Maryam: David Barsamian and Rafiq Kathwari share family histories in an exchange of letters

Dear Rafiq,

I just received your new book of poems, “My Mother’s Scribe,” and was delighted to learn your mother’s name is Maryam.

My maternal grandmother was named Maryam. My mother (Araxie, ten-years old) last saw her and her 3 younger brothers in Urfa on the Death March in 1915. They were in bad shape. Presumed dead. Her father, Giragos, my maternal grandfather, was killed in their village before the Death March began. My paternal grandfather, Barsam, was killed in a massacre in 1895, when my father was born. Araxie ended up in an orphanage in Aleppo where she was from 1915-1921, when she went to Beirut, where she met and married my father.

By ship to France and another ship to New York where they lived for the next many decades ­­at 521 E. 87th St, between York and East End. Father had a grocery store; we lived three flights up in a railroad flat. My father, Bedros, 80-years-old, was hit by a car at 87th and First Ave, just a block and a half from their apartment, in late January 1975. It was a Saturday. The car was driven by (I later learned) a Turkish doctor!

My father had escaped from the Turks in 1912 when he was 17. He reached New York in 1914. Some of his fellow Villagers—he was from Nibishi in Palu district, were already in New York. One of them was his brother-in-law, Kevork Garabedian. His wife, my father’s sister, Anna, was still in the “old country.” Bedros would not see her again until 1921 when they, including Araxie, all met in Beirut.

My mother was walking behind my father and was unhurt. They had been visiting a woman we called Shereeg Mary — Mary Shereegian — a genocide survivor from Konya. She was ill and that day my parents took her some food. She lived on 87th between 3rd and Lex.

The ambulance took Bedros to Metropolitan Hospital on 96th and 2nd Ave. It was a busy Saturday in the emergency room. Earlier that day I had attended a matinee Beethoven concert at Carnegie Hall. After, I went to the Peacock Cafe in the Village. It was run by Armenians from Uruguay. They had the best cappuccino. It had rained. I then returned home to 339 E 77th when the phone rang. It was around 6 or 7pm. A witness to the accident told me what happened and that my father was taken to the hospital. She said a Catholic priest from nearby St Joseph’s church had given him last rites.

I rushed there. Saw him on a stretcher in a corridor, not being attended to. His eyes were closed. Araxie, my mother, told him, Taveeta hos eh “David is here,” as if that would console him. Don’t know if he was able to hear. The attending doctor was from India. His name was Babu. He told us, maybe a half-hour later, he was unable to save my father. My brother Gerard and his wife Alice, they drove from Ossining, also arrived at the hospital. We were all together in a small room when the Dr Babu told us. We were all too shocked to cry.

Araxie died in Boulder in January 1987. The same day, as I recall, of my father’s death. We took her to New York. The church ceremony at the on 34th and 2nd Ave-was grand. She was buried next to my father in Queens. The ground was frozen and the gravediggers had to work extra hard. I confess I went once or twice to the cemetery after that. Have not returned. Probably never will.

Some time — was it years later — I went by the spot of the accident, and I found two pennies.

* * *

Dear David,

I was deeply moved by your Armenian family history which in many respects echoes the history of my Kashmiri family, and I’m certain, knowing you as I do, that you’ll hear those echoes as you start reading my poems about my mother, Maryam, the namesake of your maternal grandmother. Thanks ever so much for buying my new collection of poems and tales, “My Mothers Scribe” (Yoda Press 2020).

My maternal grandfather, Mohammed Sultan, married three times, praying that one of his wives will bear him a son to inherit his fortune he had earned selling Kashmiri artifacts on the Silk Road. None of three wives conceived.

David, between you and me, perhaps it was the old man, but never mind, for he married again. The fourth wife gave birth to a daughter with almond-shaped eyes who, a generation later, became my mother.

One evening, when my mother was six, she discovered her mother (my maternal grandmother) — I don’t know her name, sigh! — slumped on her prayer rug. Mother says, her mother’s skin was as blue as the sky woven beyond the two palm trees holding up an arch on the jai namaaz, the prayer rug.

