My Family’s Past is Fact, Not a Controversy

By Adroushan Mardirossian (Guest Contributor)

Germany, after over 100 years, has at last stopped dancing on the political stage and is now chanting the truth to the world. This influential nation has just passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide as what it was, genocide. Although this is undoubtedly a victory in the pursuit of justice, Germany’s acceptance of the genocide does not validate the facts of 1915. Neither Germany, the US, nor any other nation may tell me what did and did not occur to my ancestors over 100 years ago.

Obama can refrain from using the “G” word and Erdogan can continue to claim that the slaughtering of 1.5 million Armenians is a mere lie. That the Armenian Genocide never occurred. That my ancestors were not killed by Turks. That they did not struggle.  That they did not watch Turkish soldiers painfully kill each and every one of their family members.  That they were not marched to their own deaths, not physically abused, and not deprived of their rights.  But here’s the thing, my family’s past is not up for debate.

Every Armenian family has inherited a painful story.  These are stories that are hard to tell, and even harder to imagine. Stories of being robbed, raped, and killed. Stories that were never meant to be told and were supposed to end with the banishment of Armenians.  And although each story is different and unique, they all begin and end with the fact that we survived.   

If the leaders of the world’s nations fail to acknowledge these stories as the truth, then so be it. These political stances will not change what my ancestors endured.  They will not change their struggles, their strength, nor their courage.  They will not change what we have lost at the hands of the Turks.  And they will not change the facts.  

The fact is that we struggled, lost so much, but yet persevered. The genocide left our Armenian community in ruins, and present-day Armenia is only a fraction of its original size before the country was subjugated under Ottoman rule.  The most influential and educated Armenians in the region were taken on April 24, 1915 and later killed because they posed a threat to the Ottoman Empire. Despite losing our lands and intelligentsia, Armenians have remained strong and have overcome the obstacles they’ve faced despite losing nearly an entire generation of Armenians.

It is now up to us, the descendants of Armenian survivors. We exist and what matters is what we do with the stories we have inherited and the rich culture we are a part of.  101 years later, I will strive to be a part of the new Armenian intelligentsia.  I will strive to be a part of the modern threat to Turkey.  I will strive to take the place of those individuals persecuted on April 24, 1915. I will strive to make my ancestors proud of what has resulted from their strength and courage. And I will strive to make Armenia strong yet again.  

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Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, 15 year old Adroushan Mardirossian is a 10th grade high school student who spends his spare time playing ice hockey, reading, and writing. Adroushan also enjoys traveling and exploring in nature. 

Finding Mayram

Story by Mayram Tikoyan Artinian
Translation by Emma Artinian Soghomonian
Edited by Missak Artinian
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Of the eight children my parents had during their marriage, I was the first born, named Mayram in memory of my father’s mother, who he lost contact with at eight years old during the Armenian Genocide.  All eight of us kids were born in Aleppo, Syria in a community full of Armenians who were mostly survivors. My father, Setrak Tikoyan, was one of them. He once told me his story of survival. This is what he said, as I remember it:

“My daughter, I was only eight years old when the genocide was perpetrated on our people. I remember my extended family all lived in the Palu region of Western Armenia. When we sat down for dinner, there were 40 spoons scooping up food at our table. There were four brothers, their wives and children and grandchildren.

When the genocide began, we were driven out of our homes. My brother and I started walking with our mom to an unknown destination. I can hardly remember how long we walked when I realized I was separated from my mother. 

I managed to sneak away from the masses by walking through an alley and into a small village. At one point, I met a man who proceeded to take me to his home. He gave me bread and said I could stay with them and work as a shepherd to herd his sheep. I stayed there as long as I could manage. But I was determined to leave.

One day, I took some bread and escaped to another village. It certainly is a long story how I travelled from village to village, begging for bread or food.  I guess I had life in me strong enough to survive. It pains me to remember or talk about that period in my life. I just can’t bear reminiscing about those tragic times.

After several years I ended up in an orphanage. After some time, the orphanage was visited by American missionaries who gathered the orphans and transported them to Aleppo, Syria.  I was part of the group of orphans who travelled with them.  When I was there, I searched for my mother and younger brother, Marsoub, who was in my mother’s arms when we separated.  But regrettably I had no luck.”

