Russia or Lebanon?

So I started the last post to write about the Middle East and BAM, the Armenian part of me took over.

I did, in fact, write about my oft forgotten, Lebanese self soon after but it became a confessional, a rambla-thon of grand proportions and I’m not sure where to go with it. After all, I need to work on a community action plan for the laundry coop not wax poetic on the politics of belonging.

Sometimes, my boyfriend tells me that my Lebanese identity is curiously absent from discussions. Recently, a friend brought it up too which makes me wonder. On my self-deprecating blog (on my domain) and Twitter, there aretraces of my childhood in Beirut.

However, it is often in relation to a situation or a specific discussion, but it never creeps out on its own like my ruminations about Armenian culture. Then again, I also don’t talk about being a Quebecoise, though I suppose I am since I have lived in the province of Quebec for almost 22 years, and Montreal is home.

You should hear me discuss my background/heritage when someone prompts me and they often do: it’s never the same. Rather, my answer depends on the dynamics of the conversation, the conception of locality that my interlocutor has and my given mood.

I’m usually Canadian, sometimes “from Lebanon”, but I’m always an Armenian or of Armenian origin. It’s actually more complicated than that since my parents weren’t born in Lebanon nor in Armenia, but we don’t usually have all day.

This semester, a very perky (read: annoying) classmate wouldn’t take no for an answer until she could place my accent. I was feeling playful, so for the first time in my life, I insisted that I’m Canadian and nothing but.

Let me see you handling a very cheery and perky 20 year old.

Anyway, my perception of identity is fluid. For those who know me, my Canadian identity is quite interesting: though I’m not a nationalist or patriotic (the connotations make me break out in hives) in the George W. Bush context the term now elicits, I’m very much a Canadian. Still, I don’t believe in hyphenated identities.

I’m not an Armenian-Canadian or an Armenian-Lebanese for that matter. I’m a Canadian. I’m an Armenian. However, I never say I’m Lebanese.

It might have something to do with the perception the Lebanese project. If you spend any amount of time with them, you will know that a) they will adamantly deny being Arab and b) they will claim their Phoenician ancestors and c) they’re often speaking in Parisian French in such an exchange.

I have never been to Armenia (yet). Indeed, I was born and raised in Beirut with intermittent stays in Europe and LA and living in Syria and Cyprus before moving to Montreal. My nostalgia for Lebanon is present and fueled by folk music, films, FOOD and fucking politics. As a ten year old, I could sadly match any political commentator on American TV – perhaps not in fluency, but political analysis.

Why don’t I discuss it then? What is more: would I desire to return to Beirut? Most probably not. When I was a teenager, the second most annoying thing (next to being dragged to an event at Sourp Hagop) was conversing with my parents’ friends about returning to Lebanon.

In an attempt to assuage their nostalgia and guilt, they often channeled their longing for Lebanon in a teenager whose identity crisis was manifold. It’s true: I did not want to leave the Middle East – after a tumultuous childhood, frequent changes in different locales (boarding school in Cyprus was not preferable to bomb shelters no matter what my parents hoped), can you blame me for wanting stability? Actually, I fell in love with Canada once we arrived, except that we moved here in February in freezing temperatures (-20 to -25 F for you Yanks) and I still have not gotten used to the cold.

I had more culture shock in Aleppo and Latakia, Syria than upon moving to North America.

As I reflect on these conflicting identities, it makes me wonder. Last year, I discovered that as a mere woman, I would not be able to transmit my Lebanese citizenship to my children. In fact, Lebanese citizenship isn’t ascribed automatically nor did Armenians always benefit from it. Still, my Lebanese passport is dusty and hasn’t been renewed in over 15 years yet I would never renounce my citizenship.

Despite yearning for Armenia, being concerned for my homeland, following inner politics and helping from the diaspora, there is a distinct dichotomy that is at play here. Although I haven’t yet met her, I know it’s a matter of time before I make her acquaintance – volunteering, living, working, visiting (any and all of the above). In the days when Armenia didn’t recognize dual citizenship, I would have said my connection to my homeland was beyond political considerations. My Armenian identity has nothing to do with a passport.

Now that I can claim Armenian citizenship, it wouldn’t occur to me until I live in that society and contribute to her well-being and even then… Therefore, I don’t always feel qualified to comment on Armenia’s internal struggles, though my heart breaks through each cycle of violence, corruption, the lack of women’s rights, and I also feel tremendously proud of my fellow Hays. In the case of Lebanon, it’s another reality. I may not have talked publicly or at length about my beloved Lebanon before or often, but my heart beats furiously for Beirut, all the same.

