“Hava Nagila,” by Naira Kuzmich

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MQR was saddened to learn recently of the death of Naira Kuzmich, a gifted writer born in Armenia and raised in the Los Angeles enclave of Little Armenia. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including Cincinnati Review, Ecotone, Guernica, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, Threepenny Review, West Branch, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015.

Her essay in MQR’s Summer 2017 issue, “Hava Nagila,” explores the meaning of one’s ethnicity at home and abroad as the author navigates a night out in Berlin. For further reading, see her poignant essay “On Grief” or her interview last year with Massachusetts Review


If God wants people to suffer,
He sends them too much understanding.
–Yiddish Proverb

Before I tell you about the strange night I danced to “Hava Nagila” in a bar in Berlin, I have to admit that I think about this night often, and I think about it on two different occasions. I think about it when I find myself at a loss for words, when I am confused about how to feel, what to do or say or think. A new horror on the news, and suddenly I picture myself dancing. A colleague at work proposes a “Diversity Field Guide Manual,” and I smell the spilled cocktails, the heavy breath of the man beside me. People keep tweeting “Protest is fun!” and that famous Hassidic melody spins round and round in my head; the sticky bar floor spins under my feet, too. But I also think about that night when I am most clear-headed, when I feel I have finally grasped something beyond my reach. A moment of enlightenment, perhaps, a moment of profound pleasure. I hold my niece in my arms, swing her to sleep, and it is she who has her hand on my shoulder that night in Berlin.

I was twenty years old and traveling through Germany with two girlfriends. We had met while we were studying abroad in Ireland, and two weeks in Germany after the fall semester ended sounded like a good way to cap off our European adventure, especially after meeting a considerable number of Germans in Ireland who were funny and hospitable, friends who would host us if we came through their towns.

We began our trip in Berlin. F. was a green-eyed, brown-skinned Indian-American, born and bred in Southern California, and B. was Canadian, pale and short, with Macedonian and Caribbean family roots. And me, at 5’10 and 180 pounds, I was the big, black-haired, black-eyed Armenian-American immigrant girl who was finally free of her family, her culture, all those obligations and expectations and traditions that made her desperate, had her saving money and begging her parents for years before they finally agreed to let her leave home.

I have to say here, too, that I was mostly happy when I was abroad. Even now, when I look back with a more cynical eye at my youth, embarrassed of my desperation, my rush to embrace the American Dream of an endlessly forgotten past, a constant clean slate, I can say that I was happy. And I’m glad. Glad to have felt for a while what so many feel every day. Glad that my shame now does not take away from my happiness then.

There was, however, one moment, one evening, one dance that I danced, during my time abroad, where my shame triumphed and triumphs still. For this, I am glad too. Understanding, for me, when it does not come from the sudden surprise of pleasure, comes from anger. When I danced that dance in a bar in Berlin, I felt a momentary happiness, and it is because I felt it for a moment when I should have felt it for none that I will feel ashamed forever. I am, however, grateful for this feeling. It is a small burden to suffer, after all, compared to what so many others shoulder. A small burden and a reminder. Not only of the heavier prices others have paid for their actions, feelings, and words, but a reminder also of those who float in this life light as a feather, thinking that they do no harm, cause no damage, leave no dead in their wake. It is these people I fear. Those who do not suffer. Those who do not understand.

* * *

The middle-aged German woman who ran the hostel told us where to go for a night out: the immigrant part of town, Kreuzberg. Young people like the area, she explained. Travelers feel comfortable there. Like they could be locals. But, please, she advised: Keep an eye on your wallets and on each other. Comfort and safety, she knew, were not always the same thing.

When we came out of the subway an hour later, the three of us looked at each other uneasily. We were twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. We were women. Girls, really. It was not only what we saw: the graffiti, the smell of garbage, the homeless strewn on the streets like decorations. It was that small pedestrian fear coupled with something deeper. For we had come here to party. We had come to drink cheap beer and dance hard and make out with handsome strangers.

But we were not like the majority of the North American girls studying abroad in Ireland. That’s what we told ourselves. We were not White Girls. Girls with diluted ethnicity. We thought they were a different breed. They did not eat floss halva or homemade pickled cauliflower, did not dance un-ironically to turbofolk music or curse in multiple languages. When confronted with “the foreign” abroad, there was always an extra layer for us to work through, because we knew that sometimes we were one of them—the others—but other times we weren’t.