Tears streamed down his face as he told this story, as painful memories flooded back into his consciousness. After wiping his tears, he took me into his arms, and said, “You’re just like my mother.” He spoke of her often, sharing memories he had of her from his childhood. “I remember one day, my father was building a house for us in Palu, and she worked right alongside him and the construction workers. Then through some freak accident, one of the walls that was built collapsed on top of her, but she came out of the rubble unscathed. From that day on, I knew my mother was invincible.”

“I will find her,” he once told me. “My heart tells me I will find her. She appears in my dreams so often. I don’t know where she is, or whether she is alive. But I will never give up.”

One summer in Aleppo, Syria, my father and I were sitting on our porch when our neighbor Lusig Nene was returning home from church.

“God bless you, Setrak,” she greeted my father.  “Today at church we were surprised by a visit of an elderly lady who was dressed in Kurdish attire. I asked her what she was doing at our church, and to our surprise, she started speaking Armenian. So I asked her where she came from. And you’ll never believe it. She said she was married in Palu and moved to Kharpert with her husband, who was the son of a priest.”

“Did she say her name?” My father asked.

“Yes. Her name is Anna.”

My father was stunned for a moment. He realized the description fit his long lost cousin from his father’s side. Excitedly, my parents got dressed. Lusig Nene said Anna was staying with a local family called Haroutioun.  A few hours passed, and my parents returned with an elderly woman accompanying them.

My father called all of us kids and introduced us one by one to the visitor. “This is my eldest daughter, Mayram, named after my mother. This is my eldest son, Thomas, named after my father.”

We each took turns greeting the elderly lady and kissing her hand in a welcoming gesture and called her grandmother, but my father corrected us by saying, “No, children, she is not your grandmother. You can call her aunt.”

After the introductions and initial discussions, my Aunt Anna, as we started calling her, delivered stunning news to my father. She said, “Setrak, your mother is alive! I saw her about a year ago in a village called Aslan Dashi.”  My father was beside himself with joy. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  He asked her for any details she could remember.

The very next morning, when I woke up, my father was gone. He had gone off in the early hours of dawn to track down his mother. Probably a week’s time passed as we were waiting for his return, when we saw a taxi pull up in front of our residence. We ran out to see our father helping an elderly woman out of the car.

I noticed that she was wearing a white head scarf and was dressed in Kurdish attire. My mother tried helping the lady, but my father informed her that her legs were broken and that she could not walk. Then my father picked her up gently from the car and brought her into our home where he sat her down.

For the following weeks, I remember our home became a revolving door of visitors wanting to see her and extol in the union of a mother and her son after 32 years. Friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances alike filled our home. The visitors had many questions for my father.

“How did you find your mother? How did you know for sure she was truly your mother after 32 years?”

My father would recount the events as they had transpired:

“When I got on the road that morning, I rented a car and drove straight down to Arab Punar, a small Kurdish village around 35 kilometers east of the Euphrates where I had some relatives. Before I continued on my journey I wanted to have security in case of any trouble. I asked around to find out who the village magistrate was. My relatives took me to the magistrate. I asked him if he would accompany me on my trip to Aslan Dashi to help me find my mother. He agreed.

Together we set off for Aslan Dashi via boat.  On the way there, I told him my story: ’When I survived the genocide, I was eight years old and was separated from my mother during the deportation. All these years I have searched for her to no avail. But recently I was tipped off that my mother may be residing in Aslan Dashi so I am going there to find her. My full name is Setrak Tikoyan, my father’s name is Thomas and I have a younger brother who my mom was carrying in her arms during the deportation. He was two years old, and named Marsoub. We are from the village of Palu. And my mother’s name is Mayram.’

The magistrate listened to me closely, and he said, ‘When we reach the village and find the woman named Mayram, I advise that you not enter her home. I will go in and ask her questions to determine if she is your mother. That way if she is not your mother, you are not involved.’

We arrived in Aslan Dashi and went around town asking the names of any elderly lady we came across. We asked if they knew anyone by the name of Mayram. For days we asked, but no luck. One day, the magistrate came across an elderly woman named Mayram. He brought her to me and asked if she was my mother. I took one look and immediately knew she wasn’t the one. I started feeling very depressed and disillusioned.  But nevertheless we proceeded with our search, asking passersby if there was a Mayram in town.

