Four years ago, I had only ever considered Armenia an inconsequential part of the Eurovision Song Contest.
‘Are they even in Europe?’ I would ask as they came on the screen. I would spend their entire song on Google Maps looking for the country only to deem it, ‘not really European’.
But that was it. That was the extent of my knowledge.
I didn’t know the country had to rebuild in the north after a deadly earthquake shook the ground and shattered buildings and lives. I didn’t know there was tension between the country and its neighbors. I didn’t know they had suffered an inexcusable and unacknowledged genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. I didn’t know that less than one third of the world’s Armenian population actually live in Armenia.
And I didn’t know that Armenia and Armenians around the world, with their quick wit and generosity, are so much more than this tragic history, but that it has vastly shaped who they are today.
In my opinion, ‘I didn’t know’ is an overused excuse and one that I’ve been trying to leave behind. When I got together with my partner, who is of Armenian descent, I learned more about the country I had so ignorantly deemed, ‘not really European’.
Where the Seeds Are Scattered
In many ways, Armenia and Armenians are defined by geography. Situated between Europe and Asia in what was once the center of civilization, Armenia now finds itself on the outskirts of both. In good times when the status quo is maintained, they are included and even celebrated.
This was the case during their peaceful revolution in 2018 when international media rushed to report how, ‘without a bullet fired’ (Demytrie, 2018), the country came together in a call for governmental transparency.
But in bad times, or times of conflict, the world conveniently looks the other way. Being viewed as ‘inconsequential’ or even ‘expendable’ is especially difficult when surrounded by governments that have regional ambitions. It requires strength in standing up for yourself when no one else will.
The Armenian diaspora is ‘scattered around the world like pomegranate seeds’ (Temelkuran, 2008:23), with the largest populations in Russia, the United States, Canada, France, Argentina, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece and Australia.
How can a people who are so dispersed even be considered a community?
In fact, the pride they take in their cultural heritage and their shared struggles and hardship throughout history ties this marginalized people to a common national identity.
For Armenians, family is of the utmost importance. The same is true for my partner’s family. I have never known a brother and sister to be so close. Throughout lockdown, and even beyond, not a day went by when they didn’t speak on the phone, despite a 9-hour time difference.
Along with siblings, you have your parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, then come the second cousins, then the third, then the cousin twice removed, and so on. Asking my partner to explain his relation to another family member is like trying to solve an algebra equation 10 years out of high school. He even gets confused, and I have to ask his mom.
Teasing is the highlight of any Armenian family gathering. Everyone is a victim. Armenian families never forget a misdeed or mistake and will make fun of you for it… forever. While mortifying, it is also a sign of endearment. A playful indication of family. It’s comforting to know, that even at your worst, you’re still accepted.
In the diaspora community, I have found that all Armenians will have the same doctor, dentist and even physiotherapist. I urge anyone in these professions to make friends with an Armenian. Not only will you have a friend for life, but you will never be short of patients.
It helps if you build a relationship with a figure of authority in any given Armenian family. In my partner’s case, that’s his grandma.
Through my partner’s family, I have also learned the importance of food at any occasion, big or small. Think, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but with khorovats (grilled meat) instead of souvlaki, lavash instead of pita, and brandy or cognac instead of ouzo. Although there will probably be ouzo there too. And plenty of lamb, olives, dolma, herbs and pickles.
Traditional Armenian food remains a staple in all Armenian homes. Alongside it, the many folds of the diaspora bring a unique assortment of tastes and dishes to the table. Persian rice, Greek spanakopita, Russian vodka, Turkish baklava, and Middle Eastern mezes can be featured in Armenian dining rooms around the world. Each dish is significant to the family’s past and yet still a huge part of their present. Indeed, the portions are enormous.
Like the Greeks, the sharing of food is significant to Armenian hospitality. It represents love and creates a sense of security. A hot meal is inviting and comforting, warming not only the body but the soul. Armenians take pride in their inherent generosity and use it as a means of breaking barriers and forging friendships.
