Defining oneself in a multicultural society
(Prologue excerpted from the book, "The Immigrants' Daughter")
"Where do you come from?” asks the teacher of the adult class in Leopoldville, where I am registered for a course in Lingala.
I hesitate. It is a simple query that puts me in a quandary. Should I state my origins, nationality, or citizenship?
“From my mother’s womb,” I want to tell him in short but resist the urge.
Nobody asked me that kind of question in Cairo where I grew up. We were a known minority. The usual question was “Are you Greek?” “Italian?” “Armenian?” or “What nationality are you?” if my name had not given it away already. Now in Leopoldville, on an expatriate assignment with the United Nations, I stand out with my foreign accent, wavy hair, and possibly body language, gestures and all.
“From Egypt,” I mutter, to keep the conversation short. I wonder why he doesn’t ask the same question of the other students in class – half a dozen from the United Nations, five from the Swiss Red Cross, and two businessmen.
“Egypt! C’est vrai?” he exclaims in French, “I thought they were all black!”
I feel uncomfortable in my skin but remain silent.
“Is your husband Egyptian, too?”
“I’m not married,” I blurt out, embarrassed to my core. At the ripe old age of thirty, I am shelved as an old maid, all hopes gone.
“I want to show you to my friend. He has never seen an Egyptian!”
My cheeks burn. Am I the first Egyptian in town, the discovery of the century or an antique from Pharaoh’s tombs? Should I be put on display with a distinct label slapped at my feet?“Imported African.Rare species. Handle with care.” How can I explain to my Congolese teacher that I am not a real specimen?
More than three thousand years of history define me as an Armenian, a descendant from the people living at the foot of Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark settled. The mountain was in Armenian territory for centuries. Politics moved it beyond the national boundaries and we became immigrants. How shall I explain that the DNA in my Armenian blood will survive forever, irrespective of the citizenship I have?
“I’m…I’m not a real Egyptian…” I mumble, trying to avert a misconception.
Thirteen pairs of eyes stare at me, as if I have just come out of ghost town. I look at them and shrink at the task ahead of me. How will I define in two sentences our family history? My parents are survivors of the waves of “ethnic cleansing” that swept the Ottoman Empire from the 1890s through the 1920s. Under the pressure of reform, demanded by the foreign powers to improve the lot of minorities, the Ottoman Government “solved” the problem by reducing them in massive, harrowing, so- called “displacements” into the Arabian deserts of the Middle East. Thus, the “starving Armenians” came into existence - skeletal, homeless, wandering survivors seeking refuge wherever a country offered asylum. Thanks to this “solution,” half the nation now lives in countries around the world, constituting the Armenian Diaspora.
“Who remembers the Armenians?” exclaimed Adolph Hitler to his officers on the eve of his invasion to Poland. We, and the members of my parents’ generation do, suffering in silence. The effects of genocide were present in my mother’s glassy eyes and in my father’s angry temper. It affected us all and will probably have its effect on a few more generations. We are the extra- uterine children of Motherland with different citizenships. Once transplanted, always a foreigner. Migration is not our family business, nor is it a national pastime, but circumstances forced us abroad to create a safe haven elsewhere. I cannot explain all this in two sentences. Nobody will understand my dilemma.
“Not a real Egyptian? What do you mean? Where do your parents come from?” asks a man who eyes me curiously, taking over the queries from the teacher. The determination of my nationality takes precedence over Lingala.
“They come from Turkey.”
“Are you Turkish?”
“Then what do you consider yourself?”
Good question. I have been a floater all my life, a thin cloud flirting with the sun, daring it rather to disperse me. How can I explain my ethnic longevity?
“Armenian,” I say, with a smirk. I know it will not register.
“Armenian? With an Egyptian passport?”
“It’s complicated. I’ll explain after class.”
The teacher takes over. We start the first lesson in Lingala. I sit there like a freak of nature. How did I end up here?
. . . .
I know some of my new classmates will corner me with more questions by the end of class. I am not mistaken.
