Feast of Ashes
The Life and Art of David Ohannessian
Sato Moughalian

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PRELUDE

The Search

“EVERY PERSON HAS A STORY,” said my mother in her lilting half-British, half-Armenian accent. “It’s just a matter of listening and coaxing out the heart of it.” But at the prickly age of thirteen, I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about and often found her fondness for this kind of lyrical rhapsodizing most annoying. She was trying to explain something she had heard in her college writing class that day, something that resonated strongly with her. She sighed, puffing out her plump cheeks, and pushed her glasses up on her narrow nose before turning back to the textbooks sprawled all over the table.

This was the nightly scene of my 1970s adolescence in our small barn-red, white-trimmed house in the leafy New York City suburb of Highland Park, New Jersey. Both of my parents were attempting to replace educational credentials they had lost in their flight to the United States from the Middle East. Each evening, after an early dinner of cumin-scented beef or green bean stew, cooked in the way my mother had learned during her Jerusalem girlhood, my father would withdraw to his paper-crammed study on the ground floor to prepare for his next engineering exam at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.

At my mother’s insistence, my parents had scraped together the down payment to buy that little house in 1963, just a few years after fleeing Alexandria and the burgeoning nationalism led by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. “Egypt for the Arabs!” was the slogan they’d heard shouted in the streets of Alexandria as the 1950s ended. As my mother and father watched their Jewish and fellow Armenian Christian friends quietly disappear from their workplaces and homes, they realized that the time of relative safety had already run out. They used the little savings they had to purchase black-market Egyptian exit visas and prepared to leave with me, their baby daughter, in tow—all of us beneficiaries of an American immigration system that favored educated, English-speaking people trained in needed professions. An engineering job, arranged by a relative, awaited my father in the States.

An Egyptian lawyer they knew offered to bring their small valuables—inherited jewelry and some gold—to the airport and deliver them just before the flight so that they could avoid suspicion as they passed through the exit interview. He never showed. Arto and Pheme Ohannessian Moughalian climbed the stairs and entered the plane with me in their arms and $140 in my father’s pocket. Their meager possessions, packed into a few shallow wooden crates, were stowed in the cargo hold below. Once they were seated, Pheme wept, at the loss of her gold crucifixes and bracelets—handmade by her great-grandfather—and for the even greater bereavement of leaving behind every place she had ever known and loved. As the airplane taxied on the runway, my mother crossed herself, as she always did when beginning a journey.

In our living room, a white-painted brick fireplace faced the front door. On the mantel, high above the reach of a child’s hands, stood a lustrous pottery vase, about ten inches tall, covered with a vibrant cobalt blue glaze. Even in winter dusk, light bounded from its faintly dimpled curves. Large floral medallions in green and white filled the field, with stylized red carnations laced between them. Feathery leaves traced graceful arcs around the flowers. Turquoise and white diamond figures circled the neck of the vase, strung together with tiny knots of red glaze that piled up in relief.

We never ever put flowers in the vase, and from that I learned that sometimes objects exist just to be admired. On the rare occasions my mother took it down, and the rarer occasions still when I was allowed to hold it, I was always surprised by its heft. The glassy surface stayed cool to the touch. I ran my hand along the inside and traced the smoothed imprints of fingers, which had left furrows in the clay as the vase was shaped on the potter’s wheel.

“Your grandfather made that,” my mother said.

David Ohannessian, her father—Baba, she called him. This was as close as I would come to touching my grandfather’s hand. I had never met him; he died before I was born. But this vase, with its elegant form and dancing flowers, which had emerged so many years earlier from the ashes of a far-off kiln, survived my mother’s journeys, from her native Jerusalem to Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, Alexandria, and finally America. It was always present and watched over us.

Brooding, threadbare carpets with tribal icons in shadowy reds and blues covered our wooden floors. An antique mahogany and ivory-keyed upright piano, given to us by the aptly named Miss Goodhart, an elderly librarian friend, commanded one wall. In the Middle East, a piano in the living room was a sign that a family valued culture, especially European culture. In our case, in America, the piano’s very bulk and ungainliness was a signifier that neither it nor we were going anywhere anytime soon.

