‘Harsneren: Language of the Armenian Bride’ to premiere at POM 2019
November 12, 2019
Carla Kekejian interviews an elderly Baghanis resident
Interviews were conducted in a very conversational-manner, allowing residents of villages such as Baghanis (pictured) to answer questions comfortably while digging through memories that could be from decades to half-a-century old at any given time. (Photo courtesy of Carla Kekejian)
From forced hush to featured spotlight, “Harsneren: Language of the Armenian Bride” shines a light on a little-known language, where silence, taboo, and oppression replace subject, noun, and verb.
For generations, many young Armenian brides were often forced into “Չխօսկանութիւն | Chkhoskanutyun,” a culturally-enforced practice of silent-keeping. In some cases, a “silent” form of communication arose among these women. Known as “Harsneren” (literally, “language of the bride”), this gesture-based sign language has fallen into disuse and was all but forgotten outside of a few remote villages in Armenia.
That is, until now. In the documentary short film, “Harsneren: Language of the Armenian Bride,” writer, director, and researcher Carla Kekejian travels to Baghanis, a small Armenian town on the turbulent Azerbaijani border, to uncover the truth behind this mystifying language. What ensues is an intimate reckoning with tradition and trauma, whose remnants are still felt today.
"Chkhoskanutyun literally refers to the practice of not speaking.” These are the opening lines to the film—an engrossing documentary about Harsneren, a once-common gesture-based sign language, which arose from an imposition of silence placed on married Armenian women. Ironically, the film employs a hefty amount of dialogue to unpack the deep layers of shame and cultural taboos that forced countless women into muteness.
The 17-minute documentary short film offers a riveting look at some of the lingering—as well as evolving—perceptions of the role and responsibility of Armenian women, through the use (and, later, disuse) of this language. It is hard to believe that writer-director Carla Kekejian is not a filmmaker by profession, but a doctoral candidate in Communication Sciences and Disorder at the University of Utah.
Why, then, a documentary? “I really believe in the power of multimedia to convey scholarly information in a language and manner that is accessible by a broad audience. Why can’t this story be told as a documentary short film?” she tells h-pem.
The trek to unearthing a ‘silent’ language
And that story began before the director even realized. In the summer of 2014, Kekejian traveled over 7,000 miles from her home in Los Angeles to the little Armenian border village of Baghanis to volunteer with the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Youth Corps. But academics and Harsneren were far from her mind. That is, until an undergraduate linguistics course at the University of California, Irvine the following fall, brought up the topic of sign language in different countries. This inspired Kekejian to research the use of sign language in Armenia. Digging around, she soon stumbled upon a link that piqued her interest: “It stated that Armenian Sign Language (primarily used by deaf or hard of hearing individuals) differed from the sign language of married Armenian women, which was used when it was taboo for them to speak," she says.
“That was the first time I learned about a gender-specific form of communication, especially one that was present among Armenians. I immediately got hooked,” she explains. Yet, information started and stopped there. The quest to learn more quickly became a side project for Kekejian, though “passionate investigation” is probably more accurate.
After a few months of poring over archives, Kekejian came across a 1935 study on the topic. Though written in Russian and with only one known copy in North America, the young researcher was not deterred; she acquired the book and had it translated to English. Perhaps the biggest insight revealed by the study was its source: The research was conducted in four villages in present-day Armenia.
In the summer of 2016, Kekejian, now a graduate student, set out to explore all four villages; serendipitously, among them was Baghanis. Since she knew the mayor from her previous trip, that was where her fieldwork began. Located less than a mile from the volatile Azerbaijani border, Baghanis often makes headlines for coming under military crossfire. Yet, for Kekejian, the village holds a special role in uncovering the mystery behind this gesture language. Little did she know then that it would soon become a key player in her whirlwind journey that started in a classroom in California.
Hoping to unshroud the mystery behind this fascinating, yet enigmatic gesture language, Kekejian explored the following questions: How did it develop? At which moments did women utilize it? What are the different signs and gestures that women frequently demonstrated?
“Harsneren: Language of the Armenian Bride,” is a culmination of the many surprises she encountered along her journey. “There is so much authenticity in the film. You’ll hear me straddle between Western and Eastern Armenian. You’ll hear personal narratives of abuse and trauma, which are never easy, but immensely important to share and absorb. You’ll see hugs and kisses and laughs. It’s all so real. I genuinely hope the audience can see and feel that,” she explains.
«Դ՛է աղջիկ ջան, Հարսներէն խօսում էինք» (“Oh, dear girl, we spoke Harsneren”)
With assistance from the mayor, Kekejian was invited into the homes of locals. Their conversations were completely organic and led to a revelation that, she says, was one of the most “jaw-dropping” moments of her life. “Early on, during these interviews, individuals stated that the gesture-based signing language used by married Armenian women was referred to as Harsneren. None of the sources I came across previously had indicated that name in reference to the practice,” she explains. It seems fitting that the key actors in the documentary are the men and women of Baghanis, who gave the language a name—at least, for their researcher.
The oldest person Kekejian interviewed who spoke Harsneren was 92 and the youngest was 49. “The youngest person I interviewed who was mute for some time upon marriage (i.e. practiced chkhoskanutyun, which still lives on) but did not speak Harsneren was 19,” Carla explains. Through these villagers, the documentary shows the complicated nature of Harsneren, and the practice of silence-keeping in general, and its lasting social and psychological impacts on some women in Armenia to this day. One of the most poignant moments of her research was when Carla witnessed an elderly woman throwing her arms up in the air and pronouncing that she “sang to the mountains” after she was permitted to speak.
Towards the end of the film, Kekejian poses a question that gets to the very heart of this language and its woeful role in our national legacy: “Harsneren makes us wonder, how much of Armenian cultural heritage and history is incomplete when half the population was forcibly mute for significant portions of their lives?”
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