“That’s interesting,” says Walter, the Swiss gentleman sitting to my left, engaging me in conversation as class disperses. He is intent on finding out who I am. Fair hair, blue eyes, five foot eight in height, strong muscular build, he is attractive enough to shake my soul.
“How can you be Armenian when you’re Egyptian?”
“Have you heard of Armenians?” I ask.
“Yes, vaguely. I really don’t know who they are.”
“Armenia is in Asia Minor, right below the Caucasus, but we live all over the world.” While I wait for the information to gel, I add, to ease the process. “It’s part of the Soviet Union, you know.”
An eerie silence hangs in the air for a moment:
“Are you a communist?”
“No, for heaven’s sake.”
“I still don’t understand. What’s Armenia like?”
“I don’t know. I never lived there.”
“Then where did you grow up?”
“How was it growing up in Cairo?”
“We had pharaohs for teachers and rode camels to school.”
Walter’s hearty laughter eases my tensions. I can’t imagine that
working for good grades, fighting with siblings, rebelling against parents, and waiting for a knight in shining armor is any different elsewhere. Am I mistaken? For the first time in my life, I feel like a hybrid, not knowing exactly what the Motherland looks like, what our original traditions are and what superimposed customs have seeped into our culture. This class teaches me more than Lingala - the need to redefine myself.
One of the independent businessmen has heard our conversation.
“Did you say Rumanian? I didn’t really catch it,” he butts in.
Good Lord! With such titans as politician Anastase Mikoyan, composer Aram Khatchatourian, and writer William Saroyan, Armenians should have carved a page in history, but they haven’t. Raised eyebrows size me up. I realize that if I make a wrong move now all other Armenians around the globe will be judged by my behavior. I may not be a chip off the old block. In fact, I may even be the black sheep of my community, but, to the uninitiated, I am now the single specimen that represents the mass.
This “where do you come?” scenario repeats itself all during my vagaries, from the Congo through travels in Europe, through my transfer to Togo to my attempted stay in the Lebanon, and to my permanent residence in the United States.
As an immigrant, I am the suspicious new strain of virus wherever I settle. The immunization system of the local community produces antibodies to arrest the spread of invasive elements of my type. Landlords look for the transient in me. Educational institutions detect an accent and frown upon certificates earned abroad. They devise elaborate schemes to deny me college entrance, but they don’t know how stubborn and persistent this strain of virus can be. Employment agencies shrug off my international experience as they give me an obscure slot. To preserve dignity, I hoist my ethnic pride… and pray. Will I ever be accepted as an integral part of the local community where I will feel comfortable in my skin?
“Why can’t you give up being Armenian?” Caroline, a roommate in my migrant life, asks. Like my classmates in the Congo she is puzzled.
“How can I?” I reply. “My forefathers were massacred for their Christian faith and identity. I can’t betray them.”
I wonder if she understands what it is like. Can one expect pears from a transplanted apple tree? Heritage runs in my DNA. It squats in my womb. I need to keep language and ethnicity intact in order to keep the communication lines open with my extended family and between the generations strewn across the world.
“My best friend never invites me to her Armenian Club,” a colleague complains. “She’s so clannish!”
“She’s doing you a favor,” I offer, “do you blame her?”
“How’s that? I find it rude.”
“Wouldn’t you feel left out in a community where everybody speaks his ethnic language, down to the dialect? Most know each other anyway.”
“I never thought of that.”
Should I mention that we treat the seventh generation still as family? That nobody is once or twice removed? That our theory of relativity is more complex than Einstein’s?
Where does all this leave me? Like all children born in the Diaspora I persist on foreign soil by standing close to the local ethnic oasis, the expatriate Motherland, where I feel safe and secure in being me, while making forays into the local culture. We cajole our parents, but keep pace with the world. We end up living a double life,externally the law-abiding citizen, internally the conservative traditionalist. No wonder the question “Where do you come from?” follows me from the Congo to California, where I have lived longer than in Egypt.
This book defines my roots and perhaps will help promote awareness of the problems of many immigrants like me who, for various reasons - ethnic cleansing, political dissidence, unfamiliar religious practice, or, simply, lust for the unknown - travel the world in search of a haven where they keep their splintered souls together.