My Hiroshima

While I’m good at remembering a few very specific things in my life, I am otherwise very bad at recalling dates. I often forget people’s birthdays—along with their names—although I fortunately have a detective’s talent for remembering faces. It’s as if my failure to remember dates has something to do with my desire to make our collective life here on earth a little less painful and closer to heaven: It is said time does not exist in Paradise. After all, if God created the universe, as Christians believe, surely his kingdom must be timeless—”a treasury of everlasting life,” as Shakespeare called it. There are no clocks or watches there; an hour may be a thousand years or an eternity.

And so I have never attached much importance to keeping chronological records of my family or personal life. I find such details ephemeral in the grander scheme of things. It’s as if the image-laden memories of all the cities, landmarks and outdoor vacation spots I have visited with my parents, siblings and friends are effortlessly etched in my brain—without a trace of the corresponding year, sometimes even the decade. There is, however, one date that will be etched forever in my mind: January 14, 2003. On that Tuesday, precisely 17 days before the dawn of the Chinese Year of the Black Sheep, my father, along with his mother and sister, perished in a dreadful tragedy.

January 14, 2003 is my Hiroshima. Just as millions of Japanese and international peace activists every year observe the world’s first atomic explosion over a civilian population on August 6, 1945, I find myself pondering questions of human cruelty and justice at the beginning of every New Year.

My father, Mardiros Iskenderian, had terminal cancer. He was an immigrant from Lebanon whose life read like one of those self-made business success stories politicians like to dish out on campaign trails. He founded Zankou Chicken, one of Southern California’s most successful and recognizable brands in what some experts refer to as the “slow-cooked fast food” restaurant sector.

My father had been battling cancer for about two years when he died. But it wasn’t cancer that killed him. He killed himself. And he didn’t kill just himself. He also killed his mother and sister.

The bluest sky tends to turn to ash when I think about that fateful morning. My mother and I were standing around him in our house in the hills above Glendale. He was dressed in a white-colored silk suit that he hadn’t worn in 20 years—the weight loss from his cancer allowed him to finally fit into the costume. He seemed unusually radiant, as if he had swallowed three Red Bulls. “I am going to meet with my sister and mother,” he announced. It had been months since he had gone anywhere, so I asked him if he needed a ride, but he declined. I kissed his hand, wished him goodbye and drove off to the meeting.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was saying goodbye to my father for good. For unbeknownst to any of us, he had packed a 9-millimeter pistol into his waistband and a .38-caliber revolver in the pocket of his coat. He drove straight to the house where his sister and mother lived, about seven miles away, and knocked on the door. A housekeeper led him into the dining room on the second floor, where his 45-year-old sister, Dzovig, was standing. She offered him a glass of lemonade and they chatted about family affairs for about half an hour until their 76-year-old mother, Margrit, arrived.

According to the police and the housekeeper’s accounts, my father’s sister sat across from him on the dining table, his mother to his right. The three spoke in calm voices, although not much was said, which wasn’t surprising, given that my father had not met his mother or sister for more than a year. About five minutes into the meeting, just as something resembling a conversation was getting underway, my father pulled out the Browning 9-millimeter pistol from his waistband, reached over the table and fired a single shot into his sister’s head.

The bullet lifted her off her chair and deposited her facedown on the granite floor. Then my father turned to his mother, who was screaming and running toward the nearest door. He sprinted in the same direction, overtook his mother, and stood in front of her, gun pointing to her chest. “Don’t shoot—please,” she said in our family’s native Armenian language. “Please don’t shoot.”

The first bullet caught my grandmother in the chest. She reeled backward and fell to the floor. My father stood over her and pumped eight bullets into her body. Then he walked to a couch nearby in the living room, sat down, pointed the gun at his head, and pulled the trigger.

******

A few hours later, while I was working at our restaurant in Pasadena, I got a call from my mother, who asked me to come our house immediately. “Your dad is dead,” she said to me frantically in Armenian when I got there. My three younger brothers were all standing there, looking utterly stunned and lost. I instantly thought our father had killed himself to end his medical suffering. And then my mother said, “He killed his sister and mother, too.” My lips twisted into a weird smile, which gave way to a short but distinct burst of laughter. In hindsight, it was the only way I could cope with what my mother had told me. The full reality of what my father had done came to me quite a bit later—after I had stepped off the mental roller-coaster ride that the horrible news had induced inside me.

What could possibly have prompted my father to take the life of his own mother and sister? I thought such things only occurred in myth or medieval history—and even there it was usually sons killing fathers for power or as part of some inescapable curse. But the truth, psychologists tell us, is that a deeply ingrained capacity for murder lurks inside all of us—even those we deeply love and who love us. In fact, people who are close to each other are often capable of harming each other more than those who aren’t emotionally intimate. It’s strange how quickly love turns to hate—a universal theme that can be found in literature and the daily news alike.

