Speaking With Students (3)
Below is the translation into English of Hampartzoum speaking to students at Ramona Elementary, describing his early life in the Anatolia region and harrowing tale of survival from the Armenian Genocide in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks.
Visiting Ramona Part 1
Thanks God I’m feeling better today. I don’t even know who is luckier—me, you or this girl. I’m 91, even a little older. I have been having a headache for quite a long time but today I’m feeling better ready to tell you the difference between your life and mine when I was a little boy.
We were six brothers and three sisters. We had a grandfather. Every time he sat around the hearth he made sure that one of his grandchildren was sitting next to him. I am just like him: I love being surrounded by children.
Now let me tell you about the difference between the buildings of America and the houses that were built on our land. There were 1500 families living in these houses built next to each other. In the back of these houses (right in the middle) there was a small hole through which people used to communicate with each other. This was done for security purposes as people were afraid of the Turks. If someone noticed a Turkish police officer walking nearby he would immediately let his neighbors know about it through the hole. The same way people were informed about someone’s death or birth (who gave birth, sex of the baby). The houses were made of brick (combination of soil and ground wheat strikes). The roofs were supported by huge timbers and were covered with soil. There was a big, round stone which was moved back and forth along the roof to make it solid and prevent the rain from leaking into the house. There were large boxes made of soil called ՛՛petaks՛՛. These boxes were used for keeping wheat, flour, bulgur, etc. We had 10-12 petaks in our house where we kept wheat, flour and dried fruit. We didn’t have chairs so we had to sit on the floor. We had a big table in our house. Every time we sat at the table to have a meal we made sure to pray first. Me and my twin brother (remind me to show you his photo) would wake up in the morning, pray and only after that we would sit at the table. When we finished eating we would pray again and clear the table. Washing the dishes was the responsibility of my sisters (one of my sisters was too young but the other two weren’t) and my 16-year-old aunt whose name was Aghavni. We had two aunts—Aghavni and Marinos. Aghavni survived the massacre. We had no water, electricity or gas. We had to go to a spring and bring water in big pitchers made of soil (for drinking,washing, bathing and making food). Bringing water from springs was my responsibility. We ate yoghurt, pilaf and a little meat (not often, only twice a week).
Our grandfather was sacred for us. He was very old and he used to tell us many stories and fables. Although my twin brother was only 10 seconds younger than me he was a little weak. He had to obey me if he didn’t want me to beat him. Once or twice a week my grandfather loved watching us fighting with each other. I would always win as my brother was very weak.
Breast milk is very important for babies. Being a little weak my mother was not able to feed all of her babies. I was breastfed by a woman whose baby died upon birth. As far as I know she was given a pair of shoes as compensation for her help. I know that breast milk may have a big influence on teeth. My mother gave her one breast to my twin brother and the other one to our newborn brother. My twin brother died a few years ago at the age of 83 but his teeth were still healthy. I believe that’s due to the good quality of the breast milk he was fed with. I’m Hampartzoum and my twin brother’s name is Kaspar. I would always joke saying, ՛՛Kaspar give me your teeth so that I can bite the apple՛՛․
Our eldest brothers were Bedros and Mihran. Me, Kaspar, Kerob and Nshan were younger than them. Zarouhi was our eldest sister and my parents’ first child. My other sister was sixteen and her name was Sultan. My youngest sister was three and her name was Yeranouhi. She was killed by the Turks.
House work: My father was an artisan. He performed the difficult job of printing and decorating fabric. We used to split wood into pieces to make fire and prepare food as there was no electricity or gas. Have you ever seen a hearth? We used to prepare food in it. The food was not much but it was always very tasty.
Clothes: We were dressed like girls and wore long dresses till we were 7, 8 (zpun). People used different materials for sewing clothes. We were not very rich but we were not poor either.
School, church and religion: We were sent to school at seven. There was no kindergarten in our country. There were many teachers but there was no one to pay them for their job. Our teachers had the right to beat and punish students if they did something wrong. Parents were quite happy when their children were well educated and punished if necessary. So the teachers didn’t miss an opportunity to slap the students’ hands with a ruler. One of our teachers was especially mean to us. He loved torturing us so he would slap our finger bones or knees as that was more painful.
