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Land of Armenians

 

Lawn sign in Watertown, Massachusetts, 6/16

Last week I returned to my hometown of Watertown, Massachusetts to visit my parents, to do research for my novel in the archives of the two English-language Armenian newspapers, and to attend a board meeting of the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (otherwise known as NAASR). While skimming back issues for articles about the Lebanese Civil War, I found a small item in the Armenian-Mirror Spectator about myself: “Nancy Kricorian, a 9th-grade student at the East Junior High School in Watertown, was the winner of the recent Bicentennial Poster Contest and her poster becomes the official Town of Watertown Bicentennial Poster.” At the offices of the Armenian Weekly I fell upon an absolute treasure trove of reports about what was going in the Armenian precincts of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

 

My parents and I had dinner on Friday evening at the Armenian Memorial Church’s annual fair, where I saw some old family friends and classmates. On Saturday when I walked two miles from my parents’ apartment complex to NAASR’s offices in Belmont, I passed a lawn sign that said, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” The message was printed first in Armenian, second in English, and third in Arabic. (I’m happy to report that because of my regular Armenian lessons I was able to read and understand the Armenian text.) On Saturday afternoon I stopped to pick up some fruit at Armenian-owned Arax Market, where I loved the Armenian conversations going on around me, and then I went to Armenian-owned Fastachi (they do mail order!) to purchase some nuts and chocolates for my family. I really hit peak East Watertown nostalgia on this trip, and felt deeply Armenian.

 

My compatriots are in the news lately. The New York Times ran a profile of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, “our midfield Armenian” who plays for Manchester United. Heno (his Armenian diminutive) is also called “the Armenian magician,” and you can see why if you watch this video of his breathtaking “scorpion kick” goal, which was ranked as the number one goal of the season. Forbes Magazine profiled Carolyn Rafaelian, the billionaire founder of bangle brand Alex and Ani. The Ajam Media Collective ran a piece about singer Seta Hagopian, the “Fairuz of Iraq.” Smithsonian Magazine featured an Armenian cosmetics company that is using ancient botanical recipes in their products. The Armenian Weekly posted a beautiful and moving tribute to Sarkis Balabanian (1882-1963), who risked his life to save hundreds of Armenian children during the Genocide. Michael Winship wrote a piece entitled “The Internet Won’t Let Armenia Go Away” that covers the propaganda war being waged by Turkey against The Promise, an epic Armenian Genocide film funded by the late Kirk Kerkorian.

 

Winship also mentions last week’s firestorm over Turkish President Erdogan’s visit to Washington, D.C. The meeting between Trump and Erdogan did not garner much press attention, but Erdogan’s bodyguards’ assault on peaceful protesters sure did. Around two dozen Kurds, Armenians, and leftist Turks, including young women, older people and children, had gathered to protest outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence during Erdogan’s visit. Erdogan’s security detail with the aid of some right-wing counter-protesters violently attacked the protesters, leaving eleven people injured, nine of whom were hospitalized. There was some speculation, based on several videos, that Erdogan himself had ordered his bodyguards to attack the protesters. Everyone from the Washington Post editorial page to Senator John McCain weighed in. The Turkish government went on the attack, blaming the D.C. police for their ‘aggressive actions’ and demanding an apology from the U.S. government. It is almost laughable that the Turkish government, which spends millions of dollars in the U.S. each year for lobbying and propaganda, a great deal of it focused on preventing efforts at Armenian Genocide recognition and a good part spent on demonizing Kurds, has generated so much ill will in such a short time.

 

On the literary front, the Palestine Festival of Literature has just finished its latest season, and next month its tenth anniversary anthology entitled THIS IS NOT A BORDER will be published by Bloomsbury. Having participated in PalFest in 2010, I was invited to contribute to the anthology and wrote a short piece called “Stories from the Armenian Quarter.” In advance of the launch of her second novel (twenty years after the publication of her first novel THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS), Arundhati Roy was profiled in VOGUE. She will be doing a nine-city North American tour in support of THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS. We will be going to the Brooklyn event at BAM.

 

On the film front, I will shamelessly plug two films produced by my spouse. If you haven’t already, you should watch Kitty Green’s brilliant, disturbing, and moving “hybrid documentary” CASTING JONBENET on Netflix. James has just returned from the Cannes Film Festival where Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s PRAYER BEFORE DAWN, which will be released in North America by A24 later this year, received a ten-minute standing ovation at its midnight premiere.

