My dad often tells the story of the only time he saw his own father cry. In early February of 1958, six-year-old Armenag Kazandjian sat at the kitchen table of his family’s Cairo flat, enjoying a bowl of Fūl. My grandad, Vahe, sipped aromatic coffee and read the newspaper. My dad remembers his father quietly putting the newspaper down and averting his gaze towards the open window; his eyes shone wet and tears tumbled down his bristled cheeks. My dad wanted to know what was wrong. With his eyes fixed on the bustling street outside, Vahe explained that the players of Manchester United’s most brilliant football team had been killed in an aeroplane crash in Germany. ‘Just boys,’ he told my dad, ‘just young boys.’
My dad’s family were accustomed to unfathomable tragedy. His parents were the children of Armenian Genocide survivors. They grew up in households scarred by physical and psychological trauma, amidst a community struggling to rebuild itself. Vahe’s mother (who escaped Istanbul’s anti-Armenian pogroms in 1915) was distressed by the lack of living space afforded her son’s growing family. Believing she was a burden, she climbed onto the roof of their apartment block and jumped to her death. My dad and his brother were greeted by the terrible aftermath upon their return from school, but nobody recalls my grandad crying. Armenian society was, and still is, deeply patriarchal. Men who survived the genocide carried the weight of misplaced shame; they believed they had failed as archetypal protectors of their people. This shame was passed from father to son and the resolve to demonstrate patriarchal ‘strength’ crystallised. My dad’s own stoic reaction to his parents’ passing is testament to this pernicious inheritance.
So perhaps the unique memory of his father’s vulnerability in the wake of the Munich disaster explains my dad’s own emotional connection with Manchester United football club. And despite being born and raised on the doorstep of Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium, my desire to emulate my dad saw me charging around North London’s parks with my collar up like Eric ‘King’ Cantona.
Watching Manchester United on the television with my dad became ritual. In our narrow living room I observed his actions as much as what was happening on the pitch. If he applauded one of Paul Ince’s cross field passes, I did too. If he leapt from the sofa to wildly celebrate an Andy Cole goal, so did I. If he aimed a torrent of abuse at the screen, I memorised the unfamiliar words and repeated them under my breath. And if he hurled his fist like a meteoroid at the coffee table in anger, I did the same, hoping my dad wouldn’t notice the pain beginning to gather in my eyes.
I was learning to perform my masculinity. Through the prism of watching football with my dad, I understood that I was supposed to swallow disappointment and sadness, let it swirl into anger, and then spit it back out like dragon fire . As I grew up, I applied this understanding to everything and everyone around me. Exclusions from school, fist-shaped craters in bedroom doors, cracked ribs and broken noses demonstrated my commitment to being a ‘strong man’. I believed I had to mask any unhappiness I felt with warpaint, and this set me on a destructive path. It was only through reading and writing in my late teens, that I began to tentatively unpick my own toxic ideas surrounding masculinity.
When at university, I regularly returned home to keep up the tradition of watching Manchester United with my dad. I had attached sentimental value to our time spent enjoying a game together, and I imagined this value was reciprocated. My sentimentality was often splintered by returning home to find he was out hemorrhaging money at the bookies. I would feel a wave of sadness when his car pulled up outside the house midway through the second half. Despite fostering an awareness of the need to honestly acknowledge my emotions, I was terrified of attempting a conversation about feelings with my dad. Instead, I’d revert to the anger I knew best.
On the day my brother was diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t sit down with my family to offer nor seek the comfort we all needed. I rushed to the gym to lift weights. So determined was I to be ‘strong’ that I chose the most literal expression of strength. I chose bench presses and deadlifts over being openly vulnerable and sharing fears with the people closest to me. And now I have to live with that shameful memory.
The patriarchal construction of masculinity is very real, and it dismantles us from within. It conditions us to deny our true responses to the pain we experience and the pain of those around us. By shunning every healthy outlet for our feelings, we force our pain outwards and hurt others, and we drive our pain inwards, hurting ourselves. And that looks like our partners trembling at the sound of our voices. It looks like sons mimicking our behaviour and daughters being conditioned to accept its hideousness as normality. It looks like unsolicited dick pics. It looks like shouting ‘cunt’ in another human being’s face after our aggressive propositions are dismissed. It looks like seeing absolutely nothing wrong with forcing ourselves inside an intoxicated, unconscious person. It looks like ‘that’s not rape’. And all of this cruelty and spite is rooted in our sheer resolve to cling to the performance of ‘strength’ while neglecting the transformative powers of embracing so-called ‘weakness’.
Today, enjoying Manchester United games with my dad has taken on new poignancy. He is unwell. What he is suffering from is allowing recent memories to escape him like steam through an open window. Within a couple of days, he struggles to recall details from even the most unbelievably thrilling match. In the summer, the team we both love signed Armenia’s captain and all-time leading goalscorer, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. We were ecstatic at the arrival of the Premier League’s first Armenian player. Last Sunday at Old Trafford, Mkhitaryan raced on to a through-ball, took a touch to steady himself then rifled a shot past the Tottenham goalkeeper and into the roof of the net. He became the first Armenian to score a goal in Premier League history. I began to cry. I looked to my left and saw that my dad was unashamedly crying too. Perhaps we shed tears because being Armenian is often something obscure and unknown, something that requires explanations and maps, and on this day it wasn’t. Perhaps we cried because Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goal was symbolic of our survival and growth in the aftermath of genocide, in a world in which our oppressors hoped we would not exist. Maybe my dad thought of Cairo and Fūl and his own father’s tears. Maybe I cried because I knew he would soon forget this moment.
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Robert Kazandjian is an educator and writer. He works with vulnerable children in North London. His writing seeks to challenge inequality, in all its guises. He has previously written for Ceasefire Magazine on racism in Israel, gender politics and hip hop music, and the necessity of Armenian Genocide recognition. He blogs poetry at makemymark.tumblr.com. He cites Douglas Dunn, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin and Nas as major influences. He tweets from @RKazandjian