Spring is really here in New York City—my neighbors’ garden beds are full of bright and blowsy tulips, and the cherry trees in the parks and on the Columbia campus are blossoming and showering pink petals on the ground. Yesterday I went on the first in a series of Spring Migration Bird walks led by the NYC Audubon Society’s Gabriel Willow in Central Park. In addition to the birds—among them an Indigo Bunting, a Black and White Warbler, a Downy Woodpecker, and a Blue Winged Warbler—the park’s paths are lined with wildflowers such as Virginia Bluebells, Columbines, Trilliums, and an assortment of Viburnums. Each week there will be different flowers and different birds.
The solace and hope that we find in the natural world, and in our friends, and in the activities we love (walking, yoga, biking, cooking, knitting, gardening, what have you) are essential in this turbulent time. Also necessary is the work that we do to push back against the cruelty and hatred being manufactured on an industrial scale by the leaders in our country and around the world.
James and I went to Oaxaca City for two weeks this month
to take Spanish language immersion classes four hours a day and to vacation. We
had never been Oaxaca before, and we loved it. The food was fantastic, the old
city was beautiful, and the place was full of street art, street music,
museums, radical printmaking workshops, and markets with abundant fruit and
vegetables alongside Zapotec handicrafts. The Ambulante film festival was in
town while we were there, so we went to a few screenings and had dinner with
filmmakers and curators affiliated with the festival.
We went to learn some Spanish because James is working on
a limited TV series for Netflix that is set in Mexico and will be shot there,
probably in Durango, in Spanish later this year. And I wanted to pick up some
Spanish to enhance my work in the New Sanctuary Pro Se Legal Clinic with
Central American asylum seekers. The interpreters at the clinic are by
necessity fully fluent, a minimum requirement when collecting grim stories for asylum
applications, but I can now say a few polite phrases and compose and read text
messages from my friends.
At the Oaxaca Spanish Language Immersion School, I had two weeks of individual lessons with two excellent teachers—two hours with Yesenia in the morning, and two hours with Jacobo in the afternoon. It was difficult at first, as words in French and Armenian would swim up in my head when I was looking for a word in Spanish. But it turns out that I love learning ABOUT languages—how they operate, how they relate to other languages—which is a good first step to actually learning to read, write, and speak a new language. My attempt to learn Arabic three summers ago was pretty much a failure, but I have been making good headway with Armenian, and I feel I now I have a solid base to continue with the Spanish.
I had hoped to work on my novel when we were in Mexico, but I found it impossible to make the necessary mental transition from the compelling sights and sounds and languages of Oaxaca to wartime Beirut. But now that I’m back home, I am able to return to the familiar world of Vera Serinossian and the neighborhood of Nor Hadjin. And so it goes.
My daughter Djuna Schamus, her friend Hannah Wilton, and I went to volunteer with the Sanctuary Caravan in Tijuana at the beginning of January. This is her report.
I recently arrived back in New York City after spending a week in Tijuana/San Diego with my mom, Nancy, and my friend, Hannah. After receiving training from members of the Sanctuary Caravan (SC), we began volunteering in Tijuana, where SC is standing in solidarity with members of the Central American Exodus waiting at the border by supporting them throughout each stage of this inherently unjust immigration process. The humanitarian crisis in Tijuana, created by the current administration’s prohibiting asylum-seekers from presenting themselves at the U.S. border promptly and directly, is immense and in urgent need of redress. During our week at the border, we witnessed a fraction of the injustices our migrant friends are facing on a daily basis.They, our migrant friends, are leading the fight for their own freedom, and, in doing so, are at the forefront of the fight for a more just world: a world without exclusionary borders, where the dignity and safety of all, rather than racism, U.S. imperialism, and the violent structure of nation-states, guide policy and our futures more broadly.
Today, there are thousands of asylum-seekers living in temporary encampments and shelters across the city, many of whom made this thousands-of-miles-long journey on foot. They are exerting their right to migrate and their right, as enshrined by U.S. and international law, to seek asylum. According to these laws, the first step that an asylum-seeker must take is to cross the border and present themselves to immigration officials. Until recently, those seeking protections could just walk into the U.S. and promptly present their claims for asylum; currently, however, those pursuing asylum are forced to wait in a state of uncertainty and neglect on the Mexican side of the border.
A new, unofficial system of entry has emerged in Tijuana, known as “metering,” whereby groups of ten asylum-seekers are each given a unique number and told to return to a public plaza next to the San Ysidro border crossing the day that their number is called. They will not be allowed to cross until their numbers are called. This list, and the ten names corresponding to each number, are managed by fellow migrants in conjunction with Mexican immigration officials.
