Every year in April, a familiar echo of discontent and disappointment in ourselves is heard far and wide. It is during this month, when our communities become the most active, that the perpetual cynics lay it on the strongest.
Community organizations become subjected to harsh judgments of being overly invested in genocide recognition, of singing and preaching and making unrealistic demands that keep us in an endless cycle of self-gratifying protest. These echoes of discontent and disappointment reinforce the idea that we have wasted our energies on one dimension of the Armenian Cause that has become a failed strategy.
While critique of the genocide month may sometimes be tolerated if supplemented by recommendations for alternative action, a majority of that discontent is simply a misconception about what we are actually doing. This self-deprecation often comes from those who might not fully understand what the most active segments of our community are invested in.
The articles written throughout the following pages are a product of the month of April. They discuss a wide-ranging set of issues that transcend the genocide narrative. This Spring 2014 Haytoug does not submit to one unique theme, as most previous editions have had. The contributors were told to simply write about what interested them the most, and the results serve as validation that even amongst the April madness, our interests reach far beyond genocide recognition. Armenian youth have something important to say. Whether it be about activists in Armenia joining the online global community, or its government joining the Russian-led Custom’s Union; the need for modern day heroes or a better understanding of female heroines from our past; looking forward to new means of activism that breaks us out of the Armenian bubble, or recommitting ourselves to our militant roots.
We don’t live, work or fight exclusively for one thing, because our interests as well as our politics are dynamic. These articles speak to the complexity of the Armenian world, and to the fact that while genocide recognition is at the top of our agenda, it does not stand alone. These articles speak to the politics, culture and imagination of Armenian youth, however brilliant or dull they may be. These articles speak to the fact that we are in motion, we have visions and dreams, therefore are not nearing our mortality as those disheartened echoes in April suggest.
Self-reflection of our shortcomings is important, but those April judgments should not become a feel-good narrative for change. The Haytoug does not generally offer final answers or solutions, but it raises questions on behalf of Armenian youth who do not succumb to crippling generalizations.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - As I approached the Cercle d’Orient amidst the hustle and bustle of the Beyoglu district of today’s Istanbul, I could not help but remind myself what happened there the night of May 21, 1915. It was in this building where Krikor Zohrab was playing cards with Talat Pasha while bargaining the latter to set free those Armenian notables who were apprehended just a month ago and sent to unknown destinations in Anatolia.
Krikor Zohrab on the balcony of his Istanbul home. Photo courtesy of the Charents Museum in Yerevan via www.iatp.am
That night, Zohrab came to the table with his own cards to play. A skilled negotiator, he sincerely believed that he could haggle his way with Talat and save as many lives as he could, even if that meant his own. After all, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope. Just a week before, Gomidas and others were set free and returned to Constantinople. Zohrab felt that this was a giant breakthrough which he could take advantage of.
After the tense atmosphere subsided, the card session ended unusually early that night. Upon saying their farewells, Talat stood up and unhesitatingly gave Zohrab a kiss on the cheek. “Why such affection?” Zohrab asked. “Oh,” Talat responded with a smile, “I just felt like doing it.”
I started the walk from Cercle d’Orient down Rue de Pera (now Istiklal Avenue) to Zohrab’s residence, the same walk he took home that night. I walked slower than usual. My feet were becoming weary and shaking, as though they were weeping in some strange way. I thought about what Zohrab was thinking while walking back home that night, through these streets alone, with the burden of millions of people on his shoulders. Was he confident? Was he confused? No one will ever know. But we know of one thing, the walk home that night, was to be his last.
After walking down the winding road that leads up to the Zohrab family residence, I had a sensation of just running away. I knew that in front of this eloquent building, built by an Italian architect through the commission of Zohrab himself, were guards waiting to arrest him. I had the pleasant opportunity of entering the house. Zohrab, on the other hand, did not.
I took the long flight of stairs leading up to the top floor of the building, and to my surprise, it has now become a hotel. “How may I help you?” asked the receptionist upon seeing me. “I came to see this building,” I responded hesitantly, “it used to be a residence owned by a distant relative of mine.”
