Of Terror and Hospitality
An Excerpt from "The Hundred-Year Walk – An Armenian Odyssey"
by Dawn Anihid MacKeen
In the heart of the Ottoman Empire as World War I rages, Stepan Miskjian’s world becomes undone. He is separated from his family as they are swept up in the government’s mass deportation of Armenians into internment camps. Gradually realizing the unthinkable – that they are all being driven to their deaths – he fights through starvation and thirst not to lose hope. Just before killing squads slaughter his caravan during a forced desert march, Stepan manages to escape, making a perilous six-day trek to the Euphrates River carrying nothing more than two cups of water and one gold coin. In his desperate bid for survival, Stepan dons disguises, outmaneuvers gendarmes, and, when he least expects it, encounters the miraculous kindness of strangers. Indeed, it was the kindness of Muslims in what is now Syria that helped this Christian Armenian man.
The Hundred-Year Walk – An Armenian Odyssey (2016) alternates between Stepan’s saga and another journey that takes place a century later, after his family discovers his long-lost journals. Reading this rare firsthand account, his granddaughter Dawn MacKeen finds herself first drawn into the colorful bazaars before the war and then into the horrors Stepan later endured. Inspired to retrace his steps, she sets out alone to Turkey and Syria, shadowing her resourceful, resilient grandfather across a landscape still rife with tension. With his journals guiding her, she grows ever closer to the man she barely knew as a child.
The following is a chapter from MacKeen’s book recounting how she finally meets the descendants of Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh, whose family welcomed in her grandfather, saving his life. Some members of the family that greeted her in 2007 today are Syrian refugees themselves.
** ** **
Our car was kicking up dust, rocking from side to side. The ruts on this dirt road were too deep for our tires. Only minutes earlier, we’d turned off the main highway through a canopy of landscaped trees, and we were already deep in the tiny village around Deir Zor, the onetime home of Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh. Coughing, I closed my window as a whirl of concrete homes, cornfields, and flocks of sheep sped past outside. Nervous about my meeting, I smoothed my hair and began to fret: Would his family like me? Would I make it past tea? I expected a great-great-grandson, a wife, a child or two, a reception that would last about an hour.
As we rounded a bend of mooing cows, I spotted a crowd of some three hundred people. A religious event, I thought, related to the mosque nearby. Antranig continued driving and shut off the engine in front of a modest, single-story house. Beside us, the distinguished Bedouin from Sheikh Fayez al-Ghubein’s home parked his blue car. He’d arranged this meeting and we’d followed him here, along the Euphrates. His car was always easy to spot because of the picture of President Bashar al-Assad on its rear windshield. As I swung my door open, dozens of men and women and children ran toward me. Everyone was talking at once, the highs and lows of Arabic overlapping and rushed. I felt big kisses on my cheeks, hands on my shoulders, the warmth of their touch. Slowly, I stepped forward into more outstretched arms.
“This is the family of Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh,” my translator Levon pronounced grandly.
“All of them?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the usually unflappable Levon, seemingly as awed by the moment as me. I looked at the men, their heads topped with red-and-white-checked headdresses or small prayer caps. Loose dresses swung from the women, their faces joyful, some inked with tattoos around their lips, like strips of lace.
A middle-aged woman in a black scarf and green dress touched my arm, as if to steer me somewhere. “You must go into another room and change your clothes,” Levon instructed. My wrinkled brown linen skirt and cream shirt, my backpack’s finest, apparently did not suit the occasion. The lady introduced herself as “Hala.” She was the granddaughter of Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh, and, I have changed her name, as I have for most of the members of the family.
Inside the house, Hala opened up the closet and selected a beaded burgundy dress, her pretty twenty-something daughters nearby, black liner accentuating their brown eyes. I raised my arms high and she slid the gown over me and pulled my hair back gently. Next, she wrapped a yellow scarf around my head. “Jameeleh,” she said, meaning “beautiful.” I glanced in the mirror, hardly recognizing myself in this local Arab dress — I’d been made over, just like my grandfather.
