May 7, 2015

Harout

Harout
Do you know that instant in which something is happening when all of a sudden you realize that this, in fact, is yet another unforgettable incident? You know that moment when you get goose bumps because you know, in the speck of that instant, that you’re on the verge of learning your next life lesson? Do you know what it feels like to see, touch and live a history book?

He held my hand so tight and didn't let go until he had finished talking. He uttered the words "your mother, your mother, your mother, your mother and then your father". His stuttering was the wake-up call that changed what that day was initially supposed to be.

I was asked by a close friend to join him along at his grandpa's place and take a few portraits. I admit, I was  moved by his initiative especially that I knew my friend well, and this just proved to me that what I had in mind about him was true: he's this compassionate creature that yearns to mark a trace in this disturbed world of ours. He had felt that his grandfather was feeling pretty low and uneasy, thought that a friend coming over with a camera in hand would cheer him up a tad. And so it happened.

Harout and Sevoog striking a pose.
His keys wouldn't unlock the main gate, it’s why he had to forcefully ring the bell and call out for Harout, his grandfather. That was when I first spotted the old man: A very handsome senior with an arching back and a wonderful, welcoming smile. He opened the door for us, greeted me in Arabic and asked for some time to put on his "teeth", all the while my friend was translating to me their conversation in Armenian. That time was enough for me to settle down in the living room and speculate the environment: the vintagey scent was enough to tell me what a treasure I had just found. The place was a tiny apartment, barely large enough for a couple, filled with old books perfectly sorted out on shelves throughout the flat. Each and every one of these books had their own stories to tell, obviously.

Sevoog, namely blacky in Armenian, his snobby cat with the arrogant looks stepped inside what seemed to be his territory, and myself being the intruder he was staring at, head to toe. In very loose and relaxed movements, he strolled around me marking his territory, telling me I’m in his kingdom, and showed me who’s boss around here. Sevoog seemed to be the only comforter of a lonely old man whose children pass by to check on every now and then. The cat was my little moments of entertainment before Harout came back with a tray of soda in his hands. It seems he regretted that I had took off my shoes, something perhaps unusual for him to have in his house. My friend and I rushed to take the cups so that he could relax and, personally, it was time for me to plunge in action.

At first, Nareg was a bit tentative to ask me to pay that visit. Little did he know about my timeless craving for shooting older people’s faces. The faces, the wrinkles, the fading smiles and the arching backs, each tells a story as vast as their lifetime. My intuition didn't fail me that afternoon; it was one out-of-this-world meeting. I was warned however, warned of the fact that I should avoid discussing the wife's passing away a few months ago. He was so attached to her, I was told, and the slightest memory could bring him down all over again. Little did I know that this woman had left us merely a couple months back, meant the world to this lonely man. This man who himself, surely feels as if he were left behind in this world, no matter how surrounded with people and faces it may seem to be. His courteous yet sad smile says it all: he had no reason to live anymore, or that’s what he might have been thinking indeed.




Just as any other Lebanese would treat their new guest, Harout started, with his rugged Arabic, a conversation through which he inquired about my job - whether I was happy with what I was doing at the moment. He was so courteous and well-mannered that I eventually felt home. It wasn't much before the conversation took a turn I hadn't foreseen. Harout found no other way but to lure me into talking about his deceased soulmate, his one and only companion, the colors of his life and the only person he had ever needed - it was all gone now. It felt like this was basically all he really wanted to talk about. For a split second it definitely felt like he was pulling out those emotions, the emotions he had stacked down the whole time, his way of avoiding the horrible shadow of old memories still present in each corner of that tiny house. His wife was literally everywhere, she was waving through the grains of dust covering that library, she was in the frames of every photo. She was doing the dishes and cleaning the bedroom, leaping around fixing this and tidying that, she was the one teaching Harout how to offer Soda to their guests. She was the smile that was taken away once and for all.


During the course of our conversation, I couldn't but exchange a few warm looks with Nareg, standing a couple feet across his grandpa looking at this old man like he had never done before. Harout is the kindest person I had ever met; he was literally apologizing for his heavy Armenian accent, his inability to move freely and be a better host, and what he considered to be a messy living room. I was smiling all along; what was happening that moment couldn't have been matched with anything truer that this. It was those moments when he spoke of his late wife, his smile was enough to brighten the corner of his house, the house that was somewhat shaded by the surrounding century-old trees.

In a sort of unexpected turn of events, I found us talking about my parents. Off the top of my head I started telling him of their divorce, of how I became man of the house at a young age, etc... He couldn't resist smiling and in no time reached out to hold my hand. I, all astonished, willingly stretched my arm and gave in my hand, waiting to see what Harout has in store for me. He grabbed it so firm that I instantly knew he meant business. He iterated the word "your mother" in Arabic four times before he mentioned my father. It was his gentle smile that was telling me not to hold any grudges at him, and to always reserve some space for love in my heart, not to hate anybody, for hate kills only its bearer. The look in his eyes was simply unforgettable. I asked his permission to take a photo, and here it was: A history changing photo.

In a split-second I started thinking to myself about how profoundly humane this person was, how kind and soft, how beautiful inside and out. He is a man of love and peace, and, asking around, found that he has been this man for his entire life, not only after his wife passed away. It was no wonder that this woman had fallen so madly and fondly in love with such a man at the time. In fact, he told me the story of how he met her, and of all the small things that make it story the most mundanely beautiful fairy tale ever.

Words were lazily pouring out of his lips describing how clear the images still were, even though he was as young as 7 years old back then. Harout was among the many refugees who had to flee Armenia during the war, and had found himself in Lebanon after his parents managed to smuggle him out. He was literally homeless back then, the reason why he eventually became an apprentice to the local butcher, turning the butchery into his home for some coming many years. He was eventually introduced to that butcher’s niece, Harout’s wife soon after. There is one way to putting it, Harout started out of nothing, literally nothing, no money, no parents, nothing; having his wife by his side was the first pillar into stepping foot in this life. They both managed to establish what can be called a prosperous life, a house and family even with the extremely few resources they had. That was the same house he had lived in since then, the same district in which he grew up, the one in which he learned most of the skills he knows today. It's as if Armenia street in Beirut was his world - everything he knew. It's as if all the scents he knew, all the colors he’d touched, all the tongues he’d heard and all the emotions he had danced with, existed only in that narrow street. It’s as if the only thing that was missing to remind him how tough life is, was the day when his wife, the mother and grandmother of so many beautiful souls, went into a coma 15 years ago, the coma that she strong-willingly fought and managed to wake up from against all odds. It wasn't until a handful 13 years later when it was time to say one last goodbye; all those struggles and fights with diseases have taken their toll on her in the end and Harout was left stranded there all by himself.


All of the above narration was written two years ago, right after I had met with Harout in 2013 during easter. Now that I had left the country, it was time to give Nareg one Skype call to catch up on things and learn how Harout's been doing lately. I couldn't be any happier: right in the middle of my call I learn that Harout is now one fully-loaded active old man, as never before. I guess we, the younger generations, still have got a lot to learn along the way. Here's to love and humanity.