I share this story about a Brazilian-Armenian odyssey because I believe it might encourage someone to seek out and locate long lost relatives. What history did to break up our families can be undone…sometimes with very little effort.
THE PHONE CALL
The interpreter said he would dial for me. It was a conference call. I waited. The phone didn't really ring, but rather emitted a "droning buzz". It was the sound that cheap alarm clocks make...the sound that always signals a distant phone call.
"Alô..." she said in a sweet, Brazilian accent.
In my profession, I get paid to be glib. However, this was personal and I was tongue-tied.
"Oi?", she inquired, perhaps somewhat annoyed.
"Say something," urged the AT&T Language Line Portuguese interpreter.
"O quê?" She was obviously caught off guard. "Impossible, we have no relatives in the United States", she stated confidently.
"Now, it begins", I thought. I must try to explain to this Brazilian girl that we might be related. That my mother's uncle left the Armenian village of Kessab in 1908, never to return. That our families have had essentially no contact since then, but for an exchange of photographs in the late 1940s (well before I was born). It would be an interesting conversation. If I could keep her from hanging up on me.
"Is this the Kelian residence?", I inquired.
"Yes", it was translated.
"May I speak to Panos Kelian?".
"You mean Panios?" (Evidently the word "panos" in Portuguese means "rags", or "wash cloths", though at the time, I thought it was a typographical error in the phone book.)
Suddenly, a resonant, baritone Brazilian voice inquired, "Quem está falando?" (Who is speaking?).
I perked up to the challenge issued in his voice. "Hello, my name is George Terterian. I live in California, and I think we are related. I got your name from the São Paulo telephone directory. Your last name is the same as my mother's maiden name and she told me we might have relatives still in Brazil". It was coherent, but perhaps too much information at once.
"O quê?" I had elicited the same reply twice, and feared hearing it again. But, I was nothing if not persistent. The matter was too important. He repeated that he had no relatives in the United States. I confessed that, I did not know for certain if I had relatives in Brazil either, which was the reason for my call.
Now, I must explain a little. My mother previously mentioned having an uncle who had fled their village of Kessab, taking with him the family mule, never to be seen again. It was in the early 1900s, before the Armenian Genocide, but during a time the Armenians from Kessab referred to as "talan" or "the lootings". In the early 1900s, Turks often attacked and pillaged Kessab, which was on the border. Kessab was due south of Musa Dagh, near the slopes of Mount Cassius, or "Gassios Ler", propped up against the Mediterranean Sea. Both of my parents are Kessabtsi, and I am proud to speak its rich and unique dialect.
Kessab's present claim to fame, other than having produced more clergy than any comparable Armenian village, is that it is the only Armenian village from the western Armenian provincial kingdom of Cilicia that is still an Armenian village in its original location, thankfully because it is in Syria, on the Turkish border, not vice versa. The other Armenian villages perished in the World War I genocide, with the heroic exception of Musa Dagh, which resisted and was rescued by the French Fleet and eventually relocated to en masse to a village named Anjar, in Lebanon.
In 1996, I started my own law practice. By the summer of 1997 my fledgling law practice had enough capital to sponsor a local soccer team. The team was a mix of many nationalities, Armenian, Japanese, Mexican, Chilean, American, Guatemalan, and Brazilian.
Anyhow, the Brazilians on my team, Hamilton from São Paulo, Cesar from Rio, Gustavo and Luciano from Porto Alegre, all delivery drivers for the Chinese restaurant I frequented next to my office, always spoke of Brazil. As we became closer friends, I attended traditional Brazilian barbecues or "churrasco" with them. I was exposed to the beautiful, warm and open Brazilian culture. It reminded me in some ways of my own culture, especially the warm and casual atmosphere. However, I found Brazilians to be more accepting and less clannish than most of my fellow Armenians. Yet, their "churrasco" and "cachaça" was like our "khorovadz" and "oghi".
One day, I mentioned to my Brasileiro friends that my mother had some relatives somewhere in Brazil. They quickly asked "where"? I was embarrassed that I had no answer. I said, "I honestly don't know. I'll find out". This led me to my "Brazilian odyssey".
I spoke to my mother and her cousin in Boston. No one really knew exactly where, but it was somewhere in Brazil. Perhaps Rio, or São Paulo. I decided to look. My mother recounted what she could. She said, "I remember being 15 or 16 and having a family photo taken. An Armenian man from Brazil was visiting Lebanon and found my father (Yessayi Kelian). We don't know how. The man said he had news of his brother, our uncle Garabed. He gave a family photo to my father. The brothers had not seen each other for 40 years or so. My father cried. We never heard from them again."
