BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
I’d like to start this story by telling you about my father’s mom. It’s fair to say that my grandmother, Gadarina, was a type that any child would have loved to have her as a grandma. As her grandkids, we were allowed to do most anything we wanted, like jumping on her bed. She was a dream. I especially felt much closer to her than my other cousins because I was named after her.
Many of my fond memories of her center around the times when we grandkids sat around and listened to her stories or when she took us to the movies or to church on Sundays. I think it was very clever of her to spend such meaningful time with us, instead of fussing about keeping the house clean or making elaborate meals.
I remember her often saying that she was born the same year as Charlie Chaplin, so I can say that she must have been born in 1889. In 1907, at age 18, she graduated from the American Missionary’s High School, “Iran Bethel,” in Tehran.
After her graduation, she became a math teacher at that same school. She also started to give private English language lessons at home. My grandfather, Arshak, who was 10 years her senior, was one of her students. That’s how the two of them met, fell in love and got married in 1909. She was only 20.
Now a little bit about my grandfather. After he graduated high school in Tehran, he was sent to France to learn a trade. While in Paris, he learned to tailor shirts at the Sulka company, which, at the time, was one of the most prestigious and expensive manufacturers of fine menswear. When he returned to Tehran, he became a tailor at the court of the sitting Shah of Persia.
When they got married, my grandpa’s dream was to return to France to raise his family in Paris. After they had their first child, in September of 1913, they decided to make the move with their newborn daughter, my aunt Nelly, to Paris; however, by the time they applied for their passports and made all the arrangements to leave, it was the spring of 1914, and the Great War was underway. They begrudgingly cancelled their plans.
About 10 years later in 1923, after they had three more kids, my grandpa, who still carried his dream of returning to Paris, decided to head to Europe by himself. He arrived in Paris, found a job and after working for a year or so, wrote to my grandma to pack up with the children and travel to Beirut.
The plan was that grandpa would meet the family halfway in Beirut, and from there they would continue their journey together to Paris. My grandma diligently followed her husband’s instructions. She got their passports, sold their belongings, hired a trustworthy driver who had his own car and would drive them up to Bagdad, in Iraq. She contacted some relatives who lived in the cities where they would cross, before reaching the border of Iraq. She informed the relatives of the trip and arranged to stay at least one night at their homes.
At this time my aunt Nelly, the oldest child, was 12 years old. Their second child was my father, who was 10, then my uncle who was 4, and my youngest aunt who was 2 years old.
My grandmother packed them all up and prepared for their journey. Now, you have to bear in mind that in those days, there were no maps, no paved roads, no rest-stops, and no mechanics on the roads. On top of all that, there was the danger of being robbed by highway thieves. Fortunately they didn’t encounter any major complications but still, it was a difficult journey for a young mother traveling with 4 young kids. I couldn’t imagine doing this alone even today.
The first night out of Tehran, they stayed with a family in a city called Ghazvin, about 90 miles away. My aunt Nelly, 12 at the time, writes in her memoir: “The next morning when we wanted to continue our trip, our host gave us one whole cooked chicken as a provision for our road trip.”
Before crossing the border to Iraq, they stayed with two more relatives—first in Hamadan and then in Kermanshah. Their stay in Kermanshah took three nights since my grandmother’s uncle found out that she had brought with her British gold coins. He thought that at the border the gold coins might be confiscated. He advised her to change the gold into paper money. It took them a few days to do that exchange.
In Baghdad, they stayed one night in a hotel. It was in Baghdad that they changed drivers. The new driver was an Arab man. My aunt Nelly, in her memoir, says that the weather in Baghdad was awful hot. The next morning they piled up into another car. This time there were two cars escorting them. I’m just assuming the reason was because they were going through a desert with no apparent roads or signage. Aunt Nelly writes, “When we hit the road in Bagdad, first the cars drove many kilometers in a direction, and then they changed to another route and finally very late at night we arrived at a border city called Homs, in Lebanon.” The following day the driver took them to Beirut where grandpa was waiting for them.
This story has been told over and over in my family, however I learned more when I recently read my aunt Nelly’s memoir where she has written in vivid detail about that trip. She explains how they encountered some minor troubles such as excessive heat, being thirsty, not enough food, etc. However, they ultimately and safely reached Beirut.
Now that I’m writing this, I have one pressing question. I wonder how my grandma communicated with locals while they were crossing Iraq and the many towns, as I assume everybody spoke Arabic, which she didn’t know at all. My aunt Nelly did not mention anything specific about this, but she says while they were on the road in Iraq, traveling the desert, they bought food from Bedouins and that they asked to be paid by silver coins which they had. I assume, maybe one of the drivers, could speak English, or maybe Farsi was widely understood.
Their journey from Tehran to Beirut took one week. My aunt writes that when they arrived in Beirut my grandpa decided they would stay for a while and he would open a small business making dress shirts. Grandpa bought a few sewing machines, and hired a few Armenian refugees who had escaped the Genocide as young boys and had grown up in orphanages, where they learned how to sew.
My aunt writes that they rented a two bedroom apartment in a building with Armenian, French and Arab neighbors. With the little description that my aunt gives I can tell that Beirut was a very charming European style city by the sea.
She specifies Beirut as having flower beds all around and in close proximity to the ocean. She describes their walks every evening to the town square, where they would enjoy listening to the military band and had lemonade. She also mentions that one day they were invited for dinner to a home of a wealthy Armenian who had a lovely big house and a grand piano, on which she played some Armenian music and the kids danced around.
After spending a few months in Beirut, they boarded a ship to Marseille, France and from there traveled to Paris by train.
I remember my grandma, telling me that when they settled in Paris, and my grandpa started his own business of making shirts, she would help him by sewing at home. And while she was working in front of the sewing machine, she would keep a notebook next to her to learn French words and grammar.
Before arriving in France, while they were still in Beirut, my aunt Nelly had an idea. She exclaimed that the children names should be change from their Armenian names to European ones. She asked the family to call her “Nelly,” instead of her original name which was “Hamazaspuhi.” My father’s name was changed from “Ashot” to Donald. My uncle became “Henry” and my younger aunt’s name was changed from “Siranoush” to Marie.
This story, which I always found it curious, besides telling me what a strong woman my grandma was, serves also as a testament to the strong-willed and resolute Armenian women in our past generations.
My aunt Nelly says, while they were in Paris, the Depression of 1929 hit Europe and the economy of France collapsed. Beginning of 1930s the family faced very hard times. That’s why grandpa decided to take his family and return to Tehran, where my father eventually met my mother and had a family of his own.
My grandmother’s actions have inspired me in many ways. She’s always been my role model. I’ve learned from her to be resilient and not to sweat the small stuff. Instead always to be ready to take on new opportunities and not to be afraid to step into the unknown.
Catherine Yesayan is a regular contributor to Asbarez, with her columns appearing under the “Community Links” heading. She can be reached at email@example.com.