Hala ushered me into an adjacent room, their formal sitting area where people waited. Some stood along the walls, while others leaned on armrests, or sat on the floor with their legs crossed and pea-green pillows at their backs. They all parted to allow me to pass. In my fancy gown, I felt like a debutante being presented to society; I waved and smiled, and the greeting came back a hundredfold.
I sat beside Antranig and Levon, not far from the Anizah Bedouin in his black-and-white clothes, distinct from the roomful of Sunni Arabs. How strange, I thought, that these two groups had been at war during my grandfather’s time here. Everyone stared at me as a few chatted quietly in Arabic and someone sneezed. I didn’t know where to start. But I had to; the room felt heavy with anticipation. At last, turning to my translator, I said, “Levon, please tell them, ‘My grandfather had nowhere to go, and your family took him in. I never thought I’d find you. I have come here to thank you.’ ”
“We remember him,” said the sheikh’s grandson Youssef, sitting across from me. He was the elder of this clan. Though titles like his were mostly honorary now, they still carried weight. “Your grandfather was lovely. He was full of joy. He was honorable. He did his job with honesty. He was living like the people who lived here.”
I scribbled this down in my notebook, trying to keep up with the dialogue as another man interjected, “We used to call him Gharees. He was handsome.”
Gharees means “implanted” or “embedded” in Arabic, a fitting name for a transplanted foreigner. But handsome? I wondered. Especially after everything he had been through? He was many things — distinguished, intelligent, funny. These other adjectives seemed to suit him better. Was he remembering another deportee? It was possible. Youssef smiled and shared some more. “They wanted your grandfather to marry one of Ali’s daughters, but your grandfather said no.”
“He loved it here,” I explained apologetically, “but he wanted to get home to his family.”
Flashes of light burst, one after another. Teenage boys stood near the entrance holding their cell phones high, snapping photographs with their built-in cameras. Only now did I realize I was the only female in the room. In the doorway, Hala was almost lost among the many women, layers deep. I beckoned her inside. She hesitated, as if it weren’t the custom, but I was insistent. Perhaps the men also gave their approval, because her round face brightened and her eyes sparkled as she squeezed through the crowd. We hugged and held hands and listened to Youssef continue his story, “The Armenians would walk near here. In our village, there were four Armenians at that time.”
“Yes, it’s exactly what my grandfather wrote,” I said, before correcting myself; including him, it was five.
“Why did the sheikh save my grandfather and the other Armenians?”
“It is the teachings of Islam to be generous,” one great-grandson explained.
“For the rest of his life, my mom said, he spoke about Sheikh al-Aekleh; he could never forget his kindness. My mom wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that kindness. I wouldn’t be here.”
Curious, they wanted to know more about my grandfather’s life post-sheikh. His number of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren . . . I traced a small family tree onto paper before proudly declaring, “We are seventeen!”
Levon translated this into Arabic, and I waited for awe to sweep the room. Not just one person saved but seventeen. Instead, their faces furrowed. “What a small family you have,” Youssef said, as if he were sorry for my grandfather and his modest number of descendants. The poor guy — Stepan had defied the odds to continue his bloodline and all he had was seventeen! By comparison, Sheikh al-Aekleh had three hundred to five hundred descendants. No doubt half of them were packed into this room with me now, and spilling out the door, the robust lineage due in part to the tradition of multiple wives.
A young man entered the room holding a small pot of tea with a long handle and a single cup. At one end of the room, he began to serve the guests, working inward, constantly refilling the glass. At my turn, I swung it back, like a shot, possibly a little too practiced from my college days. The taste was warm and sugary, and I gave a big thumbs-up just as my scarf slipped off my head and my hair tumbled forward. I promptly fixed it as they all laughed.
Returning to my grandfather, I asked what else they remembered. One blurted out that he had blue eyes. I corrected him and began to worry again that they weren’t talking about my grandfather Stepan. Just then, someone added, “He swam like a fish.” Yes. I breathed easier; that was true, well known in our family. As the conversation evolved, I learned Sheikh al-Aekleh’s son Ali had been born around 1910, and I felt sure again; that was within three years of my grandfather’s recollection of the boy’s age. I trusted I had the right clan, given the exhaustive search at Sheikh al-Ghubein’s house, but knew that memory could be tricky and that the experiences of their rescued Armenians might have merged after so much time.
