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Story Publication logo October 15, 2013

Enduring Exile: Syria's Armenians

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As Syrian Armenians flee their country’s violence to begin new lives in Armenia – a homeland they...

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Members of the Knadjian family at the Abu Artin restaurant and inn, 1959. Image courtesy of the Knadjian family.

Two years ago, in September, Anto's neighbors warned him: it was time for him to go. He would no longer be safe in these hills above the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria. He knew better than to doubt them.

A descendant of Armenians from Ottoman Turkey, he had inherited a dormant vigilance that now came to life. Anto's father used to tell him, repeating what had been passed down through four generations: "Like we came from Turkey, we may also one day leave from Syria."

With his neighbors' warnings in his ears, Anto scrambled to secure some cash. He started to quietly sell off whatever he could from Abu Artin, a restaurant and inn that his family had operated every spring and summer since 1938. His grandfather had built Abu Artin, named for Anto's great-grandfather, high in these hills as an escape for Syrians living in the swelter of those months in the cities and towns below. The land offered fresh air, their kitchen delectable food, and the men—Anto and his father and grandfather before him—impromptu musical performances that had made them famous with customers.

Anto sold the restaurant's cutlery and dishware, and the inn's AC and heating units, in another village, and at a fraction of their value. Sentimental items—the portraits of his grandfather and father—he took to his house in Aleppo, where he lived in the off-season. He made sure not to tell anyone in the hills when he was coming or going.

Even though he tried downsizing as slowly and as inconspicuously as possible, soon people began to notice, to circle, and to ask. Syrians were accustomed to the peering eyes of the government's many informers, and generally understood the difference between what information could get someone in trouble and what just accumulated. But now, in the chaos that had been building in a speedy crescendo since spring, no one knew what detail would be damning, and to which fate.

January and February had brought an end to the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. By March, it was clear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who had inherited power from his father, bringing Assad family rule to a total of forty-one years, did not intend to follow suit. At the end of the month, his forces had killed 103 unarmed protesting civilians and had disappeared many more; the exact number, no one would ever quite know.

So in April 2011, when Anto would have usually opened Abu Artin, he kept it shuttered instead. No one was driving the 70 kilometers from Aleppo, Syria's largest city and home to much of the family's clientele over the last seventy-three years. Syrians still untouched by the violence, in cities like Aleppo, were staying closer to home, hoping that by ignoring the war in other parts of the country, it might just go away.

With summer, fruit had ripened, uneaten on the trees in the surrounding garden. Both restaurant and inn remained idle and empty.

But by September, six months into the uprising and crackdown, no one could avoid a certain vulgar calculus: Anto was marked, a Syrian-Armenian Christian in a Syria of looming sectarianism.

Aleppo was home to tens of thousands of other Syrian Armenians, but in these hills, Anto was alone. "You're like an Arab in Tel Aviv," a man from Idlib told him.

Idlib and the surrounding area were becoming strongholds for opposition fighters, both secularists and jihadists. In the growing chaos, religion and ethnicity had become a congenital liability: the wrong belief or background, at the wrong moment, could be fatal. Guilt had become collective; one individual could be traded for another of the same sect or community in escalating cycles of brutality and vengeance.

To the more conservative people in the hills, Anto was already an affront, with the alcohol serving, singing, and gender-mixing in his restaurant. For the more ignorant, his being neither Muslim nor Arab—despite his being Syrian—made him fair game as a scapegoat for a regime that claimed to be supported by minorities. It also made him an easy target for kidnappers hoping to net a pretty ransom without the risk of angering a much more numerous or powerful community. For those who, in their fervor, believed a better Syria required that everyone be the same, there would be little room for him. Pragmatic Syrians reasoned that the casualties would be many before anyone would stop to consider or even question the hell that they had just meted upon each other.

Anto had little time to waste, and didn't want to gamble on the hope that people might come back to their senses. On an early morning in October 2011, a month after his neighbors warned him he would not be safe, Anto went up to the hills. One of the locals joked, "Why didn't you tell us you were coming? We were going to kidnap you."

