Someone tells us that the Kardashians are Armenians. I did not know that, and I honestly do not know much about the Kardashians. We watch an episode of their reality show and lose an hour of our lives to something I do not find a word to describe. This is not the best entry for Armenia and I feel we are not doing the country much justice by starting this way.
Back to the beginning then. Rewind.
Armenia is a country in the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe, bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan. Its capital is Yerevan, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. For most people, the name Armenia resonates with the Armenian genocide during the First World War. It is also the homeland of a mystical woodwind instrument, the duduk.
Beautiful frames, disappointing content
Once upon a time, there was a great Armenian restaurant in Sydney called Seraglio. But then the global pandemic forced it to close down and there was no great Armenian restaurant any longer. As an alternative, I find an Armenian-Lebanese restaurant Teta’s in Roseville Chase. The menu has Armenian dishes mixed with Lebanese flavours so that is good enough. For the younger audience in our group the name (Tetas) is a funny one as it means boobies in Spanish.
We are 11 in our party tonight including the Virtual Nomads with a special guest MM from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and his host EB, a delightful new contact who follows a 90% plant-based vegan diet (and looks fabulous). MM, whom I have known for twenty years, is an exceptional human. He rightly defends his position that his country should be placed in the As, as ‘Scotland’ in Gaelic is called Alba. So this is a trial for Alba/Scotland in its rightful place, as it will take some time to get to S.
The restaurant is more Lebanese than Armenian and a slight disappointment. The atmosphere is beautiful with walls close to the colour of the skin and stunning, friendly waitresses who move around like elegant gazelles, but cannot recommend a dish or answer questions about ingredients. The party has two large plates of grilled meat that include a little bit of everything from the menu. What I get from the meat-eaters is that it is ok but average at best. MM’s friend EB and I share a couple of vegan plates (hummus, tahini, falafel). While the big plates are Armenian, the small ones are clearly Lebanese.
The biggest disappointment of the night is when we are told that dessert is not available because the dessert person has already left. This is surprising as we have a party of 11 people who very likely were going to order desserts. This is the lowest point of all the Virtual Nomad experiences that we have done so far, even taking into account my atrocious attempts at international cooking. I also feel that we have not done Armenia much justice by choosing an Armenian-Lebanese restaurant, which was not great value.
The food is average at best but the night is saved by the wonderful company. CH again has travel stories to tell and can show her photos from Armenia that are interesting and full of feeling. We chat and laugh, and exchange travel notes. Later when we drive MM and EB to EB’s house, we share plans for future Virtual Nomad travels and we bond across the idea.
Overall, a highly successful night, if less Armenian than we would have liked.
History – ancient and contemporary – shows that humans are awful to each other, and Armenian history is no exception. Documentaries from Armenia are not an easy piece. The history of Armenia cannot be told without the mention of the genocide in 1915, and ethnic cleansing of approximately 1.5 million people.
But first, back to the beginning of time. Mr History tells us that the first Armenian settlement, Urartu, was established around 850 BC. A few hundred years later gave way to the Saltrapy of Armenia. A patriarch called Hayk is mentioned as the founder of Armenia by the historian S. Mouses Khorenatsi. Until Armenia’s conversion to Christianity it was predominantly Zoroastrian, In 301 AD, Armenia became the first state in the world to adopt Christianism as the official religion.
For centuries, Armenia was the battlefield for different armies and invasions by different parties, predominantly Ottomans and Persians. In 1804, Russia invaded Armenia but the tension with the Turks continued. Hamidian Massacres (1894-96) oversaw the deaths of up to 300,000 Armenian, Greeks and Assyrians. This was just the first act of something much worse that would follow ten years later.
The Armenian genocide is one of the most horrendous things to happen in human history. It was a systematic massacre of the Armenian population. Due to the failure of Turkish attacks on Russian forces in 1914, the government in Turkey viewed the Armenians as a threat. Armenians were rounded up and forced to march to the Syrian dessert. Around 1.5 million people died either as a result of direct violence (including mass killings) or starvation, heat, deportation and death marches.
