Haygagan Bar Part 2: Understanding the Armenian Homeland

Written by Abbie Tarpinian Porto

18 June 2024

This piece is part of a research series that will be released in five parts, over a period of 5 weeks. You can find part one here.

Photo from Lernazang Ensemble. This article was originally written as a thesis for the MA Program in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, and has been adapted for publication here.

“I am so glad to celebrate dances from all the regions of our great nation,” says the head priest of the local Armenian church from a projection screen hanging in front of the stage. He ends his video by saying to the audience, “God bless you all for preserving the Armenian culture.”

The screen raises, and the curtains open for Sardarabad’s last performance of the night, a dance titled “Vaspurakan” after the region of historic Armenia centered around Lake Van. A lively song plays, with brass, strings, drums, and of course, zurna. About 20 men and women dance onto the stage wearing bright taraz44costumes in a warm yellow-orange color with red aprons, vests, and hats with deep blue detailing. They hold hands and dance in a line, stepping, hopping, and shouting “hey!” to the music. The dancers move to form a circle, spinning and clapping to change formation. Then, they are joined on stage by the younger dancers of the ensemble, boys and girls in shiny blue and silver taraz costumes, holding Armenian flags; the youngest girls, around 5-7 years old and in sparkly silver dresses and headbands, are looking to the older dancers to remember what to do. Everyone on stage dances together in a joyful finale to a night of Armenian dance.

Before going into the role dance plays in understanding the homeland, it is necessary to discuss what the Armenian homeland actually is. The idea of homeland is contested among Armenians, with each person experiencing this idea differently. For many diasporans, homeland is tied to the places their ancestors were exiled from. Western Armenia, currently part of the modern Republic of Turkey, is inaccessible to most of the descendants of the people who lived there a century ago. In terms of modern nation-states, other regions with historically Armenian populations include Javakhk in the Republic of Georgia, Nakhichevan as a nominally autonomous republic within Azerbaijan, and Artsakh, the region recently annexed and ethnically cleansed by Azerbaijan. The dispersion of Armenians ignited by the Genocide of 1915, and the subsequent migrations throughout the twentieth century and through today, continue to cause conflicting relationships to place. Because of this, homeland is multi-layered, and Armenians often think in degrees of homeland. For Van, Western Armenia is the place of his ancestors. He can trace his mother’s family’s generational journey from Western Armenia to Iraq to the east coast of the United States. In each place, his family made a home. No matter where they lived, they remained Armenian. Yet his father’s family story is a bit less traceable. An ancestor from Western Armenia was already living in the US when most of his family died in the Genocide. From what Van has learned of his paternal great-grandparents, “They were never happy. They, you know. They died sad. And I think that’s a reality of a lot of Armenians. It’s, you know. No one’s happy that they made it out of the Genocide. There’s no, that’s not… That’s not how it works. So my dad’s side is kind of less talked about, especially since a lot of his cousins ended up just assimilating and going away. I don’t know them.” While his mother’s family is close-knit and active in their Armenian community, his father’s side lost some of their connection to their heritage. Van sees having these different familial ties to Armenia as “not the best of both worlds, but the reality of both worlds.” He views the more “assimilated” Armenians as continued victims of the Genocide, as many of the survivors dealt with their trauma by distancing themselves from Armenianness, their qualities that were targeted by perpetrators of violence, and they tried to shield their children from being labeled Armenian. The other “world” that Van inhabits through his mother’s family is one of “lore, glamor, [and] victory” that celebrates and emphasizes being Armenian, according to his family’s stories of resilience and community-building. But Van himself has never seen Western Armenia, and his connection to those lands is primarily through these family stories in the absence of a physical connection. In this way, his family stories from Iraq and the US also become tied to his idea of Armenian homeland, adding levels or degrees that come from being in diaspora.

Similarly, when asked how he understands the Armenian homeland from his own experience, Jirair took me through the various places his family has lived since the Genocide. He reflects,

