Filling the Silence




On the eve of April 24, Martyr’s Day, we join a few thousand 20-somethings on a 4 kilometer march from Opera, at Yerevan’s center, up Baghramian Street, past the President’s House, past the American University of Armenia, past the old Soviet Military Hospital, across the Kievyan Bridge, and up to the Genocide Memorial. Perched on a promontory, separated by a large stone slab from the Genocide Museum below ground, the memorial is two sharp stone spires, nested next to a circle of trapezoidal granite obelisks that lean protectively over a sanctuary, open to the air, a fire within. Halfway there, some young men’s hate chants are crashing on our backs and ears; we hurry forward to the parade’s clearer heads–some bishops in black, and bearers of an enormous flag.

“Some wounds never heal” reads one button. “Why won’t the Armenians give up their fixation on genocide?” I once heard an American ask. Try asking the bereaved parent to overlook his child’s murder.

In my own experience, the inflicted wound, pound for pound, always hurt more than an accidental wound. For better or worse, the brain’s pain system takes social factors, like apparent intention, into account. Then there is the social kind of hurt–feeling ignored, snubbed, rejected. Our brains register social pain using the same networks as those that perceive physical hurts. Despite all this fancy equipment, it often seems that we acknowledge and comfort the accidental hurt (earthquakes,tidal waves, hurricanes) more readily than the inflicted hurt.

We cross the bridge and head up the stone walkway along the far side of the Hrazdan River Gorge. Every year, along these last 300 meters up to the Memorial, walks the greatest confluence of Armenians that the world knows. They walk mostly in family groups, and they carry lilacs, tulips, roses. We arrive, and lay the flowers down. Before the day is done, there will be a 64 foot circular wall, six feet high, under the sky and the stones.



If you talk to Barack Obama, or your American Ambassador in Armenia, or the leaders of Turkey, you will not hear the term “Armenian Genocide.” In this silence, for some, the perpetrator’s original message, “you are not of us, you deserved this,” may continue to echo. Perhaps, among other things, this ritual serves memory by correcting other cognitive errors–shame, or guilt, emotional scars of a historical monstrosity. This is what I see most clearly about Martyr’s Day–a will to fill the silence with better understanding.




Lavash Rules


 Here, the people eat bread that is flat, about as thick as your summer socks. Lavash. They are clever about folding all kinds of un-ruly foods into it, ones that I would otherwise have clasped between my lips like a spray of flowers. Robust branches of tarragon and potato greens are heaped on a serving plate, waiting for me. How to approach? Go, eat with your fingers, say my hosts. New tools, new rules. I comply.

So let’s use the lavash for all it is worth. This means unfurl it, folded and stacked neat and prim as it is like a bed-sheet before you; now engulf a variety of foods in it, make some arrangement of greens, meat, rice, or whatever, on its open face. This is the artistic part, but demands also some sense of physics–of the tensile and elastic qualities of lavash–so that your unique edible package does not dis-assemble itself under its own weight en route to la boca, or, as they say in these parts, “peranet”- which by this time is a term consonant with your appetite. Does everybody already know this? Is this part of the basic curriculum around here? You wonder.

My Armenian friends back home encouraged me to get out to the country of a saturday and see the lavash being made. Only I found out that if I stay on the #259 bus until it stops, I arrive on a side road off the Admiral Ishakov Highway; and there, surrounded by trashy fields and shack-homes patrolled by dis-inherited dogs and scowling cats, old women with gold teeth are making lavash around a fire.

Sounds from the end of the 259 bus line:

Walk down to the last of the sidewalk businesses and look in the picture window. It is done underground, only you can witness without actually going there. A smooth clay parabola heats in the circular pit, a wood fire at its center; the clay is waiting for someone to paint it with lavash batter. Again and again, the women find a loose corner with their fingertips, deliver great beige flags of lavash from the hot terra cotta, and fold it up for Yerevan’s restaurants and homes. This is where it happens, the end of the 259 line. Lavash rules.

Song:”Lavash at the end of the line

Look Away


[entry of Amir Hosein Zargham (Iran) to the first annual “Sunny Dragon” International Graphic Humor Festival, Yerevan.(Silver Medal: Dana Walrath)]

Speech Therapy A 50 minute session with 3 mute, rambunctious boys with autism on the cusp of verbal expression has just begun. The therapists must have quicker reflexes than we comfortable consultants, and live by their wits to gather the errant winds, like Aeolus and his zephyrs. They emphatically praise small accomplishments.
Abrees.” They gesture, double-team, divide, run picks on the boys’ fleeing attention. Drumming, flapping, hooming, tooth-grinding. Will they join, share a rule, an idea? Arshad seems closest, renders a single reciprocal gesture. This is what Rolfing for the social mind looks like: tenaciously shepherding tempers, patiently corralling impulses, abiding protest dances, and the students’ persistent refrain: the look away.

