Memories From Istanbul, Part 1

by Robert Rubyan

Dad’s male role model, Nene’s brother, helped raise him. He told me stories of herding goats as a child. Later, he studied at the English Brumana School near Beirut, Lebanon, and earned his college degree from the American University of Beirut. While attending college he played on the Soccer team, and was an intern at a Sir Leonard Woolley dig in northern Syria. This experienced fostered a fondness for archaeology & ancient Mediterranean antiquities, which he passed on to me.

My mother Arsha-Louise (transliteration of Dawn in Armenian), who was born in Bitlis, Musa Dagh, Syria. She grew up in this remote mountain valley. At eight years old, her father Gabriel Shemmassian moved the family to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where he hand made silver inlaid shotguns which he marketed to the affluent elete Amhari class.

She was presented to Emperor Haile Selassie at court. He was the owner of one of Grandpa Gabe’s firearms. She became fluent in Ethiopian, and many years later, when the ambassador was visiting Detroit, she played tour guide. The Ethiopian adventure ended when Mussolini invaded. The Italians threw Grandpa in jail. Grandma fled back to Syria with the kids, where he joined them after his release.

As Dad said: “we are the first Armenian family to return to our homeland after the Genocide” The recent contretemps over the prosecution of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, missionary, in Turkey brings back the memories of when our family lived for a year in Istanbul. He ministered to the tiny Armenian Congregationalist community. We worshiped, cowering in ancient basement belonging to a church member whose home was the site of Sunday services. Dad baptized me there.

 The Rubyans consisted of maternal grandma Miriam Tosjian Rubyan (“Nene”), survivor of a family from Marash, the Ottoman Empire. Her husband Robert volunteered for the army and disappeared. Brother Luther was drafted and disappeared as well. Her son Robert Puzant had a sister who was shot while a babe in arms by marauding Kurds who attacked the local market where she was shopping for food. The local Turkish Pasha fancied Nene for his harem. She scraped together the last of her money to go on a caravan to Aleppo, Syria, about 100 miles away across the Syrian where one of her brothers resided. She had missed the one leaving at dawn, so she purchased and proceeded to buy a fare with the next. A lucky chance, as they passed the bodies of the dawn caravan butchered by the Kurds the next day.