I was very surprised - and deeply touched - when Dr. Paul Haidostian, president of Haigazian University in Beirut, asked me to give the commencement address for the 2010 graduating class.
Earlier in the month I had contacted Paul to ask whether the University had any papers of my grandfather's, Armenag Haigazian, after whom the University had been named. We had a pleasant email exchange, and then, out of the blue, I next received Paul's invitation. It was, he said, the 55th anniversary of the school, and he felt that hearing, in person, from a grandchild of Armenag Haigazian could make the name “Haigazian” come alive for many in the community.
Despite some practical misgivings about making such a long trip on such short notice, it quickly was, upon reflection, abundantly clear that it was just the right thing to do. I felt that I was being called by my ancestors and by my own personal destiny. This call of the spirit made the journey irresistible.
“We are Hadjinzi”:
On the second day of our visit, Paul took my wife Janet and me on a tour of the Haigazian University campus. In one of the offices we met a woman who, when she realized who we were, came forward, full of happiness and greeting.
As she shook my hand, she said, “We are Hadjinzi.” It took me a moment to figure out what she meant: my Grandfather, Armenag, was from the town of Hadjin, a place where all of the inhabitants, who had not yet left, were killed during the Armenian Genocide. “Hadjinzi,” it was explained to me, refers to people who are descendants of the inhabitants of Hadjin.
This woman said that it was giving her chills to meet us. She brushed her forearm and showed us that her hair was standing up. I felt myself welling up with tears. I hadn't realized that because my Grandfather was from Hadjin, that I was "Hadjinzi," and that I shared this bond with so many others in Beirut, as well as with my many cousins at home, and others around the world.
The next night I went with Paul and his wife Maral to attend a graduation ceremony for 6th and12th graders in Bourg Hammoud, the Armenian section of Beirut.
It impacted me a great deal to see this community, which is 90% Armenian, and then to attend the graduation for Armenian students, and hear the students singing -- all together, all in Armenian.
It was at this point that I began to realize more fully the true sense of community that I have missed. I saw -- in a way that I had never seen before -- that I had been raised in complete isolation from Armenian language, customs, and community. (It wasn't until I went to college that I had even met someone outside my immediate family who was Armenian!) At different points during my life, I have longed for more of a sense of community, and in Beirut I felt sad as I began to realize what I have missed. I am not, in any way, diminishing the value of where and how I grew up and the privileges that I was given - far from it. I am saying, however, that there is a unique experience of belonging that have missed out on. I began to sense that as I directly met and learned about the Armenian heritage and community.
There were very many touching moments like this, during our journey, when my wife and I felt a heart connection with the Armenian people and their history. There were so many ways people let us know how much a part of the “family” we truly are. There was Paul's mother affectionately “adopting” my wife Janet shortly after meeting us . . . a Haigazian University Board member telling us, “You are family - don't doubt it. I mean it - you really are family here and you are always welcome” . . . and a Haigazian University student presenting us with a very precious and wholly unexpected gift - a handkerchief that was hand embroidered by his great-grandmother, who had lived in Konia, Turkey, at the same time as my grandfather . . . These gifts of the heart went on and on, and there are too many kindnesses to count. Neither Janet nor I ever have felt so embraced by a community.
When it came time to leave, my wife and I both found it very hard to say goodbye to our newfound friends and “Family.”
For a number of weeks after I returned I felt disorientated - it was as though I'd entered a revolving door, been spun around, and then emerged in an entirely different direction, with no clear idea about where - or even, in some ways, who! -- I am. I have had to remind myself repeatedly what month it is - and, even stranger -- that answer does not really help. My disorientation has been much deeper than the date on the calendar. The call of my ancestors, and of my heritage, is like an undertow tugging me from my present concerns.
For much of my life I have asked myself, “Who am I?” It is, for me, a question that can be asked and answered on different levels of understanding. Right now, when I instinctively ask myself this question, there is a way in which the answer feels noticeably different. Now, the answer must include, “I am a grandson of Armenag Haigazian. I am a descendent of Hadjin, a Hadjinzi. I am heir to a language, a culture, a history and a people. I am a part of a University and its community in Beirut.” And as I reflect, “Who am I, now that I know these things to be true?,” I realize that to answer this question I must let myself continue to be spun, in silence and in wonder.
