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Kessab Roots: A Survivor’s Story

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As a Diasporan Armenian connected to Armenia, as well as historical Armenia (currently in Turkey), part of the multitude of attachments I carry is with Kessab, a region and a town located in the northwestern part of Syria, on the Mediterranean Sea, at the Turkish border. Apparently, it has been inhabited by Armenians since the 11thcentury, going back to the Cilician Armenian Kingdom.

Weekly columnist Lalai Manjikian with her grandmother.

Kessab remains a predominantly Armenian enclave to this day. A drive down a narrow, winding road through towering mountains eventually leads to my father’s village Karadouran, located directly on the Mediterranean Sea. The untamed, mountainous backdrop is now being populated with modern condo developments alongside ancient stone houses. The most valuable resource in the area is the fertile land, and villagers subsisted mainly by selling their harvest, initially with non-mechanized and rudimentary processes.

Karadouran is where my grandmother, Kalila Yaralian-Manjikian, lived until she quietly passed away last week at the age of 104.

I was fortunate enough to have visited her—to have heard her wisdom, laughed with her, answered her questions, heard her answer the questions I had about her life, hugged her, and experienced her sense of humor and inquisitive mind first hand. The last time I saw her was during her 100th birthday celebration in October 2007. I was in the presence of a century lived, and Kalil Nene inspired me with her strength and resilience.

She was unquestionably the doyenne of the village. Visitors, friends, and family, from near and far, would always make the mandatory stop to see Kalil Nene, to receive her blessings, to answer her inquisitive questions of what they were up to and where they were in their life—and this, until her very last days. Even filmmakers, who for some reason stopped in this remote area, were taken by her degree of lucidity and her life trajectory, as they sought to preserve her and her words on film.

When I last saw her, I was amazed by how “with it,” self-sufficient, and mobile she was at 100. Her level of awareness, her intact memory that recalled the finest of details, her sharp, inquisitive mind, and her wit, were remarkable. At times, she had critical words to offer; at other times, she was very categorical about what she wanted. Most of the time, she would voice her opinion and would then let it go with a simple “Eh, took keedek” (as you wish, or, you know best). She always knew the whereabouts and status of everyone in the village, and those who had left and were abroad.

Named after the Biblical Galilee (the Armenian variant of her name was Kalila), Kalil Nene was born in 1907 in the village of Karadouran, near the town of Kessab. My grandmother was one when the Adana massacres were carried out by the Turkish authorities. Along with her immediate family and many of the other villagers, she fled Karadouran for a brief time. Upon their return to Kessab, and as soon as they had rebuilt what had been pillaged, in 1915 the Armenian population of Kessab was once again confronted with displacement, alongside the massive deportation orchestrated by the Ottoman Turks who forcefully removed the Armenian population from eastern Turkey. My grandmother’s family, along with the rest of the Armenians of Karadouran, made their way to Damascus on foot. After a short rest, the caravan of the displaced headed towards Jordan, to the Salt and Mahas regions. In Mahas, Kalil Nene’s father passed away.

In 1918, when the British army entered Jerusalem, her family moved there. She bore a tattoo with a cross and the year 1918 as a memento from her time in Jerusalem.

Her family moved yet again, this time by train, to Port Said, in Egypt. A number of other Armenian inhabitants of Kessab from various regions, as well as some from Musa Dagh, where established there. It is in Port Said where Kalil Nene learned the Armenian alphabet.

After World War I, at the beginning of 1919, the Armenians residing in Port Said began to resettle in other regions or returned home. Kalil Nene’s family was taken by train to Aleppo, Syria, where horse wagons took them to the region of Antioch. From there, they made their way back to Kessab, and then to Karadouran on foot. The Armenian population of Kessab that survived the mass killings and deportations was able to begin rebuilding their destroyed homes and villages.

Kalil Nene married my grandfather, Hovsep Manjikian, in 1927 and they had three children. In addition to her motherly responsibilities, she worked hard with her husband in all the demanding village tasks.

When Kalil Nene turned 100 years old, one of her grandchildren asked her, What is the secret to living so long? She simply replied, “Lead a clean life.” There is a multitude of ways one can interpret her statement.

During her 100th birthday celebration, she refused everyone’s help in getting to the party: On her own, she went down the 10 stairs from where she lived with my aunt, then walked quite a distance from the car to get to the “honor table” at the birthday venue, a restaurant at the edge of the Mediterranean. We all watched as she took one solid step after another, with her two wooden canes.