Once me, my brother and three or four other boys went to the garden to play cards. Four of us were playing and one boy was looking around to make sure no one was watching as playing cards was strictly forbidden. One day during the game this boy, who was watching around, said that someone was approaching us. It was Mihran Mirakyan. We knew him well so we were sure he wouldn’t tell on us. We offered him to join the game but he said that it was too late and he should go home. The next day when we went to school our teachers announced that me, my twin brother and the other boys who I was playing cards with were going to be punished. I looked at Mihran and he hung his head. We were eleven or twelve․ Our teacher approached one of the boys and ordered him to open his hands. He did and the teacher started hitting him—four times on the one hand and four times on the other one. The boy was standing in fear saying, ՛՛Oh, mama, help me՛՛․ Then the teacher punished us all the same way. When it was my twin brother’s turn he wet himself from fear. I will show you my brother at the end of the lesson.
Later the Armenians from America started collecting funds for renovating the school and raising teachers’ salaries. Thanks to this initiative the school was equipped with desks and chairs. The students could put papers on their desks and pens in pen stands. Teachers stopped beating students but there was another punishment method that we all hated. The girls’ classroom was on the second floor and ours was on the third one. Sometimes boys were sent to the second floor to confess that they were guilty in front of the girls. I would prefer to be beaten then to do such a thing.
Church: We were very religious. I don’t have much trust in churchmen. They conduct religious ceremonies and never interfere in anything else. In those days priests, who knew Bible better than us, had a great role in family preservation. They would do their best to convince couples not to get divorced as there were already many children without parents. Every evening my grandfather, father and my four brothers (the others were too young) would sit around the hearth and recite all 24 verses of ՛՛With Faith I Confess՛՛. We would pray to the Lord saying, ՛՛May God have mercy on Armenians. May He give them health and freedom (as we were under the rule of Turks). May He cure the sick and may He help people meet each other (as there were many people who missed their children living in America). May He reconcile families.՛՛ We would go to bed after praying.
We had a small garden with almond trees, mulberry trees and apricot trees. The grapes in our garden were very sweet. People would make jam from grapes and mulberries. The mulberries were very tasty and sweet as well. People would grind mulberries, put the ground fruit into a special bowl and lay it out to the sun for one or two days. It was very delicious. They would also make rojik and pastegh. Do you know what pastegh is? Yes?
As I have already said the houses in our country were built next to each other. The sidewalk was very narrow. The streets were very clean as people swept their surroundings every day. In winters people would remove the snow from in front of their houses and put it right in the street as there was no other place left. We had no other choice but to walk over this 8-10 feet snow. Three months later the snow melted.
Our region was called Kharpert. There were 300 villages in our region. 80 or 90 percent of the population were Armenians and 10 percent were Kurds who worked for Armenians. They even learnt Armenian language. The school was Armenian and all traders were Armenians. There were both Turks and Armenians working in the Government. There was absolutely no problem when Armenian officials communicated with each other in their mother tongue. There was no punishment for that and, generally, we were treated very well by the Turkish nation. If Armenians were in as good relations with the Turkish nation as Jewish people were with the American people, the history of our nation would be different (for example, all Jews spoke English). We spoke Armenian in our village and we wanted the Turks to speak our language as well. We would often forget that we were under their dominance and expecting them not to get angry about that was stupid. We were always very attentive to what our teachers had to say. We had wise teachers who taught us to be humble around Turks but some others were too proud to say such a thing. To the question ՛՛do you want to become a soldier when you grow up՛՛ the student would answer, ՛՛no, I want to become a president՛՛․ But what’s the point of being a president if you have no soldiers? Armenians always loved holding high positions. That’s highly commendable but we should never forget to appreciate the good things we already have. Am I right?
