Finding my Armenia, a century after the genocide
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In February, Armenia nudged me. I met a stranger who learnt I was Armenian and who asked a completely normal follow-up question: “Have you been?”
No, I told him. My grandfather and great-grandparents escaped during the Armenian genocide. Almost all traces of Armenian history from that part of the former Ottoman empire — now eastern Turkey — have been destroyed. Because the modern-day nation is on land that was not under Ottoman rule, I never thought it would feel like my Armenia. “I’ll go, eventually,” I said. This was language I was repeating. I have been saying it all my life.
“Huh,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to go for some time now, so I might just bite the bullet. My friend went and said she had the best time. It seems to have culture, delicious food, excellent music and mountains. I mean, what more do you need?”
I blinked. He was going to Armenia? The country, heavy with symbolism in my mind, was not somewhere a tourist could just visit for a cheap week away. If he could — which, of course, he could — why was I making such a big deal about my own eventual trip?
In May, Armenia nudged me again. The Financial Times was covering the country’s Velvet Revolution — Armenians, after a month of entirely peaceful, nationwide protest, unseated their prime minister and replaced him with opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan. The revolution was an overwhelming success. Knowing my background, an editor in our newsroom asked for my thoughts on it.
“To be honest, I know very little about Armenia the country,” I told her. In 1922, a few years after the genocide ended, Armenia was incorporated into the Soviet Union, where it remained for 70 years. My mother’s family always thought Eastern Armenians (those from the nation of Armenia) would be more culturally Russian than those of our heritage, which was influenced more by the Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Ottoman cultures that had coexisted for centuries under Ottoman rule.
We thought of ourselves as Western Armenian, members of the diaspora. When my family left, we took that culture with us in a time capsule. Different food. Different dialect.
I heard myself saying these things, and I didn’t like it. Who was I kidding? Why had I never been to Armenia?
The third time Armenia showed up was in July. I received an invitation to a press event in New York. The poet Peter Balakian, whose 1997 memoir Black Dog of Fate is a resonant exploration of growing up Armenian in America, was due to speak. I was tired, but I felt the pull. So I took the subway uptown.
Halfway through the event, I texted my family’s group chat.
Live texting you from this Armenia event.
Did you know the oldest known winery is in Armenia?
The food looks insane. Basturma for breakfast!
One of the safest countries in the world?!
OK, they got me. I’m going. September. Who wants to join?
My sister responded. “September’s like, tomorrow,” she said. “Maybe next year.”
Meanwhile, Armenia was nudging my mother, too. When I called her that night, she told me about a recent conversation with a woman she knew. “Stop waiting for next year,” the woman had told her. “It’s not the moon. What’s the big deal? Just go!”
It was the moon. To us, it was the moon. But people have been to the moon. So I booked flights for my parents and me.
With a last name like Raptopoulos, my Greekness is a public fact that I carry everywhere. It is also tangible: I hear it in my father’s accent, see it on my trips to Greece; I even speak the language, albeit haltingly. But my Armenianness is fully cultural, just an idea. It is something I work overtime to keep alive. My grandmother, my mother and now my sisters and I stuff green peppers with ground beef, rice, cumin. We know how to skewer slippery cubes of lamb into shish kebabs.
One day I called my mother. “I woke up missing my mom today,” she said. “So I’m making a cheese boerag.” As she spoke, she was layering filo dough in a pan, brushing each sheet lovingly and hastily with melted butter, filling the middle with farmer’s cheese, feta cheese, garlic powder, an egg, then putting it in to bake.
In my hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, every Armenian I knew was related to me. As a child, I explained the intricacies of the genocide to my American friends’ parents. Not visiting Armenia seemed like procrastination, but it wasn’t. It was a block. Maybe it represented danger, the source of the trauma. My family, like many in the diaspora, had a misconception of how the country would be. We weren’t sure we’d belong. It took a collection of cues to get us there.
I met my parents at the luggage carousel in Yerevan, the capital, at midnight in September, seven months after my first cue. We had flown in separately and were giddy, our senses tingling, everything new and out of context. “It smells sweet,” my mother said, a fact that made her happy.
Armenia today is a small, landlocked Christian nation of 2.9 million people. Travel is quite cheap for western tourists, so we organised a driver for the whole trip, Rafael Hovakimyan, and a tour guide for three days in the countryside, Katar Taslakyan. Both became like family; they’re in half of my photos.
Rafael was at the airport the night we arrived. “Armenia welcomes you,” he told us. “I know that you will leave this country in love. Everyone does.”
For the first two days, my parents and I kept repeating, “I can’t believe we’re in Armenia”, like wind-up dolls. Yerevan feels like a small southern European city — outdoor cafés and wine bars, unique museums, a symmetrical central square. The snow-capped Mount Ararat, biblically the landing place of Noah’s ark, stands in constant view.
The children on billboards looked like me. My mother kept remembering forgotten phrases from her childhood. At a market, she turned to me. “My mom used to say Kah-nee-yeh. It means ‘How much?’ Watch this.”
