Have you ever heard the story about George Washington and the Cherry Tree? Not many Armenians have. I first heard it when I was delivering mail to School Number Thirteen in Yerevan. The lesson that day was on “The Evils of Capitalism.” According to the teacher, or more correctly the government, America is filled with liars as the Cherry Tree story shows. The story is supposed to teach children about the importance of honesty, but it is itself a fabricated lie, thus illustrating how evil America is.
Of course if any of those students had any courage they would say exactly what they were all thinking – as if the Soviets don’t lie. Truth be told, every country, every government, and everyone lies. Everyone except me.
All my life I’ve been told lies, some of them fatal. Here’s a good example: During the Second World War, when my family and I were still living in Greece, where I was born, my well-meaning mother told me that the Nazis occupying the country were soldiers on vacation. Seems harmless enough, until seven year old Davit Vartanian – that’s me, but most people call me Davo – offered to give a guided tour of Greece in exchange for a hefty sum. Thank God they were drunk and I was fast. Nazis hated Armenians almost as much as they hated Jews. We were their next candidates for ethnic cleansing.
But I guess nothing compares to her longest lasting lie about my father. For years she’s maintained that my father went on vacation to a tropical island (for some reason most of her lies involve vacations) and caught an incurable disease that all the inhabitants of that island had. Here’s the best part: the disease won’t affect you if you stay on the island, but you’ll wither away and die if you ever leave. Therefore, my father could never return to us, and we could never go to him because he didn’t want us to suffer from the same fate.
I knew that my father wasn’t on vacation; my father was murdered by EAM communists (the National Liberation Front) during the long and bitter Greek Civil War in forty-seven. God rest his soul.
He owned a grocery store, but before moving to Greece he was a philosophy professor. He never lied to me.
We, my brother Abraham and I, were taught an important life lesson everyday by my father.
Father: “Gratitude is the greatest virtue.”
“Satisfaction comes to those who please themselves.”
“Life does not merely consist of essentials, such as eating, drinking, and sleeping,
for the ornamental things in life are just as essential.”
He was shot between the eyes as he was walking to work.
The last thing he taught me was about truth. He said the tongue has no bone which allows it to bend in every direction. Trust the actions of others, not their tongues.
My mother still forges letters from him and puts them in my mailbox. How those letters miraculously get there even though my street is on my mail route, she claims she’ll never know. She tries to keep my father’s tradition alive by including lessons in his letters, but something’s not quite there.
Mother/Father: “Being polite will free you.”
“God loves those who keep their opinions to themselves.”
I, however, was never lied to about why my family and I were in Greece. My father and mother were both adamant that we learn everything about the history of our people and our great tragedy – the Armenian Genocide. Both my parents managed to escape and came to Greece as orphaned refugees.
After my father’s death/island-fever, my mother refused to stay in Greece, so during the mass migration back to Armenia in the fifties my mother and I emigrated. My brother stayed behind. He still manages my father’s store.
My mother hoped she’d find a better Armenia, but in place of Turks she found Soviets. Oh well.
Our first years back in our fatherland we struggled, but my mother, the incurable liar, reassured me that everything was great, so did the Armenian officials, so did the Soviets – I was eighteen, no longer a child, and knew that it wasn’t. The country was split between those who stayed and those who just recently returned. Now Armenians were fighting Armenians.
I grew tired of lies. I wanted to scream truth.
Obviously you can’t do this in a communist country full of fallacies and whispers.
I soon found a loophole. My tongue was no longer boneless.
I once read in a neuropsychiatric book my father owned about Tourette’s syndrome. Not many people in Armenia know about this either. I was most interested in the Coprolalia form of the disorder, which causes people to utter socially objectionable words or phrases. In other words, the truth.
And that’s when I decided to develop voluntary Tourette’s.
I was freed. I said what I wanted to say the moment I wanted to say it. Every lovely word would drip with the most beautiful and rarest thing in the world – truth.
For obvious reasons my new found disorder presented me with a potentially problematic situation since immediately after its onset I started working for the government. But I’m no fool. I would never voluntarily put myself in such a position without looking at the situation from all angles.
First, I didn’t have to worry about the Russians because they never have or will give a damn about Armenians, or postal workers. All they care about is the actual mail and its contents, both the material and the immaterial.
Second, as mentioned previously, no one here knows what Tourette’s is, let alone how it could possibly be voluntary. Here you’re either sick or healthy. Alive or dead. Disorders and non-fatal syndromes are reserved for those who have time for leisure activities.
My first couple of weeks on the job were spent explaining my unique situation to those ready to castrate me for my bluntness. After my lengthy monologues their anger was replaced by confusion.