In Berlin, coming out of the subway, we felt American. We felt uneasy. By that, of course, I mean we felt white. White girls come to party in the hood. We walked quietly, not wanting to draw attention to ourselves, not wanting to see ourselves for who we were at that moment. We walked until we found the recommended bar, a packed place, bright with bodies. We took off our layers of clothing, our white-girl skins, and felt like ourselves again, whatever that was. All we knew was that we did not stand out in any way here, and it was a relief. Inside the bar, it was clear that everyone forgot what the outside had looked like, the streets they had crossed, the roads they had travelled to get here. We quickly forgot, too. Here was a common destination: party. The great equalizer.

We squeezed past German and tourist bodies to get to the bar, got our beers, and by the time we finished them—quickly, that first beer always the fastest to go—we had a group of men talking to us. We let them talk. In the way of that strange magical algebra of bar-floor meetings, there were three men, suddenly, for the three of us. The one who happened upon me was German. German through and through. Tall, blonde hair closely cropped, cool blue eyes. Big in the German way: lean muscles, wide shoulders, thick neck. Standing next to him, and looking up, I smiled and settled into the conversation, taking delight in my comparative smallness.

He asked where I was from, and I answered L.A. Like that—L.A. With a confidence I did not share when I was asked the same question in America. But it was the most truthful answer after living twenty years in my white, but foreign, body, and it was easier to tell the truth in Europe, where no one was trying to prove me a liar. No one in Europe really knew that when I said L.A., I really meant Little Armenia, the ethnic enclave of Los Angeles where I spent almost my entire life after leaving Armenia at the age of five. In Europe, I let others believe what they wanted about me. Let them think I was a rich girl, steps away from being discovered, instead of a twenty-year-old who slept on the fold-out couch with her grandmother in the living room of a one-bedroom apartment in Little Armenia, Los Angeles.

And what did my German man think about my city? The German abruptly handed me his glass, turned around, and raised his shirt up across his shoulder blades. Stunned, I reached out with my fingers to touch the pale pink skin of his back, but pulled away at the last moment, confused. He pulled his shirt down and turned to face me again.

“I want to tattoo “To Live and Die in Los Angeles right there!” He grinned at me expectantly. “Tupac!”

I blinked at him, trying to find an appropriate response. Did this white boy really want to tattoo a Tupac lyric on his body? Because he was white. Particular notions of German whiteness—Aryan identity—certainly figure significantly in European history, but the Germanic roots of American white people are also what gives most white Americans today the security of their racial identity. I knew that most white Americans thought they were Irish by heritage; I also knew they were wrong. We ethnic people are often forced to educate ourselves on the ethnicity of whiteness in America as part of our arsenal of facts, our weapons against racism and xenophobia. There’s a certain American romanticism at work, we know, when white people believe in their Irish roots as opposed to their German ones. By romanticism, of course, I mean that remarkable power of self-deception Americans are known for throughout the world.

I had felt no discomfort amongst the white Germans I met in Ireland because, I had realized quickly, they were open about their country’s past: apologetic without being defensive, a stance that struck me as just right. Complex and difficult to navigate, but right nonetheless. They were not responsible for the deaths of over six million, but they knew who were. Their predecessors. Relatives. They spoke about the Holocaust gravely, with sincere mortification, but without a sense of individual guilt. Sitting in our living rooms in the west of Ireland, talking politics in that silly, naïve way that young people love to do, it was fascinating to see how shame translated into the young German consciousness, and how that compared to America’s own history of genocide and racism. My German friends were afraid of nationalism and wary of any demonstration of patriotism. This line, they said, was too thin to navigate. Listening to them talk, I knew that despite the general liberal climate of southern California, my white neighbors, classmates, teachers, and strangers on the street all wielded the American flag like a weapon against the past.

So I peered at this German and tried to make sense of his desire to claim Tupac’s words and all that they represented as his own, to carve them, in fact, into his own white skin. “Have you been to California?”

“Yes!” He pumped his free hand in the air. “Venice Beach and Rose Bowl!”

And unexpectedly I was charmed. “Was USC playing?” I asked coyly. “I go to USC.”

His mouth dropped open, and I threw my head back and laughed. I could be his California girl, like one of the real ones he had seen during his vacation. I’ve strolled the boardwalk at Venice; I’ve cheered at college football games. I’ve been in a car in the winding streets of Los Angeles, “California Love” blasting on the radio. In the arms of this German eager to embrace another’s culture, I would be safe from suspicion. And what better place than in L.A. for two people to take on the role of a lifetime?

