As I watched the steam rise each time we peeked into the pot, I was back home, in the homeland.
Her precious earth still manages to live on the soles of my shoes, and as they traveled along the unpaved road to Ashan, they climbed to the priceless stories that were shared. I was home for the first time in a long time, and an unger had invited my mother and I to dinner in his home. When we arrived, we were greeted with open arms and warm souls. There was no lack of love, affection or passion in that home, and of course, when there is company, there is a feast. Our hosts found us worthy of their finest cutlery and homemade Tuti Oghi. Genats after genats was said, in honor of our land, our struggle, our diaspora and our fallen. However, with every piece of advice given and laughter heard, there was a part of that table that remained constant: the handmade dolma, or litzk. It provided warmth and nourishment, as did the sweet sounds of Artsakh. It fed the room and fueled the fire in our hearts, to live here, remain on our land, and above all, maintain our struggle. We left the dinner with full bellies and enlightened minds, and while the people of Artsakh maintained this struggle, we as diasporans are on every corner of the Earth, doing what we can and what we must. And sometimes, when the day is too short and my mind too overwhelmed, I am back on that table, held by the warm embrace of the stuffed squash and pomegranate juice. And so I thought, “Why don’t I bring Artsakh to me?”
At first, the process seemed particularly daunting. This is the work of well-seasoned grandmothers, nothing a mere mortal such as I can take on. And so, I decided to inquire with the master herself — Etig (Etig is my grandmother, and throughout the journey of reconnecting with the meals of the motherland, her guidance will often be referenced). Although the phone call lasted over an hour, she left me with practically no information to work with. You know, a little of this, a little of that. And so, with the limited knowledge I gathered between gossip sessions, I headed to the grocery store. The whispers about how the deli meat was not sliced thin enough, the old man deciphering which can of nuts he prefers without the assistance of his wife, and the candy wrapped in the metallic, Arabic packaging – I am back in my favorite place, the Armenian market. I gathered my ingredients with subtle panic and urgency. However, I was reassured when the cashier knew exactly what I was up to. Besides, why else would you need calrose rice, zucchini and lemon?
As I started to prepare, Etig arrived, guns blazing (dolma porelik in hand). And so it begins! Dip the end in salt so it is easier to hollow. Dissolve tomato paste in the water for better color. Please stop puncturing holes in the bottom of the vegetables! This meal was not by any means simple, straightforward or low-effort. The squash was not hollow enough. The broth had too much lemon. No matter how many onions I chopped, it was not enough. We slaved for hours, and yet, despite its complexity, there was a looming awareness I could not shake. With every pepper I chopped, I was back in Ashan, singing the hymns of the homeland, convinced the night would never end. With every sprinkling of salt, I heard the echoes of Ghazanchetsots, peering over the cliff where our most dedicated rose and ensured our liberation. There was a bitterness with each bite as I sat at my table in my house, and I was not home. And as a spoonful met the roof of my mouth, I stared at the backs of those who claim to care the most, the same backs the people of Artsakh see every day. Thousands of miles away from each other, we stare at the same backs, with the same empty promises. They shake hands and smile for photo opportunities, and we remain here, battling for each moment on our land and for our existence. And so, as I watched Etig lift the lid of the pot to allow the steam to escape, the aroma that blanketed the kitchen air was the same as it was five years ago, on a piece of land most people cannot even pronounce. We are all interlinked, and I understood at that moment that no matter who tries, whichever powers, foreign or domestic, try to eradicate us and the spirit ablaze in our hearts, we are here, laughing, singing, fighting and making dolma.