Dispatches

Something Like Armenian

Angela Wheelock

Great poets, terrible leaders

Several summers ago I spilled a cup of coffee on my laptop and after I let it dry out the keyboard wouldn't work so I had to take it to the Mac repair store at 4th Avenue and Macdonald Street. It was hot and humid in Vancouver that August and the humidity had caused the arthritis in my right knee to flare up. The day I took my laptop to be repaired, I caught the #22 north to 4th Avenue. My knee was sore enough that walking hurt and I was hoping to sit down at the bus stop. It was early afternoon and the sun was straight overhead and I was sweating.

There were two people sitting on the bench at the bus stop. One was a man of medium height wearing a baseball cap. He had a small bag, which took up the only space left on the bench. Can I sit down? I asked. Sure, sure, the man said and moved his bag. His English was hesitant and when I told him that I needed to sit because of my knee, he didn't seem to understand. No English? I asked. Persian, he said. Oh, I said and told him that I loved Persian poetry. I began to list names of Persian poets: Rumi, of course, and Hafiz and—I paused… Saadi, the man said, pronouncing the poet's name like it was a swear word. Then he began talking and his English was fluent and passionate. Yes, yes, he said, as if he were brushing something aside. Great poets, terrible leaders! His voice began to rise. Killers, he said as he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. They tortured me. Look, here are scars, here and here. I looked at the man's arms and I could, indeed, see the tracks of scars running up and down his arms like old riverbeds.

The other person at the bus stop, a woman at the end of the bench, turned her head away. They tortured me, the man said again and told me that he was only nineteen years old when it happened, not long after the Iranian Revolution began. They killed my brother, he said. I asked him why and he said it was because his family wasn't Muslim. I asked what he was, if not Muslim. He considered for a minute or two and then said, “something like Armenian.”

I knew that meant Christian because my sister’s first husband was an Armenian who had grown up in Dearborn, one of the suburbs of Detroit. I was thinking about this and before I could ask what he was if not Armenian the bus pulled up and we got on. As I boarded, I felt a small puff of air on my bare arm and it was only when I sat down that I realized that it was a wasp. The tiny wind was the sensation its wings made as it hovered over my arm. The man sat down beside me and now he talked about the wasp and the weather instead of Iran and my stop came and I got off and the man rode on.

I didn’t think about the man again for a long time. Then, in early 2015, when terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I wondered what the man thought about the attacks and whether the news from Paris triggered painful memories. The attack motivated me to find out more about the man and I did a Google search for “Christians in Iran.” Wikipedia told me that there are about 400,000 Armenian Christians in Iran and there is another, smaller, group of Assyrian-Chaldean Christians. I paused at the term: Chaldean.

I grew up in Michigan and the word Chaldean hovered at the edge of my memory. When I read further, I found out that Detroit has the largest community of Assyrian-Chaldean Christians outside of the Middle East. Saddam Hussein’s right-hand man, Tariq Aziz, was an Assyrian-Chaldean Christian. In 1980, Saddam donated $250,000 to Assyrian-Chaldean Christian churches in Detroit and then-Mayor Coleman Young sent Saddam a key to the city. I had learned about ancient Assyria and King Nebuchadnezzar in Sunday school. I can still remember the first time I spoke that glorious tongue twister of a name out loud. Now, here in Vancouver, I had met an Assyrian.

How many other people had the man told his story to? I imagine that he had gotten tired of explaining his origins and just said “something like Armenian” if anyone asked because it was easier. The day I met him, it was as if he'd been waiting to tell his story and when he saw that I was listening his words poured out like heavy rain. Now I think about how the man's scars were old scars with the silvery sheen of old scars and I knew it had been a long time since he had been nineteen.

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