2012 December

The Bride Has Lost Her Tongue

Young woman in Vartashen Armenia, 1883.

Young woman in Vartashen Armenia, 1883.


In a used bookstore in Manhattan many years ago, I found a copy of Maria A. West’s 1875 memoir The Romance of Missions: Inside Views of Life and Labor in the Land of Ararat. Maria West was a New England missionary who had gone to the Ottoman Empire to convert the Armenians from their national church to her brand of Protestantism. On page 22 of this book, I came across a reference to an Armenian custom that I had never heard of before. West explained, “When the sons marry, they bring their wives home, and the mother-in-law generally rules them with a rod of iron. They are not allowed to speak in her presence till she grants permission, which is sometimes delayed for many years! In some cases, the mother-in-law dies before lifting the heavy yoke of imposed silence.”

My friend Patricia Constantinian-Voskeridjian did her master’s thesis in anthropology and Armenian Studies at Columbia on the topic of this practice, known as moonch genal (to stay or to stand mute). In some families, the mother-in-law granted permission within weeks or days, and in others, the bride labored in silence for many years. In some regions, the silence was accompanied by a mouth wrap that covered the bottom half of the young woman’s face as an outward indication of her bound speech. In some villages, it was the birth of a son that would win the bride—for the daughter-in-law was called a bride for long after she was married—the right to address her in-laws.

I was fascinated by this old world practice, which had long been in disuse when my French-Canadian mother came to live in her Armenian mother-in-law’s house. But my mother told me a story about how, not long after she and my father had married, my mother had offered her mother-in-law a bit of housekeeping advice. My grandmother had replied indignantly, “What? Should the baby bird now teach the mother bird to fly?” In that response I could hear the echoes of this old country custom. Some months later, I wrote a poem in the voice of a silenced bride.



The Bride Has Lost Her Tongue

There sits her mother-in-law, and, according to our custom, she cannot speak in her presence.

~  The Romance of Missions, or Life and Labor in the Land of Ararat (1875)



The day I left my mother’s house
I said, “Break my bowl and
throw it in the garden. Forget
the sound of my voice.”

At night when my husband sleeps,
I whisper words I have wanted
To say during the day into the
wooden box I keep by the bed.

Under the carved roses of its lid
are insults for my mother-in-law,
the aproned witch who keeps me
in silence. When she told me

to fetch some wood, I said nothing.
I said nothing when she commanded
that I comb out her hair. Then
the words began to seep through

the house like the smell of
a dead thing behind the wall.
She says, “Shut the door,” and
I hear, “Shut it yourself, you

braying ass,” as I set the latch.
When I shake out the blankets,
insults and hair balls cloud the air.
The broom mutters my curses.

With a son, I will earn my
speech. Someday his wife
like a servant will serve me—
in sweet, melodious silence.



Nancy Kricorian


originally published in RAFT, 1996




When I was in third grade our new teacher was different from any teacher we had ever seen at the Hosmer Elementary School in Watertown. Mrs. DeVoe was young and beautiful, with shoulder-length blond hair that flipped up at its ends. She wore mini-dresses with leather boots, and some days after school her handsome husband picked her up in a red sports car with a convertible top.

Each morning we started the day standing in a circle, holding hands and reciting proverbs. Things such as, “A stitch in time saves nine,” “When the cat’s away the mice will play,” and “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

I loved this activity and tried to find unusual sayings to share. I was particularly proud to offer this one: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” Most of the other children didn’t know what a gander was.

We never discussed what a proverb was or why this might be a good way to start each morning. We rarely talked about their meanings. But the ritual provided a connection to communal wisdom. There was also something solemn and vaguely religious in it, although God was never mentioned.

A few years later I made a list of synonyms for proverb: adage, aphorism, axiom, dictum, maxim, and saw. Saw was the best one because it was a simple word with an esoteric meaning. There was another synonym—platitude—hinting at the fact that while proverbs might convey moral lessons and general truths, they could also be truisms that should be questioned.

At home we had other sayings. My mother’s favorites were, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” “If you want something done well, you have to do it yourself,” and “There’s no such thing as an ugly baby.” My grandmother instructed, “Shut the light. Edison is richer than me” so frequently that it became a family mantra. My father was known to say, “That’s about as funny as a submarine with screen doors.” And he frequently quoted my Armenian grandfather’s motto: “I’m not a miser, I’m an economizer.”

This last was said in English, but it follows a pattern and rhyming structure that is common to Armenian proverbs as I later learned from studying them. Over a decade ago, I purchased a copy of Dora Sakayan’s Armenian Proverbs: A Paremiological Study with an Anthology of 2,500 Armenian Folk Sayings Selected and Translated into English, and it has been a source of endless interest and delight. I have since then sought out other sources—a 1932 bilingual anthology by an Armenian priest in Venice, short sections in books about Armenian folk tales and village lore, and of late many online compilations. My rudimentary Armenian language skills are good enough that I can read the original and compare different English translations. With the help of a dictionary I can even do my own.