Political parties: Some political parties wanted to oppress the Turks. There were thirty or forty million Turks and only two or three million Armenians in the territory. How can you hope to hold positions in the Government? Egypt, Beirut, Iran, Arabia were all under the Turkish dominance. At school we were taught that we should get rid of the Turkish dictatorship one day. Yes, that’s a good idea but nothing is as simple as it seems. For example, Jewish people were in a very good relationship with America and Americans were ready to help them if necessary. However, if Jews make an attempt to obtain freedom Americans will just eliminate them. There are 200 million Arabs and only 2 or 3 million Jews in Israel so imagine what power Arabs have over Jews. So don’t say, ՛՛The only thing I want is to become a president՛՛․
Local climate: In winters it snowed everywhere. The snow covering the river was so thick that the cattle could easily walk over it. In springs the snow melted. For three months we couldn’t use our small boat nor we could swim in the river. In summers people planted wheat and barley. Today you can buy anything from stores but you couldn’t do that then. Everyone had their own food in their houses. As I’ve said we had petaks so we kept the flour and wheat there. There were 18 people in our house including the workmen and we would treat them with ghavurma, wine, vodka, grapes and so on.
I loved my teachers very much. There were different teachers for different subjects. The teachers explained the lessons very well and the students wanted to learn as much as possible. At least I did.
Student: What about jobs?
Hampartzoum: Please stand up and ask your question that way as my ears don’t hear well.
Student: What about jobs?
Hampartzoum: The girls and women were not allowed to work outside the house. They stayed at home while men didn’t. The house work was very difficult and poor women got very tired (both mothers and little girls). Their job was to turn wool or cotton into yarn with a spindle. Spindle is a straight spike made from wood used for spinning and twisting wool. My sister and my aunt Aghavni were very good at this. There was no fabric. Even the people, who could afford to buy fabric, had to go through all these aforementioned stages to make yarn.
One of the men’s responsibilities was to plant wheat and separate wheat from its chaff. Wheat is quite tall, minimum 3 feet high. Men started the reaping process using a sickle (draws a sickle on the paper to show it to the students) but there was no place to gather the sheaves. Through threshing the collected sheaves of wheat are turned into small pieces that become chaff, and the wheat grains are extracted from their shells and winnowed. Have you ever seen wheat?
People would go to the mountains to bring wood and sell it to others as there was no wood in the territory. They were paid by bread, shoes, etc. There was lack of money everywhere. We were given only one penny per week (as Americans say ՛՛allowance՛՛). We had to keep this one penny to buy presents for our mothers and sisters or pen, pencils, paper and other stuff for us.
Teacher: Another question?
Student: What about petrol? Carriages?
Hamparztoum: Petrol? Carriages? There were no carriages in those days. People used horses, cows and donkeys as means of transportation. The first time I saw a carriage was three years after the massacre when Americans came to our country. We were warned not to come too close to the carriage as we could get hit by it. I will give more information about this at the end of the lesson.
Teacher: Another question?
Student: Were you and your twin brother identical?
Hampartzoum:You will see our photo at the end of the lesson. Do you understand Armenian?
Student: Yes, I do.
Hampartzoum: You will see our photo at the end of the lesson and you will give your opinion on that.
Teacher: Another question.
Student: What color were the yarns?
Hampartzoum: Only white. Wool is a little brown but cotton is white. All the yarns were white. Clothes were dyed later. That was my father’s job. I will tell you about it at the end of the lesson. Do you want me to tell you about my father’s job?
Hampartzoum: Sit here. You’re not a girl, you’re heavy. So Kurds and Armenians would give white fabric to my father and he would paint flowers on it with the help of a wooden mold. He would paint on bed covers, pillow covers and the flowers were always different. Turks usually used these floral fabric as a prayer rug. My father knew how to get ink. He melted two pieces of iron so that they transformed into black liquid, ink. I will show you the letters written with that ink and you will see how great that ink is compared to the one used in America. My father had all types of paints—red, green, etc.
Teacher: Another question.
Student: How did you visit your relatives?
Hampartzoum: We didn’t go outside the city. You would need to rent a donkey or a mule to leave the city. In summers it was easier to visit our relatives but in winters it was getting dark earlier so we would put a candle in a glass container and take it with us. The second option was the wax. Do you know what wax is? I see you don’t. Bees construct their honeycomb. What do they use for that?
