BY MARY NAJARIAN
The Annual Homenetmen Navasartian Games held in Van Nuys, California, always takes me down memory lane to the 1947 Olympic Games in Aleppo, Syria.
We lived on Zavarian Street in Nor Kyugh, 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 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 for the Homenetmen Jr. Boy Scouts and signed me up for the Garmeer Khach Girl Scouts, (now Homenetmen). Little did we know that by becoming a scout, we would not only get off the streets, but also start a new life. We were now a part of the Homenetmen family.
There was always something new and exciting to learn about 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 (Բարձրացիր-Բարձրացուր) and pledged the Scout’s Oath “To be faithful to God and serve Armenia our Homeland” was the happiest day of 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 (Agoomp), a few hundred feet from our house. Mr. Levon Apkarian, riding his bicycle in khaki shorts, 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 Yerakoyn’ (let’s go and place The Tricolor in our homeland). We learned Armenian history through the patriotic songs and we sang them with all of our heart and soul, 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 Tashd and the Community Tashd was already booked.’There were no other fields in Aleppo. Everyone panicked. What were we to do? Easter was only ten days away.
The Governing Board of Homenetmen took the matter into their hands, and after several days of searching, a track of land was located in the fourth district of Nor Kyugh, 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 they plan to turn it into a sports field. The place is hilly full of boulders, rocks and weeds. We have to join our brothers, the Homenetmen Scouts, and clear the field and prepare it for our Easter Sunday Olympic Games. We have only seven days to transform this wasteland into an athletic field and we don’t have much time. We must start work immediately.”
Every day for the following week, the Homenetmen Elders, parents, supporters, grabbed shovels, axes and sledge hammers and worked to level the land. After school, hundreds of scouts joined them on the field and worked until dark collecting the rocks, weeds, debris and broken glass. 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, Mr. Karnig Azirian and Dr.Hagop Kassabian were down on their knees measuring and marking the lines with white sand. Ropes were placed around the field as temporary fencing, and the field was ready.
Easter was a beautiful sunny day. Scouts from all over Syria: Kessab, Racca, Damascus, Der Zor, Khameshly, Beirut, came for the Olympics. It was an event that most Syrian Armenians looked forward to. In addition, this was going to be very special, as we had a new athletic field and the field was to be christened.
By noon the place was packed with tens of thousands of scouts and spectators. The Ceremony opened with the Nor-Kyugh 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 bullhorn, 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 waste land into 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 games, the competitions, and the parade we, the Nor-Kyugh 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. Our relay team of four girls got ready to take our places, when suddenly the referee, Mr. Harutun Parseghian walked towards us, pointed to ME, andsaid, “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 Kyugh Scout and you want Nor Kyugh Girl Scouts to win, don’t you?”
“Of course, of course, I do,” He replied.
“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 spellbound. He did not comprehend what was happening to him. He was not given time to think and make a decision. The girls made a wall around Apo and me, in quick motions, pulling my skirt they covered Apo and took down his shorts. Within minutes, I was wearing Apo’s shorts and rushing to take my place on the field.
The final whistle blew. The relay started. Our first runner was far 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 like the entire crowd was yelling “Nor-Kyugh, Nor-Kyugh.” My opponent had a slight lead. My mind had stopped. I could not think. I was repeating in my head, ‘faster, faster’…
The shouting of “Nor-Kyugh, Nor-Kyugh” was getting louder and louder, enveloping me with energy. 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 finishing line just about a second before her.
The Nor-Kyugh girl scouts had won. We wanted the Kaghaki girl scouts, (behind their back we called them, the rich girls) to know that we were as good as they were, and today we had 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 and we exchanged clothes.
“Maro, if it were not for me and my shorts the Nor-Kyugh Girl Scouts would not have won the Relay.”
“Yes Apo, thank you, but 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-Kyugh would not have won the relay.” My mother said, “Afarim Dghas, Parik ure dsove nede.” (Bravo my son, do your good deed and throw it into 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, Nor Kyugh would not have won the relay.’
“Yes Apo, Pareek ure dsove nede.”
I was in my teens when I left Aleppo for Beirut then to the United States and lost track of Apo. However, every so often, I would quote Degeen Yeghsa, Apo’s mother, “Pareek ure dsove nede.”
Two years ago, on Christmas, I was invited to a friend’s house in Hollywood. Ani, the hostess, introduced me to the guests in the room including an elderly gentleman.
“Mary, I want you to meet Apraham. A few months ago he moved with his family from Aleppo to Hollywood. They lived on Zavarian street in Nor Kyugh.”
“Call me Apo,” he said.
I was stunned. “Apo, call me Maro. Do you remember me?”
“Maro, of course I do. You wore my shorts and won the relay in Navasartian Tashd on the Opening Day. How can I forget you?”
“Parik ure sdove nede.” We shouted in unison.
We hugged and kissed. We both were in tears.