“USC,” he breathed gleefully, and then he noticed the empty glasses in both of our hands. “One minute. I’m going to get us more beer.”

I smiled and watched him go, enjoying the way he so assuredly disappeared into the crowd. As I moved my gaze away, I caught the conspiratorial wink of his friend, a handsome cornrowed man with North African features who was speaking to my friend, B. I blushed and kept my gaze moving. Before it had a chance to settle on anything, a Frenchman moved intimately close and began to speak flirtatiously. I apologized and told him I was “with someone,” pointing at a nondescript spot in the crowd huddled by the bar, and kept repeating, pointing, until he walked away. I had felt a strange sense of loyalty to the German, though he had no claim on me or my attention. He had, however, been to my city. He had thought me a California girl.

In Europe, particularly amongst European men, I had felt my Americanness shine through and my foreignness fade away. Outside of a bar in rainy Dublin, I had kissed a Swiss-Italian who kept exclaiming “American girls are so hot” every time we parted for air. I felt silly but proud, reveling in my beauty, its power, but also the power that came with being American. European men had, perhaps, “different” expectations for what constituted an American woman, but whatever suggestion or fantasy they had in their mind’s eye, I fit it. And it was a wondrous, dizzying feeling—much better than simply feeling desired. It was a freedom these men afforded me, akin to flying with an American passport—the knowledge that no place could hold you without your permission. While my passport was American, I only felt American on paper, bubbling in “White” for my “Race” in college applications, for example. In person, Americans could not get over how different I looked, sounded, even behaved, which was most hurtful. My reserve was foreign snobbery or it was a symptom of my oppression. My passion was too aggressive or too contained. Everything I did, everything I believed in, could be explained away by my foreignness—no, not explained away. Blamed on. A difference there, too.

But here I was in Europe, no one batting a lash when I said American, when I said California, when I said L.A. In Europe, among European men, my Americanness was exoticized, but never in the way my Armenianness was, and is still, exoticized in America. That difference is the difference in relation to power. As an American in Europe, I had the clout of financial means and national support. I had a right to be there. For the most part, I was even wanted. Even the jokes at the Americans’ expense—our ignorance, arrogance, our propensity to wear sneakers—were not a threat. They posed no danger to my, or to any American’s, sense of safety or comfort. Obama had just won the presidential election, and all of Europe was singing America’s praises. But even before, though we’d gone to war with Afghanistan and Iraq, and anti-American feeling was high in Europe, you could say you were American and not worry about that affecting your ability to get a taxi, an apartment, a job, a handsome man’s phone number.

Being ethnic in America or being a person of color means constantly having to accommodate other people’s feelings while tempering your own, means constantly having to gauge whether or not it’s safe to look, talk, think like you want, like you find natural, because for some people that seems like the most unnatural thing in the world. With our “ethnically ambiguous” features, being Armenian, specifically, means being confronted with American resentment toward a large variety of people: Muslims and Jews, Arabs, Slavs, Latinos (especially Mexicans), the French, the Greeks, Indians and Pakistanis. White Americans have confused me for everything and everyone, and when they didn’t confuse me, when they knew exactly what an Armenian was, they had very specific feelings about what that meant, too. Because to be Armenian in L.A. had its own xenophobic narrative: we were considered welfare-draining, BMW-driving, wife-beating, odor-reeking leeches of American generosity.

When my Armenianness was sometimes of interest to men in America, I always felt uncomfortable, like I was behind a glass wall in a museum, an audience of curious onlookers reading excitedly from their guidebooks about the defining features of The Armenian Woman, pointing at the strength of my thighs, the tangles of my hair, my childbearing hips. I still don’t feel safe when a white American man’s eyes fall attentively on me, and I know many women of color who feel the same.

But in Europe, I was the American. I was the one throwing my powerful net all over these men. Making them anecdotes, curiosities for my friends’ pleasure. These men thought they were getting something novel? Let them. I knew I was getting something better.

* * *

The German reappeared with a beer for me, but had to get going, he said, visibly irritated, pointing to the door and shaking his head. He had to take a friend home, too much to drink. I swallowed my disappointment and gave him a hug, thanked him for the beer and conversation, and said that perhaps we’d meet in L.A. someday. “Yes!” he said eagerly, grabbing me by both shoulders. “Make sure you don’t leave!”

