Monday, January 3, 2011

On gifting an Armenian tile to James Baldwin - August 1964 - Orly Airport

I was in Paris, awaiting a return flight from Orly Airport to Boston, when I noticed that James Baldwin was standing across from me. I knew James Baldwin from his photo on the back of every (paperback) book I had read and he had ever written! Walking over to greet him, I asked if he was, indeed, James Baldwin. Yes, he said, smiling and shaking my hand. That handshake was the beginning of an hour of chatter about his books, about being black, about being Armenian, and about the bond blacks and Armenians have because of their histories. Baldwin had just returned from Istanbul where he had visited with (small world!) my friend Memet Fuat who owned De Yayinevi, a press which translated world literature into Turkish and published (even the works of William Saroyan) in inexpensive editions for the Turkish people to buy and read. How disappointed I was, however, when boarding time came and my hero James Baldwin said farewell and joined the line for First Class seating (anathema for those of us 1960's folk who believed in equality!) Before he boarded, however, he gave me his phone number and I gave him a hishadagh: an Armenian tile with Armenian writing which I had purchased in Jerusalem from the very Armenian potters whose ancestors had created tiles for the Mosque of the Dome. A week passed (I was now at home in Newtonville) and I finally got around to unpacking my carry on bag, carefully removing the 4 Armenian tiles I had left and placing three of them on the bay window in my bedroom [first having set one aside in my drawer for a wedding present for MJ Githens, the former secretary of the Harvard Radcliffe Armenian Club when I was its President]. The tiles were as beautiful as I remembered them! But I enjoyed them for a moment only, as a gust of wind blew the venetian blinds away from the window, knocking the tiles to the floor and shattering them! Tears later, I was comforted by the thought of James Baldwin treasuring his tile, and I learned many years later, when my daughter Nisha visited MJ in Minnesota in 2007, that MJ's tile was still safe, on the bureau in MJ's guest room where Nisha would sleep for one night.


  1. It is a beautiful tile, St. George if I remember correctly. For those who might not know, a "hishadagh" is a souvenir or something to remember someone by. Thanks for writing a great blog for us all to enjoy at our various outposts!

    (As an additional unimportant note, if I had been James Baldwin, I would have been delighted to sit in first class, 60s or no 60s!)

  2. Yes, Sourp Kevork was a hishadagh for MJ, but perhaps not so appropriate for her wedding present!