Our Old Backyard

By Nora Serghany (Guest Contributor)

Let the night vie and struggle to shadow the land, but the light of truth will always pierce the darkness.

Nora Serghany is a 22-year-old Buffalo native who subsists off coffee fumes and late night studying.  She is currently studying medicine and has a passion for writing, inspired by Russian novelists.  More of her work can be found here.

Melissa Haygan Lake

By Melissa Lake

I wince as my professor calls out the attendance; “HAY GAN” he says, in two sharp, nasally syllables. “Actually, it’s pronounced like Hi-Gone.” He doesn’t correct himself and continues down the list. “Haygan” I say again, interrupting him. “It was my grandmother’s name. Today is the anniversary of our genocide.”

It is strange to think the one thing that we use to label ourselves for our entire lives, our name, is not even something we are free to choose. Our most constant and indelible part of our identity is often chosen before we even take our first gasp of air, gifted to us by people who are virtual strangers.  And yet, somehow, our names come to define us intrinsically. How strange the turbulent mix of fate and destiny and lack of free will melds together in a near perfect form millions of times a day to blindly identify an entire future. And yet, regardless of all this lack of choice, more often than not, that name that was chosen before we were ever given a chance to form our own presence can come to define us more than any other nomenclature we could staple to our persona.

I used to say that the only gift my grandmother ever gave me was my middle name, and while I know now that that statement is inherently false, as my grandmother bestowed countless intangible gifts like courage and strength and history upon me, my grandmother’s christening gift to me is my strongest connection to my heritage.

I used to hate my middle name. How bitter I was, surrounded in a sea of Marie-s and Ann-s, with a name no one could neither pronounce nor spell, a remnant of a people and a culture no one knew about. My cultural identity became reduced to the abbreviation “H.” and was something I neither talked about nor wanted to talk about. I was ignorantly ashamed of a remnant of a history more powerful and awe-inspiring than I could even fathom, and in my shame, I disgraced a culture far more noble than I.

For years I was H. , a one letter symbol of my cultural denial. I reveled in my ease at being able to conform; a white girl with a white name. But blind conformity is boring and bland. My whiteness was not nearly as fun or entertaining or interesting as my true ethnic heritage. Being Armenian actually was a lot cooler than being like everyone else, it turned out. So when I learned to embrace my ancestry, when I learned to love being Armenian more than I loved fitting in, I became Haygan again.

But Haygan came at a price, it came with a burden of history and memory and sadness. Haygan came with a sense of duty, because remembering is a holy, sacred thing, and it is a calling all Armenians share. Being born Armenian, being gifted with the name of Haygan, instilled in me an obligation to do what the world could not, bring justice to the generations of people whose future was never formed because of one of the greatest crimes against humanity to ever occur.

But there was a sense of beauty in being born Armenian as well, for we are a rich culture not defined solely by our tragic past. For a people who have suffered so much and who have experienced no closure, we are lively and welcoming and jovial. Our tiny country and its hundreds of diasporas has a voice louder than that of nations 100 times its size. We are powerful and determined and tenacious. Now, more than ever, the world is hearing what we have to say, and they are acting with us.

My grandmother is the strongest woman I have never met, gone before I had the chance to form in my mother’s womb. A woman born in the middle of a period of unspeakable blight, may the privilege and opportunity I was conversely born into paint me as the phoenix rising from her ashes, from the ashes of her past and her culture’s history, and may I bring her honor by carrying her name with the same cloak of fierce pride and strength that she shrouded herself in.

So today, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I am not Melissa Lake. On a day that reminds us of the egregious cost that comes from forgetting, I am the name that lies hidden, sandwiched between a chorus of cultural assimilation. Today, and all days, I am Haygan.

