(An excerpt from a memoir titled Lenin And Me told in a voice of a young girl growing up in Soviet Armenia in the ‘70s.)
So many of us, kids in the neighborhood, like to play in the dumpster behind the back doors and the fences of our homes. Pieces of concrete and rocks of all sizes pierce through the piles of construction waste. We laugh and scream as we hop from the top of one rock to another.
“I caught one!” My brother cries. I hop over being careful not to lose balance.
“Hurry, go get me a jar,” he orders. I know exactly what he needs. I run home weaving through the grapevines in our backyard, over the rows of tomato and pepper seedlings, annoyed by the tumbleweed that sticks to my knee highs.
I get to the door panting. “What now? What’s the rush?” questions my Ne՛ne՛ ever present in her armchair.
“Take your shoes off!” shouts my mother from the bedroom. Even though she cannot see me, she knows I am in too much of a hurry to stop and think of household rules. I make a hurried attempt to knock the shoes off my feet. One falls off; I drag the other that is resisting. I zoom into the kitchen, and grab an empty jar with a lid. My mother keeps them in the cabinet under the sink. She collects jars through the winter months and reuses them for canning in the summer.
“Haroot wants one,” I mutter in response to Ne՛ne’s inquisitive mien, unwilling to stop and explain. In our household, Haroot, my brother gets what he wants. No argument there.
My brother places the butterfly in the jar and tightens the lid. I study the orange lines and the black circles on its translucent wings while we wait for it to stop its desperate dance. Later, I observe as my multi-talented 13-year-old brother inserts a needle into the thorax of the butterfly.
“Must do it before it dries and crumbles,” he explains as he pins the butterfly with its wings spread wide to the wall adjacent to the mirror in the hallway. Then he constructs a wooden frame and places it around the butterfly. A biology teacher at school has encouraged us to be curious about living things in nature. She has shared display cases filled with critters that look like they were frozen in time. My brother has successfully replicated them.
A living thing in a box is a dead thing, I think. From then on, every time we are in the dumpster, contrary to my mother’s directives to stay away, I prefer to rummage the trash instead of looking for grasshoppers, lizards, or butterflies. I find treasure – animal bones, feathers, broken jewelry under the unwanted piles of life. Discarded scraps of fabric are my favorite find. It must be Digin Noemi’s trash. She is a seamstress, a grumpy lady in her 50s, who doesn’t like kids. No one I know has been inside her house. The rumors say she has a husband whom none of us has seen.
“Go play in your own backyard!” She screams at anyone who gets too close to her fence constructed of mud and rock. Someone mocks her speech in Western Armenian, which upsets her even more. She picks up whatever object happens to be laying around and throws it over the wall. Behind the wall, tall poplars and stout walnut trees line her property adjacent to ours. Some mischievous boy is always in her walnut trees. Walnuts make a good substitute to rock. When landing on a back or a head, they startle the victim without a bloody cut.
In our neighborhood, Digin Noemi is the only woman who is referred to as “lady” while everyone else is either “aunty” or “grandmother.” I am not sure why, but I won’t miss an opportunity to find out.
One day, my brother and I are in the backyard when we hear sounds of classical music drifting from south of the fence. We climb the wall to investigate. It’s coming from Digin Noemi’s backdoor that is open. Lace curtains are twitching with the breeze. Behind them, I see her sewing machine, and next to it is an adult size black wire female figure with lace over the shoulders, held together with a shiny broach. On the head is a wide-rim hat like the one worn by Anna Karenina in the movie. The small room is stuffed with puffy furniture and doilies everywhere: on the coffee table, on the armrests and the backs of the couch and the armchairs.
My brother climbs higher, reaches for a walnut and shoots it from his hand-made slingshot. A little poodle scampers out the door barking. We jump off the fence and scrape our knees. It hurts, but we curl up against the wall and don’t dare to make a sound. The last thing we need is for her to chase us and complain to our mother. Then Haroot will get a spanking with a house-slipper. I am usually spared, since I am never a suspect to any wrongdoing.
I am content to have made a discovery. Digin Noemi is of a different world. It is the world west of the border across the river Araxes, the Armenia that my Ne՛ne՛, and the grandmothers and the grandfathers of most of the kids in my neighborhood have left behind. Doilies are the giveaway. I don’t know how I know this – doilies are commonly displayed in households that have roots in Western Armenia unlike the local, Eastern Armenian, households.
More importantly, Digin Noemi is of the world that is no longer – the world before the revolution. The world of elaborate hats and intricate doilies – indication of high class.
Malatya, also known as “akhparashen,” was where hundreds of “akhpar” families – the newcomers from Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Egypt – were housed in the 1940s. They are the Armenians who survived the Genocide by the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s and found refuge in these neighboring countries. Longing for the homes they were driven out of in Zeytoon, Marash, Malatya, Sebastia, Kilikia, they were enticed by the Soviet Government to come and rebuild a country for themselves following World War II in 1946. They built their new communities which the locals identified as the “home of the akhpars” on the outskirts of Yerevan – the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia.

