Did you know about the Middle Eastern tradition of telling fortunes by reading coffee cups?
I didn’t … and I’m of Middle Eastern descent!
It’s like reading tea leaves, but with way more caffeine.
I recently did my very first coffee reading, with a friend. I guess you could say I have “the sight.”
But it wasn’t always that way.
Tapping into, embracing, and really loving my Middle Eastern ancestry has been tricky for me. I’m a white girl from a predominantly Irish, Dutch, Italian and Jewish New York City suburb. My eyes are blue and my maiden name is about as ethnic-sounding as Wonder bread. I grew up a church pastor’s daughter in a wealthy, white town full of nice, hardworking people with good hearts. But I was pretty sheltered from cultural diversity. I had no idea what “ancestral trauma” was. I was ignorant even of my own.
There was always this mystery lurking in my past. My paternal grandfather was Armenian, born near Lake Urmia in what is modern-day Iran (when it was still Persia). I never met him; he died when my Dad was in his teens, and my own Dad died when I was twenty. My grandmother was American-born, of German and Polish ancestry. I was raised with only a tertiary awareness of my Armenian heritage, but I imagined it included a desert-dwelling grandfather who rode camels, and it wasn’t midlife that I would discover where I was really from.
I learned about my grandfather from books, photos, and reel-to-reel recordings of his sermons. He was a Pentecostal missionary in the Middle East, later a church pastor for Armenian immigrants in Chicago. He emigrated to America, where he, widowed from his first Armenian wife, married my grandmother. There was a trunk of his belongings my Dad kept in the basement.
Any time I inquired about my grandfather, it felt like going down a rabbit hole into the past. I had so little information; the cultural stew was thin and I never felt “legit” Armenian. My dad was half, so technically I’m a quarter. The family we were close to, my Mom’s, were of Irish, English and Scottish descent. We could trace our earliest immigrants back hundreds of years. I have light skin and eyes, and was raised as your regular run-of-the-mill American girl. I was not Middle Eastern.
But my grandfather came over from what was then Persia and was processed on Ellis Island. He was a legit immigrant. There are even stories that his surname was changed when he emigrated, which explains my run-of-the-mill maiden name (many Armenians have distinctive surnames that couldn’t be any other ethnicity, with their distinctive “-ian” ending). My grandfather’s was such a classic American story, and I was only a generation removed from it!
So I was a little proud of being a little Armenian — and isn’t that the appropriate level of pride? A little bit of pride for being a little bit Armenian. Sounds right! Especially in grade school when we were learning about immigration. So one year I wore what I thought was traditional Armenian headdress and robes in a Fourth of July parade in my hometown, from that basement treasure trove.
But I got it wrong. I know now the robes and keffiyeh were actually traditional bedouin Arabic dress. Grandpa could speak and pass as Arabic, and he used this getup to move more freely in Iran — a hostile place at times for Armenians. But it was not what his people wore.
Not only was my 4th of July costume traditional Arabic dress, but it was also a decidedly male-looking costume. Arabic women typically wear the hijab or burqua. Beautiful, right?
But grandad wasn’t Muslim. He was not only a Christian, he was a Christian missionary. As I got older and started forming beliefs around this, I had lots of questions about that missionary work. Sure, the folks who went overseas to provide assistance to the poor, the Mother Theresas of the world, were great. But the ones whose sole mission was to “convert” people from one religion to another? It didn’t seem right. Anything called a “crusade” never ended well.
But back to fashion. I learned later that Armenian women never wore hijabs or burquas. They saw themselves as Western, wearing fashions from Europe and leaving their heads and faces exposed. Of course, there’s traditional Armenian clothing, too. But it looks more Turkish to me, and it’s called “Taraz.”
There are some great photos and an explanation of the traditional Armenian National Dress on this great website I found, ArmeniaDiscovery.com. These days, I’m finding traditional clothing from all the tribes of the world quite beautiful. But the Taraz is especially attractive to me.
I stopped picturing my grandfather as someone who lived in the desert. I began to create a more accurate mental picture, of a people who lived in the mountains. Before the Internet and looking up answers to my questions though, I was stumbling around in the dark. For a long time, it just wasn’t mine, or for me.