She was a long-standing member of the Armenian Relief Society—a member for 80 years—as well as a supporter of Armenian schools in the Kessab region. She even attended the opening of the new school building recently and contributed to the project.

How did she live such a long and healthy life? Perhaps it was the clean air, her genetic make-up, the arduous physical labour in the village for years, or the fact that she was a strict vegetarian and preferred to eat grains, such as bulgur and lentils, that granted her a long life. Maybe a bit of all of that, combined with her overall positive and healthy outlook on life and her sense of humor.

Although twice forcefully displaced, Kalil Nene had returned to her ancestral land. She was born and raised there, she tirelessly worked the land there, and she passed away there peacefully after living a healthy life for more than a century, only to be buried in the land she laboured so hard on. Life came full circle for her, as it will for all of us. Yet, living within a diasporic reality, to be born, raised, to work and die on one’s ancestral land, close to one’s roots, is a rare gift.

19 Comments on Kessab Roots: A Survivor’s Story

  1. avatar annie demirjian // November 19, 2011 at 4:25 pm // Reply

    What a beautiful story. TKU Lalai.
    From Tripli, Libya!

  2. Wonderful article!  It reminded me of my grandfather who lived to be 96 years old.  He was from the Hussineg (Kharpert province).  Those old timers experienced so much during their life and persevered despite the odds against them.  I sure do miss my grandpa.

  3. A part of us always stays in the circle.. Your grandmother is still alive in you Lalai, please keep that part.. that is the most precious legacy one can have!

  4.     An incredible life and an inspiring story. Your column reminds many of us of the special relationship we all had with our grandparents from the survivor generation. We are sorry for your loss. Your celebration of her life is a great tribute. My grandmother was from Adana and also had to leave for a period of time to Egypt during the Adana massacres in 1909. Thank you for sharing the life of your dear grandmother.

  5. Thank you for this article Lalai jan. Asdvadz hokis lousavore yev kou mechet haverj var bahe.

  6. avatar Kevork Yazedjian // November 19, 2011 at 11:18 pm // Reply

    Dear Lala,
    I am very sad for your grandma’s passing. My dear condolences for all mwmbers of the great Yaralian and Manjikian families. I have met your gradma, the lovely and honest Kalil Nene. Her deportation story is typical for Kessabtzi Armenians, more detailed in the books of my teacher and friend, the Kaladourantzi Hagop Tcholakian. I wish you publish the whole and detailed  story of Kalil Nene deportation as a historical evidence of the Armenian Genocide.
    One essential remark: never use the term . For the true Armenian there is no such thing. All of us must use the term . We bury our Hay Tad if we begin using Turkish terms! Try to not use also the term . All our Homeland, the Arenian Highland or merely , has not changed and can never be changed to a lost reality. It exists eternally!

    Kevork Yazedjian (M. S. Technical Sciences, PhD. History, owner of cafeteria in Kessab in 1994-2008 

  7. avatar Lily Markarian // November 19, 2011 at 11:21 pm // Reply

    Great story Lalai and a story to be proud of.  You always do a good job on everything
    you write.  Your grandma seems to be  a great woman and I am sure you will follow
    her in her footsteps health and happiness and long life.

  8. Lalai, I was so happy to see the picture of you with your grandmother in the Weekly. I recognized her immediately as the beautiful “Kiougheen Nenen” whom I had the good fortune to meet when I, my husband and my sister visited Karadouran with my Kessabtzi father, Aram, in summer of 2010. I wouldn’t be surprised if your Neneh knew mine and my grandfather, who were both Kessabzis. Our families go back for years. On our visit, your Nene greeted us with a huge warm smile, standing to greet us and then again to bid us farewell. She was beautiful, strong, and an inspiration to us all. I am saddened to hear about her passing. God blessed her and you are keeping her alive in your words. Gyanke kezee.

  9. It’s an interesting and hard life she had. You are lucky to have known and enjoyed her, shared her experiment. Grandmothers are special persons above all armenian ones who had lived this special period of our history, the beginning of the 20th century. I knew my grandparents for a short time and as child we are not aware of our history, their lives to ask them lot of questions … Write a book to tell their story.