The photo was of Garabed Kelian, now a much older man, in his sixties or so. Garabed was surrounded by a pretty lady, not Armenian looking though, and several handsome children, some looked "more Armenian" than others. Yessayi Kelian had not seen his brother since they were in their twenties, back in 1908 or so. So my mother's family also took a family photo to give to this Armenian man, in hopes it would find its way back to Uncle Garabed.
At the time, around the summer of 1947, my mother's family had left Kessab and were in Beirut and Ghazir, just north of Beirut. My uncle worked at the Chateau Musar winery in Ghazir. Somehow, word got to Brazil, probably by some fellow Armenian who emigrated to Brazil, that our family was in Beirut. The details are sketchy.
My mother recalled the photo being taken at the winery. My maternal grandparents, Yessayi and Manoushag Kelian and their five children: Zenop, Simon, Noubar, Mary, and my mother Sirvart. She never saw the photo, and never knew if it made its way to her uncle. They had no contact after the family photos taken in the summer of 1947.
NEXT STOP, BRAZILIAN CONSULATE
I took the day after Thanksgiving 1997 off from work. It was a good day to go to the Brazilian Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard, in the elliptical, dark glass Larry Flynt Building. Upon entry, I quickly explained that I was looking for relatives in Brazil. "Do you have their address or telephone number?" the stunning receptionist inquired. My first thought was, "if I did, I'd call them or write", I resisted the urge to say that, and said "no, only a last name, if my mother's uncle had sons, they will have the same last name, Kelian".
I was ushered into a library room, full of Brazilian "Yellow Page" telephone directories. I sized up the room and decided to get very comfortable. First, I looked in the Rio de Janeiro directories, partly because I liked the idea of visiting cousins at Copacabana or Ipanema Beach. No such luck. Then, I figured, where does an Armenian immigrant go? A big city, I concluded. More work, right? São Paulo, from what I read and had been told, a chaotic and somewhat apocalyptic city of some 14 million, was next. In five minutes I came across it, "Kelian, Panios". He was the only Kelian in the books thus far. I have a cousin Panos Kelian in Canada. Sizing up the rest of the room, I decided Panios would lead me to the other relatives, if they existed. I was also too excited at the thought to keep looking further. I jotted down his name, address, and telephone number, then left.
I wrote to Panos Kelian (I was stubbornly convinced that "Panios" was a typo) and awaited an answer for five weeks. My Brazilian friends even admitted that was "a bit slow" for Brazil's postal service. "Why not call them, said a friend".
That is what led to "the phone call", as I still refer to it.
THE PHONE CALL
Back to my telephone conversation. "Senhor Kelian" was obviously irritated at what he must perceived as a this prank caller. The nerve after all to pick at an open wound on this man's skin. "Family" and questions about them was always off limits for the seven children of Garabed and Avelina de Jesus Kelian. I would learn why later.
"Again, I say, we have no relatives in the United States", he insisted.
"Yes, yes, yes, but that is none that you know of, correct?" Ah, I got to cross examine the witness, always my favorite part. The wheels began churning.
"Now let me get this straight, your last name is Kelian, correct?"
"And your father is Armenian correct"
"Yes, he was. He passed away"
"I am sorry. Did your father have family in the Middle East? Where does he come from?"
"Lebanon or Syria. No, Syria."
"Good. My parents are from Syria, and I was born in Lebanon. You know, I have a cousin with your name and last name."
"Yes. You see, my mother's maiden name was Kelian. My grandfather's name was Yessayi Kelian. He was from an Armenian village called Kessab."
The voice froze. Dead silence. It was probably only ten seconds or so, but it seemed like minutes.
"Hello?" I inquired, thinking I lost the connection.
"Kessab?" I could almost hear him churning this in his mind. He coughed to clear his throat. "Uhh, how are they, ummmm, your family, are they well?", his voice cracked.
I took a deep breath, I could even hear the interpreter catch his breath. Doubtless this would be a good story to tell over his dinner table as well.
For the first time, Panios Kelian sounded more Armenian than Brazilian. I asked him if he spoke the language, Armenian.
"No, only Portuguese".
"No matter", I said. "You know, my mother had an uncle who went to Brazil a long time ago. I wonder if that was your father or grandfather or uncle? You know, since it is the same last name"
"What was his name?"
