The genocide descendant

Armenia063I was sitting in the front seat of the minibus next to the driver. At another stop a man came in and filled the last space in the row. I needed to be told where exactly I should get off for the Memorial of the Armenian genocide, and I asked my neighbour. He made sure with the driver, then replied to me in English. Just to keep the conversation going, I asked him where he was from. I didn't expect any revealing answer to a routinely enquiry I had made just to pass the time of day, but I was wrong. The man said he was from Syria.

My surprise was such that I instantly and naturally asked him in Arabic if he knew the language. He did, having grown up in Aleppo. He was indeed a descendant of the diaspora, the grandson of a baby child who had been driven across the desert in the murderous forced marches that killed thousands of his countrymen. A hundred years before this child had been deported out of historic Armenia towards the Euphrates and miraculously escaped the massacres. Only in Syria was their decimated number able to settle and live as a minority group for decades in relative comfort - until the Syrian war broke out.

Then Gevorg, like many of his nationality, decided to tread the very same road that his ancestors had been made to take in the opposite direction. Conditions in Syria had deteriorated to such an extent that life in the unknown, provided it was elsewhere, were preferable to appalling certainties. As leaving the country that had bred him, albeit not his real homeland, had not been an act of his own choice, history was just repeating itself. That had happened three years before and by then he felt at ease in Yerevan.

Gevorg offered to accompany me to see the museum. We walked up the hill to the memorial ground where a great number of youths taking part in the all-Armenian gathering of the diaspora were parading wearing same-coloured shirts and neckerchiefs.

We entered the museum together, an engrossing exhibit of various documents and testimonies presented in a very engaging way. I listened to his Syrian Arabic as it flowed gentle from his lips and commented the pieces on show, mingling in family memories or tales passed on by word of mouth. On an independent visit I would have concentrated on poring over the abundant texts, but I had the privilege of being accompanied by someone who, if not personally the hard way, was living proof to the facts commemorated there.

Armenia062When we parted I had barely one hour left before the museum closed and went quickly through the halls to systemise my understanding. It had been an honour be the recipient of Gevorg's consideration and I was enthralled by his patience and hospitality. But most of all, I had been captivated by the opportunity to go back a few years in my own life and relive my middle-eastern dream: Syria, the hot summer I spent in Damascus studying Arabic, my winter journey across the country, my attraction to, and at the same time distancing from, all that was so exotic and poignant.

Gevorg exuded the Syrian spirit, and even his gags were permeated by Syrian humour. "What could happen", he chuckled, "if a plane ever crash-landed on the Memorial obelisk?" That was, in short, the tragedy of the genocide, the misery of the civil war played down by quiet down-to-earthness.