I will try to make this brief and concentrate on a few bullet points about the Armenian condition in the Diaspora.
- During the past 13 years I have been traveling extensively all over the world, performing for the Armenian communities. From Australia to Argentina, to France and the Middle East, the picture is almost always identical. The Armenian speaking audience in every single community has been dwindling, interest in anything that’s Armenian is slowly declining, knowledge of history and culture is shrinking and in short, the Diaspora is dying a fast death.
Sadly, the Armenian Genocide has become our national symbol. A few years ago there was a talk of me hosting a series on TV of short movies made by Armenians. 70 percent of the submissions I got were about the Armenian Genocide. We are obsessed with the past to the point that we don’t even live the present any more, and I think this is where the Turks have succeeded. Genocide is the sine qua non for being Armenian. They have created a nation that is not capable of moving forward because it’s carrying 2 million dead ancestors on its back.
I can understand the obsession with the Genocide on political fronts, but an obsession like that on cultural front is almost deadly, because it can create a nation of necrophiliacs: a nation that romances its dead.
Everywhere I go, the word hayabahbanoum is constantly heard. Community leaders are trying to preserve our cultural identity which, in my opinion, is accelerating the decline of our national identity, because there is something already dead in anything that’s preserved or conserved.
In best case scenarios, we have become security guards in museums, trying to protect our cultural heritage, which, like anything that’s displayed in museums, smells of decay and putrefaction.
- My second point is probably related to the first one. For many, many, many years, being an Armenian has been associated with everything that’s tragic, sad, passé or unhip.
As artists, I think we should concentrate on creating art that’s relevant to our times, art that is first and foremost entertaining. This is something I can’t stress enough. No matter how important the message is, or how beautiful the work is, if we are not able to entertain our audience or keep its interest going, we will not be able to get through, because a bored audience is not capable of hearing much or coming back for more.
- I think we need to find a way of marketing our Armenian identity. Being Armenian should be cool and hip. Our youth should identify being Armenian with anything that’s fresh, rebellious and fun.
The other day some friends were talking about how it is important to speak Armenian at home with the kids, and one of the girls said I really don’t think it’s that important. I want my kids to be happy. Why speaking Armenian should be considered a source of unhappiness is beyond me. On the contrary, it should be exactly the opposite. Armenian should be a source of pride and joy.
This is the type of mentality that needs to change.
In this sense, I think what artists can do is invaluable. They can inspire young people to feel proud of their cultural heritage, embrace it and enhance it, which is the most important thing.
Musicians, painters, writers actors and what not, who have made a name for themselves and have created a certain following, can do wonders to the Armenian morale. A couple of years ago one of my friends, who is a principal at an Armenian school asked his students a question: If it was April 24 all over again and the Turkish government wanted to arrest all the Armenian intellectuals, who would they arrest. The students had a hard time coming up with names. One of the names they agreed on was “System of a Down.” If you think about it, you can’t blame them, because I have no idea who our modern day Krikor Zohrabs, Daniel Varoujians, Siamantos and Gomidas’s are.
No doubt everyone agree that we should spend billions of dollars on arms, ammunition, tanks and fighter planes to defend our national borders, but if we do not invest in our culture, what are we actually defending? A nation without an identity? Then why is our survival so important? Let’s face it, why should one bother preserving something one doesn’t have?
- Being an Armenian can not be based on sacrifice. Embracing your cultural heritage and identity only makes you a richer person, gives you a new dimension. Not just as an artist, but as a human being.
Living in the Diaspora, we have come to believe that anything we create should be aimed at the larger, non-Armenian public. That has become the criterion of success. You can make a horrible movie but if it’s watched by odars, it’s respected, but you can create a masterpiece in Armenian, and if it’s watched only by Armenians, it is perceived as futile.
As a nation we are going through the most crucial of times: Armenian schools are closing everywhere, our language is dying, the country is being evacuated, and our numbers are drastically dwindling, what is so important that we are trying to communicate to the non-Armenians? And what are we expecting them to do? I think as Armenian artists it is imperative that we look inward.
I understand the economical reasons for looking outward: fame, fortune and all, but in the final analysis, when we are facing an eminent death, isn’t it time for us to address our problems to ourselves. Who cares what you’re wearing or what you look like if you’re dying of cancer? And the interesting part is this: To be appreciated by the odars does not mean you have to forget your identity. I think only insecure people do that. As an artist, I have learned that the more specific your work is, the more universal it becomes. What gives you depth is your ability to invest the cultural capital you have inherited into new ventures.
Having said all this, as grim as the picture is, I think it is possible to actually do something about the situation. And I am appalled by all these cynics who think the situation is so hopeless that nothing can be done about it.
If you’re a doctor and you have a patient, you’re not allowed to think “Oh, he’s going to die anyway, why am I wasting my energy, why don’t I just let him die.” If you think in those fatalistic terms, everything will end, sooner or later. So you might as well not do anything at all.
- In my opinion, as a nation, we are very lucky to have a rich narrative, and I think we should capitalize on that narrative. We have a rich history, we have a fantastic folklore, we have an enormous cultural wealth that we have not imparted to the younger generation. Our young people know nothing about our culture, history and folklore. We have reduced our centuries old history into one time period: The Genocide.
Once again, I am not saying that we should forget the Genocide and simply move on. The Armenian Genocide is and should be a political problem, but we should not let it take over our entire cultural existence.
Culture is the precipitation of a living experience. When a group of people live together, they create certain commonalities, like language, music, food, humor, mannerisms and anything that brings people together. As artists, we need to create that culture, or better yet, we need to celebrate that culture and forge a modern day Armenian identity.
Photo: In Paris, with the Mgnigs. By Zabel Margossian