I was born on a cold December day in the Year of Our Lord 1979, in Bucharest, Romania. The day I was born, the 19th, USSR Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev had just instructed the Red Army to invade Afghanistan to effect regime change. So, one can say I came into this world during interesting times. And I would have to agree especially since I am the results of a wartime love story.
My mother is Romanian and my father was Armenian-Syrian, meaning that he was born and bred in Damascus. My mother met my father in the most fascinating of circumstances. She met him as a patient, when he was evacuated to Romania as a casualty of the four-party war then afflicting Lebanon (1975-1991).
This story is not just about the Lebanese Civil War. This is the story of how I came to be or at least what I managed to find out so far about my birth, from the most discreet and indiscreet sources, .
Fiat Lux – Let there be light
I came into this world on that December day in ’79 courtesy of my mother, a young Snow White nurse with freckles, who got my father’s undivided attention. According to my mother, grandmother, and uncle, my father was wounded in the fighting in and around Beirut, Lebanon, in the wake of the Syrian intervention. My father who was a Syrian citizen, told my mom in confidence, that he had been sent in 1976 to Lebanon by President Hafez al-Assad. My father belonged to the Armenian Maronite Church and was at the time working in a semi-official capacity for the Syrian president. As such, he became his unofficial envoy to Lebanon.
His mandate, in no way a simple one, was to broker a truce between the different belligerents with a view to keeping together a country that was threatening to explode; which had the potential to export violence and destabilise Israel, Syria, and Occupied Palestine. As I said, Lebanon was fast approaching the point of no return, threatening to become a humanitarian, interfaith and political mess of biblical proportions. In hindsight, back then nobody could have predicted what a giant disaster it was going to be. But let’s not anticipate the outcome, just yet.
So, Al-Assad Sr. sent my pops in in early 1976. My Romanian family never could agree on the exact date, but we can safely assume that he reached Beirut sometime between January and March 1976. How do we know this? Easy. In March, Syria sent in 12,000 troops to prevent Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Lebanon’s Left from assuming power in Lebanon. At this stage, Syria and Israel were hedging their bets with the Maronite Christian Militias a.k.k. the ‘Phalange‘ against the PLO and the Leftist forces.
Not much is known about my father during this time, except that he participated in the urban fighting in and around Beirut, Tyre and other southern parts of Lebanon. Who he fought for is another great nebulous mystery but it can be assumed that given his status as Syrian evacuee, my father may have fought either with / for the Maronite militias a.k.a. the Phalangists, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), or most likely for one of the other Armenian groups, which were Christian by religion and left-wing in outlook.
Why did he fight in the first place?
Frankly, I feel that he might not have joined the fray just because he was ordered to by his commander-in-chief, President Hafez Al-Assad. I believe with all my heart and soul that the old man decided to defend his Maronite Armenian brothers and sisters against the ravages of sectarian violence, which killed 150,000 Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Israeli, Armenian and wounded many more. I am confident that while he might have started as an envoy, an emissary, a politico on a strictly confidential mission to broker a diplomatic backdoor deal, he ended up picking up a gun and defending the lives of Christians.
My mother used to tell me that some of her other patients told her that my dad was always the first to go into combat, and the last to get out. Among the stories she told me about him, for I never knew him, made him a giant, albeit a strangely non-familiar giant. Since he was never present, how could I relate to him, outside my mother’s stories? But that is for another time to dissect. What I know is that he really fancied eating garlic, so if he ever came about a field sown with garlic plants, he’d risk life and limb just for a taste of it. Nuts! Insane! Out of this world! But hey, my mother told me, so I am telling you, and that’s it, that’s all.
Another aspect, which made me presume that he took up the fight on behalf of the Maronite camp, is that my father was a deeply religious man. He used to pray religiously three to four times of day, in the Maronite manner, cross in one hand, and the praying beads in the other. What would you expect? After living door to door from Shia and Sunni Muslim for close to almost a millennium, you too would borrow heavily from the Muslim ways. I always joked with mom, who is of the Greek-Orthodox persuasion as I am, that Maronite were Christians because of their devotion to the Pope in Rome, but almost Muslim in their display of faith. But what do I know, right!
I know, I know, it looks like I know nothing. And to be honest with you, when it comes to the side my father took in the war, I’m very much in the dark, and it drives me crazy. I mean, wouldn’t you feel the same way if you knew your father fought a war but you were unsure which side he was on? In addition to this, while all parties seem to have smeared their hands in copious amounts of blood, sometime innocent blood to boot, you would have to agree that it is quite unnerving to know enough to worry you, but not enough to pass judgement on your own father.