Finally, one villager we came across said she knew a woman by the name of Mayram who lives in a tent not far from where we were. We followed his directions and came upon the tent. The magistrate advised me to stay outside the tent. He went in and I heard him greeting a woman and asking her name. She answered, ‘Mayram.’ The magistrate then asked her where she was from. ‘I’m a Kurd’, she answered. He asked for her original ethnicity. She said sadly, ‘What does it matter?’

After persisting with more questions, finally she gave in. ‘I’m Armenian. A long time ago I had a husband from Palu. His name was Thomas.’

‘Did you have any children?’ the magistrate asked her.

‘Yes, I had two children. The oldest was Setrak. The youngest was named Marsoub. I lost my Setrak during the genocide. I was never able to find him. My youngest grew ill and died when he was a teenager here with me. I am now married to a Kurd. I can no longer walk anymore because four years ago I heard from a villager that there was a man named Setrak in a nearby village. I hurriedly got on a horse and raced to that village to find him. But in that town the horse got spooked when we came across cars and started jumping violently. I was thrown off the horse, fell and broke my legs. I was brought back home but nobody helped me. I remain in this tent because I cannot take care of myself or leave. This Kurd husband gives me a piece of bread every day to survive.’

‘If you were to see your son Setrak, would you recognize him?’ the magistrate asked her.

‘Yes.’

‘How?’

‘He has a mark on his wrist from an accident when he hurt his arm as a child.’

The magistrate finally called me into the tent. I was expecting to see my young mother as I remembered her 32 years ago, maybe somewhat aged. But I was shocked and heartbroken to see her handicapped and in such a dire situation. I went over to her, held her hand, and looked into her eyes.

She didn’t have to look at my wrist to recognize me. I kneeled down and scooped her into my arms, both of us weeping together, overjoyed at this unexpected and long-awaited reunion.

The magistrate finally interjected and asked my mother, ‘Do you want to come with us to live with your son? Do you want to see your grandchildren?’

‘With all my heart,’ she answered.”

Mayram Tikoyan only lived nine months at our house in Aleppo before resting in peace.  Before she died, she would randomly start singing a religious hymn, “Soorp Garabed volor molor.”  The visitors from all over Aleppo would leave our house weeping with sadness and heartache and cathartic joy for the reunion. Many thought she held onto her life only long enough to see her beloved son and his family and to bless them with her love and longing. I believed that too, but I also thought something different. I thought she lived long enough so she could finally rest in peace in an Armenian cemetery, where she belonged.

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Picture1
Mayram Kassabian Tikoyan, circa 1947

Picture2
Setrak and Mary Tikoyan with Mayram Tikoyan Artinian and her four brothers.

 

We Are Honest Soldiers

By Taniel Aram (Guest Contributor)

Grandma raises her index finger high into the air, waving in a circular motion as vibrations of the plucked qanun strings pass through the iPad speakers.  Badalian’s voice comes next and with a prideful smile, Grandma starts singing alongside him.

“Մենք անկեղծ զինուոր ենք, առանց ի վիճակ, Ուխտել ենք ծառայել երկար ժամանակ:”

Hayk and Pel. The Battle of Avarayr.  Survival after 1915. Through the annals of history, defiance has been an unwavering characteristic, a defining trait, of the Armenian people.

Existence is given to us. But defiance, defiance is earned, honored, mourned or canonized, through action, in a collective pursuit of justice.

Historical consensus indicates Armenian defiance as best represented by sharp wit, innovation, a moral compass for justice, or resistance to submission, rather than military might. Outmanned and outgunned, Karabakh was liberated with an impressive tactical strategy. Operation Nemesis members planned obsessively and took justice into their own hands, despite a cold shoulder from allied intelligentsia.  And of course the 250 Armenian intellectuals, the first targets of the Armenian Genocide, who were murdered for representing these very values of intellect as leaders of the Armenian people.