Almost instantaneously, the entire staff turned their heads towards me and listened to every word I had to say. Like some sort of magician, I felt as though I was going to unravel a show. I was to talk about a past, much more distant than it actually seemed.
A member of the staff broke the ice, “let us show you around and please, tell us more about your relative,” he said out of sincere curiosity. “Please,” I said, “just take me to the balcony.”
Kirkor Zohrab’s house, now a hotel. -Garen Zazanc
This was the balcony where Zohrab wrote much of his writings. Here, Zohrab would return from his tumultuous daily activities, and concentrate on what he loved most: writing. The Bosphorus, with all its beauty, laid out in front of him, encouraging him, inspiring him.
It was this very balcony, which his daughter Dolores yearned for so much, as she wrote in her memoirs, thousands of miles away in exile. With her father killed and her entire family exiled, she wanted nothing else in this world, but to sit on this balcony, next to her father, while he wrote his next short story, and as she enjoys the scenic view.”His name was Krikor Zohrab,” I responded, while gazing fixedly at the scenery.”What did he do?”
After much silence, the man appeared to think I was exaggerating. “That’s impressive,” he simply remarked.Turning towards him I replied, “He was an engineer, lawyer, professor, journalist, politician, short story writer, philanthropist, husband, and a father of four.”
“You’re not here to reclaim this property are you?” he asked in a rather serious tone. Amused by his question, “No, heavens no,” I assured him, “this was private property that was sold right before the family fled to Europe.””Fled?” he asked cautiously.
“Yes,” I responded briskly, not being in the mood to explain.
The balcony used to be one long stretch, but it is now divided into separate rooms, each having their own piece of the magnificent view. The designers of the hotel did a remarkable job of keeping the original framework of the structure intact. Much of the additions to the building can be easily removed since they aren’t fixated on the walls. Their intentions were to retain as much of the original structural characteristics as possible. I especially thanked them for their attentive efforts.
After taking a few photographs of the view and the balcony, the man invited me to have a cup of tea. I agreed. The rest of the staff also arrived. It happened to be their tea break.
I showed pictures of Krikor Zohrab on my phone and answered their questions about his life and works. Then they asked, “When did he die?” “1915,” I responded. They stood silent, almost ashamed.
I began to wonder, was this the first time that the dreadful year of 1915 was uttered in this building since that very year? I felt like this was an interrogation of some sort. A scene of a murder, where in some odd twist of fate, the murderers were interviewing me.
But no, that was not the case. These were human beings, much like myself, who were curious, curious the same way I was when I first started reading and learning about Zohrab myself. After much discussion, it was time for me to go. I thanked all those that gave me the wonderful tour and provided their delightful hospitality. As I was leaving, I was still awe-inspired by the magnificence of the structure, with its scenic views and elegant design.
Have they put the portrait up? I don’t know, and quite frankly, I don’t care. Another visitor of the hotel can provide those updates. But this personal experience was neither about the portrait, nor the scenic views. This was about a man, whose influence and power still resonates with us today.
He was a man full of wonder, to say the least, who saw the world not only as a writer, but as a lawyer, politician, professor, and more. I happened to live just one day of his life, but it felt like a lifetime, which reminded me that he is someone we can still learn from, whose skills and talents still amaze us until this day.
Today, his bones remain lost and yet to be found: unfitting for a man of such stature. But that should not matter. He is so awe-inspiring that his influence will be everlasting, much like his short stories, speeches, and residence, with all of its magnificence and splendor as well.
As I sit in this van, leaving Gyumri and Digin Lilig’s home, I look out into a rainy scenery, with a few tears of my own streaming down my face. I come to realize at this moment how much my outlook on family and that concept of home has changed within these last five weeks.
I’m thousands of miles away from home and yet still feel so at “home” with a strong sense of belonging, right here in this very moment in Armenia. Home isn’t about where you reside but more so the emotional ties and bonds that bridge the gap between you and a place or your relations with people. This last month I’ve learned just that, from Stepanagert, to Gyumri, to Javakhk, not once did I feel like an outsider, like I didn’t belong. In each one of these locations I formed a family, a home, somewhere I knew I could go whenever I wanted to, without even calling days ahead of time to see if it was even ok to come over. Family accepts you with open arms, their home is your home.