Most evenings, I knew I had to leave my parents to their separate silences and went upstairs to my own room. Like my mother, I loved to read. I had decorated the inside of my bedroom closet with deep brown corkboard and haremed up the space with an Indian print bedspread swathed around the clothes pole in a hippie version of a desert tent. A reading lamp and pillow were everything I needed for the hours of solitude I spent inside. Books were our family’s common ground. Books bound us together, surrounded us in every room. Books provided a limitless escape from the confines of our daily lives.

Highland Park was, in those years, a town of fourteen thousand people who prided themselves on never voting down a school-tax increase. My parents, following the well-trod path of many immigrants before them, had searched for a place with a superior public school system even if it meant a long commute to the copper factory where my father worked. We didn’t know anyone who lived there, and there was no Armenian community nearby, but the lure of good schools and Rutgers University just across the Raritan River was enough. We soon learned that the town was filled with arts-loving citizens, many of them immigrants themselves, whose primary concern was for their children to enter respected professions. Law and medicine topped the list. Our teachers always directed us with focus and enthusiasm.

For example, Mrs. Fisher, my recorder teacher during the first grade, began each of our private lessons by supervising a thorough handwashing, then proceeded to teach me how to play and read music. Three years later, after a schoolwide music aptitude test, the band director called our home at dinnertime. My mother answered. “He says you should take up a woodwind instrument,” she relayed. “Ok,” I replied, quickly calculating the earlier wakeup time for morning band practice, and the lengthy walk to school. “What’s the lightest instrument to carry?” I asked. “He says it’s the flute.” “Tell him I’ll play the flute.”

Among my friends, who were mostly artsy and theatrical types, there were many Jewish students. I enjoyed hearing about Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes, the Feast of Lights, the Day of Atonement, and briefly contemplated trying to convert from my solitary and somewhat theoretical Armenian Orthodox Christianity to the warmer traditions of Judaism that surrounded me in Highland Park. My Jewish friends felt a sense of connectedness in following the same rituals their parents and grandparents had observed. The joyous ceremonies of initiation were so clearly laid out, as were the lively parties that followed them. Some students traveled to Israel in the summers to work on a kibbutz or attend an intensive Hebrew-language program. They would return with souvenirs: a handmade Hanukkah menorah or a small piece of pottery with a graceful flower design.

We studied the Holocaust in school. Every few years there was a screening of Night and Fog, the 1955 French film—one of the first documentaries to show extensive footage of the concentration camps. My mother explained that there had been terrible Armenian massacres with huge deportations as well. But she rarely spoke of it at any length; she was choked by anger and sadness whenever the subject came up. Years afterward, I read that as many as one and a half million Armenians had been slaughtered or forcibly marched from the regions they had historically inhabited in the Ottoman Empire, only to die of starvation or disease in the Syrian desert between 1915 and 1917.

As a young child, though, I had only the vaguest understanding that my own family had been swept up in these catastrophic events. At my Jewish friends’ homes, on their parents’ bookshelves, certain titles consistently appeared: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, QB VII, Judgment at Nuremberg, Night, Inside the Third Reich, Treblinka. At twelve or thirteen, I started compulsively borrowing these books from the library. As I read them, I often felt a familiar surge of terror but didn’t understand why. I tried to speak to friends and their parents about the nearly incomprehensible acts the books described. All they would concede was that an uncle had perished, or that a parent or sister had survived. A few even bore tattooed numbers—usually concealed, but sometimes visible in an unguarded moment. The books were right there, bursting with answers, but no one, I discovered, wanted to talk about his own relationship to the subject.

During those years of focused reading in the 1970s, I also began to notice a ghastly wasting disease in a few of my schoolmates, often after their parents’ divorce or some other major rupture. First, they would pick at their food and grow thinner. Then they would become distracted. Skin wizened, bony outlines emerged. Tufts of fine down appeared on their cheeks and arms. Usually, hospitalization followed. We learned that this illness was something called anorexia nervosa. Years later I wondered: were these young women suffering only because of traumas in their own lives, or were they showing a kind of unconscious loyalty to the anguish of their ancestors? Why in a time of such relative ease and plenty would they set themselves on the road to death?