I don’t remember who I was talking to or about what when “Hava Nagila” came on. I heard the beginning chords of the Jewish song and caught B.’s eye. What the hell is going on? And then, in a blur, like a carefully planned ’90s teen comedy routine, everyone in the bar rushed towards the tiny dance floor, by the deejay. People began putting their arms around each other’s shoulders, forming a circle, and there we were, B. and I, right in the thick of it. The music was loud and dizzying, everyone drunk and dancing, moving awkwardly in the dense formation, shoulders and underarms pressed painfully close. Everyone grinning, everyone loudly shouting the only words they knew to the song: “Hava Nagila.” I was shouting too.

It’s hard to truly describe the rush of that moment, its absurdity, how perfect it all felt. This could not be more surreal, I distinctly remember thinking. Germany! This was Germany!

And then a Turk broached our circle, coming in between me and my Canadian friend, and my body tensed. I knew he was a Turk because I just knew—some people may never understand what it means to have history simmering always in the blood.

But perhaps they can understand this: Germany is home to the largest population of Turks outside of Turkey and they make up the largest ethnic minority in Germany, approximately three million. Understand that Germany, with its notorious history of genocide, is home to a people whose ancestors tried to wipe mine off this earth. Understand also that when I walked in Germany, I may have been confused for a Turk, but I confused no Turk, no German, no hybrid, for an Armenian. Not once did I see a dark-haired, dark-eyed, big-hipped woman and think, maybe. Every time I saw someone who a bystander would argue looked like me, I immediately identified the ways they were different: the Turkishness in the shape of their eyes, an Asiatic turn, for example; or the color of the skin, either too dark or too pale, not that sandy shade of brown that could only come from centuries living on a land of stone, bearing the brunt of the powerful color in the sky. But I mostly felt their Turkishness in the pit of my stomach, an instinctive jolt, a pressure climbing, spreading throughout my body. It was not hatred I felt, not fear. It was history, the collective memory of my people, and it was real and beating hard and fast inside of me.

Turkey refuses to call the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians in 1915 genocide; in fact, there is widespread propaganda in place to convince Turks that it was their ancestors who were slaughtered at the hands of the Armenians. There are other “official” Turkish explanations for the large number of Armenian dead. Most Armenians starved and were not killed outright—so, blame poverty! Armenians were Russian sympathizers and had to be neutralized for the wellbeing of the empire—Turks were defending themselves against treason! Armenians were killed by marauding gangs—what a coincidence! Deaths from “relocation” efforts cannot be considered genocide—it’s all just part of empire-building! And my favorite: it was not genocide because genocide, as a term, was not coined before 1943. If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?

Still. I know what some readers want me to say now. I know that as the Turk approached our circle, put his arm on my shoulder, pressed his hip into my hip, smiled widely into my face, some readers want me to find beauty in the moment. Poetry. They want me to say that here we were, a Turk and an Armenian, dancing to a Jewish song in a bar in Berlin, shoulder to shoulder, coming together through art, travel, serendipity—that we were reconciling our horrific histories with our dreams of peace, a future for us all. The past forgotten, the past replaced by something more palatable. A song and dance.

But it is so easy for some people to say this. White Americans. Because they have been trying to dismiss history for centuries.

Even before his hand dropped from my shoulder to squeeze my ass, that American Dream crumpled before me. This surreal, seemingly magical scene lost its dazzling glow, its profound poignancy. Why were Germans so carelessly playing this song, I thought angrily, as if it would atone for their sins, bring back to life six million dead? All around me people were drunk, shouting, laughing, reveling in a stupid naïve fantasy or a horrific, racist joke. O, how stupid I felt in finding meaning in this bar! How angry I was at myself—I feel my rage even now. Hava Nagila-ing in Berlin. Apparently, I was just another American traveler, White Girl Extraordinaire, Eat-Pray-Loving myself into contented oblivion.

I knew then that “Hava Nagila” was a Jewish song of celebration. But I didn’t know that it was an expression of praise for the revival of the Hebrew language after its oppression for two millennia, when Jews were forced to speak the language of their conquerors. And I didn’t know then that it was written in 1915, the year the Ottoman Turkish government began the slaughter of my people.

