On a cold sunny day in Paris this past October, I leaned against a column inside the courtyard of the Invalides and watched Charles Aznavour’s funeral service. I was on crutches, and I remember thinking to myself, “This is what happens when you fight to leave home as an Armenian girl to live on your own abroad. You end up watching a funeral service incapacitated.” I had developed an extremely dark sense of humor after living by myself in France for two years, partially as a coping mechanism for the ups and astonishingly frequent downs of life as a single young female expatriate.
I felt bad for my Armenian parents, who’ve had to contend with my constant struggle to live my life as I see fit outside the norms of Armenian patriarchy. For years I have fought to carve out the life I’ve wanted. My parents relented, and with each passing year of adulthood, I understand more nuances of their sacrifices in letting me be who I am. I still can’t imagine what my mother felt like the moment I called her from an emergency room in France, 5,000-plus miles away from ‘home.’
“Mom, I’ve just been run over by a motorcyclist. My knee is broken. They’re taking me into surgery tomorrow morning. I’m all alone.” And I did this to myself, because this is my life and this is how I wanted to live it.
Indeed, that’s what happens when you let your Armenian daughter leave the house: life…the good, the bad, the ugly.
In my case, it was really bad. I had multiple leg surgeries (hence the crutches) and I – retrospectively – suffered from unnecessary complications. But perhaps the final nail in the coffin was the night I was nearly choked by a man at a performance venue after I told him to stop trying to touch me. I was out with friends celebrating my twenty-sixth birthday.
My North American reflexes kicked in. I punched him in the face and found security. They told me to go outside and “discuss the situation” with the violent drunk who just tried to assault me. By that point, the callousness of French culture was all too familiar. But I wasn’t going to tolerate it anymore.
I didn’t need to do this to myself, but I was also fully aware this is what I had fought so hard for: the right to be free from patriarchal Armenian norms, only to find myself subjected to another framework of patriarchy. This form of patriarchy didn’t just want to keep me at home; it wanted to consume me whole.
Admittedly, France did offer a lot of life lessons, but they were delivered in a brutal and violent manner. It didn’t have to be that way. Because life abroad can be so unpredictable, traditional Armenian families do not allow their daughters to venture off into the world on their own. My progressive, college educated female Armenian friends (first/second generation) have been subject to iterations of it, as well as others without such backgrounds. I knew a girl in university who put her mother’s contact information in her phone under the name “Ur Es?” (Where are you?). Another friend of mine recently was threatened with financial repercussions if she wanted to leave to teach English abroad.
I knew a girl in university who put her mother’s contact information in her phone under the name “Ur Es?” (Where are you?).
When I think of patriarchy, I remember my mother’s life under the shadow of the Islamic Revolution. Back in the early 1980s when she was 19 years old, she was arrested and thrown into jail for sharing a space with a man. Contrast this with a story a Frenchman once told me unabashedly. It thrilled him to have an encounter with an Iranian woman in spring 2018 because the Iranian flag was right outside their rendezvous point and it was illicit. Besides the reckless fetishism lurking behind the moral of the story, the patriarchy of it all is disgusting. One white man’s thrill in contemporary society today was my Armenian mother’s condemnation three decades prior. Once I grasped this, I was disgusted – I still am. I think I always will be.The general reluctance to allow women in Armenian culture to be independent seems to be – still – an anomaly in Armenian culture in America. Perhaps it’s just what I’ve seen and experienced, but Armenian daughters don’t often get to live their lives outside the norms and desires of their families. These expectations often come at a heavy price carrying sacrifice, resentment, and a perpetual feeling of being trapped from all sides involved.
I fought my parents for many years to live my life the way I wanted to, and that’s how I found myself in France shortly after I graduated from university. Glendale was suffocating me. I truly felt like I needed to get away as far as possible to gain perspective only to realize I needed my Armenian identity to get me through being abroad in the first place.
That morning in Paris, I witnessed a vivid sight in a somber ceremony. A French flag was draped over Aznavour’s coffin, which was resting on cobblestone. A tricolor flower display – red, blue, and orange – lay in front of it. I was sandwiched between bronze cannons and elderly French people, perfectly able-bodied, asking me what happened to me and why I was on crutches. “Une exception exceptionnel.” An exceptional exception, which rings true for a lot nowadays.
Humored by the story of how I ended up on crutches, a barrage of questions began. I realized it was far too late for me to pretend I didn’t speak French at that point. My Armenian-ness had become my source of authority for this group of old Frenchmen. All I really wanted was to see the service and former president of France Nicolas Sarkozy before he’s inevitably hauled off to jail.
When the service began, I had to explain what the song was: “It’s the Armenian national anthem.” When Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan began speaking, I had to rapidly translate Armenian into French. “Sorry, I don’t really know what that specific word was. I’m an Armenian from Iran, and the dialects are different.” When the duduk began wailing and they looked at my quizzically, somehow I quietly scrambled the words to say, “It’s a traditional instrument of the Armenian people.” If there was ever a moment during my time in France that compelled me to face my identity as a young Armenian woman, it was then.
I had spent a lot of time trying to make sense of myself and who I had become while living on my own. I realized that France eventually stripped me of everything I thought I was, except being Armenian. When people asked me how I felt at the time, I told them quite bluntly that I felt like I was living outside of myself and that I was just continuously seeing the extremes in people and situations.
Though I have still unfinished business in France, I’ve also learned a few things by now, including my appreciation for the French language—the very same language where the word “lâche” means coward and the word “lâcher” with an “r” means to let go. The more time I spent in France, the more I felt like I was spitting on the American dream of my Armenian parents, and the American dream vehemently was spitting back at me.
This past summer was particularly brutal for me. I endured another leg surgery. Then I had legal issues to sort through, while moving to three different apartments. On Sundays, I’d be at the Armenian church in the 8th arrondissement in the back pew, where I would just silently weep.
