A few months ago, I spotted a video of my mother and her sisters on Facebook. The video was taken at a reunion for a boarding school that had been a refuge for orphans, refugees, and otherwise unfortunate children in Beirut, Lebanon. My mother sits shyly at the center with a scarlet scarf draped around her shoulders. She is flanked on both sides by a gaggle of smiling women I call my aunties, though only two are biologically qualified for the title. The image is a concave feminine Last Supper, in which earnest facial expressions masking betrayal have been replaced with the joyful smiles of middle-aged women. In the video, the women sing an old Armenian love song whose words come back to me in a wave of nostalgia. Their bodies are packed close together, swaying and touching, revealing the kind of intimacy that only comes with years of communal joy and suffering. One woman is practically sitting on my mother’s lap. Their faces beam. Their hands, made plump by years of soothing, slapping, and wrapping grape leaves, clap to the beat. Aunt Houri, whose name means angelic beauty, raises her arms in the air, twirling her wrists and elongated fingers gracefully to the music. When her hands get too close to someone’s face, they nudge and swat at her gently, singing all the while. I watch the video again and again, surprised at how my heart and eyes swell with emotion.
My Syrian-Armenian grandmother liked to say that the best thing my abusive grandfather did for her was to die at a young age. Being a poor single mother is hard no matter where you are from, but doing it in Syria in the fifties and sixties was damn near impossible. My grandmother was part of a minority Christian community in a Muslim country steeped in patriarchy. Her parents, both orphans, were survivors of the Armenian genocide, an ethnic cleansing that took place in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. When her husband died, my grandmother was only thirty-two years old, ancient by Syrian standards, with four kids, the youngest of whom was only a toddler. She was told repeatedly that her only option was to remarry. She refused, opting instead to move to Beirut, Lebanon, a former French colony where people were a bit more open minded. She enrolled her brood at an Evangelical boarding school, picked up smoking (Marlboro’s, no filter) and went to work. She never married and somehow managed to house and feed not just her children but eventually, when her father died, her mother and sister as well. By the time I was born, the matriarchy my grandmother established encapsulated four generations of women and had moved three more times, from Beirut, back to Syria, then to Kuwait and finally California.
When people ask me where I’m from, and thanks to my dark hair and accent they always do, I tell them Los Angeles. This is always followed by more questions. I find these exchanges exhausting because every clarifying detail I volunteer only produces more confusion. I’m Armenian, but I’m not from Armenia. In fact, until a few years ago, no one in four generations of my family had ever been to the ‘homeland.’ I was born in Kuwait, but I’m not Kuwaiti. My father is Lebanese and my mother Syrian, but neither of them is Arab or Muslim.
I grew up in a large immigrant family where three and sometimes four generations would interact with one another on a daily basis. My mom’s grandmother, mother and sisters lived two blocks away and would come over at all hours of the day and night. Aunties, biological and otherwise, swarmed the place, doling out love and criticism in equal measures. There was always a minimum of ten to fourteen people in the house. Ages varied from four to eighty-four. Languages spoken included Armenian, English, Turkish, Arabic, and sometimes, when my father drank too much, Greek. The women in my family created their very own towers of Babel in Southern California. Men came and went. Engagements were broken, marriages disintegrated or limped along, but the sisterhood remained. It was not always pretty or peaceful, but it was resolute. It was permanent.
And noisy. Try as I might, I could not drown out the cacophony of voices that dominated my childhood. The chatter that came from serving ten thousand cups of Turkish coffee followed by googley eyed women predicting one another’s future in the coffee grounds. “I see a great bird with a letter in its beak…” The Lebanese siren, Fairuz, serenaded my mother in the kitchen. An Armenian priest preached on the television in the family room where Auntie Laura painted her nails. Turkish love songs wafted in from the backyard where my grandmother liked to garden with her own mother and siblings. Whitney Houston sang from behind the closed doors of the master bedroom, where Aunt Houri liked to dance in front of the full size mirror. Cousins competed for control of the upstairs television where I tried in vane to watch The Sound of Music in one sitting.
When I became old enough to go to school, my mother enrolled me in an all Armenian school whose faculty was composed of more ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles,’ a small number of whom were related to us by marriage. People who are continuously threatened tend to stick together. When you come from a small group of persecuted people on the brink of extinction, a people struggling to recover from erasure, both culturally and literally, your birthplace and residence is less important than your ethnicity. Los Angeles has the largest population of Armenians outside of Armenia. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the United States, but I personally never experienced that diversity as a child. My environment was almost exclusively Armenian. My teachers, coaches, friends, and neighbors: all Armenian.
By the time I became a teenager the environment that had once been nurturing started to feel stifling. Aunties who had once smothered me with love and affection, thought nothing of informing me that my ass was growing too big or that Armen, the baker’s son, would make a good husband. Living in the tight knit community felt more and more like a crowded fishbowl. I began thinking about how my grandmother had left everything behind to create a new life for herself. I too wanted to escape the life that others had forged for me. I wanted to create my own life, with less people, less noise and less chaos.
It’s another reason I’m so uncomfortable answering the “where are you from” question. I fled Los Angeles as soon as I could. I left behind a nuclear family broken from addiction and divorce, an unwieldy contentious clan of well-meaning relatives and the ethnic community that held all of us firmly in its lap. I didn’t go very far geographically speaking, but I travelled great distances in terms of the people and ideas I surrounded myself with. I left home because I wanted to see the world and my place in it outside the lens of family and ethnicity.
My grandmother and her siblings passed away a long time ago. My mother still lives within a few miles of her sisters and their families. I have my own family now. We live a quieter, less chaotic life, a few hours south of Los Angeles in a town called San Juan Capistrano. And though I’ve lived there for over twenty years, I never think of it as the place where I’m from. Because when your family has been displaced for as many generations as mine has, your definition of home becomes unmoored to any one place.
The Facebook video has a powerful effect on me because it resolutely answers the question of where I’m from. The multilingual songs and stories of my childhood. This sisterhood. These love songs. In the arms, laps, and voices of these powerful, displaced yet joyful women.
ALINE OHANESIAN’s debut novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, was long listed for the following awards: The Dublin Award, The Flannery-Dunnan First Book Prize, The Dayton Peace Prize, and The PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. Orhan’s Inheritance is an international bestseller and has been translated into more than ten languages. Ohanesian, a descendant of Armenian genocide survivors, lives and writes in Orange County, California with her husband and two young sons.