It didn’t take me long to figure out the reason for my father’s extreme actions. Throughout the nearly two years that he had been stricken with cancer, his mother and sister hadn’t come to see him. Not once. Nor had they inquired about his welfare. Although my father never said as much, he felt badly betrayed by his mother and sister. He seemed to feel that they wanted him to die. He was particularly vulnerable to such feelings because I’m increasingly convinced that he was also suffering from bipolar disorder, although he was never diagnosed with the disease. Besides, not long before the tragedy, something had transpired that had possibly turned their hearts to stone: In a family meeting, my father had disclosed his illness and announced that he would leave his restaurant empire to his four children—me and my three brothers, the youngest of whom was 17 years old at the time.

Instead of asking my father what kind of cancer he had or what the prognosis was, his mother questioned the wisdom of leaving Zankou to me and my brothers. It was a fair question, given that my father regarded his sister’s two sons as his own. But the question’s timing couldn’t have been more wrong. It was clear to my father that his mother didn’t care for him. All she seemed to care about was the family’s fortune.

In many ways, my grandmother was the backbone of the family business. She was a natural-born chef, with a God-given talent for cooking great food. Her arias pita—bread with ground beef, tomatoes and jalapenos baked in an oven—was so good that people couldn’t help stuffing themselves with the dish. I once ate so much that I got sick—it was so good I couldn’t stop.

She worked at Zankou every single day of the week, except Sunday. She loved the crisp cold mornings of Los Angeles and early every day, she would go out to our restaurant in Hollywood—the first of our 11 branches. There, she would prepare Zankou’s signature garlic sauce. It was she who taught our chefs how to slow-cook the chicken that the Los Angeles Times has hailed as “the best in town at any price.” If it weren’t for her, it’s fair to say, the French restaurant guide Zagat might not have applauded Zankou as one of “America’s best meal deals.”

That’s not to say my father wasn’t hardworking. Far from it. If his mother tinkered with the spices, it was he who tweaked the menu. If his mother cooked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., he was the one who traveled to every single restaurant every day to personally ensure that customer service was top-notch. He counted the receipts, did the payroll and made sure that the accounts were all in order.

My father wasn’t just a hard worker. He was a good man. He donated a lot of money—hundreds of thousands of dollars—to local non-profit institutions, most of them backing Armenian cultural and humanitarian-based causes. He also gave to schools, starving artists and dance troupes. In fact, he was so generous that a cartoon in a local Armenian newspaper once showed two doors leading into Zankou—one for food, the other for philanthropy. At his funeral, we found out that he had paid to have an Arabic teenager put through school and college. But he never told us about it.

He also donated his time—and our time. As kids, we hated it, but he used to force us to go to the local church, St Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Pasadena, on Colorado Boulevard, and make a soup we call “Jidabour” in Armenian. Jidabour is made with minced meat, delicious spices, and grain. It’s an awesomely tasteful soup, but making it requires hours of strenuous work. He would make us stand around a kettle and turn large wooden spoons for hours. It reminded me of the old witches in black-and-white movies, making some sort of magical concoction. By the time the process is complete, the meat becomes so soft and chewy it practically melts in the mouth. Delicious. But when you’re a teenager you don’t want to be making soup at church all day, especially on a Sunday.

Instead of working in a soup kitchen, I wished we went hiking instead, or walking or sailing—anything. Now all that—even my reluctant soup-making on Sundays—is gone forever along with my father. He was like a lion teaching his cubs. He taught my brothers and I how to survive in life’s jungle. But more importantly, he also taught us how to be kind and compassionate, as if to remind us of other people’s struggles and our own good fortune in life. That was the thing about my father—he was a great man and a respected person in the Armenian community, even if he wasn’t very close to his own family. He didn’t spend much time with us because he was always at work—just like anyone who has a successful career. And although he did love playing with us, he rarely spent time with my younger brothers, whose adolescence coincided with the expansion of the family business from a single restaurant in Hollywood to branches as far off as Anaheim and Van Nuys.

******

My father’s life was a business success story, full of lessons from the front lines of entrepreneurship. He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in a region that was was full of Armenians at the time. He grew up there, in Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East, where his parents had opened a tiny hole-in-the-wall drive-thru chicken restaurant in 1962—at a time when nobody had heard of the concept. It was the family’s first Zankou. Every morning, his mother put on her apron (she was always in an apron, even when she met her terrible end) and whipped up a garlic paste that would later become a legend in America. My father helped turn the chickens as they cooked.

