One Nation, How Many Aspects of Culture? Armenian Diversity
13:38, January 9, 2015
By Nareg Seferian
Not too long ago, I had an "e-mail fight" with someone I don't know.
To call it a "fight" would be an exaggeration. Rather, we had a heated
discussion back and forth via e-mail, having found each other through
a mutual acquaintance who wisely slipped out of the conversation.
The issue was Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian - specifically,
whether or not there are two separate Armenian languages, or whether
they are both versions of one language. There are other possibilities,
and it could be the case that one may characterise Eastern and Western
Armenian in more than one way at the same time. My correspondent was
very confident toinsist that there is only one Armenian language. My
own position is to refer to the two as "sister languages".
Now, historically, politically, philosophically, ideologically, one
may indeed claim a single, unique linguistic heritage that binds the
Armenian people. There are good, reasonable arguments to be made in
that regard. In practical terms, however, one could easily point out
that Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian differ in terms of
pronunciation (I have even made a short video explaining the
differences in English, in Eastern Armenian, and in Western Armenian),
in terms of vocabulary and grammar, and also in terms of orthography:
the Armenian language in the Soviet Union was made to change the way
it was written in 1922 and then once again in 1940. The Armenian used
in Iran continues to be Eastern Armenian, but written in the classical
way, which isthe same orthography still employed by Western Armenian,
as it has always been in Classical Armenian.
This has all turned out to be quite academic, yes, maybe a little
boring.But it is important to bear in mind, for example, when it comes
time to teach and learn the language. If I sign up for an Armenian
course, then I'm afraid I have to make a choice, or two or three
separate choices. Moreover, if I decide to teach the Armenian language
as a course, then I doubly have to make sure to pick one of the sister
languages. Or perhaps I could teach both, along with Classical
Armenian, if there is time. This is simply a practical reality.
It's the sort of practical reality that many Armenians from outside
Armenia face in Armenia almost every day. I remember a Diasporan, who
has been living in Yerevan for a long time, once mention that what she
missed from Los Angeles was the diversity. I agree. It's a dream come
true to have an Armenian homeland, but - to put it in a banal way -
good, authentic Korean food is hard to come by here. Less banal, more
to the point:the ethnic, religious, and linguistic homogeneity of
society in Armenia extends not just to people staring at blacks on the
street, but also to a lack of appreciation of Armenian diversity.
Yes, Armenian diversity. It sounds like a funny phrase, but I claim
that the very designation of the Armenians as a nation is by virtue of
the fact that there is a great deal of diversity within those
individuals who identify as Armenian. Otherwise, the Armenians might
as well have been simply a community or just a tribe.
There is linguistic diversity among Armenians, as mentioned above.
Each of our unwritten dialects is precious - so many of them having
fallen victim to the Armenian Genocide, by the way. Besides the
dialects, Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian each bear a rich
literary heritage, to say nothing of the literature ofMiddle Armenian
or the Classical Armenian that was the standard for a millennium and a
half. It is a real pity that the Armenians of Armenia are exclusively
acquainted with Eastern Armenian written in the Soviet orthography.
Why can't our schools at least have introductory classes about Western
Armenian, Classical Armenian, or at the very least classical
There is religious diversity among Armenians. It is rare to find
Armenians who are not at least nominally Christian - although there
are plenty of atheist Armenians, alongside so many stories of Muslim
or Islamised Armenians coming out of Turkey in recent years. But even
Armenian Christianity has a great wealth that many in Armenia do not
know about. Etchmiadzin is surely the centre of the faith, but the
significance and the role of the Catholicos of Sis, now in Antelias in
Lebanon, and of the patriarchs in Constantinople (Istanbul) and
Jerusalem are seldomdiscussed in Armenia.
What is more, there is a centuries-old Armenian Catholic tradition,
most pointedly visible through the Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice
and in Vienna and the incredible publishing and education work done by
them through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, up to today. Do most
people in Armenia know that there is a Mekhitarist school in Yerevan?