 

And that’s it for my newsy news report (in which I have not until now mentioned glowing orbs, Russia, or cruelty budgets).

 

P.S. If you’d like to receive this type of post as a newsletter in your inbox, you can sign up here.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

 


Good News

American Bittern and Avid Birders in Central Park

 

Busby the Havanese dog underwent surgery on Monday, and came home that night with a bandage and a tragic face. But yesterday we received the good news—his tumor was a benign lipoma. He is on the mend—snoring louder than usual, being subjected to the “cone of shame” so he won’t scratch his stitches out when we leave him at home without supervision, but overall getting back to his impish self.

My bird walks with NYC Audubon in Central Park this week were amazing. Flowers are bursting out all over, and the warblers are passing through in great numbers, including my favorite Black and White warbler. It is my favorite because it is unmistakable and its name accurately reflects its coloring (the American Redstart, for example, is actually black and orange). I also had the opportunity to see a relatively rare (for Central Park) American Bittern perched high in a tree at Tupelo Meadows. I had only my iPhone, but a scrum of birders with scopes and other fancy cameras documented the bittern’s visit.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written an astute and beautiful appreciation of INDIGNATON for the Library of America’s The Moviegoer. Rolling Stone ran a great review of Kitty Green’s CASTING JONBENET, which is now streaming on Netflix.

Grace Paley (1922-2007), whose work as a writer and as an activist I admired for many years, was profiled in The New Yorker. The New Yorker also ran an excellent piece about poet, writer, Civil Rights activist, legal theorist, labor organizer, and Episcopal priest Pauli Murray (1910-1985).

When I was growing up, my grandmother would hand me an Almond Joy candy bar, saying, “You know Peter Paul? They are Armenians. They made this candy.” My friend Liana Aghajanian wrote a piece about Peter and Paul, and how two Armenian immigrants built an American candy empire. When legendary Armenian-American jazz musician and cigar manufacturer Avo Uvezian died in March, I dug up this article from 2015 that tells the story of how Avo actually wrote the music for Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.”

On the book front, check out People Knitting: 100 Years of Photographs. You can pre-order these pre-approved titles (I read and loved advanced readers copies of both): Wallace Shawn’s NIGHT THOUGHTS from Haymarket Books, and Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS. If you’re in NYC, you can also purchase tickets to hear Arundhati at BAM on June 19. On the music front, check out the debut album from OVERCOATS, the dynamic duo of JJ Mitchell and Hana Elion. (We’ve known JJ since she was in our daughter Nona’s fourth grade class!) And if you’re in NYC, you can buy tickets to see the July 18 concert of the delightful Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila.

Please also support Swing Left. They launched a campaign yesterday to donate to the opponents of swing district Republicans who voted for Trumpcare. And check out the Socialism 2017 Conference scheduled for July 6-9 in Chicago. James and I will be there!

 

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


Riding the Struggle Bus

 

 

When I was talking with my college-aged daughter recently, she told me that her friends’ older siblings were “on the struggle bus.” I had never heard that expression before, but I knew immediately what she meant, and thought it was an excellent way to describe the ongoing economic, emotional, and health travails of many young adults that I know. I also thought my daughter had coined the term, until I looked it up and found that it has been around since at least 2007.

 

This reminded me of a time in the mid-1980’s when I was working as Susan Sontag’s assistant. When she was complaining about her partner of the time, dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs, I said, “She sounds like a control freak.” Susan’s face lit up, and she said, “Exactly. That’s exactly what she is.” When I came back the next week, Susan said, “You didn’t make that term up, did you?” No, in fact, I had not made up the term “control freak,” nor had I claimed to be its progenitor. I was sad to disappoint her with my lack of originality.

 

But, let’s get back to the struggle bus. I’ve been riding my own struggle bus for the past year, dealing with three generations of family health problems, my own scary trip to the emergency room on Christmas Day, a dental gum graft, and, of course, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who have control of our country’s nuclear arsenal. The latest bump on the road is the fact that one of our Havanese dogs, eleven-year-old Busby, has a tumor on his neck. It’s most likely benign, but we won’t know for sure until after the upcoming surgery to remove it. Poor Busby is on his own struggle bus, going to the veterinary hospital to be prodded, poked, and probed. While we are in the waiting room, he looks up at me with his tragic face, which I have learned from veterinary web sites is an indication of his being in pain. I want to cry, but instead I take a photo of his sad mug and send it to everyone else in the family. Although most of the time it seems to be a one-seater, no one likes to be on the struggle bus alone.

