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Reflections On Armenian Culture, More Than A Century After Genocide

‘We always hear the voices from this place.’

By Harriet Paintin & Hannah Kirmes-Daly

“My parents came from western Armenia (modern-day Turkey). They lived there but they had to flee and come here. It’s our territory but the genocide happened and we were thrown out of our land. 1.5 million Armenians were killed, just because we are Christians. That’s why they wanted to destroy us.”

April 24 marks the anniversary of what is known by many, and denied by some, as the “first modern Holocaust.” Between 1915 and 1917, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were summarily executed by factions of the failing Ottoman Empire. Today, the diaspora is spread across the world, and lives, identities, and communities have been constructed in the aftermath of the genocide. Only a handful of survivors remain who can tell their stories of surviving the massacres and death marches, but the memories resonate in the minds of the Armenian population; songs, stories, and a strong sense of injustice have been fiercely preserved through the generations, maintaining culture and remembering grief.

In order to understand how the echoes of this tragedy linger on, we travelled to Armenia, hitchhiking from village to village seeking out spontaneous encounters with everyday people. We were particularly drawn to meeting musicians, to hear how these stories and memories are transmitted, from one generation to the next, through song.

April 24 marks the anniversary of what is known by many, and denied by some, as the ‘first modern Holocaust.’

After hitchhiking across the border with an off-duty border guard, we were immediately confronted with the lived reality of the effects of this tragedy. Observing snow-covered peaks in the distance and a plateau of wintery grass, sprinkled with the beginning of spring flowers, we exclaimed, “What a beautiful country.” But the border guard contained our enthusiastic praise; he told us that this mountainous region only came to be inhabited at the time of the genocide, when people fled from the plains in fear. “We are not mountain people. We came to this place 100 years ago — our culture is not in the mountains.”

At a gas station in a small village with an audience of old men in dark coats and hats, we took out our musical instruments and sketch books to catalyze curiosity and interactions. When we were met with enthusiasm and interest, we asked if anybody knew of any musicians in the village. One man replied excitedly, surprised and proud that outsiders had shown such an interest in his culture.

“Yes, yes I know one musician! He plays traditional music, but also modern music. Do you want to meet him?”

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Anatolia and his family greeted us warmly, albeit slightly bemusedly when we turned up on their doorstep, and ushered us into the house. As he set up his old Yahama keyboard in the corner of the bedroom, his wife and daughter carried in a table and laid out a spread of raspberry juice, coffee, and sweets. He began his performance, looping drumbeats and orchestration as the accompaniment for the melody, the volume set slightly higher than comfortable for the small room, his voice strong and full of emotion. Afterwards he explained proudly:

“These songs are about our heroes, for all the heroes of this region who were fighting against Turkey. After the genocide there was a war; they still wanted to come to Armenia. These heroes saved what was left of Armenia after the genocide, 100 years ago. They are old, traditional songs, but I play them in a modern way. It’s important to keep singing these songs; I don’t want these things to be forgotten. It’s a way to keep these songs alive for younger generations.”

Back at the gas station, we put out our thumbs for the next ride and within a minute we were picked up by Arman and Dimitri. As soon as we showed an interest in learning about their history and culture, they took us to the center of the village, to a war memorial with the names of soldiers from the village etched into stone. They earnestly pointed out the names of their family members among the list of those who had fallen. It was a small village, beaten by the years, but the monument next to the new church under construction seemed to be a source of pride, and a gentle reminder that this life did not come easily.

A bottle of vodka for the men and a bottle of Armenian wine for the ladies later, and off we went into the mountains. We talked under a clear blue sky, with thick snow on the ground and a fourth-century church in the distance. Eventually, they brought up the subject of the genocide.

“People in your country . . . What perceptions do they have about the Armenian genocide?”

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I replied carefully, explaining that at the time, people who knew about the atrocities were very concerned, but that today the events had all but slipped from the general consciousness. I told them that this was one of our reasons for coming to Armenia, to find out about what happened and ask what lessons could be learned from history. More and more, we’d come to understand the importance of memory, and to never forget, but also that history repeats itself, time and time again.

Dimitri looked down at the floor and said quietly, in a strained voice, “We should just move forward and forget about it. In my family, there were 25 people and only one of them survived.” The pain was still clearly etched on his face.

To distill the heavy, morose atmosphere that had fallen upon us, we toasted to new friends, long life, and world peace.

Holding up his shot glass, Dimitri said, “I’m very happy that we met each other. This glass may be small but my heart is big.”

The mood had lifted, and the two men broke out into song, their strong voices rising from their throats to the cloudless sky, their eyes full of intense emotion and passion.

“It’s about our homeland, from the time when we were still in Turkey, in western Armenia. We always hear the voices from this place. Our grandfathers are buried in the cemeteries there, and we can hear them calling us.”

Later that evening we gathered with friends, relatives, and neighbors around a table piled high with fresh, home-cooked food. After more toasts and vodka, the men broke out into song, a drum and an accordion appeared, and the evening passed in music, dance, and warmth.

For Armenians, the genocide signifies not only the loss of Armenian lives, but also the loss of a huge part of their land. A few days later, two women took us up a hill near the Turkish border, where we could see the vast arid landscape of Eastern Turkey spread out before us. Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark is said to have rested during the biblical floods, rose in the distance — a symbol of all that used to be Armenian.

Anna, gesturing to the view before us, said, “You see that river there? That’s the Turkish border. Before the genocide, all of this used to be Armenia, and Mount Ararat was ours. This land is ours, we feel it in our blood. My 7-year-old brother was asking questions about places in Turkey that used to be Armenia, even before we explained anything about it to him — how do you explain genocide to a small child?’

Armenian women and Mt Ararat

Maria squinted in the sunlight as she looked at us. “I don’t have a problem with Turkish people, in fact many Turkish people helped Armenians to escape during the genocide.” She sighed. “The problem is governments, it’s the same story everywhere. A government did these terrible things to our people, and took our land.”

Billboards line the roads of Yerevan, serving as a reminder of the tragedies of a century ago, while proclaiming the dangers of denying such events. While calling for international recognition of the tragedy faced by their population, the Armenian state reinforces a national identity built on foundations of loss and collective grief. Our journey through rural Armenia showed us just how much this is also maintained at the personal level; through songs and stories, the memories of the past linger throughout the generations, and the genocide of over 100 years ago is carried into the memories and the identity of young Armenians today.