Forrest Gump Goes to Beirut

We all have a little Forrest Gump in us. A bit of Leonard Zelig.

We’ve all had those moments when, suddenly, we are not merely witnesses to an instant fraught with meaning, but we are participants in the scene. We see ourselves both in the minute and with a cinematic distance: Camera pulls back wide to reveal the majesty of the spectacle, the sheer grandeur. And there, much to our surprise, we see ourselves. We are at once in the moment, and an observer of it.

I had one of those experiences when I was in Beirut in December. I was in Lebanon as a guest of Hamazkayin and the Vahe Setian Publishing House. I had spent a week visiting universities and schools, and now I was in the Catholicosate in Antelias, meeting with His Holiness Aram I, before he and a pair of scholars were going to discuss my most recent novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” in front of a packed house of roughly 300 people. After the two of us had talked for 45 minutes in his office, we were summoned to Gulbenkian Hall, and here is where I went from Armenian-American novelist to Zelig or Gump. I started to walk toward the hall, but His Holiness put his hand on my shoulder and guided me into the line of Reverent Fathers beside him. Fourteen men in black cassocks and ceremonial vestments and…me. And thus, I walked into Gulbenkian beside Aram I, in a formal procession of Armenian priests.

It wasn’t the most terrifying moment of my professional life, but it was up there. It was also, however, among the most moving.

The reality is that my visit to the Lebanese-Armenian community—my second in 2012—was rich in memories like that.

There was my sobering conversation with the principal of one of the Armenian high schools where I spoke. I asked him how the students who had arrived from the cataclysm that has engulfed Aleppo were doing. “They are accustomed to studying physics and chemistry in Arabic,” he answered. “We teach those subjects here in French, so that has been a struggle for them.” I told him I had meant, how are they doing emotionally? How are they coping with the trauma of upheaval and civil war? He nodded gravely and said, “The ones who have both of their parents with them are doing better than those whose fathers are still in Aleppo, or whose mothers and fathers are both still in Aleppo.”

There was my visit to the Levon and Sofia Hagopian Armenian College—another high school, actually—in Bourj Hammoud. Friends of mine in the United States had told me that even though the Armenian students in Beirut might speak English, it was unlikely they would understand the nuances of my presentation. Not true. The very first question? A 16-year-old girl asked me, “Has writing this novel been healing for you personally? Emotionally?” Two other students had already finished the book by the time I arrived and wanted to discuss the ending with me with all the passion of readers in Los Angeles or Milwaukee or Watertown.704660_10151274447817118_1781407171_o

There was my afternoon in Anjar with the Lebanese Armenian Heritage Club from the American University of Beirut (AUB). I had spoken at AUB on a Friday night and was planning on making the second pilgrimage of my life to Anjar on Sunday. Franz Werfel’s “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” is among my very favorite novels, and so I wanted to return to the village where the descendants of the Musa Dagh resistance now live. (For those unfamiliar with the story, in July 1915, roughly 4,000 Armenians from the 6 villages on the mountain refused to be resettled, knowing that “resettlement” was a euphemism for “extermination.” From atop Musa Dagh they held off the Turkish army for 53 days, before they were rescued by a part of the French fleet, which saw their red cross distress flag dangling off the Mediterranean Sea side of the cliff.) Three of the AUB students offered to join me, including Razmig Boyadjian, the great-grandson of one of the martyrs of the mountain. He showed me his great-grandfather’s name on a replica of the canister that once held the man’s ashes. Meanwhile, moments before I spoke to some of the citizens of Anjar, we heard shelling, as Syrian opposition forces made a foray into the Bekaa Valley, trying—and failing—to steal Lebanese Army weapons.

And orchestrating my week was Hagop Havatian of Hamazkayin, arguably the hardest-working man in Beirut. Thanks to him, I was also able to bring the story of “The Sandcastle Girls” and the realities of the Armenian Genocide onto Arabic television and Arabic newspapers, reminding the country of why the Armenian minority today is such an important cultural and economic part of modern Lebanon.

The culmination of the trip, of course, was my visit to the cathedral and the Catholicosate in Antelias. The reality is that as a novelist, I meet a lot of extraordinary people. Most novelists do. But my audience with Aram I and the presentation in Gulbenkian Hall was, for me personally, a night for the ages.432367_395605583853314_1533606895_n

I am not easily awed, but I was nervous. There are a variety of reasons for this, some grounded in the man’s profoundly important stature in the church, and others in the chasm-like gaps in my own religious training. Although my Armenian grandparents went to an Armenian church, my parents usually attended Episcopal churches in the New York City suburbs. Today I live next door (literally, right next door) to a Baptist church in Vermont, and have gone there happily for a quarter century. Nevertheless, my religious training has a long history of eccentricity. Exhibit A? Most of my training for confirmation when I was a 12-year-old at Trinity Episcopal Church in Stamford, Conn., revolved around Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” To this day, I still know an embarrassing amount of the libretto.

In any case, the idea that I was going to meet His Holiness certainly got my attention when I received the invitation back in September. I learned key phrases in Armenian and I drove my friend Khatchig Mouradian, the editor of this newspaper, a little crazy with my obsessive-compulsive insistence on practicing precisely how much I should bow when I met Aram I. And I asked Hagop Havatian to share with me which of His Holiness’s books I should read prior to our meeting. I did considerably more homework than before I had been confirmed three and a half decades earlier.

And yet, in hindsight, none of it was necessary. I never had to impress anyone because, pure and simple, everyone was so supportive of my visit. Everyone was appreciative of my attempt with The Sandcastle Girls to bring the story of the Armenian Genocide to readers who could not find Aleppo or Der-el-Zor—or even the Armenian nation—on a map. I remember sitting in Gulbenkian Hall, almost overwhelmed with gratitude, as Arda Ekmekji of Haigazian University was discussing where two of my favorite characters, Nevart and Hatoun, fit into the story and what their journeys in 1915 mean to all of us today.

Was this, too, a Forrest Gump-esque moment? Not at all. I had never in my life felt more like I belonged.

(This article originally appeared in “The Armenian Weekly” on December 17, 2012.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

Leave a Reply