For Pete’s sake, I don’t even know if the old man fought on the Right side of conflict or if there was such a thing as a Right side to this four-sided civil war. I don’t know if my father was with the Armenian Dashnak party controlling parts of Beirut, or if he joined with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in Lebanon or with the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide! God only knows which side he took in those short couple of years before he got wounded and invalided to ‘neutral’ Romania.
Yugoslavian Wars pale by comparison with the chaotic nature of the Lebanese Civil War
One thing is sure, he could have easily been killed like so many before and after him, who did not make it out of the cauldron. For we have to remember that the Lebanese Civil War wasn’t as clean cut as the Yugoslav Civil Wars. And I know how silly this must sound but it is true. Because, during the former conflict, alliances between groups would change from one day to the other, with fighting breaking within the same faction, faith, political unit. Sometimes, right-wing Armenians would start shooting their left-wing brethren. Sometimes, they would attack Muslim militias, other times they’d all gang up on the Syrians, or the Israeli. Sometimes, the Iranian Shia forces would ferociously kill their Sunni brothers, and vice-versa. Bedlam and mayhem combined, I tell you!
Beirut then (1975)
Beirut during the Civil War (1975-1991)
Wounded and evacuated to ‘neutral’ Romania
In any case, by late 1977/early 1978, my father managed to get himself injured and was immediately evacuated to Ceausescu’s Socialist Republic of Romania, which we know was trying to play the neutral peace broker card between the different factions involved in the Lebanese Civil War and in general in the Middle East conflict. Basically, the Genius of the Carpathians, as Nicolae Ceausescu liked to be called, had decided that he was going to make Arafat’s PLO make peace with Israel, while also brokering a truce or even a peace between the parties to the Lebanese Civil War. His mind was set on making Romania the new Switzerland of the East, with Bucharest replacing Geneva, when it came to the East-West and Middle Eastern relations.
The gent was quite deluded. And that is in part due to nobody telling him otherwise. For let us remember that in the late 70s, the West was courting Ceausescu with a fervour that sat very well with his delusions of grandeur.
So, my father was evacuated to Bucharest, alongside some other casualties of war, not all of which were Armenian, Syrian, or even Palestinian. From what my mother told me, I remember that among the evacuees missing limbs or just coming to recuperate on Romanian soil, were also Israeli, Druze, Christian Orthodox, Maronite, Muslim both Sunni and Shia. As I told you, Ceausescu was playing the ‘neutral’ card to the max by offering safe haven to everybody who was somebody in the Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
We are talking tens to hundreds of people who had been picked up from the Lebanese battlefields and sent to recuperate in neutral Romania overnight. As it happens, they all reached the same Ana Aslan National Institute of Geriatrics, situated in the community of Otopeni, on the outskirts of Bucharest. At that time, Ana Aslan was already famous for having launched the world-renowned Gerovital H3 anti-ageing formula some 25 years before. Nikita S. Khrushchev, Konrad Adenauer, Ibn Saud and JFK are just some of those who used Gerovital in its heyday.
Ana Aslan Institute – From International Hospital to the Backdrop of A Love Story
But in the spring of 1978, Ana Aslan’s establishment was going to host a love story between a Romanian young nurse, my mother, and a Syrian-Armenian war casualty, my father. Incidentally, my mother had just started working at the Ana Aslan’s Institute, when an army of wounded began to ‘invade’ the halls of her pavilion. So, the Securitate agents who were in charge of the operation told her that he needed to disarm and separate the whole lot of foreign citizens, who while wounded still retained their weapons about them. My mother speaks excellent English and very passable French, which were and still are two of the main languages the belligerents could converse in.
And that is how she came about my father, who had taken some shrapnel in his back and arms. My father, my mother tells me, used to speak and could write fluently in 11 languages, such as Syriac-Aramaic, Armenian, Arabic, English, French, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Farsi, Spanish, and Romanian. A true polyglot, he acquired Romanian in the space of the two years they shared in the company of one another. My father studied and visited the United Kingdom, Paris, Moscow, Switzerland, West and East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, SSR Armenia, China, Japan, the United States of America, Czechoslovakia. How do I know this? I know this because I have his letters and postcards he sent my mom from each and every one of these countries.
But going back to the spring of ’78, as I was saying, my mother met him in some deeply disturbing circumstances. Especially since she was quite young, and this was her very first job. Recruited straight from medical school for her inclination for foreign languages, my 23-year old mother did not have a clue of what she was about to get herself into. But with the adaptability of the youth, she decided to rise to the challenge.
For instance, when she was sent by the Securitate armed agents to do the rounds, she was also tasked, in addition to giving medication and shots to her foreign patients, to collect any explosive devices (hand grenades), handguns (pistols and revolvers mostly) with the odd sub-machine pistol showing up in the small valises the war wounded were allowed to take with them. So, basically military men were too afraid to disarm the patients, so they had my mother do it for them!