Not only is this system of metering illegal, but it also places individuals in a difficult and vulnerable position, as they do not know exactly when their number is going to be reached or how many numbers are going to be called on a given day (this number ranges from 0 – 80 peopleper day). Furthermore, El Barretal, which is the largest shelter in Tijuana and currently houses around 1,000 individuals, is a 15-mile trip to the San Ysidro border crossing, compounding the obstacles created by this system of entry.
When someone’s number is announced by coordinators at the plaza, they must arrive at the border, with all of their belongings, prepared to cross. People wait in a line along one side of the plaza before being driven by Mexican immigration officers across the U.S. border, where they will likely be placed in detention centers and potentially separated from family members.
While always following the lead of our migrant friends, members of the Sanctuary Caravan assist people through this process at every step. The aim of this work is to empower our friends as much as possible under this inherently unjust immigration system.
This effort includes explaining, to the best of our ability, what one should expect going forward, giving rides to those whose numbers have been called, providing a welcoming resting place for people scheduled to present themselves at the border, helping individuals fill out immigration paperwork, and prep for the “Credible Fear Interview” that they will request from a U.S. immigration official shortly after arriving in the States.; this re-traumatizing interview, which aims to assess whether people seeking protection can demonstrate a “credible fear” of harm if they return to their home countries, will determine whether or not they can continue with the asylum application process.
During our time in Tijuana, while we continued to make the Sanctuary Caravan our principal organizing hub, because neither Hannah nor I speak Spanish, we ended up being additionally useful as volunteers with World Central Kitchen, an organization of chefs responding to hunger and poverty. At a closed-down restaurant in Tijuana, with the radio continuously blasting dance music, a group of chefs, volunteers, and local workers cook two fresh meals for 1,500 people daily, delivering the food to shelters scattered throughout the city. After our first day of washing dishes and chopping vegetables, Hannah and I, accompanying a longer-term volunteer, travelled 15 miles to the dinner service at El Barretal encampment.
The over 1,000 people in Barrtetal live in densely situated tents, mostly set under the open sky. We were immediately welcomed by residents, who have come to anticipate the meals’ arrivals each day. With assistance from El Barretal residents, we distributed penne bolognese and salad to over 800 people (many of whom were women and small children, for whom men in the front of the line always gave up their spots). After dinner, we walked through the camp—through tents, groups of playing children, and friends congregating around a small television playing Alice in Wonderland—finding ourselves at a Three King’s Day ceremony, where residents prayed and sang alongside a visiting pastor.
While many of people’s basic needs are being met at El Barretal—with food from World Central Kitchen, medical care from Doctors Without Borders, and aid from UNICEF— life in a de facto refugee camp is precarious and untenable. And, of course, there is something deeply problematic with having the “answer” to an issue, largely created and exacerbated by U.S. foreign policy and immigration policy being an influx of nonprofits and aid-based relief.
In addition to visiting El Barretal, and along with other members of the Sanctuary Caravan, we spent time at the second-largest shelter housing members of the Central American exodus, located in a warehouse beside the Benito Juarez sports complex close to the border. Immediately following our arrival in in San Diego/Tijuana, Mexican authorities issued an eviction notice to the roughly 100 residents of Benito Juarez, dispatching dozens of Mexican federal police to the shelter and commencing a drawn out struggle over the residents’ right to remain. There was a days-long standoff between residents and organizers working in solidarity with them, on the one side, and the Mexican government and police, on the other. Answering the call of migrant friends living at Benito Juarez, volunteers with the Sanctuary Caravan and other organizers on the ground camped out on the street in front of the shelter when the threat of immediate eviction was at its height: at one point the police, dressed in riot gear, were no longer allowing water into the shelter or permitting residents to use the port-o-potties, leaving those inside without sanitary toilet options. In the middle of the night, organizers, harnessing their privilege as U.S. passport holders, acted as witnesses to the Benito Juarez residents’ struggle to remain in place. Although an unfortunate reality, it is likely that having American citizens present on the scene prevented a forceful removal of those living in the Benito Juarez shelter. A few days after we left, the final residents agreed to leave the location, many of them transferred to El Barretal.
In addition to working in solidarity with those in Tijuana, volunteers with the Sanctuary Caravan are working to expand their support for people being released from detention in San Diego and leaving for other parts of the country, as, in many ways the arduous asylum process just begins after they have finally made it onto U.S. soil. It is important to note that every person going through this process will be promptly be put into deportation proceedings; their asylum application is their defense against deportation, but the threat of deportation is ever-present.