Something we were asked here a lot was, “Hayasdanuh tser turneen yegav?” Roughly translated to, “Did you like Armenia? Are you satisfied?” Our answer every time was yes, we couldn’t have asked for more. In Armenia, even if you aren’t family by blood, you will become family by association. The people here will open their homes to you, offer you everything they have, even if they can’t afford it. To them, your presence in their home is worth more than a table with gold laid upon it. This was evident in Gyumri when we went to visit one of our campers at his home, which you wouldn’t consider a house. He lived in a “domik” which is a small tin shack, the size of a small garden shed. Many people in Gyumri live in these domiks due to the massive earthquake in 1988 that tore the city down. Domiks were built as temporary housing, just until some rebuilding could be done, but 23 years later people still live in them with hopes of one day being able to move out and afford proper housing.
So as I mentioned, we were visiting our camper, which brings us to my concept of home and belonging. As soon as we sat down, little Khachik’s grandma took our her finest sweets, offered us fruits, and prepared the typical Armenian coffee that we’re all accustomed to drinking when we visit friends and family. With a smile on her face, standing in a living room no bigger than a janitor closet, she exclaimed, “Our house may be small, but our hearts are big, welcome to our home.”
Whether it was at Digin Lilig’s house in Gyumri, Babo’s house in Stepanagert, the agoump in Javakhk, or the little domik, it was considered a home. You can have a million dollar mansion for all I care, but it will never have the luxury you get from a home like the domik if there’s no love, selflessness, and the feeling of belonging and reassurance. Armenia will always be accepting with open arms, no matter when, no matter what.
In the words of Coldplay, “Home, home, where I wanted to go.”
A fifteen hour car ride is not something to look forward to, especially when you’re in a van that hardly works and is filled to a point where people are laying on the floor. Gyumri to Shushi means driving from one end of Armenia to the other. With a few scenic stops on the way the trip was expected to take at least 12 hours.
We left Gyumri at 7 am on the dot. All of us were dead tired, and annoyed to be leaving our Gyumri family. The men tied the luggage to the roof that was actually slippery from rain. One by one, we walked out of the house and cuddled Unger Gevork, our pseudo-father in Gyumri, until he made us get in our bus. Obviously I snatched shotgun, and we were on.
I was really not looking forward to stopping a trillion times on the way, because I had been to Armenia several times. Each spot on the way had a memory that would never be replaced. Our first stop was Khor Virab. Although this is a very special place for Armenians, seeing it more than most locals, I had no interest. I knew the spot for pictures with Ararat in the background would take two hours, because everyone would want that romantic picture with Armenia’s occupied treasure. I decided not to take the ladder to the pit where Krikor Lousavoritch survived 13 years. Pretty much I was being a princess, thinking I’m the coolest person in the world because I had been to Armenia before. Then the Armenia first timers walked out and through their emotions I remembered my first time there. Slowly I became excited for them. I was no longer rushing to get out of there; I just sat to myself for a while and remembered all the memories I had throughout the years. Finally we all boarded the van and took off to my favorite place in Armenia.
So I’m going to pause here and say a short story about our van. The GAZELLE became a mascot to our trip. With its signature scorpion stickers and Russian writing that looked like what we assumed said gazelle, it was easy to get attached. Every so often, actually at every incline, the car would overheat, we would collect our bottles of water that the driver would pour onto the steaming radiator. Every so many kilometers we would have to all get out of the van and refill our natural gas. This van was a disaster! Luggage + fifteen adults + our mountainous country = There was no chance Gazelle would make it to Shushi. Okay let’s get back to my favorite place in Armenia: Noravank.
Noravank is significant to me for a few reasons: first off the church and its surroundings are of the most beautiful in all of Armenia; secondly, a few years back my mom and stepfather married there; and lastly I know once you reach Noravank you are very close to the river I am named after. As soon as the Gazelle stopped I ran to the back church to light a candle, and right after went to my spot and chilled. As we took the cliché picture on the steps of the first church, I remembered being a little girl in a flower girl dress climbing as everyone was looking at me like I’m crazy… Once everyone was through taking pictures, we reentered the van and took off. It took us 25 minutes to exit the parking lot because “This Is Armenia” and everyone had their own mission. We had one more spot, Datev Vank and then finally we would arrive in Shushi. Unfortunately, the aerial trail tram, the longest in the world, which had opened recently was closed for the day. Bummed we got back on the Gazelle. But we’ll be back to Datev soon enough.