But there is no meaning here, either. A coincidence. Like the fact that it was a Turk grabbing my ass as I moved in a circle in Berlin. When his hand didn’t move away, I squirmed and pressed myself against the body on my other side. But this new gap between us he quickly closed. Something in my expression, something in my body, something in the air, but suddenly a man came between us. It was the Moroccan who had earlier been talking to my friend B. He put his mouth close to the Turk’s ear and said something I couldn’t hear. The Turk didn’t look at me as he left the circle, disappearing into the same crowd my German had.

The Moroccan put his arm around my shoulder. “Keep dancing,” he said with a kind smile and distinct accent. But I could no longer move.

* * *

Later, we were hungry, unsteady on our feet. A long subway ride back to our hostel and we needed to sober up. We wandered around until we found a place open and smelling good. Sumac and cumin and fresh dill. A Mediterranean or Middle Eastern place—the food from those regions, I knew, often overlapped.

It was one of those ethnic fast food places specializing in numbered combos, large, appetizing photos of full plates beside each oversized number, the name of the actual meal in smaller font, seemingly not as important. I took my time looking at the menu plastered on the wall behind the cashier. And then I saw exactly what I wanted: a beautiful picture of lahmajun, that thin round dough covered in minced beef (or lamb), tomatoes, parsley, and peppers. Lahmajun is popular in both the Middle East and the Mediterranean, but its origins are clouded in mystery, though the word itself is Arabic. Syria, Lebanon, and many parts of the Levant make their own versions of the lahmajun, but it is most famously a dish claimed by two distinct groups of people: the Armenians and the Turks.

In America it is referred to as Armenian Pizza, but in many parts of Europe, in this restaurant in which I stood tipsy and increasingly emotional, it was labeled “Turkish Pizza.” I narrowed my eyes to make sure of what I was seeing. It was my turn to order, and as I stood in front of the clerk, my eyes were still on the picture above him and the words beside that picture. Turkish Pizza.

There are more Turks in Europe than Armenians, and there are more Armenians in America than Turks. That is fact, and it goes a long way in explaining why the names of the dish are accepted and popularized in those regions. But these were facts, too: I was born in Armenia. I lived in a neighborhood called Little Armenia. Every week I ate my Armenian mother’s Armenian lahmajun. Standing in that restaurant in Berlin, I was not an American, not by any means.

The clerk said something in German and I finally looked at him. Dark hair, dark eyes, darker skin than mine, a beard dense and unfashionable in Armenian circles. I glanced up above him again, saw the words, and he spoke once more, loudly, annoyed. Probably to ask what I wanted to order. There were people behind me, I realized, who did not care, had no idea what I was feeling at that moment. There was someone in front of me, too, who may have suspected, but probably didn’t care either. I cleared my throat, but my voice wouldn’t come. I lifted my arm and it shook as it indicated the lahmajun. The clerk said something again. I thrust my finger in the air, pointing. He raised his eyebrows, spoke once more in German. I put my hand to my throat, swallowed, and said the number in English. Almost everyone we had met in Germany spoke some English. He would know numbers. I said the number. And he smiled. He smiled big, said in a thick accent, “Turkish Pizza?” I repeated the number in English. He repeated his question. My heart was racing, and I knew I was seconds away from bursting into tears. I felt the drunken restlessness behind me. I felt his Turkish eyes on my Armenian face. I said the number in English again. He smiled wider, leaned forward: “Turkish Pizza.” And this time it was not a question. I felt a feeling akin to humiliation, but tinged with anger. I shook my head. “Lahmajun,” I said, meeting his eyes. “That is its name. That is what I want.” I presented the Euros to him, and he took them.

I don’t know if he understood me. I don’t know if he took it as a peace offering. This word we both use to refer to the same dish, a word not in any one of our languages.

Because I didn’t mean it as a peace offering. I only wanted him to know I would never say “Turkish Pizza,” like I knew he would never say “Armenian Genocide.”

* * *

While many states individually recognize the Armenian Genocide, the U.S. federal government will not, as Turkey is vital to U.S. military interests in the Middle East. Most of the Western world, however, has acknowledged the Armenian Genocide as historical fact. Last year, there was a surprising addition to the list: Germany.

Germany was an ally of Ottoman Turkey, and official recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the German Parliament also implies Germany’s own culpability in the death of over a million. German military often stood by as the deportations and executions took place, and they even supplied weapons to the Turks. Armenians were encouraged by this admission, and moved deeply by the fact that it was a German politician with Turkish roots who initiated the resolution.

