I Am an Armenian:

My Reaction to Passage to Ararat

... perhaps in the end the message of Armenians is more particular than mere persistence. Perhaps, if there exists a deeper possibility in the psyche of this ancient, sturdy, and minor race, it is this: the capacity of a people for proceeding beyond nationhood. For to be a nation -- a member of a modern nation -- is to inherit territory, and pride in property, and to be connected to collective dreams of quite impossible grandeur and savagery, fertility and hatred. To be an Armenian has meant that one has been compelled by circumstance to rise above or fall below -- or, anyway, to skirt -- these so-called imperatives of nationhood and property, and thus has been free to attempt the struggle of an ordinary life, and to dream more modest dreams, and to try to deal with one's dreams as best one could.

from Michael J. Arlen's "Passage to Ararat"

It is hard to explain why this book affected me so powerfully. Unlike Arlen's father, my father has always seemed proud of his Armenian Lebanese heritage and hasn't spent his life trying to distance himself from "those Armenians", as Arlen's father did. And yet, my father speaks barely any Armenian, and I've often felt that our family is more Christian-Lebanese than Armenian Lebanese (though, of course, one can't truly be Armenian Lebanese without also being Christian Lebanese). My father's generation grew up in Lebanon and emigrated to the States in 1969. I think my Grandmère grew up in Lebanon, though I'm pretty sure her parents were Armenians in Turkey during the second genocide in 1915. Or maybe her grandparents? It's not often talked about, what my family's connection to Armenians is. It's just known that we are Armenians, even though, as far as I can tell, none of us living have ever been to Armenia.

I've spent most of my life wondering, in the silence of the back of my mind, if I truly am Armenian. I don't look it, though I don't look wholly Western European either. My sister's the one who looks Armenian Lebanese, with her darker skin, dramatic nose, dark eyes, narrow mouth, and dark hair. I'm a conglommeration of my mom's appearance and my father's: my skin is darker than my mom's and slightly more olive but lighter than my father's; my eyes have blue, green, and hazel in them (my mom's eyes are light blue and my father's are deep brown); my hair is darker than my mom's but not as nearly-black as my father's... even the amount of hair on my body is an average: more than my mom's, not as much as the women in my father's family. (That stereotype of Armenians being hairy is completely true.) I can recognize Armenian when I hear it spoken, but I can't speak or understand any of it. I know a handful of words in Arabic and can sometimes guess what's being said... I hear Arabic a lot more frequently in family gatherings than Armenian.

I've wondered if I should just drop out the Armenian part and say I'm half Lebanese, but I've always known that's not right, either. Lebanon is where Pa (my father) grew up, but it's not where our family is from. And what, exactly, does that mean anyways, when the ethnically Armenian areas aren't even wholly contained in the modern country of Armenia? I don't think any members of Pa's family came from what is now called Armenia. I remember once talking to my mom about Pa's family's Armenianness, and she said something like, "They're Turkish. Grandmère's parents lived in Turkey." And I was deeply offended and hurt, but hid it, because I couldn't explain why I was offended or how she was wrong.

I don't remember when I heard about the genocide the first time. But I've always sensed a disdain from Grandmère in particular when anything involving Turkey came up in conversation. If it was Turkish, it wasn't good. (Ironically, Pa's family speaks in Turkish when they play backgammon. That I don't understand.) And yet, Grandmère is nearly fluent in Turkish.

Pa's family is a confusing myriad of pecularities. A couple of Christmasses ago, Pa gave me "Passage to Ararat" and told me it was a good book for me to read. I put off reading it, as one of "those Armenian books" that was just going to be about what the Turks did and would probably be boring. (To be fair, I've only read one other of "those Armenian books" and didn't find it boring. But I was either at St. John's at the time or just about to marry Rob and was more interested in finding out how I'd fit into my new life than peeling back layers of my family's heritage.) I always assumed Marcie was the more Armenian sibling, with her exotic appearance and ability to out-dance me at any family gathering. I've always been the quiet one, who dances with reservation and insecurity. If Marcie was the more Armenian sibling, I was the more generic "white" one, who disliked most Armenian and Lebanese food and barely appreciated Armenian and Lebanese music.

Things changed when I went away to St. John's and left Pa's family hundreds of miles behind. Suddenly, I noticed how... bland, culturally, St. John's, and even Annapolis, were. There were some black students and Annapolis was certainly not all white... but it did seem to be all white and black with nothing in between. I felt culturally smothered for the first time in my life and became homesick, not for the company of my family, but for the food, the music, the myriad of languages spoken at family gatherings (4: French, Arabic, Armenian, and English), the dancing! Until then, I'd taken it for granted that I wasn't truly Armenian Lebanese, but the extent to which I missed my family's culture made me realize otherwise. Whatever I was, I wasn't just "white". I avoided going to most dances at St. John's not only because I was lonely and worried about my hips, knees, and ankles, but also because these dances paled in the face of the dances Pa's family used to have. And, besides, whenever I started to "let loose" at a college dance, I noticed I was slipping back into Armenian dancing: my arms would raise and start to undulate as best they could, and, if I was really letting loose (or tipsy!), my hips would start to move in decidely not-American ways. It took too much effort to not slip into Armenian dancing, and, besides, I had all those other reasons not to go... so I didn't.

When Rob and I decided to get married, that cultural suffocation feeling only increased. I couldn't imagine Rob's family approving of the blatant vitality, sensuality, and passion of Armenian food, language, music, and dancing. I felt like I needed to hide that part of me from them as much as possible, at least in the beginning. When Pa would visit, he'd bring me the Armenian food I'd been missing so much: the lahmajean, the cheese, the coffee (which is the same as Turkish coffee, but I don't call it that). Sometimes, he'd bring CDs of music. That helped, but still the suffocation continued.

Eventually I got tired of hiding. I started telling Rob's family about Pa's family, the food, the music, the dancing. I even hosted a family dinner with Armenian and Lebanese food, and was surprised when they liked it (or, at least, ate it!). For Christmas this year, Pa bought me a belly dancing DVD that I'd forgotten was on my wish list. That, as they say, was the beginning of the end for me. Since then, I've been listening to Armenian and Lebanese music more frequently than other kinds (even though it's a minority on my playlist). I've been reading through every book I have about Lebanon and Armenia. I've become more open with both Rob and his family and have stopped being apologetic for my cultural and ethnic heritage. The culture outside of my home is still bland, but the inside of my home's become an Armenian Lebanese oasis for me. When I dance, it's belly dancing (the performance version of the Armenian dancing done at family gatherings). When I cook, I cook with an Armenian spice Pa brought for me, or with Armenian or Lebanese food he gave me. Even Rob uses that spice in his cooking, making the foods we eat a happy mixture of Armenian and American.

"Passage to Ararat" felt like my own journey as much as Arlen's (whose father changed the family's last name from the Armenian Kouyoumjian to Arlen). Reading it, pieces of my life suddenly started clicking together. Like Arlen, I'm only half Armenian*. Like Arlen, I don't know any Armenian. The strength of Arlen's memoir about his ethnic journey was its resonance with my own.

*If I can't say Armenian Lebanese, I think it's the Lebanese that would be dropped... That's where Pa's family was from, but not where they are from.