Armenia became part of the Soviet Union in 1920. It achieved its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Armenia was in a war against Azerbaijan 1988 – 1994, and relations have not been good ever since.
We watch a BBC document Remembering the Armenian massacres about two women – Lara Petrossians from BBC Persia and Rengin Arian – and learn about Armenian history through their families and the experiences of different Armenian populations around Turkey. The documentary also includes the Turkish perspective on events.
What else do we learn from Youtube documentaries? We learn that:
- The Armenian flag (adopted in 1990) has three colours (red, blue, orange) and has been interpreted in different ways. The red has been said to symbolise the Armenian Highlands, the Christian faith but also the struggle, survival, independence and freedom of the Armenian people. Blue symbolises the peaceful skies and orange stands for hard work.
- Mesrop Mastots invented the Armenian alphabet around the year 405. It has 38 different letters (31 consonants and 7 vowels). Armenian is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family but uses its own alphabet. Armenian is written horizontally from left to right
We also learn that:
- There are around 16 main languages and dialects spoken in Armenia. (97% of the population speaks Armenian)
- The Armenian language has two main forms: Eastern and Western Armenian
- It is widely accepted that the Armenian language originates from the ancient Pahlavi language, whose alphabet was derived from Aramaic
- The Armenian diaspora is quite large – approximately 5-8 million people.
- Armenia is situated where the Arabian plate abuts against the Eurasian plate making Armenia earthquake prone.
- The 1988 Earthquake killed up to 50,000 people and injured 130,000
- Armenia has 44 Grand Masters of Chess and is 6th on the International Chess Federation rankings
- Relations between Armenia and Turkey have been strained for a long time. In January 2022, Armenia lifted its embargo on Turkey
- Armenia and its neighbour Azerbaijan are not on friendly terms. This is mostly due to the dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Azeri territory, but inhabited and governed mostly by ethnic Armenians. The First Nagorno-Karabah war (1988 – 1994) was followed by a recent 2020 Nagorno-Karabah conflict. The conflict has also strained Armenia’s relationship with Pakistan.
Ethereal, mystical duduk and other sounds
Armenian music has a couple of its own genres that are quite interesting and have intriguing backstories.
The Duduk is an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument made of apricot wood, often played in pairs with one person playing the melody and the other a steady drone. The duduk was listed as UNESCO Intangible Heritage in 2008. The sound is quite deep, meditative, and melancholic. The instrument has a 3000 year history and was first mentioned in the ancient manuscripts in Urartu. You can log into several hours of duduk mediation music. The sound is almost unearthly, captivating and mystical.
Rabiz is a quite different genre of Armenian music that combines Armenian folk with dance music (mainly synthesizers). It emerged in Yerevan in the 1980s as the music of Armenian immigrants from rural areas and cities such as Baku. It is an interesting genre that has clear Middle Eastern influences. There are a few playlists on Youtube and Spotify.
As for Armenian artists, Armenian-Syrian Lena Chamayan has a very clear soprano voice and her music is a fusion of Armenian, Arab and Western Music. She comes from a mixed cultural background and considers herself multicultural and multi-linguistic.
Serj Tankian is a Lebanese-born Armenian-American heavy metal singer of the band System Of A Down. He is also a trained opera singer. Serj is another diaspora Armenian artist who is politically active and outspoken. He campaigned for US recognition of the Armenian genocide that was signed by President Biden in April 2021 (also recognised by 30 other countries ). In 2015, he recorded a version of an old Armenian lullaby, Ari Im Sokhag, with Larisa Ryan. It’s melancholic and sorrowful.
Another melancholic diaspora artist is Apo Sahagian. He has been credited with reviving old dialects and Armenian history. Even if I cannot understand the lyrics, some of the song are harrowfully beautiful. My favourite is probably a song named:
Some more information about him
Grandchildren and grandparents
Every ‘essential’ book of Armenian literature is about the genocide. The books are about generational trauma and how it endures to this day. They demonstrate the impact the genocide has had on the Armenian collective memory, the construction of identity, and the diaspora.
