Sunday, March 9, 2014

Thoughts on What It Means to Be Armenian

Special for the Armenian Weekly
This year, we traveled to Beirut to celebrate Christmas with my family. It was a joyful time despite the stresses of frequent suicide bombings and already nerve-wracking traffic, compounded by the Syrian refugee crisis and holiday mayhem. We shared great laughs, had mouth-watering food, admired the resilience and candidness of the people and, of course, heard many stories.
One of these stories has been stuck in my mind ever since, giving rise to questions about what it means to be Armenian, how we “stay” Armenian in the diaspora, and what role the existence of Armenia plays in this.
When a friend’s sister picked up her three-year-old daughter from a French school in a suburb of Paris, she was confronted with a question she was not prepared for: “Mum, why do I speak French at school and Armenian at home?”
“Because we are Armenian,” she responded.
Then: “But what does it mean to be Armenian?”
Sometimes kids ask the most difficult questions.
Of course, growing up in Lebanon I did not have to ask that question. Not when I was as young as three anyway. We didn’t need to wonder what it meant to be Armenian. It did not require additional effort or measures that seemed to be at odds with other aspects or realities of life. We just were Armenian. School was Armenian, agoump was Armenian, scout club was Armenian, we spoke Armenian at home and with friends, we had all-day long Armenian radio (more than one) and even satellite Armenian TV. My mum would have the radio on in the kitchen, and the TV on in the sitting room, so she could listen to Armenian in whichever part of the house she happened to be.
Even now, despite the impact that decades of civil war and ongoing political unrest have had on community life, you can still feel it when you’re in Lebanon. You still hear Armenian conversation from every corner while walking the streets of Bourj Hammoud, or have random encounters with complete strangers in Ainjar, which leads to a lunch invitation because he knows your husband’s aunt from when they worked together in Titsmayree years ago. My husband loves it all. Born and having lived in Australia all his life, he has the thirst for it.
After many years of living abroad, now so do I. I don’t know how the rest of the conversation with my friend’s niece went, but I’ve tried to imagine how I would have reacted, if I were her mother.
“There is a country called Armenia where we come from,” I would have said. It is the “simplest” and most logical response I can think of.
Identity is one of those concepts that are beyond straightforward definitions. What it means to be Armenian will differ from one person to another and involve a variety of cultural, political, religious, and geographic factors. However, looking at the diaspora there is no question that for many of us our Armenian identity has been so closely intertwined with the Armenian Genocide—that colossal event that has shaped so much of our thinking, collective memory, traditions, emotions, sense of justice, and both national and personal consciousness.
For most of us, the Armenian Genocide is the “starting point” of our individual family stories because we either don’t know much about what was before 1915 or because we don’t have “access” to it.
Beyond what it means to be Armenian, for the typical diasporan what involves being Armenian has come to be equated with taking part in community life. Community organizations and institutions, social events, and political awareness activities typically set the parameters of how we “exercise” being Armenian.
Yet, in recent years there has been another colossal event in our nation’s history: the emergence of an independent country, the longest surviving independent Armenian state of modern times. But its impact on what it means to be Armenian has been minimal. Many of us in the diaspora are yet to take ownership of Armenia, make it ours in one way or another, make it a part of our individual and family stories.
In diasporan communities where it is increasingly difficult to “remain” Armenian, relying solely on language, history or culture, and the parameters of community life, Armenia is that critical element that can make being Armenian more “real” than ever before.
This has certainly been the case for me. These days, when I’m getting takeaway coffee and the barista is trying to guess where I am from, I tell them the short version: “I am from Armenia.” While my family originates from Kayseri and Harput, over the years I have tried to make today’s Armenia mine and I have written some beautiful stories along the way. Armenia is where I met my husband, where we fell in love, and where got married. Armenia is where my niece was born, where I met her for the first time, and then a year later where I was godmother at her beautiful Christening ceremony. Armenia is what I studied, researched, and wrote about in my master’s thesis. Whether or not I got my degree hinged on that thesis. It is where I encountered and befriended all types of Armenians from all over the world. And it’s what I’ve made this column about.
These are the stories that form an intrinsic part of what it means to be Armenian for me, and they all involve Armenia. They connect me to my identity and ground that identity in a place I can touch and feel. And I know that our family has so many more stories that are yet to be written in and on Armenia.

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