Once there were and there were not …
... three Armenian boys climbing the jungle gym in an Armenian kindergarten in Antelias, Lebanon. They were five-years-old, maybe six, donning their requisite red school uniforms, playing under the watchful eye of their teacher, Miss Jacqueline.
The threesome were students at Mardikian Elementary, a school named after its American benefactor and located in the walled compound of the seat of the Holy See of Cilicia, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean Sea.
There, in the shadow of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral, under the windows of the residence of the Catholicos, across the yard of the Cilician Seminary, and next door to the Holy See’s publishing house, the threesome would play at lunchtime.
In their classes, in their short walks to the Cathedral, during the visits by the Cilician priests, these young minds would be impressed with the importance of their Armenian identity and Christianity above all else. These basics lessons would ensure not only the survival of their identity but of their heritage, culture, and the Armenian nation.
Outside the compound was the Arab world, public schools, private French schools, poitical parties, civil strife, thousands of years of Phoenician history, fanaticism, French rule then independence, and a young multi-religious, multi-ethnic democracy that would later deteriorate into an embattled country of blood and mayhem.
In the threesome’s homes in this suburb of Beirut were untold stories of Genocide, of family members lost, barbaric violence, properties taken, uprooting of entire societies, of survival, and then safety in this new place.
In that new place, the threesome’s families and Church had forged a new community, established schools, churches, and the Mardikian School, where the three boys could be sheltered and allowed to set firm roots.
In this new place, they would be taught an identity before being immersed into the global village of languages. They would be grounded before having to confront competing philosophies and ideologies, contradictory political schools, and differing moralities and opposing religions. They would be taught before the world forced them to stare at materialism, definitions of success, and various interpretations about the meanings of their individual existences.
Above and under the jungle gym, before confronting the jungle of the world-at-large, the three boys would only know their parents, their industrious and care-giving mothers, and the hard-working fathers trying to bring financial stability to their families. They would know their prayers, Miss Jacqueline, their classmates, their school, and their Matchbox toy car collections.
Then the threesome would be unleashed out into the world. They would be separated as their respective families left Lebanon in search for safer places to live. Years later their beloved school would close its doors, but the life lessons it taught as an institution would never disappear.
Forty years later, the three boys find themselves together again for the first time. A few days ago, they huddled together at the top of the steps leading to the second floor of this newspaper’s offices.
Forty years after their days in kindergarten, they huddled as if they had never been apart. But now there was more to talk about, not just their toy collection and the strict Miss Jacqueline. There were stories of emigration, diving into foreign cultures in Europe and the US, learning, working, surviving, failing, and succeeding.
One had come to California in the 70s; the other in the 80s. The third had lived in France before finding his way to Los Angeles in the 90s. All three had somehow – through coincidence or destiny – found their way from their school yard to various roles in the mass communication and entertainment business.
One had attended film and journalism school in the US. The other had studied finance and business and worked at a transnational entertainment conglomerate. The third had graduated from a prestigious film school in France and made films before coming out to the entertainment capital of the world.
None had married. None had children. But between the three of them, they had watched Armenian history unfold and are participating in the longevity and trajectory of their culture. Each is now on a personal and professional journey, using the lessons learned in the mainstream entertainment world to perpetuate their culture through mass communication and the arts.
What had transpired between the jungle gym at Mardikian and the present moment in the urban jungle of Los Angeles may never make headlines, but what had guided these men were the lessons they had learned early in life about their identity.
The threesome were Armenians, and the Mardikian School had taught them that. Their school had forged their identities with such strength that nothing in the thousands of days they had lived and no one among the thousands of people they had met had changed who they are.
Mardikian Elementary had ensured that these three sons of the Diaspora would not veer far from their families or people. Their Armenian school, athletic associations, cultural, scouting, and church groups had reared them as self-confident children who knew where and to whom they belonged.
The threesome could’ve ended up anywhere, engaged in anything, in a prison, dead in an unmarked grave, married into odar families, unattached to their surname. But a few days before this newspaper went to print, they stood together in Little Armenia, huddled as they were when they were barely aware of the world.
It had taken an Armenian suburb, Antelias, to raise these children, so that they would be grounded, productive citizens of the countries in which they lived, while contributing to the survival and betterment of their people and the Armenian nation.
About the day 40 years ago when there was a scuffle and a displaced shoulder over the exchange of a Matchbox car – that’s another story. That the threesome is also proud of a fourth classmate – a renowned Beverly Hills plastic surgeon – that one they will drink to celebrate when they get together for dinner.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader