Monday, September 7, 2015

My First Day of School

            “Mom, I don’t want to go to school.” I said as my mother was combing my hair to put the while bow on it.  It was September 23, the first day of fall and when school started in Tehran.  I was getting ready to go to the Armenian school to start first grade.
            “Gayayee, eat some breakfast,” said my dad in a tender tone.  I never had appetite in the mornings.  My older brother was starting fourth grade and the youngest brother was not school age yet. 
            As we were getting ready I could hear the Bugs Bunny cartoon on T.V. It was in Farsi.  Our home language was Armenian but all the television programs were in Farsi.  I had quit kindergarten and preschool.  But this time I did not have a choice. My mom had sewn my uniform, navy blue dress with two pockets and a white collar. In those days most girls wore white bows on their hair.  If they had long hair they put them in pony tail or two braids with the white ribbons tying the ends. I wore white socks with lace and black shoes. 
            My dad had bought us new briefcases.  I was excited because everybody was telling me, “Wow, you are starting school.”  I did not know why that was something exciting.  I wanted to stay home, play with my dolls, sit on the swing in our backyard, or watch cartoons.  
            How can this be fun? Spending time with strange kids was scary.  I didn’t want to sing or dance.  The first day of preschool was devastating.  Mom had left me there hoping I would adjust, but while the other kids were doing a circle dance to the piano music I sat next to the teacher crying.  I did not return to school. The following year I stayed in kindergarten for one week, but I did not play with the other kids.  During recess and lunch I searched for my older cousin to talk with her.
            On that sunny fall morning of 1963 to start my first grade class the whole family got into the red 1958 Plymouth.  The school was ten minutes away.  My mom took me to where I was supposed to line up.  Then they took my brother to the other school where upper-grader attended.  It was a block away. 
            The janitor brought a big hammer and hit the bell that looked like an upside down pot.  Everybody line up quietly.  First grade boys and girls, and fifth and sixth grade girls only attended that campus.  Even though this was a private Armenian school we followed the rules, boys and girls were separated after fourth grade.  We all sang the song praising the king of Iran, the Shah.  That was our flag salute.  After that we prayed in Armenian, and then we walked to our classrooms. 
The playground teacher was in charge of student’s behavior.  Mrs. Hamasik was famous for her toughness.  She yelled from the top of the stairs where she could see everybody.  We all faced her.  I wanted to turn around and look at my mom but I was so scared to turn my head.  We lined up in pairs. I did not know anybody in the line.  As I looked at the kids with their friends, I wish one of my cousins were there.  I wanted my mom to hold my hand.  But she had left to take my brother to the other campus.  Tears filled my eyes, but I was afraid to cry.  I saw Mrs. Hamasik yelling at some kids.  I was like a statue with tears.  My stomach was hurting.  I didn’t know what was going on.  The principal came forward on the second floor patio and said, “Ready, start.”  All the students started to sing.
        The school consisted of an old two story building from 19th century.  The classrooms were upstairs.  They used the first floor for storage I climbed the big stairs and entered the corner classroom. There was a window in the back facing the ally. The window was high with bars, it was like a prison.  We could not see anything. 
            I sat next to a boy called Razmik.  The wooden desks had a flat part with a curved dent to hold pens and ink.  The rest of it had a tilt to hold the book in an angle.
            The homeroom teacher walked in.  We stood up to salute her.  She spoke Armenian and smiled.  She wrote the letters A and S on the blackboard.  We repeated. Then we started reciting the Armenian alphabet without recognizing the letters.  “Where is my mom?”  I thought.  “I don’t know the alphabet.  How come the other kids know how to recite the letters in order?”  Finally, the bell rang and we had ten minute recess.  I went to the playground and sat at a bench.  There were tall pine trees near the gate.  There was a tunnel passage to got to the large gate.  I was thirsty but I did not want to use the long sink with six faucets.  Kids could use their cups or use their hands to hold water to drink. 
            As he janitor rang the bell again we lined up to go inside. The language teacher for Farsi walked in.  She was Armenian but she had to speak Farsi.  My heart was pounding fast.  I was looking around and following what other kids were doing.  When she switched to Armenian I felt relieved.  She wrote the letters A and B and we practiced writing those letters.  To write A in Farsi you just draw a line from top to bottom like the letter I in English, but then there is a sign on top like an eyebrow.  They call it the hat.  It was hard to draw and make the hat right on top with the correct curve.  Letter b had a dot under it.
            It was time for the second recess.  I was hungry.  As I put my hand in the pocket of my uniform I found some nuts and raisons.  My mom had put them there. I smiled, that was a sweet surprise.  She knew I didn’t like eating breakfast but I would be hungry later on.   I was very skinny and to be healthy I needed to be chubby.  Everybody was worried.
               The third session was math.  Miss Hasmik walked in.  She had a beautiful smile.  Miss Hasmik was tall and slender, with long red hair. She looked like an Italian actress.  She asked us to stand up and clap our hands and chant.  She could tell we were not paying attention and needed to be energized. 
            I don’t recall the rest but I was so happy to see my dad.  After school we went to the local stationary store to buy the school supplies.  The store was packed with parents and kids.  The smell of the erasers and new books has stayed with me.
            As we arrived home, my brother ran to the backyard to play.  I took off my uniform and hang it on a chair.  Mom served us rice and stew.  After eating and playing a little bit, I sat down to do my homework.  The new notebooks and pencils were so clean.  I had homework in Armenian and Farsi.  Finally, I was a student.  Staying home was not an option.  I learned a new role. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Monday, June 8, 2015

National Organization for Women's Conference

Twice I have participated in women's conferences and both times I realized that I was the only Armenian there. More than 400 women participated in the conference organized by National Organization for Women, July 27 -29, 2014. Seven years earlier I went to Valencia, Spain to be part of Women In Black peace conference.

The participants which included delegates, board members, and some men who had gathered to discuss national issues related to women.   NOW is a grassroots organization that was founded in 1966.  Its main goal was to provide equal rights for women.  Today the Equal Rights Amendment has yet to be passed.  Men get higher salaries for performing the same duties at many jobs.  NOW is a multi-issue, multi-strategy organization that takes a holistic approach to women's rights.  

There were women from diverse ethnic backgrounds:  African-American, Native American, Latinas, and from  places like the Dominican Republic and India.  All had the same concerns about women's rights.  As I was listening to the speakers I thought about my Armenian sisters (women) in Armenia, U.S. and the diaspora.  When they talked about domestic violence it reminded me of Zaruhi Petrosyan who died in 2010 due to severe injuries inflicted by her husband and mother-in-law.   Zaruhi's case shed light on the domestic violence in Armenia and, as a result, the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women was formed there. "Women's rights are human rights" is what I  heard during many of the workshops I attended.  In the 1980s I was working at an information and referral hotline where I talked to callers, assessed their needs, and referred them to organizations that could assist them.  Several times I had Armenian callers in need of a place to stay because they had to leave their abusive husbands.  Also, I had an Armenian man calling to request court ordered anger management classes.  Of course, it took me a while to understand what he really needed - he was embarrassed to say he hit his wife.  He said he needed to attend some classes.  As I probed more to see what kind of classes, I realized what had happened.  I tried to bring attention to  domestic violence in the Armenian community, but I was faced with denial.  The media did not want to touch it.

Later, when I moved from social work to teaching, I still saw domestic violence.  One of my student's father shot his wife and himself and left the three kids orphaned.  Another mother ran to our school and asked for refuge.  I called the Emergency Shelter Hotline and arranged a shelter for her and her three kids.  Of course, after few days she returned to her abusive husband.  Only after postings in  social media, our community is talking about this issue.  Zaruhi's case was a wake up call for all. After that incident Datev Community Outreach was founded in Glendale to bring awareness to the Armenian community.  Also, Armenian International Women's Association has many services for women in Armenia focused on domestic violence.  But we have a long way to go.

Armenian women living in U.S. we are subject to the same issues and concerns as the local women.  We have to deal with discrimination, domestic violence, equal rights and pay.  How many Armenian women  are involved in the local politics?  How do we raise consciousness about our issues?

In the summer of 2007 I attended the Women In Black peace conference in Spain. Again, I was the only Armenian participating.  Women In Black is a grass roots peace group started by Israeli women in Jerusalem in 1988. It was a reaction to the violations of human rights by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories. The women decided to hold a vigil every Friday in central Jerusalem, wearing black clothing in mourning for all victims of either side and holding signs with the slogan "Down with the Occupation". Later, many Jewish women who felt critical of the policies of the Government of Israel formed their own, local Women In Black groups. Such groups took up a variety of local social and political issues, and the idea spread fast. It has now become an international movement. Women In Black has many active members in Belgrade. In the 1990s they were confronted by violence from nationalists and persecution by police.  They were called "witches" among other negative names. The worldwide Women in Black keep in regular contact via e-mail and the Internet and hold international conferences every two years. The movement has been growing in the United States since the war in Iraq, which is an important issue for many members of the movement. Some chapters of the movement also encourage men to participate, though the movement still consists mostly of women. Standing together in complete silence is a main activity of the group.