One evening in 1979, Beirut’s brutal civil war put an end to the family’s thriving business. My father was sitting outside one his family’s storefronts, which they had bought with profits from the restaurant business, when two masked men on a motorcycle sprayed dozens of bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle at him. My father was hit by 16 bullets. Miraculously, he survived, and I have wondered if, in some strange psychological way, the attack was linked to what he did to himself and his mother and sister.

From Beirut, the Iskenderians emigrated to California. Although they had plenty of cash, the family settled in Glendale, which has the largest population of Armenians outside Armenia. One of the first things my father bought was a Thomas Guide map of Los Angeles. He loved maps—not least because he found a connection through them to his ancestral homeland. “These Thomas brothers, what geniuses!” he exulted to my mother one day, describing how they had taken a sprawling megapolis such as L.A. and made sense of it in a may accessible to any foreigner. Armed with the maps, my father drove around the city in rented cars, logging hundreds of miles a week. He was in no hurry. What he was looking for was a suitable location to open a restaurant.

His parents, however, were opposed to the idea. They didn’t want to set up any Zankous in America, preferring to go into the dry cleaning business instead. But chemicals made my father sick. And so he traveled to Hong Kong with his father to check out that city’s legendary trade in men’s suits. For some reason, father and son decided against that business, too. Meanwhile, my father kept driving across Los Angeles—and the more he did so the more convinced he became that the restaurant business in America’s second-largest city was right for him. Where else, after all, were there so many Middle Easterners—without a decent Middle Eastern restaurant that served their cuisine in a manner that was fast, delicious and affordable.

With the grudging consent of his parents, my father picked a small store next to a Laundromat in a mini mall on the corner of Sunset and Normandie. There, he installed a blue-and-red sign with 13 letters: ZANKOU CHICKEN. It would prove to be a magnet not just for L.A.’s ethnic Arabs, Persians and Armenians but also for Mexicans and thousands of office-goers in the busy area.

And so it is that food has a special place in my family’s memory. Unfortunately, however, when we went out to eat as a family, my brothers and I would often argue with each other or our father would be in a bad mood, almost as if he really didn’t want to be there. I think this is why, to this day, my siblings and I have a really hard time just spending time with each other. Obviously, some of that is because of the extremely difficult and stressful roles we all have at the family business: It’s hard to separate the family from the business and not talk about work when we go out. But I do blame my father for some of it. He really did not set the best example of spending good, quality time with the family.

******

None of that is to say I didn’t love him or appreciate him as a father. But I do wish my brothers and I didn’t argue and bicker as much when we went out with him. The sad part is that now that he’s gone, we will never again have those opportunities.

My father was brought up by his father, an alcoholic who died of a heart attack at the age of 62 and whose own grandmother was a hardcore alcoholic. Although I never met my great grandparents, I heard they were really messed up because of the Armenian Genocide. And for many of us Armenians, that’s what it almost always goes back to—the government-sanctioned program of the Turkish Ottoman Empire to eliminate 3 million Armenians living in western Turkey and steal their land.

Understandably, my grandfather was not very loving toward my father. I remember that at my grandfather’s funeral my father showed little or no emotion. My grandmother, on the other hand, was crying and wailing. I think she was faking it—and that brings me to the role that she played in our family’s emotional turmoil and in my father’s wretched end.

My parents’ marital relationship was considerably strained—and the one person always stood in the way of their love was my grandmother. She was terribly possessive of my father, perhaps because she herself got little or not love from the man in her own life—her alcoholic husband. Still, you wouldn’t think that a man’s mother would begrudge her own son to be happy in marriage. But you would be wrong in my grandmother’s case. Not only would exploit every opportunity to make my parents fight with each other, she was often very jealous of my mother.

A whole book—or three—could be written about my grandmother’s complicated personality. She was the kind of person Freud probably had in mind when he made the sweeping, prejudicial statement that after years of studying the human mind he still couldn’t figure out what it is that women want.

My grandmother didn’t just ruin my parents’ relationship. She also poisoned my father’s ties with his sister. I’m convinced that after my father was diagnosed with cancer, he felt bad about how his mother had exploited him against his own wife and his sister, robbing him of close intimacy with them. He realized that his mother was the source of all his marital troubles. But it was too late.

Looking back, the best thing my father left me and my brothers was an opportunity. He did not leave us a lot of money. He left us four stores. We now have eight (plus three others that are owned by my slain aunt’s family, with which we don’t get along). We have an opportunity to take Zankou Chicken from a relatively small family chain to a large legacy business.

We also have an opportunity to honor our father’s memory by doing three things. Because he hated it when his sons argued and fought with each other, we would do well to try to get along. That, to my mind, is the most important thing we can do to pay tribute to our father. The second thing we can do is to take good care of our mother, the one woman among many in his life who stood faithfully by his side until the bitter end. Finally, we should work hard and take our family business to the next level.

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