 

I look around, however, and see that lots of people are struggling. Many of our friends have frail and infirm parents. Many others are dealing with young adult children trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, some of them coping with mental health issues. All around us, the most vulnerable people and institutions—undocumented immigrants, working people who are paid less than a living wage, LGBTQ individuals whose newly won rights are being eroded, overpoliced low-income communities, people of color in a white supremacist society, Planned Parenthood, public schools, unions, polar bears, songbirds, and the planet—are being threatened by a cruelty as ambitious as it is unconscionable.

 

When I went to the hair salon the other day, I asked the woman who checks the coats if she had a nice Easter. This is a woman I have known for maybe twenty years—the same stylist has been cutting my hair for thirty years, he has been the proprietor of his own salon for more than twenty years, and his employees love him and stay for long tenures. She looked at me and said, “These are some challenging times, but still I wake up every day and say, I’m going to make this day the very best it can be.”

 

Oh yes, we’re riding the struggle bus, but we can try to make each day the best day it can be. And we can try to be kind to each other. As for the Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the horrors of gangster capitalism, I leave you with Mother Jones’s exhortation: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

 

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

 

 


Small Victories and Other Diversions

Photo by Maryam Sahinyan, 1961

In these cruel and venal times, I offer you some small victories and other diversions.

 

SOLIDARITY IS BEAUTIFUL: The Sami people of Norway have persuaded a Norwegian second-largest pension fund to divest from the Dakota Access Pipeline. I loved this piece in the New York Times about some independent bookstores that have turned themselves into centers of resistance. Many houses of worship in New York City are gearing up to provide refuge to undocumented New Yorkers. A similar movement is underway in Los Angeles. Senator Bernie Sanders is working to push the Democratic Party to the left and make it more attractive to working class people. He said, “Despair is not an option.” You can also sign up for a newsletter called Small Victories, which has an upbeat compendium of the resistance successes that have happened in a given week. (Thanks to my friend Dana B for the tip!)

 

Elena Ferrante’s MY BRILLIANT FRIEND has been adapted for the stage and is currently playing in London, and there is a TV series in the works.

 

Our friend Yasmin Hamdan, who has just released a new album, was profiled on Reorient Magazine.

 

Short story writer George Saunders wrote a beautiful profile of author and activist Grace Paley, and he also penned an excellent and inspiring piece about his own writing process as he produced his first novel.

 

Our daughter Nona Schamus and her partner Arno Mokros have founded Little Pharma Zine , an intersectional art and lit zine devoted to explorations of mental illness. The first issue drops on April 1 (you can order a copy here), and we’ll be at the launch party on April 2nd at The Living Gallery in Brooklyn.

 

On the Armenian front, I happened across a fascinating slideshow featuring the work of Istanbul-based photographer Maryam Sahinyan (1911-1996) that I had missed when it appeared in 2015.  Some friends on Facebook posted this delightful entry from Rejected Princesses about Armenian Queen Anahit.  Next time I’m in Los Angeles I’m definitely planning a meal at Mante House, which specializes in tiny boat-shaped Armenian dumplings.

 

And that’s it for now, fellow travelers. Keep amplifying the humane in the human.

 

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


How to Survive Dark Times

Greenpeace activists unfurl “Resist” banner near the White House, 25 January 2017

 

Marching in Washington, D.C. this past weekend with over half a million women and our allies was exhilarating, exhausting, and inspiring. My particular favorites among the many rally speeches were by six-year-old Sophie Cruz, the child of undocumented immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico; revolutionary and civil rights activist Angela Davis; and Brooklyn’s Palestinian-American Linda Sarsour, who was one of the national co-chairs of the march. I was happy to learn that the massive crowds of protesters who far outnumbered those who had attended the inauguration the day before had enraged Donald Trump. But even as we marched, I recalled the mass mobilization of millions of people in 2003 hitting the streets around the globe in an attempt to prevent the Iraq War. George W. Bush dismissed us, saying he didn’t pay much attention to “focus groups.” Street demonstrations, marches, and rallies are important sources of strength and solidarity, but the energy must further be harnessed to long-term organizing and campaigns if we are to protect our most vulnerable neighbors, organizations, and institutions.

