OPERATION HAYASDANBy: Varak Babian | Posted on: 22.02.2013
My story is not unique in circumstances, with parents born in Beirut and deciding that a better future lay for themselves and their children in Toronto. That is the first city I opened my eyes in and the one that shaped my identity, my narrative – steeped on diasporan soil. Like my parents before me, I have been brought up both loving and appreciating my place of birth while knowing it was not of our own happy choosing nor one that came into fruition organically. The fate of forced migration carries with it the faintest whiff of an exhausted psyche, a badge of weakness on your lapel. That weakness can become an element to rally around and turn instead into a badge of honour and pride- show everyone that you have beat the odds, we are still not only alive but flourishing. Burn in hell Talaat.
The oddmaker at the games table would not lay their chips on us- how we have remained Armenian around the world. How we have planted vibrant clusters of school, church and community centre where we learn, worship and perform in our native tongue. Just look at us. We discuss our history in the same language that wove its plotline, sing hymns using ancient, original scores and keep Komitas and Khatchaturian in our arm’s reach. We have newspapers and television programs. We are a young and strong voice in our city’s upper office, impactful behind the scenes.
We have succeeded to keep our culture alive, our language on our lips and our letters at our fingertips. I myself read, write and speak Armenian with a certain intimate proficiency that I am proud of. Now let the irony waft over as I confess that English would have to be the language that I would need to attempt and express myself eloquently with these few, modest words. I would be sad to admit that I am uncertain that I could do my thoughts justice in my native tongue.
Through calculated decisions, first of my parents and then later my own, I have had every opportunity to be able to practice my command of the Armenian language. I’m doing alright, but how will my children fare? My parents live and breathe, love and think in Armenian. I was lucky through sheer osmosis. How will I be able to pass on to them something that has collected rust in such close to ideal a scenario? That’s ok – I justify in my mind – there’s our beloved Armenian schools. When the time comes, when there is family and children, I will switch gears and flex the Armenian language skills. I will lead through example with only Armenian at home, dinner talk, small talk, all Armenian. I too, will then live and breathe, love and think in Armenian. It will be a diligent, everlasting struggle. It is the constant pre-sence of this struggle, rather even just the awareness of its existence that has left deep grooves of self-awareness and helped form my identity: a proud Armenian who is equally proud to call Toronto my home.
This all sounds well and cute, but of course I realize that luck is on my side. Being able to live in a city like Toronto has given its Armenian community the chance to co-exist with fellow Canadians, and to be living examples of the multicultural mantra that captures the best that the city offers. The Toronto Armenian community is viewed as a success story, one that mirrors the endearing qualities that Canada has been known for. Tolerance, altruism and gene-rosity. Our neat efficiency and careful ambition. I am proud to live in a city like Toronto, one with an international reputation for nurturing strong and dynamic community bases. But then I start to wonder about where this is all supposed to go. Is this all temporary? Are we laying down roots or flourishing in flower pots?
Recently, I have started an internal monologue with a battling Armenian narrative. One that sees Armenia not as a beautiful historic piece of land, nestled between apricots and constant Ararat eye candy, a young, independent state, with its population frustrated and ready to explore greener pastures. Armenia is a piece of land, not perfect and sometimes riddled with not so pleasant realties. But it is mine. It is mine as much as the 416 is, as much as maple leaves and Metro Morning. A not so old, but very wise man recently drew a comparison for me – one of an emergency room vs an operating room. He explained that rather than treating our ancestral home with an emergency room approach- patching it up as it comes in under duress, pumping its chest and keeping it breathing in intervals – we need to take constant and pre-emptive measures. Take it off the machines and help it breathe on its own.
Having strong diasporan influences in the world is essential for Armenia’s success. I would argue that the country in its present state is not yet ready to walk on its own two feet. Having an Armenian presence, a contemporary and local voice in Paris, New York, Toronto and Venice allows for bridges to be built and for the exchange of ideas and sharing of practice. As all roads once led to Rome, it is vital for all Diasporan roads to lead back to Armenia. We have to gain expertise, gleam expertise and carry it all on our backs – we must all make the pilgrimage to unpack in Armenia. We will meet one another, argue and agree, make deals and deliver upon them.
As our steps cross the bridge, back through Pearson, Heathrowe or De Gaulle, we cannot forget the importance of having land under your feet. We cannot make claims on ancient territory or keep hard fought ones without a presence. Can it be here, that we look to fellow Armenians who are not lucky enough to have a place in a multicultural mosaic of their own. For our brethren struggling with governments that do not appreciate them, persecute or punish them? Can we help them return, give them a chance to succeed in their own home?
What is just as crucial as filling Armenia with its native children is, for those of us who are not lucky enough to call it home- for us to create our own little Armenia’s abroad. Our generation needs to feel the urgency of now. If we are unable to go to Armenia, carry bricks over and build our own outpost in the world class cities we are blessed to call home, then we must make the conscious and constant decision to live and breathe, love and think in Armenian. If not, we must be willing to make the decision to complete the cycle – to extend our gaze and return home.
In 20 years, I am hopeful that some of this can become reality. I have every faith in my local Armenian community. We will continue to grow stronger and smarter. We will nurture our Armenian identity and will not only sing and read, but compose and create in Armenian. We will narrate our second-wave diasporan identity, not only in our learned language – but our mother tongue as well. We will each carry a brick with us and lay down mortar on the bridge that connects us to that same land of apricots and Ararat eye candy. In 20 years, I hope we all take individual ownership in the success and prosperity in the land of our forefathers and commit to a project in Armenia that marries the opportunities and experience we have gained in our diasporan home with a passion and interest we have uncovered in our ancestral home. In 20 years, I hope to have made my contribution to the success of our Toronto community- have it flourish and like its backdrop continue on the path to being first-class. And I also hope to have the ability and awareness to complete my residency in the operating room and build bridges in the process.