The convoluted and dehumanizing system of ICE check-ins, immigration hearing dates, and the reality of living with uncertain and precarious status can continue for years, and it is imperative that people feel welcomed, supported, and empowered throughout the entirety of this process. Undergirding this work are the convictions that the freedom of movement/migration is a human right, that no one should be deported, that ICE be abolished (and not merely replaced by an analogous entity), and that we should strive for a future without exclusionary borders.
In the last few weeks, and thanks to your contributions, we were able to raise $4,175 for the Sanctuary Caravan movement. Thank you again for supporting this work, and for standing in solidarity with those leading this fight for a more just world.
Each morning at El Chaparral Plaza in Tijuana, some men set up a small red pop-up canopy tent, and other members of the Central American Exodus and other asylum seekers gather around. There is a table, a megaphone, and a battered notebook that contains numbers associated with the names of people who are on a list of those waiting for a chance to present themselves at the U.S. border to request asylum. Each number represents ten people. By law—both U.S. and international—people should be able to go to any port of entry to request asylum, but the current administration has enacted a “metering” systemwhere only a specified number of people is allowed to cross each port on any given day. Since there is a huge backlog of people waiting—at this point the wait can be up to two months—the asylum seekers have self-organized, and a family or a group of men who have been on the list for a while take charge of the notebook. In addition to calling out two batches of names—one in the early morning and one an hour or so later—they give out new numbers every day until noon. When it is their turn to cross, they pass the notebook along to people who are lower down on the list.
Each morning a member of Grupos Beta, a service of the Mexican National Institute of Migration, relays from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to the notebook keepers the total number of asylum seekers who will be allowed to cross that day. The total might be 80, or it might be none. It is important to understand that this entire system is illegal, and has arisen out of desperation. A member of the notebook team will use a megaphone to read out the names of people whose numbers have come up. People must keep track of their numbers and when they are likely to be called. Many of them are living in shelters and encampments far from Chaparral, and have to get themselves to the plaza or risk losing their chance to cross. There is an informal grace period of two days, so if your number is called and you miss it, if you can get there within two days, you might still go across. The mornings that I was at Chaparral I saw lots of young mothers with small kids, toddlers, and even infants. In addition to members of the Central American Exodus, many of them from Honduras, there were single men from Haiti and West Africa.
After the names are called—and they often have to call two hundred names to assemble a desired 20 people—people line up along one side of the plaza to wait for the shuttle vans driven by Grupos Beta. The vans take people to the other San Ysidro checkpoint where they cross the border to face the bureaucratic nightmare created by the CPB—detention in the Ice Box, separation of fathers from their wives and children, the “credible fear interview,” and so on. The San Diego detention facilities are over capacity, and before we arrived people were being released from detention in the middle of the night, just dropped off at a bus stationor in a public park. The San Diego Rapid Response Network organized shuttle buses to drive around after midnight looking for people who had been dumped, and taking them to shelters. Because of bad publicity, this practice of “dumping” has apparently been suspended.
The Sanctuary Caravan has two programs running concurrently. One is the Pro Se Clinic where volunteers fill out intake forms with people who are scheduled to cross the border and help them prep for their credible fear interviews, which is the first step in the asylum process. The Pro Se Clinic’s borrowed storefront has turned into a de facto community center where families hang out and volunteers play with the kids while their parents are interviewed. Volunteers also go to the El Barretal refugee camp, twenty minutes out of Tijuana, to let people know about available services and to do intake.
The Accompaniment Program in Tijuana is in some ways more extensive than its counterpart in New York City. In addition to waiting with friends at Chaparral until they board the Grupos Beta shuttles, Sanctuary Caravan also keeps track of friends’ numbers, and has a van that picks people up from El Barretal each morning to take them to the plaza where the names are called.
Because Djuna, Hannah, and I don’t speak Spanish, we had a hard time in the beginning figuring out how to plug into the work that was going on. We were cursing ourselves for having chosen French as our second language. Our first afternoon I was called to the clinic to translate for some Haitians, but when I got there it turned out they were Creole speakers and my French was still useless.
Djuna and Hannah ended up working with the World Central Kitchen, an organization of chefs addressing hunger and poverty, where they didn’t need Spanish to scrub pots and chop vegetables. I joined them a couple of afternoons and was wildly impressed by the work that was going on. In Tijuana, the World Central Kitchen prepares and delivers three thousand meals a day—feeding 1,500 people at lunch and dinner. The food is fresh, inventive, and made with love. One evening Djuna and Hannah went to deliver dinner to El Barretal, where they saw a thousand people living in tents. Hannah said, “They get meals, UNICEF is there, and Doctors Without Borders, but it’s still no way to live.” If it rains, they get wet. If it’s cold, they are cold. Djuna reported that women and children are fed first, and that everyone pitches in to help out with serving the meals.
