“Where are you from?”
“Toronto… from Canada.”
“No! Before that…”
This was not an existential query directed at us; the man was not asking which corner of Western Armenia our forefathers came from, or where the birthplace of our Armenian origin was. The question was much more mundane—and, in its simplicity, a huge pile of complexes.
He wanted to know “where from” we had migrated to Canada. It was not the first time that strangers had asked us this question during this visit.
We were in the fatherland with friends to recall and commemorate the still-unpunished genocide committed against our people a century ago. It was probably the second or third day we were in Yerevan, when all three of us decided to sup at a Middle Eastern restaurant. It was obvious that the owner had immigrated from that region, either from Lebanon or Syria. It was obvious from the vernacular of his Armenian.
He asked his question in Western Armenian, and I answered him promptly without faltering…
“We are Musalertsi from my father’s side; on my mother’s side, from Gesarya and Arabkir. Varak’s forefathers hail from Yozgat…”
With an abrupt interruption, the man stopped my explanations and pointing his forefinger at us, repeated his question:
“No! Before Canada, where have you come from?”
The man had difficulty understanding how young men born and raised in Canada could express themselves in the “mother tongue” with such facility. I’ll be the first to admit, that the Armenian spoken by me and my friends is neither perfect nor altogether precise. I will even confess that our private conversations are conducted, almost entirely, in English. Most probably because we were in the homeland—and aware of why we had come to Armenia in that month of April—that day our conversation had unraveled in Armenian.
Were we maybe deluding ourselves? I am not sure…
Why was this man stunned when we informed him that we had not emigrated to Canada from either Lebanon or Syria? Have we, perhaps, reached a point in time where it is hard to believe this phenomenon—and easier to accept its opposite as far more plausible? Wasn’t it fact that all three of us had attended and completed Armenian daily schools? Wasn’t it a fact that our forebears had founded numerous Armenian schools, centers, churches, and organizations so that the scattered communities remain Armenian-speaking, entrenched in their culture and traditions?
Why was this man so astonished, and—perhaps more important—why were we so bemused that he was astonished?
There was a reality in all this, a reality we cannot deny. In many of our communities in the Diaspora, Armenians constitute a mere drop in the ocean. Often, we do not even represent a half percent of the surrounding population. Consequently, this means that in the Diaspora Armenian people are always surrounded by a “foreign” ambiance—foreign language, foreign people, foreign culture.
We sometimes cast blame on Armenians who do not converse in Armenian, or who willingly bask in foreign cultures; yet, we do not consider that those are simply realities, deriving of lifestyle, and will, over the years, gradually become more prominent.
Is it to say that perhaps it is simply impossible to preserve a national language and culture on foreign shores? True enough that to this day we have survived, and the Canadian-Armenian community is rated one of the best in language and identity preservation. Granted, the Canadian-Armenian community is one of the best… yet, isn’t comparison pointless?
We must understand that Canada is, for Armenians, a relatively young community, especially when we consider the 50-60-year span of its reorganization’s narrative. History has proven to us that in the case of many communities there has been a serious decrease in the number of Armenian-speakers over the years. For example, in various cities of South America and the Eastern United States with Armenian populations, the community has reached its fourth or fifth generation, and is, at present, mostly not Armenian-speaking. Is a similar result to be the fate of Canadian-Armenians?
Probably most factors that determine the answer to that question take shape in the family…
* * *
It was more than three years ago, when from Yerevan I called my parents in Toronto to let them know that in a few days I’d be on my way to Dikranagerd (Diyarbakir), to take part in a conference. Anticipating their reaction, I wanted to let them know, ahead of time, so that they wouldn’t “freak out” by hearing it from other sources. I reassured them that there was no reason for concern—no danger, since we were going to a safe place. My only request from my parents was that they not say anything to my grandparents. I knew damn well that if they heard that their only grandson was going to Western Armenia to participate in a conference with Kurds, they would surely have a heart attack. A couple of days later, my mother assured me that she would keep it a secret, and so I went to Dikranagerd without worry.
After returning to Yerevan from Dikranagerd, and remaining there for months, I decided to surprise my family; without prior notice, I returned to Toronto. After returning home to astounded parents, my first visit was, naturally, to my grandparents. We hadn’t seen each other for quite a while, and we were more than ready to enjoy each other’s company. As we settled down to discuss the events of the past several months, my grandfather’s first question was about Dikranagerd. Apparently, a relative had informed them about my adventures, and my big secret wasn’t much of a secret.
Obviously, my grandmother was pretty upset: “What possessed you? Are you insane or something? Those places are full of peril…” she kept saying. Surely, the Turkish TV stations she watched described them as such. My grandfather, on the other hand, kept a broad smile on his face while asking questions about my experiences. After listening attentively to my answers, he asked me a question that surprised me a bit: “Did ‘hidden Armenians’ approach you, my boy?” he asked.