I memorized the entire section on Tourette’s and by the time I would get to the different forms of the disorder my audience would ask for a simple definition – “I say exactly what I’m thinking at the moment I’m thinking it.”
They all thought it was the worst thing in the world. Imagine telling others what you really think of them. How awful! They felt sorry for me, they spat, they knocked on wood three times, and they said God forbid in the hopes that neither they nor their future generations develop such a horrendous disease.
I thought they would avoid me afterwards, but once they found out Mozart had Tourette’s they assumed I too had a great talent. They were just waiting for me to discover it. I heard a few whispers in those early days: “He might make a lot of money and give us some if we are nice to him.”
And third, even if someone wanted to complain there was no one to complain to. I once greeted one of the women on my route with “Hello Saddle Bags Ruzanna.” She then went down to the post office to complain about me, only to discover that it was an exercise in futility.
Did I fail to deliver her mail? No. Did I open, remove, or tamper with her mail? No. Was I late? No. Did I physically abuse her? No. Then the post office couldn’t help her. It’s as simple as that.
Being a mailman wasn’t exactly a prestigious position, but in those days you took what they gave you and kept your mouth shut. The Armenians who recently immigrated had such problems.
My work days were typical. During the week no one was home so my days were rather eventless. Saturdays were a different animal. Everyone was home and out on their front porch eating sunflower seeds and watching me.
“Good morning Davo!” Mrs. Sarkisyan would yell from across her lawn.
“Morning half wit!” Without a doubt she was the silliest woman I delivered for.
“I see you didn’t go to the doctor I recommended. He can cure your retardation, trust me.”
“If you were any dumber you’d create another species. I can’t be cured of my ‘retardation’ anymore than you can be cured of yours.”
A short pause and then she would resume. “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, my eldest daughter is finally getting married.”
“Then hope remains for everyone.”
“My other daughter’s still available,” she added with a crooked look.
“I stand corrected. There’s no hope for that one.”
“You won’t regret it.”
“Yes I will. I have enough problems. Everyone will think I’m homosexual if I’m seen with someone who so closely resembles a man.”
“You are a wicked man.”
“And you and every female in your family could pass for men if it weren’t for points North.”
Of course after such comments she would get angry, go inside, and refuse to speak to me ever again. But unfortunately, after a few days she would forget and be back on that porch propositioning me. She was extremely desperate.
There were many colorful characters like Mrs. Sarkisyan on my route, such as Doctor Aram Hovanesian, a mindless, arrogant, pedantic pontificating auchmach. Every time I announced him to be such people were quick to protect him, always resorting to the same defense: “He can’t be all those things, he speaks seven languages.” Why does everyone always think that just because someone speaks several languages, they’re some kind of superior being? All it means is that more people will know that he’s a mindless, arrogant, pedantic pontification auchmach.
“But you yourself speak four languages.” There are countless reasons why I’m superior to the people around me. The fact that I speak four languages is not one of them.
People were less willing to defend Hakop Hakopian, the Don Juan of his district, or so he would have everyone believe. The day there’s a four hundred pound, sweaty, partially Albino Don Juan is the day I ice skate to work because hell will have frozen over.
His list of conquests was quite impressive, but you would have to multiply the number he provided with zero in order to get the actual facts.
He was always an easy target. When the Russian, Nastasya Ivanovitch, moved in across the street he tried to impress her by doing manly things – fixing things and such.
“What are you looking for?” I called to him when I saw him huffing and puffing as he rummaged through boxes.
“You mean your knife and fork?”
“God must have been angry when he created you.”
“And in need of a good laugh when he created you.”
I never really got along with anyone once I developed voluntary Tourette’s, except for my mother and brother. Mother was sure it was because my father “was stuck on that cursed island,” in spite of the fact that I repeatedly told her I wanted to be honest. As for my brother Abraham, he thought it was the funniest thing he ever heard. He laughed his funny laugh (mouth wide open and no sound) nonstop when I told him about it during his first trip to Armenia.
After four years of trying I finally received clearance to visit Abraham. Two weeks no work. Yet I still wasn’t alleviated of my mailman duties. Before I left my mother gave me a box full of letters my father wrote to my brother. Mother, mother, mother.
A year after moving to Armenia I confronted her about these letters. She cried so much I thought she’d go blind. “You don’t love or respect your father anymore. He writes these letters for you. All he has left is the hope that his children will be happy and you want to deny him of that by scoffing at his letters?”
She’s absolutely hopeless. We never spoke about it again. Losing my father had obvious repercussions for her, especially after losing everyone else. What is it the Americans say? The engine is running but there’s no one behind the wheel? That’s my mother.
