I put down the pen and stared at the paper for ten minutes. I checked the dictionary, revisited my mind’s wordbook. Countless minutes passed. I was still unable to find what I was looking for. For a moment, I felt like I had lost a precious item; but in fact, I had found one.
The word I was looking for was the English equivalent of the Armenian word karot, a word which would complete a letter to my British friend. The physical dictionary and my cognitive wordbook suggested options such as “nostalgia,” “melancholy,” or “depression,” but none were suitable to express what I truly felt. The word “nostalgia” had an exclusively positive connotation, while “melancholy” and “depression” depicted solely the pain and the darkness behind my karot. I hoped to convey a mixture of feelings, both cheerful and sad, that would evoke memories of late-night exam preparations and popcorn movie nights. Meanwhile, the kar component of the karot would have gently described the nature of my contrasting feelings for kar itself literally means something that was, but is no longer.
Karot is a word used by Armenians who have had to leave their homes for something as simple yet difficult as survival. It is the nostalgia and melancholy all at once. It is the longing for the distant taste of homemade dolma, for the unbridled rhythm of Kochari, for “sea to sea Armenia,” and for everything else that kar. It is the anguish for what is lost, for the happiness that ever was and the yearning to have it again.
This summer, my parents and I were invited to a dinner with two other families in Armenia. One of them had just arrived to Armenia from the United States, after a twenty-year absence. They came in order to show their eight year-old daughter, Lusine, what Armenia looks, smells and tastes like, and to help her learn Armenian.
“We have a very large Armenian community in New Jersey, and we do everything to maintain its Armenian components–the language, the religion, the culture. We often listen to Armenian music, cook baklava.”
“Shad gsirem baklava,” added Lusine to what her mother had said, trying to use her limited, yet beautiful Armenian vocabulary to express her fondness of this traditional, sweet pastry. During our conversations throughout the evening, Lusine did her best to express her thoughts and feelings in Armenian. She tried, sometimes failed, tried again and continued asking us for the Armenian translations for nearly all the dishes and objects around her․
“What is your favorite Armenian dish, Mary?” the woman from New Jersey asked the daughter of the other invited family in Armenian, organizing her astonishing vocabulary into correct sentence structures.
“My favorite dish is khorovats [barbecue],” answered Mary, unexpectedly in Russian.
“Why did you suddenly start speaking in Russian?” asked the woman, still in Armenian.
Mary’s mother interrupted the conversation, explaining that her seven year-old daughter speaks better Russian than Armenian. She said they always speak Russian at home because they want Mary to have an excellent command of that language. She said it so proudly, as if she expected us to give her and her daughter a round of applause. To her surprise, none of us did.
For a family living outside of Armenia but still doing their best to teach their daughter to speak Armenian, learning that there are families in their homeland who avoid teaching their children their mother tongue was a striking realization. For me, however, this discovery was not shocking, as many of my compatriots simply find it ‘cool’ not to know Armenian and to have the ‘advantage’ to communicate in Russian instead of their native language. Is it a means to show off, to seem more intelligent, more educated and distinguished? Is it a result of their infinite (yet non-reciprocal love) toward Russia? I cannot give an exact answer, but I can see that the issue is threatening, not only for individuals, but for Armenian society and culture as a whole.
what happens if you do not know the language of your people?
In fact, I can hardly imagine any Russian family teaching their child to speak Armenian before he or she is able to speak fluent Russian, but if I reach that superior level of imagination, the scene looks more like a comedy than reality. In Armenia, the case is a real tragicomedy for the foreigners, and a purposeless, painful tragedy for ourselves. It is a sign of disrespect toward our own language, culture and identity. It is insulting to members of the Diaspora, many of whom do their best to preserve the language we have inherited from our ancestors—the language that has helped us all throughout our history to achieve and maintain our well-cherished dream that we today call independence. For many of our compatriots living abroad, it requires a daily effort and appreciation to hold on to the treasure of owning, learning and communicating in their own language, teaching it to their children, while some of us in Armenia carelessly take this chance for granted.
Of course, in the increasingly globalized world, learning a foreign language is invaluably beneficial for one’s personal development, career horizons and social life. I personally agree with the famous Armenian saying, “The more languages you know, the more of a person you are.” But, what happens if you do not know the language of your people? Well, you lose. You lose your chance to experience concepts and feelings as important and as relevant to you as karot. You lose an opportunity to connect with your past and with your people. You lose what you have not only the opportunity, but the right, to possess. Consequently, you lose a significant part of your identity.
It was while looking for the English equivalent of the word karot in the dictionary that I was exposed to one of the most important lessons in my life. Some words are impossible to translate exactly because there are certain concepts, emotions and feelings in some cultures, which are absent in others. It is the mission of language to maintain and transfer these messages, not only between individuals in the present, but also between generations: the past, present and future of a nation. It was through the word karot that I learned that there exists something in my nation’s history that was once, but is no longer. I realized that my compatriots’ willingness to return it has been strong enough to explode into the air and form a word as unique as the taste of Armenian dolma.
Original illustration by Weekly design apprentice Masha Keryan