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Articles > Identity > A conscious existence? What does it mean to be Armenian?


By Seda Grigoryan

I donít know. Must I pass all this down to my kids or not ? I donít know. Should I continue to remain Armenian or just get on with life?

These are two types of "existence" of the scale that donít fully equate but that counterbalance the other given the dictates of reality Ė to live or remain Armenian.

The young French-Armenian woman came clean on behalf of all diaspora youth who wage another battle in the overall battle of daily life Ė to remain Armenian. Is the preservation of Armenian identity given such prominence and thought; is it that mandatory? Isnít it hard enough just to live without trying to maintain ones national identity in a society where western values hold sway? Such questions are faced by many diaspora Armenian youth who still recognize their Armenian roots and who say that they are Armenian, in addition to being French, Belgian and American.

20 year-old Rouben Ė ďI feel different from the FrenchĒ

"When youíre young you donít give the matter much thought. But when you grow up you feel that you are different from the French. This is especially so when it comes to the family; which is very important. Our families are stricter and relatives are more respected. We visit our grandparents and cousins. Our upbringing is also different. When you grow up in France you feel these differences," twenty year-old Rouben said. He decided to learn Armenian after visiting Armenia last year.

A student at the Sorbonneís history department, the fact that he has resided at the "Armenian Student House" in Paris, rubbing shoulders with other Armenian students from various countries, really made him appreciate his Armenian roots. He says that it allowed him to mould his Armenian identity. In addition, he proved to himself and others that itís possible to learn Armenian rather quickly if the desire exists, since being Armenian is more than just words.

While Rouben is probably not unique, it would be stretching it to say that his level of enthusiasm is commonplace. In the diaspora today, the fourth generation of Genocide survivors is being born. Naturally, the place they are born is where they call home. This is especially the case in the West where they live along side of other nationalities and where their integration into the dominant society is at a level where talk about national identity and roots often become superfluous. Over time and with succeeding generations these concepts are often forgotten.

This danger of assimilation also threatens Armenians. Many are worried that Armenians in the diaspora will soon become a "nation of grandparents".

This is the reason why many families continue to pass along the Armenian language, history and traditions to their children.

What does it mean to be Armenian? The young people we spoke to singled out four necessary factors to remain Armenian Ė language, religion, culture and family.

Sadly, for some, being Armenian connotates living in a closed-society with restrictions; barriers that have been or are being placed as a way to ward off the encroaching threats of assimilation.

Does one have to speak the language to be Armenian?

Rouben believes that if you speak Armenian to your children then you are Armenian, because you are always using the language of your heart to converse with your child.

Hagop Talatinian was born and raised in Lebanon, in a family that spoke Armenian. He went to an Armenian school. His only concern today is that his children speak Armenian since he wants to transfer that "treasure" to them.

"My grandfatherís family learned Armenian under difficult conditions. They tell the story of learning Armenian on the desert sands; I feel a certain obligation to my grandfather and mother for trying to preserve this value. We have a debt of respect to pay back. This is why I canít tell myself that I am not Armenian. I canít, because I have to look my father in the face. The eyes of my father and mother will tell me Ė those values that I gave youÖWhen a child is born you donít say Ė letís see what clothes he wants to wear. You clothe the child so that later on the child can decide whether he likes the clothes or not. Itís the same with religion and the language," says Hagop Talatinian.

Mkrtich Basmajian, who directs a theater group in Paris that stages plays in Armenian, has realized that one can remain Armenian in the diaspora only through the parallel efforts of the school and church. However, especially in the west, the growth of Armenian language usage is dubious. If there are still those who are interested in learning the language, their numbers have drastically decreased when compared with the previous generation.

Recently, "Haratch" the last remaining Armenian language newspaper in France, if not all of Europe, closed down. It first was published in 1925. Over the years the paper was in great demand in the French-Armenian community, not only as a source of information but because it was published in Armenian. Many say that their parents and grandparents looked forward to each new issue because it served as a link to the "lost" homeland. Why did "Haratch" shut down when the Armenian community in France is bigger than ever?

Today, in the diaspora, Armenian plays a more symbolic role than as a means of communication or dialog. Despite the fact that Armenian schools continue to function, Armenian isnít spoken in many families as the primary language.