Kochari

By Natalie Kamajian (Guest Contributor)

my generation

stands on the shoulders of our parents
on the bent backs of our grandparents
on the snapped necks of our ancestors

listen not, to what you think your people need
we know nothing without ancestors…ancient sisters
//my first sisters//

they have bled, knelt, marched, killed, hurt
loved, wrote, built and buried
so that I can breathe “hye”

strong women
&                                             ignite fires within my spirit
selfless men

when I dance Քոչարի…

IMG_3734

Natalie Kamajian works at a community and economic development organization designing innovative solutions to responsibly revitalize low-income, urban areas around Los Angeles. After living in Հայաստան for a year she unearthed, as Charlemagne once put it, “her second soul.” She is an inbetweener: never here nor there, never making sense and never wanting to and liking it that way. Natalie loves to write but she feels life moves too fast, its moments too precious sometimes to do anything other than live it. Lover of lavender ice cream, homemade halva and handmade soaps; Gardening’s worst gardener and biggest fan; and best friend to both the young & elderly but not really the folks in between causing all the trouble. She practices traditional Armenian ethnographic folk dancing and will revel at any chance to do a mean Մշո Խըռ to some live dhol and zurna. She will gladly bring out her inner թագուհի when necessary and believes that only when she contradicts herself, is she able to seek truth. More of her poetry can be found here.

The Weight Of Watchful Eyes

By Mher Apo Boghigian (Guest Contributor)

To Armenians, the month of April is a unique frame of time. At the core of its sentimental significance is a sense of history, remembrance, activism, and grief. On a less personal level, it represents a time when Armenians work to make themselves more vocal to those who are not Armenian. Public protests, exhibits, vigils, and educationals fill the calendar. Turnouts are analyzed. Absences are accounted for.

April’s enterprise repeats every year with more or less the same results: local papers include a piece on an event, bits of controversy are stirred, and those who spent the previous months preparing for the activism struggle to reap the fruit of their labor in terms of publicity. Perhaps there are a few exceptions, but this is more or less an honest evaluation. On a more positive note, it speaks to the passion of our people that these struggles have never resulted in relenting. A century passes and the children of children of leaders and parents who organized pioneering protests on all corners of the world now hold the responsibility of carrying our ever-important tradition of demonstration.

But what are the limits of passion? Or, more aptly posed, how long can this passion last? This is an admittedly frightening question I often ask myself.

To say that the burden of seeking publicity does not feel taxing at times would be an outright lie. For decades, those who cared to share in the public outcry are met with few compassionate ears and even fewer eyes. At times, it begins to feel as if we are doing it for ourselves rather than others. Falling under this impression is not hard.

But then, suddenly, a bit of  substantiation.

Following an abrupt and frankly unprecedented period of publicity, those that may have been previously regarded as unreachable have temporarily been unlocked. Publications that have millions upon millions of viewers are now glancing at headlines pertaining to the Armenian Genocide. We have—if only for a period of time—been heard.

Make no mistake, the degree to which the media is now covering the centennial is absolutely staggering. From The New York Times, to The Guardian, BBC, The Wall Street Journal, and even platforms of native advertising such as Buzzfeed, the knowledge of our collective history is at this time reaching ears that were previously light-years away. The unreachable has been accessed.

What has caused this surge?

Pope Francis has bluntly spoken to the world about the realities of the genocide—an incredible revelation.

The storm of media, regardless of what their motivations might be, follow a mega-star and his reality-TV wife to Armenia to capture their each and every movement. In the background of their makeup and flamboyant clothing, an entire country is made visible to those who might not have known that a country named Armenia has existed.

So, what has really changed?

Nothing has changed.

Apart from our growing access to education and evolving methods of activism that very well may have contributed to this frenzy, we have been endowed with a beautiful stroke of luck.

This is not a disheartening notion, though. Fortune always plays a part, and heaven knows that as a nation we are not too familiar with it. It’s vindication. Though those who have dedicated a greater deal of time in their lives to the remembrance of genocide can claim that their fire has never wavered, it would be naïve to think that the same applies to the majority of Armenians. Like it or not, it is often the case that people have a need to experience a return in exchange for hard work in order to maintain a level of performance. This is no different.

Thus, herein lies a personal confession of mine: I have personally suffered from this mentality.

But instead of continuing my tradition of self-deprecation, I told myself to look back on the body of work my peers and community have amassed. Let me tell those who don’t already know, what I found is nothing short of remarkable. When people who are Armenians say that the genocide has become a part of our identity, they are not wrong. In the past century, the ripples of the atrocity have engrained themselves into our cultural DNA. Our stubbornness in maintaining Armenian music and dance, our language and alphabet, the fact that I am a second-generation Armenian-American (my mother grew up in the City of Angels) and can read and write my language–these are all things I’ve personally taken for granted, or perhaps just overlooked. But this realization only strengthens my convictions about the potential of Armenia and the degree to which we can culturally prosper.