Geez, I thought, Mom told me once, was it Hagop or Khatchig, no Khatchig was in Australia. "I honestly do not recall, but I will ask her", I promised.
"Bem, muito bom, (good, very well) I will talk to my elder brother and sisters".
We exchanged fax numbers, emails, and the like. Before we hung up, he said, as per the translator, who by now was my buddy, "God bless our people". I thought, does he mean ?...before I filled in the blank, the interpreter said, "he means the Armenian people".
I left convinced we had found a link. But, I was not certain as to how close, or not. I decided to wait before I told my mother or sisters.
I did not wait long. Apparently I lit a fire under Mr. Kelian. Within a week, while at the office, the receptionist buzzed my name "package for George up front, it's a big one". I thought another boring deposition transcript to review. "Mary, can you get it please?" My assistant Mary headed out and came back with the package. "I don't think it's a depo George", she said. It wasn't. I had told Mary about my conversation. She was anticipating some news as well.
It was a big express package from São Paulo, Brazil. Brazil! I ripped it open like a nine year old boy on Christmas morning. Out fell papers and more papers, all in a heap on my desk. A letter, a business card, a family tree carefully prepared on a computer like a flow chart, laser color photos of strangers with happy faces, some old, some young, all very Brazilian looking, with exotic Brazilian names written underneath. Names like "Iracema", "Izildinha", "Marcio" and "Rogerio". Were they my cousins?
Then, my heart skipped a beat. I swallowed hard and could feel my heart climbing up into my throat. "Oh, man" is all I could say aloud. There it was...a yellowish laser reproduction of a weathered black and white photograph. Familiar faces, Yessayi and Manouchag Kelian, and their five children: Zenop, Simon, Noubar, Mary and my mother Sirvart as a teenager!" I had to sit down.
As I looked at the photo, I noticed handwriting showing through from behind. In Armenian handwriting it read simply: "Ge nevirem ee hishadag yeghpors Garabedin, endaniok ngars...Beirut, 27 Hoolis, 1947, Yessayi Kelian"..."I present this in memory of my brother Garabed, my family portrait...Beirut, 27 July, 1947, Yessayi Kelian".
Wow. Mary was beaming, "you found them!" she said.
"Yes, I suppose we found each other".
I quickly walked to the Chinese restaurant next door to tell my Brazilian friends. Cesar and Camila were there. I think they got as much kick out of it as I did. Now, I was "part Brasileiro" they said.
I telephoned my mother later and she was very excited. "EERAV, EERAV ?" She repeated. "BRESS DGHAS!" ("Really? Really? Well done my son!"). Yeah, I was happy too. I told her I'd come over after work and show her the photos.
INTRODUCTION TO BRAZIL
What followed was an odyssey for all of us. I began learning Portuguese with those "listen and learn" type cassettes for busy people. Thankfully, the L.A. commute makes it easy to learn languages in your car. My Brazilian friends on the soccer team were intent on teaching me to cuss.
Since I sue slumlords on behalf of tenants in and around Los Angeles, I have a large Latino client base, and have a working knowledge of Spanish. Thus, it was easier to pick up some of the basics of Portuguese. I thought Spanish was a pretty language, and it is. But Portuguese, especially the Brazilian dialect is one of my favorite languages. It is much more melodic. Brazilian Portuguese flows with ebbs and tides.
I paid more attention to everything Brazilian. I began to identify. Panios and I began to piece it all together. He prepared an exhaustive family photo album for me and I did likewise for him. We wrote emails often, informing each other of births, deaths, engagements, weddings, etc...I sent him a videotape of a family wedding in California. I began receiving letters and emails from many people who identified themselves as cousins from Brazil. It was fascinating for all involved.
O SENHOR GABRIEL KELIAN
I also began filling in the blanks to understand the "broken circle" of my mother's family. Panios, and his eldest siblings, interestingly enough named Simon and Mary (like my mother's two siblings) helped a great deal, as did the on again, off again recollections of 97 year old Serop Besduigian. He was the only Armenian to marry one of Garabed's children. The "Kessabtsi Pesa" (or groom from Kessab) was Garabed's favorite, for they could speak Armenian and the old village dialect together. Serop was old, but still strong as an ox.
Garabed Kelian was the eldest son of Simon and Mary Kelian of Kessab. My maternal grandfather Yessayi was only a year or so younger than Garabed. Garabed Kelian left his parents, brother and four sisters in 1908. He heard of the Armenian Genocide, but could only grieve at the probable loss of his family. He was in the dark. He was a bitter, temperamental man with little patience. He arrived in the port of Santos, Brazil with no money, no knowledge of Portuguese, and no family. They called him Gabriel, as if Garabed is difficult. I suppose that is the Brazilian equivalent of Ellis Island renaming Americans.
