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The Critical Corner - 06/08/2008

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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

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:

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