Labels such as "Our language is holy, a treasure" merely serve to consign the language to further disuse. "In my opinion, it is very dangerous to state that our ABCís are holy letters because the more they are sanctified they more the letters become encases in stone, like khatchkars. We canít modernize those values and pass them on," said twenty-four year-old Tigran Yekavyan.

Tragically, the principle of "preservation" is more in vogue in the diaspora today since what is "new" is perceived to hold the threat of integration into western culture.

"The preservation of the Armenian identity hayapahpanoum and the culture turn into something akin to a jar of preserves. In other words, I have to place everything, language, customs, and symbolic items into that jar and shut it tight. For me, the development of the Armenian is important. Rather than encouraging the new generation and new talents, weíve chosen classicism; the preservation of our past inheritance that has survived. For another fifty years weíll be reciting the same poetry; Siamanto for example. People will understand nothing but will continue the traditions," continued Tigran Yekavyan, a graduate of the Paris School of Political Science.

While true that Armenian organizations continue working to keep the Armenian culture and history alive, in the opinion of young people, these efforts revolve around one issue Ė the Genocide.

The Genocide isnít a basis for national identity

Noyem Hapoujian says, "Iíve been cut off from the Armenian community for many years. Now, Iíve returned to the fold. Iíve never understood why we experience such pain. Is it due to the Genocide? These themes of pain and being victims are stressed to the point that we canít culturally interact with other nations. I attend cultural events and festivals of other nationalities but rarely do I meet other Armenians there. I would like to see Armenians open up culturally. Why are we so closed as a community? There is the constant fear that we will lose the culture. Itís as if itís a treasure that canít be touched. We must learn to give since itís important to create dialog with other nations. Being Armenian isnít just about suffering; itís a very rich cultural tradition. As children they teach about the Genocide and religion. But religion, for me, isnít culture. It is necessary to build a national identity on the basis of culture and not the Genocide."

Most of the people I talked to said that the bulk of events now being organized in the diaspora revolve around the Genocide. Itís an issue that unites all Armenians in the diaspora and there is a broad consensus of opinion on the subject. As Mkrtich Basmajian noted, "Thereís a sensory nerve that must be set off to feel Armenian and it relates to 1915."

The black chapter of Armenian history is so stressed in the diaspora today that oftentimes the history and culture of the Armenian people up till 1915 is forgotten.

Belgian-Armenian Peter Boghosian says, "Our history isnít just the Genocide. The best way struggle against that tragic episode is to present our history to the world. We should not forget that Armenians contributed a great deal in the formation of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the largest palaces were built by Armenians."

Many in diaspora do not view RoA as their homeland

A young French-Armenian woman confessed that she wasnít even aware of the existence of the Republic of Armenia (RoA). In the minds of many, the name "Armenia" conjures up the "erkir" (lost homeland) of the past. These people donít see their future as linked to present-day Armenia.

Peter said, "If they give back the lands in Cilicia tomorrow, I would go and live there. But the RoA isnít the land of my ancestors; itís a symbol. I really loved the RoA when I visited but it isnít our Armenia. Our roots come from an Armenia where we lived side by side with Greeks, Turks, Arabs and Jews."

In the diaspora, Genocide recognition is the unifying factor

All Armenian organizations active in the diaspora today target their primary activities on the international recognition of the Genocide. In other words, the denial by Turkey of the Genocide serves to unite the Armenian diaspora. What would happen if Turkey one day recognizes the Genocide?

Shant Habibian, a member of the "Nor Seround" (AYF in France), says that, "The number one aim for our meetings is to tell the youth about Armenian massacres and secondly, for them to grow up Armenian. We have an Armenian paper. Perhaps it is because Turkey denies the Genocide that we have considered ourselves Armenian for all these years. Itís been a source of strength.Ē

Raffi Der-Hagopian, President of the AGBUís Paris youth branch says that a host of issues are discussed at youth events but it is April 24th that unites everyone.

"That problem, of constantly talking about the Genocide really kills me. On the day that Turkey recognized the Genocide Armenians will be in a panic since weíve concentrated on that black page of our history for so long. Weíll be at a loss to what to do next", Raffi says.

This question truly concerns many, but it is raised by only a few.

Being Armenian means struggling every day

ďItís very difficult to explain to a French person that Iím Armenian. They tell me Ė Ďbut you were born here; your parents are here.í However, Armenian blood flows through my veins. I feel very Armenian and very French at the same time. We have two worlds Ė the Armenian one, my family, and the French one, the surrounding society. You struggle daily to unite the two somehow", says Raffi Der-Hagopian.