With persistence and a strong back, he worked and worked, never accumulating material possession, but always providing a home for his large family. He met and married Avelina de Jesus in the São Paulo state. They were blessed with seven children, six of whom are still living.
But, why did my mother's uncle leave? Panios told me one day on the telephone.
"My father was a teamster, you could say. He carried cargo from Kessab to Antioch with mules. The two brothers (Garabed and Yessayi) worked at the same trade. Back in those days, Turks attacked the village where he lived often. Once, en route from Antioch, with a mule loaded with goods, he was attacked by two Turkish soldiers or bandits. They beat him, stole his belongings and his mule, and left him for dead. Well, he eventually bought another mule and resumed his work. This time, he and another Armenian man transporting with a mule met up the same two Turks. The Turks tried to rob them, but they fought back. They killed the two soldiers. Well, my father and this man came back to the village and told some villagers. The villagers told them to flee, because if it really was two soldiers, there would be retribution. The army would search for them and take them back to be hung. My father had little time. He went home. Only his mother Mary was there. No one else. She begged him to stay, but he said if he stayed they would all be in trouble. He had to go. There was no time. He took the mule and left."
When I told my mother this, she recounted stories told to her of her grandmother crying out years later as she died of malnutrition, exposure and disease in the death camps of Meskhene during the Armenian Genocide, "Jigerem Garabed, eench okood yete yerginke desnem kez" (Dear Garabed, what use is it if I see you in the sky?) It must have broken a mother's heart.
Garabed sold the mule in Antioch, which was doubtless a perilous journey since he was going in the direction of the Turks. He bought a boat ticket with the money and went to Egypt. After a few months, he then sailed to Marseille, France. He lived there for about ten months, then Brazil beckoned. It was not his first choice. He failed his physical to go to the United States, some sort of eye disorder or so. Brazil had abolished slavery in 1888, thus it needed strong backed men who would help working in sugar and coffee plantations. Garabed was nothing, if not strong. He sailed to the port city of Santos, Brazil in 1909. He arrived penniless and without a clue as to the Portuguese language. But he was not the only one.
In this era and for years to come, Brazil received thousand and thousands of immigrants from Italy, Greece, Portugal, Syria and Japan. If one was not choosy, the work was plentiful. The government also made many unkept promises to encourage agriculture in the interior of the Brazilian states. Garabed worked in Santos on the coast of the São Paulo state, then Piraju in the interior. He kept moving the family back and forth. His resilience was buttressed by the equally resilient and brave Avelina de Jesus Kelian. A Brazilian of mixed Portuguese and indigenous blood, Dona Avelina was the family matriarch in these difficult times.
The family survived many hard times, but persevered and thrived. Finally, when the children grew older, the Kelians enjoyed some measure of success. Today, they are alive and well in São Paulo.
An odd thing though, Garabed never spoke of the family. Panios recounted to me that whenever they would ask, Garabed grew suddenly emotional, silent and would walk away. After a while, the children stopped asking, figuring it must have been difficult for him to leave his family at a young age, never to see them again.
In fact, Panios and his brothers and sisters (Simon, Mary, Aracy, Iracema, and Anna) were mostly named after Garabed's parents, sisters, or great uncle. None of the Kelian children in Brazil even knew that they had paternal aunts. They only knew of an uncle, "the one in the photo from Lebanon". Garabed had four sisters: Hanna, Marta, Lucia, and Ovsanna. These grown adults in their sixties and seventies had 4 aunts they had never known of. I worked to fill in the blanks with a family tree of my own. Cousins in Australia., Canada, Lebanon, Denmark and Armenia. I made phone calls, and sent emails and began learning more and more.
THE VISIT TO BRAZIL
I arrived at São Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport after 17 hours or so in the air. I immediately got my second wind, though, when after clowning around for an hour or so with two corrupt customs officials who shook me down for an "excess gift value fine", I passed through the gates and saw face to face meu primo (my cousin) Panios Kelian.
He was there with a small motorcade, along with Uncle or "Tio" Nader, their cousin Neuza's husband and my English interpreter. Nader is a wonderful man who spent his formative years between 11 and 13 living with cousins in Ohio. It changed his life. Knowing English opened many doors for Nader, a Syrian by origin. He lived better than most and worked for American companies in São Paulo.
