Vartan Koumrouyan was born in Lebanon and has been living in Paris since boyhood. He has also lived in Manila and the Jungle of Palawan islands, the South China Sea, in the Pacific.
It was not the journey in the unknown that was the motif of this undertaking, the journey through the wilderness and chaos to establish order and understanding, the self, what it was or what it could be through the process of becoming, going through its many stages of development, from a toddler, to a teenage, to the Levantine social life of Beirut with influences of the world, movies and songs which were broadcast on radio, short wave broadbands, Egyptian songs of Oum Kalsoum and Farid El Atrach, or western songs from Radio Monte Carlo, in French and English, Claude François, Adamo, Paul Anka, Tom Jones and Demis Roussos, and, shortly later, the electric rock and roll from the BBC World Service, John Peel’s voice broadcast from Cyprus, ranging from Elvis Presley to Woody Guthrie, the folk movement, the Carter Family, Dylan and henceforth, passing through the Blues of John Mayall, the Yardbirds and Cream, those albums that I started buying when I travelled to Paris and Alexandria, in a dark record store on a dark street with stacks piled in wooden racks that had the feel of old, the smell of wood, the anachronistic high ceilings of imperial architecture with colonnades where I found what looked to me then a treasure, the album Great Sessions, with Al Cooper, Mike Bloomfield and Steven Stills, that made me wonder who could have had the idea to bring that record to cosmopolite Egypt in its last moments soon after the 1967 war, someone still holding on the zeitgeist of western culture in the dark city of Lawrence Durrell, or in West Beirut on Hamra street, with Harry, when we crossed the Green Line that divided Beirut during the war.
Things were not complicated then, and simple was the beauty of things, as if it was just laid there for a long time undiscovered, in its natural state, forgotten, unnoticed, or just lacked a self-conscious awakening of its identity; that it just evolved from Biblical times with the stories of the old testament, Noa’s ark and what followed, happening in a Hegelian sense of world history, the Geist, the constant becoming, Man as creator of society, the dialectical theological process, eternal, reflecting on the divine nature of God, transposed to the scriptures of the holy books, dormant in the collective conscious as a sacred thing no one dared to question until Marx and Nietzsche, ancient, repetitive, changing, a being of nature reflecting on the lapse of time concatenated in grades in the glare of the sun and the desert sand of the pyramids, when you look beyond into the origin of things, the biology of brain and the source of information across centuries of time, wars, and myths, the evolution of structures that have their roots in the old, of these remnant Ottoman caravanserais’, the last of tangible architecture overlooking the harbour of Beirut, the paved streets and the newer buildings on the Martyr Square and the palm trees around the statue, when my father and Monsieur Selim took us boys to watch the western movies of Garry Cooper and John Wane.
This is a hazy recollection, zooming in from far away, on the daily platitudes and impressions of the physical world, the matter, the buildings, the texture of night and day, the trees, the colour of sky and the purple dust, of birds and bees, snow and sun, descriptive phase of nature, negative and positive emotions that were not yet identifiable in an epistemological continuity in the narrative to form a whole from beginning to end, on a roadmap that was in the process of emerging in the mind.
I was exposed, in a way, to the transmission of that existent social culture, the architecture of the Ottoman remains, the French Protectorate and Mediterranean colonnades of the buildings in the bazar, the inception of Beirut in the middle of a civil war, in the form of songs and the Treasure Island I read in Arabic, a synthesis in a condensed way, the new order of governance of the western world, freedom, democracy, and individualism in the process of being implemented in the Levant upon an older order of tradition and family clans, The Grapes of Wrath and Desolation Angels that taught me the English language and brought the notion of elsewhere closer to my mind.
But of course, Hollywood movies doctored the outcome of America in a positive light, the American Dream, the winner takes all, always the good guy, the believer in a moral, who dispenses justice and benevolence suddenly, that was perhaps the beginning of the end of freedom, like Pat Garrett in Billy the Kid, Peckinpah’s movie, Coburn Billy “the world have changed”, and Billy answering “maybe, but not for me’.
