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Yeghia Tashjian

A shared agony: from Aintab to Haifa

The Tashjian family, Ainteb, 1911 [Yeghia Tashjian]

Date of publication: 20 April, 2016

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Blog: Two men uprooted from their homes found sanctity in the Armenian district of Beirut. Amid war they found peace and shared the solidarity of the dispossessed, writes Yeghia Tashjian.
A week ago I visited a florist on Mar Mikhael Street in Beirut to buy some flowers to decorate my balcony. I walked through the shop and searched until I finally decided on a plant similar to a Dahlia.

I was happy - even excited - as I wanted to surprise my father who had just recovered from an illness. So I  replanted the flower in a huge pot on the balcony. I woke up early the next morning, and realised the stems of the plant were mushy and the roots were not firm. I was sad and disappointed; my mother advised me to throw it away, but I didn't lose hope and kept watering it on daily basis. A week passed and the plant was once again green and growing buds.

Uprooted

The story of this flower is similar to my own family's path, as well as our neighbour's.

My grandfather - Samuel Tashjian - was the only known survivor from the Tashjian family in Aintab [now Gaziantep in Turkey] during the Armenian Genocide. It is a town known for its famous traders and was part of the ancient Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, north of Syria. Due to their notable trading skills, Europeans described the city's inhabitants as "Armenian Jews". Armenians of Aintab used to speak Turkish but interestingly they had retained their ancestral traditions and customs. 

Samuel was raised in a traditional feudal Armenian household. When war broke out in 1914, my grandfather was sceptical about the future. He had learned German at the Protestant Central Anatolia College, and was recruited to serve alongside the German army as a translator. The Germans used to call my grandfather "Shami".

On 1 April, the order came for the evacuation of the Armenians from Aintab. My grandfather knew it was a trap. He already saw the refugee caravans heading towards the Syrian deserts. Where the Armenian "Final Solution" took place was Deir az-Zoor.  He had witnessed the disbanding and the execution of Armenian and Assyrian conscripts in the Ottoman army and was terrified. He took the decision to desert the army and go back to Aintab to search for his family.
On 1 April, the order came for the evacuation of the Armenians from Aintab. My grandfather knew it was a trap.

Those Armenians who refused to die in the death marches were armed, and resisted the advancing Ottoman forces. Samuel and others were hoping that the French would help them but it was not to be. The French army entered Aintab in 1918. The Armenians had already perished. My grandfather escaped hoping one day he would be able to return back home. 

In 1924, the Lausanne Treaty was signed; Armenian refugees were granted citizenship of their host countries. Samuel was finally convinced there was no return to the Fatherland, so he bought a house in Achrafieh and planted flowers in his garden. The garden turned out to be Lebanon and the plants his children and grandchildren. My father still remembers my grandfather's famous words in Turkish "yabanjedan faida yokh" ("There is no salvation from a foreigner").

Nakba

Naim was born in Haifa. He belonged to a well known Greek-Orthodox intellectual family and his son, Suheil, used to tell us the story about the Palestinian Nakba. Suheil used to describe his father's home, the garden - and most importantly - the meeting of Palestinian intellectuals in their guest room. Suddenly his face used to turn red and tears would fall down his face like a spring.

After taking deep breath he would continue. "It was April 1948, I think the 20th or 21st, we heard clashes, people were in panic and the situation was desperate. They told us the Haganah militias were advancing and capturing Arab neighborhoods. People were fleeing leaving everything behind. I remember my friend Issa, he was my age, around eight, and he screamed and cried… I started to cry too.
Bourj Hammoud was settled by Armenians, my father understood that those two people shared an agony that is rooted in their memory, therefore he felt safe.

"My father organised a small group of militiamen to protect the town, while the women and children escaped towards the north. My father and his comrades were hopeful that reinforcements would arrive from the 'Arab Liberation Army’; and they kept fighting until the second day. The situation was hopeless. The fighters retreated. We lost our beloved Haifa. We lost Palestine. We were refugees. The Arabs betrayed us, they had betrayed Palestine."


For Naim, life didn’t stop there. He came with his family to Bourj Hammoud, and it took him a month to find a house with a small garden. When I asked Suheil what was the reason his father decided to come to Bourj Hammoud and nowhere else, his response was the following: "Bourj Hammoud was settled by Armenians, my father understood that those two people shared an agony that is rooted in their memory, therefore he felt safe."

War and peace

During the Lebanese civil war his family was protected by Armenian militias. When Suheil's brother - Georges - was kidnapped by the Phalanges, Armenians secured his release and returned him safely to his family.

When I wrote this article, I was tending to my plant, now already decorated with flowers. Samuel and Naim were uprooted from their original land, like I uprooted the plant. But they refused to surrender, they kept struggling, lost almost everything - money, family, land - but not faith. They had a strong will, and planted the seeds, now we are their flowers.

As the American-Armenian author Wiliam Saroyan, said: “I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race -this small tribe of unimportant people - whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

If someone asks me whether I'm Lebanese or Armenian, I will tell them the story of the "flower"… the story of the shared agony, that taught us never to trust on anyone but our national will again.

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