What Kind of Armenian Are You?!

I remember the first day at my new middle school, the place I would call my second home for the next six years as I continued on into high school. After the opening ceremonies had come to an end and each class went to its respective room, students began introducing themselves to one another. Being the only new kid in the class, I didn’t share the pre-established relationships that other kids who had been there since kindergarten enjoyed, and so naturally, people asked me the most questions.

When recess finally arrived, all my classmates dutifully rushed out to the quad area to talk with their friends and take a short break from the hectic school day. That was when someone approached me for the first time and asked me something I had never heard about before: “Are you Beirutsi?”

Having not been exposed to much Armenian culture in my elementary school years, it was beyond my ability to understand what he meant by this. Innocently, I questioned my classmate and he looked at me in disbelief as if I had just said something sacrilegious. After making it crystal clear that I had no idea what he was talking about, my classmate asked me more directly what city my parents were from. This somewhat alleviated my uneasiness that this abstruse question brought about, and I calmly answered that my mom was from Beirut and my dad was from Aleppo.

Five years later, I now have a complete understanding of this question and, more importantly, of the mentality of the classmate who asked it. Having studied and experienced the Armenian language, culture, and history throughout my middle school and high school years, I now know what it means to be classified under a certain “category” of Armenians. There are Beirutsis (from Beirut), Halebtsis (from Aleppo), Bolsahyes (from Istanbul), Hayastantsis (from Armenia), Yerousaghemtsis (from Jerusalem), and the list goes on and on. And with each different “kind” comes certain stereotypes, traditions, music, backgrounds, and ways of life. Unfortunately, Armenians have almost completely lost their meaning as a culture, but rather co-exist as a mixture of several differing ones.

Historically speaking, it is understandable why this difference is prevalent in the world today. Around the time of the Armenian Genocide, throngs of families chose to flee from their homeland in order to hopefully evade persecution and possible death. Some went to Lebanon, others to Syria, others to modern-day Israel, and in this manner Armenians spread throughout the four corners of the planet. In the almost 100 years that have elapsed since then, time has turned these people (and their descendants) into almost half-breeds of Armenian culture and the culture of the area in which they settled. Those who went to Arab countries developed a side-culture that focused on Arabic foods, music, and language. Those who decided to travel all the way to America had a stronger tendency to lose their Armenian identity and adopt an American way of life. And those who remained in Armenia retained their original culture and obtained Russian overtones as the Soviet Union took over. But the question remains that even if we can explain this diversification by looking back on our history, does that mean we can justify it in modern society?

Well the answer, quite simply, is no. The reason? Because it undermines everything that we stand for and have fought for as a nation, as a culture, and as a people. Armenians remain the longest lasting nation in all of history, with an advocated existence of over 3,000 years. Through the thick and thin, we have battled it out and stood up for what we believe. Even to this day, we continue to make efforts to ensure that not only our mother country remains stable and prosperous, but also that the generations to follow feel the same obligation. And yet, the divisions between Armenians from different cities and countries shine through stronger then ever. Often, people of the same categorization befriend each other, separate themselves from others, and are more proud of being a Beirutsi (for example) than they are of being an Armenian.

Worse yet, parents, children, and organizations promote these differences between us. Although thankfully my parents are not like this, I am almost positive that some Armenian parents do not want to hang out with certain people because of their “land of descent.” In many cases kids are even more open and advocating of this separation than their parents are. I can only begin to count how many of the senior sweaters at my school have said things like “Beirutsi Pride” or “Barsgahye Power.” And sometimes when my grade has had to make teams for sports, people have suggested “Let’s have Barsgahyes vs. everyone else,” or something along those lines.

The most unacceptable remain institutions, like my very own school, which fosters events that strengthen a feeling of individuality within the population of Armenians. Earlier this very year my school hosted a “Barsgahye Night,” where all the Barsgahye parents and students (along with a few non-Barsgahye friends) attended a night full of Persian food, music, and conversation. It is quite discouraging to see that such an organization, which takes on the responsibility of educating today’s youth, remains subject to such foolishness.

One of the troublesome issues that makes the rift even deeper is the language barrier that exists between Armenians. The two main dialects of Armenian (eastern and western), although founded on the same general language, have significant differences in grammar and pronunciation that sometimes complicate even more the issue of communication among Armenians from different regions. Also, having settled in different cities and countries throughout the years has brought foreign words into the Armenian language. Beirutsis and Halebtsis use several Arabic and French words; Bolsahyes utilize Turkish; Barsgahyes use Persian; Hayastantsis incorporate Russian, and so on. I cannot count how many times I have discovered that words I thought were Armenian and have used for years are actually French, or Arabic, or Turkish. It is almost as though there is no real Armenian language in use today, but instead there remains the trace of one in the differing dialects of Armenians throughout the world.

Nowadays, it seems as though Armenians have lost the sense of identity that once so strongly held our ancestors together. Instead, they choose to identify themselves with people from similar regions, which they don’t even live in any more. I can only hope and wait for a day to come, when the idea of being an Armenian will transcend the feeling of being a Beirutsi or Haystantsi.

When Talaat Pasha, one of the leaders of the Young Turks, was planning the execution of the Armenian Genocide, and the Armenian people as a whole, he said something that Armenians to this day have not failed to remember. His famous quote was that he was determined to eliminate every single Armenian on the face of the planet, except one. This last Armenian, he said, could then be placed in a museum for all the peoples of the world to look at and remember that there had once been a futile race of people who called themselves Armenians. Well here we stand, as a strong Armenian community some 100 years later, having conquered every obstacle placed in our way and beaten every foe that has tried to keep us down. But if we fail to understand the necessity to embrace our collective identity as Armenians, we may just be better of as that one Armenian on display in a museum somewhere. That Armenian would not be a Beirutsi, or a Halebtsi, a Bolsahye, or a Barsgahye. That Armenian would be, simply and truly, an Armenian.

Ari Ekmekji,