Claiming the History in Family Names

Claiming the History in Family Names

My father, Ghevont Vartanian, left his hometown, Beirut, in 1974. He landed in Baltimore to work as an OB/GYN at Harbor Hospital where he became “Ge-VONT WarTAYNian.”

He would attempt to coach people on the pronunciation: “Wartanian, like D’Artagnan from ‘The Three Musketeers.’” Or he’d give up and say, “Just call me George.”

I cringed whenever my father called himself George. I wanted him to declare his name rather than defer to its otherness. I wanted him to teach people how to pronounce his name and appreciate its Armenian origins.

History echoed within my father’s name: Ghevont is a canonized orator; Vartan, an honored warrior. Both served as Armenian leaders in the fifth-century Battle of Avarayr. But the cloak of George silenced that history. George seemed like a mask suggesting iffy links to Western Europe, a more digestible origin story for new Americans with dark complexions.

What my father considered a prudent measure to save time on awkward mispronunciations felt to me like admitting defeat. It was the defeat of failing to defend something, a name, as Saint Ghevont and the Vartanians had defended their embattled way of life. It was the defeat of accepting he could never fully belong. And if he couldn’t belong, then how could I?

One morning when I was 10, I sat on the porch with my friend Zach. He turned to me and said, “My father’s name is Charles. What’s yours?”

“Ghevont,” I answered. Zach looked at me, puzzled.


“No, Ghe-vont,” I said, raising my voice.


“No! Gh. Like the French ‘r’.”

“Sorry,” Zach replied, shrugging his shoulders. “This is America.”

We laughed, not knowing what to do with ourselves. Part of me thought he just wasn’t trying hard enough, as if he wanted my father’s name to sound wrong, to not belong in our language.

Maybe I should have said George. I didn’t want to admit it, but adopting an American name had a certain appeal.

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