So, with the world’s eyes now somewhat fixed upon our country and what we’ve been vocally fighting for the last hundred years, what do we do?

I suggest that we do what we’ve done to get us here in the first place. We speak Armenian to one another as often as possible and help teach it to those who are willing to learn. We sing and dance and continue participating in terrific events such as Innovate Armenia at the University of Southern California. We continue to be ready for the challenges of publicity. If the diaspora kept a physical portfolio that represents everything we’ve done to battle the ignorance and perpetuation of denial, we would swimmingly ace the equivalent of a Harvard interview with its credentials.

Now, a final frightening question: After this year passes and we are faced with the not-so-sexy number of 101, will the interest that has grown in regard to our people falter, or slow down?

I don’t know the answer to this question. I do know, however, that in 2016, regardless of it being a marketable number or occasion, there will still be a very great number of people worldwide who have just heard of us, and more who still will. We are refreshed. Our country is still in its mid-twenties. We have soccer players playing for the biggest squads in the world (I’m looking at you Henrikh), artists and engineers sprouting from cracks in the concrete, and an ever-improving sense of our place and potential in the world. Despite there still being some very real and worrisome issues in the country, there will always be those who work to address it.

With the stage becoming larger and larger, I wholeheartedly believe that our actors will grow with it. Our decades-long training in perseverance and dealing with injustice will continue to yield habits of self-improvement. The weight of attention we have been looking for will not make us sink, but help us grow more able and resolute. Ultimately, it is because of our track record, our effort-filled past rather than our bright future, that I cannot help but feel astonishingly optimistic about the prospects of Armenia.

_

Mher is a 21-year-old Los Angeles native currently studying English Literature at UC Berkeley, and is eager to pursue Journalism after graduation. He is a huge fan of football (soccer) and harbors a secret passion for acting.

This Thing Called Hate

By Patrick Davarhanian (Guest Contributor)

It is a word whose premise I fear,
Because I know all too well the evil it holds dear.
It is a word whose very etymology is written in cold blood.
History has proven that this word is one that makes hearts thud.

It was this word’s ancestors who butchered an entire race,
Their conscience filled only by emptiness and blank space.
It was this word’s legacy that filled our collective books of history,
With countless tales of sadness, woe, and misery.

It is this word that you can point to and blame,
For every kind of maleficence humankind has laid claim.
But this word does not start with tanks or bombs or even fights,
It starts with teases, whispers, and mean staring sights.

It starts with people who look at others and sneer,
People who cause others to shed a tear,
People who live their whole lives in fear.

It starts with boys and girls who live near and far,
It starts with men and women who inflict scars.

And yes, it even starts with you and me,
Especially when we fail to see,
That when we do not stand up to HATE,
The world around us will seal its fate.

Say something.
Do something.
For it is only when you stand with someone,
You shall see just how easily HATE can be undone.

Patrick Davarhanian was born and raised in Glendale, California.  He studied Education at the California State University, Northridge and he currently teaches in the Glendale area.  

Turkish Delights and Armenian Plights

By Avo John Kambourian (Guest Contributor)

Throughout my childhood I knew, quite extensively, about my Armenian heritage. My understanding of culture came from observing my family members. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were like the lens of a camera through which I saw and experienced the world.

My parents met in Los Angeles after fleeing during the civil war in Beirut. Similarly, their grandparents had no choice but to flee from their homes in historic Armenia; places like Ourfa and Marash in present day Eastern Turkey. Whether it was enduring the horrific days of the genocide, struggling in the Middle East, or immigrating to the United States, each generation faced its own unique set of challenges but never failed to preserve our ancient culture. Knowing about these struggles made me cherish this rich culture that had been passed down from generation to generation.

But there were moments in my childhood that left me confused. Occasionally, I would hear my parents play Turkish songs or notice my grandparents transfixed by the compelling drama of a Turkish soap opera. This was a stark contrast to what I had been taught growing up: to consciously refrain myself from enjoying anything Turkish (because of Turkey’s lack of acknowledgment that there was a genocide), with the exception of Turkish delights, because no one with taste buds can avoid enjoying these. This duality struck me in an odd way.