How many times have we seen Merrill Streep do that look away, in her eloquent way, when she is momentarily pierced by some insight? Even Sean Connery can be caught looking away in visual defense. The habit starts early: 6 month olds use gaze shift to cope with novelty or frustration, to prevent the breakdown. Then the good parent gently guides their attention back–look, you can manage this.

Walking to work The drivers can see me-they’re braking for me since I’m in the faded yellow bars of the crosswalk. While I search the tinted windows for eye contact–to make sure–the old woman gathers her gravity and launches herself, head down, breaking a way for me across the busy lanes of Komitas Avenue. She seems to be following Brazelton, the famous pediatrician, who advised trainees not to make eye contact with the toddler as he approaches, lest you annoy him. I wave redundantly at the cars as they bunch up along our walkspace- “I’m going this way.” Duh.

Come November-time, volleys of healthy, staring boys and girls arrive at my pediatric neurology office. The problem: repeatedly snared in a look away, returning with a “huh?” The causes range from video game burnout to sleep apnea to prior trauma. Just a few have petit mal epilepsy. For the rest, I re-frame the problem–this is not neurological. The lyric “Look away,” in the song Dixie, is in fact an instruction to look towards something that is far away–“looky here,” “looky way,” as they say. (Ironically, the song may actually have been taught by an African American family to a white minstrel in blackface). (Pardon my distraction).

At 30 minutes, Arshad’s hands have intensified their whirring. He receives the continuing word introductions with roving hand claps, air kicks and broadside thigh swats. “Vertch!”–that’s enough! Then a soothing song, ‘lorry, lorry,’ a moment of consensus, hands join around the table.

Edgar; at first he retreats under the table, re-surfacing to re-engage with the clever wooden toys made by Rach, the carpenter downstairs. Gradually, his body language shows acceptance of the words repeatedly launched towards him. He takes possession of a patience, a social kind of goodness.

Listen to: Look Away

Closing A circle, mutual stomps, and song; now Hovaness is in the middle; he has come a long way towards calming with the group, and now clearly enjoys his turn as the Sun in the circle dance. A light of satisfaction, of competence, shines on his smiling face as he gazes upon his friends.

Heads and Tales

Clinic. The DNA report is in; it is read to the parents, and they weep. A life can be sorely rattled by a mistake in a sodium channel gene–seizures, rolling in from the horizon, wave upon wave, with more heavy weather expected. The neurologist helps to little avail, adding medicines, piling up sandbags against a tsunami. The parents should be checked, as the report says, considering the genetic counseling implications. More dreadful prospects.

[Perhaps the most widely applied “genetic counseling” technology, if you will pardon the expression, is ultrasound: when the sound waves say “it’s a girl!”–oh woe, an abortion may follow. One source says that the sex ratio for 3rd births in Armenia is over 2:1, boys to girls.]

The doctor is frank-there is no cure-Boozh. But we can try. With this syndrome, the child may walk, communicate, but the balance is often poor, vocabulary limited. How will the family cope? What village will raise this disabled child, whose promise seems so small? This life, dashed repeatedly on the rocks of status epilepticus, will surely be briefer than most. The parents’ worried faces show how they are taking in the prospects.

No wonder social stigma has followed the shocking, unconscious behaviors of epilepsy through its whole history. Stigma is a kind of “social death,” as the anthropologists call it. I’d call it a direct descendant of dread. Epilepsy, with its un-predictable, occasionally lethal, fits, prompts dread on several fronts: economic, psychological, and social burdens. Like bad magic, the perseverations of dread whisk those future losses right into the present. As songwriter Nicky Mehta said, “worrying is like praying for bad things to happen.”

Clinic; as the next family initiates their visit, opening the hallway door, looking in tentatively, then walking in. A 20 month old, recently hospitalized with strokes from Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, has made a remarkable recovery: from a mute, twisted, vacant child, to a shiny joy, attentive, gesturing, though still with dystonia in all her limbs, unable to sit. Her father and grandfather cope with the anxiety of the visit by antics and pantomimes, seeking her smiles.

At one point, the father tells the neurologist that she, among other doctors, had been overly negative in discussing prognosis during the hospitalization. Like any doctors, guides in a mysterious jungle, we neurologists may forget to say “chem garogh asem” (I couldn’t say). In Armenia, as back in the States, when you hear a neurologist mention god, it is probably because they are trying to avoid making a prognosis-“God only knows.” Being foolish mortals, we no doubt succumb to downward pressures on our prognoses: embarrassed by the plain and common fact that we are incapable of healing, we forget what our patients can do for themselves; or, pretending that we are protecting them, we lower parents’ expectations of us by talking gloom. The miracle of such a recovery, feckless and un-reliable as it is, brings humility and joy all at once.

The visit seems long at 50-some minutes. Later in the afternoon, my host vents, “I am 45 minutes late in my appointments.” I think I know why. I think she did what I do: compensate for parents’ disappointment by giving more time, as though to re-gain solid footing on some buoyant craft we are meant to share–our optimism.