While military resistance can be interpreted as a form of defiance, what that struggle stood for, as a last effort to resist extinction and protect a race in its rightful homeland, was a more accurate definition for the Armenian case. “Ազատութիւն կամ մահ,” the Armenians shouted, an ode to American patriot Patrick Henry.

Grandma follows Badalian word for word. I see the emotion in her eyes as she continues to sing:

“Արիւն, սուր ու հուր, պատերազմի դաշտ կը սպասեն մեզի:”

The timeless ballad takes on Armenian resistance in the military sense. With trust betrayed, unanswered calls for help, thousands of churches and schools burned, and an entire civilization destroyed, the bravest of Armenian men and women took up arms to defend their villages and save their families. In the absence of leading Armenian intellectuals, the fedayi became the zinvor, and the zinvor, the fedayi.

The song reaches its emotional apex as grandma clenches her fist and pounds the breakfast room table, singing with hearty pride:

“Համոզուած ենք, որ միայն զէնքով կայ հայոց փրկութիւն:”

She takes a breath and stops singing for a moment, reflective on her family’s story of survival, yet afraid of changing times.

The songs and stories of old are nostalgic, but are, after all, at risk of fading.  Fading in a world of multi-million dollar Turkish denialist campaigns, in a world of corrupt, tainted oil money in Azerbaijan, and in the evolving geopolitics of the modern world.

Defiance. Defiance is our answer to this shifting landscape.

We are the new generation of Armenian intellectuals; lawyers, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, innovators, scientists, doctors, professors, clergymen, and researchers. We honor our ancestors and uphold moral integrity in our collective pursuit of justice. In thinking critically, chasing success and innovation, and challenging the status quo, we have returned to our roots of defiance, where the intellectual is the zinvor, and the zinvor, the intellectual.

Let’s ask ourselves- if we were alive on April 24, 1915, would we have been arrested for our leadership, based on our life accomplishments to this point in time? Our answer should be yes. If it isn’t, we have work to do.

Before she resumes singing, I correct Grandma:

“Համոզուած ենք, որ միայն գրիչով կայ հայոց փրկութիւն:”

By way of intellect, our defiance was, and anew is, our means for survival. As for the pen, that’s our weapon of choice.

Born in Germany and raised in New York City, Taniel Aram now divides his time between scouring the ancient ruins of fallen civilizations and surfing the waters of Southern California.  He holds three different degrees rooted in Literature and Anthropology from three different Ivy League universities, one of which he now conducts research for. Taniel still finds time in his busy schedule to explore the outdoors with his rescue golden retriever Dickens, swim with sharks, and run the occasional triathlon.

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.

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.

100 Years Later

By Melissa Lake

There is absolutely no rebuttal in saying that the Armenian Genocide was a horrific and senseless display of human cruelty and indifference. It is a large, unsightly stain upon the history of the world. I’m certain that if it were scientifically possible, most people would have it so that such an immense human tragedy had never happened.

However, while some may think it callous to say so, it would be historically and culturally ignorant to not take into consideration the few positive outcomes that resulted from the Armenian Genocide.

Armenians today could be described as a diaspora culture. Our ethnic heritage may have its roots placed in a small area in the west of Europe but the branches of our cultural tree have grown far and wide across the globe. A culture once fenced in and limited to a specific geographical region of the world has both developed and evolved, changing and morphing into something much different from what it began, as well as much different from other branches on the same familial tree.

Armenians are a people united in origin and fundamental cultural and dogmatic practices and yet it seems almost as if that is where our unity ends. The mass displacement of Armenians during the years preceding and during the genocide caused an irreparable cultural tear from traditional practices that we can easily see the effects of today. Armenians raised generationally in Syria, or Istanbul, or on the East Coast of the United States, while sharing some lasting and vital cultural characteristics, could be labeled as their own unique subcultures, somewhat similar but still astoundingly different.