Armenians also take pride in other areas; their language, for one. For Armenians, their language and unique alphabet is central to preserving their rich culture and history.
Like food, language has a means of uniting people. And it is a wonder Armenians are so united, given the divergence in their own language.
Armenian has two forms: Eastern and Western. This I learned while choosing my first Armenian language class three years ago.
‘What’s the difference?’ I had asked.
The original language, classical Armenian, was reformed and modernized in the 19th century to satisfy the influence of the two empires Armenia was under: the Ottomans in the West and the Russian Empire in the East.
Eastern Armenian is based on the dialect of the region of Ararat (Yerevan and its surroundings) and Western Armenian on that of Constantinople (present day Istanbul).
Western Armenian is spoken in Armenian communities in the Middle East (except Iran), Europe and the Americas.
Eastern Armenian is spoken within Armenian communities in the territory of the former Soviet Union and also in Iran. Recent migrants to Europe and the USA from Armenia and Iran will also speak Eastern Armenian.
Confused? So was I.
The dialects are similar and a speaker of one can understand the other… for the most part. Though there will probably be teasing involved, of course.
Eastern Armenian is the language spoken in Armenia today, but both languages tie their diaspora community — whether they left 10 or 100 years ago — to the homeland.
Language is thus a powerful means of identity, as ‘with each new letter we are drawn further into the shared destiny of the people who use those letters and who speak that language’ (Temelkuran, 2008:56).
Armenians are dedicated to teaching and passing on their knowledge of the language. My Armenian language teacher was so excited to teach me, a non-Armenian, that she would stay late every class to catch me up to the rest of the group. She not only made time out of her very busy schedule to teach me the alphabet, but passed on her dedication to and enthusiasm for the language.
The Armenian script is beautiful and unique, with influences from the Greek alphabet. To the untrained eye, ‘their fascinating script’ can seem almost alien, but ‘looks so similar to the Amharic writing of the Ethiopians’ (Leigh Fermor, 2013:30).
The language alludes to a difficult history. In Eastern Armenian, there is no future tense of the verb ‘to be’. My current language teacher joked that the Armenian version of Hamlet is thus one soliloquy short.
And yet Armenians have fought hard to be. To exist. They are the ultimate underdog, outnumbered in almost every battle that is thrust upon them and continuously standing up to their aggressors and those who wish to silence them.
As described by Ece Temelkuran in her exploration of Armenians and their current and historic relations, ‘It is while looking toward Ararat that this proud people, who at the crossroads of history have repeatedly faced annihilation, vow that they will exist on the face of this earth for all eternity’ (Temelkuran, 2008:79).
Generally a peaceful people, they have had to, on numerous occasions, defend their right to exist. (Though they prefer to battle using intelligence rather than fists, as their passion and strength in chess so aptly demonstrate).
As Vasily Grossman noted in his account of the country, Armenia is ‘…a nation that has borne the yoke of the invader for many centuries, a nation that has more than once struggled to win its freedom only to fall back again into slavery’ (Grossman, 1998:36).
When it comes down to it, Armenians will use their all to survive. Their instinct for survival is so profound that when seven Armenian villages faced an army of Ottomans during the genocide in 1915, they stood their ground and withstood their enemy using cunning, patience and heart. (Read the epic The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel for the full story).
According to the French philosopher and writer Jean Baudrillard, ‘They spend all their time proving they were killed. And they do it to prove that they’re alive today’ (Temelkuran, 2008:156).
These are no ordinary people. They know pain and they know suffering, and yet they are not vindictive and seek not revenge, but peace and redemption.
This motivation is best described in the words of Garin Hovannisian:
‘The Armenians were not fighting only Azerbaijanis; they were also fighting the Young Turks, Kemalists, Bolsheviks, and all those who had conspired through history to destroy their people. They were seeking redemption, which could often look like revenge, for a century without a home’ (Hovannisian, 2010:183).