 

On Monday morning the grim reality of life under the Horsemen of the Apocalypse hit like a two-ton bomb when the “global gag rule” was reinstated, and hours later the attack on Medicaid was launched. How are we going to survive four years of this shit? I will be honest, I’m scared, and I’m not sure where to focus my efforts when the blows against the values, groups, and individuals that I care about are landing on an hourly basis. I’m still trying to identify the best vehicles for local organizing—because I think we will have more leverage on the local level.

 

This morning I came up with a prescription for myself. How to survive in dark times? Celebrate one moment of beauty and participate in one act of resistance each day. For myself, I take solace in the spectacular sunrises on Morningside Drive, and the sunsets in Columbia County. Other beautiful things include flowers, birds, trees, and the faces of my silly dogs, my beloved family, and cherished friends. Before bed, I’ve also been reading a book called What the Robin Knows, which has been filling my dreams with robins, chickadees, cardinals, jays, and blackbirds.

 

In terms of resistance, right now we all need to be contacting our elected officials on a weekly basis to let them know that we want them to oppose the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Take a half hour to make a list of your elected officials with their contact information: senators, congressional representative, governor, mayor, and city council member, or the equivalent depending on where you live. (If you don’t have the half hour, you can use this handy and simple to use 5 calls tool.) You can start by contacting your senators and telling them to vote NO on the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. The best option is to call their offices—if you have trouble getting through in D.C. or the state capital because the lines are jammed, try the regional offices. (The other day I was able to speak with a human in Chuck Schumer’s Binghamton office.) Here are some helpful tips from a Congressional staffer about making phone calls that a friend of mine posted publicly on FB. Send post cards rather than emails (electronic communications have become a kind of white noise). Post cards are quicker than letters because envelopes must go through a security check.

 

Want to do more? You can sign up with for the Women’s March 10 Actions/100 Days Campaign. Pledge to join the People’s Climate Movement in D.C. on April 29. Find a local group organizing around an issue you care about through the Action Group Network. Get connected with Stand with Standing Rock. Join Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rapid Response Network in organizing against attacks on Muslims and immigrants. Read this terrific interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, or her equally inspiring piece on how to build a mass movement. Frances Fox Piven tells us to Throw Sand in the Gears of Everything, Naomi Klein instructs us in how to prepare for the first shocks of Trumpian disaster capitalism. Grace Paley said, “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.” I act, therefore I hope.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


From the Archive: The Rapture

A Jesus Sky portending the Second Coming of Christ

A Jesus Sky portending the Second Coming of Christ

This poem from the archive, which was published in the Spring 1988 issue of The Graham House Review, has been on my mind lately as the incoming Trump Administration has announced its cabinet picks, with “End Times” Evangelical Christians among them. I was raised in the Armenian Evangelical Church, and a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was on the end table next to my father’s armchair. As a child I had been coached to ask Jesus into my heart as my Lord and Savior, but I was never entirely convinced that my attempts had been successful (I have a poem about this experience as well). One New Year’s Eve I went to church with my grandmother where we watched a film that enacted what would happen in the during Christ’s Second Coming. Fortunately, the movie didn’t cover the more terrifying aspects: The Tribulation, the Anti-Christ, or Armageddon. It just showed The Rapture, the taking up of believers. A pilot disappeared from his seat in the cockpit. A man rolled over in bed to find his wife gone. A Christian singer disappeared from a performance on a television talk show, the microphone fallen to the stage floor. “The Rapture” was an account of the fate I had envisioned awaiting me.

 

The Rapture

 

 

I imagined coming down the back walk

after school, swinging my lunch box

and the thermos shifting inside.

 

Today was different, something odd

about the light breaking

from behind the clouds in ribbons.

 

My grandmother was not on the back porch.

The kitchen table was spread with flour

and dough rising under its towel, dirty bowls

in the sink, my mother nowhere to be seen.

 

And then I knew: the Second Coming.

Jesus had taken them, the believers,

from the fist of the heart to the tips

of the fingers and shining eyes.

