loved

An Armenian-American poet visits her family's native country for the first time

BETWEEN Geneva and Warsaw we were given landing cards to fill out on the plane. A dark young man from Libya came down the aisle and stopped at my seat. I was the only one in the bank of chairs there. ``Can you write English?''


He asked me to help him fill out the landing cards. And proceeded to tell me in a loud voice that I had to change planes with him. All Moscow-bound travelers change in Warsaw.

As we landed, an elegant man in a silk suit stopped at my seat. ``You come with me,'' he said. ``You do not change here. I am going to Moscow, too. We wait in the transit area until the plane is refueled.'' I walked with him, happy for the company and his good English. He told me he worked in the Icelandic Embassy. ``Are you the ambassador?''

``How did you know?''

I didn't want to tell him his clothes reminded me of my father's; he wasn't old enough to be my father.

I laughed, ``When I pick up someone he has to be at least an ambassador.''

I missed my father, the most elegant man I had ever met. But elegance does not depend on clothes. It was an air, an inner fire, a sense of ease. Wherever he went, he belonged. Whomever he met, he acted the same. We have pictures of him with two kings, Zog and Hussein of Jordan. I have a memory of him in a plane, when the stewardess went up and down seeking someone who spoke Turkish. I was shocked when he volunteered to help interpret for a Turk.

``Those people killed your family. Those people stole our land.'' My brother and I would not have been, could not have been polite. But our father was as gracious and as helpful to the traveling Turk as he was to anyone. He spent his life working to get the Armenian case and cause heard. But he was helpful to the traveler.

I tried to remember how he was at home everywhere. When he walked through Harvard Yard the students nodded, ``Hello, Professor.'' At Mt. Auburn Hospital he was called ``Doctor'' although he was neither. Strength

When I was six he told me part of his secret. I was small and thin for my age. And afraid of Elsie Frohock and her brothers who beat up the smaller kids.

``I am going to tell you a secret about you,'' he said. ``You are the strongest little girl in the world.''

``I am?''

``Yes. You have inherited a strange kind of strength. And power. But you must be careful not to use it all the time. But when someone threatens you ... you must laugh at them and stand tall, because you know that you are really much stronger than anyone can tell.''

The next day in school I acted very tough. And stood very tall because I knew that inside I hid a secret fire and strength.

``Hey,'' the kids at recess said, ``Diana is acting as if she can beat up anyone.''

``Aren't you afraid of the Frohock kids?''

``No,'' I said. ``Why should I be afraid?''

Each boy came up to me and flexed muscles. I smiled calmly even though inside I was secretly shaking and doubting the fire within. My first lesson in dealing with bullies was learned that day. The Frohocks never came to challenge my strength.

On the plane to Moscow, I wondered about my father and if his father had told him the same thing about his inner strength. And that was why he acted so calm. I wondered if that's what saved him from the Turks in 1915 when he had refused to go with the other school boys on the march from which the others never came back.

And if that is what kept him going through the hills and mountains until he joined Murad's army to fight the massacring hordes of his people. If that is what kept him going: You are small but inside you is a secret strength, a fire that burns, it is inextinguishable. It burns with a flame that will always conquer. Because you are right.

Was it his father who told him? Or maybe his mother? Or his uncle Missak, or Avedik? Who told him about the secret strength that I will whisper to a small grandchild, telling him about the secret flame, the fierce fire, of those who are in the right.

The Chocolate Bar

The plane landed in Moscow and Rousan, who wrote ``Tales of Fantasia,'' met me, for the Writers' Union.

As I approached the queue, guided by the ambassador from Iceland who was continuing our conversation from the plane, ``Remember I will come to rescue you from jail. Or Siberia.''

I heard ``Diana.'' Diana? I had begun to be someone with only a first name.

Rousan was on the other side of the glass cubicle showing papers for me to the uniformed man in the booth who looked at my passport, then back at me, back and forth, seven times. (Other travelers had told me it was a formula left from the cold-war era.) I counted, I smiled.

Rousan introduced himself and shuffled his feet and some papers. Then the passport was stamped and I was led toward bags, taxi, and Moscow. In the cab he said, ``There are several hours before your plane departs for Yerevan. Would you like to eat dinner, or rest in a hotel room?''

``I have just eaten. Can we see part of Moscow?''

``I must get you to the hotel and call Yerevan to tell the Writers' Union you have arrived. You can have something to eat while you wait.''

Russia. The birches flew by our taxi. Birches. The woods outside the city. And then the rows and rows of gray new apartment buildings. And the city. The onion domes of the Russian churches. The colored domes and the gold. The yellow stucco buildings. The white and gold churches. Slavic faces. Everything was new for me. The women that year, 1981, were in old-looking mannish jackets. On successive trips I saw slimmer women, and much leather.

At the hotel I was led to a large dining room. In the ladies room I told the attendant, a motherly Russian woman, that I had only bubble gum and no Soviet money yet and gave her a package. She held up her fingers, saying I could go twice for this.

