BY MARY NAJARIAN
The 39th Homenetmen Navasartian Games, to be held in Van Nuys, California, have taken me down memory lane, to the 1947 Olympic Games in Aleppo, Syria.
We lived on Zavarian Street in Nor Kugh, the Armenian ghetto. Every day after school my younger brother Koko and I would come home from school, throw our school bags in the house and run outside to play with our friends until dark on the unpaved streets covered with dust in the summer and mud in the winter.
To get us off the dirty streets, my father signed Koko up with the Homenetmen Jr. Boy Scouts and signed me up with the Garmeer Khach Girl Scouts. Never did we know that by becoming a scout, we were not only getting away from the streets but we were starting a new life. We were now part of the Homenetmen family.
There was always something new and exciting to learn and do at Homenetmen. We were taught to love and respect our Homeland and fellow Armenians. It was engrained in us that to be an Armenian was a privilege. Our ancestors went through the horrors of genocide, endured unspeakable torture, misery and starvation, to give us life.
I can honestly say that the day I was introduced to our Motto (Բարցրացիր-Բարցրացուր) and pledged the Scout’s Oath, “To be faithful to God and serve Armenia, our Homeland,” was the happiest day in my life. I wore my uniform with great pride and whenever I did, I made sure my friends in the neighborhood saw me. From their looks, I could see their envy.
Once a week our scout’s unit gathered at Zavarian School a few hundred feet from our house. Mr. Levon Apkarian, in his khaki shorts, riding his bicycle, came to train a different scout group each day. We started our exercises by raising the Tricolor Flag, saluting and then singing “Harach Nahadag,” our anthem. We did not just sing the anthem but we lived every word of the song. “Yertank gotoghenk Troshagn Yerakouyn” (let’s go and place the Tricolor in our homeland). We learned Armenian history through the patriotic songs, and we sang them with all our hearts and soul and as loud as we could, so it could reach heaven for God to hear.
As scouts, our biggest annual event was the Navasartian Games held on Easter Sunday, in the Azizieh Tashd in Aleppo.
How can I forget the year 1947? For a whole year we prepared for the big Olympic Games when the unexpected news came, “The city was tearing down the Azizieh field and the Kaghakabedarani Tashd was already booked.” There were no other fields. Everyone panicked. What were we to do? Easter was only ten days away.
The Governing Board, the Elders, took the matter into their hands, and after several days of searching, a track of land was located in the fourth district of Nor Kugh, next to Soorp Kevork Armenian Church.
Our scout leader, Oriort Arshalooys, at our Sunday meeting announced, “With great effort our leaders acquired a piece of land and plan to turn it into a sports field. The place is full of boulders, rocks and weeds. We have to join our brothers, the Homenetmen Scouts, and clear the field and make it ready for our Easter Sunday Olympic Games. We have only one week to make this track of land to an athletic field and we don’t have much time. We must start work immediately.”
For the coming week, every day the Homenetmen Elders, parents, supporters, with shovels, axes and sledge hammers worked to level the land. After school, hundreds of us, boys and girl scouts, joined them on the field working until dark, collecting the rocks, weeds, debris and broken glass and dumping them in the designated site. At the end of the week when the field was flat and there were more kids than rocks on the field, we stopped. Brooms were brought in and the whole place was swept clean. With the direction of the coaches, the field was measured, lines were marked with white sand, and ropes were put around the field as temporary fence. The field was ready.
Easter was a beautiful sunny day. Scouts from all over Syria — Azes, Damascus, Der Zor, Khemeshly, and more — came for the Olympics. It was an event that most Syrian Armenians looked forward to. But this was going to be a special year, as we had a new athletic field and the field was to be Christened.
By 12 noon the place was packed with tens of thousands of scouts and spectators. The Ceremony opened with the Nor-Kugh and Kaghaki bands playing the Syrian Anthem, “Hoometedier ee aleykom Salem” followed by our anthem, “Harach Nahadag.” The audience was singing along, cheering, clapping and whistling.
