by Aram Kouyoumdjian
It’s hard to think of Vahe Berberian as lonely. If you ever meet him for coffee at a certain Starbucks in the Valley – a place affectionately referred to as his “office” – you soon realize how difficult it will be to hold a conversation with him because virtually every patron who walks into the place will know Vahe and stop to exchange a few words.
Yet, as a contemporary Armenian dramatist on these diasporan shores, Vahe cuts a solitary figure with hardly any company. He is a rare specimen who composes plays in Western Armenian – a language that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has decreed “endangered.”
Over the four years that have elapsed since Vahe’s previous full-length play, “Baron Garbis,” premiered in early 2008, there have been no more than two or three productions of original Western Armenian plays in our community; without exception, they have been trite farces that are best forgotten. It should shock us that in a community of this size and affluence, theatrical productivity is practically nil.
Vahe’s new play, “Gyank” (Life), speaks to this existential angst – not because its plotline features a character on the verge of death, but because its script is written in a language actually threatened with extinction.
Truth be told, Western Armenian drama has always been imperiled. We can list pre-Genocide censorship and post-Genocide trauma among the obvious reasons, but I’ve always thought that there is a third cause for its arrested development: the Western Armenian language itself.
In its modern form (ashkharhapar), Western Armenian has never been the language of an independent Armenian nation. Spoken mainly in historical Armenia (under Ottoman domination) and, later, in diaspora communities, it has been infiltrated by impurities, absorbing words and expressions from the languages of oppressors (Turkish) or of host countries (Arabic, English, and French). It also has the problem of “gor” – the gerund (or “-ing” form of verbs) – which sounds natural in speech but turns into an eyesore in writing. Western Armenian dramatists face a difficult choice – accepting to write in a vernacular that’s messy, or insisting on a pure, literary language that’s strained and artificial.
Not only does Vahe embrace the Western Armenian vernacular, he revels in it. He has an uncanny ear for the vocabulary and the cadence of the language spoken by Armenians from the Middle East; indeed, the way his characters speak often proves as important as what they say.
Why am I thus preoccupied with Western Armenian, when I can just as easily extol the fluid lyricism of Eastern Armenian? I’m preoccupied with Western Armenian because it is the language of our diaspora. It contains the history of our dispersion. Its impure lexicon is a testament to the influences that have shaped us and the oppressions we have borne. Its clutter reflects the hybrid – and even multiple – identities we’ve come to cultivate in exile.
So I greet “Gyank” not just as a play that will be thought-provoking or moving or funny. I greet it as a new marker of Western Armenian drama’s endurance. And I wish it long life.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Happy Armenians.”