Anto laughed it off but didn't say he had come for the last time. He silently bid goodbye to the trees, the hills, the ground itself. He nodded to the statue of the Madonna and the little masjid he had built so Muslim workers or guests could pray.

He paused at the chair where he used to sit with his arghileh, a water pipe, and gazed at the spot where, as a boy and as a man, he watched his father and grandfather sing to the rapt diners. He caressed the walls his great-grandfather had built from the stones turned up in the dirt all those years ago. This was history; it was real and couldn't be erased. Abu Artin was there before Bashar, before Hafez, before all the presidents.

He fed the stray dog they had taken in and went into a small room and cried. He wanted to die; he thought his heart might stop of his own will right there. Where am I going to go? How am I going to take care of Matilda and the girls?

He dried his tears and went to Mahmoud who had worked for his family for years, who had held Anto's father's hand in the hospital when he had died. Mahmoud now had a little dikan, a convenience store, close to Abu Artin.

Anto asked Mahmoud to try to spare some food for the dog each day; he then handed him the keys to Abu Artin and told him he was returning to Aleppo.

Anto kissed Mahmoud and said, "May god protect you. God willing we will see each other again."

"Don't come back, mualem," Mahmoud said.

A week later, Mahmoud told Anto over the phone that the door to the inn had been broken. What Anto had left behind—toilets, vanities, mirrors—had all been stolen by some neighbors. Displaced Syrians from Jisr-al-Shagour had also moved into the empty rooms.

Anto cursed the thieves but didn't begrudge the squatters; they needed a place to sleep. They were escaping violence that had claimed their only homes. Where else should they go?

Anto, his wife, and his three young children all had a place to sleep, even if he wasn't sure what would come next, what he would do, how he would provide. But he would figure it out. He had saved enough and sold enough that for the next several months, he—they—could survive, as their ancestors had before them, in the safety of Aleppo.

* * *

Before winter gave way to spring in 1915, Abkar's Turkish neighbors warned him: something was coming. Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire—like Abkar and his family—would soon be in great danger. Abkar was a puppeteer, and the stories he would weave and animate by night with his marionettes had made Abkar beloved by Armenians and Turks alike. So they gave him a head start.

He packed his puppets, dug up his gold, and stole away quickly, under darkness, on foot with his wife and six children.

On his heels was one of the twentieth century's first genocides.

The Ottoman Empire's extermination of its Armenian population is generally said to have begun on the night of April 24, 1915, when the Ottoman government rounded up and imprisoned over two hundred Armenian notables and leaders, the majority of whom were summarily executed shortly after.

Inhabitants of Armenian villages—men, women, children, and the elderly—were massacred, butchered, burned, or drowned in the Black Sea. Extermination camps were set up. The vast majority was deported to Aleppo, a city in Ottoman-controlled Syria, literally at the end of the line of the railroad. Since its founding in the sixth millennium B.C., Aleppo had been populated by Muslims, Christians, Jews, and a small local Arabicized Armenian community.

From Aleppo, the Ottomans forced the corralled Armenians to march into the Syrian Desert, ostensibly to another deportation center, but the death march was in fact the point. They were not provided cover from the sun, nor food or water. Sometimes they were marched in circles until they collapsed. Most died in the desert, the dust of their bones still discernable today among the grains of sand.

In August of 1915, the New York Times cited an account that reported "the roads and the Euphrates are strewn with corpses of exiles, and those who survive are doomed to certain death since they will find neither house, work, nor food in the desert. It is a plan to exterminate the whole Armenian people."

Though Aleppo in the beginning was a point of transfer, it later became a place of rescue and relief, and even later a site of memory. The city was already home to an Arabicized Armenian population that had been in Syria since at least the eleventh century. In fact, religiously inspired Armenians—Armenia was one of the world's first Christian countries—had been traveling and settling long before among northern Syria's sites of Christian pilgrimage.