Meanwhile, back at the volunteer hub, I was assigned to work as a “Story Steward,” which was a data entry and clerical gig supporting the Pro Se Clinic. One afternoon I spent a few hours prepping a large stack of intake files with all the needed forms and materials.
On Sunday afternoon, we went to Faro Playas de Tijuana, a beachfront recreation area, for a religious service that usually occurs on both sides of the hideous and immoralborder wall, which traverses the land, travels down across the sand, and continues into the ocean. Only the gulls could move freely from one side to the other. Of late, because of ‘security concerns,’ CBP has closed access to the International Friendship Parkthat connects both sides of the border and has created a no-go zone on the U.S. side of the fence, so the service occurred only on the Mexican side that day. Through the steel slats, razor wire, and cyclone fencing on the U.S. side, we saw at a distance CBP agents blocking access to the border, and beyond them we made out some of our Sanctuary Caravan colleagues, including NSC Executive Director Ravi Ragbir, who was visiting from NYC. On the Mexican side, there were cafes, restaurants and benches. Couples strolled, families picnicked, and children played in the surf under the shadow of the wall.
When we landed in New York City, Djuna and I discussed how it would take a while for us to process all that we had seen and experienced. We had been moved by the dignity and perseverance of the members of the Exodus. We had admired the dedication, humor, and intelligence of the Sanctuary Caravan’s volunteer coordinators. We had been disgusted by the violence, both physical and bureaucratic, of our government’s policies and agents.
Two days after we got back from the border, I picked up my work here in New York with NSC, and found out that my local Congressman, who had requested deferred action of removal for my Albanian friends (basically asking that they not be deported), had heard back from U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). The request was denied, and USCIS told the parents that they have thirty-three days to leave the country that they have called home for fourteen years. Brooklyn is the only home their three young daughters, two of them U.S. citizens and one with DACA, have known. I sat in a cafe with my Albanian friend and the Congressman’s caseworker as we fought back tears and plotted our next moves. The struggle continues.
The beautiful celebrity duck of Central Park, a solo male Mandarin Duck, was first sighted at the pond near 5th Avenue and 59th Street in early October. Mandarin Ducks are not native to North America, and it has been speculated that the duck was an escaped or released pet. In October, I was more interested in the birds flying through the city during the fall migration. The hordes of people lining up to take a look at the Mandarin Duck also kept me away. Standing in a long line waiting for a turn to take a photo of an exotic pet was not appealing.
As the weeks went by, the duck kept attracting crowds, its comings and goings were assiduously tracked, and it drew lots of media coverage in The Gothamist, The Cut, The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, and other outlets. In early December the New York Times ran a new article entitled, “The Hot Duck That Won’t Go Away.” The Times piece quoted a disgruntled birder who was annoyed by all the publicity, and the hysteria, surrounding the bird. He said that the Mandarin was essentially “the Kim Kardashian of ducks.”
I will admit that this reference to Kim K. piqued my interest, and when a few days later my friend Marie Lee proposed a joint foray into the park to find the superstar waterfowl, I agreed. As we entered the park at 59th Street, we could tell by the small crowd assembled on the north side of the pond where we would locate the duck. As the weather has grown colder, the crowds have thinned so we were able to go immediately to the edge of the pond. And there he was, splendid and colorful, and really so photogenic. The Mandarin Duck, unfazed by its fans, paddled around among the pairs of Mallards, along with a pretty male Wood Duck, and an American Coot. When I pointed out the Coot—and its prehistoric looking lobed toes—Marie asked, “Is that where the expression ‘old coot’ comes from?” Yes indeed.
The Mandarin Duck was definitely worth the trip, although the hype—Mandarin Duck manicures, Mandarin Duck dog jackets—is a bit much. I felt a little sad that I’m not a winter birder as I read about the Saw-Whet Owls and other raptors that people have been sighting in the park. Gabriel Willow, who runs birding classes for NYC Audubon, told me, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” But I hate the cold, and I don’t have the proper gear, so I’m on birding hiatus until the Spring Migration, except for watching the Dark-eyed Juncos, Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, and other birds I can see from my kitchen window in the country.
