Kessab: Deep Roots amid Fallen Leaves

Lalai Manjikian

It is that autumn season again in Montreal when fallen leaves brighten the city. Nothing burdens me right now, as I feel the earth’s cold moisture spread across my knees, staining my newly washed jeans. Instead, I form abstract clusters of yellow, red, and brown as I collect the leaves on the ground. This act soon becomes the free rearrangement of dampened earth colors on a grass canvas against the brisk November wind.
Time slows down only when I kneel on the earth’s surface in such close proximity to the humid grass. I am reminded of a gentle pace, the solid entrenchment, and the idea of a connection. My mind begins to trace a map of the roots and the routes that brought me here. I think of these journeys every time there is work to be done in my father’s urban garden miles away from his ancestral village of Karadouran near Kessab, Syria, where he learned to work and reap the land as a young boy.
I watch as my father methodically turns the soil so that, come springtime, he can plant new roots. He works with a serene seriousness, unmistakably carrying the physical traits and movements of his own father of whom I have but a few distinct memories from my visits to Kessab as a child. These images of baboug, my grandfather Hovsep Manjikian, are beginning to fade, barely kept alive through photographs that still leave many things said, heard, or felt outside the frame.
Those childhood visits to Kessab left a lasting impression on me. I can recall the fragrances of boiled quince or grapes on burning wood, playing on the swing under the shade of vivacious grapevines, and long walks through the apple orchards. Most particularly, I remember how baboug would put his transistor radio up to his ear to listen to the news with the volume at its highest setting. Because he was hard of hearing, my father had sent him a hearing aid from Canada, but it still required full volume on the radio. After baboug passed away in 1994, my father inquired about that hearing aid, hoping that someone else in the village could make use of it. It then emerged that my grandfather had been buried with the hearing aid – a literal posthumous union of technology and body.
Baboug loved tomatoes. Watching him chew fresh tomatoes with such appetite has left an imprint in my mind. I remember how he would eat a simple dinner, consisting of a tomato and cucumber salad, toneer-ee hatz (village bread) and oghee (ouzo). The distinct scents of warm hatz and potent oghee filled the kitchen and veranda of the ancestral home. As he ate, small beads of sweat would trickle through the finely drawn gorges of his sun-kissed face. Why did he perspire, I wondered, despite the cool gentle breeze that rarely stopped blowing through the veranda?
The village of Karadouran is where, as an infant, I learned how to walk. A grainy photograph shows me in a red-and-white polka-dot dress. I was holding my older brother’s hand, as I practiced how to take one step at a time. Now I think back on that reality and I am comforted to know that my first steps in life were on land where thick roots grew deeply. Shortly after those first steps, I would be flung, like many Armenians, amid the unceasing flows and unfixed realities that living in the diaspora entails.
To this day, Kessab and its surrounding regions retain a significant Armenian population. A drive down a narrow, winding road through towering mountains leads to my father’s village of Karadouran, which is located close to the Mediterranean Sea. The previously untamed, mountainous backdrop is now being populated with modern villas alongside ancient stone houses.
The most valuable resource in the area is the fertile land. Villagers have subsisted mainly by selling their harvested produce from that land, initially with non-mechanized and rudimentary processes. Baboug worked on that land all his life, at first growing tobacco to fulfill the Syrian government agricultural quotas, and later harvesting and selling apples.
Karadouran is also where my grandmother, Kalila Yaralian-Manjikian, lived until she quietly passed away on November 2011 at the age of 104.
I was fortunate to have visited Kessab in October 2007 to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday. As an adult, I was able to form new memories from listening to her wisdom, laughing with her, answering her questions, hearing her answer my own questions that I had about her life, and hugging her. I enjoyed her sense of humor and inquisitive mind first-hand. I was in the presence of a century lived, and Kalil nene inspired me profoundly with her strength and resilience.
She was unquestionably the doyenne of the village. Visitors, friends, and family, from near and far, would always make the mandatory stop to see Kalil nene, to receive her blessings, to answer her questions of what they were up to and where they were in their life—and this, until her very last days. Even outsiders were taken by her degree of lucidity and her life trajectory. Foreign filmmakers who managed to reach this remote area sought to preserve her and her words for posterity.
When I last saw her, I was amazed by her self-sufficiency and mobility at her advanced age. Her level of awareness, her intact memory that recalled the finest of details, her sharp and curious mind, and her wit were all remarkable. At times, she had critical words to offer and was very categorical about what she wanted. Most of the time, she would just voice her opinion and then let it go with a simple “Eh, took keedek” (you know best). She always knew the whereabouts and status of everyone in the village, and those who had gone abroad.
