I recently fell in love with being Armenian all over again during a trip to Boston, Massachusetts last month.
It’s not that I ever stopped being in love with being Armenian. However, a lot has been happening the past few years on both individual and collective levels that needs to be addressed, expressed and processed.
These include, but are not limited to: navigating a global pandemic, the immeasurable loss brought on by the 44-day Artsakh war which re-triggered trauma from the Genocide and presented an additional layer of questions about how to approach transmitting history and the reality of war to the younger generation. We also cannot ignore the looming threats in and around Armenia/Artsakh and the resistance movement currently unfolding in Armenia.
Amid this complex context, Hamazkayin’s cultural retreat at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research’s (NAASR) Vartan Gregorian building provided a much-needed safe and non-hierarchical intellectual space for meaningful exchanges, as well as for healing and empowering conversations among participants.
Even though many of the participants had just met for the first time at the retreat, there was an unmistakable sense of familiarity in the air, in large part due to the unifying power of the mother tongue. Suddenly, through language, we were all home again. Hearing Eastern and Western Armenian filling the soundscape throughout the weekend retreat was a pure delight. And perhaps the short period of time we had together prompted us to connect faster and on a deeper level.
As many casual or more formal conversations took place, I was intrigued by the ways in which language creates a certain type of intimacy between individuals. As much as language can become barriers in our lives, seeing how it can also quickly establish common ground between strangers or old friends is always heartening. Throw in differences in dialect and expressions based on geographic locations, and you have all the colorful nuances and richness of the Armenian language come to life.
Language vividly came to life when the Los Angeles-based writer and actor Sona Tatoyan delivered an entrancing performance of “Azad,” a theatrical play she wrote about her great great grandfather’s Karagöz shadow puppets (an ancient storytelling art form). Tatoyan’s “Azad” is where folkloric art, family history, genocide, war, trauma and healing collide.
Through her use of language alone (without any theatrical elements such as lighting, music or stage props for this particular performance), Tatoyan’s poignant storytelling allowed her audience to be immersed in faraway places oscillating between the present and the past.
It is safe to say that Tatoyan’s masterful use of language set the tone of the retreat, as she poetically connected her family’s century-old history of genocide to current war-torn Syria. Her performance left participants deeply moved.
Following Tatoyan’s performance, all the participants and speakers held a safe space for each other to have a raw and unfiltered discussion about family history, intergenerational trauma and healing.
Unfortunately, these conversations do not happen often enough within our communities, even though there is a crucial need for them.
The art of thinking, speaking and writing in Armenian was taken to an entirely new level during Dr. Lisa Gulesserian’s workshop on the art of producing a “zine.” A zine is small-scale, self-published publication, similar to a magazine, which can focus on a large range of topics. Dr. Gulesserian, who teaches Western Armenian language and Armenian culture at Harvard University, asked participants to individually come up with a concept, write, illustrate and then present a zine in Armenian.
Despite being fluent in Armenian, this exercise pushed me out of my linguistic comfort zone. Initially, I was uneasy about the whole idea; however, soon enough I was drawn in and came up with content in Armenian. I created a zine in Armenian on mindfulness and yoga, which ultimately pushed me to think about expressing these topics close to me in my mother tongue. Through this workshop, I realized how I express so many of my passions, hobbies and interests only in English or French. What is stopping me from approaching them and expressing them in Armenian?
Dr. Kristi Rendahl’s presentation on “Navigating times of disruption through language” was full of emotion. Dr. Rendahl, who is an associate professor at Minnesota State University, does not carry any Armenian ancestry, however she is fluent in Eastern Armenian. She learned to speak the language while living in Armenia.
During her interactive talk, she spoke about her work with non-governmental organizations. I was in awe of the way Rendahl personalized the language, made it her own in recounting her professional or personal experiences. I was most touched when Rendahl spoke about the use of language as a primary caregiver for her ailing father. The clever and innovative ways she and her father used language to communicate, despite his limitations and difficult health-related circumstances, made me think of the endless possibilities language offers outside the confines of rigid semantic rules.
As she eloquently spoke of deeply personal experiences in a language that is not her mother tongue, it was beautiful to learn how language came to shape her experiences and allowed her to express her emotional world. Dr. Rendahl’s presentation was a testament to how liberating language can be and how language has no borders. Her presentation provided a deeply human component to the retreat.
So much of what I took away from this retreat can be applied in my day-to-day life and not just within an academic context, which made the entire experience doubly enriching.
During the final talk of the retreat, Dr. Mouradian invited me to join him for a discussion on narratives and agency in the context of migration, genocide, war and refugees. I addressed different types of discourse surrounding refugees, as well as ethical dimensions related to those who are forced to flee.
My aim was to highlight the importance of migrant narratives and how refugee voices are crucial in understanding their plight and everyday life realities. This is particularly important given the fact that certain media, political discourses and public opinion tend to dehumanize and criminalize refugees.
I then focused on how refugees within an urban context face a period of “in-betweenness” (both in the spatial and temporal terms). During this period of uncertainty and indefinite waits to obtain formal status, refugees face a number of severe obstacles. As a result, they face social exclusion. However, through a collection of qualitative interviews I conducted with refugee claimants, it became evident that they manage to carve out their own agency by partaking in social and political activities in the city. By doing so, they establish a sense of belonging and become productive members of society, despite not being formally recognized as citizens.
Dr. Mouradian, for his part, converged all the themes of the retreat including language, identity, narratives, storytelling, agency and the importance of amplifying voices of targeted communities. The discussion ended with the importance of building solidarity with other communities who have similar pasts marked by genocide and injustice.
Meeting such bright and talented Armenian youth from across the United States and Canada, hearing their perspectives during our conversations, as well as learning about their academic paths was refreshing. The retreat renewed my sense of hope about the Armenian Diaspora and about Armenia during these turbulent times.
At times, living in diasporic communities can feel suffocating. This retreat felt like coming up for air, re-oxygenating so that we can return home and continue our work in our own communities, Armenian and non-Armenian. How refreshing to engage with a group of like-minded, progressive, brilliant Armenian youth, moving and shaking ideas, status quos, injecting our communities with new vision and direction.
There was something deeply empowering in descendants of genocide survivors coming together, who speak Armenian, who express how the past plays out in the present and how they intend to forge the future.
Our fate as Armenians has been largely based on survival, and this retreat reinforced the notion that through language, storytelling, agency and narrative, as always, we will not only survive, but thrive.