Despite the occasional nostalgia about my childhood, when I reflect on the country, it is the political upheaval more than personal memories or longing that surface. My relationship is complicated: people who teasingly chide me for denying that part of my lived experience don’t realize the implications of their words. Moreover, I hadn’t quite come to terms with my complex affair with Lebanon. Besides occasional commiserations with folks under siege, I don’t dwell on it in more than 140 characters.

Truth be told, Beirut was tangential, palpable, and real whereas my yearning for Armenia (though every bit as haunting) is a dream (for now). I don’t have any immediate family members in Armenia, though my aunt and uncle have a house there, a cousin spent many years in Yerevan on media development and training journalists in South and Central Caucasus. Still, Armenia is my fantasy whereas Lebanon is a vivid hallucination and memory.

And yes, I do have relatives in Lebanon – from my aunt to cousins whose children I have never met – but I don’t have any desire to return from my exile. I have been curious, indeed, but I would like to think that my happy childhood (at home) and my ghosts are better left buried. If it hadn’t been for 2006, I would have said that the Lebanon of my memories – tantalizingly sweet and miserable – had been replaced by a semblance of normal life. Perhaps, I didn’t want to face returning to a home that was no longer my own, a city that I may not have recognized, and a reality that I might not have known. Perhaps. The truth is those who matter are elsewhere (my family) and the rest are dead.

Still, my heart beats wildly for Lebanon specially when she’s being raped. It just does so in private (until now, that is) and in a compartmentalized way.

After all, my stories are waiting to be written (about the quirky and perspicacious characters that helped rear me as much as my ‘rents). For now, literature soothes me (in English and French, sadly), the music of the Levant seduces and devastates me, and spirited critical analysis that connects me to that part of the world, giving me goosebumps, once again.

What I do think about is the happenstance that landed my family in the Middle East: the Armenian Genocide, of course. Would I have been as vested in Russia? Sure, I may have been able to read my Babel, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol – my darlings – in Russian. How would I have turned out? Would my political sensibilities have been as varied? Would my Russian be as rusty as my Arabic?

And then I think – no more Fairuz, no more Farid el Atrache, no longing desperately for the tragic Asmahan, Oum Kalthoum? Sabah Fakhri’s mawal? Dalida? Even with my less than perfect Arabic, I have the soul even with my clumsy ministrations of the language. Oh, banish the thought!

Ways of Being and Ways of Belonging

Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about negotiated identities. Although my Armenian heritage makes up a significant part of my identity, it does not comprise the sum of my conflicted, passionate, and fragmented self – as important as it may be to me. Perhaps I lay more claim to it than my siblings, specially my reflections about collective memory, but I do not discuss it ad nauseum in my daily life. Indeed, my blatherings about my ethnic identity are more worthy of online ramblings.

As I mentioned before, I do not have any Armenian friends here in Montreal thanks to choices my parents made due to Quebec’s Bill 101 – for the uninitiated, a law for the preservation of the French language obliges allophone immigrants to send their children to francophone high schools. Since my newly arrived parents couldn’t afford to send me to a private Armenian school, I studied in French and since I was surrounded by Armenians, Greeks, Italians – you name it, they were there – in school, it wasn’t an issue. I never really attended any of the Armenian churches or joined youth organizations or clubs – they felt so cliquey and as a 13 year old trying to get used to new friends, a new country, a new language, heck – a new continent, after a while, being part of Montreal’s Armenian community lost its allure.

In time, ephemeral school connections dissipated, different life paths led us all asunder and years after, I now realize that, I actually don’t have Armenian friends. My friends are quirky, rad, passionate, and lovely and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

The internet, then, has been key for nurturing the personal void that I feel in my life. Interestingly enough, my longing for my homeland and the connections that I revel in are probably not representative of most Montreal Armenians. Indeed, my delight is in the cultural, historical, and symbolic connection to my heritage. I don’t want to go to a barahantes or kermes(okay, maybe the kermes): I want to discuss poetry or make sarma, read Raffi in Armenian again. As an introvert, I would be miserable at a lot of the large assemblies that gets my people together. Every time I have found myself in that situation, I have wanted to run away. So I don’t do crowds, but a personal connection with fellow geeks is what I miss: face to face.

Maybe my parents should have immigrated to LA. In ‘83, my uncles wanted us to make the move. My old Cypriot friend from Melkonian (MEI), S. is already in Glendale. Since she’s my namesake (first and last name), it would have been confusing.

As a compulsive pedestrian, I just can’t imagine life in LA.