There are quite a few books about grandchildren discovering the harrowing life stories of their grandparents. Titles in this genre include The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis, Family of Shadows by Garin K. Hovannisian and Black Dog of Faith by Peter Balakian. Mostly these are from the Armenian diaspora in America but include some other countries. I decide to read My Grandmother – an Armenian-Turkish memoir. Written by Fethiye Cetin, Turkish lawyer and human rights activist, it is the story of her grandmother who grew up under a Turkish name. Her original name had been Armenian. It tells of how she (the grandmother) was taken from her Armenian mother during a death march.
Roughly, half of the book is about Fethiye’s memories of her childhood and her grandparents. Around that time, she was still not aware of her grandmother’s past. Despite facing some terrible challenges (such as losing a parent), there is bliss and beauty in all of it.
Half way through the book turns grim and becomes difficult to read. Fethiye’s grandmother is stolen from the hands of her mother, never to see her again. Fethiye slowly learns about the atrocities that took place during this time. She also starts to connect the dots from her childhood, from Armenian songs to unnamed visitors. She then discovers members of her family in unexpected places and learns what happened to them.
The hard part is, of course, that it is a true story. It is an impactful tale about Fethiye and her grandmother’s relationship, and Fethiye’s decision to tell the truth and bury her grandmother under her real name. It is also a story of connection, growth and healing.
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian frequently appears on the list of ‘best’ Armenian books. It is available at the local library so I reserve it, but for some reason it never finds its way to me. A book lost somewhere. Therefore, I turn to Kindle again.
The author, Chris Bohjalian, is an Armenian-American whose grandparents were survivors of the genocide. The book has the same premise as many of the others – grandchildren discovering the secret past lives of their grandparents.
It is very well written, engaging and captivating. It’s clear why Bohjalian is a bestselling author. What makes it different from Cetin’s book is that it’s fiction, whereas My Grandmother – an Armenian-Turkish memoir is a true story.
The book moves between two different time zones – the grandparents meeting and falling in love in the midst of the genocide and the grandchild navigating the past and the present. It includes Armenian and Turkish families coming together through their children dating. It is captivating, well written and carries the narrative well. I found it perhaps slightly too long and far more interesting in the parts describing the past than the grandchild in the present. The stories enmesh in surprising ways that, in some cases, are almost too hard to believe. This is, of course, the richness and the limitation of fiction.
I’m surprised to discover there are quite a few Armenian movies available. Not so surprisingly, many of the movies are related to the genocide.
Instead, I watch a movie called The Last Inhabitant (2016), set in 1988 during the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. It’s the story of a man who stays behind in enemy lines after losing his home and is waiting to be reunited with his traumatised daughter. It is slow and dark, reflecting relationships between people and friendships that carry beyond enemy lines. It’s a story of loss and cruelty, sacrifice and conflict in which no one is a winner and everyone suffers. The ‘feel-good’ elements are few and far between, with profound sadness and loss dominating. It is harrowing, but also very real.
Right before closing the entry for Armenia, I happen to meet an Armenian-Lebanese person at work who tells me that The Cut is a movie to watch. RT, my Armenian-Lebanese colleague (of very striking, distinctive beauty), tells me briefly about her visit to Armenia with her dad and the story of her family. She has a surname finishing with -ian, which is an indication of Armenian heritage. It feels like fate as I tell her that I have just finished an Armenian entry for Virtual Nomad. I would rather be educated by RT than the Kardashians, and it is fascinating.
I decide to watch The Cut before Virtual Nomad moves to its next destination. It is, sadly, not available on any of the streaming channels that I have (and I now have quite a few) so I place it on my watchlist and will return when it is available. There is an extended trailer available on Youtube as well as an interview of the director, Fatih Akin, where he recognises the genocide also as “his”. I’ve seen several of his movies in the past so I hope The Cut will be accessible at some point. It is a movie about the genocide and a man’s quest to find his missing children.
News tell us that the number of Russians citizens entering Armenia (many escaping from or protesting the war) has increased to more than 300,000 – over 10% of the population in the small country. This has put pressure on housing, increasing rents and feeding inflation.
Next stop: Australia