Hampartzoum: So you know what wax is. How do you extract honey from wax? Have you ever seen a honeycomb? They melt the wax and put a thin yarn into it. This is called a candle. They would light this candle and take it with them from one room to another.
Teacher: Any other question? Please speak louder.
Student: Asks a question in Spanish.
Hampartzoum: Answers the question in Spanish.
Student: What about swimming pools?
Hampartzoum: Swimming pool? No, we didn’t have one but we had a river instead. My brother taught me how to swim. Rivers are big and sometimes they are more dangerous than oceans. The river waves may easily knock you down. We had a small ranch with a lot of trees, grapes and other fruits and thanks to the river these trees were watered. I was very good at swimming and I knew how to deal with the waves. Let me tell you a story. I was in Mexico City and I was very good at swimming (YMCA Mexico City). The American Consul was in Mexico City too. One day he saw me swimming backstroke in the river. He asked, ՛՛How do you swim like that in the river՛՛․ I said, ՛՛I will teach you how to do that՛՛. And I did. The secret is to keep your legs together, hold your body straight and stay on the surface of the river. He learnt how to swim like that.
Student: Tell us about the bread, please.
Hampartzoum: People used to sell lavash in the country. It was delicious. Lavash is a thin bread made with flour, water, and salt. Traditionally the dough is rolled out flat and slapped against the hot walls of the tandoor (minimum 3-4 feet deep). This was done mainly by women. One person could eat an entire lavash.
Student: Were there other types of bread in your country?
Hampartzoum: Mainly lavash. However, there was lack of bread in the country.
Student: What about wheat?
Hampartzoum: There was plenty of wheat there. However, the Government didn’t let the villagers use all the wheat for personal needs. Some part belonged to the Government and only a small part could be used by the villagers. People would spend the entire day on making bread. They would make 100-200 bread per day. The bread was hanging from ropes and was left to be properly dried. The bread was surrounded by thorny flowers so that the goats didn’t eat it.
Student: Did you have cats or dogs?
Hampartzoum: Yes, we had cats. There were families who kept dogs out of fear but we didn’t have one.
Student: How did you celebrate weddings?
Hampartzoum: Weddings? The girls in our country were not allowed to choose their husbands—their parents did that for them. When a baby girl was born her parents already knew who their daughter would marry when she grew up. Parents usually chose a family who they were in good relations with. Of course there were exceptions when one of the children got sick or died. There was a saying in our country, ՛՛Look at the mother before marrying the daughter՛՛. No one wanted to marry an ugly girl. If the girl’s mother was good-looking than it was assumed that her daughter would be pretty as well.
Student: How did the hospitals work?
Hampartzoum: There was no hospital in the country. There was neither hospital nor drugstore there.
Student: Then what did you do when you got sick?
Hampartzoum: There was a nurse who helped the old sick people or pregnant women. However, there was a person who would take care of you without charging money if you fell off the tree and injured your leg or if you were bitten by a dog. Sometimes they would call a priest to pray for the sick person.
Visiting Ramona Part 2
Hampartzoum: Do you love George Deukmejian?
Hampartzoum: I’m sure you do. Becoming the governor of 25 million people he always held Armenians in high regard. We need to be very diplomatic. We are very few, we neither have power nor time to fight against the enemy (Turks) and take our land back. Diplomacy will help us avoid deaths. The people in Artsakh are dying now. Why?
I would really want someone to write down everything I’m saying now. This way you will be able to remember everything. A priest may give a speech but if you ask people what his speech was about no one will give you a proper answer. The same refers to my today’s speech. You should always remember that you are Armenians so you should do your best to preserve your national identity and stick together in every situation.
Approaching to the desk and pointing out to the photo
This is a photo of father and son. ՛՛If only I were a hair and grew on his head.՛՛
Pointing out to another photo
People were very poor then. They were paid 10 cents per hour. Look at him. He was a diplomat, a very important figure in the Government of America, second only to the president.
Approaching the poster ՛՛Dream or a reality՛՛
This says, ՛՛Dream or a reality՛՛. As I’ve already told you my father took me and my brothers to the Turks and he never came back. Now I don’t know if it’s a dream or a reality.
