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I Googled My Mother’s Maiden Name and Discovered My Family’s Violent Secret

I went to my mother's house with a fire lit under my ass, and before the door had even closed behind me, I blurted out, "Who is Emile Zarbatany?"

av Christine Estima
2015 04 14, 11:00am

Photo of the Montreal Gazette

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

I blame Who Do You Think You Are? Before that show existed, I was perfectly content not knowing a damn thing about my family history. But then Jim Parsons found out he was related to a famous French architect who served Louis XIV, and Sarah Jessica Parker found out one of her ancestors was tried as a witch in Salem, and then suddenly I was like, "OMIGOD I BETCHA I'M RELATED TO CLEOPATRA OR SOMETHING."

I thought the most logical place to start was with my great-grandfather, a man who had died 20 years before I was born. His name was Michael Zarbatany and he emigrated to Montreal from Damascus in 1906. In Syria he had sold shirts on the market, but in Montreal, he was a different man altogether. He started the first Arabic newspaper in Canada, called Ash-Shehab ("The Brilliant Star"), and also founded St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, which still exists to this day on Rue de Castelnau in Montreal. So last month, I visited the church, which I hadn't seen since I was baptized. I spoke to the current priest, and also to members of the congregation, but no one could tell me anything I didn't already know. Yes, he was a good man, and a kind man, and an honest man, and blah blah fucking blah. What a horribly pedantic episode of Who Do You Think You Are? this would be.

I went online and googled him at length, and of course, because I didn't pay a hefty price of admission into Ancestry.ca, I couldn't find anything of relevance.

My mother had once told me that the family name "Zarbatany" actually derived from a type of gun called the Zarbatan, which my ancestors smuggled for the Ottoman Empire. They eventually changed their name from Zeine to Zarbatany to identify themselves. That's pretty fucking punk rock, I thought, so instead of googling his full name, why not just google "Zarbatany?"

And that's when the penny dropped.

The Montreal Gazette has an online archive that dominated my search results. It revealed the name of a man I had never heard of before, a man named Emile Zarbatany. The Gazette published a series of reports on him in 1941, when he was charged with attempted murder.

The March 6, 1941 issue reports that on February 22 of that year, Emile Zarbatany shot Norbert Valcourt, the janitor of his apartment building, three times. One bullet passed through part of Valcourt's head. Valcourt had been collecting rent money when the incident happened.

The June 7 issue from that year also reports that Emile Zarbatany, who was addicted to morphine and heroin, had previously been convicted of burglary, armed robbery, illegal possession of a firearm, and that he claimed he had once been shot in the head while working as an informer for the New York police.

What the actual fuck.

I was expecting to find my family was made of writers, philosophers, mathematicians, maybe a torrid love affair or two. I wasn't expecting the plot of a James Cagney film starring an Arabic Scarface.

"We're not a family; we're a tribe," my mother had once said. There were so many derelict cousins, estranged brothers, secret adoptions, and unknown family relations. So it was entirely possible, I thought, that this Emile Zarbatany was some distant cousin twice removed who wasn't related to me in any meaningful way.

Ah, but Google loves her little tortures.

That's when I found the February 27, 1941, issue of the Montreal Gazette:

Accompanied by his father, Very Rev. Michael Zarbatany, vicar general of the Syrian Orthodox Cathedral, Emile Zarbatany, 30-year-old suspect in the shooting of Norbert Valcourt... surrendered early last night to Deputy Police Director Armand Brodeur, head of the Montreal Detective bureau...

There he was in black-and-white. Michael Zarbatany. My great-grandfather.

I went to my mother's house with a fire lit under my ass, and before the door had even closed behind me, I blurted out, "Who is Emile Zarbatany?"

My mother, who was sitting at the kitchen table, looked up at me, paused for the length it would take to read the Bible, and then replied, "Why?"

Right then and there, I knew there were family secrets not meant for my ears. Stories and lies, foibles and follies, murder and trials had all been kept from me. I was completely in the dark about where I came from, who my ancestors were, and exactly what kind of blood was running through my veins.

Finally my mother admitted, "All right. He was your great-uncle, and we don't speak of him."

Is this why I sometimes have a violent streak? I thought. Why I used to steal candy from the dépanneurs as a child? Why I can fly into a rage at the drop of a hat? Why my temper scares even me? Is it all in my blood?

The last article on Emile Zarbatany that I found was stuck behind a paywall, but the Google preview of the Ottawa Citizen indicated that he was subsequently sentenced to 20 years in jail. In 1941, Canada still had the death penalty. He could have swung for that.

My sitto (that's colloquial Arabic for "granny"), who is 92 and still kicking, has told me Emile didn't serve the full 20-year sentence. He was out on parole when he re-offended on a drug-related charge. According to her, he was in the hospital receiving treatment for a heart aneurysm when my jiddo ("Gramps") learned the RCMP were looking for him. Jiddo was Emile's brother and, like their father Michael, turned him in. It's crazy to think of the drama and inner turmoil and conflict required to rat out your own son, your own brother. I guess by this point, they were all just sick of his shit.

The last anyone heard of him, he was transferred to a prison in Agassiz, BC, to put some distance between him and the Montreal criminal network he was involved with. No one knows when he died.

Since this dark chapter in my family history has come to light, I have been obsessed with the quest to find out more about my family. I hoped it could tell me more about my life, my tendencies, my proclivities; it has instead revealed even more scandal and misery. There was the trial of Jean-Paul Zarbatany, as reported by the Montreal Gazette on February 26, 1976, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Zarbatany is not a very popular last name in Montreal, let alone in Canada, so this Jean-Paul is related to me somehow, but no one in my family knows the exact connection.

I sit here, armed with this knowledge, and I think to myself quite shamefully, You can take the man out of Syria, but you can't take Syria out of the man.

I suppose, when you come from a family that is named after a gun, you will, in all likelihood, die by that gun.

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