I'd always longed to feel like nothing. I thought that's how it felt to belong.
When I started grade school, I had two good friends, Leona, a blond, and Gracie, who was black. One time when the two of them were fighting I had to choose sides, so I chose Gracie. I recall being in a crowded cafeteria, where the long tables and benches were bolted together, stuck tight between kids clanking their metal lunch boxes and tearing into paper bags for Skippy-and-Welch's-grape-jelly sandwiches on Wonderbread. Gracie and Leona had been yelling at each other across the table for what seemed like hours. I leaned over to Leona and yelled before I knew what was erupting from my mouth.
"You nothingless whitie!"
The whole table was silent and Leona looked mad enough to spit. Turned out her pinched mouth was from the effort it took not to cry. She pushed two kids off the bench so she could get away in a hurry, but before she made it out we all heard her wailing.
When I look back on it, I almost don't know which character I was. When I sided with Gracie, I was siding with the underdog, I was standing up for myself and all the ways in which I never fit in. And when I called Leona a nothingless whitie--what is less than nothing?--I was slamming down everyone who'd ever looked down on me or refused to notice me. But I felt weird about it, and no one talked about what had happened. Even Gracie was a little wary of me for a while.
Of course, I was also Leona. I felt weird because my skin is white, but I'm not. In my house we spoke Armenian. We didn't eat rice, we ate pilaf. There was no Dad--he was very old and very white and very not there. It was just my mom and my grandmother and me, and all my cousins were out of state, and darker than I was and spoke better Armenian, and went every Sunday to the Armenian Evangelical Church on East 34th Street in Manhattan, and the grownups smiled at me in a way that made me sad. Instead of playing with my cousins when we visited them in Staten Island, I would sit in silence beside my grandmother. My bare thighs would stick to the plastic-encased sofa, while she and her sister Vergine sipped coffee and spoke of their aches and pains and private things. The grownups forgot I understood their language because of my silence and because I was jermag. I was white.
I remember crying once because my cousins wouldn't play with me. They were a couple of years older, and they liked to ride bikes and shoot hoops, not play with Barbies or listen to The Beatles. My grandmother--to my horror--told my Aunt Hasmig, who meant well when she forced Mary and Harry to play with me. My cousins took me across the street, behind the old Waldebaum's, where no one could see. I was wearing a reversible dress that day--hey, it was the '60s, what can I say? My mom had a penchant for weird clothing and it didn't help that the decade was awash in all things weird--at least she didn't make me wear one of the paper dresses hanging in my closet. She wasn't making Armenian fashion statements, for sure.
Mary and Harry asked to see my dress. They took it off for me, and I stood there for a few moments at the empty loading dock in nothing but my panties. The cousins didn't look at each other but I could tell they were trying not to laugh. Then their four tawny hands tugged at my white body while they put my dress back on inside out. No one noticed my dress had changed when we returned--which may have been more traumatizing than the stripping itself. The evidence of violation was in plain sight, but not one person noticed.
Whether it was the shameful or trivial nature of the incident, I never told anyone until now. I never longed to play with my cousins again--and never did play with them again. Looking back on it, that dress was the perfect metaphor for my feelings about who I was. I was Armenian on one side, white on the other, and which ever side was showing was wrong.
Have you read The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson? It's been called a brilliant comedy about anti-semitism and won Jacobson the Man Booker Prize, England's most prestigious literary award. I've never fully understood what exactly it is about him and his book that pisses me off so fucking much--and so personally--but I wonder if maybe it has something to do with his sense of entitlement, which is not something available to the average minority, and certainly not to a halfbreed.
|Early Cher, before she turned white|
|Cher after ethnic-reduction surgery|
I have compiled a list of famous Armenians to get me back on track. Notice that Armenian surnames all contain the suffix -ian, which means "son of" so, for example, my grandmother's maiden name, Tutunjian, translates as "Son of a Tobacco Grower."
Andre Agassi (dad's Armenian, dropped the -ian, hot and famous tennis pro)
Charles Aznavour (famous French torch singer and actor who, again, dropped the -ian)
Eric Bogosian (brilliant comic and writer)
Cher (Cherylin Sarkissian Bono--a halfbreed whose identity is firmly rooted in not being Armenian)
Mike Connors (how you get Connors out of Ohanian, I'll never know, but he was the star of the hit TV show Mannix)
Raymond Vahan Damadian (invented the MRI)
Princess Diana (oh, really? One sixty-fourth Armenian, to be exact. By the calculus of some particularly
Atom Egoyan (director)
Arshile Gorky (artist, lost the -ian)
Calouste Gulbenkian (called Mr. Five Percent, known for being shrewd and rich, owned 5% of BP and other companies)
Gurdjieff (famous spiritual leader, sans -ian)
Kim Kardashian (slut) and her slimy dad, Robert (defended OJ Simpson)
Gary Kasparov (chess champion, sans -ian)
Jack Kevorkian (Dr. Death)
Aram Khatchaturian (famous composer)
Raffi (Kavoukian--kavoui is the way we say "holy shit!"--famous for the children's song "Banana Phone")
William Saroyan (brilliant writer)
Seymour Skinner (Bart and Lisa's school principal on The Simpsons. On one episode he relates that he is not really Seymour Skinner, but actually Armen Tamzarian. The town decides never to discuss his dark past again.)
The Zildjian Family (world's largest cymbal manufacturer; zil means--wait for it--cymbal)
When I was growing up, my mother told me that Cary Grant was Armenian. "Look at his eyes and you know." (That's like my Haitian friend claiming Usher as one of her peeps.)
I should do my own quasi-Armenian spoof of The Finkler Question. But what would I call it? Eench-jian ess? Armenians ask for each other's last names by inquiring, "What -ian are you?"
The Odarjian Question. It might translate as Son of a Bitch since odar means outsider, outcast, misfit, or nonArmenian. That is who I am, the identity I embrace.
Odarjian is an exotic new hybrid of insider/outsider. It's better than Armenian or Jew, and while it shares many of its traits with Nothing (what my friend Debbie recoiled from and I longed for), it's better than nothing. Odarjian seems to be peculiar and incomparable, and long-winded. Although prone to hellish introspection, Odarjian, nonetheless, has the capacity for sublime and even light-hearted transcendence.
So, you think it's a little weird that I still live in my hometown? As if I'm so desperate, as a misfit, to have a fixed identity that I'm rootbound? I think I would be very comfortable as an ex-pat, though--maybe a little too comfortable.
In Egypt (like anywhere else on the planet), Americans and Europeans invent their own subculture of nonNatives, which is flexible and amorphous, porous and forgiving. Many years ago, when I was first married, I had an appointment at the American University in Cairo. They were the ones who would officially translate my marriage contract, so that my marriage in Egypt to an Egyptian would be recognized in the United States. The translator, an American, took one look at me and said, "Want a job?" For a sparkling moment I saw a new life spread open before me--a playful life of my own invention with limitless, exotic possibilities for continual reinvention.
But the charm of being a true outsider is thriving in hostile soil. To be true to our inner odar, we can't assimilate--we have to find ways to keep fighting. We may hate being an outsider but, between you and me, we love it even more.