The Artsakh border was so relieving.. Finally we made it. The drive from the border to our house was filled with songs and fun, and from the first glance our house looked awesome. We unloaded the van and claimed rooms. The house was great and the family was cool! Finally we were done with the Gazelle. 16 hours had passed, our butts had flattened, and we were all relieved to finally say we’re HOME!
Every evening, Melanie, Margaret, Sevana and I sit down and plan what to do with our Advanced English students the next day. We had already talked about family, school and hygiene with them, and were starting to run out of ideas when Sevana suggested we ask the students what they would change and what they would keep the same if they were president of Armenia. We were worried about whether or not we could help them with political terms or if they would even be interested at all, but the responses we got helped us see the changes needed in Armenia through a child’s eyes and the simplicity of most of their suggested changes showed some of the roots of the troubles Armenia faces.
Many of our students had worries that we would have expected to hear from adults. These children are so much more aware of their surroundings than we had expected. They share the household stress with their parents who are struggling to make ends meet. Hasmik Hovasepyan says,
“If I were president of Armenia, I would create more jobs because I want to help people. I shall create more buildings because I want people to have homes.”
Hasmik is 12 years old and has worries that I have never seen in an American preteen, who would have been more worried about the latest video game or trendy outfit.
Trash has never been a problem for us in the two weeks we’ve been in Gyumri because there is a dumpster located about two blocks away from our temporary home and we produce very little trash since we don’t cook our own food and don’t clean much, but our students showed us that trash is a huge problem for Gyumri’s smallest citizens. 13 year old Jenya Hovhannisyan says,
“I would create a law forbidding trash cans in the streets.”
While Jenya wanted fewer trash cans, 14 year old Gor Hovhanisyan
“would eliminate trash.”
We had seen trash on the streets of Gyumri, but began noticing it more after reading our students’ responses. As Unger Gevorg explained to us, there are no laws about trash on the streets, and people do not care to find a trash can, instead choosing to dump whatever trash they have on the streets.
The innocence of the children really showed in some of their responses. 13 year old Angela Apriyan would
“build parks for children and… give money and clothes to orphanages… and establish flowers and trees in streets.”
12 year old Alina Mkhoyan wants to
“eliminate criminals” and “have world peace.”
11 year old Marian Nahapetyan would
“eliminate money because people commit crimes for money and it is not needed.”
14 year old Andranick Khachatryan
“would buy wonderful footballers for our country because today football is not good in Armenia.”
But some of the most memorable responses were the most serious ones. 14 year old Gor Hovhanisyan wants
“to help for women and and laws that prevent parents from hitting their children.”
Hearing that from Gor, who is usually bouncing off the walls in our classroom was incredible. It just emphasized the fact that we learn something new about our students every day. I personally had always underestimated him and am sorry it took so long to realize his true colors. 11 year old Roza Simonyan wants
“Ararat to be ours again,”
but she had trouble explaining how she would reach that goal if she were president.
12 year old Arpi Antanyan
“would build skyscrapers and change every building [and] keep the same only the natural beauty of Armenia.”
Like Hasmik and Arpi, many of our students wanted better, newer buildings in Gyumri, which brought to light that over two decades after the 1988 earthquake, there are still buildings that need to be rebuilt and the ones that survived the earthquake are deteriorating over time. Arpi also wants to
“create a law about not smoking”
because she wants people to be healthy. In a country where smoking is accepted in almost every location, Arpi’s response gave me hope that there are still those who care about the health and wellness of the people. The final sentence of Arpi’s response was most memorable:
“I would beautify my country so well that nobody would want to leave.”
As children of Armenian emigrants, we know that the conditions in Armenia are unbearable for many people, but it was beautiful to see that there are still those who believe that Armenians should stay in Armenia.
