I can hardly believe I am writing this post sitting on a balcony overlooking the capital of Armenia and Mount Ararat.
For as long as I can remember, I have walked around accompanied by a large Armenian shadow. My last name is unmistakably Armenian. Even in the normally mundane interactions most of us take for granted, the Armenian question often would come up.
I’d call up the hair salon: “Hi! I’d like to book an appointment for a hair cut.”
“No problem! Can I get your name and phone number?”
“Sure.” And then I’d slowly chant out the 12 letters of my last name.
“Hey! You are Armenian. Did your family come from Egypt, Lebanon or Greece?”
A long and often awkward conversation would ensue about being Armenian. It was awkward because I didn’t know that much about being Armenian. My mother is not Armenian. Her parents were English immigrants to Canada. I grew up quite beige.
My ‘culture’ was white, Anglo-Saxon, and Anglican. Except it wasn’t. Half of me was something very different. Something I didn’t understand very well but was always present nonetheless.
My father was Armenian. He died many years ago when I young. I never knew him and I never met him in person. My mom had shared as much as she knew or remembered about my father and his family history. She told me stories she had heard from my grandmother, or my aunt and uncle. But the stories were dimly lit by the time I heard them.
I knew my dad had immigrated to Canada from Egypt in the late 1950s and that he was the last of his family to arrive. My family was part of the large diaspora that lived throughout the Middle East and now resides in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, and other places around the world.
2016 National Household Survey Data – Armenian Diaspora – image credit wikiwand
Growing up, the Armenian side of my family lived in Toronto. My mother and I lived on the West Coast. But our last name was a beacon to anyone who knew what to look for. I remember Armenian strangers reaching out to my mother, encouraging us to join this cultural association or that Armenian social club. They found us by looking for Armenian names in the phone book. They would reach out to engage anyone with Armenian heritage. This wasn’t just an occasional occurrence. During my years in university I would get phone calls or emails from the Armenian students union or campus Armenian social clubs.
Having grown up in a small, private, English family, the idea of being part of an extended Armenian family that I never knew and included the entire Armenian diaspora in Canada had always felt a little overwhelming.
The particularly active Armenian effort to knit every member of the Armenian diaspora together seemed a little compulsive. Years later, when I met my cousin Mark, I began to understand the preoccupation with community. He explained much more of our family history to me. The incredibly strong drive among Armenians to re-forge and maintain connection is motivated by a deep desire to preserve a culture profoundly disrupted by genocide.
After we finished the meditation course in Palestine, we decided to visit Armenia. We were already just a couple of hours away from Tel Aviv via Air Armenia, and it would give me the chance to learn more about my heritage.
At the boarding gate were three Armenian priests accompanying a group of about 30 Armenians. They had been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A young woman had been looking over at us, curiously. Just before we boarded the Boeing 737 she came over to us. “You are going to Armenia?” She asked. “Yes,” answered Scott. “My wife is Armenian. This is our first time.” Her face lit up. “Oh! You speak Armenian?” She asked, turning to me. A little sheepishly, I told her I didn’t.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, smiling. “You will love Armenia, it is very beautiful.”
When we landed in Yerevan we had to purchase visas. The immigration officer examined my passport and then exclaimed with a big smile, “You are Armenian! Do you speak Armenian?” “No,” I told her. “What? Why? Why you don’t speak Armenian?” She asked teasingly.
Armenians here are especially curious about diaspora Armenians. If you are from an Armenian family overseas, you are likely from a family that fled and survived the genocide. It makes Armenians happy to meet someone returning home. They even have a metaphor for it: the pomegranate.
The pomegranate is a national symbol. As a motif, the pomegranate is everywhere in Armenian folk art. It has been used as a symbol for fertility and happiness for thousands of years. But it has also taken on a special meaning in the wake of the genocide. The seeds of the fruit represent individuals bound together as one people. Some are missing, but no one will be forgotten.
The Armenian Genocide of 1915-1922 was a planned, systematic effort by the Ottoman Turks to exterminate Armenians from areas under Turkish rule by expulsions and murder. According to estimates at the time, there were at least 1.7 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey around 1915. Just two years later, fewer than 285,000 remained alive. Those who survived fled to Lebanon, Jordon, Palestine and Egypt. Some made it to America or to countries in Europe. They had to start over, not just putting their family lives back together, but also to recover their cultural traditions and preserve their history. It was a catastrophe.
Yerevan has a memorial for victims of the genocide. It sits high on a hill overlooking the city in view of Mount Ararat. The memorial is breathtaking. A museum of the genocide is next door. We spent several hours there. I had many questions.
The memorial is haunting and beautiful. Music composed as a memorial is played inside at all times. Watch the video below to see what we mean.
Thanks to my aunt and uncle, I know a little more about my Armenian family history. Both of my grandparents’ families originated in what was known as historic Western Armenia, but had been Ottoman Turkey since the 14th century. My grandfather’s side lived in Kharpet and my grandmother’s family was from Ayntab (sometimes spelled Aintab or Anteb). Western Armenians are slightly different from Eastern Armenians. The culture, food and language are distinct in both regions, with Western Armenian culture having more Arab influence, but the distinctions are subtle.