Neither of my parents was very tall. At my full-grown height of five feet four inches, I towered over them both. My mother had copper-colored hair, which faded but persisted in its redness over the years. Her natural condition was roundedness. “We Ohannessians tend to put on weight,” she would say, with a matter-of-fact cheerfulness in that otherwise gamine-obsessed era. My father had wiry black hair, a protruding nose, spoke hesitatingly and much less often than my mother, with her rapid and highly inflected staccato. He had learned a total of seven languages in his native port city of Alexandria, but spun his sentences very slowly, punctuating them with uhs. He cleared his throat or rubbed his knees to gain time. He had a lifelong passion for the pure sciences and achieved a kind of ecstatic oblivion while immersed in a theoretical physics book. Once, he dutifully escorted my American-born, baseball-loving brother, David, to an Old-Timers’ Day game at Yankee Stadium. Thirty-five thousand fans thundered to their feet and roared cheers when Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Phil Rizzuto strode onto the field. The nine-year-old boy glanced down at his seated father, deep in the throes of quantum mechanics.

My mother’s superb cooking and hospitality took flight at holiday times with skewers of marinated lamb kebabs grilled with herbed onions, peppers, and tomatoes, garlicky yogurt salads, butter crescent cookies, crispy cheese-filled phyllo triangles, raisined pilafs, cumin-scented ground beef kuftes, stuffed grape leaves, and lemony charred eggplant dips that bit the tongue. We were banished from her kitchen as the house filled with aromas that brought on ravenous appetites and later in the day, waves of laughter during lively conversations. She would take the seat at the head of the table, my father next to her. Mmm! she would cry out after her first bite, which always came before the guests had even finished passing around the dishes of food. “This is delicious!” The cuisine was alluringly exotic and also a redeeming counterpoint to our ordinary condition of “otherness.”

On quieter nights, my mother’s buoyant exuberance might deflate into a kind of bleak despair. As I was growing up in that little house, I occasionally witnessed my parents lose their grounding in the everyday world. They sometimes burst into a rope-veined agitation, seized by some specter of unutterable grief, dissociated from their normal selves. These storms were terrifying and we would never talk about them afterward, but they would pass. Not much of it made any kind of sense to me. How could I know, absorbed as I was by music, boys, my own all-too-frequent door-slamming rages, and the rambling 1 a.m. conversations about the nature of the universe on my newly installed private phone line, that in my own family’s living memory there was a time when the freshly washed laundry I took entirely for granted was an unimaginable luxury? That a knock on the door in the middle of the night could mean the end of life as we knew it? That some neighbors could save our lives while others might destroy them?

By the time I left for college, I had met many people who had a direct connection to the Holocaust. Some had grown up in the shadow of their own parents’ childhoods in concentration camps. Others had parents who threatened to disown them if they married a Gentile. As a child in 1939, the husband of my recorder teacher, an esteemed Rutgers professor himself, had sailed on the German ship M.S. St. Louis, which carried Jewish refugees to Cuba and then Florida; most were turned away and sent back to dark fates in Europe.1 One girl was a member of her father’s second family, the first having been murdered by Nazi hands.

My mother told us that her parents had been exiled from their home in Turkey, but the details of the story remained indistinct. While I yearned to know more about our family’s past, especially after having taken a college course in “Armenian Civilization,” where I was introduced to the term “genocide,” I also dreaded what I might learn. Over time, it began to feel as though there was some kind of high-voltage fence encircling the facts of our lives. I wanted to get closer to knowing what had happened, but mostly it seemed safer to keep away.

I did know some specifics, of course. I knew that my grandfather had been a ceramic artist from Kütahya, an Anatolian city famous for its tile work, in what had been the Ottoman Empire, and that he was an acknowledged master of its then four-hundred-year-old tradition. Sometimes, I would read a reference to him in an art journal or newspaper. One relative or another would proudly circulate the clipping.

Eventually, my mother revealed that he had been arrested and sentenced to death in 1915 but had somehow been released from prison. He, my grandmother, and the first three of their small children—the ones that had been born by then—had been deported toward the Syrian desert of Deir Zor in 1916 and had ended up in Palestine, where my grandfather replanted his art in Jerusalem. My mother also told us that she and most of her family had fled the terror of bullets and explosives in her beloved native city of Jerusalem and had become stateless in 1948.