Janet's and my time in Beirut was - and is -- as I wrote to Paul afterwards, a homecoming of the heart . . . My deepest thanks to each and every one of you who made this possible.
“The Life and Legacy of Dr. Armenag Haigazian”
[WITH ADDITIONAL MATERIAL]
Haigazian University, Beirut, Lebanon
by Alan James Strachan
July 2, 2010
I feel very honored to be speaking to you today.
I wish to thank, in particular, your president, Rev. Paul Haidostian, for inviting me here, as well as the trustees and the faculty. You have been exceedingly generous in inviting not only me, but my wife Janet as well. We are very grateful to you.
And most of all I wish to extend my heartfelt congratulations to you, the class of 2010. Earning a college degree is a very significant rite of passage, the product of many years and countless hours of diligence, and you all should be proud of yourselves.
I have lived my entire life in California, very far from this University in Beirut, and very far from Konia, Turkey, where my grandfather, Armenag Haigazian, lived with his family and worked as an educator.
Despite that physical distance, I have been linked with this University throughout my life -- and therefore with all of you -- by matters of the heart.
I will try to explain this to you, as best as I can. In order to do this, I need to say a few words about my family.
By all accounts my grandfather was a brilliant scholar, graduating from college when he was 17 or 18 years old, versed in at least 12 languages, recipient of a Ph.D from Yale University in Semitic Languages and Biblical Literature, and an author of textbooks on biology, logic, psychology, an Armenian-English dictionary, and a voluminous encyclopedia. He also was an ordained minister and an accomplished musician.
My grandfather returned to Konia after 5 years of study in the US and became the head of the Apostolic Institute in 1900, where he remained for the next 20 years. During these years my grandparents had six children, all girls, born between 1903 and 1917.
My mother, Armine Haigazian, was their youngest daughter. I am her youngest son, and also the youngest of Armenag and Mathilde’s many grandchildren.
Life in Konia:
I am sure all of you know that during this period Armenians lived a precarious existence under Turkish rule. My grandfather and his family often lived in fear for their lives; however, they escaped harm because of my grandfather’s position as a theologian and educator and because of the sympathetic Turkish citizens of Konia.
My mother was too young to remember her time in Konia, but her next older sister, my Aunt Pank, remembered and wrote:
“When I was five or so, I remember a human head on a pike displayed in some public place about a block away. Not close up. I eyed it with dispassion. Not horrified or touched. I’ve wondered about that. Why I did not have a more human reaction. In retrospect it was like something one would have seen in Elizabethan England. I had no idea what it was all about.”
In 1920, with ongoing atrocities still being committed against Armenians, my grandfather decided it was too dangerous, after all, for the family to remain in their homeland. He sent his wife and their daughters out of the country and eventually to the U.S.
In February of 1921, my grandmother and five of her daughters sailed to the US (one daughter, Daisy, already was in Switzerland for her health.). The voyage took 18 days, and they arrived shortly before Congress passed an immigration law that would have made it impossible for them to enter the country. Many decades letter my Aunt Mary wrote,
“In retrospect, I give great credit, and admire Mother’s courage in undertaking this step. She came with five children . . . with no prospects of any of us earning an adequate livelihood. Her only hope was that eventually Father would be able to rejoin us.”
Before his family left Konia, my grandfather measured and marked on the wall the height of each of his six children. Every evening he went to this wall to “kiss” them goodnight.
My mother Armine was only 2.5 years old when the family left Konia, and she never was to see her father again.
With great courage and the spirit of service that exemplified his life, my grandfather remained in Konia to oversee the school, and, ultimately, to tend to its closure.
My grandfather’s character:
My grandfather’s scholarly accomplishments were considerable, yet I believe that it was his character -- the quality of his heart -- that made him truly exceptional.
One indication of this is the love and caring he expressed to his students at the Apostolic Institute. Here is a passage, written later in life, by a student at the school.