Named after the Biblical Galilee, Kalil nene was born in Karadouran in 1907. When she was about one year old, her family was forced to flee the village during the time of the Adana massacres. In 1915, her family was forced to flee again during the Armenian Genocide. They made their way to Damascus on foot and then joined a caravan to the Salt and Mahas regions in Jordan. It was in Mahas that Kalil nene’s father passed away.
In 1918, when the British army entered Jerusalem, her family relocated there. She bore a tattoo with a cross and the year 1918 as a memento of her time in Jerusalem.
Later in 1918, her family moved yet again, this time by train, to Port Said in Egypt to join other displaced Armenians from Kessab, Musa Dagh, and other regions. It was in Port Said where Kalil nene learned the Armenian alphabet.
At the beginning of 1919, the Armenians residing in Port Said began either to resettle in other regions or to return home. Kalil nene’s family was taken by train to Aleppo, Syria, where horse-drawn wagons took them to the region of Antioch. From there, they made their way back to Kessab, and then finally to Karadouran on foot. The Armenian population of Kessab that survived the mass killings and deportations was then able to begin rebuilding their destroyed homes and villages.
In 1927, Kalil nene married my grandfather. Over the next few decades, they raised three children while another World War ensued, and the Middle East experienced numerous upheavals. Life continued in rural Karadouran at its usual pace however, with small doses of modernity gradually infiltrating their everyday existence.
When Kalil nene turned 100 years old, one of her grandchildren asked her, “What is the secret to living so long?” She replied simply, “Lead a clean life.” There is a multitude of ways one can interpret this eloquent statement.
During her 100th birthday celebration, she refused all assistance. On her own, she climbed down the 10 stairs of her home, and then walked quite a distance from the car to reach the “honor table” in the restaurant where her birthday was held. Everyone watched admiringly as she took one solid step after another using her two wooden canes.
She was a member of the Armenian Relief Society for 80 years and received official recognition for it. She was also a supporter of Armenian schools in the Kessab region. She even attended the opening of a new school building not long before she passed away, having been a contributor to the funds for the school.
How did she live such a long and healthy life? Was it the clean mountain air, her genetic make-up, the years of arduous physical labour in the village, or the fact that she was a strict vegetarian and preferred to eat grains such as bulgur and lentils? Perhaps all of these factors, combined with her overall positive and healthy outlook on life and her sense of humor, contributed to her longevity.
Kalil nene witnessed the beginning of the unrest in Syria in early 2011, but she passed away before the crisis intensified. I wonder what nene’s reaction would have been had she continued to witness the bloodshed unfolding in Syria. She was fortunate to have avoided yet another – a third – forced displacement. Her death was timely in that sense. How do you displace elders who have spent a lifetime building their dwellings, stone by stone, day by day?
During the ongoing upheavals in Syria, countless citizens, including some Armenians, have bravely salvaged what they can and have sought to live a semblance of a “normal” life, given the difficult circumstances. Many have fled or may be forced to flee from their homes, which could deprive Aleppo, Damascus and Kessab of a rich historic Armenian presence. Those who are displaced may be forced to endure the challenges of establishing a new life, and the uncertainty of whether they can return home again. In the meantime, they will inevitably grow new roots wherever they find themselves.
As the crisis continues in Syria, indiscriminate killing and violation of human rights are becoming as accepted as breaking bread. Syrians of various cultural, religious, and political backgrounds face dispossession on far too many fronts – the loss is unimaginable. Amid this anguish, the story of the Armenian diaspora also continues to be written as long-standing communities suffer and bleed. Armenians are like nomads who are condemned or blessed to carry real and figurative pieces of their homes, in order to re-build new ones, amid the unrelenting movement of people around the globe by force or free will.
Despite being forcefully displaced twice, Kalil nene had still succeeded in returning to the ancestral land, where she was born and raised. She tirelessly worked that land and was buried there after reaching the milestone of a century. Life came full circle for her. Living within a diasporic reality—to be born and raised on, and to work and die on one’s ancestral land close to one’s roots—is indeed a rare gift.
Back in Montreal, time slows down again for me momentarily as I stare out at my father’s garden. I watch as the painted leaves are pushed by incessant whirlwinds across the fence into the neighboring yard. The autumn sun warms my face as I continue to contemplate my Kessab origins and daydream of visiting that land once again…