The Red Bookmark
In my early twenties, I took a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. with a friend and colleague. We were both in town that summer for internships; me from Chicago, he from Germany. In a very culturally tone-deaf moment, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to visit the newly-opened museum with a young, sensitive German national. Looking back, I think, how could I have been so cruel? The trip was a disaster that left me in tears. I particularly felt the bile rising in my throat when confronted with a wall containing the simple quote:
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” -Adolf Hitler
I didn’t know it at the time. But scholars have called the Armenian Genocide of 1915 the blueprint for Hitler’s holocaust.
I’d heard that the Eastern Aramaic speaking Assyrians of Iraq and southeastern Turkey have suffered both ethnic and religious persecution for many centuries. The 1915 Genocide was committed against them during the First World War by the Ottoman Turks and their allies. Many fled to the north of Iraq. Near Urmia.
This was part of my friend’s national history, so he already knew: the words printed on the wall about the Armenians were spoken by Hitler in his Obersalzberg Speech, given to Wehrmacht commanders at his Obersalzberg home on August 22, 1939, a week before the German invasion of Poland.
The speech details a planned extermination of Poles.
That emotional trip to the Holocaust museum felt meaningful. It also felt like a nonsequitor. None of it fit. All of it is like a red bookmark in my often-foggy recollection of those years.
As I would learn later, every person is a teacher. Every experience is a teaching. There are angels everywhere — guiding us, reminding us to come home.
A Red Flag
I stayed on in D.C. and worked in software sales from my late twenties to my early thirties. The top-performing sales rep at our company was a handsome young guy several years younger than I. He had dark good looks similar to my Dad’s, and I was attracted to him out of professional curiosity. I was in the “building” phase of my life, and wanted badly to understand anyone who had salesperson superpowers. In my desire to learn, I asked him about his ancestry. His reply:
“I don’t really like to talk about where I’m from. The people there don’t really get along.”
He was from Afghanistan. In 2008, 9/11 was still fresh.
I told him what I knew about my Armenian ancestry, the ancestry I didn’t really understand. The conversation was a brief one, and it frightened me. It was a first-hand account of conflict, of the terror still present in the region of the world that my grandfather was from. But it was also another red bookmark, a red flag I’d flip back to in the book of understanding my ancestry.
A Deep Dive
In my early forties, I was ready. I was married with kids. My professional life was stable. I was living in a cold, mountainous part of the U.S. that felt oddly like home. I was new to the area, and had a lot of contemplative alone time. So I took the opportunity to take a deep dive into my ancestry. Recent training as a yoga teacher inspired a lot of this. It had me highly sensitive to cultural appropriation, respectful of these healing practices I was learning from India, and deeply curious about my cultural heritage. Some of my yoga colleagues were even talking about things like past life regression and healing ancestral trauma.
Right then and there I decided to go on a fact-finding mission about my Armenian roots, but it wasn’t into the specifics about grandpa this time. I was going more general, learning about these proud people and how so many of them ended up in America.
I listened to podcasts, watched The Promise, and got myself a Turkish coffee pot. There were many “aha!” moments. Things were starting to make more sense.
As of 2020, governments and parliaments of 32 countries, including the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Russia, and Brazil have formally recognized the Armenian Genocide. Prior to very recently, political concerns about relations with the Republic of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Imperial authorities which perpetrated the genocide, prevented some governments from officially acknowledging the killings as genocide.
Was this why everything felt so mysterious, so shrouded?
In California, where a lot of my information about Armenian culture was coming from, there are a lot of proud Armenians. It’s where Lara Vanian-Green of the podcast Armenian Enough makes her home. Kids learn the language at Armenian schools. Glendale, California is a city where 80,000 Armenians live — the second-largest number in the world after Yerevan, the capital and largest city of Armenia. I was hearing that Armenian culture has survived due to its people’s refusal to relinquish their national identity — despite invasion, occupation, persecution, genocide, and large-scale emigration. But that was not my experience.
I learned that for my grandpa’s generation, the bigger message was all about melting pots and assimilation. For him, the idea was that we can be proud Americans, which requires leaving the past behind. This is why there are no Armenian schools on the East Coast; when most of those settlers came over, it was a time of casting off the old, bringing in the new. They came here with their possessions, maybe an old trunk full of treasures or some Turkish rugs, and never looked back.