 

The whole family, snapped up

in broad daylight while I walked home,

uninvited, unasked, abandoned.

 

I sat on the back step with the cat,

another unbeliever, waiting for the Beast,

the bloody water, the Tribulation.

Nancy Kricorian


The Opposite of Coals to Newcastle

Mrs. Alice Kharibian (photo courtesy of Alexandra Kharibian)

Mrs. Alice Kharibian (photo courtesy of Alexandra Kharibian)

 

Last week as I was preparing to head downtown for breakfast with an acquaintance who runs a small press, I considered bringing him a copy of one of my novels. I had known him during my days running a literary scouting business, before having published a book, and hadn’t seen him in years. But wasn’t bringing a book to a publisher akin to carrying coals to Newcastle? In the years that I worked as a literary scout—reading dozens of books, bound galleys, and manuscripts each week—when someone gave me a book as a gift, I felt slightly queasy. It was like what you might experience at the end of a pie-eating contest if someone put another slice of pie in front of you.  

This train of thought reminded me of the time long ago when I went to visit Alice Kharibian, my grandmother’s lifelong friend who was the model for the Arsinee character in Zabelle, my first novel. Mrs. Kharibian had agreed to tell me the story of how she and my recently deceased grandmother had together survived the Deportations of 1915, also known as the Armenian Genocide.  My father and I drove to Jamaica Plain, where Mrs. Kharbian lived, and I brought her a bouquet of flowers.

When I handed her the flowers, Mrs. Kharibian, who was known to be frank, said, “Honey, why did you bring me those? My son’s a florist. You should have brought me some meat.” She put them in a vase nonetheless, and then we sat down for a long session of storytelling with the tape recorder rolling (as the tape did roll in those days).

It was then that she told me about how close to starvation she and my grandmother had been during their days as orphaned girls at Ras al Ain in the Syrian Desert. One of the stories, which I put to use in my novel, was about their finding a dead and rotting camel by the side of the road. The carcass was full of maggots, but they managed to use the ragged lid of a tin can to cut flesh from it and then roasted the meat over an open flame. “We couldn’t stand to eat it,” she told me, “but we sold it to others, and with the pennies we got, we were able to buy some bread.”

On the way home my meat cutter father told me that when he had given my grandmother a ride to her friend’s house, it was his habit to bring Mrs. Kharibian a good cut of meat—steak, sirloin tips, or some lamb chops. 

That afternoon, when Mrs. Kharibian explained to me how she and my grandmother had survived while tens of thousands around them had perished, she said, “Your grandmother was so wishy-washy. If it wasn’t for me telling her what to do, she would have been dead in the desert. I had to be jarbeeg for both of us.” (Jarbeeg is the Armenian word for clever.)

Mrs. Kharibian was clever, tough, and bossy, all of which served her and my grandmother well for survival.  At my grandmother’s funeral, she sat down beside me and said, “We were girls together in the desert. What will I do now without her?”

 

Nancy Kricorian

22 September 2016, New York City


Homage to Bourj Hammoud

Have you heard a thrush sing while its nest burns in the wind? —Khalil Gibran

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, 1930's

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, 1930’s

Listen. In the morning you can hear the bright strike of hammers and the rasp of saws. Children carry sand from the riverbanks in their school satchels. First they build the church, then the school, and finally a house for each family according to its means. The tents and shacks are taken down one by one. Each family plants a mulberry tree and tends its garden.

The remnants of Marash create a new Marash. And so also Nor Sis, Nor Adana, Nor Giligia, and Nor Hadjin are made. You can hear the sounds of the trades learned in the orphanage workshops: carpenter’s plane, sewing machine and cobbler’s bench. The sharp smell of the tannery is in the air and in their clothes. All Beirut wears their shoes.

Look at the children outside the church in their freshly pressed clothes, and the girls have ribbons in their hair. Look at the food spread on the luncheon table and the hands that pass the platters. Someone has told a joke and there is laughter. Someone pulls an instrument from its case.

Speak of those times, or don’t, when the parties take up arms against each other. How the women of one church throw boiling water out the window on the men with guns. When all Beirut stops fighting, for how many more weeks do the Armenian men continue to shed each other’s blood?

Speak then of the flowering: the neighborhood children grow tall. Among them are musicians, actors, painters and poets. In this world their parents have rebuilt from ashes, they now believe anything is possible, and everything is new.