* * *

Every fall, my father who was born in Kessab, plants tulip bulbs in his Montreal garden, miles away from his ancestral land. I like to think he does so in an unspoken homage to Kessab—every year, renewing his unbreakable connection to his past.
As a child, my first memory of seeing red wild tulips grow in their element were on the raw mountains of Kessab, as opposed to being neatly transposed in a living room vase. It was a significant sight, given the fact that my parents had named me Lalai, which is this flower’s literary name. Surrounded by wild tulips and towering mountains, I too felt in my element, feeling a strong relationship with this mesmerizingly powerful land where my roots originate.
Only a few weeks ago, I browsed through pictures of Kessab in bloom posted on Facebook. I saw the hopeful images of trees beginning to blossom, warm Kessabi hatz (bread) straight out of the toneer (stone oven). Village life seemed to unfold as usual. I caught myself quietly smiling at pictures of children in Kessab dressed up for Paregentan in colorful costumes, with their radiating smiles seemingly untainted from severe civil unrest engulfing the region for the past three years. These photos provided me with a fragile sense of comfort that all is fine on the Kessab front, even as I thought of the current situation in Syria, where Kessab is precariously nestled in the country’s northwest corner, on the Mediterranean Sea, bordering Turkey.
A few days ago, like a flash flood, those images of a Kessab spring were violently shattered. Years of hard labour, sweat, and love left behind following an attack on this treasured part of Armenian history dating back to the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. The predominantly Armenian enclave of Kessab is now emptied of its Armenian population that has been there for hundreds of years, after rebel forces descended on the region from Turkey.
Houses are being looted, Armenians being displaced. We all know too well this recurring refrain etched in our collective memory, as history coldly repeats itself.
Over the past few days, anyone who has spent some time under Kessab’s magical spell or any Armenian for that matter has been taking numerous stabs in their hearts. Memories flooding our minds, as news trickles out from the region, and as the international community just watches with a blank stare, once again.
Perhaps naively, I always wanted to think that Kessab was untouchable, that it was my only tangible connection to my already devastated family tree, to my past, to my ancestors, at least on my father’s side. My mother’s family from the region of Tomarza in the Kayseri province still stand, but it is was long lost in many ways. Kessab, on the other hand, has always been alive for me. Accessible, it is living, breathing Armenian life, where old and new generations solidly overlap, like interlocking elbows during countless “Garmir fustan” dances endlessly streaming at weddings, baptisms or massarah/perpoor nights (grape molasses cooking feasts). A land where tradition is celebrated, a comforting dialect is spoken, where characters are as unshakable as the rocks that make Kessab.  It is a place that is constantly renewed with the incessant flow of Kessabtzis coming and going to and from this enclave, bringing in the new, but also replenishing themselves with the water, air, food, and unfailing hospitality and genuineness of this rural marvel, still standing tall and strong like its mountains in the lap of the Mediterranean Sea.
Countless lives started on that land. Men and women who perhaps moved on to other parts of the world, where they exceled in various domains, but always carried Kessab close to their hearts, and most importantly, always returned.
It is the only place where generations of my forefathers and mothers graves are marked, where life came full circle on a land they worked hard to maintain and where they now rest. A real gift that no one can afford to lose for a people afflicted with genocide where burials are scarce.
However days of victimhood are long gone. Resilience and survivorhood are practically engraved in our genetic make-up, with Kessabtzis being a special breed amongst Armenians, where will power, perseverance, and determination are defining common traits.
Spring has arrived in Kessab and as long as the wild tulips will pop their vivid red heads out, all the inhabitants of Kessab will eventually return to their homes and lands. All of us in the diaspora who are connected to Kessab in one way or another will visit again.
Who can give up on what they have loved, nurtured, protected for so long? Kessabtzis certainly never will.

"The Armenian Weekly," March 24 and 25, 2014

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