“That’s a good question, because it’s definitely a question I’ve asked myself as I’ve come up with my identity. So my parents are Syrian Armenians, right? We’re 100% Armenian as far as I know. In 1915 we fled Marash, Zeytun, and Dikranagerd or Diyarbekir. And they fled to Aleppo, Syria, and they stayed for the next 80 years until they came to Chicago, and that’s where I was born. So if we wanna go in order, those old villages, right? Zeytun, Marash, Dikranagerd, like, if I go back there now, they’re unrecognizable to me. They’re not even… of course I will feel something, and I do wanna go back. But it’s not somewhere I can go call home, you know. So that’s not it, right? Next is Syria. My parents kind of raised me as a Syrian Armenian. They raised me as they were raised there, and the stories I hear about, and I actually went there in 2007, and I remember quite a bit. But since the war started, the majority of the Armenians there left. It’s like, growing up, I was yearning for a place that doesn’t exist anymore. Since the war, Aleppo is barely a city. There’s barely Armenians left. None of my family lives there anymore, and it’s like yearning for a Western Armenian place that isn’t there. It just doesn’t exist. So that brings me to Chicago. This is my house, this is my home. I feel like, I was born here, but I don’t have any ties to Chicago-ness, or, you know, being from Illinois. So homeland, it’s, it’s… Armenia is our home. It’s our home. There’s no way around it. Anywhere that historically, Armenians have been, and Armenians are still there, that is our home. “

To find an answer to what the Armenian homeland is for him, Jirair traces his family’s journey of exile, ending up in an Armenia that is not restricted by the borders of modern nation-states. Armenia is determined by the presence of Armenians.

As an Armenian born in Turkey, Elen has a unique understanding of homeland. For many Armenians, Turkey feels completely inaccessible in its current state. The Armenians who currently live in Turkey are largely underrepresented as they are not part of the Republic of Armenia, but they are also not quite in the same position as the diaspora. Although most of the old Western Armenian villages and communities are long gone, Armenians still live throughout Turkey, most heavily concentrated in Istanbul. Elen describes her thoughts about the idea of homeland:

My perspective is different because I’m from Istanbul, from Turkey. So Armenians in Turkey, I won’t speak for all of them, but a majority doesn’t really feel like they’re not in their homeland. Because, like, it is our ancestral land. So, from like a Turkish Armenian approach, to me, [the homeland] is all of Armenia. All of that land I connect with. When I go to an Armenian church in Turkey, it’s like, “Wow, this is ours.” Or any Armenian church, really, even in Chicago. I think I personally identified and connected myself so deeply to the roots of being Armenian and going to church, and like growing up in that. So I feel like for me, I can connect with Armenia, or that region, like the land, easily. I can just picture myself there. 

But being there [Republic of Armenia] already, now I feel like I know there’s a difference. ‘Cause like in my imagination, everywhere was Armenia, but now that I was there personally, physically, it’s more of a reflective point. Like Armenia the homeland, the pictures, the churches, the mountains, I just close my eyes, and just picturing the scenery, that for me feels like home. But it’s so crazy because I wasn’t even born there. So we were raised to know all of that… while at a distance.

From her Turkish Armenian perspective, Elen was born in the homeland, which is not something that many Western Armenians can relate to. Elen also finds homeland wherever she finds Armenians, specifically through the Armenian Church. However, since visiting the Republic, Elen places a certain distinction on that land. There is something particular about that place that “feels like home” in a way that she does not find elsewhere.

In Gaïdz’s case, he “[has] the privilege of being from just about every corner of historic Armenia,” meaning he can trace his family roots to Artsakh, Javakhk, Nakhichevan, and Western Armenia. He expressed to me, “That’s crazy, like my family is from everywhere but what is now the modern Republic of Armenia. [Actually] I think maybe I have some family from Lori? Or Syunik? [Those are] like opposite points of Armenia. Point being, the lines are blurred for me, but [my homeland is] that however many square miles or square kilometers that is a historic Armenia. And no one can tell me otherwise.” When Gaïdz says that “the lines are blurred,” he does not totally separate historical lands and the current republic into disparate entities. All of these places are parts of one Armenian homeland. Gaïdz hopes that one day, a free, independent, united Armenia will exist, echoing the sentiments he learned from his community in LA:

I was born ten years after an independent Armenia, right? For me, I’ve only grown up knowing that there is this independent and hopefully soon united Armenia. When I say united I mean like, Nakhichevan, Western Armenia, Javakhk, Artsakh, and Armenia. There is this united Armenia that is waiting for me. I was told that at school. I went to an Armenian school for nine years. We would draw these maps. Azad, Angakh, Miatsial Hayastan,45 a free, independent, united Armenia! Dzovits Dzov,46 a sea to sea Armenia! That’s something that for me was a reality, or it was… It was an aspiration that really was sort of achievable, and we, I mean, we were told that this was something that we could seek out and try to accomplish and realize for our ancestors, and so… my homeland is, when you look up the historic map of Armenia, that’s my homeland.

