"Do you consider yourself to be French and Armenian, French-Armenian, French with an Armenian background ?" A few months ago, I stumbled upon this question while leafing through a survey. Troubled by this wording, I think I ticked "French with an Armenian background," without being totally convinced.
Identity and feeling of belonging are concepts too often tackled as stable and given, while they are swaying and in-progress constructions that endlessly tint according to experiences — a tangled itinerary between past and present, a patchwork of details, personal mythology, and all in all, a story that we tell ourselves. Mine is unique and universal in many ways. It tells about friendships, languages, movement, and spaces that go through us as much as we go through them. Birthright Armenia constitutes one of its tipping points and resolutions.
Whether these life episodes echo with you or not, I hope they will persuade you that there are beginnings of answers, exploring ways, and many beautiful memories waiting for you in Armenia.
I am an 8-year old
At home, my parents yell at my sister and me “speak Armenian!” at least ten times a day. It is the only language to communicate with my Néné who quite often picks me up from the local school I attend in Marseille, where we live. There, I have friends coming from all around the world. I am annoyed by the fact that I have to explain to them it is a Lebanese bread that I usually snack on, and not crepes. I like it there, I guess I understood the school was the sacred way to become someone. Every morning at school, I know when it is my turn on call roll by the silence that precedes me.
With my cousins, we invented a song called “hope you won’t come” that we chant for the bus not to arrive, the one which takes us each and every Wednesday to the Armenian school. As a child, there is something that does not make sense for me when the Armenian language is to be treasured and yet we learn it in old-school books turning to dust. I think the other kids there are not that nice. On April 24th, we march and shout out with the crowd “Justice, Justice for the Armenian People!”. In the summers, we go to Beirut to visit my family as most of them still live there. My most cherished childhood memories smell like zaatar and Aleppo soap.
I am a 28-year old
It’s been a while since I left home and my grandparents passed away. Not many chances to practice Armenian anymore. Dishearten by lackluster experiences, I don’t really look for being involved in Armenian communities, not even in Paris where I live now. Diploma after diploma, internship after internship, I have managed to reach my exact professional goal. I bridge artists and people, make creative potentials grow, and build spaces where everyone feels freer; my job is very demanding though. My friends still come from all the corners of the world, except mine. Quite often at my house, Yare Martou Yara Goudais played and Pakhlava savored. I keep my Armenianess alive in my own and my heart of hearts. One day, I tell myself that in a way, my assimilated existence would satisfy the genocide perpetrators of the previous century. Brushing aside the inherited survivor trauma, this idea keeps haunting me for a long time. Well aware that something I deeply care about is fading away, I have started to take Armenian lessons at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations.
From Armenia, I know the monasteries, the cafes around the Opera, and the fountains of Republic Square, where we strolled by night with my sisters nibbling on fresh sunflower seeds, filled with a sense of freedom we had never felt before. We have come to Yerevan three times to visit family members who flew from Lebanon to settle here. During Fall 2021, while we all live isolated, I follow a war on-screen that smacks me and forces me to face my ignorance and lack of lucidity. Donating does not appease the sense of powerlessness. At that time, a couple of hours trying to come back to the Armenian language give me a vital strength. An urgent need pushes me to experience Armenia differently for a month with Birthright Armenia.
I am a 29-year old
A month has turned out to be six. I saw the autumn redness descent upon Lori forest and a couple of weeks ago, I was marveled by the snow in Kotayk, and everywhere. Each region is each season is breathtakingly beautiful here. I live in Yerevan now. Which at times provokes encouragement, at times deep lack of understanding from local people. I decided to stay indefinitely because, no one would tell, but Armenia is a country of opportunities. I work in an arts foundation, with a lower salary but the priceless pride of contributing to strengthening the Armenian culture. I keep taking Western Armenianclasses, not giving up even if sometimes I lose hope of someday being able to express a clear thought or read a novel. Khachapuri now stands side by side with manaiche and pure butter croissant in my gourmet pantheon.
Of these six months in Yerevan, there are so many many to say. If life is harsh in many aspects, everything that seems scarce to me in France can be found here at will: connections, genuineness, life larger than life, and the impression of being able to make a humble difference. The most precious to me remains the dozens of Armenians from here, Artsakh, France, Germany, Americas, Armenians of heart as well, who I have met. These people in Yerevan are fierce, open-minded, intelligent, combative, and creative. Admirably enough, they carry as much talent as kindness, which is rare. Shared songs, laughs and conversations have sealed lasting friendships, no matter if some of them are now in Kyiv or Los Angeles. The missing piece of my puzzle so far, they have each contributed to restoring my Armenian part.
From now on, I am thinking about applying to get Armenian citizenship. Next year, I do not know where I will live. An additional paradox, but that leaves me almost at peace: digging into Armenian-ness has reconciled me with the idea that I will never belong exclusively to any of the societies that have forged me, but always find a way to contribute. Once, I was said, “more important than the house we own, is the garden we grow.” When identity torment blasts anyhow, the best remedy, even in Yerevan, remains to dance a Msho Khr together - in class, in concerts, or in the mountains. It takes me back to the basics, beyond the space-time: who creates, will still be, and prosper… Trust me, Yerevan and Armenia in general will tell you stories beautiful enough for you to want to believe in, and to work on.