The Assyrian queen did not get her wish. The army was not able to capture the king: Ara was slain, and found dead among the brave fallen warriors on the battlefield. When the Armenian forces gathered once more to avenge their leader’s death, Semiramis sent them a message of false hope:
I have commanded the gods to lick his wounds, and he shall live again.
Yeah, that didn’t happen. No second coming for King Ara.
Like the immortalized sexual icons that would succeed him – James Dean and Elvis Presley (pre-Vegas) – he died before male pattern-baldness set in and tarnished his legendary image.
And so, he became the face that launched a thousand Assyrians; and a symbol of Armenian loyalty, honor, and self-control.
* * *
In Armenissa from Krikor Zohrab’s Voice of Conscience, a collection of short stories published in 1909, we meet an unnamed narrator who, unlike King Ara, has very little self-control. Infatuated with an older and seemingly unattainable woman on the Greek island of Halki, he lies in order to win her heart. They’re small lies, really. Just about his race and religion, that’s all.
But the heartbeat of this story lies within its sensual bonnie lass, Armenissa Armenouhi: a woman with the power to lure men across those divisions and into her own prejudices.
The young men hung about inviting her attention in vain. She never acknowledged their presence in any way… The style-conscious Greek women tried to imitate her dress, without ever succeeding. And when she passed by, holding her small son by the hand, with the serenity and grace of a goddess, murmurs of admiration moved on everybody’s lips, murmurs that fueled my passion.
Armenissa is a devout Catholic and a self-hating Armenian. We don’t know where the loathing for her Armenian roots comes from except that we are told that it’s from a place of deep personal pain. Many things in this story are left to the imagination. It’s all part of Armenissa’s, and the story’s, mystique.
Mystique like when she is occasionally seen with a six-year-old boy, who may or may not be her son, and a short, heavy-set man in his fifties, who may or may not be her husband.
Everything about her, how she moved, talked, looked, had a distinctive character. She was without curiosity, without the capacity to be surprised. What did she like? How could one please her? It was an impossible puzzle, with this beautiful woman as a prize for anyone who solved it.
The narrator follows her around the island from casinos to hotels and never misses an opportunity to stop and gaze at her beauty: the skin tone of her neck, the sun’s rays reflecting through her dress, and the veil of sadness on her face, rumored to be from the constraint of this so called “husband” of hers.
Following a crowd, and his own curiosity, one day he walks into a Catholic church, where their eyes meet.
Armenissa looked at me, and a smile, actually a rising sun illuminating a dark horizon spread across her beautiful red mouth.
They begin to converse and she asks him if he is Catholic. Without hesitation, he answers in the affirmative, even though he is not. He also stops speaking Armenian, fully absolving himself of his nationality and religion. He is careful not to contradict any notions of the world she may hold dear, so as not offend her.
Her fondness for him grows and the two become lovers.
The sky was clearer and a deeper blue: the sea calmer, and the sound of the waves softer and more mysterious. My affinity for flowers, trees, the mountains, solitude; the stars became my intimate friends: I was gentler and more serene; for the first time I was able to sense the majesty of the universe, in reverence; I wrote poems.
True to the cosmic law that doesn’t allow any lie to continue undiscovered, Armenissa becomes wise to her lover’s dishonesty. Their tryst temporarily ends.
After some heartache, she is able to forgive him, and they reconcile. But it isn’t the same for the young lover. The excitement of hiding his true self from her and the adrenaline of the chase dissipates.
With the loss of her prejudices, she seemed to lose the most prepossessing of her charms. What was unique about her seemed to fade … Everybody’s existence is a unity, which cannot survive the removal of any important part. Becoming sensible and direct, Armenissa ceased to be interesting and charming.
* * *
What can be more charming than an admirer approaching you in a coffee shop and delivering these lines:
I traveled the world, even to Ethiopia
But I never saw anything to compare
Blessed be the parents who bore you
Your face, I should describe only
In French and in Persian
Before you throw that double caramel soymilk medley on him, relax: he’s just reciting 18th century troubadour Sayat Nova’s famed lyrics from Tamam Ashkar.
Regarded as a musical virtuoso and a profound thinker, his contributions to Armenian music and poetry are paramount.
Armenian literature is abundant with humorous, romantic and mesmerizing tales. These stories, some familiar, some ripe for discovery, deserve to be explored. So next time Titanic is playing on television, opt for something new and even more heartbreaking, like Paruyr Sevak’s You Are To Blame, you won’t regret this piece by the revered 20th century poet and scholar.
Well, unless you are going through a rough patch. Perhaps you let the love of your life slip away, now you heard she’s getting married to that gaudy real-estate agent with the mean jump shot, and all you have left of your time together are the ticket stubs from your first date, and the mostly used bottle of cologne she gave you three years ago on your birthday.
In that case, stay as far away as possible from Sevak’s poem of haunting despair.
Instead, pick up one of Nahapet Kuchak’s sometimes self-deprecating and always witty sets filled with sexual imagery and humor. One of the first ashughs and sweet rhyme-sayers of the 16th century, Kuchak and his popular, fun hayrens (couplets, usually four to eight lines, memorized and recited by those that know how to have a good time), are timeless in their ability make you smile.
Listen to my beloved,
Selling sugared almonds,
Her eyes are magnets,
Her eyebrows arched high.
Whoever goes, gets almonds cheaply,
Whenever I do, she raises the price,
I don’t know whether it’s a sales habit
Or whether she’s trying to make me cry.
And my favorite:
For the sake of who made you
be sedate when you walk
For His sake control
your eyebrows when you talk
Men are bloodied by the sharp
darts from your eye
For pity’s sake spare me,
I’m too young to die.
Hopefully some lessons in love were learned here today that can potentially detour you from ever having to check in, or send somebody, to the Heartbreak Hotel.
First, when possible, swim to your lover while the sun is out. Your worst fear: awkward tan lines.
Second, when you offer him the keys to your kingdom, along with your naked and willing body, and he refuses, then he’s probably just not that into you.
Third, if you are approached with Sayat Nova lyrics, call your suitor on his bluff. Ask him to describe your face in French or Persian.
And lastly: have mercy ladies! Control your eyebrows when you talk – you never know whose heart you might be piercing with the sharp darts from your eyes.