But my grandparents had survived. And my parents had survived. They had made a giant leap of faith and traveled to yet another foreign country in the hope that they could root themselves in a different kind of society—one that was free of constant threats, upheavals, and loss. I came to see that my grandparents’ fundamental task had been to keep their family alive. Not only had they done that, heroically, but they were also able, somehow, to take a centuries-old art form and give it a new life in Jerusalem—a tradition that continues to flourish today. They went on to create a family of seven children, each of whom would add his or her gifts to the world.

In time, those offspring would disperse across the globe and, in turn, bring new lives into being. They would become teachers and librarians, chemists, poets, and artists themselves. They and their children, like the children of so many immigrants, would bear the burdens of dislocation and unmourned losses, but also embody a ferocious desire to create order and beauty and to search for knowledge and a place in the world.

My mother completed her second undergraduate degree and became an English teacher at Highland Park High School. The school literary magazine she founded, Dead Center, continues to publish an issue each year. She adored the theater and, with the small taste of financial independence that her teaching job afforded, began the occasional habit of taking the Suburban Transit bus alone to New York City to attend a matinee of a new or provocative play and enjoy a restaurant dinner afterward. Later in the evening, she would recount for us every nuance of the theatrical experience. And if her waiter happened to be an immigrant or a struggling actor and hadn’t been too busy to talk, we would learn his life story as well.

In the years after our arrival in the U.S., we had settled into new ways and learned to enjoy the neighborly pleasures of American small-town living—musical soirées in the home of the Lithuanian piano teacher across the street, tête-à-têtes with the Rutgers psychology professor next door, haircuts by the glamorous German émigrée who lived to our left. Every so often, the kind accountant from the end of our block would deliver a skinned, headless rabbit—shared bounty from the test laboratory of his giant toothpaste-manufacturing employer. We practiced amnesia as the scrawny creature braised and transformed into mouthwatering lapin.

Once a year or so my mother would take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later in the day on a walk through a big department store, something that never failed to fascinate her. One afternoon, we were strolling through Macy’s Cellar. “Look!” she nearly shouted, grabbing my arm. “They have marrons glacés!” The candied chestnuts were a treat she hadn’t seen since Egypt. “You must try one! Every cultured person knows the taste of marrons glacés!”

My mother derived enormous satisfaction from her teaching and made enduring and devoted friends. After too few years in her job, she was stricken with the debilitating rheumatoid arthritis that tightened an ever-narrowing circle around her physical life and compelled her to take medical retirement in 1983. She grew calmer and more contemplative. In the mid-1980s she began to think more about her past. The death of her younger brother in 1988 spurred her and her sisters into action; they began collecting oral histories from everyone who had known their parents. Perhaps she felt her own impending mortality and wanted to leave something tangible behind.

In 1992, three years before she died, my mother finished notating fifty pages of carefully collated family stories. She made copies for my brother and me, and for all of her fourteen nieces and nephews. At last we had a record of the collective memory of her generation: the handed-down dialogues of our forebears, stories of my mother’s parents’ birthplaces, their courtship and marriage, my grandfather’s achievements, the brutal exile from Turkey, and their new life in Jerusalem. The stories were veiled in loving language. Descriptions of the cruelest episodes were softened with the patina of distance and time. As the illness consumed her body, she increasingly struggled to breathe. In her final days, the weight of unspeakable grief I had watched my mother bear throughout my childhood metamorphosed into a radiant, otherworldly longing to see her parents once again.

During my first years as a professional flutist, I’d gained experience in performing and developed close relationships based on the shared joy of making music. I learned to embrace the hours of daily practice—smoothing out a scale, using focus and repetition to chip away the distance between an idea in music and its actual result in sound. Those efforts bore rewards in chamber music concerts during which we musicians might revel in the bliss of perfect communion, synchronizing swells and falls, rushing forward or lingering on a note in complete coordination. In music—in the throb of a tone, the power of an attack—I found a channel for intense feelings of love, yearning, and loss, emotions that I could not express or even identify in words.