In 2009, during my second year of college, I watched a concert film called Dave Chappelles Block Party, directed by Michel Gondry. This was a film about a block party in Brooklyn, NYC, hosted by world famous comedian Dave Chappelle.

Chappelle had musical guests on his sketch comedy show, which helped spread the word about artists like Kanye West, Mos Def, The Roots, Common, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu, pretty early on in their careers.

So when I watched the film, two things happened. First, I became transfixed by the way live music was being shown in the film. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I got very much into photographing shows and concerts solely because of it. Second, I started listening to some of the artists, primarily Brooklyn based artist Mos Def because I felt so aligned with his words about life, humanity, and injustice.

Saying that Most Def’s album The Ecstatic blew me away is an understatement. That album helped define a lot of my core political beliefs. What drew me to that album was Def’s interesting mix of diverse beats and sounds paired with his dark poetic lyrics.

Here’s his single off that album, called Supermagic, with a short intro by Malcolm X.

The song was somewhat of a revelation for me. It sounded so familiar, yet was like nothing I had ever heard before. After a quick search online I found out that Mos Def had actually sampled a Turkish song.

Why would he open his album with THIS song? Why? I was appalled, but I was also curious. When I looked up the translation for the lyrics I remember being very skeptical about what they might be. I was thinking it was probably about something I couldn’t relate to, but boy was I wrong.

I found out that the original song, Ince Ince, which means flaked in Turkish, is a song from the Turkish psychedelic folk artist Selda Bagcan. She is widely regarded in Turkey as a prominent left-wing folk singer.

To me she’s like a fusion of Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And I was amazed to read about such a prominent leftist figure in Turkey. I couldn’t stop listening to her music, and I couldn’t help but feel like a kid with a box of Turkish Delights.

The song, as it turns out, is about the mistreated minorities of Turkey, the people that were flaked by their government. In the second verse, Bagcan even calls out her government by saying:

Why isn’t Ourfa like your Istanbul?*
Poor Marash, dry Ourfa, what about Diyarbakır?
We’re doomed, we’re dead, a drop of water
Come now sir, please

It was like the song was calling out to me since the beginning. The mentioning of Marash and Ourfa, my ancestral villages, really struck a chord with me. Suddenly it all made sense, I understood why Mos Def had chosen to use this song to open his album and why Selda’s music resonated with me, even before I knew what the lyrics meant.

Here is Ince Ince in its entirety:

To me this song is about a region of the world still affected by its past, an oppressive government that continues to marginalize a vast majority of its population.

When we talk about Turkey, it’s important for us to remember that we’re talking about a country built on the spilt blood of our ancestors. But we shouldn’t forget about the many other minorities who are still being oppressed in that country today.

What I realized is that we, Armenians and Turks, aren’t all that different. I believe it’s vital for us to find a commonality between ourselves and our so-called enemies, not in acts of forgiveness, but in order to seek a common understanding. Although cultural identity may be established during the first few years of one’s life, I think any good work of art has the power to open eyes and connect people of all backgrounds; whether it be music, writing, or film, as long as it’s done with respect for telling a common story, something we can all relate to.

Avo John Kambourian is a filmmaker from Sherman Oaks, California. He holds a degree in Communication from UC San Diego, and claims to be really good behind the grill. His favorite films are Back to the Future, Godfather II, and Boogie Nights. Hes currently working on a documentary series called Echoes of Survival, which follows a diverse group of Armenian artists in the United States, whose works are directly influenced by their Armenian identity.

The Armenian Who Thought She Was a Turk

By Melissa Lake

An important part of stating Armenian culture has never died is to focus on its evolution. In biology we determine the fitness of a species by its ability to adapt to and cope with its environment, and just like animals will experience the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” law of nature, cultures throughout society have come and gone, waxed and waned, morphing and changing with time, some continuing on while others are left to die. As a scientist, I’m inclined to draw parallels to the laws of nature, so Armenian culture was no different to me. I see our common ancestor, a rich but concentrated culture exclusive to almost one singular area of the world, and I see its descendants, its gradual evolution and growth, its continued adaptations needed to survive in new environments. I see the branching from the original, the creation of different sub-families within a greater species. And like species in nature, while we all share a similar common ancestor, while our basic foundations are from the same source, all different Armenian cultures had to individually adapt to survive to their unique environments.