It took me two years in France on my own to understand the jewels of Armenian culture, and how much I craved it living amongst the French. I spoke French, and yet, I felt as if I didn’t communicate clearly enough: to characterize the French as a bunch of unhappy, rigid people who have a strange arrogance rooted in a long past is off the mark. And at the same time, it’s not.
As soon as Aznavour was laid to rest, I started to realize it was time for me to leave. I wanted to be among Armenians again in the community that raised me. I had accidentally given blood and bone to a country where I seemingly either got the best of people or their absolute worst.
… to characterize the French as a bunch of unhappy, rigid people who have a strange arrogance rooted in a long past is off the mark. And at the same time, it’s not.
My reactivity became rage, my frustration became foolhardy and my perpetual feeling of being stuck – of searching for lost time – came to a swift and shocking stop once I bought the plane ticket back to Los Angeles. I felt stuck, so I decided to get unstuck. As someone who tends to fight for something until the very end, it was my turn to learn to walk away from my life in France and come back home. It’s never easy to walk away but it’s certainly easier when you show up at your aunt’s house, and the first thing she tells you is that she has some ghormeh sabzi ready.
My move back home was unexpected, much like the past two years of my life. On some levels, I deeply miss France but on others, I feel deep relief. Occasionally I switch out SIM cards and catch up on a life that seems altogether elsewhere and non-existent. Because that’s exactly what it is: non-existent, foreign, unfamiliar. I think about my life there, my travels, and comprehending what my Armenian-ness meant to me. To me, being Armenian is to fight. And I’ve fought everyone.
Certain memories rapidly come to mind when I think about what happened in two years after having fought for my independence and having gone far away.
A conversation I had in Beirut in front of an ice cream shop called Bachir, in Bourj Hammoud with other Armenians. White ice cream drips onto the table as the perpetual cacophony of honking cars persists. They try out their French on me. I don’t have the heart to tell them I feel like I’m trying out my Armenian on them, even though one of my best friends is Lebanese Armenian.
My sweltering apartment in the summer, windows open and mosquitoes buzzing. The Pantheon looms behind in the distance of the windows. My father video calls me. The passage of time shocks me. I haven’t seen him with white hair before. How long have I been gone? What happened?
I don’t recognize him anymore. “Chetori khanoum, Ani?” “How are you, Ani?” he asks. I don’t know how to respond.
Santorini. My mother is traveling with me. My limbs consumed by mosquitoes. I am in a horrible mood. My mother leaves the room to ask the people next door about their music. It turns out our neighbors are Canadian Armenians. They end up inviting us to their home in Toronto.The Parisian hospital room where I was given my first injection of local anesthesia for my second surgery. At this point I realize how tired I am of people poking holes into my body. I grimace, thank the administrator, and he asks about my origins—a common question by now. (I am whoever you want me to be since I’m clearly not French.) I tell him. Then I am brightly informed in French that the Armenian Iranian doctor was in that day, and I just missed her.
The day after my second surgery. Thankfully my mother has come to visit me again for this one. I can’t imagine putting her through a second surgery. I can’t imagine putting myself through a second surgery alone. I am still heavily under the influence of general anesthesia and I feel frenetic, unbound, itchy, and I’ve been ordered to stay off my leg at least for now. She makes a phone call, speaks in rapid fire Farsi to a Persian woman I met in Paris who helped me with a few things, thanks her. I catch onto some words. I focus on “Nemioni” – are you going to stay? “Nemidooni” – you don’t know. Shortly thereafter I know I’m not staying in France anymore. Then Aznavour dies, and I find myself in the Invalides.
When I moved back home, I got what I wanted: a feeling of home, except I had returned as a foreigner. I was overwhelmed by everything. People smiling broadly. The vast selection of salad dressing at the grocery store. Endless refills. Sunshine. Retrospective naiveté.
But I was so happy to be overwhelmed, even though I also realized how much I now missed France. By the end, I was not only suffocating but I was completely stuck, literally. I was immobile and constrained by rigid restrictions on French society, my American sensibilities, my Iranian Armenian upbringing, and the language. I hesitate when I speak French; I cannot express myself as enthusiastically, and I suffer for a dearth of adjectives in a poetic language. I am not speaking of fluency – I am speaking of functionality. I often need to obscure what I say in French for it to make sense. I used to be combative when I first started learning French. Now I’m dismissive.
In Armenian, I’m always comfortable, except when words escape me, then I resort to English, the language I studied and made a career with.
In the operating room for the second surgery, they were playing a series of Motown videos on a screen. “MOTOWN DANCE PARTY, 1961-1972.” English, the language – I remember my last thought before I went under the second time – “Finally.”
So finally, I am back home.
Nowadays my life is much calmer. I walk around the city I grew up in with its respective factories: Lahmajune Factory, Kebab Factory, and Baklava Factory.
I feel as if I search for lost time here too. This really wasn’t so bad to have left, but I also see why I needed to leave: because it isn’t the end all, be all for me. It is for others, but not me.
In America, I’m American. At home, I’m Armenian Iranian. I ask my mother what she considers me. She says I’m all three— a distinctive advantage in adapting to certain situations. She isn’t wrong. I guess even my appearance lends to it. In Armenia, I was asked if I’m Syrian. In Lebanon, people automatically spoke to me in Arabic. In France, I often felt like an exotic bird struggling to balance on a unstable tree branch. Surprisingly, no one there could pronounce my rather simple name, and I was constantly asked about my origins. Towards the end, when I cut my hair, I was frequently asked if I was Brazilian.
No. I’m telling you today that I am a young Armenian woman.
Editor’s Note: For reasons related to her personal safety, the author of this essay has preferred to remain anonymous.