By late 1915 and onwards, aid efforts were concentrated in Aleppo and sprawling refugee camps were set up to care for the Armenians. They would later become bustling Armenian neighborhoods, as tents became cement, and the camps evolved from limbo to permanency. What was considered by Armenians "Western Armenia"—delineated from Eastern, modern-day Armenia by the magnificent summit of Ararat—ceased to exist as its people and its traces were cleansed from lands that became modern-day Turkey. Its language, churches, schools, and its people were instead resuscitated, rebuilt, and preserved in Aleppo. Many Armenians stayed, made Syria their home, and became Syrian, the community numbering an estimated 150,000 at its peak in the 1990s. Others left to Lebanon, Europe, South America, or the United States, the many communities that today make up the Armenian Diaspora. But they all passed first through Syria, and in the collective Armenian imagination, Aleppo in particular and Syria in general is a place of refuge and rebirth.

When Abkar and his family left their land in Urfa, they walked on foot to Antep, then Killis, finally arriving in Aleppo. There, he kept his puppets packed, worked as a portrait photographer, and soon started a small restaurant to serve the growing community of genocide survivors, nostalgic for home. Abkar also wanted to seduce the local Syrian population with the spicier flavors of the Anatolian kitchen.

Abkar's son, Artin, who had arrived in Syria as a little boy, would later open a summer restaurant and rest-house in the untouched hills above Idlib. Artin named his getaway with the epithet Syrian Arabs used for his father: Abu (father of) Artin. He had chosen to marry a local Armenian woman named Zakeya, who spoke Arabic, not his native Western Armenian. Music was the language they shared; he had fallen in love with her the moment he had heard her strum the melancholy notes of the oud. She was widowed, and Artin married her and raised her three children with her, to which they added two of their own, Bedrous and Antranig, who died at age eighteen. Bedrous would name his own son, Anto, for that lost brother.

Song, theater, and storytelling remained in their homes and souls, and there, in the safety of Aleppo, Abkar's family and his descendants would flourish.

* * *

In 1993, the first time Anto went to Armenia, he arrived with only the clothes on his back and the traditional Armenian costume he wore when he performed. He was twenty-five years old and traveling with a dance troupe of Syrian Armenians to a music festival across Armenia; somewhere between Aleppo and Yerevan, their belongings had been lost.

Armenia was newly independent, having, like other republics, broken away in nationalist catharsis from the Soviet Union as it had disintegrated. Armenians from across the Diaspora would be performing over the next two weeks, and Anto relished the opportunity to do what he loved best, what was in his family's blood: to sing, to dance, and to play music.

He was curious to visit Armenia, even if it wasn't really Armenia, and he wasn't really from this Armenia.

For him and the other Syrians, their homeland lay to the west of towering Ararat, the snow-capped mountain that dominated Yerevan's horizon. Like Ararat itself, their Western Armenia lay across a sealed border in Turkey. This Armenia, what they called Eastern Armenia, was all that remained of the erstwhile kingdom. Genocide and expulsion had erased Western Armenia, leaving it to memory. Its culture, institutions, cuisine, and language—different than those of Eastern Armenia—had been carried into exile by those who had fled and survived the slaughter, resuscitated and reconstituted in their homes, their kitchens. If the heritage of Western Armenia lived anywhere, it was in Aleppo.

Yet Ararat, so looming in the sky that it seemed easy enough to touch, was also an open wound, a constant reminder of that other side and all that was lost to it.

The summit had cleaved history, dividing the destinies of these two Armenias. There was Western Armenia, once brutalized but now thriving in the Arab World and on the Mediterranean Sea, and there was Eastern Armenia, impoverished and hungry in the rugged Caucuses, in the spheres of Persia and Russia, in both ancient and modern times.

It wasn't only Armenia that had to navigate the USSR's demise; Syria too had benefited from Soviet patronage, which it sought to replace with American friendship. Syria joined the U.S.-led coalition to invade Iraq in 1991 and was rewarded with an occupation, green-lighted by the United States, of Lebanon and with peace negotiations with Israel. Yet, after nearly five thousand years in historic Syria, the last fifty years of conflict between the modern-day states of Syria and Israel had made Jews an uncomfortable inconvenience for both. In 1992, Syria's remaining four thousand Jews left in quiet exodus.