In Central Park last week, on a bird walk in the North Woods led by an Audubon Society naturalist, we saw a Cooper’s Hawk perched regally in a tree, an immature Great Blue Heron fishing in the Loch, four Northern Flickers, and a half dozen species of warblers that were passing through on their way south, in addition to the abundant Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, European Starlings, and American Robins that call the park home. The fall wildflowers—Canada Goldenrod, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, White Snakeroot, Spotted Jewelweed, and several varieties of Aster—were in bloom. When the cruel and venal doings of human animals are cause for despair, I take solace in the natural world.
I was considering delaying this post until after the Kavanagh “situation” had resolved itself one way or the other, assuming that we will be flattened by despair when the Republicans steamroller the Democrats and the rest of us. It has been almost eviscerating to watch the hearings and then follow the sham FBI probe, and the change in tack by the Republicans to undermine and insult the women who came forward with accusations. I have been “triggered” by Kavanagh’s words, his gestures, his petulance, and his arrogance. I wasn’t alone—tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of women were angry, distraught, and horrified by the spectacle of ruling class white male privilege and power that played out in the Senate hearings and in the political maneuvering that followed.
But we can’t let them beat us down into apathy and hopelessness. We have to remember the great Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman’s admonition: “In the cruel and terrible time in which our generation has been condemned to live on this earth, we must never make peace with evil. We must never become indifferent to others or undemanding of ourselves.” Grossman lived through World War II, he was a journalist traveling with Russian troops as they liberated Treblinka, his mother was murdered during the massacre at Berdichev, and he survived Stalin’s purges, although his masterwork, the incredible World War II novel Life and Fate, was “arrested” by the Soviets and was not published until after his death.
As Grossman put it: “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.” I am not so sanguine as to think that individual acts of kindness are enough in the face of the systemic violence and the cruel policies that we are confronting, many of which are just harsher and unapologetic versions of policies that were put in place during previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic. But while we do all that we can through making irate phone calls to elected officials, joining in strategic electoral organizing, supporting grassroots campaigns run by unions and groups on the front lines, and volunteering with local organizations advocating for the most vulnerable people, creatures, landscapes, and institutions, we can also try to make the world a little less dismal by being kind.
“Words from the Family”: Eulogy delivered on 23 July 2018
I want to thank Pastor Calvin Choi and the congregation of the Watertown Evangelical Church for welcoming us all here today to honor the memory of my father, Ed Kricorian. I want also to thank them for the warm and loving community that they have provided to my parents over the years.
Armenian Genocide survivors founded this church in 1937. It was then called the Armenian Brethren Church, and my grandparents Leo and Mary Kricorian were among its founding members. My father and his siblings grew up in this church, as did my sister and I. My grandfather’s funeral service took place here in 1962, and my grandmother’s in 1985. And we are here again today to say farewell to my father.
My father started driving the delivery truck for his father’s Lincoln Market when he was ten years old and could barely see over the steering wheel. He loved driving, and it was a hardship to him this past year when his poor health meant that he could no longer be behind the wheel. He never admitted that he wouldn’t drive again; he just said, “I’m not driving right now.” When he was no longer steady on his feet, we bought him a top-of-the-line walker, and after he got over his initial reluctance about using it in public, he called it the Lamborghini and offered passersby a chance to take it for a spin for a mere dollar. When he needed a transport chair, he called it the Cadillac Eldorado. And when a few months ago, he needed a mobility scooter, this he called the Rolls Royce.
In May my father was hospitalized for five days, and when he came home he was unable to walk. The physical therapist told him that if he worked hard enough and could walk down the hall to the elevator, and then walk through the garage to get to his Rolls, he could take it for a spin. This was Eddie’s goal, and despite the pain in his legs and his shortness of breath, he was determined that he would drive the Rolls again.
And he did. On the Thursday before he died, my dad took the Rolls out, with Calvin trotting at his side, and they came over to the church to see the finally finished new steps, steps that were sadly impossible for him to climb. My dad wanted more than anything to come inside this church again. He said to Calvin, “Do you think some of the guys could help me up the stairs?” Calvin said, “Sure, Eddie. And if they can’t, I’ll put you on my back and carry you up myself.”
My father had been praying for God to take him home since last October. He said he was ready to go, but I think he wasn’t quite ready until this month. He wanted to celebrate his 60th wedding anniversary with my mother, whose devotion he treasured and whom he adored. They marked that milestone in April. And he wanted the reconstruction of the church steps to be completed so his service could be held in this sanctuary. He had said on more than one occasion that he prayed he could go to sleep, and then open his eyes in heaven. On Friday, July 13, he fell asleep in his recliner and that’s exactly what happened.
We all miss him—his kindness, his stubbornness, his harmonica playing, his funny stories, and the messages he wrote for us on bananas and melons. But he’s not suffering any more, and as the Armenian proverb puts it,
The water goes, the sand remains; the person dies, the memory stays.
