So last weekend I went back to Armenia, the place around which so much of my early life as a traveller revolved.
Ostensibly, my visit was to be present for the commemoration on the 24th of April of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Among countless others did I descend upon Yerevan to be here on this historical date.
But I was an oddball in this crowd, being connected to the nation by marriage rather than by birth – which brings with it a crucially different perspective, despite my familiarity with the place, the people and the history.
What I want to explore here is why it remains impossible for me, an Englishman, to grasp the true significance of the original event; a moment in history in which, with the stroke of a pen, a group of fundamentalist Ottoman politicians sentenced between 800,000 and 1,500,000 of their own subjects – people of a very specific race and culture – to death, hoping that amid the ‘chaos of war’ in 1915 the act would be overlooked.
It’s a fascinating topic upon which to ruminate, because it requires so much digging into the human psyche. What is unearthed is surprising.
You see, it isn’t due to a lack of understanding of the concept of ethnic cleansing itself (a hideous piece of terminology if ever there was one). The idea of genocide is nothing new if we’ve grown up in contact with mainstream media, given the many more recent examples that have unfolded during our lifetimes.
And it has little to do with the scale upon which the act was carried out. We in England are taught of the Jewish Holocaust as a matter of principle, as an example of something that ought never to be repeated, despite it itself having been a repeat of what was, in 1939, the very apex of recent human horrors. We go on school trips to concentration camps. (At least, I did.) The scale of the crime is hammered home.
It isn’t even because it did not happen to me. It may seem a step too far to compare the event with one’s own attempted murder. But the longer I have spent in Armenia and among Armenians (long enough, now, to have acquired citizenship of the country), the more I have realised that this is a close approximation to how many people feel – indeed, it is literally true of several of my friends and family members, my wife included, that they are only alive today because one or more of their grandparents escaped death in 1915.
But even if I could imagine how it felt to know that our direct descendants – individuals we knew and grew up with – were once targeted for systematic extermination, I still wouldn’t be able to grasp the significance of the Armenian Genocide.
And that is because my ethnicity does not define me.
I am speaking here, of course, as someone who ticks the ‘British (white)’ box on official paperwork. We will never understand what it means to be born into a race whose members define themselves in juxtaposition against their neighbours.
We, the English, have a comfortable history of imperial dominance. Who we are, to ourselves, is a non-issue, because that national identity has never been threatened – not in our own lifetimes, nor in living memory of anyone around us. It’s even less of an issue for those liberals among us who reject the ‘us and them’ mentality; a simple matter of choice, given that we have the luxury of making it.
But as an Irish friend of mine pointed out, I wouldn’t have to travel far to find people who – at the very core of their self-image – are above all, absolutely, definitely, undeniably, 100 percent, not English.
And so it is with the Armenians, though on a deeper scale altogether. Living through most of recorded history as minority subjects of other people’s empires, Armenian-ness could only be preserved through forcibly defining itself in contrast with the majority.
I do get this. But I will never feel it in my soul. You need to be born into such an identity, to know it as you know your mother tongue.
Whether this in itself is a good or bad thing I’m not here to judge. But the effect of this binding force is that a crime against one Armenian on the basis of his or her racial identity is a crime against all Armenians. Murder being the ultimate crime committed by one person against another, and the crime still being denied by its perpetrator a full century later, it starts to become clearer why last Friday was going to be such a landmark event in the Armenian narrative. Why else would so many people travel half-way round the world to visit a war memorial for a weekend?
Despite knowing that I could never truly grasp the emotions felt by those on the inside of this story, who now, despite the best efforts of that Ottoman government, number over 10 million worldwide, I still went to Armenia, knowing that I could at least experience these days for what they were.
So I went to Tsitsernakaberd with tens of thousands of others and laid flowers at the memorial, knowing that all those around me were laying theirs in memory of dead relatives. I stood in the rain and experienced System Of A Down’s politically-inspired concert in Republic Square. I met up with old friends and listened to their thoughts as the commemorations unfolded in Yerevan, across Armenia, and in diasporan communities across the planet. And meanwhile, the world laughed as Kanye West fell over in a fountain.
So much for philosophical musings. Something keeps dragging me back here, roping me in, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. I somehow feel at home in Armenia. I can’t deny this.
Perhaps that’s because of spending so much time here in my mid-twenties, those many formative experiences that happened within the city limits of Yerevan.
Or perhaps it’s because I found myself part of a community of people who were all, by one definition or another, outsiders – people who lived in juxtaposition with the majority, as I felt I’d lived all my adult life doing back home. And in a funny kind of way, perhaps that’s where my affinity with this beleaguered nation comes from.
There’s a journey brewing in here somewhere. I know it. When I’ve figured out what it is, I’ll let you know. One thing’s for sure: you certainly haven’t heard the last of Armenia.