Both families fled to Aleppo at the beginning of the genocide, sometime in 1915. Many families moved on to places like Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. My family settled in Egypt and stayed until the 1950s.
On a walking tour of Yerevan led by a local artist, we learned much about the city and the history of Armenia. He started with the country’s recent political revolution. Armenians here are palpably very proud of their quiet, non-violent democratic uprising that just weeks ago swept a corrupt and tired cadre from office and empowered a dynamic younger generation of political leaders. Armenians seem very patient, resilient and strong. And they don’t back down from a fight.
Photo credit: BBC AFP – see link to article about Armenian Velvet Revolution in May 2018
As we walked through the city, our guide took us through its past. Despite being one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, not much remains of Yerevan even from its days under imperial Russian rule. Earthquakes have destroyed much of the city every century or so. And the political earthquake of the Russian Revolution pulverized the city’s historic centre to make room for an ambitious, modern, socialist programme of urban design.
Much of the Soviet-era public architecture is actually stunning: the monuments, the circular design of the city, the boulevards, the government buildings. The public housing apartments, however, are a socialist disaster. In some quarters there are still remnants from Yerevan’s distinctly Armenian designs, but not many survive.
For obvious reasons, the genocide looms large in the country’s psychology. And looming over the entire city is the majestic Mount Ararat, sitting next to it’s little brother, Lesser Ararat. Ararat is central to Armenian culture and history, its symbolic and spiritual heart. The fact that Ararat today does not currently lie within Armenia, residing instead just a few kilometres away in modern Turkey, hangs emotionally heavy over many people.
Our tour guide and I had also chatted a bit about my background. He said, “Your family were from Western Armenia. You should try the food of your ancestors.” He suggested a well-known restaurant called Anteb, famous for its western cuisine and after the name of the town where my grandmother’s family resided before they fled during the genocide. Taking his advice, we made our way to Anteb to have lunch the next day .
The menu was quite different from other places we had eaten at. The food was surprisingly similar to the meals we ate in Palestine: Tabouleh, Hummus, Baba Ganouj (or Mutabel), dolma (stuffed grape leaves), cheeses of sheep and goat, flat bread and barbecued meat.
After ordering our food, someone at the table next to us asked if we were Canadian. He had overheard our conversation with the waiter who had asked where were from. Turning around, we said yes, though we explained my Armenian background. He told us he was Canadian with Armenian heritage, and lived in Nova Scotia. He didn’t sound like he was from Nova Scotia. He had a distinct Bostonian lilt. His name is Vrege Armoyan.
Like my own family, his was originally from Kharapet. They fled in 1915 to Lebanon and Cairo. After the Egyptian revolution under Abdul Nasser in 1956, the family was forced to flee to the U.S. Vrege later moved to Nova Scotia for affordable college. We chatted for a long while about Armenia, the genocide and families who fled. He explained a few things for us about Armenian culture and food. In true Armenian hospitality, he sent over two different Armenian desserts for us to try.
Listening to Vrege’s accounts of his own family history, I was able to learn a bit more about my own family. What I didn’t know is that Arab nationalism in Egypt in the late 1950s resulted in the forced expulsion of Armenians, Greeks, Jews and other non-Arab communities. The forced expulsions included property confiscation and severe limits on what wealth could be taken out of the country. In the aftermath, many thousands of Armenians found their way to Canada and America. Many had been left with nothing. My father’s family was among those who settled in the large diaspora communities of Montreal and Toronto. Just a generation after surviving the genocide, they were again starting over in another new country.
My Aunt Ruth had sent me two very old photographs taken in the early 20th century of my grandparents’ families (see above). One of them had a paragraph of Armenian text beneath, explaining who was in the photo. But I had no idea what it said. While Vrege himself could not read Armenian, his wife translated it for him. He then translated what she said into English for me. It wasn’t much beyond a listing of who was in the photograph, but it still meant a lot to me and Vrege’s mother spent time telling me about all the Armenian’s in Canada and the US that I was related to. She also told me my facial features looked just like those families.
I have long thought about visiting Armenia, unsure exactly what it would mean to me. I am surprised by how personally profound being here is. One’s origins are roots that help explain who we are. Exploring the country and learning about the history is fascinating, but more interesting still is what I learn about myself as I meet an entire country of Armenians.
It’s funny how much of our personality can be rooted not only in our upbringing, but also in our genes. Meeting people and learning about the culture is in some small way like holding up a mirror to my own self. Some of my personality quirks are due clearly to more than simply being Karen. They are also due to being Armenian. That has been a surprise. Armenian women are a bit assertive. They seem to run the family finances. As we were walking through Yerevan one day, Scott turned to me and said, “It feels a bit like I’ve landed in a country of three million Karens. I see you in the faces of the women on the street. I see little girls that look exactly like photos of you as a child.”
We’ll be here for just under a month. We’re now exploring Armenia’s countryside and will have more to tell you about. One thing is clear: Armenia is stunningly beautiful. It just might be one of the world’s most underrated places. It’s an ancient culture that has gifted many precious things to the world. More on all of this soon.