At the end of it all, Andranick said it best, “my country Armenia is the best in the world.” It is these children with their big ideas and innocent outlooks on life who will grow up to be the changes that Armenia needs in order to live up to its full potential. I’m so proud that we were able to see the beginnings of it.
For the past three years every time I heard the song Yelek Hayer I would remember Patil Aslanian as my counselor at AYF Camp Big Pines going crazy, yelling and screaming for the blue color to remember the words to this simple song. From today on, the most striking memory of Yelek Hayer will forever remain from July 18, the seventh day of Jambar in Gyumri.
When our group leader, Vache asked us what the mandatory song for 2011 Gyumri Jambar should be, Patil and I looked at each other and said Yelek Hayer. The rest of the group quickly agreed because it is an upbeat song and easy to learn. The second day of Jambar we started song practices and as the only counselor in my color familiar with the song I automatically became the crazy song teacher, who would yell at 40 innocent faces when they would forget a single word. Throughout the week I became more and more competitive always fearing that these kids would hate me. I made one girl cry for an hour, had the mischievous boys sent to all four corners of the class and even had to start using corners in the hallway. Every day after song practice I would think to myself, why am I doing this… these kids are on summer vacation, and look forward to Jambar all year. I am being the counselor I always hated.
Today I walked into song practice with a big bottle of water, ready to yell my lungs out. To my count of yerek, chors (three, four) the classroom shook. The kids amazed me. Not only did they sing loud, but it finally sounded like they understood the song. They not only had extreme passion for the song, they also had a will to impress us. You could feel the words resonated in their lives. Following Yelek Hayer, they sang Sardarabad and Kini Litz like I had never heard before. At the end when I turned to them and smiled they started to cheer, because finally I approved. If I knew my approval meant that much I would have given it much sooner. I will remember many things from the summer of 2011, but this will definitely have a different place in my heart.
Back home, I am just a college student who makes little to no difference to my surroundings, but here, I am able to influence our youth. The future leaders of Gyumri, Armenia can be shaped during their participation in Jambar. These kids are far from ordinary, they are smart, talented and energetic beyond belief.
Before Jambar started, I really underestimated the influence of our program. These kids are not only having a good time at camp for a couple weeks, then going home to their usual lives. They are molding into better, more open-minded, and Hayrenaser versions of themselves.
My experiences thus far this summer, have already shown me that my career choice is the right one for me. As a teacher, I would give up anything to have this type of effect on my future students.
As my parents and I sit and wait for my “travel buddies” to arrive, I think to myself “what have I gotten myself into?”
What if I don’t fit in with our group? What if the kids at the camp don’t like me? How will i survive without my parents for 6 weeks?
Then I speak to the AYF members who were there at 3 am to make sure we are okay and I realize all the nervousness is probably for nothing. We’re in this together and all the changes and new things we will experience will be together.
I’m not worried anymore. Maybe a little sleepy, but not worried.
Well actually the journey began over 17 years ago in 1994 when a group of impassioned and visionary AYF members created the Youth Corps program to gather young diasporan Armenians to travel to villages in newly-liberated Artsakh to do modest, but meaningful rebuilding work hand-in-hand with our sisters and brothers there.
This is the same program that has evolved into Youth Corps today. Working to provide diasporans an opportunity to see our homeland…not as tourists. To better understand the daily lives of our people and to better understand the reality that is our country, with the eventual goal of seeing Armenia as a home..not just a postcard.
For me the journey didn’t begin tonight.. It began years ago, starting with a love for Armenia that developed well before I had the chance to meet her. That led me to work with the AYF Youth Corps program..one of the most meaningful and tangible ways i have seen to build and strengthen the bridge between the Republic of Armenia and the diaspora.
The results that our program has shown in the last three years have spoke for themselves and have led to the 2011 group being the biggest group to ever participate.
You will hear stories from 25 people. You will feel their experiences. You will smile when then do. You will be frustrated when they are. And my hope is that you, along with our group, see that our future as a people depends on our people’s genuine care for our country. A care that leads past talk..
Monday I will be in Armenia setting up some final logistics for our participants. And soon 25 of them will arrive as well.
You are a part of their experience.