For All Nails #251: The Armenian Quarter

by Jonathan Edelstein

Alexandria, Egypt
September 1976

Mayranoush Sardarian made the best pastries in Alexandria. Other bakers might dispute that, but the people knew; even in Cairo and Beirut, they knew about Sardarian's. The tour guides from the German excursion ships brought people in, and no wedding in Alexandria was complete without a table of Mayranoush's sweets; once, the king and queen of Egypt had eaten some of her apricot yogurt cake.

Mayranoush's name meant "sweet mother," and she gave all the children in the Greek quarter pastries for free. She'd had children of her own once, in the house on the Shari al-Horreya, but they were all gone -- George practicing law in Cairo, Laila working for the government, Vartan an officer in the navy. The youngest still lived in Alexandria, but she was married with a house of her own. Only on Mayranoush's birthday and at Christmas were all of them under one roof, mother and four children around the table.

There should have been seven.

Sardarian's served coffee as well as sweets, and Mayranoush had put a few tables in front of the counter for those who liked to stay. Garabed, who owned the butcher shop next door, always came at seven o'clock to drink spiced coffee, eat mamoul and propose marriage.

He was a widower of sixty-eight, two years older than she. "I lost four and you lost three," he told her. "I have three and you have four. Together we are half a family."

Her answer was always the same -- "I don't want to be half a family." She knew some people did, even after all this time; in some houses on the Shari al-Horreya, parents still set places at the table for absent children. She remembered thinking at the time that the children suffered most, but she had learned that the parents suffered longer.

Zabel was one year old...But it was best not to think about Zabel, best not to think about Aram and how his arms had felt around her. She remembered them, surely. It was important to remember when she had been left without even a photograph; her memories were all there were. But it was best to keep them in a corner of her memory where she wouldn't have to think of what had happened, of how they looked when she saw them last. It was best to keep them someplace where the children didn't have to live in their shadow. Tatoul had been four...

Proposal gave way to conversation, a chance to speak her mind in Armenian without having to break into Arabic or German for the customers. It was impossible to do business in Alexandria without speaking half a dozen languages. That could be an inconvenient thing, but it wasn't a bad one; it was one of the reasons why the city was an oasis. In Arabia, the Sallahists were talking like the Turks had -- of purifying the country, ridding it of Germans and Jews. In Beirut, the police had closed the mosques and the Sallahists set off bombs in police stations. Even in Cairo, there were nationalist whisperings; the Sallahites were officially banned, but they had members of Parliament and everyone knew who they were. Only Alexandria was different -- which was why there were more Armenians there, these days, than there were in Armenia.

But those were also things it wasn't good to talk too much about. Memory was a dangerous thing, and Mayranoush had learned her Greek and Arabic in Constantinople.

Sugar Mary sang at the Metropolitan every night. Sugar Mary, the sweet mother's daughter, her father's last child. The child her father had never seen, born in Alexandria in 1940; the one thing her mother had been able to carry away.

The Metropolitan was on Shari el-Nebi Daniel, in the Jewish quarter. It was about a mile from Sardarian's, and most nights Mayranoush came to hear her daughter sing. They let her in for free.

Mary sang in Arabic until ten o'clock, belting out the Cairene love songs and Mexicanized Greek ballads that were the common fare in Alexandria nightclubs. After that, though, she sang in Armenian. She had two accompanists who were skilled on the oud and the duduk, and for three hours the Metropolitan was not a part of Egypt.

Aram had also liked to sing; he had passed that on somehow, even though his daughter had never heard his voice. When Mary sang, Mayranoush could unlock the corners of her memory a little. It was the kind of memory that was clean -- the memory of love and long-ago wars, all long enough past to be safely unburied. She could hear Aram's voice in Mary's and remember him singing, without thinking of what had happened after. It was as if he were there, and not only his ghost -- Aram, and Zabel, and Tatoul, and Narineh...

Mayranoush woke at three in the morning. The spell had broken, as it always did. Now Aram's face was in front of her without music to soften the memory, a ghost that had been summoned but not dispelled. His face, and Tatoul's laughter, and Zabel's cries.

Soon enough, they were her own.

(Forward to FAN #252: The Waitress is Practicing Politics.)

(Forward to 10 September 1976: Crash of Civilizations.)

(Forward to Sardarian family: Red Sea Morning.)

(Return to For All Nails.)

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