Things were not clear when I was a boy, between these two opposing worldviews coming face to face, such as in Cuba and the missile crisis the year I was born.
Life in Beirut was poetic, romantic in a Levantine fashion, idling through the centuries in myth and fate and family tradition. Later in the seventies Beirut was the cosmopolite Paris of the Orient, or so it was labelled, the Christian, Moslem and Jew living side by side, old fashioned way, on the crumbling remains of history on which a new vision of the world was being tailored, but the nascent state was naive in the game of geopolitics of empires.
After the 1914 genocide of Armenian by the Turkish Ottomans, the survivors who were rescued from the slaughter were brought by ship from Greece as war refugees to Beirut. They lived in the Karantina camp near the harbour, and among them was my grandfather, the only survivor of the Koumrouyan family. The liberal implications in the middle east of “winner takes all”, had no purchasing power where things were rooted in the dignity of a given word. My grandfather used to say, ” a given word is better than a signature on a paper, it represents your honour», which was contrary to the western belief in what Rousseau called the “social contract”, to subsume your identity to another caretaker, to let yourself be absorbed in a way to fit the identity of the crowd, as it was explained in the dialectic of Hagel.
But the liberal philosophy was not seen back then, on a day-to-day basis, as a force wanting to conquer. It was an entertaining “soft power”, decades before Coca Cola, Lucky Strike and McDonald’s franchises. I was this small boy whose father was taking him to the movies at night, in this meta story of world events. In this “dominance hierarchy” of culture and nations competing to perpetuate their model. No one cared of like me, there was generations of war descendants; of refugees, children of genocide, this was my identity under the loving Mediterranean sun, but those who talked about democracy and freedom, it was business as usual.
Sometimes as it often happens, you wait for days for something that stands out of the ordinary, the run of the mill routine, that represent the possibility of the new, suddenly remembered from the past, something you never thought of for years, an event, a street, a veranda in a new light day after the rain, the rainbow in an indigo sky, the bougainvillea hedge that had overgrown the wire mesh fence near my father’s car, the smell of dry eucalyptus leave under dry grass at the end of the summer where the bus was parked, things that suddenly take the bigger part of memory in their incoherent entity as they appear through the senses that have marked the smell and taste and the retina, the crockery pickles jars as if they came from prehistoric cave, of vinegar, olive in metal drums, the jute sacks soaked, greasy and heavy, the darkness in the warehouse and light bulb on a long cord of the electric wire with a single light bulb hanging loosely, the cord being too thick for the weight, maybe ten watts, so weak that it formed only a halo dent in the thick darkness and was soaked into the daylight appearing on the doorsill, something like transvaluation of physics in a science fiction movie, from the Mar Michael street into the ancient nineteen century world, the wholesale grocery store that was facing my father’s shop “Vosky Sport” where he bought provisions, and on shelves, gallons of oil, cubes of Aleppo soap in a crenelated rack, grains of wheat, yellow corn, chicken feed, rice, with that peculiar smell inside that must have not changed in a century to become the map of an olfactory environment as I had seen as a boy, and the owner, an intimidating fat man, jocose, tight fisted penny wise type, to whom I didn’t dare look but only observed a glint in his eyes as he moved in the semi light of the interior, writing numbers with a pencil on the brown paper bag.
It looked like a cavern in its partial dimness, supplemented by the mystery of the odours and dampness of dark places which gave the interior no precise shape that augmented its size in my imagination, beyond its actual confines, with the higher shelves empty as they were out of reach, bundles of hay and round Jerry beam oil containers, a palpable dampness brought to eminence by the yellow Nido milk cans and Végétaline cooking oil on the lower parts in the motes of dust floating in the orb of the lightbulb and the exterior daylight. Those were just static things back then, artefacts of another world that had not yet acquired the nostalgic aura of childhood memories, things seen for the first time, not only with amazement and wonder but with curiosity of a boy ready for more adventures.
Prose in this post: © Vartan Koumrouyan
Published with the permission of Vartan Koumrouyan