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BARON GARBIS IS ALIVE AND WELL IN BH Armenian News Network / Groong June 8, 2008 By Bedros Afeyan In the late seventies and onwards, when the Lebanese Armenian community started immigrating to the US and settling in large numbers in LA, one of the jokes was that they had gone from BH to BH. The former stood for Bourj Hammood and the latter for Beverly Hills. While they were from Boorj Hammood, many of them, they actually settled in North Hollywood and eventually migrated to Glendale or Pasadena or the San Fernando Valley. Boorj Hammood was a strong Armenian community in Eastern Beirut. It was populated with Armenians of modest education and financial means. While it was growing and changing for the better before the Lebanese Civil War began in 1975, while the original modest backgrounds and challenges were being met and overcome, it was nevertheless a place for strong opinions, head strong attitudes, bravura with guns, threats and screams which made Western Beirut Armenians sometimes cringe and often avoid that area altogether, as the ghetto it surely was, and best whispered about. Bourj Hammood Armenians spoke many dialects and village vernaculars. These were holdovers from The Ottoman empire era that ended in the genocide of a million and a half Armenians and the forced deportation of the rest. During that 600 year Turkish rule, the poor villagers forged a Turkified slang where they mixed and matched aphorisms and swear words as needed. And these were preserved and ported to Lebanon at the end of the most harrowing era of Armenian history, the genocide of 1915. From the Syrian deserts to Lebanon, the remnant sound patterns of those age old villages in Anatolia, there rose Armenian enclaves and ghettos, bootstrapping themselves into thriving communities in a matter of 30-40 years. What sense of Armenianness, what pride, what precepts survive such an historical upheaval? How do you half-grasp a language and a culture, mix it generously with Turkish and Arabic, sing your patriotic songs as you make a living as a shoesmith, blacksmith or hourly wage earner and make possible a better future for your children? This state of affairs produced a certain archetypical male character who swears and cusses, he threatens and remains defiant. His sense of Armenianness is wounded and rebellious, his braggartry executed at the end of a gun even if that gun is often turned at other Armenians who are less gung ho about the justice denied the genocide survivors, now congregated mostly in the Eastern suburbs of Beirut. The Bourj Hammood archetype, accompanying more enlightened children, made it to LA as a result of the devastation of the Lebanese civil war in the mid Seventies. He never mixed with the natives once here, he never wanted anything more than preserving the old ways. The safe road was conservatism and dogmatic zeal. He was laughed at by his children's generation, he was marginalized and now he is dying out. Vahe Berberian captures for posterity a mega-archetypical Bourj Hammood Za'eem (Arabic for tough guy) by the name of Baron Garbis. Mr. Garbis is set in his ways, knows right from wrong, finds himself being right quite often, and the rest of his acquaintances are either gays, prostitutes, weak, soft in the head, misguided, ill-informed or just unworthy. Baron Garbis knows all. He is however getting old and he is courting memory loss, a fog in his head and a permanent state of garboil and medical problems men in their 80's often face. He has a son and grandson and the three men make up the dramatis personae of this wonderful play by Vahe Berberian. The language alone deployed by Baron Garbis, as he grunts and pushes his weight around, is marvelous to watch. Garbis has a narrow view full of categoricals which his son, the fifty year old College Professor finds hard to fathom. Yet this is his father and this is his father's home. He and his son have a wide gulf separating them. The old man is as curmudgeonly as can be. He knows how to push his son's buttons and the story revolves around the return of a sibling from a Baron Garbis-induced exile from the family. We are left to speculate, what could this daughter have done to deserve such a harsh fate? By the end of the play, we learn all we want to know about this family saga. The play is a study of traditions and sacred cows that haunt the Archetypes of Boorj Hammood. Armenianness: what is it and who dictates or updates its values? The church? The patriotic organizations? Are they convenient ruses for misogyny, for old world values, for stale, seemingly auto-pilot-set rhetoric, which is divisive and contaminated with self-justifying lack of scrutiny? But the play is not all doom and gloom, far from it, in fact. It is a humorous and well-acted romp to throw up these taboos and long held nightmares which have been part and parcel of the Armenian hobbled reality in the middle eastern diaspora. A community of immigrants, children of holocaust victims, themselves refugees from a civil war, Lebanon, a country in turmoil itself, with previous tremors in 1958, 1967 and in 1973, which have all involved all the Baron Garbis' of Bourj Hammood, shaping and reinforcing their memories and zeal. Vahe Berberian catches this fellow in all his naked, shriveled and threatening braggadocio. Vahe gently takes him down intellectually, like a judoka with a conscience. The bully must be brought down, but gently for more effect. Lost and perplexed is best, and not in a duel where martyrdom can ensue. Baron Garbis is taken down. His standards and values get ridiculed and exposed. He is no longer a viable player since his own revelations and stories declare his ways to be of dubious value in this day and age. His son is thus able to give his own son a valuable lesson, a grandson who was romanticizing his grandfather's world, perhaps. At the end of the stories and revelations in Baron Garbis, the play, no such glorification is possible. Flawed, broken and ill-tempered, Baron Garbis is shown for what he is: a relic from the past quickly superseded by Western mores which are better impedance matched with the local surroundings here in the US even in a mega-molten pot such as LA. The characters of the son and grandson are less well constructed and could use some further work, in the opinion of this reviewer. The professor could show how his chosen path allows him some defense against the monster father who has always been more distant than present. But we are given too little of that. All conversations seem initiated and dominated by Mr. G. It would have been far more palatable if the son could see himself falling into the same traps as Mr. G., for instance while dealing with his own son, or else he could force the moment and try and make his life take center stage for a moment, his concerns and his preoccupations. In addition, it would help to connect the various quests in the play, from Mr. G.'s wife's burial to the hidden treasures one often seeks, a la lottery ticket buying, when one is as vulnerable as Mr. G. How the son helps the Armenian community along (or not), how he fulfils his destiny as an Armenian, all this would be of interest to an audience. It is never exposed in detail in the play. Just broad strokes and in revolt only, with no explanations offered, when Baron Garbis attacks his son Jirair, concerning his lifestyle. More detail would have given much needed contrasting texture here. Overall, this is a very successful effort. It is recommended that a companion play, a prequel, be written by Vahe Berberian, which takes place eight years earlier when Baron Garbis' wife dies. It would be very revealing to get her perspective and her reality exposed, not through his mouth but through hers, directly. I for one would like to see how this angel of a woman dealt with Mr. G. and her sons and daughter. What were her social network elements? How did she adjust to LA and mix the new with the old? How did she manage to become an American or at the very least, accept the reality of America as is? This Digin Hripsime' play might show the contrast of her language from his, her gentleness from his brutality, and perhaps his gentleness towards her, when they are all alone and his guard is down. It would make a great textural addition to this wonderful play where Monsieur Garbis rules the roost and falls on his own sword, told with loving generosity of spirit by Vahe Berberian. To learn more about the play and its performance schedule go to www.BaronGarbis.com -- Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found on the web by clicking on his personal web pages at: http://18.104.22.168/