I loved my school, and it was a great joy for me to go there . . . I now realize what a humble, good and capable principal was Dr. Haigazian. We all loved and respected him: he was very firm, but kind at the same time. . . . He always spoke gently with us and was never known to scold any of us.
Dr. Haigazian was interested in all our activities; he often came and sat under the pear tree, and watched us while we worked, talking and joking with us.
He sometimes visited our class while we were having lessons. We were never embarrassed by his presence, because he always came in gently, with a friendly smile, his hands behind his back. He listened while we read or answered questions, and he always left the room with a word of encouragement and praise.
My grandparents wrote many letters to each other while they were apart. The following are a few brief excerpts from my grandfather’s letters that reveal something of his values and his love for his family.
My mother did not learn that my grandfather’s letters had been saved until she was in her 70’s. She told me that she wept when she finally read her father’s letters and saw the following passage, from a letter dated April 8, 1920. My grandfather wrote:
“I miss you all so much. . . . What are the children doing? What is especially Armine doing? All the friends ask of her so much.”
That same day he wrote to another daughter, Lily, concerned that she had a cold. He concluded,
“Be a good girl, and you will be the joy of your loving but bald-headed Papa.”
In one letter he refers to a family acquaintance who always signs his letters “Dr. so-and-so.” My grandfather comments:
“As if we were not knowing that he was a Doctor. How vain men are!”
When I read this I was deeply touched – I was struck by how closely this comment reflects my own values. Earning a Doctorate has never changed the fact that I always have felt that I am still “Alan.” In my work, my psychotherapy clients call me by my first name, for I feel that we all meet, most essentially, as one human being to another. For me, as for my grandfather, titles are not the truest measure of a person.
In the same letter my grandfather extends to other species his observation about the male ego, when he observes:
“Let me not forget to tell you our fowl also is well, and this morning he was puffed up and making promenade with all the vanity peculiar to the masculine gender!”
There are but some of the passages which reflect his humility, sense of humor, authenticity and open heart.
My grandfather’s death:
In 1921, as my grandfather was in the process of closing the school and preparing to leave the country, he was arrested by the Turkish authorities. A student at the school later described the circumstance in this account:
“In 1921, at the end of the spring term, one Sunday afternoon, while Dr. Haigazian was giving us a message in the meeting hall, he was interrupted and called outside. He left us suddenly. We did not then understand why. Later on we were told that some Turkish Officers had come that day to search his house, books and belongings.
“The school continued for a short time, but it was never the same again. Not long after, it was closed for good, and our dear Principal had been taken to prison without being able to say goodbye to us. I could not then realize I'd seen him for the last time on that Sunday afternoon. One day, my married sister, who lived near the railway station, came to us weeping, and said, "The Turks took so many Armenians to the station to be exiled; among them I saw Dr. Haigazian, too; he was walking with chained hands, with his head bent to one side, escorted by soldiers as though he were a criminal. It broke my heart to see him so helpless and miserable."
After his arrest my grandfather became ill during a forced march. According to one report, his treatment was deliberately delayed by a Medical and Health officer. He was forced to stay outdoors for a week as he became increasingly ill. When he finally was admitted to the hospital it was discovered that he had contracted typhus.
He was visited for 3 days by an Armenian minister. This man quoted my grandfather as follows:
[He - the Medical and Health officer] . . . tortured me very much. The troubles that I suffered during our travel, and the cruel things I saw are impossible to describe. The Medical officer did not let me come in time, just to kill me. Once for me, to forgive the Turks seemed easy, but now it is very hard, almost impossible. I feel that it is too late now for me to recover.”
During this time he also was visited by an American doctor. Here is a passage from a letter that Doctor wrote to my grandmother:
. . . [Dr. Haigazian] told me that he felt certain that his time had come and he said he was ready to go. I tried to reason with him that we needed him there in Harpoot, and his people needed him, but he felt -- and rightly perhaps -- that our Father in Heaven had more need for him above and that he was calling him. He spoke to me of you all and sent messages of love to you and to your daughters . . .