Now, my mother is part of a generation, which had to undergo mandatory military training. And for those who do not know this, communist countries had managed to advance the cause of gender equality long before the West afforded women the same liberties. I’m talking about women-judges showing up in Communist courthouses as early as the 40s and 50s. For instance, in Quebec (Canada), women were not allowed to have their own bank accounts until the late 60s, by law. This stuff is quite beside the point here, but I felt this touches on the very nature of Western hypocrisy.
If you think about it, during the Cold War (1945-1991), Western men had more freedom than women and Eastern Bloc citizens. But Eastern women had more freedom of choice than their Western counterparts. It had to be said. Just because we are awash today in moronic narratives about the glorious 60s sexually liberating women in the West, and marking a vast improvement compared to the East.
But in the case of my mother, this gender equality had the profound effect of linking her coming of age and enrolling in the medical school with satisfying basic military training (marching, shooting, and playing nurse). So, my mother knew how to handle an AK-47, shoot it (quite well at 50 and 75 yards), disassemble it, and put it back together. I wonder how many 20-year old Western women could do that in the 70s. But that is besides the point. The point is that while she may have been afraid to go pick up loaded weapons and especially live hand grenades from what was still a hospital unit, she did manage her medical and extra-curricular tasks with flying colours.
And as a bonus, she got to meet my dad, and have me in the process.
A Love Story cut short by a Newspaper Article
Alas, my father who was also a journalist in Syria, had already decided that the time had come for him to write a diatribe denouncing the ‘evil Ceausescu regime’. A week before my birth, his article was published in a prestigious Arabic and English international newspaper. When Ceausescu, the Genius of the Carpathians, got wind of my father’s less than kind characterisation of his regime, he was incensed.
How could a foreign guest, like my father, abuse the etiquette that dictated one could not speak ill of his host while on the latter’s soil!? Privately, I approve what my father did that December. Especially, since he did not tell a lie. In hindsight, my father couldn’t have done anything else. Although his timing sucked big time. A foreign citizen, my father could not be arrested by the Securitate just like any other Romanian national. I mean, he could have been arrested, but since he had been invited officially by the Romanian government, and given his diplomatic envoy status, it would have been a serious error on the part of the Romanian government.
In any case, my father decided to preempt any such irrational move from the authorities, and fled to neighbouring Bulgaria. So, two days after my birth, on December 21, 1979, he called my mother from Ruse, Bulgaria, telling her what and why he did what he did. While talking to her, the call dropped and soon after the Securitate paid a visit to my mom’s home.
Incidentally, that was the last time my mother saw or heard from my dad. She received a couple of letters later on that acknowledged and recognised me as his legitimate son but that was it. My mother spent the first 18 years of my life trying to make my father stand by his word and pay her alimony. She never received anything, not a red cent.
Growing up in Communist Romania (1979-1989)
The next decade, my mother and her family were subject to midnight visits by the Securitate, and were followed and abused by it. In a sense, the Romanian Revolution put an end to a state of things, which destroyed any chance my mother had to live a decent life.
As it happens, she blamed her life evenly on my father and the Ceausescu regime.
As for me, I got a chance to live in very interesting times. Growing up in the last decade of Romanian communism gave me some of the mental scars but also a few resilience tools that made me the man I am today. Growing up in Bucharest, the country’s capital city, at a time of regime decay, in the middle of a society rife with betrayal, where every third or fourth person was a collaborator of the Securitate, provided me with an excellent opportunity to enjoy the great spectacle of Life.
From that early age, I found out what people are all about. Some are good and smarter than you. You need to befriend them and cherish and protect them. But other are rotten and you find yourself wondering perhaps even aloud why God or the Eternal Principle of the Universe allows such a disparity of genera on the face of the Earth.
Furthermore, by the time I went to primary school, I already knew my letters, thanks to my grandfather, who instilled in me the thirst for knowledge and my deep respect for historical facts. I also knew that I wanted to learn new languages and be able to communicate with other peoples, and eventually leave a country, which had condemned my mother to a life of sorrow, me to a fatherless existence, and my very grandfather to slow death via malnutrition.
For, Ceausescu, in his folly, had contracted World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans, which Romania could ill afford to repay. And yet, he was the only maniac in the whole world who decided to pay it all back by leveraging most of Romania’s food output on the international markets. In the process, during the last half of the ’80s, tens of thousands of people died of malnutrition and borderline hunger. Most of them were either too young or as it was the case of my grandfather, too old to cope with a quasi-starvation regime.
But Ceausescu did not care about the people who died so that he could boast that Communist Romania was the only country to repay the IMF loans in full. But I cared. I cared a lot since I got to see my grandfather waste away for lack of proper food and medicine, all sold away in the name of a debt-free society.