To fill in any gaps, I began to tell them more about my grandfather’s life there. At first, I paraphrased his experience, but then I stopped myself. I wanted him to narrate. So I opened my lightweight Sony laptop and pulled up a translated version of his journals. When I recounted how his clothes were stolen by a flirtatious girl, someone said, “I heard that before.” With another tale, it was the same. After all, this was their history too, I thought. Like folklore, his stories seemed to have been passed down through the generations, sometimes intermingled with others, sometimes not. Storytelling was very much alive here, I learned. As I read aloud, the packed room kept erupting with laughter. Even a century later, my funny grandfather was still able to entertain a crowd.
When I told them of the kissing at the river’s edge, one grandson joked, “We will find you a husband too! Then you will never leave.” My dating issues suddenly seemed solved.
Throughout it all, I had this unearthly feeling of knowing the importance of the moment as it unfolded. Since I’d begun this journey, something had happened to me, I realized. My life, my grandfather’s, and my mother’s had all become intertwined, like a wreath, and the circle was now closing. Though barely sunrise in Los Angeles, I called my mother, wanting to share all this good news. As soon as she groggily answered, I said, nearly breathless, “Mom, remember the sheikh who saved Baba’s life?” “Yes, of course, Dawn.” “Well, I found his family! I am with his family now.” “What?” she squealed, then summoned my dad. “Jimmy, come quick!” On the crackly speakerphone now, she thanked everyone for their kindness toward her father. As I listened, I found myself crying, for all the people lost, for all the people saved. Crying for the beauty of this family and crying for the determination that allowed me to step through time and find them again.
After we finished, Hala grabbed my hand and led me along an outside corridor, back into the heat where the women and children congregated. Giggling teenage girls climbed up an unfinished staircase on the exterior and sat in a descending line, bright faces atop staggered stairs, and gazed down on me below. Every so often, a woman would grab my shoulders and kiss me hard on both cheeks, her facial tattoos, a hallmark of beauty here, lifting with her smiles.
Inside the kitchen, I was shown a huge cauldron, the flames underneath curling up the sides. A young woman stirred the gelatinous liquid using her whole body, the ingredients unclear. This was our meal, she explained. With delight, she lifted up the ladle. Startled, I almost took a step back as the head of a goat emerged, its mouth open, its ears flopped over, its eyes like two cloudy marbles.
The animal had been slaughtered in my honor. Learning this, I felt grateful for their generosity as well as the animal’s sacrifice. However, my squeamishness around meat had been lifelong, rooted in my California childhood of steamed vegetables and tofu. But I couldn’t refuse this kindness. Nearby, a man began to spoon white rice onto a large circular silver platter; another man leveled the surface before carefully pouring on the stew.
After changing into a more casual traditional dress, I was led to a patio. A smiling boy brought out a bar of soap and an orange plastic watering can, and he poured the water over my hands to wash them. Someone draped a plain blue sheet over a multicolored Oriental rug for our dinner table.
In my grandfather’s time, the most important people sat down first, and today I had that honor. Pointing to the pewter-colored platter, someone said, “This was Hammud al-Aekleh’s. This is the same plate your grandfather ate from.” Incredible. The intervening years washed away as ten of us sat around the dish. Atop the rice and meat was the goat’s head, its teeth bared, its expression almost bemused, and beside it were stacks of breads and a tomato and cucumber salad, a veritable feast. With Hala next to me, I reached in with my hand, like the others, and tried to bring the meat and rice to my mouth. Everyone seemed to be watching me, including the goat, as half of the stew slipped from my fingers; the grease streaked my arms, and rice dotted my blue dress like miniature footprints. Not deterred, I tried once more, and dropped another handful of food. As my face heated from embarrassment, I remembered my grandfather’s first attempt at eating with his hands and smiled at what was clearly a genetic predisposition for clumsiness.
Header Photo: Forget-me-not, the flower representing the Armenian Genocide - Photo: NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, Creative Commons 2.0