He seemed to know the answer before my response that, in fact, Islamized Armenians had approached us and told us of their Armenian roots. At that point, my grandfather told a story from his days in the armed forces, about how he and his friend, on leave on a bitter winter day, had by chance met a Turkified Armenian in an Erzurum (historic Karin) coffee house, who, hearing them speak Armenian, had approached them and told them his life story. My grandfather narrated how great was that boy’s yearning for his people, religion, traditions—yet, he was obliged to forget all that. That day, my grandfather reminded me how fortunate we are to have the freedom to protect our national heritage and continue living as Armenians. And he related how he made the decision to leave behind family, employment, and an easy, prosperous life in Istanbul to settle down in faraway Canada, where, with no fear, he would be able to live freely as an Armenian.
My grandfather had born on his body our nation’s horrendous agony and pain. At the tender age of 18, he had moved from his birthplace, Arabkir, to Istanbul; to secure a livelihood in alien, difficult conditions, he had worked in a spinning mill until his mandatory service in the Turkish army. After two soul- and body-rending years of service in the Turkish army, he had returned to Istanbul and established his own successful spinning and weaving business.
However, Turkish persecutions and unjust intimidation had forced my young, successful entrepreneur grandfather and his family to forever leave Turkey behind and to settle down in Toronto for good. Although the initial years were difficult, in no time at all my grandparents had rebuilt their warm, traditional nest in the new environment, proud also of the fact of having rearranged and set up their own business venture.
My grandfather’s last years were marred by recurrent health issues. Yet, he never missed the chance to remind me how lucky we were to be born Armenian and living in a country where remaining Armenian was not merely possible but which also afforded numerous opportunities for doing so; he always reminded us of the importance of our schools, churches, Armenian centers, and organizations.
While my grandfather is no longer physically among us, his advice and instructions are very much with me, and shall remain so forever.
Yet, is it enough to hear only from parents and forebears about the importance of our institutions?
* * *
Approximately five months passed after the Armenia “restaurant grilling,’’ and I happened to be attending a friend’s wedding in Los Angeles. Considering that the Internet has shrunk the earth so much, not even once did I feel that I was far from Toronto during that trip to California. That week, my Facebook page was almost entirely occupied with the groundwork for starting a new academic year.
I am probably approaching the age when I should start to think of having children of my own, because the Facebook pages of friends, just a few years older than me, were full of photographs of their children returning to school.
Perhaps I have no right to criticize since I am not married, nor do I have children; however, it is hard to stay tranquil when this phenomenon is right in front of you: parents sharing pictures of their children’s first day in school. Naturally, I would have shared those parents’ joy at the sight of their children’s shining faces on the first day of return to school. But I was not happy; on the contrary, I felt sad and a bit hopeless. That week, I saw at least five pictures or posts shared by parents of my former pupils who had pulled out their children from Armenian school—many still at mid-grade-school level—to send them to public or private non-Armenian schools.
I cannot describe my anguish when I sometimes come across those familiar youthful faces. I don’t wish to criticize, because there are special cases and reasons to deprive a child of Armenian school or to enroll them in non-Armenian schools, but they shouldn’t be based on fabricated excuses and false reasons.
If we are really to give the proper value to the importance of language, we must not overlook the value of the Armenian daily school.
* * *
As I ponder all this, I consider myself fortunate.
I am fortunate to have been born into a family that has instilled in me the principles that prompted me to show interest in the destiny of our people, our culture and language. I am fortunate to have grown up in a diasporan community endowed with daily schools, numerous organizations, societies, Armenian centers, and churches functioning on the principle that the preservation of the Armenian identity is a sacred task, and that they are on a mission. And, truly, that is what it is. Without those establishments, our community would have vanished long ago. I am proud and lucky that I grew up in such a community. It is essential, however, to avert extinction, that these establishments continue to be supported by vigorous people, vigorous generational continuity, and a vigorous mindset.
Many insist that in the struggle for national survival, national spirit is more essential than the mother tongue. True, that national spirit is more essential than language in the struggle for national survival. True, that we cannot feel Armenian or maintain Armenian spirit by merely speaking Armenian. But, it is also essential to be conscious of the necessity to keep our mother tongue alive as a warranty of survival. It is through the mother tongue that Armenian literature, culture, and identity are preserved and kept alive. In the end, if we are to survive as Armenians in the Diaspora, it is essential to acknowledge that it is by maintaining our mother tongue that we can achieve that survival.
Let us be cognizant that there are possibilities of preserving language and national character. From the family to our diasporan structures, and specially our schools, all are founded on and continue to perform toward one goal, a single mission. Let us not dismiss all the advantages within our sight and reach. Let us evaluate things by their true merit. Let us desist from conjuring nonexistent reasons and excuses. Let us do our utmost to improve upon what is in hand.
Yes, let us never stop being realists, but let us try to be a bit more optimistic, living with the hope that our efforts, even the impossible, can become possible.
Let us turn the pile of complexes to a faith in a brilliant future. Let us not be stunned when a youth born and bred locally speaks Armenian… Let us be surprised only when we witness the reverse.
Let “where are you from?” remain a mere existential question.
This piece was first published in Lebanon’s Aztag Daily on Dec. 16, 2016 in Armenian. The piece is translated from Armenian by Tatul Sonentz-Papazian.