For my personal cultural experience, I was raised believing I was Turkish while still knowing I was Armenian. Whether it be to spare a child from tales of horrific violence, the inability to speak of a wound still raw and painful, or the fact that the reason my family is here today is thanks to the kindness of Turkish strangers, my mother never really spoke to me of the genocide when I was young. So my youth was a mix of two conflicting cultures: I ate breakfast in a kitchen adorned with Armenian flags but then talked about Turkey when people asked what ethnicity my mother was. My mother never renounced her nationality but also never abandoned her heritage. She was Turkish-Armenian just as American diaspora-born Armenians are Armenian-American. But I think this cultural fusion speaks more for Armenian perseverance than it does of forced Turkish cultural assimilation. My mother and her family spent years hiding their true ethnicity, adopting a culture that had seen to the decimation of their own. And yet their root culture was not lost, it had simply changed, evolving in its latency.

I’m here now, an adult raised a part of two enemy cultures, proud to say I am both, but also acutely aware that I am an Armenian by blood and birthright, and a Turk by genocide. And thus, I don’t think it would be too bold to say that Armenian genetics are a dominant trait. Somewhere on one of our 46 chromosomes sits an allele unique to Armenians and even through generational dilution it still permeates as strong as ever.

Even I stand up here today, half Turkish diasporan Armenian and half generationally American, raised in a town where I was the only Armenian, incapable of speaking the language of my ancestors, more than aware that I am Armenian before I am anything else. And whether it be through generations of ethnic mixing or from sheer distance from an elusive homeland, this genomic marker still remains permanent and impervious to the effects of time and other evasive cultural interference.

We are a culture of a people marred by tragedy and driven by strength. We are a culture of people who refuse to be forgotten, a people who refuse to be ignored and driven into obscurity. We are a culture that has survived through insurmountable strife and impossible odds. We are a culture that has come back from the systematic annihilation of our people stronger than we were before. You can drag us from our homes, you can burn us and rape us and reduce us to nothing, you can forcefully and coercively take the people out of Armenia, but you cannot, through any form of abuse or injustice or forced assimilation, take Armenia out of the people.

Fathers, Love Your Daughters

By Taleen Mardirossian

In 7th grade, Jason Miller asked me to be his girlfriend. The bell rang during our game of two on two so we returned the basketball to Coach N and started walking to 5th period when he grabbed my hand and completely blindsided me, “Wanna be my girlfriend?”

At the age of twelve, I didn’t know that having a significant other was even a thing. Sure, Jason and I had a lot in common; we both loved skateboarding, were fans of Sugar Ray, and reveled at Jason Kapono but that’s why we were friends. In all honesty, I was more prepared for a 9.6 magnitude earthquake than Jason Miller’s suave proposal. At least then I would know to drop, cover, and hold but no one had given me a step-by-step guide on how to reject a prospective suitor. To be fair though, my mom had kind of, sort of, not really warned me that this would happen.

“Boys are going to like you,” she would tell me, “but no matter what they say or ask, you always answer no.”

“Even if I like them?”

“Especially if you like them.”

“Mom, that makes no sense.”

“You want to know a secret?”

Of course I wanted to know a secret. Asking a girl if she wants to know a secret is like asking a sweet tooth if it wants sugar.

“Here’s how you pick the right boy.” Now she had my attention. “If you tell him no and he moves on to another girl, he doesn’t deserve you. But if he fights for you, then that means he loves you and only you.”

I must say mom was on point, but this didn’t become my dating mantra until years after that day in 7th grade. Had I listened to my mom when Jason Miller asked me out, I would have simply said no and walked away. But what I did in that moment had nothing to do with my mom and everything to do with my dad.

My dad and I never had a conversation about boys. He was your traditional Armenian dad; protective to a fault and untrusting of every human being I ever came in contact with. However, he was more modern in his thinking then he’ll ever realize.

