When a friend of mine suggested I join her on the 16th Annual Armenian Heritage Cruise, I wasn’t completely sold on the idea at first. After all, as someone who has been saturated in the Armenian community since birth, I didn’t find it necessary to spend seven days on a boat listening to Armenian music, attending Armenian-themed lectures, and participating in traditional Armenian dance lessons, as well as social and networking events. The itinerary basically described my daily life. What good would it do to commit myself to a boat for seven days with no land in sight?
Thinking ahead to the shivering temperatures in January and how a trip to the Caribbean with a boat full of Armenians would be much less stressful on my mom’s conscience than my prior trip to rural Nicaragua, I decided to give it a chance and heed the positive remarks of my predecessors. I figured at best, I would have the opportunity to meet Armenians from around the world and engage in conversation with new people. At worst, it would provide fodder for an Armenian-centered play I had been working on.
On the first day on the cruise I met a flurry of people, hailing from as far away as Lebanon and as close as one town over in my native New Jersey. While I knew only a handful of the people attending, the common thread of a shared culture was the only introduction I needed when making a new acquaintance. In fact, my first evening on the cruise had me following the trail of baritone voices of a familiar yet ancient tune. By the time I reached the elevators and found the culprits—a group of young men from Toronto, Canada—I discovered they were singing the traditional hymn of “Der Voghormia” from our sacred Badarak. It was then that I realized this trip would be unlike anything I had experienced before.
The environment that quickly unraveled on the cruise was one reminiscent of the “older days” my mom and my friend’s parents would talk about while growing up in Armenian Diasporan communities around the globe. There was a refreshing openness and sense of camaraderie among Armenians I had never before witnessed. During many late afternoons, after our departure from the day’s island, I would settle myself at a table on the pool deck with a notebook as I welcomed people to join me—those I knew and those whom I hadn’t met before. All were welcome as conversations were quickly sparked about the church parish we attended, how we were enjoying our time, and my favorite: figuring out our six degrees of separation.
On my way to the gym one particular afternoon, I was sidetracked by the “Der Voghormia” singers who invited me to a game of “Trivial Pursuit.” As we familiarized ourselves with one another in between turns, our conversation naturally shifted to more relevant topics at hand—our religion, our homeland, and our respective Armenian communities. Following a couple hours of discussion and laughter, we had all lost track of time, the purple haze of sunset on the calm azure waters of the Caribbean Sea serving as the only signal for us to get ready for dinner. As I walked back to my room, I realized a deep-seated concern that weighed on me heavily had been quelled in that moment: The potential erosion of our culture, both in the diaspora and our homeland, has always worried me. But after being engrossed in conversation with this group of friends who exhibited maturity, intelligence, and nationalism, and who were learned of the Armenian culture—from the traditions of our centuries-old Divine Liturgy to the complex political situation in Armenia—I felt a renewed sense of hope.
Feeling at ease with the state of my cultural heritage came in other unexpected ways as well. While preparing for dinner, my friend and I would put on the Armenian channel on the television in our room and become enamored with the videos shown, from modern pop musical performances taking place on stages in Armenia to Armenian youngsters in America from the 1970’s performing plays in their traditional costumes and impeccable Armenian-language skills. Another highlight was seeing how many close-knit Armenian families were present, not to mention generations of Armenians, ranging from great-grandparents to newborns. Couples, some of whom I was told had met on a previous cruise, brought their children on the dance floor and exposed them to a culture that will define them for the rest of their lives.
As we approached our last day of the cruise, it occurred to me that the past week spent on a boat with 800 Armenians didn’t have anything to do with learning about my culture. It went beyond that. It allowed me to reconnect with my culture in a way I didn’t think was possible. Growing up, Armenian pride never lacked in my household: We spoke Armenian at home, attended Armenian school on Saturday mornings, and we even traveled to Armenia so that my brother and I could be baptized in Holy Etchmiadzin. But finding myself among a myriad of Armenians whom I had never met before, but with whom I danced the “Tamzara,” shared laughs over a coffee, and engaged in colorful discussions, was certainly a special and euphoric feeling. I had experienced fragments of this in my own community, but never during an event of this length and magnitude.
It is through the well-organized, meaningful, and large-scale cultural undertakings like the Armenian Heritage Cruise (organized through the efforts of the Armenian Cultural Association of America) that the uniqueness of our culture is highlighted, and we understand how we have continued to flourish as a people, while those more powerful have ceased to exist. Weeks like these inject a level of cultural prowess into our lives that can only help lead us forward to usher in the next chapter of our history.
My experience on the cruise reached its climax during the final evening, when both headlining musicians for the week—Khoren Mouradian of Toronto, Canada, and Khatchig Jingirian of San Francisco, Calif.—were unable to sing; they had strained their vocal chords after arousing our “kef,” night after night. The crowd, however, did not have a chance to display disappointment because the young but talented Toronto-based musical group “Pyunik” seamlessly assumed the entertainment portion of the evening. As Razmik Tchakmakian picked up his drumsticks, Sevag Haroutunian laid his fingers on the keyboards, and Sevag Titizian grabbed the microphone and steadied himself in the center of the stage, the baton was silently passed—a symbolic moment that, to me, was the essence of the entire trip.
During a time when I’ve been questioning my identity and the stronghold it has on my life, the time I spent on the cruise proved to me that there is an unbreakable fiber of patriotism that is rooted within each of us. And while it may become dormant at times, lost in the shuffle of our every day lives, it can easily be revived with one familiar pluck of the oud or a conversation with a new friend in our mother tongue.
For seven nights we stood in a shared space where time stood still, and where the longing to be unified as a people—devoid of a tragic history and divisions within our Christian faith, our diaspora, or our homeland—was fulfilled. We were surrounded by our rich language, our triumphant folk songs, and our own people. And for a static amount of time, as we charted unmarked waters together, we were one.