With the confidence of a local, she hollered “Kah-nee-yeh” to the vendor. He responded in full Armenian sentences. “I’m so sorry, I actually don’t know what that means,” she said. “I was just checking to see if it worked.”
The next morning, as we ate eggs scrambled with tomato, my mother stopped someone walking by. “I’m sorry to bother you. My father used to make this every Sunday. Is it called doma-tizo-havgeet?” It was.
We had found a place in the outside world where our secret family language worked.
My father was our affable travel companion, returning the favour to my mother, who has joined him on dozens of visits to Greece over their 45 years of marriage. His parents, in an odd twist of fate, also grew up in Western Armenia during the Ottoman empire. In 1922, the Turks had agreed with Greece on an exchange of populations. The Greeks in Turkey, including my father’s parents, walked a thousand miles to Greece in caravans; the Turks in Greece made the converse trip.
My parents met in New York City and realised quickly that their families had been neighbours in Asia Minor. They were both from the same place, shuffled and re-sorted by history, an imperial chess game in which they had no control. When my grandfathers met for the first time, one didn’t speak Greek and the other didn’t speak English. They communicated in Turkish, the language of their oppressors.
A few days into our trip, I asked my father how he felt. We were walking around Yerevan — like every day, the weather was warm, sunny and dry. “It feels like it’s on the cutting edge of change,” he said. “It feels like Greece in the 1970s. It feels familiar, but it’s not mine. But you’re the one who’s Armenian. How does it feel to you?”
I felt so lucky in that moment — Greece was not my mother’s. Armenia was not my father’s. But both could be mine.
For three days we travelled through the countryside, past dramatic scenes — burnt yellow mountains, a brilliant blue Lake Sevan, gorges that sliced rolling hills in half, tiny monasteries tucked into rock and growing from the land as if they had living roots. We drove through villages that were littered with memories of Armenia’s Soviet past: cement homes with tin roofs, vast abandoned factories.
Late one afternoon, we walked into the grounds of a 6th-century monastery called Odzun. A local festival was wrapping up and children were chasing each other. I looked up to see my mother sitting on the steps of a monument surrounded by children. Their arms were wrapped around each other like old friends, chanting “Ar-men-ia! Ar-men-ia!” As we left, one boy said to my mother in the little English he knew, “Bye bye! I love you!”
“Oh I love you too!” she cried, her arms outstretched. “Come to Boston and you can stay at my house.” That we ever worried we might not belong suddenly became laughable; the number of years we had lost, when we could have had Armenia as another home, felt palpable.
My mother’s father, Manuel BozBeckian, survived the genocide, in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed in 1915. The genocide was directed primarily by Talaat Pasha and the Young Turks, the nationalist party in power at the end of the Ottoman empire. I tell the BozBeckian story often and openly. It feels like the only way to keep the history alive. So I’ll tell you now.
It was 1915, and Manuel was six years old. One night at dinner, his father was taken outside their home and shot. The rest of his family — his mother, brother, sister and himself — were pushed into line on a long walk into the Syrian desert. To die.
This is how most Armenians died: they were robbed, deprived of food and water, often raped and killed. People dropped out of the lines like flies. If you go to parts of the Syrian desert now and touch the ground, you find bones.
Somewhere along the walk, my great-grandmother witnessed a fight between two Young Turk generals and was brought to a nearby city to testify. She had to put her three children in an orphanage while the testimony went on. She was gone for a year; I can only imagine what she had to do to survive. When she returned to the orphanage, my grandfather was the only one of her children left alive. The word used was always malnutrition. But children in Turkish state orphanages during the genocide were tortured and starved.
After a number of years travelling, Manuel and his mother made it on to one of the last boats to America from Constantinople, through Ellis Island. By then he was 13. When I was 13, I had my own bathroom, a growing CD collection and a job walking my neighbour’s dog.
Father shot, caravan into the desert, testify, orphanage, malnutrition, Ellis Island. These words are stitched into me. I’ve been told that traumas like these are passed down generationally, that I have a diluted version of it and that it will continue on, even more diluted, to my children. How could this not be true? Manuel is the man that raised my mother.
The diaspora today is large — about 11 million — and spread across the world, from Russia to the US, France, Lebanon, Iran and Argentina. It is only 3.5 million smaller than the world’s Jewish population. The genocide is still a live issue: Turkey continues to deny it and, due to lobbying and the pressure of strategic alliances, it has still not been acknowledged by the US, the UK, Israel or all but 29 countries around the world.
I have always been defined by my grandfather’s story. But over the course of these 11 days in Armenia, I began to feel that my attachment to the genocide was a privilege — I could come here and explore my roots freely, because my family’s experiences have improved so radically in the years since.
While my grandparents built lives, Armenia continued to struggle. It was relatively stable during Soviet rule, though heavily dependent, until 1988, when it suffered a catastrophic earthquake that killed 25,000 people. When the USSR fell in 1992, the economic support it had given the country went with it. Left with an unreliable supply of energy, Armenians lived with about an hour of electricity a day for four years.