Eventually, my parents had abandoned their well-intentioned but futile pleas for me to become a doctor, lawyer, or in short, to enter any “real” profession. By my early twenties, I began to travel as a musician, playing concerts and seeking out architecture and art while touring. I had demanded this kind of life, and little by little I was finding a place for myself. But the big questions remained unanswered. How did I become the person I am? Where did these stubborn drives toward art and music come from? Who were my people? Where exactly did we come from? And on whose shoulders did I stand?

My mother had always tried to fill in the gaps, recounting to my brother and me episodes from her childhood and excitedly pointing out towering figures in Armenian culture: William Saroyan, Arshile Gorky, Mesrop Mashtots, Nerses Shnorhali, and of course, Gomidas Vartabed, whose large framed portrait graced our living room wall. Once, while I was in college, St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City announced a performance of the world-renowned Soviet Armenian string quartet named for the musicologist-composer, giving the audience only a few days’ advance notice. My mother had insisted that I attend with her, paying me the lost wages from my Sunday bookstore job. For her, Gomidas and his music represented a profound connection not only to her Armenian identity but also to her father, to her earliest memories of his voice raised in song, and to the many stories he had told her about meeting and hearing the revered Armenian priest and musician. During that concert, I too fell instantly and passionately in love with the poignant melodies in haunting settings and immediately began to incorporate Gomidas’s music into my own repertoire.

Still, I craved a deeper connection to my artist grandfather. I read anything that mentioned him or his work and discovered that some art historians in the 1980s had begun to write about the establishment of the Armenian ceramics tradition in Jerusalem. As I pored over museum catalogues and articles,2 I saw that a significant number of biographical details were incorrect. Dates of his birth and death were off, the particulars of his arrival in Jerusalem distressingly incomplete.3 These writers were working with the materials available to them, and I began to understand that history, as it appeared in books, was not always a recounting of what had actually happened—it was the writer’s own version of the story of what happened.

Some intriguing books and papers about my grandfather’s art appeared in the 1990s and 2000s. From them, I learned more about the early years of the British Mandate in Jerusalem and the way in which my grandfather’s mastery of an old ceramic tradition intersected with the need to restore the badly dilapidated Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, a sacred Islamic monument covered with Persian and Ottoman tiles. These texts contributed to the story of David Ohannessian and his work and were built on the writings that had come before. They fueled an urgency in me to try to discover more.

Throughout my childhood, a 1916 book called The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire lay buried on a shelf in the dimly lit upstairs hallway.4 Four days after I finished high school, I’d loaded up a borrowed station wagon, eager to depart for New York City and the adventures that lay ahead. As I prepared to leave my parents’ home for good, at the age of seventeen, my mother pulled me close, kissed my cheek, and then passed the book into my hand. For decades, it remained untouched on my own bookshelf, moving with me from apartment to apartment, like an undetonated bomb, waiting for me to find the courage to confront what it contained.

In 2005, ten years after my mother’s death, I finally took a deep breath and opened the volume. Inside the mottled leaves were reports from Armenian Genocide eyewitnesses—British, Italian, and American diplomats, German missionaries and teachers, Danish nurses, and survivors. Page after page recounted marches, massacres, forced conversions, rape, torture, and assault. In the restrained language of the First World War era, Armenian women were “teased,” “ravished,” “outraged,” “ruined.” Armenian men were “flogged without mercy,” “horribly mutilated,” “put to the sword.”

These were my people.

ON APRIL 20, 2007, I bid on what was described as an “Iznik-Style Pottery Bowl, Kütahya, First Half Twentieth Century” in a Christie’s London auction. The inside of the half-round form had intense greens and blues with a central lobed medallion that by then I recognized from my grandfather’s classic design vocabulary. On the outer surface of the bowl were vines and the same stylized red carnations I had admired as a child. Two Armenian alphabet letters were painted on the bottom, under the glaze.

I had stumbled on the auction catalogue by accident and decided to try to buy the bowl as a totem or a kind of symbolic gift from my grandparents to me. I liked the idea that I could build a bridge between generations by “repatriating” one of what was possibly my grandfather’s works. After a nerve-rattling 5:30 a.m. phone call from the London bidding desk, a few tense moments straining to hear what was happening in that sales room on the other side of the Atlantic, and then ninety harrowing seconds of bidding, the bowl was mine!