During that year that Jason Miller asked me out, I had an almost unhealthy obsession with the show ER. I’d be up before the sun watching back-to-back episodes while my dad drank his coffee and read Asbarez. One morning, as I watched George Clooney charmingly hand out miracles to his patients, I confessed my change of heart.

“Dad, I think I’d rather be a surgeon than a lawyer.”

“Who said we can’t be both?”

In our conversations, my dad always used (and still uses) the word we; never you or I, but always we. We would figure things out, we would go to law school, we would become president one day, if that’s what I wanted, and although I was aware that these were all things I would have to do on my own, I always knew that we were in it together. And if I was going to have anyone on my team, I was glad it was my dad.

He’s the charismatic type, the what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong kind of guy who speaks his mind even if he knows he’s going to offend the person sitting right next to him. I admired him and was always in awe of his strong character, never phased by anything or anyone.

Despite his intimidatingly perfect mustache and resilient nature, this hardy man would smother me with kisses, whisper I love you in my ear when I pretended to be asleep, and spend hours at a time just talking to me. According to him, I was the best at everything I ever did. He oohed and aahed at my every move and if I knew anything growing up, it was that I was the smartest, most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He taught me my worth and made me believe that I was invincible, capable of anything and deserving of everything.

And heaven forbid, if anyone were to ever lay a finger on me, or make me feel uncomfortable, my father encouraged me to recollect my savored scenes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and similarly, strike at the antihero.

And so when Jason Miller made me feel uncomfortable that one day in 7th grade, I instinctively slapped him. In hindsight, Jason was hardly an aggressor, nor a villain, but my twelve-year-old self was naïve and unnerved nonetheless. His blue eyes froze, as did the gel-soaked spikes in his hair. With my luck, the principal happened to be standing only a few feet away, bearing witness to my “socially unacceptable behavior” and immediately demanded an apology.

“I didn’t do anything wrong so I’m not going to say I’m sorry,” I shot back, my voice trembling with fear.

This was another lesson I had learned from my dad, never apologize for the sake of apologizing. And so I stood there with my arms crossed, hearing the gasps and whispers of the girls huddled around us. She doesn’t want to be Jason’s girlfriend?

As Jason disappeared into the crowd of students, I took my first walk of shame to the principal’s office. My heart was beating out of my chest as I felt my cheeks turning red. Good students weren’t supposed to be in the principal’s office and I couldn’t help but feel like this was the end of my life.

“You shouldn’t have slapped Jason,” he stated assertively.

“And he shouldn’t have grabbed my hand and asked me to be his girlfriend,” said my timid but attitude-filled voice.

“You should be flattered that a boy likes you.”

At this point, I felt like I was under attack. I had been taught to be ladylike and I was pretty sure slapping someone was far from it. And Armenians are all about respecting their elders and I was also smart enough to know that answering back wasn’t a form of respect. So I was beginning to question whether I was the one at fault.

“Listen, you’re either going to walk into class and apologize to Jason or I’m going to call your parents.”

Looking back now, my principal must have thought that this choice would be a no brainer and it was. After all, isn’t that the ultimate threat? What kid wants the principal calling their parent? But my immediate response caught him off guard.

“542-7321.”

I may have been on the verge of hyperventilating but there was no way in hell I was giving a public apology for something I wasn’t sorry for. After all, if I was in trouble, we were in trouble.

He walked me out and told me to take a seat in the secretary’s office while he made the call to my dad. I never found out what was said during this conversation but he came out minutes later and told me I was free to go back to class.  Just like that.  And I remember grinning from ear to ear because this meant that all those times my dad had said we, he had meant it.

For me, that day was less about Jason Miller and more about my relationship with my dad. It was my dad’s influence that kicked in when I panicked and it was my dad’s love and support that gave me the courage to do what I thought was right.   Where other parents may have scolded or punished their child for not obeying an authoritative figure, my dad carried me on his shoulders and paraded me around the house as though I had just won an Olympic gold medal. That day marked the beginning of a series of life decisions that were made solely on what I felt and believed was right, never taking into account what others might think or say.

I have since realized that without a doubt, it was my mom who built the foundation of my very being but it was my dad who built me up from there. Where I could have easily become lost in the loud voices of the bold, patriarchal men of my family, simply fading into background noise, my dad raised me to become a woman whose voice was just as loud, if not louder, than his.