Debut author Martine Madden talks about what inspired her to write Anyush.
It was a quiet afternoon in the X-Ray department of Tawam Hospital, a government run facility in the oasis town of Al-Ain, in the emirate of Abu-Dhabi. The staff, a mix of English, Irish, Jordanian, Maltese, Egyptian, Scottish, South African and Lebanese, was gathered in the viewing room when a mouse ran across the floor. Several people ran from the room and others hopped onto the counter tops; only my Lebanese Armenian friend, Houry Belian, remained where she was. Short, thin and with the nickname ‘the milk bottle’ because of the whiteness of her skin and her obsession with staying out of the sun, Houry regarded the mouse with a dispassionate eye before pouncing on it, catching it in both hands and wringing its neck. This incident compounded the enigma of ‘Houry’, a girl who in 1978 had emerged from a Beiruti bomb shelter after fifteen days of heavy artillery fire and described herself as ‘not normal.’
Some time later, I decided to visit pay Houry a visit. The single women’s compound was located within the hospital grounds, covering approximately an acre of dusty terrain bordering the main Al-Ain road. The accommodation consisted of wooden huts, not unlike the sheds found in many suburban back gardens, and had two small bedrooms, a sitting room and a bathroom. Walking through the women’s compound was like passing through a field of beehives with the constant drip and drone of air conditioners. In forty degrees of heat, they made living in a wooden box just about bearable. As I approached Houry’s hut, I became aware of another sound, a shrill, hysterical screaming coming from inside. Her door was open but there was no sign of her in the living room. She was in the bathroom, pressed against the wall and rigid with fear. The look on her face was so pathetically terrified that I thought there had been a break-in or worse. Until she pointed with a trembling finger to the bath. Near the plughole was a perfect specimen of Blatta Orientalis. I never expected the civil war survivor and mouse killer to have a pathological fear of cockroaches.
Years later, in 2006, John and I were settled back home and I hadn’t thought of Houry in a very long time. Because the Middle East was as topical then as it is now, I was writing a piece about our time there and a conversation with Houry came to mind. Knowing that John and I were just married she had asked me about our wedding, and I had innocently mentioned that we’d honeymooned in Turkey. Her reaction was almost comical, her black eyebrows disappearing below the frames of her glasses and her small hands clenching into fists.
‘Are you not knowing about the Armenian Genocide?’
I didn’t know the first thing about it so she told me some of the details and, after uttering some platitudinous expressions of sympathy, I forgot about it. Or thought I had. Sitting at my laptop, I began to wonder what exactly she’d been trying to tell me and decided to Google it. The first website I came across had a photograph of a young German soldier in uniform and wearing an Arabic ghutra and egal on his head. His name was Armin Wegner and he had disobeyed orders to photograph extensively the death marches and massacre of Turkey’s Armenians during the genocide in 1915. I clicked on the link to his photographs and it is no exaggeration to say that those pictures changed everything.
I find it difficult to explain the effect Armin Wegner’s photographs had on me except to say it had much to do with where my own life was at the time. In the first picture there was a woman’s naked, emaciated body lying by the road with the corpses of her two children on either side of her. In 2006, my five children were young and I was at that stage where my world view was governed by their needs and the necessity of keeping them safe. Wegner’s picture was like a scene from every mother’s worst nightmare, a dystopian vision of hell. And it was only one of many. I went on to research the Armenian Genocide in detail, and from this came my novel, Anyush. I also began to realise that Houry’s family had survived not only the civil war in Lebanon, but a much older conflict.
A card arrived from California just after Christmas in 2012. I opened it and read ; ‘To Martine and John, Happy Christmas, from Houry.’ Eight short words spanning a continent, an ocean and perhaps more than just twenty years.
Martine Madden was born in Limerick, worked in Dublin and later moved to the United Arab Emirates with her husband John. The stories recounted to her by the Armenian diaspora there prompted her interest in Armenian history and formed the basis of the novel Anyush. Martine returned to Ireland in 1990 and now lives in the Midlands with her husband and five children.