Under a thunderous welcome, Homenetmen Scout leader Baron Looder Masbanajian, speaking through a huge megaphone, welcomed the audience, the scouts and the athletes. “
The Homenetmen family, parents, scouts and supporters did the impossible. They worked hard, ‘kar ar kar,’ (piece by piece) and in seven days turned a track of land to an athletic field. This was a miracle. Now in the presence of you — scouts, athletes, parents and supporters — we officially name the field ‘NAVASARTIAN TASHD’”
The drums played, the “hoorays” followed and the program started.
Besides the many games, the competitions, and the parade we, the Nor-Kugh Girl Scouts, were scheduled for a relay against our number one competitor, the Kaghaki (City) Girl Scouts. The first call for the relay was announced and the names were called. We, the four relay girls, got ready to take our places, when suddenly the referee, Mr. Harutun Parseghian walked towards us, and pointing to ME saying, “She is disqualified. She can’t run in her scout’s uniform. She has to be in shorts.”
My three teammates were aware of the requirement and had come prepared. No one had informed me about the rule. We were all in a state of disbelief. For months we had been practicing for this event, and now we could not participate. How could they do this to us? Confusion followed. Some of the girls were crying. Some were yelling, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.” Oriort Arshalooys was walking nervously back and forth. Apo, our neighbor, was standing in a corner watching the drama, when Oriort Arshalooys walked to him and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Apo” he said.
“Apo, you are a Nor-Kugh Scout and you want Nor-Kugh Girl Scouts to win, don’t you?”
“Of course, of course, I do,” He said.
“Then be a good sport. Let’s go to the corner there, take off your shorts and Let Maro wear it, just long enough to run in the relay. We will make sure no one sees you. We will cover you up.”
Apo was dumbfounded. He did not comprehend what was happening. He was not given time to think. The girls made a wall around Apo and me, and within seconds, I was wearing Apo’s shorts and I rushed and took my place on the field.
The final whistle blew. The relay started. Our first runner was well ahead. The second and third lost the lead and we were about even. I was the last to run. During the transfer of the baton, we lost a few seconds. It seemed that the whole crowd was yelling “Nor-Kugh, Nor-Kugh.” My opponent had a slight lead. My mind had stopped. I could not think. I was repeating in my head, “faster, faster”…
The yelling of “Nor-Kugh, Nor-Kugh” was getting louder and louder pouring energy into me. Looking to my right, I could see my opponent, and we were neck to neck. I pushed myself with all my might and touched the finish line just about a second before her.
We, the Nor-Kugh girl scouts had won. We wanted the Kaghaki girls, (Behind their backs we called them the Rich Girls) to know that we were as good as they were, and today we proved it.
We all gathered in a circle and were kissing, hugging, and some were crying from joy. It was an unforgettable moment. As soon as things quieted down, I pushed myself out of the crowd and walked to Apo. The girls surrounded us again and we exchanged clothes.
“Maro, if it were not for me and my shorts the Nor-Kugh Girl Scouts would not have won the Relay.”
“Yes Apo, thank you. But please don’t tell your mom I wore your shorts. She might get angry.”
“I know, I know,” he said.
Early, the next morning, Apo came to our house, with a big grin on his face, “Vallah Maro, I had to tell my mom about the shorts and I said to her, ‘If it were not for me and my shorts, Nor-Kugh would not have won.’ And my mother said, ‘Afarim Dghas, Parik ure dsove nede.’ (Bravo my son, do your good deed and throw it to the sea). She was proud of me.”
From that day on, every time Apo saw me, he would remind me, “If it were not for me and my shorts, you would not have won the relay.”
“Yes Apo, pareek ure dsove nede.”
I was in my teens when I left Aleppo for Beirut and then to the United States and lost track of Apo. But every so often with nostalgia, I would quote Degeen Loosia, Apo’s mother, “Pareek ure dsove need.”
Two years ago, at Christmas, I was invited to a friend’s house in Hollywood. Ani, the Hostess, introduced me around to the guests in the room, and then to an elderly gentleman.
“Mary, this is Apraham. A few months ago he moved with his family to Hollywood from Aleppo, actually from Nor-Kugh, they lived on Zavarian Street.”
“Call me Apo,” he said.
I was stunned. “Apo, call me Maro. Remember me?”
“Maro, of course I do. You wore my shorts and won the relay in Navasardian Tashd Opening Day. How can I forget you?”
“Parik ure sdove nede.” We shouted in unison,
We hugged and kissed. We both had tears….