These phrases, “Azad, Angakh, Miatsial Hayastan” and “Dzovits Dzov,” are common refrains of Armenians who intend to regain lost lands, particularly those involved in the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and its youth organization, the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). Gaïdz uses them here to describe his view of homeland, that is, a conceptual Armenia that includes lands from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean where Armenians historically lived. At the same time, Gaïdz recognizes that as a diasporan several generations removed from his family’s initial exile, he is in a unique position to conceive of homeland in this way. Thinking of his own family, Gaïdz explained, “If you ask my grandparents, hey, Lebanon for them is home. They love Armenia. My grandfather dedicated half of his life for the last 40 years to the modern Republic of Armenia, deeply involving himself in the sort of current state of the modern Republic. But for him and his wife, my grandmother and my grandfather, Lebanon is just as much a home as Armenia is.” Gaïdz perceives the levels of homeland for his grandparents as Lebanon, their home for a significant part of their lives, and the Republic of Armenia, a site of their committed political involvement. According to Gaïdz, Lebanon and Armenia are equal homes in their eyes. What, then, ties his Western Armenian grandparents to the Republic of Armenia, a place where they had not lived and to which they have no familial connection?

For diasporans, even those with roots in Western Armenia, the Republic of Armenia can serve as a kind of surrogate homeland.47 The Republic is where Armenians can assert Armenianness in a way that is recognized by the modern global understanding of nation-states, and Armenians in diaspora are also able to partially claim this recognition through an association with the Republic. Though actual cultural expressions are diverse, Armenians broadly share language, history, and other elements of culture, giving diasporans at least some sense of home in contemporary Armenia. As Van explains, 

My homeland is where my family was from, [but] those are lands that are not ours anymore. Those lands are not gonna be ours for a long time, but I guess the next best thing is the lands that belong to other Armenians, which is, you know, the lands in Armenia and Artsakh today. I think any Armenian can be able, or should be able at least, to relate to those lands as theirs, even if there’s no, you know, family connection, because in one way or another it’s just the whole idea of a nation. It’s all encompassing to a people, at least ideally.

In this sense, an Armenian can connect to any land that “belongs” to Armenians because of their shared nationhood. As long as “Armenians” constitute one, united nation, the Republic of Armenia can be home to diasporan Armenians as part of an extended national people. The connection here between diasporan and Republic is based in claiming Armenian identity and, therefore, the Armenian nation-state. For example, Natalie discusses how she interacts with the Republic as a diasporan Armenian:

Going to Armenia, when I went for the first time in 2012, shifted so many things for me. Even though it’s not like, let’s say I was still diaspora, but let’s say like my parents were born in Armenia, so then that would really be very easy to consider that to be my homeland. But [the Republic] sort of became an adopted homeland because it’s where Armenians are. In a global format of nation-states, that’s what Armenians have. So that’s become this idea of homeland. It’s where I return to those roots. It’s like, where I go to study, it’s where I go to learn, it’s where I go to engage in an environment that is very much Armenian, and you know, top to bottom, the language is just there. I don’t have to try hard to remind myself to speak Armenian, or the food and the people and just like the way people live, it’s like, experiencing that… is homeland. (Emphasis added)

Similarly, Levon mentions that visiting the Republic contributed to his understanding of his own Armenianness:

Later on in my life, like once I visited Armenia, and kind of went there and spent several months there at a time, I think that also incorporates aspects of [what makes me Armenian]. And plays a role like just being in the homeland if you will, although again, you know, it’s a difficult thing sometimes for the diasporan to say. None of my family is from any of the lands within the borders here. But obviously there’s still shared elements of culture and language and things. So it still is your homeland, so like, forming that connection as well then in turn contributes [to being Armenian].

Here, Van, Natalie, and Levon all mention sharing something in common with Armenians in the Republic, making it easier to adopt the nation-state as a homeland even without family ties there. Part of this idea of homeland requires being in community with other Armenians, and the Republic is the most centralized place to find that.

In fact, Jirair considers moving to the Republic someday, but he worries that being diasporan Armenian will not be enough for him to be welcomed into this surrogate homeland. He explains,

I think about repatriation, one day in the future. Asdvadz medz e,48 you know, that’s all I can say. But a homeland, idea of a homeland, it’s, it has to be Hayastan. And this is the biggest disconnect with diaspora and Armenia is, you know, for us diasporans, we don’t get it. We haven’t lived in Armenia. They have a point. My family hasn’t lived in Armenia for a hundred years, over a hundred years, you know, so they have a point there. But at the same time, a lot of times diasporan Armenians don’t feel like in Armenia they are Armenian enough.