Of course, Turkey’s government was not pleased with Germany’s decision, nor were many Turkish-German people living within Germany. These days, the tensions between Turkey and Germany have escalated dramatically, with the German government having tried to curb Turkish President Erdogan’s campaigning for Turkish-German votes that would sustain his autocratic rule, and Turkish officials throwing out “Nazi” accusations against the modern German government.

It is easy, perhaps, to write that the world is changing rapidly these days, that alliances are shifting as the global leadership struggles to figure out how to deal with millions of refugees, people they have displaced with their foreign policies, their scheming, their wars—it’s easy, too, to forget the past. I’ve heard many Americans ask why we should suffer for centuries-old European imperialism, overlooking conveniently the role of modern American corporate and political powers in supporting puppet states, revolutions and counterrevolutions, terrorist groups and anti-terrorist groups. And it becomes hard, then, to not cry and point out that history is not just centuries-old; history makes up today’s borders, the lines—imaginary and otherwise—around our nations, and the very real boundaries to our sense of compassion.

It’s no surprise to me that Germany has accepted so many refugees and America so few. Some countries are quicker to reflect, to feel remorse. Some countries can confront their past, look it dead in the eye, and feel ashamed.

All this I came to understand after Berlin.

* * *

My friends and I sat eating around the small table in the Turkish restaurant. B. told F. about dancing to “Hava Nagila,” and F. was disappointed to have missed it. She was in a different part of the bar, talking, kissing, feeling light in her skin. I told F. she didn’t miss much, and I chewed my lahmajun energetically, hoping the sounds of my jaw would drown out B.’s surprised exclamations. The lahmajun tasted fine. I didn’t wonder if the clerk spat on it. I didn’t compare it to my mother’s. It seemed a very foreign thing, this meaty dough in my hands. My hands felt strange, too, a strange shade. And what were these strange, light expressions on my friends’ faces? Why were they laughing? I didn’t understand why they weren’t discussing the ugly implications of dancing to “Hava Nagila” in a German bar. These girls were marked by ethnicity, by foreignness, in a way I thought I was, in a way that explained my sensitivity.

And so I began to wonder if my experience was shaped more by the Turk grabbing my behind than I wanted to believe, if it was that specific fact that shone a light on the ugliness of the situation. Was I pretending to be better than I was, more thoughtful, more aware, by claiming to be made uncomfortable by the “Hava Nagila” before the man made the weight of his hand known on my person? I chewed and chewed, before I understood that it was not the harassment but his Turkish presence that alerted me to be wary. It was his Turkish body approaching my Armenian body that made me hesitate, that made it suddenly impossible to accept the dream of reconciliation, the beauty of a dance being danced in a bar in Berlin. It was the past there intruding on the present—but I welcomed that intrusion. I welcome it still. I needed it to understand that history is not the passing of time but time’s inability to heal all wounds.

I was twenty years old and tired already of what my ethnicity meant to others, which made it impossible to understand what it meant to me. My parents kept trying to keep me Armenian—you’re Armenian, they’d say, don’t forget, never American. And Americans seemed to agree—you’re Armenian, you’re foreign, you’re this or this, but no, not American: your parents are right about that. You’re not white like me. So I had reveled in the fact that, in Europe, I finally was. Free from everyone’s expectations, which let me finally be free. This was the power of whiteness. America!

But then I danced a dance in Berlin and I understood that when my parents pressed upon me my Armenianness, it was not the same as white strangers pressing upon me my foreignness. My Armenianness was a gift from my parents. It was not a weapon. It was a book I could turn to again and again and find myself there. A reminder: I was not a gap in the history pages. Not 1915. When my parents said, You’re Armenian, not American, they meant I knew where I came from, and I knew what that meant: I’d be confronted by my past everywhere. It meant I could not dance to another culture’s song, in another culture’s bar, and feel light in my skin. It meant I smelled the stink in the air, heard the laughter dark and mean. Long.

I thought about explaining this to my friends, thinking they’d get it because of their own histories, but then I realized I couldn’t expect that of them. How to say to someone you love that they could never understand your pain because they haven’t been in your shoes? They have not danced the same dance as you. Even when the music playing is the same, the body dancing is not. The body moves to a different rhythm.

So I will say it to someone I don’t love. I will say it to the stranger reading: there are some things you will never understand, but you must listen.


Image: Kellogg, Miner Kilbourne. “Armenian Lady, Pera.” N.d. Watercolor and pencil on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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