William Saroyan, Assyrians, and the Joys of Research

Prior to a few decades ago, researching beyond the public library to learn about a random topic of interest would have been too much of an effort to be worthwhile.  Thankfully, technology continues to make it easier and easier to research almost anything.  As an example, I will demonstrate how I was able to satisfy my curiosity about the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, William Saroyan, by using tools that were not available until recently.

I first became interested in William Saroyan when I read the introduction to Sargon Donabed’s book, Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the Twentieth Century, which quotes a section of Saroyan’s short story “Seventy Thousand Assyrians.”  Most people do not know about modern Assyrians, so the fact that someone wrote a short story about them in 1934 piqued my interest.  I had never heard of Saroyan before, so I went to:

Research Tool #1: Wikipedia

Although Wikipedia is not viewed as an authoritative source, it is a great place to start learning about a topic.  In many ways, it is better than a print encyclopedia, because it gets updated more frequently.  Its bibliography also provides links to other resources on a topic.

From Wikipedia, I learned that Saroyan was an Armenian-American writer, which explained why he knew about Assyrians.  Armenians and Assyrians are both Christian minorities found in the Middle East, so they often befriend, or even marry, each other.  It also explained why his surname ended in “yan.”  Most Armenian surnames end in “ian” or “yan,” because it essentially means “son of.”

A 1991 U.S. stamp of William Saroyan.

After getting an idea of who Saroyan was, I tried to look for his short story “Seventy Thousand Assyrians.”  Luckily for me, an Assyrian magazine called Zinda had posted it online: http://www.zindamagazine.com/html/archives/2007/06.03.07/pix/Saroyan.pdf

The gist of the story is that the anonymous, Armenian narrator goes to get a haircut in San Francisco.  While getting a haircut, the narrator asks his Middle Eastern-looking barber, Theodore Badal, if he is Armenian.  The barber says no, he is Assyrian.  The story then proceeds with the narrator and Badal comparing their cultures.  What specifically captured my attention was Badal’s gloomy monologue:

“We were a great people once,” he went on. “But that was yesterday, the day before yesterday. Now we are a topic in ancient history. We had a great civilization. They’re still admiring it. Now I am in America learning how to cut hair. We’re washed up as a race, we’re through, it’s all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have no writers, we have no news- well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all. It’s an old story, we know all about it. The news comes over to us through the Associated Press, anyway.” — [This story appeared in Saroyan’s first book of short stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, published by Random House in 1934.]

What is significant about Badal’s statements is:

  • Everything that he said could easily be said by an Assyrian today. 
  • Assyrians still lament the dying of their culture.
  • Many Assyrian refugees in the United States are still barbers.
  • Assyrians still do not have well-known writers.
  • Assyrians are still facing persecution (e.g. ISIS). 
  • In 1933, a large percentage of Assyrians were massacred during the Simele massacre in Iraq, which is perhaps what this 1934 short story is alluding to.

Because the story felt so authentic, like the retelling of an actual event, I decided to search for Theodore Badal.

Research Tool #2: Family Search

Family Search is a free genealogy website, which is specifically useful for researching public U.S. records.  To use it, all you have to do is create an account.  It is similar to Ancestry.com, but the latter is not free and provides you with access to more records.  The Mormons, or Church of Latter-Day Saints, founded both of these genealogy resources, because, according to their theology, a person can be posthumously baptized.  For example, if you have a deceased ancestor who was never baptized, he or she cannot enter heaven, so if you posthumously baptize that ancestor, then when the resurrection comes, he or she can accept this baptism and be saved.  Therefore, thanks to Mormon theology, the U.S. has wonderful genealogy resources.

On Family Search, I found a 1930 U.S. census record from San Francisco of a man named Theodore Badal, who was born in New York and whose father was born in Persia (present-day Iran) and spoke Assyrian (neo-Aramaic).  The Theodore Badal in “Seventy Thousand Assyrians” said that he was living in New York prior to San Francisco, although he also said that he was born in “the old country,” not New York.  However, the parallels were still too similar to ignore.  In the story, the narrator calls both himself and Badal young men.  In 1934, Saroyan would have been around 26 years-old.  The Badal that I found on Family Search would have been 22, according to the birthdate on his WWII draft registration card from 1940.  Badal’s draft card also said that he was 5 feet 10 inches.  According to Saroyan’s story, the barber was tall.  Although 5 feet 10 inches is not necessarily that tall, it would have been tall for Saroyan, who was 5 feet 8 inches (according to his 1981 obituary in The Washington Post).

My obsession with this topic grew, so I proceeded to try another research tool.

Research Tool #3: Request Vital Records from the County Clerk

Vital records are birth, marriage, and death records.  If you know the date and location of a person’s birth, marriage, or death, you can contact the County Clerk’s office where the event occurred and request the vital record.  Nowadays, you can just go to the county clerk’s website, print and fill out a request form, and then mail it, as well as a check, to the County Clerk’s office.  If you are not related to the person, you can request a genealogy copy, as long as the event occurred a long enough time ago.

