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Kessab: Deep Roots Under Attack

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This article is the second in a two part series written by Armenian Weekly columnist Lalai Manjikian. To read part I, click here.

Every fall, my father who was born in Kessab, plants tulip bulbs in his Montreal garden, miles away from his ancestral land. I like to think he does so in an unspoken homage to Kessab—every year, renewing his unbreakable connection to his past.

As a child, my first memory of seeing red wild tulips grow in their element were on the raw mountains of Kessab, as opposed to being neatly transposed in a living room vase. It was a significant sight, given the fact that my parents had named me Lalai, which is this flower’s literary name. Surrounded by wild tulips and towering mountains, I too felt in my element, feeling a strong relationship with this mesmerizingly powerful land where my roots originate.

Only a few weeks ago, I browsed through pictures of Kessab in bloom posted on Facebook. I saw the hopeful images of trees beginning to blossom, warm Kessabi hatz (bread) straight out of the toneer (stone oven). Village life seemed to unfold as usual. I caught myself quietly smiling at pictures of children in Kessab dressed up for Paregentan in colorful costumes, with their radiating smiles seemingly untainted from severe civil unrest engulfing the region for the past three years. These photos provided me with a fragile sense of comfort that all is fine on the Kessab front, even as I thought of the current situation in Syria, where Kessab is precariously nestled in the country’s northwest corner, on the Mediterranean Sea, bordering Turkey.

Only a few weeks ago, I browsed through pictures of Kessab in bloom posted on Facebook.

Only a few weeks ago, I browsed through pictures of Kessab in bloom posted on Facebook.

A few days ago, like a flash flood, those images of a Kessab spring were violently shattered. Years of hard labour, sweat, and love left behind following an attack on this treasured part of Armenian history dating back to the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. The predominantly Armenian enclave of Kessab is now emptied of its Armenian population that has been there for hundreds of years, after rebel forces descended on the region from Turkey.

Houses are being looted, Armenians being displaced. We all know too well this recurring refrain etched in our collective memory, as history coldly repeats itself.

Over the past few days, anyone who has spent some time under Kessab’s magical spell or any Armenian for that matter has been taking numerous stabs in their hearts. Memories flooding our minds, as news trickles out from the region, and as the international community just watches with a blank stare, once again.

Perhaps naively, I always wanted to think that Kessab was untouchable, that it was my only tangible connection to my already devastated family tree, to my past, to my ancestors, at least on my father’s side. My mother’s family from the region of Tomarza in the Kayseri province still stand, but it is was long lost in many ways. Kessab, on the other hand, has always been alive for me. Accessible, it is living, breathing Armenian life, where old and new generations solidly overlap, like interlocking elbows during countless “Garmir fustan” dances endlessly streaming at weddings, baptisms or massarah/perpoor nights (grape molasses cooking feasts). A land where tradition is celebrated, a comforting dialect is spoken, where characters are as unshakable as the rocks that make Kessab.  It is a place that is constantly renewed with the incessant flow of Kessabtzis coming and going to and from this enclave, bringing in the new, but also replenishing themselves with the water, air, food, and unfailing hospitality and genuineness of this rural marvel, still standing tall and strong like its mountains in the lap of the Mediterranean Sea.

Rebels in Kessab

We all know too well this recurring refrain etched in our collective memory, as history coldly repeats itself.

Countless lives started on that land. Men and women who perhaps moved on to other parts of the world, where they exceled in various domains, but always carried Kessab close to their hearts, and most importantly, always returned.

It is the only place where generations of my forefathers and mothers graves are marked, where life came full circle on a land they worked hard to maintain and where they now rest. A real gift that no one can afford to lose for a people afflicted with genocide where burials are scarce.

However days of victimhood are long gone. Resilience and survivorhood are practically engraved in our genetic make-up, with Kessabtzis being a special breed amongst Armenians, where will power, perseverance, and determination are defining common traits.

Spring has arrived in Kessab and as long as the wild tulips will pop their vivid red heads out, all the inhabitants of Kessab will eventually return to their homes and lands. All of us in the diaspora who are connected to Kessab in one way or another will visit again.

Who can give up on what they have loved, nurtured, protected for so long? Kessabtzis certainly never will.

7 Comments on Kessab: Deep Roots Under Attack

  1. avatar Anna Boulgarian // March 25, 2014 at 12:17 pm // Reply

    It is really sad and yes history coldly repeats itself

  2. avatar Rouben Simonian // March 25, 2014 at 7:55 pm // Reply

    Thank you LaLai for this beautiful article on Kessab. We can only hope that the seeds of our hearts will still flourish the land of our ancestors.
    Rouben Simonian

  3. Dear Lalai,
    Thanks for the wonderful article. But now I ask myself, why are the Armenians always overrun by the cruelties that happen to them. Since long you could foresee that Kessab is part of Syria and therefore will not be a paradise forever. Why did the municipal administration not go to the government and ask for weapons to defend the town. If not Arabians but the Armenians at least should have known what could happen in the future. If you are living in a paradise you should know it and be willing to defend it. Just like the people of Musa Ler or the Artsakhis ! Now its to late to mourn.

  4. avatar Menakian Veronica // March 27, 2014 at 8:07 pm // Reply

    Dear Lalai,
    Part one, part two. Two beautiful articles with soul, subtle humor,inspiring, this is You. You fill our hearts with Hope, and Faith. I follow you through your memories ,I stay in your path, that unique way you express passion, love, for your people,your roots…and I look forward for your next issues, your stories.
    Thank you Lalai

  5. avatar Dikran Meguerditchian // March 27, 2014 at 9:50 pm // Reply

    We had no reason to arm ourselves, who were we going to fight the Syrian government that hosted us took care of us, treated us like their own with dignity we are not hypocrites we are peace loving people .
    The sudden and unexpected attack came via Turkey a rout for a second
    genocide as if the first one was insufficient,and the whole world is watching as if they are watching a comedy show on a TV

  6. Thank you . I was greatly impressed reading your soulful narration of dear Kessab . Hope to be able to share your opsimism .

  7. avatar Gohar Vazgen Panajyan // March 29, 2014 at 7:34 pm // Reply

    Thanks for the nice articles. I am a physician, a Kessabtzi decent born in Armenia- but hence feeling deeply connected to Kessab… Since childhood I would hear the unforgettable stories from my Dad and Grandparents about our home near the Church, our gardens… and the dialect that we spoke /Kessbynyk/ is so dear to me… I miss Kessab,I want to go back and visit my family’s house- what can we do-another dictated deportation…We have to never forget that the land is kept through defense and physical presence-let us pray but stay prepared to get back to our sacred lands.

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