But I was encouraged even by the simple name of that podcast, “Armenian Enough.” Yes, I also was Armenian enough.
I began to feel a kinship to anyone whose cultural heritage has been lost, altered or the subject of re-writing. How can we ever know the truth about where we came from? Should we even try?
The fact of the matter is that we cannot really know ourselves and we cannot really love ourselves when don’t know our history. Unless we try to understand our history, and the history of our people, we will be doomed to repeat it.
Swami Kripalu said, ‘when we judge ourselves, we break our own hearts. When we judge others, we disconnect not only from those we judge, but from our highest self.’
Especially in our current cultural milieu, judgment and sectarianism is why there is so much conflict in the world, why peace is so elusive.
As long as we continue to create this separation, as long as we split hairs and fail to see the unity of all mankind, we will never be free.
Preserving the Old vs. Embracing the New
Does that apply to grandpa’s missionary work, too? The idea of Christianity is so different in the Middle East than it is here in the U.S., with 65% of polled American adults identifying themselves as Christian in 2019. According to Wikipedia, Christians now make up only 5% of the total Middle Eastern population, down from 20% in the early 20th century.
Looking at the bigger picture, perhaps Grandpa’s work couldn’t exactly be classified as a “crusade.” With all of this history and context, despite my distaste for the concept of “missionary,” I began to once again admire grandpa’s desire to stand up for his beliefs and cultural ideals, even in the face of structures that threatened to wipe them out. But I still don’t know for sure how I feel.
We’re one. But we’re not the same. Yes we are all on a journey to awaken. But the path we take to get there, the how, when and where and the experiences we have along the way are unique to each individual soul.
When you commit to the journey of learning, your work is to pay attention to the process itself. Not to become fixated on the finish line.
To cultivate the skills you need to be present to each moment, no matter how messy, confusing or irrelevant you think it is.
To forgive your own stumbling, imperfect humanity and to forgive everyone else for the journey they are on, one you can’t possibly understand.
To look at those red bookmarks. And to see Love. To believe that whatever mixed up cultural stew you came from, it is enough. You are enough.
The Sins of Our Fathers
If you believe in ancestral trauma, this is especially important. Many believe we have the trauma of our ancestors encoded into our very cells.
In a study by the University of Zurich, researchers discovered that extreme and traumatic events can impact our offspring, even a generation or two later, through RNA strands.
In this study, mice were exposed to traumatic experiences that sparked depressive-like symptoms and behaviors. Amazingly, these behaviors were transferred to the next generation, through RNA; the offspring who had never been exposed to the trauma exhibited depressed states, even into the third generation.
Raised in the church I was taught about “the sins of our fathers,” and how they had lasting impact. If you take the word sin out of it, and replace with trauma, it makes scientific sense. Of course the patterning that we observe behaviorally within our families is easy to transfer on. It’s particularly interesting though that ancestors we never may have met could impact us through our very cells.
Most indigenous cultures believe that their ancestors play a vital active role in their everyday lives. For example, when the Navajo are making a significant decision, they consider the effects of that decision going forward seven generations and going backward seven generations. For some reason in our modern western society, we have become very nearsighted. We rarely consider the impact of our decisions to this level.
Healing our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual traumas, illnesses and short-comings can have far-ranging impact. We have the power to affect all our family members, because family patterns don’t exist in a vacuum. They affect us all.
So instead of functioning to split us off into our tribes, learning more about our cultural heritage can function to bring us together by seeing the unity, the similarities and how we are all connected.
I’m realizing again how mine is a very American story. Even with all of its missteps and ignorance.
To me, it seems especially important to look at the cultural heritage we either don’t understand or are resisting.
If you are curious about your past, your ancestry — but maybe a little fearful about what you might find — let this be an encouragement. You might find something beautiful, like the Armenian coffee reading ceremony. Something you can nurture and grow. Something you can be proud of, make yours — and use to connect with other people.
We are all on a journey to awaken to what love is. That journey looks different for everyone. But the journey leads back to the same place. And that place is Love.