Luckily, there are still many families in the diaspora they are trying to preserve their national identity, passing on, sometimes forcing "Armenian values" on their children through education. These values are perceived differently in different families Ė language, religion and culture are typical traits of the Armenian family.

"Up until the age of fifteen I had a strong sense of being Armenian and was quite proud of it. I remember writing a report when I graduated entitled, ĎIf I hadnít been born Armenian, I would have liked toí. But at the age of 17 or 18 I started to think differently. Naturally you begin to ponder things like Ė who am I, what am I, where do I come from, and do I like what I am? I realized that my parentís education has influenced the way I see many things. But there are many things about it that I didnít like and still donít but tolerate because of my parents. I do not deny being Armenian nor am I ashamed of it. I understand them and that they went through hard times as well. But when they try to pass along all this to young kids itís like brainwashing. In the end, when you turn 17 you start to think about these things and understand that itís an overdose", said Greek-Armenian Ani.

Aside from this inculcation, many families force their kids to marry only Armenians. Perhaps, itís out of a fear that assimilation will gradually result in the disappearance of the Armenian identity. Or perhaps, itís merely out of concern for oneís children and the wish that they have a strong family; something that they believe can only be formed by marrying an Armenian.

Marrying odars still a taboo?

"Even till today, my father canít cope with the fact that I might marry a non-Armenian. Itís out of the question. Itís understandable in a way since we are a small nation and donít have the luxury of marrying non-Armenians and thus disappearing," said Tigran Yekavyan.

26 year-old Narek, who spent his youth in one of the African countries, where there were only a handful of Armenian families, recounted that he rejected his being Armenian while young. He explains that this was the case because when others donít understand who you are, integration becomes difficult in that society. Then too, accepting his Armenian roots came to symbolize the authority of his parents.

"I agreed to everything that my parents forced on me; the education of a well-mannered boy that doesnít get into mischief. The first time I started to date an Arab girl and told my parents about it, they saw it as a dangerous thing. My mother fell ill. There was pressure every day in my family. I wanted to stay with that girl, but it was taboo according to Armenian tradition. There were many other girls that I liked but I put an end to things. If I let the relationships get serious it would have only created more pain. Then too, I really wish to please my folks. Armenians are altruistic; they go out of their way to please others. During moments of weakness, I often told myself that I wished to have been an Arab," says Narek.

Today, Narek positively regards the education given by his parents. Itís hard to say how sincere he was when he assured us that in the depths of his soul perhaps he also wanted it to be thus.

"When you grow a bit tired and move away a bit, you feel that need. Even when you grow tired of all the events and such, you canít really distance yourself that much. Whether or not you distance yourself, you feel that longing. Itís like a rubber band; the more you stretch it, the stronger it springs back," noted Shant Habibian.

Monte Melkonian as symbol of diaspora contradiction

American-Armenian Raffi Barsoumian spent his youth in the company of Armenians and spoke Armenian in the home with the family. Only after going away to college did he think about the necessity of preserving his national identity.

"For many years I lived far-away and began to think, what will I do now? Iíll get married, work at different things and maybe lose direction. You think to yourself that life is life and that all men are just like others; why not. But the other day my friend sent me a clip of Monte Melkonian on YouTube. You know he was born and raised in California, an American, who became a soldier. When you watch his story you realize that there are other people out there, other nations. You can go become an American or a Frenchman, but itís a pity. There are people who gave their lives, to protect and preserve that which you have in your blood," says Raffi.

P.S. The idea for this article resulted from a discussion that took place after the staging of Mkrtich Basmajianís "Broken Dreams". The essential question that was raised during the discussion by the youth that evening was what should be done in the future. Was it really necessary to pass on this "heavy burden" to future generations as well? For this burden includes oneís Armenian roots, the history, especially the Genocide, and on the other hand, Armenian pride. Naturally, having been born on foreign soil, these young people are not only Armenian. However, it is also clear that there is something that pulls them close to their Armenian roots. Many we spoke too quietly confessed that they had often thought about how easy life would be if they werenít Armenian but that deep down inside the Armenian within always pulled them back, no matter how hard they tried to escape.

Seda Grigoryan is a reporter for Hetq. She currently attends the The Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) is located in Paris and is defending her thesis in linguistics.

Source: "Hetq", 27 July 2009

Added: Tuesday, December 15, 2009
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