The Bandits (From: The Apple Tree Blossoms in the Fall – A Memoir)

Written By: Armineh Ohanian

THE BANDITS Having married two days earlier, my parents, Tadevos and Siran were headed to Arak, Iran to start their new life. Tadevos, who traveled to Hamadan to tie the knot with Siran, rented a truck from Yervant, an Armenian fellow like himself. Yervant offered to drive my parents, their belongings, and Tadevos’ mother, Hars Jan to Arak. To me, the real hero in this chapter is Hars Jan, and I am eager to narrate this eventful tale related to me by my mother, Siran, ages earlier when I was a teenager. Seated in the wobbly and rattling truck, Siran gazed at the barren surroundings and the rough mountains, as her body tossed from side-to-side in the old vehicle. She admired the sight of the mountains and the arid land stretching between Hamadan and Arak, where occasional bushes and undersized trees rendered the view into a wide canvas. While Siran observed the panoramic view, her mother-in-law, squeezed between her and Tadevos in the cab of the truck, snoozed peacefully. Siran smiled at Hars Jan, who fell asleep at the very moment the truck began moving. Hars Jan, who was widowed at young age, was living with her eldest son in Hamadan. When my parents got married, she decided to accompany them to Arak. I never met Grandmother, as she passed away over a decade before my birth, but I knew all about her through my mother’s stories. Hars Jan, which is an affectionate name in Armenian, means, ‘dear daughter-in-law’. According to my mother, Hars Jan was an outspoken character, who told people off without blinking an eye. However, she was tender and forbearing with a few handpicked souls, such as her family. Apparently, the reason Hars Jan decided to live with my parents was because she liked and approved of her new daughter-in-law. In the old days in Iran, children took care of their widowed mothers. Nursing homes did not exist. Besides, a mother-in-law in Armenian culture was once the most prominent figure in the family. So, who would dare to subject such an individual to live within the depressing walls of a nursing home, even if one existed? Siran, Tadevos and Hars Jan had barely traveled a few kilometers through the mountains when the truck began acting unstable. Mother panicked. The road was completely deserted and there was nobody around to help them in case the car broke down. Yervant drove a few feet further until the road straightened, and then pulled over. While all this was happening, Hars Jan was still fast asleep with her head tilted to one side. As Yervant left his driver’s seat and began circling around the truck to inspect the tires, Mother heard his anxious voice calling out to Father, “Hey Tadevos come over here and have a look at this tire!” Father hurried to where Yervant stood and cried out, “Ah! That’s all we need in this cursed mountainous place!” As Mother wondered what could be the cause of my father’s despair, she heard him continue, “How the hell are we going to repair this big tear in the tire?” Yervant remained silent. Mother noticed both men trudging over to the left. Then, Siran saw Yervant through the side mirror freeze in place and gape at the road. He struck his forehead with both hands and said, “Tadevos…I think there is something terribly wrong.” Father followed the driver’s gaze and was surprised to see the road strewn with many pieces of long, thick nails and shards of broken glass. He shook his head. Mother thought he probably was upset at himself for not having brought along his hunting rifle, which he normally carried during his travels. As soon as Father and the driver set to repair the tire, an ear-splitting sound of clatter of horses’ hooves and wild, shrieking noises filled the air. Siran’s heart skipped a beat as she glanced at the towering mountain in the east and saw a band of Lores – Iranian tribal bandits – pouring like a flash flood down the peak on horseback. As the bandits descended, they waved and swirled their shiny daggers around in the air. “Bastards!” Father barked. Now, he knew who had scattered the nails and shards of glass on the road. Mama gasped, covering her mouth with her hand, when she saw the fierce-looking Lores encircling the two helpless and bewildered men. They howled like wolves, and filled the air with the sound of their shrill whistles. They circled around the two men a couple of times, before coming to a complete stop. Presently, the Lores tucked their daggers under their cloth belts and reached for their guns. Mother found them looking especially terrifying with their weather-beaten creased skins. She sized them up quickly. They had pointy black mustaches, grayish-white baggy pants, white collarless button-down shirts, colorful vests, and brown turbans. “Lord, have mercy on us! They’re going to kill Tadevos,” Mother whimpered, as a straight-backed bandit with a fleshy mole on his cheek rode closer to Father and dismounted his horse. He, then lifted his gun high above his head, brought it down swiftly, and hit the back of my father’s head with its butt. He ordered, “Give me your wallet!” As blood cascaded down the back of Tadevos’ neck, his face drained of all color, turning as pale as his shirt. Father pulling out a handkerchief from his trousers’ pocket, held it on his wound, and pleaded, “Give me a minute… don’t hurt us please.” Pointing his rifle at my father, the bandit hollered, “Do as you’re told, or I’ll kill you.” “All right, just give me a second,” Father said. The Lore lowered his gun and fixed Father with blazing black eyes, as Tadevos dipped into his back pocket and withdrew his wallet. Handing it to the Lore, he said, “Now, leave us alone, and let us fix our tire. I have given you all I have.” Mother shifted her glance to the trembling driver. Meanwhile, she saw Hars Jan, who had been jolted out of her pleasant nap by the sound of the commotion, slowly scuffling out of the truck. Rubbing her eyes, she shrieked, “What’s happening … who are these ugly guys … bandits?” Siran noticed the bandits dismissing Hars Jan and turning their attention to the horrified driver, as the dark-eyed head of the bandits ordered Yervant to hand him his wallet. Yervant immediately surrendered his thin wallet to the bandit. The Lore, examining it carefully, grimaced when he found it empty. Flinging it like a boomerang at the shivering driver’s head, he and the rest of the bandits edged toward the rear of the truck. They then began ransacking my parents’ belongings. In the meantime, mother heard, the gallant Hars Jan, who by then had realized that the horsemen were indeed bandits, yelling and cursing them at the top of her voice, “May your livers be shredded to pieces, you savage Lores…Stop!” It appeared to my mother that the bandits being in no mood to deal with an elderly woman, completely ignored her yells, and continued rummaging through the truck. Mama went on narrating, “Hars Jan shuffled closer to the Lores, placed her hands on her hips, and shouted orders, which made me shake with laughter.” Mother continued, “Hars Jan shouted angrily, ‘Hey you beasts…don’t drop that big box…that’s my child’s mirror… you there, ugly monster, stop … stop … leave that cutlery carton alone.” I can imagine the shocked look on the Lores’ faces seeing that bold, old woman edging closer, not afraid of their daggers or guns, yelling, “Stop … stop, you no-good savages. You’re going to break my child’s china set.” Mother had thought what difference did it make whether or not the bandits broke her mirror or the china set? They were going to take them away, anyway. She added, “While the Lores were busy emptying the back of the truck, another group arrived, loaded the boxes on their horses, and carried them away. “Hars Jan, whose orders had been ignored, simply stood there staring after them, fuming,” Mama added. According to my mother, during all of that upheaval, my father stood relaxed by the side of the truck, smiling and observing the bandits and his mother while holding a handkerchief on his wound to stop the bleeding. “So that’s how we began our married life,” Mother concluded.