By Alissa Medina
You know, your great grandmother was a slave.” A week ago my mother shared this piece of our family history. Old Yaya, was one of the millions of Armenians who were either sold into slavery, beaten or starved to death during the ethnic cleansing program of the Ottoman Empire. In 1915, well over a million perished. My great-grandmother survived because she was sold to an Arabic family and worked for them for three years, from the time she was 12. Eventually she escaped to Istanbul where an Armenian family took her in, and she found an Armenian husband. Old Yaya died before I was born, but I am named after her daugher, Aliss.
They say that your family’s trauma is in your blood. I was only five years old when my mother explained the Armenian genocide. All Armenians are told what happened to their families under the reign of the Ottoman paramilitary groups. That was the beginning of the diaspora. Today, more than twice as many of the world’s 7 million Armenians live outside the country, more than twice as many as within. There are Armenians everywhere; even a city in Colombia bears the name “Armenia.”
My homeland is considered one of the oldest countries in the world. We are proud to claim the world’s oldest shoe and winery, and the capital city of Yerevan dates back to 600 BC. Ancient Armenia was vast, encompassing present-day Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.
But growing up Armenian in America was often challenging. As a child I would stare at my thick Armenian eyebrows in the mirror and pluck away my hair, upending the very fabric of my Armenian-ness. That already felt like a burden I had to carry.
In our small Armenian community in Pasadena, California, my mother took me to many Church conventions. We’d sit and talk about keeping our blood alive, over kebabs and thick, black Armenian coffee, while listening to the duduk, an Armenian flute that sounded like an out-of-tune violin or an exasperated sigh.
Armenian Church camp, which I attended from age 11 to 18, was another place to learn about our culture. We would sit in a circle as a priest told us about the orphans in Armenia, then look at pictures of the genocide—of women and children being starved to death, their ribs sticking out. This event was a mainstay of our lives and it came under the banner, “Never forget.”
My father, an “odar” or non-Armenian, was one of my grandmother Yaya’s woes. She had desperately wanted my mother to marry an Armenian. My being half Armenian was always awkward—one step toward forgetting how horribly everyone had suffered. My full-blooded Armenian friends knew that their families would be highly disappointed if they married odars.
It was all so confusing. Being Armenian sometimes felt like a safe haven yet other times, it was isolating. I felt very different from my friends at camp, and even more so, from the kids at my California high school, and was especially self-conscious when my thick leg hair popped out near the bottom of my jeans. In those days, I was stuck in a weird middle-ground, navigating competing loyalties at home and in my everyday life.
Since some Armenians are considered Middle Eastern, I have sometimes kept my ancestry a secret. But my Yaya passed on the family stories, and insisted I remember them.
My grandparents arrived in America in the 1950’s. My grandfather received a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. My Yaya Aliss came separately and took a sleeping pill right before she got on the plane. “One moment I closed my eyes,” she said, “and then woke up in America!”
“I was always freezing in Troy,” she recalled. The walls were paper thin, and there was little insulation. Life was a constant struggle with a young child—my mother was only a year old. at the time—and so much to learn. In her mid 20s, my grandmother left her mother’s home in Istanbul to come to America, not knowing any English, and later moved to a suburb of Los Angeles.
She did not understand that life was different for the third generation. And she still insisted that I marry an Armenian.
Things were awkward when I turned 18 and we had our very own Armenian debutante ball. I picked out a white dress that reminded me of Marilyn Monroe and was paired with a relative of the novelist William Saroyan. These affairs usually start with a father-daughter dance. As mine guided me through a waltz, and stood with me on the podium, we were glad to see that he was not the only odar dad.
When I graduated from college with a masters degree in Media, Culture and Communication from NYU, my family wanted to give me a trip to the homeland. Though I’d dreamt about this pilgrimage when I was growing up, to everyone’s surprise I refused to go. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being Armenian. No, I felt I wasn’t Armenian enough. After moving to New York City, I just didn’t feel my roots as strongly.
“Your Old Yaya went through an incredibly rough time during the genocide,” my mother had always told me. And the truth is, I never felt that I could measure up. This is what you call survivors guilt, the feeling gets passed down through the generations, and strangles the hearts of the grandchildren.
But as time passes, it all comes back, this longing for home and family. We feel our heritage even more acutely when the older generation starts to go. Like so many other grandmothers, Yaya died during coronavirus. I didn’t get to talk with her before she passed. But I would sneak up to her window at the nursing home, then hide in the bushes, hoping to see her face through the reflections of the afternoon light bouncing off the window.
A nurse eventually caught me, and we fell into conversation. She told me that my grandmother often asked in her thick accent and her high-pitched voice, “How did this happen?”
Last September, a day before Yaya passed, Azerbaijan launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, inaugurating a devastating new war in Armenia.
Watching the news, I never felt more Armenian in my life. Day after day, I tuned in, waiting for another blow. It was hard to hear that so many refugees were burning their homes rather than leave them behind for the aggressors.
Nagorno-Karabakh known as Artsakh, a mountainous, heavily-forested, landlocked region in the South Caucasus, is at the heart of a decades-long standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian citizens like Maral Najarian, are currently being held captive by Azerberijani soldiers, even though the war has “ended.” And not too long ago Anthony Bourdain was banned from entering the Azerbijan because he featured Armenians in Artsakh on his TV show.
The people who have lived on those lands for thousands of years are ethnic Armenians. With this new attack—and yet another wave of refugees–I felt the fabric of my Armenian-ness unravel. Now, a hundred years after the Ottoman genocide, our community was once again being torn to shreds. Artsakh is one more part of our country being stripped of cultural importance. The war grew out of a conflict of identity, of territory, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with no other country able to step in and help us to resolve it.
But still, we have hope. As Armenian artist Serj Tankian tells us in his song “Artsakh,” We will win. We will win with our culture.
“The most beautiful essence of a people is its culture. Not its military, economy, flag, or border,” Tankian said in an interview with Creative Armenia. “The Chinese always believed that their culture was so powerful, that irrespective of battle victories, they would inevitably win…and their culture would endure.”
Armenia is still my homeland—it is a place that I inhabit with my heart and mind. I will keep the homeland alive by continuing to tell the story of my Yayas. My mother and I remember them fondly as we visit their graves, read Armenian literature—and even push the boundaries by falling in love with odars.
Our nation suffers, and yet it endures. We are storytellers, fighters, and we carry our homeland in our souls. When I hear that someone is Armenian, my heart leaps out of my chest because I know we share the same secrets. And when I finally did make it back to my homeland, with my mother, four years ago, I could feel the land stir in my bones.
Here are a few things you might not know about our culture.
We have a very thin Armenian-style bread topped with spiced meat that we call the lahmajoon. We eat it folded like a New York pizza, and it’s absolutely soul-satisfying.
Our traditional Armenian dance–the Kochari—is one of the oldest, richest dance forms in the world. The people skip, hop, and twist their legs in a circle with other dancers. The women wear bejeweled hats with intricate beading.
Monoliths used as ancient astronomical tools were found in Zorats Karer in the southmost province. You can learn more here about the “Armenian Stonehenge.”