Last week 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District in what TIME Magazine called the biggest political upset of 2018. Ocasio-Cortez had the support of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, and The Intercept (cited by a CNN commentator as a decisive factor!). In an otherwise DISMAL political scene this is a HUGE victory. She ran on a platform calling for Medicare for All, the abolition of ICE, and she denounced the killings of protesters in Gaza as a massacre. I’m awestruck. I also loved reading about the revolutionary posters designed for her campaign.
If you’re looking for a natural pick-me-up, watch Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign video, or watch CNN’s clip from election night when she realizes that she has won! “We met the [Queens Democratic] machine with a MOVEMENT!” she said. (Note the dude right behind her wearing a Democratic Socialists of America T-shirt.) Or watch her answer Stephen Colbert’s question, “What is Democratic Socialism?” I think I’ve watched that last video six times—whenever I’m in despair about the state of the world, I just watch it again.
In response to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and those of other young progressives, Michelle Goldberg, in a piece entitled The Millennial Socialists Are Coming, opined, “These young socialists see themselves as building the world they want to live in decades in the future rather than just scrambling to avert catastrophe in the present.”
And while the political situation in this country is growing grimmer by the minute, I’m not going to remind you of the details right now as I’m making a concerted effort to do what Mr. Rogers’s mother told him, “Look for the helpers.” (As an aside here, I haven’t yet seen the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, but it’s on the top of my movie going list.)
While I’ve read at least forty articles about the traumatic, criminal, and unconscionable (there are no adjectives dire enough for what they’re doing!) consequences of our government’s “zero-tolerance policy” at the border, resulting in the abduction of thousands of migrant children, the article I will highlight is about a courageous Honduran woman who is organizing mothers inside an ICE detention center in El Paso, Texas. While the U.S. has a long history of child snatching, I was inspired by this story about librarians and academics who used their library science skills to map the locations of the facilities where separated migrant kids are possibly being held as a way to help parents find their children. I also aspire to have the courage this woman did when Border Patrol Agents boarded the Greyhound Bus she was on. She realized that because they were not within 100 miles of the U.S. border, the agents did not have the right to question everyone on the bus about their immigration status. She stood up and started shouting, “You don’t have to show them sh*t!” She then used Google translate to find out how to say it in Spanish.
This is a time to be disobedient, fierce, loud, and as creative as these young Palestinian dancers in Gaza. We’re heading to the Socialism 2018 Conference in Chicago this coming weekend to meet up with several thousand people who feel the same way. I’ll let you know how it goes.
When I arrived in Beirut on the evening of October 27, I took a taxi to Baffa House, a guesthouse in Mar Mikhael where I would be staying for two weeks. The goal of my trip was to become familiar enough with the nearby Armenian neighborhoods of Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin where the characters in the novel I’m currently writing reside so that I could thoroughly inhabit those streets, buildings, schools, and churches in my imagination. I had started writing the novel, but then got stuck. I wrote a scene in which Vera Serinossian, the narrator and protagonist, was walking from her school in the Armenian “suburb” of Bourj Hammoud, a 1.5 square kilometer municipality just outside Beirut city limits, to her home in Nor Hadjin, a small Armenian neighborhood of about four square blocks on the other side of the river within Beirut’s boundaries. As she was crossing the bridge, Vera sees an elderly Arab man lying dead on the pavement. He has a sniper’s bullet hole in his forehead.
After I wrote this scene, during an interview that I conducted at the end of this past summer with someone who had lived the war years within these precincts, I had been told that this bridge between Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin was called “The Death Bridge” because of the snipers that targeted people who crossed it. The Phalangist militia was on the hill of Ashrafiyeh within shooting range, and to the north the Leftists and later Syrian troops posed a similar danger. It occurred to me that my idea of having my family cross that bridge from home to school and back on a daily basis during the war years might make no sense. I needed to go to Beirut to find out.
The guesthouse in Mar Mikhael was a five-minute walk from Nor Hadjin and Khalil Badawi, another Armenian neighborhood adjacent to Hadjin. It was another ten minutes on foot to Bourj Hammoud. So each day of my stay I walked those neighborhoods. Through my network of Armenian friends in Beirut and in America, I had the good fortune to meet and to interview a host of people who had lived through the war years and had stories they were willing to share. I met the editor of the Ararat Daily Newspaper who told me about the night the Phalangists had set off a bomb in the newspaper’s offices in 1978. I visited Dr. Garo, the sole physician in Nor Hadjin, who had treated everyone from survivors of the Karantina Massacre to wounded Palestinian fighters in Naba’a to local Armenians who had been injured during various rounds of shelling. I interviewed the principals of two Armenian Evangelical schools—the Gertmenian School in Nor Hadjin and the Central High School in Ashrafiyeh. I attended Sunday services at Sourp Kevork Church in Nor Hadjin.