The Future of Belonging
For Armenians now, survival is but the bare minimum. They look to improve, learn and grow. They’ve invested time and money into building a future based on technology. They’ve done this by creating tech spaces and encouraging school children to take up computing and learn to code. They are equally passionate about teaching art, music, dance, design, and encouraging other creative pursuits.
Armenians are thinking long-term and are securing their future, with ‘eyes bright with acumen on either side of their wonderful noses’ (Leigh Fermor, 2013:30).
They are leaving misconceptions and the label ‘former Soviet Union’ behind and are now creating their own narrative. They want to have a say in how their history is written from here on out, and they want this to be a constructive history.
The peaceful Velvet Revolution in 2018 taught us that. Was the rest of the world struck that so peaceful, celebratory and united a revolution could take place in a country on the ‘outskirts’ of what they consider ‘civilized’ society?
Yes. But why?
Armenians have all the ingredients needed to make a great nation: a thirst for knowledge, technological advancement and modernity, and strong willpower.
Their desire to live and prosper on their ancestral lands, it would seem, is a threat to the government of Turkey, and previously the Ottoman Empire. A government that refuses to acknowledge and take responsibility for systematically murdering Armenians in 1915, wiping out nearly 90% of the Armenian population.
This sends a frightening message that oppressive governments can get away with anything when nations with the power and means to hold them accountable don’t.
The tensions between Turkey and Armenia can be traced back to the genocide of 1915 and before. These growing tensions have even resulted in the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border. Their relationship is based on accusations and victimization, leaving no space for the voices that call for peace to be heard.
I do believe that the only way to overcome the mutual feelings of distrust, fear, shame, guilt, and longing of all players is to create spaces for dialogue, ‘For it is only when these two groups begin to talk that a new language will develop and take hold’ (Temelkuran, 2008:153). A dialogue with its aims clearly defined beforehand so that all sides go in with a common goal: peace, understanding and a common future.
This, however, is easier said than done, given the deeply rooted prejudices and pain from all sides, and the inability to establish a common past.
Furthermore, Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code makes it illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish nation, Turkish government institutions, or Turkish national heroes. This, coupled with the mistreatment of both Turkish and Armenian journalists in Turkey who explore the complex topic of reconciliation make open dialogue extremely difficult. (Listen to this broadcast on Hrant Dink, who was murdered in Istanbul in 2007).
Until the Turkish government can allow its people to voice their opinions without fear or threats, I fear this is a lost cause.
Continuing the Journey
Well, what started as a piece about the Armenian diaspora has turned into an unleashing of frustration at the current situation and general mistreatment of Armenians throughout history. I have continuously urged my partner to keep an open mind and try to see both sides of the current conflict, as there are always two sides to every story.
I myself have tried to keep an open mind in reading about the region and particularly about the current ongoing war in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, in parts of this article I have failed in taking my own advice.
Nevertheless, I strongly encourage everyone who has read this far to continue reading about this topic. The books outlined below are a good start. They are all fascinating and worth reading.
If after doing so you reach the same conclusions as I have, I urge you to speak out and give a voice to a peaceful, silenced country and its people, who have incredible heart and whose diaspora will never forget.
BBC Witness History (2017) “The Murder of Journalist Hrant Dink” BBC (WWW), https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p04l37j4 (accessed 20.10.10)
Demytrie, R. (2018) “Why Armenia ‘Velvet Revolution’ won without a bullet fired” BBC (WWW), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43948181
Grossman, V. (1998) An Armenian Sketchbook, London: MacLehose Press.
Hovannisian, G.K. (2010) Family of Shadows, New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Leigh Fermor, P. (2013) The Broken Road, London: John Murray Publishers Ltd.
Temelkuran, E. (2008) Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish Armenian Divide, London: Verso.
Werfel, F. (1934) The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, New York: The Viking Press.