Armenian women need to get involved in grassroots organizations.  Our daughters can benefit from our fights and activism.  We have so many educated Armenian women who are active at some organizations, but it is essential to see them in variety of American and international groups.  We need community awareness for all but only with women's participation we can get equal rights and better working conditions, after all women's rights are human rights. 

July 2014
book review and photo by Karine Armen

Wow, what a book! "The Bastard of Istanbul" by Elif Shafak [Turkish author].

This book is a novel, yet it's a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. I really enjoyed the way the story unfolds. The reader can learn a lot about the Armenian genocide and the history of Turkey around 1890 - 1923.

Shafak's vocabulary is fascinating! The dialogues of the characters are very engaging and show Shafak's knowledge of the Armenian history, literature, culture, sub-cultures, political positions of different groups.

She is a daring and courageous writer. She was put on trial in Turkey and accused of "denigrating Turkishness" in 2006. Finally the charges were dropped. She is the daughter of a female diplomat who raised Shafak alone -- her father left when she was young -- the novelist said that she first became aware of the Armenian issue after Armenian militants killed dozens of Turkish diplomats across the 1970s and 1980s. She did not dismiss it with fear. She changed her fear to knowledge. Shafak learned about the cause and root of the issue. She does not take sides on the genocide debate, but criticizes Turkey for what she calls a "collective amnesia" of the atrocities. "Turks and Armenians are not speaking the same language," she explained. "For the Turks all the past is gone, erased from our memories. That's the way we Westernized: by being future-oriented... The grandchildren of the 1915 survivors tend to be very, very past-oriented."

Today she is a vanguard and part of a progressive Turkish intellectual who want to acknowledge the authrocities of the past and move on with peace and harmony.

I strongly recommend this book. I have bought few copies to give as gifts. I know several non-Armenians who have read the book and enjoyed it. It's history through story.

While reading this book I was making a lot of connections to my life. My grandparents were survivors of the genocide. Also, I visited Turkey in 1998 where one Turkish acquaintance asked me about the genocide and the woman who was translating the discussion felt uncomfortable.

April, 2007

Monday, June 1, 2015

                The Pulsing Heart-Beat of Seta Injeyan’s Paintings

Exhibiting at Silvana Gallery artist Seta Injeyan’s series ‘Indivisible Vibrations of Heart and Light’ echoes the heart-beat of memory and inner light as the coalescing borderless energy in us all. Translucent amber reds, juxtaposed Perspective Surreal images mirrors among past, present and future, poetry-inspired brush color paintings and youthful see-through abstract greens are for Seta Injeyan a way of exploring the unifying cosmic energy we know as life.

History for Injeyan is crucial to her work. It enables her to share historical references and their implications for the present, and upcoming future. Her readings of turn-of-the-20th-Century Armenian poet Daniel Varoujan’s work play into the theme of many of her paintings. “When reading him,” says Injeyan, “I am inspired to be daring with reds. I could not use colors this way had it not been for Varoujan’s poetry.” Her work bridges art, literature and society with that of Daniel Varoujan’s poetry of the psyche.

In several of her exhibiting works a painted side mirror becomes a mediator between a new horizon ahead and memory. The mirror takes on a metaphorical expression becoming the looking glass representing past as a lived experience and the search to construct new paths that can bring hope. Injeyan’s paintings titled Heart and Soul, Life Force and Heart as Vessel all explore the energy of the heart and its relation to all aspects of human expression. 

In her painting titled ‘Song of My Heart’ Injeyan is inspired by two of Varoujan’s anthology  of poems, Song of The Nation and Song of the Bread. It is a painting with Varoujan’s image, an indivisible pulsing-red aura shaped as a heart and a galaxy-shaped basket cosmically radiating extraordinary brush strokes of yellow, red and blue hues. 
It is Injeyan’s way of paying homage to one of Armenia’s most important poets of the 20th Century, Daniel Varoujan killed at the age of 31 at the start of the 1915 Armenian Genocide  by the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

Seta Injeyan roots herself to her history, to her culture and humanity. Her work is particular and universal at the same time. Her work is a self reflecting call for harmony, sensibility and peace.
About the artist:  Seta Injeyan is a Los Angeles-based artist.  She has B.F.A. from Art Center College of Design.  She has had many solo exhibitions and won many best-of-show awards.  She has introduced the  genre of Perspective Surrealism into modern art. 
Silvana Gallery 1731 West Glenoaks Blvd. Glendale, CA 91201  818-662-7070

Jimmy Centeno, M.A.
Latin-American Writer and Artist,
May 22, 2015