Manjikian: All in a Day’s Train Ride

Some days on the commuter train are more interesting than others. A few weeks ago, as usual, I took the commuter train home from the downtown station. I was in store for an eye-opening trip, little did I know.

Living in a part of town where the Armenian population is relatively dense, I am used to sharing the ride with a number of compatriots. Some I am personally acquainted with, and others have become familiar faces along with the rest of the train’s regulars. Either way, I am always overcome with a sense of comfort when I hear random words in Eastern or Western Armenian through the train’s mild tremor—disconnected, muffled sound bites like ayo, lav ehvaghuh guh desnuvinkdesar inch eghav? (yes, it’s fine … see you tomorrow … did you see what happened?) I know I am almost home…

Interestingly enough, a considerable number of Armenian commuters, including myself, all converge to the first wagon, at the head of the train. Just as I can count on the train leaving the downtown station at 6:20 p.m. during rush hour, I can rely on a handful of fellow Armenians being on that first wagon, almost like an unspoken meeting point.

I think of this convergence in the first wagon as an impromptu Armenia/diaspora conference, where sometimes local, Armenian, and Middle Eastern politics are passionately debated, while others try to drift off and disappear in the constricted space of public transportation. Jewelers, engineers, students, bankers, architects, and storekeepers, all from different parts of the diaspora and Armenia, are all sharing views, stories, and a ride….

Similar to many other days, I embarked on the train a few weeks ago, taking my usual seat in the first wagon. I plopped down on a window seat and was ready to retreat into calm reverie after work, when nearby shuffling noises awoke me. Upon opening my eyes, I saw an elderly man with blue eyes and sunburned skin, accompanied by a middle aged man with darker eyes and hair carrying a newly purchased flat screen TV, taking their seats right across from me. It is worth mentioning that the train’s seating arrangements make for some intimate space sharing, with people sitting barely two feet across from each other.

After acknowledging one another’s existence through eye-contact, I returned to my state of lull. With my eyes closed, I started to hear what sounded like Turkish. Even though there is absolutely nothing alarming about this, considering I do befriend Turks and Turkish is just one of many idioms on the tree of languages, all hopes for a tranquil commute vanished instantly. Instead of slipping into daydreaming mode, I fell into an agitated whirlwind of thoughts, keeping my eyes closed and hoping that the lights going off in my mind were not coming to surface through my facial expressions, for the two men less than two feet away to notice.

My inner tumult was on several levels. I wanted to strike a conversation with them.

A political dialogue maybe? No, that wasn’t it. I felt a familiarity with them. Where in Turkey were they from? Is it really my business? Then, my grandfather came to mind. I wanted to blurt out to these unsuspecting strangers, that “Just for the record, I’m Armenian!” at which point I knew I was overreacting to the most mundane of circumstances. During moments like these, I come to terms with the idea that I likely carry some sort of collective post-genocidal trauma, though not to be confused with inherited victimhood.

I opened my eyes from time to time and just glanced across at them. They would look at me and I would just stare back. Uncomfortable with my reactions, I had set off to evacuate these thoughts when, amid the Turkish dialect, I distinctly heard the words Ermen and Los Angeles and satellite (likely connected to the TV they had just purchased). Just as I was trying to make sense of what I had heard and let my imagination loose, Armenian words were being uttered.

Despite my proximity to these two Armenian men from Turkey in the train, I suddenly felt so distant from the reality of the Armenian community in Turkey. For years, we, in the diaspora, have struggled to reconcile justice, truth, and history, perhaps isolated in a sense from those Armenians who are living in the country we are at issue with. That day, I became aware of a potentially pronounced gap between Armenians living in Turkey and the rest of the diaspora.

Even though I perhaps have a bird’s eye view of the Armenian cultural heritage in Istanbul, particularly when Armenian art and literature flourished, I thought, what do I really know about being an Armenian in Turkey today?

Armenians residing in Turkey are geographically and socially close to the heart of the matters at hand. During that train ride, miles away from both Armenia and Turkey, I thought of how easy it is to lose sight of other communities, particularly the Armenian one in Turkey, which is a keystone for not only the diaspora, but also for Armenia, which has vested economic and diplomatic interests with Turkey.

The train came to a halt, it was my station, and I barely made it out the doors in time…

Lalai Manjikian

Lalai Manjikian

Dr. Lalai Manjikian is a humanities professor at Vanier College in Montreal. Her teaching and research interests are in the areas of immigration and refugee studies, media representations of migration, migrant narratives and diaspora studies. She is the author of Collective Memory and Home in the Diaspora: The Armenian Community in Montreal (2008). Lalai’s articles have been published in a number of newspapers and journals including The Armenian Weekly, Horizon Weekly, 100 Lives (The Aurora Prize), the Montreal Gazette, and Refuge. A former Birthright Armenia participant (2005), over the years, Lalai has been active in volunteering both within the Armenian community in Montreal and the local community at large, namely engaged in immigrant and refugee integration. She previously served as a qualitative researcher on the Armenian Diaspora Survey in Montreal. Lalai also serves as a board member for the Foundation for Genocide Education. She holds a PhD in Communication Studies from McGill University (2013).


  1. There has been much talk lately about Bolsahays (Constantinople/Istanbul Armenians) and whether or not, or to what degree, they constitute a Spiurk, a Diaspora. A few articles were published especially after the Diaspora Minister visited the community recently.

    I wonder just how far being a Diaspora goes when a community has been a presence in a city or on area for generations beyond living memory, and when that particular place considers the Armenian element part and parcel of society, such as in Bolis/Istanbul, or in Nor Jugha/Esfahan, or even in Lebanon, or the way it was in central and eastern European cities for centuries in the middle ages.

    Of course, when it comes to what remains of the Armenians in Turkey, the consideration of historically-Armenian lands (not Istanbul, though) and the execution of a genocide complicate the inter-community, majority-minority relationships.

  2. Istanbul, as well as Isfahan, Beirut and Los, will always be diasporas. They will also be temporary, as are with all none-religious diasporas. It’s counter productive to think otherwise.

  3. Constantinople was the ultimate magnet for the Anatolian and Cilician Armenians to make a decent living and get educated in the Centre of the Ottoman Empire. Bolis or Constantinopolis has been like a second home to Armenians until the Empire started to cruble, fall in a deep paranoia, became more violent and started to persecute the minorities as early as the 1820-30’s after the Greek war of Independence.
    We all grew up basically with Istanbul based Armenian Arts and literature from Tourian to Zohrab, Baronian and Khrimyan Hayrig. Too bad that the white genocide is very intense. We grew up in the Middle East as second generation “western Armenian” and it is no wonder that we somehow identify more with Istanbul than the Russian and then Soviet controlled eastern portions of Historic Armenia. Too bad that today the Istanbul community is on the verge of extinction.    

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