I used Armenian proverbs as chapter headings in my second novel. I made lists of proverbs to deploy as I was creating a character in my third novel—Garabed Pegorian, a Genocide survivor, cobbler and father who makes sardonic comments about the Nazi Occupation his family suffers through in Paris. I’ve taken to posting Armenian proverbs on my Facebook author page and to Twitter, where they generate much response.

Here are some of my favorites:

You cannot erase what is written on your forehead.

The hungry dream of bread, the thirsty of water. 

A lost rope is always long.

Be neither sweet and swallowed, nor sour and spurned.

Toss your good deeds into the sea and the waves will carry them back to you.

The fool’s tongue is always long.

Literacy is a golden bracelet.

The lid rolled and found its pot.

From heart to heart there is a path. 

A mother-in-law should be blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.

Walk with the devil, but don’t let go of his tail.

In a foreign place, the exile has no face.

Land of Armenians, land of orphans.

Land of Armenians, land of sorrow.

Heaven and hell are in this world.

If they send two baskets of shit to our city, one will come to our house.

It’s better to carry stones with a wise man than to eat pilaf with a fool.

It’s better to go into captivity with the whole village than to go to a wedding alone.

The person who looks for a friend without faults will remain friendless.

Grief for the loss of a child is a burning shirt.

Let’s sit crooked and talk straight.

Let it be one and fine.

What does the donkey know of the almond?

If you buy a donkey for the price of a cucumber, one day you will find it drowned.


I have a few ideas about what this last one means, but I’ll leave that to the reader’s interpretation.


Nancy Kricorian

The Name of This Place is Ras Al-Ain

Map of Syria showing Ras Al-Ain on the Turkish border


Ras al-Ain, a town on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border has been in the news lately as the bloody civil war has spread from Damascus and Aleppo to other parts of the country. The fighting has been fierce, the town has been bombed from the air, and hundreds if not thousands of civilians have fled over the border to Turkey. It isn’t a town that is well known in America; I had never seen it referenced in the newspaper until quite recently. But now, each time the town is mentioned, I feel a little shock of recognition and hear a voice saying, “The name of this place is Ras al-Ain.”

When I was researching my first novel, I interviewed my grandmother’s friend, Alice Kharibian, who had been in the Syrian desert with my grandmother during what they called The Deportations (now known to most as the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1921). My grandmother had told me what had happened to her family when they were forced to leave their home in Mersin, Cilicia, and after my grandmother died I went so see Mrs. Kharibian. She told a similar tale, but she added a detail that my grandmother had not. Mrs. Kharibian remembered the name of the town that was near the concentration camp where she and my grandmother had found each other among 8,000 Armenian orphans who had survived the death marches. She also told me of how they had walked into town to find something to eat—begging for bread, picking barley kernels out of horse droppings, and cutting bits of flesh off a dead camel by the side of the road. I used all these details in the first chapter of my novel Zabelle.

In 2007, a team of forensic anthropologists conducted fieldwork in Ras al-Ain in the first application of that discipline to supporting historical accounts of the Armenian Genocide. They unearthed a mass grave, or what I have elsewhere called “a garden of bones.”


Detail of mass grave at Ras Al-Ain dating from 1915



Below is an excerpt from Zabelle (published in 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Press)



We followed the ones ahead of us and were followed by those behind us, all the Armenians walking together. It was cold at night; sometimes it poured down rain, and we sat holding a blanket over our heads. The donkey died, so we took what we could carry. To keep us moving, Turkish soldiers beats stragglers with whips. Local Kurds traded food for our last coins and my mother’s ruby earrings.

The sun rose and fell like a gold coin. Light and shadow leaped from fires at night. Grown-ups talked in a language that I knew but said things I couldn’t understand. My grandmother whispered to me, “Hush, hush now. Go to sleep.”

My grandfather trailed behind us, hobbling along with a cane. My mother called back to him, “We’ll see you at the resting place.” He would arrive after dark and fall down to sleep without even eating. One morning he didn’t wake up. My grandmother slapped her face and called out to God in a loud voice. She sat in the dust and wouldn’t get up until my mother pulled her to her feet. The next day Grandmother sat down in the dirt by the side of the road and begged us to leave her. She said she couldn’t take another step. My mother kissed my grandmother’s hands and said a prayer. Then she wrapped a scarf over my head so I couldn’t look back.

One morning as we were walking, a rumor passed down the line that the men of Hadjin had been shot on the outskirts of town and buried in a big pit. The women screamed like a flock of starved birds. I put my hands over my ears and hid my face in my mother’s shoulder. She didn’t make a sound. After that, my mother walked like someone asleep, holding the baby tightly and pushing me ahead of her.

There were bodies everywhere I looked. Some were old, some were babies, some were bleeding from the mouth, some were half-alive. The smell was terrible, the flies, the maggots, the animals chewing on an arm or leg while the eyes rolled up, staring at the sky. But we kept walking. Where are we going? I asked my mother. She didn’t know. But we kept walking.