Remember this: when the Civil War comes, neutrality is no amulet against the bullets and the bombs. Jewelers flee the downtown souk for Bourj Hammoud, where the militiamen patrol the night and then also the day. So many boats leave the port. Carrying leather suitcases to the airports, so many are exiled again.

Remember Nor Adana, Nor Marash, Nor Sis. Men still play backgammon and grill meat on braziers on the sidewalk. Remember the narrow alleys and wooden houses of Sanjak Camp, razed for a shopping plaza. Oh people of long memory, listen, look, speak, remember: your stories are a homeland.

*

“Homage to Bourj Hammoud” appeared in the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology

http://www.pen.org/flash/two-pieces-nancy-kricorian

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


Deeply, Madly, Incontrovertibly

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 2.04.03 PM

 

Some years ago at a regional film festival, a member of the festival’s board (who was also the wife of a media executive) approached me and said, “Congratulations!” I was puzzled. Had she somehow heard about the sale of my new novel? When she added, “You must be so proud of James,” I realized she was congratulating me on the fact that my husband was being awarded the festival’s screenwriting prize. When these kinds of felicitations for my spouse’s successes came my way again I was no longer confused, but I was mildly annoyed. I had my own accomplishments and didn’t feel it necessary to take credit for his, although I was indeed proud of him. But when INDIGNATION premiered at Sundance last month, I was more than ready to accept the congratulations. I had been involved with James’s directorial debut every step of the way, and had made every kind of investment—literal and figurative—that one could make. I also love and admire the film—deeply, madly, and incontrovertibly. (And I’m a tough critic, having once told my elder daughter that she was the second-best actor in the 4th grade production of Romeo and Juliet.)

The world premiere screening of INDIGNATION at the Sundance Film Festival sold out and the film won over the audience. It was delightful when everyone broke into spontaneous applause at the end of my favorite scene in the film. The Hollywood Reporter gave the film an intelligent RAVE and did a short video interview with James, and actors Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, and Tracey Letts. Lionsgate bought the North American distribution rights hours after the screening, which means the film will be coming to a theater near you later this year at a yet-to-be-determined date. And FilmNation has sold distribution rights around the globe—tell your overseas friends to look out for it. INDIGNATION’S European premiere is scheduled for February 14 at the Berlin Film Festival. I call that the best Valentine’s Day gift ever.

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


Gaza One Year Later: A Tale of Two Eids

One year ago, the people of Gaza were in the middle of  Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” a 50-day assault that resulted in the deaths of over 2,100 Palestinians, including 551 children. This essay by Enas Fares Ghannam, a young writer in Gaza whom  I am mentoring as part of the We Are Not Numbers project, was written during Ramadan this year as she remembered the fear-filled Eid of the summer of 2014. 

Enas Fares Ghannam in Gaza

Enas Fares Ghannam in Gaza

 

It was the day of Eid; It was another day of war; It was a time to celebrate; It was a time to die; people were praying the Eid prayer; people were praying the funeral prayer; people were decorating their houses; people were evacuating their houses; we were all going directly to heaven; we were all going directly to living hell; it was time to despair; it was time to feel hope; children were playing in swings; children were dying in swings; people were visiting to wish happy Eid; people were visiting to wish mercy for the dead. Last year’s wartime Eid was entangled in my head with this year’s peacetime celebration

The war started during the month of Ramadan last year. Ramadan is the Muslim holy month when the Quran was revealed. We fast from sunrise to sunset for the sake of Allah. At the end of Ramadan we celebrate a Little Eid, which Allah gives to us as a reward for fasting during the Holy Month. Three months later we celebrate Big Eid, which follows the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This is when we sacrifice a goat for the sake of Allah.

*

I was in the kitchen in the middle of Ramadan last year, with my mother, preparing pizza and meat pies for Iftar, the time after sunset when we break our fast. The food looked delicious and smelled even better, especially because I was so hungry. There was an hour left until Iftar, so I went to my room, opened my laptop computer and started to follow the news about what had happened in Shujaya and the other places in Gaza.

Suddenly I heard a very loud explosion. White dust was everywhere, and I didn’t know what had happened.