I had also inherited the beautiful blue vase from the mantel of my parents’ house. When the newly purchased bowl arrived, it looked right at home. In fact, the two pieces seemed to come to life. They urged me to find more of their relatives.

One afternoon, after a rehearsal in her apartment, composer Eve Beglarian and I were drinking coffee and exchanging family stories from our shared Armenian heritage. “You know,” she said, “you are one of the lucky ones. Your family left breadcrumbs behind.” She pointed out that unlike many other children of displaced people, my family had artworks that had survived our various upheavals and held some of the threads of our story. If only I could find more, document the circumstances of their creation, and perhaps trace my grandfather’s footsteps, maybe then I could satisfy the old hunger to connect with my family’s past and resolve the multitude of disquieting and unanswered questions.

Later in 2007, my cousin David Donabedian gave me a document written by our aunt Sirarpi Ohannessian, who had died in 1999 after a series of strokes. She had left her longtime home in Washington, D.C., when she first became ill and settled in Los Angeles to be closer to her sister Mary. Sirarpi was the eldest of David Ohannessian’s seven children, an applied linguist and researcher. The eight-page record she left behind included a brief biography of her father and the lineage of his ceramic tradition. Tantalizingly, it also contained a list of his monumental ceramic installations in Jerusalem, Istanbul, Konya, Kütahya, Lebanon, England, Ireland, and France. She had compiled the list in Beirut in 1952, while her father was still alive, but some of the entries contained only minimal descriptions.

I began to wonder if these works still existed today. If they did, would it be possible to find them? Would the stories my mother had preserved provide more clues to their whereabouts? Could I follow the trail of these “breadcrumbs” and do the serious detective work needed to find a fuller history of my grandparents’ lives and the ceramic art that my grandfather had founded in Jerusalem in 1919? And could I learn to understand the historical forces that had shaped my family’s experience and attempt to see the world as it might have looked through their eyes? Would there be some reconciliation, or even redemption, for their suffering, along the way? Over the next months, these questions seized my attention and creative energies.

I called and emailed my cousins, hounding them for any old records, photos, or letters they might have in their possession. Documents began to trickle in. In September of 2013, my cousin Armen and his wife Jean Markarian were cleaning out their garage in Los Angeles and unearthed the mother lode: the box of archival materials that our aunt Sirarpi had painstakingly preserved. Inside were stencil pattern designs, original drawings, account books from Jerusalem, travel records, letters in Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, and English, notebooks with ceramic forms and designs, photographs of completed installations, calling cards, articles, catalogues, glaze recipes, British Mandate documents, proposals, and even kiln designs. They express-mailed the carton, and I opened it to find a wealth of clues that began to answer all sorts of questions about our grandfather’s life and work.

A few weeks later, Jean was in New York. We met for dinner at a favorite Greek restaurant near Carnegie Hall, and she handed me a shopping bag with a bubble-wrapped object inside. “We found something else in the garage,” she said, “and I think it belongs to you.” Underneath Aunt Sirarpi’s buried trove of papers, she and Armen had found a luminous blue tile with an Islamic inscription—a product of my grandfather’s workshop in Jerusalem—framed in gold.

She pointed out the faintly penciled inscription on the back:

for Sato Moughalian

from S. Ohannessian

Fourteen years after her death, Aunt Sirarpi’s legacy had been handed to me.

I saw her bequest as a sign that I had to keep following the trail. I had to seek out and tell my grandfather’s story.

In a sense, it is my story too.

Notes

1. The experiences of Professor Hans Fisher were detailed in Joseph J. Preil, Holocaust Testimonies: European Survivors and American Liberators in New Jersey (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 9–10.

2. The first major publication was the beautifully produced catalogue of an exhibition in Tel Aviv, curated and authored by Yael Olenik, The Armenian Pottery of Jerusalem (Tel Aviv: Haaretz Museum, 1986).

3. Nearly every published account of Ohannessian’s life distorts the fact of his deportation from Kütahya and the circumstances of his arrival in Jerusalem.

4. Arnold Toynbee and James Bryce, The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916).