  10. avatar Mayda Najarian Piloyan // November 20, 2011 at 7:29 am // Reply

    C’est avec vive intérêt que j’ai lu l’histoire de ta grand-mère qui ressemble un peu à celle de mon père. Lui était né en 1904 à Adana survécu à plusieurs massacres, mais orphelin à Port Said il doit avoir rencontré ta grand-mère. Il avait écrit sa vie mais après être installé au Liban mais vers la fin de sa vie il nous racontait ce qu’ils avaient enduré pendant les massacres et leur marche vers les déserts de la Jordanie, les maladies, les malheurs, l’orphelinat. 

    Sossy Piloyan 

  11. avatar Vahe' Ashodian // November 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm // Reply

    I enjoyed your article, Lalai. I fell in love with Kessab since my first Boy Scout retreat there in the Summer of 1969. A short and mountainous drive from Aleppo, Syria. Almost every Armenian from Aleppo has a story to tell of Kessab and “Kaladoura”. Summer travelers pour in during “Khaghogh Orshnerk” at “Asdvadzadzin” weekend. And then there is the “Herrissa” night. Who can forget Kessabs’ evergreen mountain tops, rounding up-hill down-hill roads, fresh spring water, juicy green Apples, foggy mornings and clean air. All the power to Armenian families schools and churches which are still thriving there even with the current circumstances. I happen to know few Kessabtsy’s; I cherish their friendship and our sweet memories. I hope to visit Kessab at my next travel to Syria. Although I never knew your Grandmother, but I can surely relate to her love and bonding to the her birthplace. God bless Her soul.

  12. avatar Gohar Panajyan // November 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm // Reply

    Nice story Lalai… I am also Kessabtzi, a decent of the Armenian Genocide survivors who immigrated to Armenia. My late grandma, Hripsime was aslo born in 1907, in Kessab. This is such a close to me story- my grandma and grandpa had been telling me so many things about IT…
    My Daddy was 10 when the family took the root to Armenia and started a new life, with all its hardships… but we, the young generation, do cherish each piece of these memories , speak Kessbynyk when reuniting- and I hope one day I will be able to go and visit my ancestral Homeland and Our house…

  13. Thank you everyone for the comments and for sharing your own (his)stories and memories.

  14. avatar Vartoug Panossian // November 23, 2011 at 1:28 am // Reply

    Hi Lalai ,gyanke kezi yev sirelinerout .i enjoyed your article very very much ,i can surley relate to your story  as my grandparents were from Mousa Dagh, and they always spoke about their stories and memories.God bless her soul.

  15. avatar Lydia Tutunjian // November 23, 2011 at 3:35 am // Reply

    Dear Lalai,
    What a great article. My condolences for your beloved grandmother. Your article was very emotional for me, since it brought so many memories. My grandfather Reverend Boghos Tutunjian and my grandmother Mariam moved to Karadouran after the Marash massacres of 1923. My late father was born in Karadouran the same year your grandparents were married on 1927. He was a toddler when he left the area, but always remembered it with great joy and I have heard such wonderful stories from my grandmother about the city, she loved the grape vineyards and hillsides. My grandmother passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 100 also, with ever clear mind and wonderful attitude towards life. So much to learn from our true treasures….. 
    Thanks for sharing your articles.
    Lydia Tutunjian

  16. avatar Vazken M. Der Kaloustian // November 24, 2011 at 5:55 pm // Reply

    Dear Lalai,

    My heartfelt condolences for the loss of your dear grandmother. And my congratulations for your wonderful article. It is with the strong ties like those between you and your grandmother that our nation will survive and progress with the evolution of time.
    Kessab, Karadouran and Musa Dagh are neighbours. They are also regions that had and still have special meanings for us, regarding human and national values. I am sure you will transmit those values to the members of your newly formed family. I wish you all the best in your life and in your future.
    With warm regards,

    Vazken Der Kaloustian

  17. avatar Zeron Saghdejian // March 24, 2014 at 11:05 am // Reply

    Kalila Yaralian Manjikian gella in medz hores amoyin aghchige (mamayis goghmen)Serop yaralianin amoyin aghchige yerp kalelov tbrots gertayink amen angam vor indzi deser mamayis yev babougis parev ge gherger 1995 yedk amen angam vor ir kov yertayi amen dzenokhkis antamneroon anoonnerov meg meg ge hartsener irents vorbesoutyoune ,Asdvadz hokin lousavore chegerknevelik antser ,hima yte vokhch ellar Kesabi yerort gakhte bidi abrer (Kesabtsineroon jagadagir ):

  18. avatar Maro froundjian // March 26, 2014 at 12:28 pm // Reply

    Abris Lalai , very good and emotional article

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