My maternal grandfather, Mohammed Sultan Bastal, arranged for tutors to teach Maryam at home. From age 6 to 12, she learnt the Koran by heart as well as selected poems of Hafiz in Farsi and Mir, Ghalib and Iqbal in Urdu.

Sultan got infected with gout. He refused treatment by a handful of British doctors in Kashmir; instead, he placed his faith in a local hakeem. Sultan died. Maryam was orphaned at 12. She was the sole inheritor of a substantial fortune even by Western standards.

Two years later, in 1939, when war clouds obscured Europe, Maryam was wed to my father who had obtained an LLB the previous year from Aligarh Muslim University.  She was 15 when her first child Aisha was born.  My mother raised five children, from 1939 to 1947, when the Brits partitioned India, leaving Kashmir as an unresolved geography of the Empire.

A year later, in 1948, my father travelled from Srinagar to Lahore using a permit issued by the fledgling Kashmir administration, which cancelled his return to Kashmir because my father was a staunch supporter of the Muslim League and a protégé of Mohammed Ali Jinnah who, during his three visits to Kashmir in the 40’s, nurtured my father who was assigned to look after Jinnah by my grandfather, Gulam Ahmed, who hosted Jinnah during his three visits to Kashmir

I was one year old when in 1949 my mother, Maryam, and three of five siblings joined my father in Pakistan-administered Kashmir; the older siblings, Aisha and Aslum, were held back by my grandfather, perhaps to ease my father’s situation. That well-intentioned act proved tragic, primarily for my mother’s mental health as she yearned for her children to grow up together, and as well for my two elder siblings back on the other side of Partition who to this day are strangers. My youngest brother, Tariq, was born in Muzaffarabad in 1952.

My mother and her brood of four returned home to Srinagar 12 years later in 1962 sans my father who was still persona-non-grata in Kashmir, but who while in Pakistan had served as finance minister in so-called Azad Kashmir, and later worked in the administration of the Sandhurst-trained General Ayub Khan, the first of a handful of military dictators who ruled Pakistan to serve their imperial masters as you well know, David.

My father was finally granted permission in 1964 to return to Kashmir — 16 years after he had left his ancestral home, had last seen his mother and father, his sister and brother, their families, and his two eldest children who were now in their 20s.

David, I remember you once termed such tearing apart of families, whether in Armenia or Kashmir or Palestine, the detritus of imperialism, and it is so, in fact.

There is no photo of our family together — and now it’s too late. My father died in 1999 leaving behind two wives, 65 journals, approximately 24, 000 pages of his personal eyewitness account of a turbulent era in Kashmir’s contemporary history, from the day he entered Aligarh Muslim University in 1934 to the day he died in 1999 of a partitioned heart.

My youngest brother, Tariq, was carried away by a rip tide in Goa on his 62nd birthday, but 24 hours later the sea mercifully returned his corpse.

There is a solitary photo of the surviving three brothers, Aslum, Farooq and myself — all in their 70s, all three in the same room after over 70 years, in Falls Church, Virginia, where we had gathered at the home of my niece, Minha, to mark the first death anniversary of her father, Raheem, my brother-in-law, a fine Kenyan gentleman who in 1968 had flown to Kashmir in a Safari suit to woo my sister, Mahmuda. He had been enticed to visit Kashmir by his Kashmiri roommate at Stanford University.

Aslum, 79, died last year in Kashmir on March 12, exactly 19 days before Maryam passed away on her 96th birthday in her sleep at the Hebrew Home in The Bronx where for the past 20 years she enjoyed a good measure of dignity that she had been denied the previous 76 in Kashmir. Mother is buried in Putnam county at the universalist cemetery, now renamed Memorial Gardens, where people of many faiths are dying to get in.


David Barsamian is an alternative media god. His radio talk show is syndicated on over 300 stations in the United States and Canada. Rafiq Kathwari’s new collection of poems, My Mother’s Scribe (Yoda Press 2020) is available here and here and here.