He was very quiet and slept a great deal that last few days. Sometimes the nurse would hear him singing some of the good old hymns to himself. He had little or no pain, only felt weak and tired. It was Sunday afternoon July 3rd that they overheard him singing that grand old hymn, “Just as I am.”
Here are 2 of the final stanzas of that hymn:
Just as I am, tho' tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
These were my grandfather’s final words.
As the American doctor wrote in his letter,
He carried [the hymn] to the end and that was the last that he spoke. He became unconscious after that and gradually sank in [to] that everlasting sleep.’
My grandfather passed away on July 7, 1921, 89 years ago almost to this day.
My mother’s story:
The rest of the family, my grandmother and her 6 daughters, tried to make their way without their beloved husband and father, living for 5 years in Troy, NY and eventually moving to Pasadena, CA, where they lived with, and were supported by, one of my grandfather’s sisters, a nurse.
As the youngest child, my mother rarely spoke of her Armenian heritage or the family history. I grew up only knowing the broad outlines – that she was Armenian, that they had fled for their lives, and that her father had been killed.
She taught me most directly about her heritage through her cooking, periodically making Armenian pilaf, dolmas, yogurt, and stuffed peppers.
She told me that when she began school her accent and unusual name – Armine -- made her the focus of ridicule,. Sadly, she came to detest the name Armine, so she changed her name to Ruth. I have always thought the name Armine was beautiful, and if I had ever had a daughter I would have been strongly tempted to name her that, despite my mother’s feelings.
But it was when she described life in Konya that my mother’s voice would adopt a tone of reverence and wonder. It was a land, she would say, of the sweetest air, the purest water, and bountiful fruit, ripe for the picking. Her tone conveyed that this was both the real, and also the mythic, landscape of her childhood – the paradise they all had lost.
The family trauma:
My mother and the rest of her family were deeply traumatized by the loss of their beloved husband and father, as well as by the loss of their country and so many facets of its culture.
Like so many other victims of violence, I am sure they felt deep grief, fear, anger and helplessness.
Many studies have shown that psychological trauma, such as that caused by genocide, can be passed down through generations. I grew up being impacted, in ways that I did not understand, by my mother’s deep and complex feelings about the loss of her father and the displacement of her family.
I now understand that the values and feelings she conveyed to me – such as love, compassion, courage, sadness, and fear -- were not simply her own, but were part of the family heritage.
Ultimately, my family story is one of both heartbreak and opportunity. And, in a larger sense, my family story echoes our shared human story – the story of making the best of difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances, of trying to find meaning, freedom, peace and love in a world that often does not easily offer these gifts.
My Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve helped to found this University so as to honor and to further my grandfather’s values and vision, perhaps best expressed in his words quoted on the University webpage:
“It is impossible to educate humanity without love.”
I know that the spirit of love and freedom that has built this University and allowed it to flourish is alive in each of you.
As you now graduate and commence the rest of your lives, let me offer some final thoughts to you.
My thoughts concern ways of approaching life that I myself still am learning, so I offer them to you as a fellow companion on the path of life. They are, I believe, principles by which my grandfather tried to live.
• First, love the people in your life as best you can, and be sure to let those you care for know that you love them. To love is a precious gift – it is the best of you – and it is meant to be expressed over and over again, in ways large and small.
• Next, remember that each of you has a unique and special path that is yours, and yours alone. When I was 14 years old I had a vision in which I saw this special path as a golden thread that winds its way through every soul. In order to live a life that is rich and meaningful, each of us must discover our own personal golden thread, and follow it wherever it leads, for in so doing we connect not only with our deepest selves but with all of humanity.
• Thirdly, when you feel betrayed by life, then try, at some point, to see if it is in your heart to forgive. Forgiveness – if we can arrive at it -- is a blessing to all. It is an act that allows your own heart to continue to flourish, and it is pure grace to receive.
• Finally, pursue education throughout your life, both in school and out, and allow what you learn to open not only your mind, but your heart as well. An educated mind is very, very beautiful, but it works best when guided by the wisdom that only your heart can provide.
My heartfelt blessings to you all. You are our hope and our future. I wish you every success, both personal and professional, in the years ahead.