The people we met who have memories of the 1990s told us of the “dark years”, when one of the few things they could rely on eating was trout from Lake Sevan. They remembered cutting down trees with their fathers for warmth in cold winters. (Today, the country is still trying to recover from overfishing and deforestation.) They remember a war with Azerbaijan from 1988-1994 over contested borders of the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabach, an unresolved conflict still considered one of wider Europe’s most unstable potential flashpoints.
Armenia has good diplomatic ties with almost everyone but its two direct border neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Its history with Russia adds a layer of complication; though they are close, Russia likes its former states to need it. Russia sells weapons to Azerbaijan and Armenia at the same time.
In recent years, the country has become a base for members of the diaspora living across the Middle East, including more than 17,000 Syrian Armenians. One evening we had dinner at Derian, a Syrian-Armenian restaurant in Yerevan, with an Armenian-American named Suzanne Daghlian. She had “felt the pull — I can’t explain it” and moved permanently to Yerevan in 2013. Her friend Davit had come to Armenia from Aleppo a few months before the Syrian civil war began. Once fighting started back home, his family suggested he stay.
Davit is 27. He joined us for a glass of raki and told us things were bad but could have been worse. He was lucky. His family in Aleppo had lost power, water and heat for two full years. His aunt’s building was struck by a missile; many of his friends had been kidnapped or killed; they struggled with depression and unspeakable pain. But you can’t compare pain, he told us. In parts of Africa people are starving, and we are dying because of war, and we just really can’t compare it.
A Syrian-Armenian family from the next table began to chat with us. They had gone to school with Davit in Aleppo and recognised each other here, in this restaurant in Yerevan. They offered us some of their son’s birthday cake. We said, “No, it’s OK,” and laughed, but the child’s mother picked up the cake, filled her fork and brought it to each of our mouths.
“Ker”, she told us. Eat.
Here I was, Lilah from Brookline, Massachusetts, standing with a fellow Armenian. She had a similar family history of persecution, but had recently survived another vivid round of trauma. When in need, this country welcomed her, a cultural meeting place that also welcomed Davit, and Suzanne, and me. She was feeding me, simply because she is Armenian and it is important to feed.
The next day we visited Mother Armenia, a Statue of Liberty-like monument that overlooks Yerevan from the top of its highest hill. It replaced a monument of Joseph Stalin that was pulled down in the 1960s. She is severe, made of copper, her elbows at right angles. She holds a sword in her hands. I was shocked to see that sword.
I suppose I thought, naively, that after the genocide, Armenians’ wellbeing was a settled matter. Sure, their post-genocidal partition wasn’t large, but it was theirs and they were safe. Instead, I found a country not fully calm.
On one of the last days, I told Rafael that I was sure he had many tourists like us, from the diaspora, who arrive with the genocide at the top of our minds. I asked whether it bothered him that we were so caught up in the fight for genocide recognition while Armenia was still struggling in so many other ways. “Yes, we have to look forward. But I think it is good that the diaspora talks about the genocide, because it reminds the world of our power,” he told me. “It shows strength that you will not let it go. If Turkey or Azerbaijan tries to start a war with us, they know the world is watching.”
Despite these tensions, Armenia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and its people are full of optimism. The revolution in May was organised through Facebook, Twitter and Signal by a generation that doesn’t remember Soviet rule, is well educated, highly skilled in technology and has grown up online. Its leader, journalist turned opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan, set ground rules: no violence, no resistance; if someone tries to arrest you, allow them; everyone off the streets at 10pm.
As in many post-Soviet states, for years oligarchs held substantial economic and political control in Armenia. Corruption, including bribery and electoral fraud, was common. In April, the public watched with hope as their country transitioned from a semi-presidential republic to a parliamentary democracy, with the promise from two-term president Serzh Sargsyan that he would not appoint himself prime minister. When he broke this promise, the revolution began.
In the seven months since Sargsyan stepped down, Pashinyan’s number-one goal has been to root out corruption. He has cut back the country’s police force; now traffic cops no longer stop drivers to demand bribes. He has criminalised rampant vote-buying and investigated — and charged — oligarchs for widespread tax fraud, bringing millions back into the system to reinvest.
Pashinyan recently called for a snap election and, on December 9, citizens will have a chance to replace their current parliament with politicians they trust. For the first time, it will be a free and fair election.
One evening I met Armen Der Kiureghian, president and co-founder of the American University of Armenia. We had dinner on an outdoor patio in Yerevan, wrapping fresh, spongey lavash flatbread around sprigs of mixed herbs. I asked him what he wanted to see in Armenia over the next 10 years.
“That people don’t leave,” he said. “That people come back, and that the diaspora realises that this is the perfect time to invest. If Pashinyan can root out corruption, Armenians will be able to start businesses. They want to work hard.”
Our last night was my mother’s 69th birthday. It was our final meal in Yerevan: kofte, dolma, tourshi, manti. My father turned to my mother. “So, Debbie, do you feel like this is your country?” he asked.
She thought for a second. “I feel like I have a culture, and that culture has a country.”
Lilah Raptopoulos is the FT’s community editor; email@example.com