Later on, my mother and grandmother told me that all the good food was reserved for me, because I represented the future, and while I thrived, my grandfather, already suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was slowly wasting away. And yet he never once told me that he was hungry. I only found out that my mother and grandparents had decided to hedge their bet on me, to the detriment of my grandfather long after he passed away, in November 1988. I loved my grandfather. He died so that I could grow up strong and have all the chances in life.
So, when Ceausescu’s regime came to an abrupt end in December 1989, and the tyrant overflew my home in central Bucharest, while fleeing the Romanian revolutionaries, I took the biggest knife and went to the roof. As his helicopter went over me, I waved the knife with all the resolve and hatred a 10-year old boy, who had lost his grandfather, could summon in his heart.
I hated Ceausescu for taking my grandfather away from me. I still hate him. I felt so good when I heard the news that he had been put to the wall and shot. I wish I was the one who took his miserable life. I never hated anyone like that. And to this day, I hope I never will. But if I could go back in time to the day his chopper was 50 meters away, I’d make sure to bring a machine gun, and bring down that tyrant myself.
So no, I cannot really blame my father for writing that article telling the world that Ceausescu was a murdering tyrant. It was Ceausescu’s regime who killed my grandfather and destroyed my mother’s mental health. And yet, my mother never forgot this. When the Revolution turned bloody, and people started getting machined gun in the streets of Bucharest, my mother and uncle decided to heed the call of the new government asking Romanians to donate medical supplies to hospitals. They loaded up my uncle’s Oltcit (pronounced Old Shit, for real) and headed to the hospital where my mother worked as a nurse. While driving across the Victory Square, they were shot at and a bullet pierced the roof of the car, right in the middle.
A Family of Fighters
We are a family of fighters and we never give up. When faced with adversity, we charge the enemy. We never abandon the good fight. My grandfather used to tell me that he went to prison in the ’50s, because he wouldn’t reveal the source of the guns he came to possess. When the Communist militia found him, they gave him the chance to be a rat and save his skin. Instead he told them that A Gentleman Never Tells! Noblesse oblige!
For this, he got five years in Adjud prison. When he was incarcerated, he was 6’6” and weighed 125 kg. When he was released, he weighed only 65 kg. I remember that I once saw his legs and there were big red burn marks on his shins. When I asked my grandmother, she told me that the Communists tortured him in prison by burning his legs with molten asphalt.
I asked her, why didn’t he just tell them what they wanted to know. She told me, and after 30 years I still remember this, because her words resonated with me, she told me that my grandfather told her this: La Garde meurt mais ne se rend pas! (The Guard dies but won’t surrender!)
When I grew up, and studied the Napoleonic Wars, I found out that this is what General Cambronne famously told the English at Waterloo when they asked him to surrender. And later on, this is what the Americans told the Germans during the WW2 Battle of the Bulge, when the latter asked them to do the same. My grandfather’s words taught me a valuable lesson. Never give up, no matter how hard life is, no matter what they do to you, never ever surrender. Life is a battle so you’d better fight until the end!
My grandfather stood by his democratic principles when the Communists took over Romania. My father took up arms to defend his Armenian Maronite brothers and sisters during Lebanon’s Civil War. My mother ran the gauntlet of machine gun fire to deliver medical supplies to the hospital during the Romanian Revolution. This is their legacy to me.
It is now my turn to make sure I avoid the historical traps, which befell my ancestors. But as I steer a safe course for my family in the New World, I must never forget their resolve and sacrifice. For someday I may be called upon to follow their examples. The world we live in is rapidly changing. Most people, and I among them, find it increasingly difficult to navigate the dangerous waters of survival. But survive we must, so we need to adapt, improvise, and overcome.
Beirut after the Civil War (1991-2019)
Beirut today (2020) – a most unlucky city
Epilogue – Life is Serendipitous
In 2015, a coworker whom I had just met, Miss N., accosted me saying that she wanted to know my last name. A bit discombobulated but not nonplussed, I acquiesced. A couple of days later, N. came to my desk telling me that she had two pieces of news: one good and another not so good. She asked me which one I wanted to hear first. I said that I wanted to hear the good news first.
The curious N. who had done her research in Arabic, a language which I could never learn to read, told me right then and there that she had found my father. That was the good news. But that he had died in 2012, in Damascus, just before the start of the Civil War and foreign interventions. He died due to complications from kidney surgery, without ever coming to visit or dropping us a line. I guess that is why I only shed a few tears for exactly five minutes, before regaining my composure.
After all, one does not find every day that they had a father, just to lose him the next minute. I was sad, quite sad, because now my fatherless status had become permanent. And yet, since I never knew the bastard, I couldn’t really miss him, right?!
In hindsight, I am truly sorry for never having the opportunity to show him his granddaughter but that is neither here nor there. And in the end, you cannot force someone to be present in your life. Love cannot be forced or coerced.