This excision did not go unnoticed by Anto or other Syrians, who wondered whether a precedent had just been set—that "being Syrian" could be qualified and classified in tiers. But such thoughts were quashed and eyes were averted; this was a "special case" after all. Jewish nationalism and war with Israel—that essential conflict in the Arab world—was what had made being Jewish and Arab a contradiction. There were, they thought, no other such contradictions.

If for Syria it was an era in which the country seemed to be coming out of isolation and into the light, in Armenia it was one of darkness, literally. A war with neighbor Azerbaijan had brought an energy embargo to Armenia. Without enough electricity, the nights in this fledgling state were passed by candlelight. There were also shortages of food, and the Armenian Diaspora, including the wealthy community in Syria, had to bolster its homeland's economy with remittances. Georgia and Iran, on Armenia's other shared borders, were the country's only lifeline to the rest of the world.

The organizers of the festival had warned the Syrians and the other international Armenians not to stay out after dark. It seemed to Anto as if they were in another century, tied as they were to the presence of the sun in the sky. Fitting then, that they were wandering around Yerevan in costumes from a bygone time and world.

He pitied this place. Was it any wonder most Syrian Armenians had ignored Armenian nationalist calls to "come back" to Armenia? He fell into easier conversation with the other Diaspora performers who had traveled from as far away as Argentina and who spoke in the same Western Armenian cadence as he. Anto was also hungry, having refused to eat the food, which he found inedible. Even bread was hard to come by.

Yet some things felt familiar—the architecture of the churches, the contours of the faces, and mostly, the songs. Musically, Anto felt like he had been in Armenia for a hundred years.

On their third night in this not-quite homeland, after the troupe had performed in the mountains outside of Yerevan, they were hurtling down dark and curving roads in a bus provided by the festival. It was already past midnight, and the driver seemed eager to drop them at their hotel and continue to his own destination. Finally, he pulled over and told the Syrians to get out: they had arrived where they would be sleeping. Barely able to see their own hands in front of them in the darkness, they found their way to the door and knocked. The driver had already sped away.

A woman dressed all in white answered, her face lit only by the candle she held.

"We are the group from Syria," they announced to her.

"Welcome," she said. "We are waiting for a group from Syria."

As they followed behind her, barely able to see anything in the blackness, Anto could hear the woman rapping on doors and saying, "The Syrian troupe is here. Get up! There are people who want to sleep."

He felt hurried movement in response and sensed something was amiss. He whispered to one of the Syrians, "We're not in the right place."

The woman showed the eighteen of them to empty rooms with scant furniture and offered them vodka and cognac in dirty glasses. They could hear dogs howling outside. Anto pulled back the curtains to see what could be seen, only to discover there were no windows, only the plaster of the walls.

Left to themselves, the men assured the women that there was nothing to fear. They arranged themselves on the floor or on whatever furniture they found. Anto didn't plan to sleep; he had heard back home that Armenia was a country of thieves. Yet, despite himself, he drifted off.

He woke only when he was shaken. "Wake up, wake up!"

A member of the troupe had come running in from another room. "The government has been looking for us," he said. "Thank God they found us."

Only in the light of day, after they had emerged from the secondary darkness of their windowless room, did they see that their driver had not delivered them to a hotel.

The woman in white was a nurse. They had taken refuge from the darkness in an asylum for the abandoned and insane.

* * *

When Anto told his mother in early 2012 that he was leaving Syria and moving to Armenia, she was aghast.

"There, the mafia will kidnap you," she said. "And you and Matilda will get divorced."

She was convinced, like many others in the Armenian community and in Aleppo itself, that what was happening in other parts of Syria would not—could not—reach them.

What Anto had lost in Idlib made him believe otherwise. After retreating to Aleppo, living off the revenue he had raised from selling what he could at Abu Artin, he also decided to sell his house in the city. The community gossiped. Why would he do such a desperate thing? He told them he had debts to pay, letting people speculate about which way he had failed as a man and as a provider.

