Sitting behind the desk Zohrab looks through the windows that take up the two walls of his well lit inner office. His frequent glances monitor the activity in the outer room from the customers to the tellers to the other officers at the branch of the well known bank in downtown Beirut where he is the director. Short in stature with a stocky build and a bushy moustache, he is immaculately dressed in a well fitted suite with a pearl tie pin and looks as if he easily shoulders the responsibilities of the job.
Zohrab is a semi expatriate. He first left Beirut for Cyprus in 1989. Through various familial connections he was immediately contacted by the U.S. consulate once he arrived and was offered a visa. He packed up the family again, this time heading to Southern California where years earlier his sister and her family had settled. Several months later, well into the school year, Zohrab’s wife became homesick and they all headed back to the city they considered home. Like many others like them who tried to cope with the civil war, they vacillated between Beirut and different cities on the western continent and eventually settled in Montreal where his in-laws had chosen to relocate. Now his entire family lives in Canada while he works in Beirut. “I’m doing what is my duty: earning a living to support my family.”
Born and raised in Bourdj Hammoud (an Armenian enclave of Beirut), he has a wide circle of friends. Between his local friends and the global clientele that makes its way to the bank Zohrab is busy almost every night of the week. It is the way of the city where a person’s social calendar can easily fill with restaurant outings, night clubs or visiting friends. In Zohrab’s case it also fills his time away from his wife and three children.
His eldest son is studying and training in banking, his second son is studying engineering while his twelve year old daughter is finishing her first year of junior high school. Although he’d like to convince the family to return to Beirut, he wonders if life would have been different if he’d emigrated in the early 1980’s instead of when he did. He is a man with a plan and knows that the separation is temporary. He realizes that their quality of life would be lower if he tries to make the move now. “I’ll wait until my children establish themselves,” he says with a resigned air, “then the financial responsibility will be less when I move to Canada.” Zohrab plans to retire in Montreal. “I enjoy the cold weather,” he says with a slight laugh, knowing that this is an unusual preference for someone raised in the milder climate of the Mediterranean.
The life story of this otherwise unassuming man comes out in spurts as we conduct the business. His pride in his children is evident. The fact that they attended Armenian school and maintained their language is the greatest source of his satisfaction “That way they don’t have to associate with undesirables and black people,” he says with a firmness not expressed until now. “All their friends are Armenian and we know who they are,” he says, reflecting a common fear of the unfamiliar experienced by those that come from sheltered and tightly knit communities where everyone is interconnected and a person’s pedigree can easily be determine with a few well worded queries.
Chatty is a word that describes Zohrab well. He is quite talkative for a banker and he asks lots of questions unrelated to the business at hand. Fortunately he doesn’t wait for the answers but chimes in with personal stories of his own. Suddenly, during one of his monologues, the lights shut off in the building, but he doesn’t flinch and continues undeterred. This is a regular occurrence in the city that is just showing signs of recovery from its latest bout of armed conflict a couple of years ago. Zohrab continues to tell us of how he came by his current job a mere five months ago and how accommodating he could be in his new position, “I’ll do whatever it takes,” he says of his willingness to be helpful with whatever we need from the bank. “I’ll even give you my personal cell phone number which I don’t give to anyone.”
Banking is a family occupation. Zohrab’s uncle was also a bank director in Beirut, his son is training in the field, and he is a director in Beirut while his brother is a director in Montreal. But that wasn’t always the case with Zohrab. During his foray in the United States, he admits that he briefly considered another occupation: repairing cars. He loves everything about them, from their engines to their bodies, and spends hours repairing them. It’s his hobby now but he was passionate enough to consider it as a full time occupation at one time. “I have a good ear. I can tell what’s wrong with a car just by listening to it while I drive,” he explains and begins to tell the story of his sister’s malfunctioning car that several visits to the dealer had not resolved. “I drove it once around the block to hear the engine and then I quickly repaired it.” The story he tells is to show his nimbleness of mind and hand, the qualities he admires. “Here, if we put out mind to it, we can learn about many things,” he says with a slight lift of his chin. “Not like over there where everyone is an expert at only one thing.” The pride of where and how he was raised may be why he opted to continue living in this tiny little country on the Mediterranean and not the vastness of the United States. It seems that regardless of what he says Zohrab wouldn’t want things any other way.