I first realized this when I dated an Armenian who had grown up in New York City. At a young age, he had been adopted from Armenia. Both his parents were Armenian, so he spent the entirety of his young adult life immersed in his personal sect of Armenian culture- a small diaspora located in the New York/New Jersey area. So much of his appeal to me was a chance to connect with someone with a similar cultural background- to be able to share common beliefs and ideals and family lifestyles. But the more time I spent with him, the more acutely aware I became of the dissimilarity we shared culturally. His family life was much more reserved and conservative, full of professionals who behaved, well, professionally. And my family life was far different. The Armenians I grew up with were carefree, eccentric and astoundingly loud. So when I tried to joke with him about how the most cheetah print and stripper heels I’ve ever seen in my life were at the Armenian church on Easter Sunday, he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. And it was then that I realized exactly how much our culture has changed. The diaspora I grew up in, a large community of mostly Turkish and Syrian Armenians, was bound to be immensely different than others across the world. So much of our cultural traditions had adapted and grew with our change of scenery so that now, intermingled with our traditional beliefs and practices, are customs native to the places Armenians have found themselves. So my reality was that my culture was as much Turkish as it was Armenian, regardless of the fact that my mother and my family had spent their whole lives immersed in “Armenian” culture.

Many see this as a terrible tragedy, as an egregious calamitous aftermath of a horrific event. Yet it seems that the people who see it this way are also those that believe that change is terrifying. Cultural evolution, especially from a biological and historical context, is not only intrinsically necessary but humanitarianly beneficial. Culture changes with the evolution of time. The fact that Armenians as a people were able to experience such an immense tragedy and still maintain a base foundational cultural identity is less of an unfortunate loss and more of a remarkable achievement.

For a people who were ignored for much of history, Armenians across the world have been gaining renown and spreading Armenian awareness with their success, all while breathing new life into Armenian cultural identity. And still all Armenians share the cultural pain of our genocide. For such an immense act of human injustice, the Armenian Genocide is in all likelihood one of the largest sources for encouragement on Armenian communal gathering today. To say it is culturally irrelevant or unimportant would be to disregard what Armenian culture has become. Through such immense hardship and strife, Armenians have endured, and this shared strength and pride and yet also immense sadness has woven itself into a key block in the foundation of Armenian culture.

So through all of the varying differences Armenians culturally share today we are bonded together foundationally by our shared history and our distant past. Where we may lead different lifestyles and have different beliefs, as a culture we are bonded by what we were and what we’ve endured but also by what we may become. As the 100 year anniversary of the genocide looms ever closer, Armenians have become more active in their communities than ever and slowly but surely gaps that have existed between varying diasporas are narrowing. For a country that once struggled to maintain its cultural identity in the midst of war and systematic annihilation, it has flourished and grown into something even greater than what it began.

Irrepressible

By Semaline Joukakelian (Guest Contributor)

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Semaline Joukakelian is a graphic designer living in Montreal, Canada.  She enjoys painting and reading, and finds inspiration in the voices of Arthur Meschian and Ruben Hakhverdyan.   

Survivors: Ohan Akaragian

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Kharpert // 1898-1980

Ohan Akaragian was born in Agn on June 12, 1898 to Baghdasar and Haiganoush Akaragian.  He was the youngest of six; Serpouhi, Melkon, Makrouhi, Pilibos, and Varvar.  The Akaragians were well known in the region. They owned farmland, as well as a store in Romania. The profit that generated from this business was used to create an irrigation system to support farmland in Agn.

Before the Armenian Genocide was orchestrated, the Akaragians lived in peace.  The Armenian population in Kharpert was educated, hardworking, and extremely close with one another.  Every morning the entire village would attend badarak at the local church before heading to work or school.

Ohan’s two older sisters, Serpouhi and Makrouhi, were married and lived in Bolis, Turkey.  Melkon was married with three children and worked in the financial district before opening a jewelry store. Pilibos studied in Romania and in 1912, at 21 years old, he died from an illness.  In the meantime, their youngest sister, Varvar, had been asked for her hand in marriage at the tender age of fourteen.  The Akaragians agreed to the marriage with one ultimatum, that she would continue her education, and she did before giving birth to three children.

As soon as orders to begin the mass killings of Armenians were given in 1915, the entire region was devastated.  Ohan’s grandfather and brother, Melkon, were hung.  Melkon’s wife and children were killed, along with Varvar and her entire family.

Ohan’s grandmother was approached by a group of Muslims who informed her that if she were to abandon Christianity and convert to Islam, they would allow her and her family to live. Without hesitation, she responded, “I will give up my life, but I will not give up my religion.”  And so her entire family, including Ohan, was put on the death march.