I do not know why I felt compelled to request a genealogy copy of Theodore Badal’s 1946 death record, but I did.  From it, I learned the following:

  • Badal’s parents were born in Iran
  • Badal married and divorced a non-Assyrian woman 4 years his senior.
  • Badal did not serve in WWII.
  • Badal’s occupation was “musician.”
  • Badal died of tuberculosis at the age of 34.

Perhaps this Theodore Badal was not the same as Saroyan’s Badal, but they definitely had lot of similarities.

After this, I wanted to try and read Saroyan’s 1950 book, The Assyrian and Other Stories, published by Faber and Faber.

Research Tool #4: WorldCat

Most public and academic libraries in the United States pay to have their catalogs available on WorldCat.  This amazing website allows you to search and see which libraries in your area have a certain book, magazine, DVD, etc.  After finding the item that you want, all you have to do is type in your zip code, and the closest libraries with that item will appear first on the list.  Although most of the libraries in WorldCat are located in the United States, many large libraries in other countries also use it.

After finding the book on WorldCat, I requested it through my public library’s inter-library loan system.  It, as well as other stories in it, referenced Assyrians.

Next, I decided to watch the 1943 film, The Human Comedy, for which Saroyan won an Academy Award for Best Story (the predecessor of the Best Screenplay award).

A largely autobiographical story, the film includes a scene in which the protagonist’s classmate has to read about the ancient Assyrians in class.  According to the class’ textbook, the Assyrians were “long of nose, hair and beard.”  When the teacher scolds the protagonist, Homer, for disrupting the class, and asks him to summarize what they had learned, Homer provides a funny monologue about the different uses of the nose, for he says that if the textbook mentioned noses, then it must be important.

The movie’s reference to Assyrians as people with “long” noses could be seen as offensive.  However, since in “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” Saroyan specifically mentioned how both Armenians and Assyrians tend to have large noses, I wondered if Saroyan was trying to poke fun at an actual textbook, and point out how out of place the comment was.  After doing some Google searching, I came across another research tool that I want to highlight.

Research Tool #5: Internet Archive

Since 1996, the Internet Archive, headquartered in San Francisco, has been digitizing and uploading millions of books and other resources, especially those that are no longer under copyright.  People can digitize and upload content themselves, or send items to the Internet Archive to do it for them (for a fee).

Included on the Internet Archive is H. G. Wells’ bestselling history textbook, The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (1920), published by Cassell and Company.  According to chapter 16, “Their [the Assyrians’] physiognomy, the long nose and thick lips, was very like that of the commoner type of Polish Jew to-day.”  The rest of the page mentions further information about the Assyrians, which closely parallels what The Human Comedy’s fictional textbook says about them.  I, therefore, believe that Saroyan was basing his classroom’s textbook off of Wells’ textbook. 

After reading this snippet about the Assyrians in Wells’ textbook, I felt thankful that at least Saroyan did not also borrow Wells’ snide about Jews.  However, this, of course led me to further investigating.  Unfortunately, Wells negatively portrayed Jews in his other writings as well (such as in The Invisible Man).  However, Saroyan, did not come off as guiltless of antisemitism.

Research Tool #6: Google Books

Google has attempted to digitize every book that there is.  It did encounter copyright lawsuits, which put the project on a standstill for a while.  Right now, the books that they have already digitized, but are still under copyright, only have a select number of pages visible to read.  Even if you cannot read the entire book, it is a great way to get an idea of what a book is about, and see if it is something you need for your research.

From the pages publicly available in Google Books of Saroyan: A Biography by Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford, I learned that Saroyan’s son, Aram, claimed that one of the reasons why his father divorced his mother was because he learned, 6 years after their marriage, that his wife was Jewish.  However, based on the biography, I doubt that this was the only reason.

For anyone who braved through this entire post, I hope that you not only learned more research tips, but also enjoyed learning more about Assyrians and William Saroyan, who was famous during his lifetime, but has sadly been forgotten. 

Sources and Further Reading

Lee, Lawrence and Barry Gifford. Saroyan: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row (1984).

Saroyan, William. “Seventy Thousand Assyrians.” Zinda Magazine 13, no. 8 (June 3, 2007). http://www.zindamagazine.com/html/archives/2007/06.03.07/pix/Saroyan.pdf (accessed February 18, 2020).

Saroyan, William. The Human Comedy. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company (1943). https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.168214/page/n7/mode/2up (accessed February 18, 2020).

Smith, J. Y. “William Saroyan Dies at 72.” The Washington Post, May 19, 1981. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1981/05/19/william-saroyan-dies-at-72/5cad502d-8aca-478d-a53a-9d6156d841ab/ (accessed February 18, 2020).

Wells, H. G. The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. London: Cassell and Company (1920). https://archive.org/details/cu31924028328759/page/n7/mode/2up (accessed February 18, 2020).

Yonan, Ann-Margret. “William Saroyan’s ‘Seventy Thousand Assyrians.’” Zinda Magazine 13, no. 8 (June 3, 2007). http://www.zindamagazine.com/html/archives/2007/06.03.07/index_mon.php (accessed February 18, 2020).

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