My four brothers came and they were all screaming, “A missile hit the balcony. Get out right now.” One of my brothers went close to the balcony to make sure it had been hit, when another missile struck the same place. We all knew that we had to get out of there immediately. Everyone gathered on the ground floor; the children were in shock; no one said a word, but their white faces told everything about their feelings. While we were leaving a third missile hit the house. Our large family left in three cars, going different directions. Two brothers went to the homes of their respective in-laws. I was in the car with my third brother, his family and my parents. He was driving crazily, and I thought if we didn’t die from an airstrike we would definitely be killed in a car accident. We reached the house of my grandmother, which we thought would be safer, as the call for the prayer for Iftar rang out. We were all shaking involuntarily. I was trying to appear strong as we sat around my grandma’s table with the food she had prepared for her and grandpa that was now to be shared by us all, but my trembling hand holding the spoon exposed my true state. I suddenly remembered the meat pies sitting on our kitchen table, now either under a cloud of white dust and debris or entirely destroyed.

*

The little Eid of last year is still in my memory. I particularly remember when I woke up; I looked around; it was dark, no electricity, just a slight of light coming from the only window in the room. My father, mother and I were sleeping on mattresses. The day before wasn’t as joyful as last day of Ramadan usually is.

We are usually so excited to welcome the Eid. Together, with my mother, sisters, and sisters-in- law, we prepare the Eid cookies with dates. It’s part of our Eid that we serve Arabian coffee and these cookies to the guests. The night before the Eid I sit with my father and mother with loads of chocolate, toys and balloons before us, and prepare them for the children, so each one of them has a small plastic bag full of them.

*

After a week and a half staying with our relatives, I was in desperate need to go back home. I felt that I was being suffocated in this place with three families jammed together in a few rooms, the sound of explosions from afar, and the sad faces of the children. When I knew that I was going back to our home during the truce, which had just been declared, I felt like I was able to breathe again.

The roads were crowded; people were returning to their houses. Everyone was dressed in black or somber colors. I was wearing my black Abaya as well. I don’t usually wear black or an Abaya during Eid, but this time it was not possible to wear anything else; we were grieving for the dead. Without any discussion, we all dressed for mourning, feeling that wearing any other color would be a betrayal of the souls of the martyrs.

The moment I entered the house the telephone rang; I answered and heard the recorded voice of an Israeli soldier saying in broken Arabic, “Cooperate with us, you saw what happened in Shujaya and Khuzaa. Know that there is no safe place in Gaza for any of you.” My heart was beating violently.

I had heard before that people receive these calls. There are two kinds of calls, threatening ones like the one I received, and ones with a direct order to evacuate, which I feared to receive. I was shaking, listening for the word evacuation. I was imagining the situation, in seconds all kinds of scenarios passed through my head. How will we leave? Will we actually leave? Yes I guess. But how difficult it will be, to leave everything behind and go. What if anything happened to any one of my family? Then I recalled the faces of each one of them. I tried not to think of that. Can I take anything? Then I remembered how I barely had time to put on my hejab the time we fled the house because of the missile attack.

The voice stopped talking, and I hadn’t heard the order. I hung up the phone. I didn’t tell anyone about the call; I thought they would worry more, and I didn’t want to leave the house where we had all gathered during the truce for a family meal.

We were happy to see each other after a week-and-a-half separation, but we were afraid, too, that anything might happen or that the truce would be broken.

My nephew came and sat next to me, and then he asked me, “Auntie, what is the name of this Eid?”

“It’s the Little Eid,” I said.

He seemed suspicious.

Despite the horror we felt at the death and destruction all around us, I still remember the light in my heart at seeing them and sitting with them around the table for lunch, as though it were a normal Eid. In spite of little food, and the smell of the fear that controlled us while the drones buzzed over our heads, we were laughing from the heart. It had been many days since we had gathered at a table as a family.

Suddenly we heard explosions. On the radio we heard that children had been shelled when they were playing on a swing set in the beach refugee camp. Israel had broken the truce. There were bombs everywhere. We were afraid our home might be shelled again at any minute, so we hastily prepared to leave in our separate directions once more.

I was hugging everyone goodbye, and when I leaned down to embrace my nephew, he whispered in my ear, “You must be wrong. This is the big Eid; many people are being sacrificed.”

 

by Enas Fares Ghannam

 

This essay originally appeared on the site of the We Are Not Numbers Project.

Nancy Kricorian