They managed to purchase a horse with gold to carry Ohan’s grandmother since her old age kept her from walking. The remaining members of the Akaragian family walked while witnessing the most horrifying sights.  Ohan saw a group of young girls, holding hands, jumping into the Yeprad Ked. Corpses lay everywhere they went; along the roads, in the rivers, scattered all over the region like fallen leaves in the wintertime.  Ohan and his mother quickly realized that surviving was nearly impossible.  Ohan’s mother, determined to save the only man left in the Akaragian family, bribed the surrounding Turkish soldiers.  She offered them a quilt that she had sewn gold into and in return, the soldiers would allow Ohan to slowly fall behind the march so that upon reaching the end of the long line of people, he could run.  But once he was at the end of the line, he would be on his own.  The soldiers would not help him escape, simply, give him a chance to get away.

Following their agreement, Ohan started walking slower, slowly separating from his family and falling back within the line of people.  And each time that he would almost be out of sight, his mother would call for him with unstoppable tears in her eyes.  And he would quickly come back to her towards the front of the line.  His mother would hold him in her arms, refusing to let go because she knew that they would forever be apart.  And so she called back for him three times and he came back to her every time.  As she finally let go of him the third time, she had one last request.

“Don’t come back.  Even if I call you again and again, don’t come back.”

These were the last words she spoke to Ohan.  Once again, Ohan slowed down his pace, leaving his family ahead.  And it was only a matter of minutes before he heard his mother’s voice, screaming for him, again.  Each scream louder than the one before, her cries intensifying with every passing second.  And he honored his mother’s last words with tears in his eyes and longing in his heart.  He kept his eye on his family from a distance until they were too far to be seen.

Upon reaching the end of the line, the Turkish soldiers held their part of the bargain and turned a blind eye to Ohan while he ran.  He headed back to Agn, only to find that Turks now occupied his family’s home. Having nowhere to go, 17 year-old Ohan knocked on his neighbor’s door. His Muslim neighbor took him in and kept him in hiding for several months.

Knowing that there was no life left for him in Kharpert, Ohan took off once again, this time to Bolis to search for his sisters and their families.  He hid during the day and traveled by foot in the nighttime and every time he came across a farm, he would study the people, and the possible work that needed to be done.  If he felt comfortable enough, he would seek work for several days, weeks, or months at a time, before continuing on his journey.

It took Ohan two years to arrive in Bolis and to be reunited with the only family he had left.  Serpouhi, Makrouhi, and Ohan had lost sixteen members of their close family during the genocide; their grandparents, parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. Ohan stayed with his sisters for a year until he finally decided to move to Romania.

In Romania, Ohan met his future wife, Elisabeth Tevanian, and had two children, Baghdasar and Haiganoush, naming them after his parents.  Despite being in a new country and creating a new life, Ohan was often consumed by dark memories of the past.  He did not talk about the genocide often, as it was too painful of an experience to share. However, he consistently had nightmares, causing him to frantically wake up during the late hours of the night.  And it was in these moments that he would confess to his wife the inhumanity he fell victim to in 1915.  Knowing that Ohan could not speak about the genocide without emotions taking over, Elisabeth would tell Ohan’s stories to their children, ensuring that they were aware of their father’s past.

In 1963, Ohan and his family relocated to Los Angeles, California.  Although he didn’t speak a word of English and had no experience in the shoe business, he purchased a shoe store that was for sale near their home. While his family wondered how he would start a new business in a new country, Ohan took a piece of paper and drew a line through the center of the sheet.  On the left side he wrote down shoe sizes, parts of a shoe, and days of the week in Armenian; gosheeg, guroong, yergooshapti, yerekshapti… He handed the sheet to his daughter who listed the English equivalents of these words on the right side.  And it was with this one piece of paper that Ohan provided for his family and went on to create a successful business.

Ohan passed away in 1980.  He is survived by his two children, three grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren. He is remembered as an honest and respected man, who loved abundantly.   He loved his family, his church, his people, and his community.

Honored by Haiganoush Akaragian, Ara Akaragian, and Jeannette Akaragian