I was not hungry, I told Rousan, but he ordered dinner anyway. And left to make his telephone calls. The dining room had carved wooden tables with white tablecloths. I was in a movie set of a '30s film. The orchestra was playing wonderful old tunes. A young man came up to my table, bowed, and asked me in Russian if I would like to dance.

Why not? I thought. This is an adventure. I followed him to the dance floor for a Strauss waltz. We had the leading roles in this film. We were picked because we were the foremost waltzers in Moscow.

Suddenly the music changed to a wild gypsy dance and my partner was whirling, twirling and I was flying through the air, sweeping and dipping. (If only someone from home could have seen.) On and on, flamenco after polka we danced on. Wordlessly. Laughing, laughing for the years I had not danced.

Then the music ended and the orchestra left for their break. Back at my table with the soup, I sat sedately until Rousan returned, innocent of waltz, fandango, and flying through the air.

``You missed the dancing. I danced with a stranger.''

``They wait for you in Yerevan.'' At 2 a.m. the plane for Yerevan had filled with Armenians. Everyone looked like a relative. I was ``going home'' to Hayasdan! I was already surrounded by people speaking my own tongue. The rows in front of me filled. A man and a 20-year-old boy sat in my row. Immediately the first asked, ``Are you from America? How is it there?'' The boy cocked his head and listened.

``It's good. It's free. But there are very few Armenians.''

``Is this your first trip to Hayasdan?'' The man in the chair in front had tilted back his seat so he could hear in the opened space. He spoke through the crack: ``Be careful what you say in Armenia. There are ears everywhere.'' The boy asked if I had relatives in Yerevan. No? Then where was I going all alone? To the Writers' Union Congress. Do you write? Yes, poetry. And translate.

He opened up his bag and said, ``Here is an issue of Karoun with some new poems by Hamo Sahian for you to read and translate.''

Hayasdan. My lips parch repeating your name. Hayasdan. I don't know why but this is so.

Opening my pocketbook, I saw the chocolate bar from the Swissair flight and gave it to the boy. He thanked me. Then rose to walk two seats forward to a woman with a youthful face. His mother, perhaps. How nice, I thought, he's giving her the foreign candy. But I was wrong. He came back with something from her. Two Armenian chocolate bars.

Ah, my people, you return any kindness twofold.

The Kiss

The stewardess who had asked for William Saroyan's address came to say we would be landing soon and she would take me to the waiting room. The plane touched down on Armenian ground. Armenian soil. It was still dark but streaks of light were forming overhead over the airport illumination. There were still some stars, Armenian stars. We all deplaned.

The others boarded a bus. The stewardess told me to wait and we walked on the tarmac. Armenian soil was under this asphalt. The air was warm, even in the dark of early morning. And out of nowhere the desire began to grow: I had to kiss the earth. I had to kiss Armenia. I had to say hello. I have never wanted to kiss anyone or anything so badly. I had to kiss the soil.

One of my grandmothers, I had been told, kissed American soil when she landed. I had cringed at that story thinking what a clich'e. And now I was overcome, shaken by this need.

A young man representing the Writers' Union came toward me with flowers taking my hand case. We went inside the building, carrying my bags toward his car. On the right, where there was construction, I saw soil and tall weeds and said, ``I must look at those.'' He paused as I ran and knelt as if to inspect the tall grass and kissed the ground: hello past, hello future, hello moment that is now. Sweet earth of my ancestors, hairenik. I pretended to pick a weed and walked nonchalantly back to the car.

With Medakse

We had hopped on and off a bus. Was it the wrong number? Was it the wrong time? Whatever the reason for our sudden ascent and descent, I did not know. I only knew she dragged me off and happily I went.

Suddenly two men saying they were plainclothes police shouted ``Control!'' Then they spouted Russian threats. Evidently hopping on and off buses was not good form especially if one had not paid.

Medakse shouted right back in Russian. They turned to me and said, ``You are Armenian? You are a poet?''

``She is an Armenian and a famous American poet. How dare you arrest her and insult a guest?''

I choked a laugh.

``If she's a poet, let's hear a poem.'' Then to me in Armenian, ``Recite.''

I looked at the men and laughed again. All the poems I ever knew had disappeared. All the poems I ever wrote faded and fled. ``Take me to jail!'' I shrugged.

``You want to go to jail?'' I thought of Eghishe Charents' first name, not his terrible last days, but before that when he wrote his notebooks from a Yerevan prison, when he was still full of passion and of hope. I would see a courtroom. But I had no more time to think. ``Say a poem and you can go free!''

The only poem that leaped to mind from all my life of poems was, ``I never saw a purple cow/ I never hope to see one./ But I can tell you anyhow/ this is not the place to be one.'' I froze.

Medakse decided to give up on me. I was not playing the star of this little game. And so she informed them that she herself was Medakse and they deferred, ``Why didn't you say so, right away?'' Poets in the Soviet Union are treated specially.

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