Pointing out to another photo
This is Dr. Mikahil. He was the best doctor in Kharpert. He was Protestant. I used to work for him in his house after escaping the Turks. This is Hagop. Have you heard about the filmmaker Michael Hagopian? Is anyone here who knows him? No? He produced a film dedicated to the Armenian Genocide. Have you watched it? The film is called ՛՛Where are my people?՛՛․ Anyhow, you will watch it one day. This is his son who is two or three-year-old and this is his daughter. My job was to take his daughter and son for a walk. We would take some food with us and play in the garden. I lived in a nice room, I was fed well and my clothes were clean. My job was quite easy. I loved the doctor’s children as much as I love you.
There was no bread in those days. There was famine everywhere. You would never find bread no matter how much money you had. Dr. Mikahil, this well-known doctor, was friends with the bread maker, who was also Armenian. The doctor used to send me to the bakery to bring ten or twenty bread from there. There were a lot of poor children without parents in the territory. There were sick and miserable. They would come to Dr. Mikahil’s house because they knew that the doctor would give them bread without taking money from them. He was a very good person. I would divide the bread into four pieces and give them to the poor Armenians. If a Turk asked me for bread I would tell him that there were none left. Our neighbor Hagop was an Armenian shoemaker. I asked him to send Armenian people to me so that I could give them bread. One day someone knocked on the door. They knocked on the door again. I opened the door and saw Hagop. A little boy was standing next to him. The doctor’s wife was very strict. She didn’t like it when someone knocked on the door twice. That’s why I asked Hagop not to do such a thing anymore. Then I gave bread to the poor child but he didn’t take it. I gave two pieces to him but he refused to take them either. I looked at Hagop and asked, ՛՛Hagop, why doesn’t he take the bread?՛՛ Hagop replied, ՛՛Look at him attentively and you will see who this boy is՛՛․ That was my nine-year-old brother, this one (showing his brother on the photo) who I hadn’t seen for three years. I invited him in. He started living with us and were very happy. My brother and I would take the doctor’s children for a walk. However, ten or fifteen days later, when the Turkish Government heard that the doctor had two people working for him, they informed him that he was not allowed to keep two employees in his house. What could I do? I took my brother to the orphanage. They agreed to shelter my brother only due to the doctor’s good reputation. The orphanage was located one hour or an hour and a half away from our house. The doctor’s wife would make food for me to take it to the orphanage and give it to my brother. The children in the orphanage were not fed well. One day when I visited my brother he started biting my left hand. I asked him, ՛՛Why are you biting my hand?՛՛ He replied, ՛՛I’m biting you so that you don’t leave me․ Why do you always return to that nice house and leave me here alone?՛՛ I returned to the doctor’s house and informed his family that I had to leave them. They were against my decision but they could do nothing about it. I wanted to live with my brother. My brother and I were wondering in the villages of Kharpert. I found a job for myself. I started writing letters in Turkish language.
Showing a book to the children
This is the Bible. One year after the massacre I saw a Turkish boy playing with this book. I asked him, ՛՛Will you give me that book for one penny?՛՛․ He said, ՛՛ Yes, sure!՛՛․ I have been keeping this book since that day surviving famine, sickness and Kurdish attacks. This book was with me when I fled to Iran.
Taking some papers
These are letters written by me in Turkish. I sent a letter to my twin brother Rashid. I wrote, ՛՛To Mohammed’s son Rashid՛՛․ I have a lot of letters (500 pages).
Pointing out to another photo
This is Raffi. You know Raffi, do you? Alright. So Raffi went to the Country. He is from Kharpert. Kharpert, just like Fresno, has a lot of small villages. There were 300 villages in Kharpert. A part of Kharpert is like mountain—it’s called Upper Kharpert. You could see all the villages from there. Raffi would tell everyone his life story and I was not an exception.
What else would you like to know?
Teacher: Any question?
Student: Do you have your father’s photo?
Hampartzoum: No, I don’t.
Too noisy. Can’t hear the conversation.