My friend Antranig, who grew up in Nor Hadjin, gave me a tour of the neighborhood, pointing out the ironwork on the facades of some of the houses, knocking on doors so he could show me the beautiful original tile work in some of the apartments, and explaining how Nor Hadjin had been a completely self-contained Armenian village within Beirut. “We had everything we needed. There were three schools, a church, a dispensary, grocery stores, a compatriotic union, and all kinds of artisans and craftsmen. The only thing missing in the early days was a confectioner, so the leaders of Hadjin convinced one to move from Ashrafiyeh to open a sweet shop.”
He also told me a story about the Death Bridge. During a ceasefire, Antranig and his friend took bikes and crossed the bridge to Bourj Hammoud. The two teenagers had just made it to Bourj Hammoud when shooting broke out between the Syrians and the Khataeb (Phalangists). The boys ditched their bikes and jumped into a building where they waited out the shooting, which went on for over five hours.
Antranig’s father, who could make out the bridge from his balcony in Nor Hadjin, called a friend in Bourj Hammoud to find out what had happened. There were dead bodies on the bridge, he was told. So he went down to the bridge to check the bodies to make sure his son was not among them.
By the end of my two weeks in Beirut, I had accomplished what I had set out to do. The Serinossians would not be crossing the Death Bridge on a daily basis. I had decided to situate my family in the small, self-contained neighborhood of Nor Hadjin, with extended family living across the river in Bourj Hammoud. I had determined which school the children attended, the church in which the family worshipped, and even the house in which they lived. In addition, like a bird assembling twigs, twine, and grasses for a nest, I had collected dozens of anecdotes, stories, and historical details that would help me in pushing forward with the novel.
I’ve been meaning to send write a new blog post for weeks. On my daily to-do list for the past tens days, I have dutifully printed, “write blog,” and then ended up copying it onto the next day’s list. So here it is the end of summer—Labor Day is upon us—and I’m finally sitting down to do it.
On the personal front, the summer has been a restorative one. We spent long weekends in the country where I worked in the garden and devoted at least an hour a day to watching the birds. On our front porch alone there were three active nests—a family each of robins, house wrens, and house finches with much flying to and fro by the parents and much cheeping by the nestlings. James and I also went to Chicago in July for the Socialism 2017 Conference where we heard some inspiring talks, enjoyed meals with like-minded friends, and felt comfort in assuming that we were the most conservative people in any room. We also took a family holiday to Provincetown in mid-August. I went on an Audubon-led shorebird walk, we spent afternoons on the beach, and we took in two drag shows featuring the supremely talented Jinkx Monsoon.
The work on my novel has been slow, but steady, as I continue writing while interviewing Armenians who lived the war years in Beirut in person and via Skype. The stories have been fascinating, and each anecdote feels like a piece in an enormous jigsaw puzzle I’m assembling. I’m planning another trip to Beirut for late October—will be on the ground for two weeks, staying within walking distance of the neighborhoods I’m writing about.
On the public front, each day has brought a new outrage or a new disaster, both in this country and abroad. I won’t catalogue all the misery that I’m sure you have been following as well, but I will say that I’ve been trying to find a way to process the unfathomable—both difficult to understand and seemingly bottomless—cruelty of the people currently running our national government.
While not a mental health professional, after much observation of Donald Trump’s Tweets, his public appearances, and most recently after reading the full transcript of his speech in Phoenix, I have come to the conclusion that Trump is suffering from cognitive impairment complicated by his long-term narcissistic personality disorder. (James suggested the he might also be a sociopath.) A friend shared an interview from October 2016 with singer Aimee Mann in which she talks about the song she wrote about Trump entitled, “Can’t You Tell?” (The refrain to the song is, “I don’t want this job. I can’t do this job. My God, can’t you tell, I’m unwell, I’m unwell.”) Mann said, “At this point, it’s like being angry at a rabid dog. You just have to solve the problem and get the dog in a cage.” Arguably, easier said than done. The anger is better directed at the enablers in the Republican Party who complain about Trump’s behavior and yet take no meaningful action against him because they’re still hoping to use him as a blunt instrument to push through their cruel and hateful agenda. I have some ire reserved for the Democrats who seem to have learned nothing from their defeat in November (check out this piece for a sizzling takedown of American liberals).
