A cocoon of refuge within my Lebanese-Armenian identity
January 10, 2020
In this candid piece for h-pem, Beirut-based Salma Yassine explores her identity as she traverses the streets of Yerevan and Bourj Hammoud and takes a trip to the picturesque strawberry fields of Ainjar...
The day I found out that strawberries don’t grow on trees was the day I demystified my Armenianness.
I never felt a sense of belonging to the culture of manti and noor ("pomegranate" in Armenian); the muffled sentences never resonated with me, for they only paved paths for mistranslations to twirl around my crux. During passing conversations, I would be leaning on imaginary crutches while trudging through muddy waters. I wanted to be heard, I wanted to scream the insides of my soul, and I wanted to unleash my skin’s true colors. Yet, I was faced with rivers of silence welling inside of me even when I was asked to speak what was on my mind.
I was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, on a day that is woven within a blatant collision of nines: 9/19/1999. At the mere age of two, my father and I fled to his homeland, Lebanon, leaving everything behind.
We did not flee the country—we escaped my mother’s unbearable death.
As a child, I was not raised in an Armenian environment. On the contrary, I grew up in a Lebanese rural village—one, which was isolated from any intercultural contact, between lofty trees of ripe olives and sweet figs. My infantile memories consist of waltzing between chasing bees in our front yard’s untamed garden and closing my sleepy eyelids to the traditional tune of Arabic lullabies.
I went to a Lebanese school where not one of my friends was Armenian. I remember reading the name of one particular boy in the yearbook—a “–ian” that has stuck with me until this day. Back then, I did not know why it moved me. Oddly enough, even as a kid, I did identify as "half Armenian.” I presented school projects and informal lectures about the Armenian Genocide. I even had an Armenian pun printed on my seniors’ t-shirt. My teachers would always inquire about my salient non-Lebanese features; those embedded within a perpetual undiscovered Armenianness that I inherited from my mother’s side.
I enrolled in the Lebanese American University in the fall of 2017. I couldn’t help but embrace campus life, which was brimming with Armenians from a plethora of backgrounds, united under the umbrella of the LAU Armenian Club. Some of them were half Armenian, some didn’t speak the language, while others were discovering a new world outside their Armenian haven. We danced together on “Armenian Nights.” I even enrolled in a folk dance class taught by an Armenian instructor that I was (and still am) immensely fond of. We also sold sujukh sandwiches in the name of charity. We educated other students about the genocide during memorial and heritage days. It was all curated within a crescendo of solidarity, bringing us, Armenians, together.
At first, I thought that the language would be a barrier; for it had always been so for me. However, I was proven wrong by everyone who celebrated and welcomed my existence within this respited home, rendering me a member of the cabinet. I befriended the sweetest of Paligs, Kourkens, Shahens, Vanas, and Gacias. I enjoyed their company and unveiled a little Armenia within each of them and their mothers’ warm food.
The holy unholiness of roaming about the streets of Yerevan was the rawest softness my eyes got to experience. The entire trip was an iridescent horizon that my dilated pupils had always yearned to embrace. I was touched by mundane details that people often neglect when tracing the trajectories of streets they’ve memorized. The souvenir merchants; the old lady sitting by herself on a lonely bench on top of the cascade; the grey-haired woman with the flowery dress working on her embroidery; the lady whom I took a picture of right next to the museum entrance; and the singer on the side of the road—they were all works of art to me. And they still are. They are not hazy scribbles—they are the human version of a “homeland.”
I met a musician playing one of Fairuz’s songs on his trumpet (Fairuz is a well-known Lebanese singer—one of the most admired and influential singers in the Arab world). He told me that his daughter, Asdgh, teaches dance in Beirut. He had a beautiful complexion of demure features that made me feel at “home.”
I still cherish the necklace I bought from a woman in her nineties on top of Sevan’s monasteries. She was pure and coy, like the sun. I admit that I saw “Armenia” in her eyes.
I was occupied by all the art: the mesmerizing garniture hovering upon modest architecture, the sacramental churches, the lovely people, the motherly food, the eternal flame and all the souls that it withholds, sunsets from the cascade, street vendors… I was invaded by all that my eyes have witnessed within those numbered days. I am still captivated by all the soulful pictures that linger within my photo gallery.
A year later, I was asked to go on a “Tour in Bourj Hammoud” for an article that I was delegated to write for An-Nahar, the newspaper I contribute to. It wasn’t much of covering an event for journalistic purposes, but rather a project of self-discovery through the live exploration of the area. The tour guide, a young Armenian Bourj Hammoud resident, introduced different aspects of the culture. He focused on its history, language, and religion, which are the three pillars that constitute it. The tour was eye-opening; it featured a plethora of authentic shops residing near one another like mosaic pieces. Their owners were very humble and hospitable when our curiosity would lead us into their welcoming doorsteps.
One of my Armenian friends, Cynthia, wanted to experiment with her new camera, so she asked me to model for her. While deciding upon the location, I instantly thought of Bourj Hammoud. For some peculiar reason, that place has a certain sense of sentimentality. The photographs were a success, yet what elevated their value is the fact that they portrayed two intertwined “Armenias.” Both of them are miniature representations of all that hairenik (fatherland), and in my case mairenik (motherland), withholds.
Towards the end of summer 2019, a friend of mine, Vart, invited me to visit her home in Ainjar—a Lebanese village that is largely made up of Armenians. I met her grandmother, a Lebanese woman, who now speaks fluent Armenian and minimal Arabic. Therese reminded me of myself and of the fact that my “Armenianness” does not need any approval or validation. Vart and our common friend Laleh decided to take me to the village’s famous strawberry fields. On the way there, my heart was valiantly throbbing at the mere thought that two of her friends are joining us. Again, my fear emanated from the thought that language might be a hindrance. My worries gradually dwindled until they faded into the blue amidst our fleeting conversations.
My Armenianness is the melting taste of tahinov hats (sweet tahini bread) on warm Sunday mornings. It is the revival of nature within Armenian names that never fail to fascinate me: Alik, Arev, Vart, Laleh, Hasmig… It is a reconciliation attempt through all the people and places that hold a little Armenia in their arms. It is the chopped garlic-flavored pickles in sujukh sandwiches while my ears get caressed by the sweet melodies of Komitas waltzing around our campus. It is an emotion that I never wish to descend from. It is hiding myself in a cocoon of refuge that is the culture of the noor—light in my mother tongue, Arabic.
If you could have dinner with any person in the world—dead or alive—who would you choose? My answer, every time, is my great grandparents. Many of us have us wondered how we would feel if we ever ventured to the lands from which we have collectively been exiled for the last four generations. Upon returning from my trip to Western Armenia, I encountered the spirit of our ancestors and their will to build again, love again, and rejoice again, in the most unlikely of places: a sandwich.
Inspired by his recent participation in Hamazkayin ArtLinks 2019, Los Angeles-based comedy writer and magician Missak Artinian (AKA Magic Missak, AKA the Armenian Channing Tatum) shares his story "Between bowls"—his pursuit of identity, self-discovery, and the perfect bowl of soup...
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To bring something into existence is to create—and “creativity takes courage.”
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