Hayeren khosink

For some time now, I have been increasingly concerned about my grasp of the Armenian language – or maintaining my quasi-fluency as fluent as you can get in grade 5 or 6 level Armenian (depends on the year you consider I left Lebanon, Syria, and Cyprus – I had interrupted school years, lived experiences, and every time we escaped the war in Beirut, I started again… it’s quite confusing to me). I was a precocious Armenian lover – I read Armenian classical literature and poetry, quite impressively, at a very young age.

My official Armenian language/based education ended in Cyprus in early ‘91 at MEI – Melkonian Educational Institute or Tjoghk as we liked to call it. So, no learning my mother tongue since then. Lately, English and French have completely dominated my existence to the point that I feel quite self-conscious about it all.

It’s not as bad as it sounds, but let’s just say that I feel so self-conscious at S,’s office hours because my prof’s Armenian and mine meet halfway, sometimes. It shouldn’t be surprising considering that she’s got two decades on me and I’m already in my mid-30s.

When spring comes, I will graduate from university – again. I’m taking 2013 and most of 2014 off from studies before graduate school becomes a reality. I can’t think of a better gift than to learn Armenian properly – again.

If anyone’s reading this (I ramble a lot on here, I know), do you have any recommendations? Birthright Armenia used to have online tutorials at some point, but is there a kickass language regimen/program to learn to speak and write Western Armenian properly?

I’m probably making it out worse than it is. Perhaps, some serious reviewing of grammar would be conducive to feeling comfortable again. I don’t know. It pains me considerably that English has become the most talked language in my life – from university, to work (fully English and French, really), to my relationship (getting to French and Armenian would be great – my boyfriend picks up Armenian quite well, though he’d never think so), and so on.

I miss my dadig so much on days like these.

The Politics of Belonging

At first, the idea of incorporating the site of my Social Economy internship was promising – volunteering/interning at an anti-poverty solidarity coop in Montreal’s most disadvantaged, ethnically diverse (the Greeks and Armenians of previous decades have long gone to make room for South Asians) and low income community Park Extension.

As much as my internship is a culturally rich, soul-stirring, and ideal brainstorming heaven, I hesitate to focus my thesis on this site for my year long Honours Essay seminar. Instead, I return time and time again to diaspora politics, particularly the desire to explore the conception of Armenian identity.

In addition, I am enrolled in Theories of Identity – a seminar that is steeped in theories that I am passionate about – cultural fundamentalism/essentialism, transnationalism, community, and diaspora. It is more than likely that my culture will be the focus of an essay, but I am still inclined to return to Armenian identity for my Honours thesis.

I have long been fascinated by the literary responses to the genocide – particularly Vahan Tekeyan’s poetry, but I am, for the purposes of my thesis, interested in exploring the role of language in our conceptualization of identity. More particularly, is Western Armenian really in danger of being extinct?

Are there any Armos who would like to have a discussion with me? Perhaps even want to participate in my fieldwork of sorts? Heck – are my Armo folks on Tumblr Hayasdantzi – I know some of you speak Eastern Armenian – but I would love to hear back!

Cheers,

Sarine

Fragmented

I saw a mention of Soghomon Tehlirian* online (my brother played him in a high school play in the 80s, in Beirut) earlier and that led me to Eric Bogosian’s Soghomon project. Two points that stand out for me:

  • Bogosian is from Watertown, MA (visited the town with A. last summer and I’m inordinately delighted/mildly obsessed with the town/history)
  • He invited the audience to view in a new light those Armenians who, like him, grew up generally detached from community institutions, yet who are as Armenian in their own way as those more involved in their activities.

I have struggled with this disconnect my whole life. In my case, I’m decidedly more Armenian than some that Bogosian may depict, but I don’t participate in the various church/youth (agoump)/community events somewhat due to the fact that upon immigrating to Canada, a precedent was set and I was obliged to attend a francophone high school – thanks to our strident language laws. Afterwards, it was a little too late to immerse myself in the resolutely cliquish Armenian circles. So I never did. In addition, my introverted self was always at odds at these lavishly, sometimes superficial, and often too involved gatherings when all I wanted to do was hide and read a book.

I don’t do well at parties, either. So I have this stunted relationship with the larger gatherings or events in my community. Indeed, my Armenian self comes out more often, more particularly online, specially here, because I reflect quietly, introspectively, sometimes with other Armos, and there is more to me than just being Armenian.

My representation of that intertwined, complicated, and intimate self is quite personal and confined to ramblings on the written page.

*He assassinated the former Grand Vizir Talaat Pasha in the Charlottenburg District of Berlin, Germany in broad daylight and in the presence of many witnesses on March 15, 1921 as an act of vengeance for Talaat’s role in orchestrating the Armenian Genocide (WP)