Fire & Ice
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Go ahead, destroy Armenia
The thing I knew before I knew anything else was that I am an Armenian – and I had to accept the privileges and many more burdens that come with that.
I was named Garin after the city in Western Armenia where my family is from. That is an example of a privilege. An example of a burden is that the city of Garin doesn’t exist – at least not by that name. In fact there is no land called Western Armenia. There hasn’t been since 1915. So I was named after an imaginary city in an imaginary land, and so were my brothers Daron and Van.
Our sister Shushi, meanwhile, has a different burden. She bears the name of a town that does exist – except that it exists in a republic that is endlessly fought over but never recognized by the world. We actually baptized her in the great white cathedral of Shushi in the Republic of Artsakh, before the enemy descended with drones and terrorists to slaughter the native population and take the town back.
My parents named their fifth and final child Armen. He was meant to represent the nation of Armenia – the little remnant of homeland that we’ve managed to keep. But it turns out this choice was no safer than the others. As I write these words today, the enemy has crossed our borders and moved to formally occupy the only corridor connecting Armenia to the 120,000 Armenians now trapped in Artsakh.
We’re used to all this. Just look back and you’ll see that the history of the Armenian people is one long sequence of tragedies. Our kings were beheaded. Our empires were crushed. Our people were dispersed across the world.
And yet, at the same time, the history of the Armenian people is a long sequence of miracles. From the bloodbath of genocide, we founded a new republic. From deportations, we formed a great diaspora. Every April, when we commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, these are the words we recite –
I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.
The passage – the most repeated passage among Armenians – is attributed to the great writer William Saroyan. It is a powerful representation of the Armenian spirit. It is a profound summing-up. But William Saroyan didn’t write it.
Saroyan’s original passage is fundamentally different. The thoughts are more free-wheeling and tempestuous. The tone is more daring. And, as we find in Saroyan’s actual conclusion, the sentimentality is cut by profanity –
See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.
Then there is the most fundamental (some would say disappointing) difference. The stunning image of the two Armenians meeting to create a New Armenia – Saroyan never wrote it. Had it even occurred to him, he would likely have figured it was too triumphal – one step too far from art and into propaganda.
But again Saroyan is not the author of the passage we recite. He wrote only its first draft. The passage would need to evolve, mysteriously and slowly, over decades and continents. It would need to be purified down through the generations. And to me this isn’t disappointing at all. It is exhilarating. Only through this kind of collaboration between an author and his people could something so permanent and fundamental be clarified – and an anthem born.
In this way the meeting of the Two Armenians to create a New Armenia has become the greatest magic trick of the Armenian people. It is our national illusion.
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