Armenians–they have such strange names and facial features, an aberrant language (with peculiar-looking alphabets), and a distinctly odd culture. I always felt this strangeness within myself, and I reckoned that we were, somehow, different from others. However, I later learned that Armenians are, instead, distinctly unique. I also presumed that I knew enough about these “strangers”–about the Genocide, Tigran the Great, William Saroyan, and the Armenians of California. How can one not know anything about their culture and history? But, I discovered that my knowledge was very limited and inadequate- -there is always something more, among the masses, that comes across your face as a non- coincidental surprise. Then you hear yourself say: “Wow, is it really true that Armenians did that? I had no idea!”
I registered for Armenian Studies 10 (Introduction to Armenian Studies) for the 1995 fall semester with Dr. Dickran Kouymjian, carrying all of my pre-conceived opinions and convictions about Armenians. Within the first hour of the class session, I knew that the class would offer “something” more than just the lecture hours, exams, and reports. Instead, I sensed that I would encounter challenges that would ultimately reshape my thinking habits.
For the first seven weeks of the semester, we studied a book written by Michael J. Arlen called Passage to Ararat. This book was primarily about Arlen’s journey to Armenia which led him to discover his roots and allowed him to come in terms with his father, his Armenianess, and himself. Arlen, who at times claimed he, “Hated being an Armenian,” covered nearly all subject matters that Armenians have experienced from the birth of their nationhood. For instance, the author wrote about the Kings of Nairi, the Kingdom of Urartu, Tigran the Great, the Armenian community of Fresno, Armenian rug merchants, Armenian architecture, the Dashnaks, and most important of all, the 1915 Genocide. These matters concern Armenians, yet Arlen crafted his novel in a manner that grasped the attention of non-Armenians as well. He brought out universal questions in life, showing that Armenians have the same needs as other human beings.
Why did the 1915 Genocide take place, and why is it that Armenians, after 80 years, have not yet healed their souls? Coming into the class, I knew the answer for the first question, but I had difficulties with the second. Several films were shown in class to help clarify the misunderstandings or our misconceptions about the massacres, such as An Armenian Journey, The Hidden Holocaust, Everyone’s Not Here: Families of the Armenian Genocide, and The Armenian Case.
In the Armenian Studies 10, Syllabus Reader, we further examined the details of the Genocide. All of this, along with Dr. Kouymjian’s lectures, served the key to my understanding of, “The crime of the century.” I knew that the Turkish government completely denied the Genocide ever taking place in history, but I further learned that they alleged that the Armenians were revolting against the Ottoman Empire and that they were the ones who massacred the Turks. Their proof for this misguided assertion were the guns that were collected from the Armenians and the Turks who were killed during W.W.I. Perhaps, those who survived the Genocide can not “forget and forgive” because of the guilt they sense for being fortunate enough to have escaped death, or because of the anger they feel for not being recognized as the victims of a calculated crime and instead being portrayed as the aggressors.
We, then, went on to study about the Armenian Apostolic church. We began with the administrative structure or the hierarchy of the Apostolic church. From here on, it seemed as if the church was indirectly regulated through politics. For instance, from 1441-1956, Armenians were served by a Catholicos in Etchmiadzin and a second one in Sis/Antelias; this created a division in the church. Also, Armenia was overtaken by Russia in 1921, and this caused another problem, because Communists were against religion; thus, all of the monasteries were closed and the Catholics in Armenia turned to Antelias for help. Armenians were then caught in the trap of Communism and the Cold War. The effects of this reached the heart of Fresno and a clear division was apparent between Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church and St. Paul Armenian Apostolic Church. (Of course, the details are too lengthy to explain.)
Beyond this, we had to visit two Armenian churches, one Apostolic and one Protestant; then, we were to write a report on the differences that exist between them. Therefore, I visited Holy Trinity and Pilgrim Congregational. I am a member of an Apostolic Armenian Church, and I never had the opportunity to visit any of the Protestant Churches. This was a phenomenal experience, for I was startled to recognize the uniqueness of each church. Although I belong to the Apostolic Church, I must confess that I do not completely comprehend all the traditions of my religion. Many young Armenians face this conflict; I blame this situation on myself and not on my parents, the Church, or its structure. Intellectually, to understand the traditions of worshipping God in the Apostolic Church, one has to recognize the symbolism of the Batarak. On the other hand, one can just step into the Protestant Church and know exactly what is occurring.
