Friday, January 20, 2012

Howard Jacobson and the Reversible Dress

My dear friend Debbie once confided in me that she felt left out during our late-night get-togethers over pizza and Buffalo-style chicken wings when we swapped embarrassing ethnic childhood stories. These talks took place at our dorm room at William Smith College, which was safely tucked away among the hills and lakes of upstate New York and had strong Episcopal roots, as well as a kick-ass Larosse team called The Herons, and just one black teacher, who pretty much reflected the student demographics.  My friend Cindy was Albanian and Greek Orthodox, Siggi's mom was Latvian, my mom was Armenian, and decades later Deb told me, "I felt like nothing."

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.

The premise of The Finkler Question is that a gentile who resembles Brad Pitt has Jewish Envy and hurls himself from his bleak, barely experienced, anemic life, into the passionate, persecuted, emotional life of A Jew.  (He is embarrassed to say the word Jew, so he substitutes the name of his Jewish friend, Finkler.)  He chases many stereotypes:  the brooding intellectual, the woe-is-me humor, the engulfing warmth and passion of an earthy, fat, Jewish woman. Spoiler alert:  in the end he can't hack it and returns to the bland safety of his Brad Pitt persona (at least that's how I remember it).

Early Cher, before she turned white
Who the hell wants to be Armenian?  Armenians are the poor man's Jew.  We had our own genocide, but no one cares.  Like the Jews, we were handed a hot-potato piece of real estate so we'd stop complaining, but instead of The Holy Land, we get some shitty, landlocked acreage in Russia that's located over shifting tectonic plates.  Earthquakeistan.  Written Armenian was conceived in 406 AD by Saint Mesrob for the purpose of recording Christian mystical wisdom, but Hebrew is a holy biblical language that pre-dates the Old Testament, for God's sake.  Armenians have big noses; Jewish noses are arguably bigger.  Admittedly, our rendition of the JewFro is less spectacular.  Jews are known for their self-deprecating wit; Armenians are just morose.

Cher after ethnic-reduction surgery
Omigod.  Do I, in fact, suffer from Jewish Envy?

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 shameless inventive Armenian, Princess Diana's pedigree is traced to some Armenian woman from India named Eliza Kewark or Kewarkian, when letters with 'funny writing' were found in Di's ancestral home after her death. After investigation it was determined that the writing was Armenian and the letters were written by Granny Eliza to her children and grandchildren)
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.


  1. I came over from Elephant Journal b/c I loved your post there. I love this one even more. You totally nailed the experience many of us had in that era of living in the US and being not quite "white." I grew up a lone swarthy Jewess in small town Indiana where my peers believed me to be Native American and I did little to correct them. For the last 4 years I have lived in Israel where, b/c I come from the US, I am called "Anglo Saxon". Is that not the funniest thing ever?

    I really enjoyed this. You are a wonderful writer.

  2. Emily, do you know how amazing it is for me to hear from you? I'm so touched and inspired by the fact that of your writing to me.

    Also, who can resist a "lone, swarthy Anglo-Saxon Jewess"?

    Before writing this piece, I'd never really expressed my ethnic discomfort. It's unbelievably reaffirming to hear your voice. Plus, you have a sense of humor about it.

    I just started checking out TriumphWellness and I'm having one of those 'Eureka!' experiences. I'm fascinated by your personal story and I'm eager to read more, learn more.

    Thanks so much.