Do they know about the Armenian Catholic Sisters who do such wonderful
work with young people in Gyumri?
The Protestant Armenians are a relatively new phenomenon, arriving
with American missionaries to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.
What is now the Armenian Evangelical movement spearheaded modern
education and science among the Armenian population at the time. That
was an important source of enlightenment especially for the
Ottoman-Armenian provinces, the interior regions.
I know that many people reading this will be upset to hear about
Armenian Protestants and Armenian Catholics side-by-side with the
Armenian Church.But if the authorities of the Ottoman Empire did not
bother to distinguish among them when massacring our ancestors a
hundred years ago, then I do not care to draw any lines when
celebrating the diversity of our heritage today.
Another aspect of Armenian diversity is that of cuisine. The Armenians
of Iran have specific dishes in their tradition, whilethe Armenians of
Ottoman descent - in the Arab world, in Turkey, in Bulgaria, in Greece
and Cyprus (and their descendants elsewhere) - have their own
favourites. For Armenia, however, the Russian Empire was probably not
as conducive to developing a specific culinary tradition; certainly
the Soviet Union was not, at least not until the immigration waves of
the 1940s on. It is nice to see restaurants opening up in Yerevan
since independence and in particular since the recent influx from
Syria of what could be called "Ottoman-Armenian cuisine". But it still
seems strange for many Diasporan Armenians to hear, for
example,wrapped grape leaves being called "dolma", rather than
"sarma". The latter means "wrapped" in Turkish, whereas the former
means "stuffed". So for Armenians whose ancestors come from the
Ottoman Empire, only stuffed vegetables can be called "dolma". This
is, of course, a small, rather insignificant thing, but it reflects
the general lack of awareness about the wider Armenian nation in the
The main reason why that awareness is lacking is simple: there are
very few people who speak Western Armenian in Armenia, very few
Armenian Catholics and Protestants, almost no public writing or
signage written in classical orthography. But I fear there is a
general lack of openness among many in Armenia to things that are
different, that are new, that are strange. This is characteristic of
all small, closed societies. The Republic of Armenia is a relatively
small society, yes, but it is a part of a relatively large nation.
There should be an openness towards the various cultural expressions
of the nation in the republic. Surely the widespread rejection of
homosexuality in Armenia, for example, is understandable as a reaction
to Western diversity, Western cosmopolitanism. But shouldn't the
Republic of Armenia accommodate Armenian diversity, Armenian
cosmopolitanism? We are a global people, I'm afraid. The secret to
Armenian survival for centuries has been that very cosmopolitanism,
whether or not some Armenians may like or appreciate it.
The only geographical area on our planet that reflects Armenian
diversity well is Southern California, where Armenians from all over
the world have moved over the past many decades. Funny things have
happened as a result, such as a story a friend of mine told me. She
got new Armenian neighbours, and,herself being an Eastern Armenian
speaker, she introduced them to others as her "harevan". They were
Western Armenian speakers, however, and the more common word for
"neighbour" in the sister language is "tratsi". They got upset,
because they thought they were being called "hayvan". Ironically, this
is a word not in Armenian, but in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, meaning
"animal", taken to be an insult. Our roots call out to us from the
Middle East, it seems, no matter how far we go.
Perhaps the fate of the Armenian language is questionable in America,
but the Armenian identity is going strong there. I would argue that
the Armenianidentity is itself not in danger, even though what that
identity will involve in different places in different times will be
different. The reason why the Armenian identity is not in danger is at
least partly because of the existence of the Republic of Armenia as a
central, rallying point for the entire nation.
It would be very encouraging to have better conditions in the country
for the expression of all elements of Armenian diversity, and the
development of new ones. We must acknowledge, accept, and appreciate
our diversity as the legacy of a truly rich, ancient national
heritage, and as a source for our future development in many different
Nareg Seferian received his education in India, Armenia, the United
States, and Austria. His writings can be read at naregseferian.com.