With Aleppo oblivious to what was coming, he got a price for the house that suggested nothing of a country at war. He took his head start and the money and went in February to scout a life in Yerevan.

The city had changed since his first visit in 1993. Diaspora money had poured in, and there were glitzy new hotels, offices, shops, and streets in the city center. Anto had continued to come frequently to Armenia, where he had pursued and exercised his musical ambitions, recording and producing records—singing in Armenian came easier than Arabic. He knew Yerevan well enough, and he wanted to start a restaurant in Armenia. Quickly, he found the space he thought perfect to rent.

He could barely afford the modest place, which had previously been occupied by another restaurant named "New Antep," after a city in Ottoman Turkey that had been home to Armenians for centuries before the genocide. New Antep had scaled up, and Anto decided that at the old New Antep, he would open New Urfa, named for his great-grandfather's city, similarly cleansed of its Armenians. He would serve the same food that had travelled with his family and survivors over a century and across borders.

But when he went back to Aleppo, he had second thoughts. This was a land that he loved. This was his city, and maybe it really would all be over as quickly as it had started.

Then he thought of his young children and found his resolve again. By May, he moved them and Matilda to Yerevan. Slowly, customers began to arrive at New Urfa. He knew that in summer, when many Syrian Armenians and other Western Armenians would come for vacation, insistent on the food of home, business would pick up.

In June, Syrians arriving from Aleppo told him that the troubles would all be resolved—even before their vacations ended. Then, in July, began the battle for Aleppo itself. Fighting engulfed the city and would eventually leave much of it in ruins. Syrians—including Anto's brother and sister—extended their stays in Armenia, saying they would wait out the rough period in Yerevan. Many still thought it would all be over in weeks.

When September came, their summer clothes and shoes were no longer enough to keep them warm against the chill of evening. In October, with the school year about to begin in Syria and their children stranded in Yerevan, Syrian Armenian families approached the government for help opening a school that would follow the Syrian curriculum. From a single set of Arabic textbooks flown out of Syria, they made photocopies, hoping that when they returned to Syria, the children would not have missed a step.

Armenia fast-tracked visas and citizenships for Syrian Armenians, many of whom had long scoffed at the idea of a passport from Armenia, seeing no need. The government also offered Syrians free medical care and allowed them to pay tuition at the universities at the low local rate. The country waived certain fees and taxes involved in longer-term stays, and soon cars with Syrian license plates could be seen all over Yerevan.

Governmental and private groups helped Syrian Armenians find jobs and transfer their businesses to Armenia. After all, the community in Aleppo was industrious and prosperous, and Armenia needed people, investment, and a jolt to an economy that depended greatly on remittances. Many saw an answer to Armenia's problems in Syria's loss.

Some in Armenia also seized on fears of violence in Syria and memories of the Ottoman genocide to push nationalist goals, particularly the return or "repatriation" of all Armenians to the country. They argued that the "it will all work out" mentality had cost them lives in the genocide.

At New Urfa, Anto mounted a large flat screen TV and set the satellite dish to channels from Syria. In September 2012, a year after that first warning to leave Idlib, Anto watched the historic souks of Aleppo burn.

"I cannot cry now," he said. "I have no time. I have to feed my family. I have to survive in this new country. If my situation gets better and I can relax, I will cry."

In December, on the eve of Christmas Eve, his mother died alone in her house in Aleppo. She had chosen to remain, even as snipers and violence trapped her, like many Aleppans, inside. She had passed the time in front of the television, ignoring the news and watching the Turkish soap operas she adored, in a language she still knew better than Arabic.

Last month marked Anto's second year in Yerevan, and the first anniversary of Aleppo's destruction. But he is no longer sure how to measure time. Are the events to be marked, to be mourned, in Urfa, or in Idlib, or Aleppo, or Yerevan?

"I miss the past," he says, but keeps moving forward, every day making more grape leaves and manti and kibbeh and kababs at New Urfa, still unsure, like his patrons, if permanence is always illusory.

This article is published in collaboration with the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism.


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