On the literary beat, I enjoyed this profile of novelist Claire Messud, My favorite part was this paragraph:
Messud frowned when asked if she ever tried to make her work more commercial. ‘‘I reckon you don’t write to please other people,’’ she said, slowly and deliberately. ‘‘That’s what your integrity is.’’ Her voice was husky; we had been talking all morning, as the dogs pattered in and out. ‘‘There are bell bottoms and miniskirts, and there are pencil skirts and stiletto heels,’’ she said. Fashions come and go in literature, too. ‘‘You can write something that’s a perfect work of art, but if it’s a pencil skirt that falls in a miniskirt moment, God help you. You just have to make your pencil skirt and be you.’’
There are so many other interesting articles I could share, but who has time to read them all? I will offer you this last engaging piece from Waging Non-Violence about clowning as a tactic of creative resistance.
The bird nests by the pond and on our porch are mostly empty now, our older daughter has moved to Bushwick (in Brooklyn), and our younger daughter has headed off for her senior year in college. The flap and noise of summer will now give way to the quieter but equally colorful days of autumn. I’m hoping to get a lot of writing done!
When we were in the country over the weekend, I witnessed a house wren’s taking over the house finches’ nest on our front porch. The much smaller wren tossed the finches’ eggs out of the nest—two small blue eggs lay smashed on the porch floor. Then the wren flew up and down with twigs, using them to effectively barricade the nest so the finches couldn’t get back in. The wren is a noisy, bossy, pushy little bird, and initially I was referring to it as “the jerk.” I soon realized that the finches had found another spot to build a new nest and would lay more eggs, so I grudgingly began to admire the wren’s bubbly song, and energetic foraging.
Deer and rabbits (maybe also chipmunks and woodchucks?) ravaged the zinnias and nasturtiums in our garden, leaving untouched the salvia and marigolds. They also chewed to the root the parsley, but ignored the more odiferous herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, and tarragon. Someone uprooted one of the tomato plants, and nibbled some leaves off another. I went to the nursery and bought two more varieties of salvia, as well as flowering golden mint, and flowering basil—pretty but NOT tasty to deer and rabbits. The tall blue salvia almost immediately attracted the whirring wings of ruby-throated hummingbirds. At the nursery I also found a product called Liquid Fence, which is a smelly concoction of egg white, garlic, and thyme. When you spray it around the garden beds, it’s supposed to ward off the deer and rabbits, which apparently don’t like the smell. Wish us luck!
I’ve been working slowly but steadily on my novel about Armenians in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War—in the past few weeks I’ve been taking a break from writing, and have been doing immersive research. Ara Madzounian’s beautiful photos of Bourj Hammoud, one of the neighborhoods featured in my novel, give you a sense of the place as it is now. (Ara solicited writing from me for his 2015 book, BIRD’S NEST, and “Homage to Bourj Hammoud” was published as part of the PEN World Voices Anthology.) I’m completely engrossed by the research, and I’m starting to mull a return trip to Lebanon, likely in October, so I can fill in more pieces of the enormous jigsaw puzzle of Beirut during the Civil War that I’m building in my head.
As we mark the fiftieth year of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, there have been dozens of articles examining this sad milestone from various perspectives. One of my favorites is Yousef Munayyer’s “Reframing the 1967 War” in THE NEW YORKER. Yousef concludes, “Marking fifty years means that it is time to admit that the intention of occupation policies is not a temporary condition but a permanent one. It means recognizing that the Israeli state denies self-determination to millions of Palestinians who live there.”
My contribution to the Palestine Festival of Literature Anthology THIS IS NOT A BORDER, a piece entitled “Stories from the Armenian Quarter,” was published in The Armenian Weekly. Marcia Lynx Qualey, who writes the Arab Lit blog, wrote an interesting review comparing THIS IS NOT A BORDER to a similarly themed anthology entitled KINGDOMS OF OLIVES AND ASHES, which was edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. Ahdaf Soueif, novelist and founder of PalFest, wrote movingly for The Guardian about the festival’s ten years, and Chabon and Waldman were interviewed about their anthology on LitHub.
And for your additional reading (and viewing and listening) pleasure:
Almost a month after the incident, U.S. officials have announced that members of Turkish President Erdogan’s security detail who assaulted peaceful protesters outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in D.C. on May 16 will be charged for their actions.
A sizzling piece by Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs about Hillary and Bill Clinton’s use of slaves in the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.
From Atlas Obscura a great piece about the use of knitting to relay secret messages during wartime.
Funny or Die’s parody video about the President’s Personal Spray Tanner, played by Armenian actor Ken Davitian.