A film of white light glazed over the night sky as I exited Zvartnots airport. I was searching for my driver, feeling disoriented after a whole day of flying from Boston. The crowds of faceless passengers drifted past me muttering short phrases in Armenian and as they passed I regretted never learning to speak the language of my mother country. But I had guessed that learning the Armenian language was part of the reason why many volunteers decide to join Birthright Armenia. There was a gate of eager taxi drivers lined up at the Zvartnots airport exit and I nervously attempted to remember one of the four Armenian phrases my sister had taught me. Luckily, my driver Vahram, found me quickly like I was his own nephew and we went into the night to find his van. Vahram didn’t speak much English, but what we lacked in common language, he made up for with his genuine kindness and enthusiasm in showing me the sites of Yerevan. As we passed the warm illumination of Republic Square, I felt a reassuring peace, like I was returning instead of arriving. We reached my homestay in the dead of night at 2am. After lugging my massive bags up 4 flights of stairs, I was beginning to question how necessary my thousand-page biography of Paul McCartney really was. When we arrived my host-family was groggy but happy to meet me. My host mother put on a pot of tea and woke up my host brother to help translate my English. My sleepy host-brother-translator was friendly for someone woken up three minutes ago and we had a warm first conversation before I went to my room. As I laid down in my new bed, I allowed myself to drift into the stillness of the night and found a sense of comfort in the unfamiliar.
The first few weeks of my Birthright Armenia experience are the most eventful, vivid, and colorful in my memory. There was a sense of rebirth in the unknown. I had a child’s eyes and a spirit of adventure that awakened at the sound of Yerevan nightlife. The roaring echoes of fountain shows and street performers are lucid in my mind’s eye. I’m transported back to peaceful parks with dogs playing and children running unboundedly into the late hours of sweltering summer nights. New romances began to bloom as young couples became comfortable along the park benches. I fell in love with Yerevan very quickly, extending my three-month stay seemed increasingly necessary with each passing week.
After the shock of my first few weeks in Armenia, I began to pick up a rhythm to my days. The routine was grounding, but the weekend excursions with Birthright Armenia allowed me to fly into the past to learn about the culture and history of a once vast empire. Seeing the small villages and towns is a great contrast to staying in Yerevan because it holds such authentic experiences and authentic Armenians. We explored ancient ruins of forgotten wonders, we broke bread with locals who showed us the richness of Armenian hospitality, and we took glamour shots of each other from every corner of every mountain that wasn’t already occupied by another millennial updating their profile picture. We explored, we documented, and we grew to know an Armenian identity within ourselves that we never could have guessed existed otherwise.
It was these first few excursions that deepened my desire to understand this identity. This desire inspired a one month stay in Gyumri. This desire gave me the patience to teach guitar to underprivileged children with a very limited use of the Armenian language. This desire gave me the push to travel to locations at the bounds of Armenia such as Meghri and Artsakh. This desire pushed past those borders into the cities of Kars, Van, and Mush that were once the lands of Western Armenia. It was this desire that brought me to the village of Bazmaberd, so that I could live simply as my grandparents had over 100 years ago before the genocide that would alter the fate of millions of Armenians and create the cultural and political landscape of Armenia today.
I’m grateful for my Birthright Armenia experience because it’s taught me that being Armenian isn’t about having olive complected skin and brown hair, having direct ancestral ties to Tigran Mets, or how much [insert favorite Armenian food here] you can eat within one sitting. It’s the ability to recognize and identify with other Armenians, despite your differences of opinion, class, origins, political views, religion, or sometimes even the ability to fluently communicate. William Saroyan once said “When two [Armenians] meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia” and these words couldn’t be more true, even in the case of volunteers who aren’t of Armenian descent. Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) volunteers live like Armenians during their stay and end up becoming more Armenian than a lot of Armenians. They travel through Armenia and listen to stories of Artsakh War Veterans, diligently attend Armenian language classes, and adapt to completely unfamiliar cultural norms in order assimilate into Armenian life. Imagine if we could create an Armenia where experiences like this could be widely accessible to people of all creeds and colors. What if we could create a world in which the Armenian people and their history could be completely recognized and understood? What if we could create a world in which Armenia could cooperate with neighboring countries on all surrounding borders? What if we could change the world and create a new one? What if we create a new Armenia?
Benjamin J. Tavitian