What’s Happened to Our Culture in the Diaspora?
It was while translating Krikor Beledian’s 50 Years of Armenian Literature in France from French into English that I discovered that Missak Manouchian and I were cousins. Who was Missak Manouchian and why is my relation to him important? I will delve into both these matters a bit later on in this short essay, which I have purposefully structured like a chassé-croisé, a weaving of ideas and observations.
For over fifty years there existed in France several generations of Armenian writers, most of them refugees in one way or another from Ottoman lands, who wrote almost entirely in Armenian for an Armenian audience. Some of them, such as Zareh Vorpuni, Hratch Zartarian, Nigoghos Sarafian and Shahan Shahnur, were part of the so-called Menk or We group. Others, I am thinking in particular of the stunning feminist writer Zabel Yessayan, were only peripherally part of what has become known as the “Paris School,” “Ecole de Paris” or “Parisi Tbrotsuh.” These writers produced numerous novels, plays, magazines, newspapers, feuilletons, essays, medical treatises — you name it — all in Western Armenian.
What is most remarkable to me about these now-departed writers? Simply that they wrote in Western Armenian for an Armenian audience. All this, we must realize, has been lost, perhaps one of the last phases of the Aghet or Catastrophe. We have lost our language however, not simply because of the Turkish will to annihilation but also because of our own cultural priorities and our own will to forget. I attended a French Lycée in New York, for example, which is part of a global network of schools that has produced literally hundreds of thousands of francophone citizens across the globe. In fact, in my year and the year below me at the New York school, not less than four students have become recognized and even prize-winning authors — in French.
Armenians have forgotten their language — outside of the Middle East, they have preferred to build hundreds, nay thousands, of churches — many of which remain idle or half empty, having forgotten that while religion is part of culture, if one forgets one’s language and history, then religion is of little solace. I have, in fact, not heard of a single graduate of an Armenian day school in the United States or Canada who has gone on to become an Armenian writer or translator. How can this be?
This brings me to Missak Manouchian, whom I read about in depth for the first time in Beledian’s wonderful book. Manouchian, a lyrical and renowned poet who also founded reviews such as Chank (Effort) and Mshaguyt (Culture), was from Adiyaman, the same village as my paternal grandparents. When I mentioned this fact to my relatives — that the famous poet, communist and revolutionary immortalized by Leo Ferre and, most recently, the filmmaker Robert Guediguian, was from Adiyaman, everyone seemed to know that he was my cousin. “Yes, he is your cousin,” and then they would go on to explain how we were related.
I still find it simply astounding, that for over thirty years no one had ever mentioned this not so insignificant part of our family history. Would it be possible, for example, in a Jewish family to be related to Isaac Bashevis Singer, or Menachem Begin or a famous Holocaust resister and not have it be ingrained in you since birth? Unlikely. But this almost willed forgetting mirrors that which many Armenian families experience and which Peter Balakian mentions, for example, in his family memoir Black Dog of Fate. The Aghet was never spoken of in my family: my father would mention the Turks in terms hardly repeatable in print; my godmother would refer in French to “les évenèments” or “the events”; allusions were made to “terrifying things” but no one ever sat me down to explain where my family was from, what had happened to them and what their trajectory had been from Anatolia and Cilicia to our present locations. In fact, I remember thinking well into my teens that all Armenians originally came from Lebanon, either from Beirut and Bourj Hammoud or from the Bekaa Valley.
What is the point of what I am saying here? While Armenians are not as populous as the French, there is no reason that they cannot build schools every bit as good as the French lycées. There is no reason that we cannot teach our children to speak, read and write Western Armenian — I learned to do all three, with varying degrees of success, as an adult in fact. And finally there is no reason that we cannot tell our history — literary and otherwise — to the world and pass it on from one generation to the next. It is simply shameful, for example, that even in Yerevan, according to Lara Aharonian and Talin Suciyan’s wonderful documentary “Finding Zabel,” no one remembers Zabel Yessayan, one of the 20th century’s most powerful writers — Armenian or otherwise. Doing so means being more committed to our language, literature and culture. It means translating our literature into English and also writing in Western Armenian. It can be done. If we can build 1,000 churches, then we can build 10 decent high schools and print some decent textbooks. The question becomes how one rebuilds broken links and whether, amidst the irrelevant cacophony that has become our cultural dialogue in the diaspora — anyone has the will to do so.
The English translation of Kirkor Beledian’s 50 Years of Armenian Literature in France is forthcoming.