2012 October

Armenians and Sacred Trees

Ancient plane tree

Ancient Plane Tree

For he had been dedicated to the cult of the plane trees at Aramaneak in Aramvir. The murmuring of their foliage and the direction of their movement at the gentler or stronger blowing of the wind were used for divination in the land of the Armenians, and that for a long time.

Moses Khorenatsi, History of the Armenians  (5th century A.D.)

According to historian Moses of Khoren, Anushavan Sosanver, grandson of the legendary Armenian king Ara the Beautiful, was dedicated to the cult of the plane trees at the sacred grove in Aramvir.

Sos is the Armenian word for plane tree, and the word for rustling is sosapiun. Anushavan’s name—Sosanver—means “dedicated to the plane tree” and also evokes the rustling of the tree’s leaves. Plane trees were planted in churchyards until the 10th-13th centuries. Christian religious authorities discredited the plane trees because of their relationship to pagan practices, but people still designated specific trees near holy sites as sacred.

To this day, near many ancient churchyards and small roadside chapels, you can see a tree that is festooned with rags. Armenians go to tie a piece of cloth on these “wishing trees”; each rag represents a wish or a prayer that the supplicant hopes will be granted by God.

Wishing Tree

A ‘wishing tree’ in the southern part of Armenia, in the Syunik region


Nancy Kricorian

Shoemakers of Belleville

Novel by Clément Lépidis


During my first research trip to Paris, I went to the Librairie Orientale Samuelian not far from the Luxembourg Gardens. Alice Aslanian, whose father had founded the bookstore in 1930, remembered me from a previous visit and pointed out a copy of Zabelle they had among their wares. She pulled from the shelves a number of books that she thought would be germane to my research, and then went to the back to find a yellowed paperback copy of a book that was out of print and difficult to find: L’Armenien by Clément Lépidis, originally published in 1973. (It has since been reissued by Desmos.) This she generously offered to me as a gift.

Lépidis, who was born in 1920 and died in 1997, was a French writer of Greek descent. His immigrant father had fled Anatolia during the anti-Christian massacres and ended up working in the shoe trade of Belleville. (In Paris between the two wars Greeks and Armenians dominated fine shoemaking.)

The protagonist of L’Armenien was Aram Tokatlérian, an Armenian Genocide survivor trained in an orphan school as a shoemaker, who had come to France to start a new life. He found work in a Belleville shoe atelier in the thirties. In this novel, Belleville was alive with vibrant characters, the scents of spices in the Armenian food shop, the smell of the tannery where the shoemakers procured the leather they used, the sounds of the cobbler’s hammer and accordion music from dance halls.

Lépidis wrote two memoirs–Des Dimanches à Belleville (Sundays in Belleville) and Je me souviens du 20e arrondissement (I Remember the 20th Arrondissement)—that evoked in loving detail the neighborhood of his childhood, which was more like a village than an urban enclave. Reading these books was a way to immerse myself in the atmosphere of Belleville during the 30’s and 40’s, and was immensely helpful in my imaginative creation of Maral Pegorian’s world.


Nancy Kricorian

Charles Aznavour, German boots and the sewers of Paris

Charles Aznavour

Charles Aznavour and his mother Knar

While doing the research for All the Light There Was, I read memoirs by French singer and actor Charles Aznavour and his sister Aida Azanavour-Garvarentz. Aznavour, a son of Armenian immigrants, was born Shahnour Varenagh Aznavourian in Paris in 1924. Both memoirs briefly covered the war years, during which Charles and Aida were aspiring young entertainers. Their parents, who were Communists, participated in a circle of friends and political activists that included Missak Manouchian and his wife Melinée.

Late in the Occupation, some Soviet Armenians appeared in Paris in German uniform. They were Soviet soldiers who had been captured on the battlefield and then held in P.O.W. camps in Poland under terrible conditions. They were pressed into the German Army, choosing the Wehrmacht over probable starvation. The Germans didn’t trust them on the Eastern Front, so they were sent to France to work on the Atlantic wall. When these Armenians were given leave, they often came to Paris where the local community held cultural evenings to welcome them.

The Aznavourian family’s contribution to the Resistance was inviting these soldiers to their home and trying to convince them to desert the German Army. If they agreed, the Aznavours would give them civilian clothes and help them to go underground. Charles Aznavour, who was nineteen at the time, was responsible for the nighttime task of dumping the deserters’ boots and uniforms into the sewers of Paris.


Nancy Kricorian

The Lean Years

ration ticket

A ration card for bread

During World War II, food was rationed in France. People were issued ration tickets for bread, vegetables, meat, milk, and wine. (There were also ration tickets for non-food items such as tobacco and fabric.) Often, however, even if you had the tickets, the food items were not available on the market shelves. The German war machine was using France as its breadbasket. One of the nicknames local Parisians called the occupiers was doryphores (potato bugs) because most of France’s potatoes were shipped off to Germany. But it wasn’t only the potatoes that the Nazis requisitioned: they also took the best of French wheat, bread, butter, cream, cheese and vegetables.

If you cash to buy things at exorbitant prices on the Black Market, if you were a farmer or had friends or family who were farmers, you would be able to get your hands on decent food. Poor and working class city dwellers, and even the middle class, were left to subsist on what the Germans didn’t take. Root vegetables such as rutabagas and turnips, which had before the war been fodder for cattle, were staples. There were ersatz foods, such as jam made from what remained after grapes were pressed for wine, and instead of coffee or tea, people made do with chicory.

In the novel, the Pegorians supplement their meager war rations through ingenuity and resourcefulness. Teenaged Missak uses his slingshot to bag a duck or two in the park. Maral is dispatched by bicycle to cousins outside the city who have a backyard vegetable garden and later a chicken and egg business. The Pegorians plant tomatoes in window boxes, they barter, and eventually they risk using forged ration tickets. But during the war, they are often hungry. After another meal of bulgur and rutabagas, Maral complains that they all are suffering from “rutabaga-itis.”


Nancy Kricorian

Living History

Arsène Tchakarian, Member of the FTP-MOI Resistance Network (born 1916)

In order to create the characters in my novels, I collect stories. It’s like being a collage artist, or maybe more like a bird building a nest with twigs, grasses, old feathers, bits of twine, and other scraps. I find these stories in history books, memoirs, letters and documentary films. For all three of my novels so far, I have had the good fortune of talking with people who lived through the events that I am dramatizing in my fiction.

When I was in Paris doing research for ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, an Armenian friend named Hagop was my “fixer,” for which I am forever indebted. He located for me an Armenian woman who was seven years old when the German troops had marched down the Rue de Belleville. She told me how her family had briefly hidden one of her schoolmates whose family had been taken during the infamous Vel d’Hiv roundup of Jews in July 1942. Hagop and I went to visit an Armenian nonagenarian who had been an amateur actor in the Parisian Armenian community theater and a member of the Hunchak (Communist) resistance. He repeated several times the story of an Allied bomb that had gone astray in his Paris neighborhood, upending a rabbit hutch and killing his wife. He repeated, almost in wonder, “My wife was dead, but all the rabbits were still alive.” Hagop also arranged a meeting with Arsène Tchakarian, one of the last surviving members of the Manouchian Groupe, the Communist resistance network of immigrant workers immortalized in “L’Affiche Rouge.” Tchakarian has devoted his life to documenting the work and the lives of his friend Missak Manouchian and other members of the Resistance who were executed by the Nazis at Mont Valérien.

These stories and many others were in my head as I sat down to write in the voice of Maral Pegorian, the protagonist and narrator of ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS.


Nancy Kricorian