Asdghig's long march
Illustration: Sarah John
The book had been among my parents’ possessions for years. They couldn’t remember who had given it to them and they had never got around to reading it. Finding nothing to do one lazy afternoon, I began leafing through its pages. The sentences were short, the English rather simple. I couldn’t put it down. I never looked at Armenians the same way again. Every Armenian I met in Lebanon reminded me of her. I quizzed my father, a physician, about her.
‘Asdghig Avakian?’ he said. ‘I remember her well. A kindly elderly nurse. She would make us stop working to eat.’
Little did he know that behind the kindly face was a lonely woman who had managed to survive the Armenian genocide, make it to Lebanon and spend the rest of her life searching for a love that never came.
Having lived through the Lebanese civil war, I knew the fear of massacres. But these fears were always shared with family and relatives. Never had I been alone or felt unloved.
Born in the Kharpout district in east central Turkey, two-year-old Asdghig was placed in an orphanage by her mother following the death of her father. She was sent back to rejoin her family when her mother remarried. The next few years were spent under the care of a loving mother and abusive stepfather.
Then in 1915, with the Armenian genocide well under way, everything changed. In just over four years, 1.5 million Armenians would be massacred by Ottoman Turks. Hundreds of men, women and children were forced to take part in the notorious ‘death marches’, walking through the desert without food, water and shelter. Many of those who survived settled in Lebanon.
In an effort to save her daughter, Asdghig’s mother took her to the orphanage again, showered her child with kisses and fled. Asdghig never saw her again. She was presumably killed.
World War One was raging. The orphans were on the brink of starvation. In 1922, Armenian orphans were sent to Lebanon and placed in a Beirut orphanage. Before long, 15-year-old Asdghig was chosen by visiting American missionaries to be trained as a nurse at the American University Hospital.
Asdghig proved to be highly capable, earning the admiration of the hospital staff. She remained at the Hospital for the rest of her life. Despite a successful career, she never found the one thing she had always yearned for: someone to love her.
Resigned to a lonely life, she found solace in caring for her charges. ‘I can find love in comforting my patients, to pat them, to relieve the raking sadness and love in the world that I live in,’ she wrote.
I was in tears. I wished I could have met her. But she was long dead.
On impulse, I drove to the Armenian quarter, Bourj Hammoud, just 10 minutes from central Beirut and strolled through its narrow overcrowded streets. I may as well have left Lebanon. Armenian signs were everywhere and Arabic practically non-existent. I looked at passers-by curiously – each one a descendent of a genocide survivor.
About 200,000 Armenians currently reside in Lebanon. In a short time after their escape from the Turks, they managed to build for themselves sound communities all over the country. Skilled craftspeople, their shops of shoes, leather items and jewellery attracted Lebanese shoppers.
They also became admired for their music and cultural events. Lebanese parents – including mine – vied to get Armenian piano teachers for their children. Their active churches run social and educational institutions. Keeping their culture alive is one of their main aims. Parents speak only Armenian to their children and marriages to non-Armenians are frowned upon. The active Armenian community has seven deputies in the Lebanese Parliament.
I continued to wander aimlessly along the streets of Bourj Hammoud. I wasn’t sure why. I wondered if Asdghig had done the same.
A few days later, I met an Armenian woman and related Asdghig’s story.
After a few seconds of silence, she said. ‘Did Asdghig ever save any lives?’ I recalled from her book that she had.
My new friend sighed.
‘Sometimes horrible things happen but good things come out of them,’ she said. ‘Think of Asdghig’s good work at the hospital. Many people would have surely died without her nursing abilities.’
I did think of that. Asdghig’s book now takes a prominent position on my bookshelf.
Learn more about the Armenian genocide at www.armenian-genocide.org