My two weeks in Brazil flew by. The highlights? Not what I thought it would be. Rio de Janeiro was beautiful. My twentysomething cousins and drinking partners Andre Luiz and Rogerio were great. The Christ Statue on the Corcovado overlooking Rio is breathtaking. But, the highlights were my meeting the old man, Serop, and the family gathering.
Serop Besduigian is now 97 years old. Thus, he was 94 in January 1998. The family thought he had essentially forgotten Armenian. It wasn't the case. He just had no one to speak it with in years. I walked up to him slowly. I always walk slowly in front of people in their nineties. "Parev" (hello), I said. He looked confused. His wife said he has forgotten much of the language. I did not say another word before he looked at me and smiled. "Ov ess" (who are you) ?
With that, Serop and I spent he next several hours chatting in Armenian. Sadly, he had forgotten the dialect of Kessab, but his Armenian was fine after he shook off some rust. The family stared with their jaws dropping. Then, they smiled and spoke happily in Portuguese: "Ele fala armênio" (he speaks Armenian)!
After a while, he began singing songs in Armenian that I had never heard; songs about the 1947 "nerkakht" (mass exodus or return) to Armenia. He sang..."Hayasdanen naver gookan tebi Lipanan...akh jan Yerevan, kez hamar garod em" (The ships from Armenia come toward Lebanon...oh dear Yerevan, I yearn for you).
Serop quenched his thirst asking me the whereabouts of Armenians from Kessab whose names I had heard of. All were long since dead. Then he said, "who can I speak to in Armenian?". "Polor eemin ungerner-eh meran"...(all of my friends are dead). I suppose that is the hard part of being so old, he almost sounded guilty for living so long. Serop also thought that all Armenians had fled or been forced out of Kessab. When I told him Kessab was still majority Armenian, he was incredulous, "Votch" (No), "Polor Arap en hon hima" (no, they are all Arabs there now). I persuaded him eventually by offering to take him.
Serop had not been around Armenians since he lived in Osasco, the old Armenian neighborhood of São Paulo. It is an industrial area dominated by auto manufacturers and boasts an old Armenian quarter with a church, a hall and many bakeries specializing in "esfiha", the other way of saying what I was raised to call "lahmajun". Esfiha is ubiquitous in São Paulo, like tacos in Los Angeles.
My best moment came one year to the day after that first telephone conversation with Panios Kelian. Panios said, "Sunday we will take you to meet family". We drove an hour and a half from his house to a club on the outskirts of the city.
It was a hot humid January, the middle of summer there. When we arrived. I saw a large hall decorated with tables laden with tropical fruit that I had never seen (and to this day crave) and filled with one hundred or more people. I thought, maybe we have a table reserved here and I'll meet some cousins. I was wrong.
They were all there for a Kelian Family Reunion. Over one hundred descendants of my mother's uncle Garabed Kelian were waiting for me, and some were arriving on "Brazilian time", which I learned is equivalent to "Armenian time".
I survived the first three human waves of embraces, kisses, crying and people I have never met calling out "Oi primo!" (Hi Cousin). By the fourth sortie, I saw a group of very young children, maybe six or seven, wrap their arms around my legs and I broke down. I excused myself and stepped outside to catch my breath. There, I ran into another throng. It was Tia (Aunt) Iracema, the most emotional by far of all the cousins caught me and, although I understood every third word, I know she was saying, "it's ok, we feel the same".
We stayed at the hall, eating, drinking, dancing to Armenian and Brazilian music. That day I stayed up all night and morning, drinking, talking, laughing and crying with my primos.
As we took photos, and as I felt more and more like a spoiled foreign dignitary posing for pictures, we finally gathered in a circle and raised a toast of Ararat Brandy. I told the cousins of our journey to find each other and vowed that, since the world was becoming a smaller place, we would never lose each other again. For the Kelian family had closed the broken circle. We had cousins everywhere: Australia, United States, Canada, Lebanon, Armenia.
In short, like most nationalities torn apart by historical circumstances, the sun never sets on an Armenian family.
UPDATE: IMMIGRATION MUSEUM
Recently, Panios Kelian was interviewed by the Immigration Museum in Brazil. He told the story of his father's passage to Brazil and of our families. The family's story was included in the museum. Since I wrote this draft, my sister Karen has visited Brazil, and I am planning my second trip.
Many thanks to my dear friend Debora Wolf for translating this text
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