As certain neighborhoods of London were rising up, in large part due to social inequalities and racial tensions, I couldn’t help but wonder about how some governments and municipalities address cultural difference in their cities. Multi-ethnic communities and public spaces are said to be celebrated for the contributions and conviviality they bring to the urban landscape. Yet discrimination, racial profiling, and social oppression faced by migrants and individuals of different races and religions (some who are born in these cities and are not actually immigrants) can be qualified as blatant contradictions of these said “open” and “multicultural” receiving societies.
The recent images of unrest that bombarded our screens are one thing, yet the harsh reality of some people, particularly disenchanted youth, is rarely exposed.
Throughout many Western cities, one mode of recognizing and celebrating cultural difference that seems to be universally accepted by receiving societies (though not without considerable police presence) are the festivals, street fairs, or kermesses that end up on our social calendars. Each summer, a variety of ethnic communities—such as the Caribbean, Italian, Lebanese, Greek, and Armenian communities—organize and host such events, making these traditional get-togethers into diasporic festivities par excellence. Communities come together around music, cuisine, family, and friends to celebrate what makes each respective culture unique, with the homeland sitting miles away. A here (diaspora) and there (motherland) brought together in one place, often under one tent.
Whether these festivities are meant to foster the mingling of cultures and encourage inter-cultural dialogue depends on the nature and marketing of the event. While in some communities there is perhaps a conscious effort in promoting cultural exchange, in other communities, there is an unconscious desire to maintain cultural insularity.
Regardless of such issues, for as long as I can remember, the second week of August has always brought with it a sense of bittersweet excitement: On the one hand, this time of the year means that Kermesse weekend had rolled around and, on the other, that summer is coming to a close.
Over two decades, the Sourp Hagop Kermesse in Montreal has become an institution, has been emulated by other communities, and continues to draw big names in Armenian music who perform, with large crowds attending not only locally, but also from other parts of the Armenian Diaspora.
As teenagers attending Sourp Hagop High School, it was a fun opportunity to see our class mates again before the first school bell. Also, how often was it excusable to have kebab and pilaf followed by a cloud of cotton candy larger than our heads? Kermesse also entailed volunteering. It was a challenge to snatch the job of running one of the amusement park-style booths from other friends who were equally eager to work there. But besides the games, as teens, we realized that such a considerably large operation runs on sheer volunteer power, and that the only way such a big wheel could turn on its own was when we all came together around one objective. To this day, all proceeds are donated to our Armenian school.
As adults, many continue to volunteer. Also, we know that Kermesse has become the informal meeting place where we are bound to bump into old friends we don’t see regularly. At Kermesse, new loves burgeon, old ones fizzle out. It remains an inter-generational festive experience, where kids, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged, and the elderly can converge and feel a sense of community.
The tradition of the Blessing of the Grapes closes the festivities. On the second Sunday of August, the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates the Feast of Assumption of the Virgin Mary with the Blessing of the Grapes, a remnant of the pagan rites, when the first harvest was sacrificed to Goddess Anahit, patroness of fecundity and maternity.
Recognizing and exchanging the richness of different cultures should extend far beyond the boundaries of street fairs, festivals, and kermesses. If only cultural difference could be celebrated every day, instead of being seen as an eminent threat…