She continued to write and I continued to receive in silence.
Abraham enjoyed getting the letters, for him something was always better than nothing.
The plane ride was brutal. Forget the noise, the smells, and the people; try sleeping while the man next to you mumbles rubbish in his sleep.
“I’m going to bite your ass and then your cow … You scratch my back and I’ll give you a nice back rub … No, no, no, maybe … She crushed me like a flower … Noah landed on my mountain, it’s mine … Run! The chicken is going to get you … Slowly I turn and do a little dance … He’s a donkey and one day he’ll move up to a duck … I’m a happy dancing boy … Stalin caught a fish and now he’s coming … talk to the cow when you milk it, but sing to the bull … mine is big but my wife’s is bigger.”
A villager no doubt.
By the time the plane finally landed in Athens and I boarded the train to Thebes it was late and I was extinguished. Just as I was getting ready to sleep – that nice long peaceful sleep that was familiar to me before I left Greece – three men came in. No, wait, it gets better, they were Turks. Of course they were.
They talked for a few minutes about one of their wives before they noticed me. And yes, Turkish is one of the four languages I speak. My father always said, it is important to know the language of the enemy. Now I know why.
My father taught me the language, years of Turkish tyranny taught him.
They were talking about me. The Greek they called me, and pretty much everything else. They’re not on friendly terms with the Greeks either.
I had never seen a Turk before. After the First World War most were smart enough to stay out of Greece. These three were just passing through, on their way to Albania, or was it Bulgaria? And there are no Turks left in what is now legally considered Armenia. They seem to be content with the lands they stole from us and have now named Turkey. This shrinking process of Armenian lands was made possible by the Genocide. Instead of punishment they found a grand prize. What a lovely world we live in.
They were obviously drunk. And as men often do when drunk, they were looking for a fight. I believe they wanted to put me on a spit and roast me in the tradition of “my Greek people.” One even suggested that they stab me with their little knife (it didn’t look little to me) and make bets on how many stabs it would take to kill me. When it comes to murder Turks were, and judging from these three, still are very creative.
I was determined not to say anything but when the conversation became more and more violent, and talk seemed like it would turn to action – we after all were all alone on a train in the middle of the night – I spoke up.
“Excuse me, are you talking about me?”
“You speak Turkish, Greek?” Turk #1 asked in a confused but still violent manner.
“I am Turkish. I just grew up here.” Even now I don’t know how I managed to say this.
“You’re Turkish?” asked Turk #2.
“Don’t I look it?” I tried it and it worked. For once I was thankful for my dark features.
“So what was it like growing up among lamb-fuckers?” Turk #2 asked after a period of silence.
“Not bad, they were distracted by the lambs.” I began to hate, loathe, distaste myself in that moment.
They laughed and Turk #2 continued, “Such beautiful land wasted on the Greeks, and what’s worse is they’ve allowed those damn Armenians to come and pollute it further.”
Turk #1: “I’ll take lamb-fuckers over donkey-fuckers any day.”
Turk #3: “Just the other day my father was talking about Mehmed Talaat’s dream.”
Turk #2: “Your father is always talking about that.”
Turk #1: “What dream?”
Turk #2: “You’ve heard him and his father talk about it a hundred times.”
Turk #1: “No. No, I have not. Have you heard about the dream?”
All I could do was shake my head – No.
Turk #1: “Tell us the dream.”
Turk #3: “Ignore him, he’s drunk.”
Turk #1: “Tell me.”
Turk #3: “My father worked in Mehmed Talaat’s office and often heard him say that when the cleansing of the Armenians was complete he would only leave one alive.”
Turk #1: “Why?”
Turk #2: “You know this story.”
Turk #1: “Silence! Why?”
Turk #3: “So he could be put on display in a zoo as the world’s worst, ugliest, and most dangerous creature. It was supposed to be a tourist attraction.”
Turk #1: “Why would anyone go to see that when they could see monkeys who look just like Armenians, only prettier and less hairy.”
They laughed, they howled, they brayed.
I, like so many times before, wanted to scream the truth. I laughed with them instead.
My brain, my heart, my soul, my bones, every fiber of my being was banging on the inside of my mouth, trying to force it open. But I remained silent.
With every laugh, every nod of the head, my disorder was squeezed out of me, like water is squeezed from a worn rag. Apparently I could be cured of my retardation.
It was still dark when I got off the train at Thebes. My offending hand waved goodbye to the Turks.
Yet another Armenian defeated by the Turks.
As I walked to my brother’s house I wondered, as I still wonder, if I would ever receive a letter from my father explaining how I should live my life now.