While reporting in Armenia in October, I joined a group of Armenian Americans for dinner. They were traveling together on a promise they had sworn to the year before: if their friend, a member of the group, survived the cancer and the chemo, they would all make this pilgrimage to the reduced remains of their ancestral homeland.
Though they had come from Los Angeles and Montreal, a hundred years ago their ancestors had lived in what Armenians call “Western Armenia,” today a part of Turkey and the region the Ottoman Empire emptied of its Armenian population in the first genocide of the 20th century.
Their Western Armenian homeland is not part of today’s Armenia. Rather, today’s Armenia, a small slice of an erstwhile empire, lies to the east of Mt. Ararat, and is therefore known, unofficially, as Eastern Armenia. The magnificent summit also split their destinies throughout history. While Western Armenia has ceased to exist except in memory, Eastern Armenia became a Soviet state in 1922 and then re-gained independence in 1991. Even the language spoken here differs significantly from the one carried into exile by those who fled the genocide.
It is these survivors who populate the Diaspora. While they have fervently protected the language, religious rites, and culture of Western Armenia and have zealously campaigned to not let the world forget what happened there, for those at my dinner table, at that moment, the distinction didn’t matter much. For them, there was much that was indeed familiar: the architecture, the words, the faces.
And Mt. Ararat – located just across a closed border in Turkey – is ever-present, dominating the skyline in Yerevan and beyond, a constant reminder of the longing for Western Armenia and of what has been lost in genocide. No longer a part of any Armenia, it is an open wound and at the same time, the symbol of being Armenian.
By the end of that night, after having toasted survival (national and individual) and fraternity (ethnic and platonic) the group clinked their shot glasses of mulberry vodka and said, “For Syria.” They then looked my way to make sure I heard. Not quite in unison, they repeated, “For Syria.”
I had come to Armenia to report on the far-flung reverberations of the violence in Syria. I am also Syrian-American, with much family still in Syria. But the toast was more than just a welcoming gesture to me.
Just about any Armenian who survived the genocide and went on to populate the Diaspora came through Syria. At the time, Syria was under Ottoman rule. Armenians who weren’t murdered in Turkey were forced toward death by being marched out on foot south, into the unforgiving Syrian desert. Those who survived either settled in Syria (where an Armenian community predated the slaughter), or moved on to Lebanon and beyond. Today, the Armenian community in Syria is at least 50,000 strong.
As one Armenian politician I was interviewing told me — upon finding out I was Syrian-American — “You gave them life again.” Many others thanked me, as a proxy for thanking Syria. I kept to myself that my mother’s family, then from a small rural Syrian village, had taken in and hidden Armenians who succeeded in slipping away from the forced death march. That they in turn became a part of our family, that the matriarch taught my grandmother how to cook many of the wondrous dishes that filled her famed repertoire. Should I have thanked them back?
At dinner, I couldn’t help but be choked up by this simple, “For Syria.” The solidarity was indeed moving. But what really gripped me was the sadness of this simple fact: one hundred years ago Syria could offer a decimated people refuge and home and life. Today, she offers no one safety. This includes the many ethnically Armenian Syrians, who are waiting out the violence in Armenia and hoping to return to Syria, while Armenia facilitates their stay and their “repatriation,” should they so desire.
It was that story that had brought me to Armenia in the first place: I wanted to understand if Syria’s loss would be Armenia’s gain. Invested in the survival of Syria’s multi-cultural tapestry, I wanted to know what the limbo of the Syrian Armenians in Yerevan could tell me about Syrian identity and the prospects for a diverse Syria’s survival.
An intoxicating mix of ethnicities and religions has been an intrinsic trademark of Syria for millennia, and Armenians have been an integral part of that fusion, particularly in Aleppo, where the bulk of the community resides. What would Haleb (as Syrians call Aleppo) be without the magic of Armenian characters on churches, schools, and storefronts throughout its streets? What would Halabi (Aleppan) cuisine be without the spicier influences of Western Armenia? Who would we be without our colleagues, neighbors, and friends?
When the Syrian Jews left Syria in 1992 – because being Arab and Jewish is an identity no-man’s land given the ongoing conflict between the Arab countries and Israel – many Syrians tried to convince themselves that this was just a consequence of unfortunate geopolitics, not an utter failure to protect Syrian society as a whole. Many averted their eyes from the frightening precedent that the exodus of an ancient Syrian community had set.
And while most Syrian Jews who left in ’92 ultimately made homes outside of Israel, where it was similarly incongruent to be both Arab and Jewish, they never came back to Syria. The tapestry began to unravel.
In Yerevan, I interviewed several Armenians who told me, with nationalist zeal and excitement, that the possible “repatriation” of Syrian Armenians was a wonderful thing for Armenia, which greatly needs an invigorating influx of people, ideas, and money. This celebration was initially difficult to hear, not just for me, but for many of the newly arrived and traumatized Syrian Armenians. We are still reeling, and many of us have yet to give up on Syria.
There will be no easy answers in Syria – and there is a valid fear that the country will be left fractured in a way that it will be impossible to repair. Indeed, sadness for Syria was a constant companion for me in Armenia, even as the wonder of reassembling a dispersed people and building a nation moved me. But as I followed one of those living threads of the Syrian fabric beyond the borders of Syria and to the faraway Caucasus, I looked to curiosity for comfort.
How would such a strand be woven here into another creation? Would it be more strong, more beautiful? Stretched so far away, could it survive, or would it snap? Or could it bind these two countries and their regions together in a way yet to be imagined?