The Armenian Protestant Church is “Americanized.” It’s user-friendly–the services are to the point, direct, and understandable, and it’s modernized to fulfill the needs of the people and to help them confront the issues and predicaments of modern society. The Apostolic Church, however, aims to preserve cultural traditions, in particular, the Armenian language and history. In a sense, we are cautioned to always look back (to examine where we came from) before taking any steps forward. Personally, I enjoyed the services of the Protestant church, because it was intellectually direct. However, I attend church to be spiritually shaken, not intellectually. Therefore, the Apostolic church resolves the situation, even if I do not totally comprehend all of what it has to offer.
Next, we studied one of the most magnificent (American) writers of the 20th century-William Saroyan. I never studied William Saroyan’s writings, while attending school in the Fresno Unified School District (other than just reading one of his short plays in my Ethnic Studies class). However, I managed to read some of his works on a “part- time” basis. Most of the students in the class had not read the works of Saroyan. How could a person grow up in the Valley and not know Saroyan?
I do not understand why administrators or individual instructors make certain that their students learn something about a local citizen who later became a world renowned writer? In class, we studied a short story called The Armenian Mouse, another one called The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and finally we read two of the three Saroyan plays that were edited (in An Armenian Trilogy) by Dr. Kouymjian, Armenians and Bitlis. Saroyan proudly admitted he was an Armenian, and believing in the human spirit, he acknowledged Armenians are part of the human race. In other words, Armenians should be classified as a minority group that is an alliance of the majority, and not exclusive of it.
Finally, we ended the class with two subjects, the Armenian militant movement and the Armenian community of Fresno. From 1975 to 1983, young Armenians developed terrorist ideas towards Turkish government officials to gain the attention of the world about the Genocide. For 60 years, the peaceful marches and demonstrations never grabbed the mindfulness of the media; the aim of the two terrorist organizations, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia and the Justice Commandos for the Armenian Genocide, was to resolve this situation. The media breathes to cover accounts that involve drama and action, and no one realistically cared to hear about 1.5 million people who were massacred in the Ottoman Empire infinite decades ago. The young radicals, having realized this point, began to kill Turkish ambassadors, set bombs, high-jack planes and carry out other revolutionary actions. By the end of the movement, the world heard about the Genocide and Turkey was compelled to give an explanation of history.
However, Turkey not only continued to deny the Genocide, but it proclaimed that there was a civil war and the Armenians were the ones who massacred the Turks. It is ironic to realize how violence called upon violence and that it was thought to be the only way to solve the “Armenian Question” for the Turks and the question of the Genocide for the Armenians. One side attempted, viciously, to end human life in its masses, while the fragmented side struggled out of desperation to reveal the savagery and inhumanity of it all.
At last, we ended the course with the Armenian community of Fresno and the history of its settlement in the Valley. To help us understand the background of the community, we viewed a documentary called, Strangers in a Promised Land. This film, which was narrated by former Governor George Deukmajian, illustrated how the community grew from the late 1890’s to the early 1980’s. In the beginning, Armenians were treated as second-class citizens and were considered to be inferior, but with their hard work and hard-earned fortunes many became leading citizens of the Valley. Today, there exists diversity within the Armenian community of Fresno with Armenians continuing to immigrate to the region from counties of the Middle East, Russia, the Republic of Armenia, and Mediterranean countries. Personally, I consider Fresno to be a model community for the Armenians in the Diaspora.
Yes, this is what I learned, but it’s only about one fifth of what was covered in the lectures. I thought I knew enough about my culture? What a funny joke. I now realize that I need to learn more about my culture and the human culture to become a better citizen of both cultures. Armenian Studies 10, introduction to Armenian Studies was more of an introduction to understanding the human self in its deepest uncensored and universal form.
There is nothing strange, aberrant, peculiar, or odd about Armenians. We are not strangers. We are just six or seven million people roaming about the globe, trying to preserve our “i-a-n’s” and “y-a-n’s”.