Act IX
Whenever the neighborhood grandmothers and aunties visit my Ne՛ne՛, they speak in Turkish and refer to the places they come from as “bizi՛m orda՛” meaning “back in our home.” I am nine, and I understand that my home is not their home. Theirs is somewhere else.
My Ne՛ne՛ does not speak much, and she does not leave the house. She sits in her armchair and smokes all day. Layers of black, brown, gray fabric cover her wobbly knees, her snow-white hair hidden under a cheesecloth with beaded edges. Wrinkles on the skin of her face form deep grooves like the water pathways on our parched soil. Her hand trembles when she lifts the cigarette between her two yellowed fingers to her lips. The smoke from her cigarettes rises and curls then thickens in the air of our living room. It thickens in my grandmother’s cloudy eyes and turns into a shield behind which no one can penetrate, especially my mother.
My mother is a “local.” She does not speak Turkish and does not prepare the same dishes as my Ne՛ne՛. Neither do my Tati՛, my maternal grandmother, and my two aunts. Whenever I visit them, we eat borscht made with cabbage, carrots, and beets. We eat greens like seendz and seebekh, grape leaves stuffed with beans, chickpeas, lentils as opposed to minced lamb and bulgur. Potatoes fried in ghee are a tradition.
The day my mother serves yogurt soup made with barley and cilantro, my Ne՛ne՛ starves herself.
“Cilantro is not eatable. Tastes like termites,” says Ne՛ne՛ and pushes her bowl away, untouched. She prefers yogurt soup with mint and meatballs – ko՛fte՛.
On New Years’ Day and Easter, for my brother’s birthday and his name day, my aunts and uncles on both sides of the family, their husbands, wives, and children gather at our home.
Here, at 29 Tserents Street, is where east meets west.
On these occasions, my mother is excited and proud to serve a new “akhpar” style dish she has learned to prepare. My uncles are thankful and seem to enjoy spending time with my father and other males in his family. My aunts are cheerful and exchange recipes with my mother and the women on my father’s side.
My grandmothers sit elbow to elbow at the head of the table but don’t talk. They are the elders of our family. Both have lost their husbands early in their marriage, although they each have managed to give birth to 5 and 9 children. Occasionally, my Tati՛ attempts to communicate in Armenian, and my Ne՛ne՛ mumbles things in Turkish. Then they both fall silent. I never witness a passionate argument between them, so I assume, it is because Ne՛ne՛ does not like to talk. But when I hear my Ne՛ne՛ converse with her Turkish speaking neighbors, I know her silence is self-imposed.
“She threw out the kilim rug I had held on to for years. Kilis to Ayntap, then to Syria and Armenia…” says Ne՛ne՛ in a wistful tone.
“The uncultured local asses, what do they know?!” says Gohar ne՛ne՛, Michael ammo’s wife. They have immigrated from Lebanon.
“Ours thinks a banana is a giant okra,” she says. She is speaking of her “local” daughter-in-law.
“If it weren’t for us, they wouldn’t know the taste of coffee,” says Irina ne՛ne՛ who is from Greece.
“What did we get in return? Dust and rock, that’s what,” says Gohar ne՛ne՛.
I know they are talking about my mother, and my Tati՛, and my aunts whom I love dearly. This makes me part “local ass” as well. I begin to resent all things “akhpar.” I am so glad my mother does not use doilies as a décor.
In their native lands in historic Western Armenia, they each lived a different lifestyle, but they shared a common experience. My neighborhood aunties and uncles from the west lived through and survived a genocide in the hands of the Turk. The enemy’s language was what they had in common. It came from a dark place and had spears pointed towards the outside world – my world, my mother’s world. It spoke of death, rape, pain, and sorrow and buried them alive.
Eventually, my mother learned and spoke Turkish fluently, so did I. My Ne՛ne՛, on the other hand, refused to utter a word in Armenian to the day she died. Displacement is a traumatic experience. It alters the life and the psyche of a person in unimaginable ways.
Act X

We share a room, my Ne՛ne՛ and I.
“Ne՛ne՛ needs someone around,” my father says. “You are to help her with whatever she needs.”
Ne՛ne՛ always needs something, and Turkish is the language in which she communicates her needs.
“Get me some water. Shut the window. Help me to the bathroom. Has your mother cooked yet? Don’t leave your shoes out. Empty my bedpan,” are commands and requests that she makes specifically of me, and I understand fine.
I do not mind doing the chores and fulfilling her demands. I don’t even mind staying with her whenever my parents go out and usually take my brother and sister along. What I mind is the way Ne՛ne՛ and her friends talk about my mother and the “locals” in general.
As a teenager, my disgust towards the smell of the cigarettes and the bedpan intensifies. I begin to “forget” often, and when I do, Ne՛ne՛ tells my father who, in turn, scolds me for being inattentive and stupid.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” he says.
I don’t feel ashamed. I feel angry. However, when the television goes off, and the lights go out, and when the dogs outside our bedroom window overlooking the backyard and the poplars stop barking, and only moonlight frolics in the leaves of the grapevines and casts lacy shadows on my bed sheets and the walls, Ne՛ne՛ and I kneel and pray together out loud. She recites the Lord’s Prayer, and I pray along with her… in Turkish. No one else I know prays.
As an adult, I have prayed in churches of various denominations in Armenian, English, and Russian. I have prayed with Buddhist groups in Tibetan, Hindu, and Sanskrit. I welcome the opportunity to pray. To me, prayer sounds the same in every language, because it comes from a place where no distinctions of culture, nationality, race, class, and ethnicity exist.

Share Button