My mother sold the pots, the bowls, the spoons, the knife, even her headscarf, for food. All we had left was a tin cup on a frayed string
around my neck.

We came to a place in the desert where we were told the stay. The baby Krikor died there. At night, under the light of the moon, my mother dug a pit using my cup. She couldn’t dig very deep, but she wanted to hide his body from the birds that followed us. She wrapped him in her shawl and put the bundle in the hole. We closed up the place with sand, and then we said a prayer for his soul. The soul of our baby was a small as a breath. It joined the other dead souls in the night wind and blew across desert sands.

This was to be our home—a stretch of desert. With a large cloth she had taken from a dead woman by the road and some sticks she found, my mother made us a tent. There was just enough room for us to sit up or lie down side by side on a piece of blanket, with our feet sticking out. I heard someone say, “The name of this place is Ras Al-Ain.”



Nancy Kricorian

Packing books with Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

When I was a graduate student, I worked as Susan Sontag’s personal assistant for one year. I went to her apartment on East 17th Street on Friday mornings to run errands, take dictation, type letters, and retype essays. (My typing skills were not what she expected so I quickly signed up for a class at a secretarial school near Penn Station that enabled me to pick up speed and keep the job.) I was thrilled to be in proximity to so prominent a writer, and she gave me books and tickets to performances. But she had a tendency to make harsh comments that were likely motivated more by obliviousness than by actual malice. One time in particular she said something so disdainful that I felt as though the breath had been knocked out of me. But I’ll keep that anecdote for another time, when I write the narrative of our odd, attenuated relationship over the years.


I went back in my journals and found entries from the summer when I helped her pack her 8,000 books so she could move from a duplex in a large brownstone on 17th Street to a smaller apartment on King Street. Below is an excerpt from one of those entries.


22 August 1985


I’ve learned a lot about S.S. in the past days packing books with her. Today I came across a photo of Susan as a young girl with her grandfather and her sister Judith. I didn’t even know she HAD a sister—I thought she was an only child. So I asked her about it as we headed out of the house for lunch in Chinatown. She told me that she thought of herself as an only child. She and Judith were three years apart in age, but six years apart in school. The only thing that she remembers about Judith is that she played with paper dolls and she liked jacks. They shared a bedroom until Susan was thirteen years old. Susan felt like she had nothing in common with her family.


Mother: Did you buy the bread?

Stepfather: What bread?

Mother: The bread I asked you to buy this morning!

Stepfather: You asked me to buy bread?

Mother: Yes, I did.

Stepfather: What kind of bread did you ask me to buy?

Mother: I don’t remember. I think it was….


Susan said it was like water torture with this inane conversation dropping on her head. She also commented that she had been very bright, but no one encouraged her, she did it all on her own and who knows what she might have been with more environmental stimulation…She said she had read a lot. She said reading was a wonderful way to travel and to meet interesting people. I suggested, from my own similar experience with reading, that it was also a form of escapism and a way to feel in control, but she does not seem generally interested in the psychological underpinnings of behavior.



Nancy Kricorian

Ghost Children

The new church building on Arlington Street

The congregation of the Armenian Brethren Church circa 1938.



Our family attended the Armenian Brethren (Evangelical) Church on Arlington Street, in Watertown, Massachusetts. My grandfather, Levon (Leo) Kricorian, was one of the founders of the church. Its congregation was made up of survivors—and the children and grandchildren of survivors—of what was called at the time “the Massacres,” “the Deportations” or “the Catastrophe.” Later this tragic chapter in Armenian history became known as The Genocide (1915-1921).

The Genocide was only occasionally openly addressed in our community, but vague allusions and scraps of stories floated around me without my ever gathering them into a coherent narrative. One of these fragments was a line that my grandmother said in passing about one of her close friends, Mrs. Mary Amiralian. In reference to Mrs. Amiralian’s grown progeny, one of whom was my Sunday school teacher when I was in grade school, my grandmother said, “Those are her American children. The first ones died in the desert.”

Years later, after my grandmother and Mrs. Amiralian had died, when I was researching my novel Zabelle and reading voluminously about the Armenian Genocide, this bit of conversation came back to haunt me. In response I wrote the poem “Ghost Children.”



Ghost Children


At lunchtime I stand
at the stove spooning soup
into three white bowls.
My children eat bread
at the table. They laugh
at the milk moustaches that
I wipe from their faces.

On the pantry floor I see
the narrow shadows of the
other children, the ones
whose bones I left in the
desert in a garden of bones.
The sand is still in my hair;
their high voices in my ears.

My American children can’t
see their unlucky brother and
sister who follow close by
my skirt. Mairig, the ghosts
complain, we are hungry. Mairig,
give us something to eat.


Published in ARARAT Literary Quarterly (Spring 1995)
Recording of the author reading “Ghost Children” via The Armenian Poetry Project

* Mairig means Mommy in Armenian


Nancy Kricorian