Jirair anticipates criticism or distance from Armenians in the Republic because he is not from the homeland. Lilit echoes this sentiment:

Growing up in the diaspora is a really interesting challenge, I think, because you feel like everything that you’re trying to do, you’re doing from afar, and you don’t know if it’s helping. You don’t know if the people there oftentimes are not accepting our help or don’t feel that we’re as Armenian as them. I mean, it’s part assimilation, but it’s just a completely different version of being Armenian. But having, like oftentimes, conversations with other people who have grown up in the US and trying to not feel guilty for the fact that we’re like, you know, weren’t born in Armenia, or aren’t there as often as maybe we want to be.

In her experience, Lilit notices a bit of insecurity when comparing herself and other diasporans to Armenians from the Republic. The feeling of guilt appears as she seems somehow less Armenian than those born and raised in Armenia. Yet, Lilit pushes back against those feelings, recognizing that hers is simply “a completely different version of being Armenian.” Further, the Republic cannot encompass the entirety of the Armenian homeland. Western Armenia, other areas deemed lost such as Nakhichevan, regions now in other nation-states still with large Armenian populations like Javakhk, and the presently contested area of Artsakh, are all part of a greater understanding of Armenia among Armenians. Without these lands under control of an Armenian nation-state, and in some cases inaccessible or only partially accessible to Armenians, many Armenians associate these places with a great sense of loss and desire for justice or return.

One way of navigating these intense feelings of loss and longing is through dance. At Sardarabad’s performance, for instance, the emphasis on homeland was overt, especially in the name of their show, “Dzovits Dzov: A Journey of Historic Armenia through Dance,” using the phrase explicitly associated with a desire for return. Outside the auditorium, the hallway was decorated with a poster showing illustrations of people wearing taraz, traditional Armenian clothing, from different regions of Armenia, including Artsakh and some areas of Western Armenia. During the show, the host proudly announced that this performance is “inspired by our love for our homeland,” and that “the lands our ancestors were removed from is still in our dance.” The dances themselves included imagery invoking the physical land of Armenia. For their dance entitled “Ararat,” the dancers formed two circles with their arms towards the center to create the appearance of two mountain peaks. The dance ended with the dancers lifting a large, white sheet, dancing under the sheet to cross the stage, then finally letting the sheet fall on top of them to form the figure of Mount Ararat. This dance in particular highlights the link between dance and homeland, as the dance visuals literally represent lost Armenian land, conjuring one of the most iconic symbols of Armenia, Mount Ararat. Armenian dancers do not just honor these lands, but also desire them. Siragan describes one of their dances in their program as “Return: The time will come when we will march back into its embrace.” As lively music played, the dancers twisted and spun, and the screen behind them displayed pictures of ancient Armenian buildings, now abandoned. This dance clearly insists that where Armenians once lived, Armenians will live again. In these choreographed presentations, Armenians use dance to claim their homeland, and to pointedly say that this land is Armenian. It is a way to vocally and expressly pin feelings of loss to a real, physical place on earth by declaring that place part of the Armenian homeland.

Beyond the visuals of this kind of staged performance, dance also enables Armenians to embody homeland in themselves. When Gaïdz dances shurchbar with his Armenian friends, he can connect to an Armenia that he has never actually seen:

It felt like, damn, I was in Aintab or in Gesaria with my homies dancing like it was 1820 or 1750. I felt physically like I was there, and it was less the, for me it’s less the dance itself. It’s more this weird recognition, this sort of subconscious recognition that you and I, socially, are participating in this unique cultural act, right? That can’t be replicated elsewhere, but rests on our mutual understanding of it, and the way we’re speaking to one another through dance. Like for me, dance is a social and cultural practice above it being a, like, physical one. Like those, it can be physical, but… I wasn’t conscious of it. It’s a mode of sort of articulating collectivity or togetherness.

This imagined homeland, for Gaïdz, is a site of emotion brought on by being together with Armenians. Dancing facilitates the strong social connection he has with his friends, and their “mutual understanding” of an Armenian cultural context imbues this social connection with ideas and feelings of homeland. Thus, a simple shurchbar becomes a felt Armenian homeland among the dancers in that moment. For Lusineh, Armenian dance explicitly creates her feeling of homeland. As she explains,

The Armenian homeland to me is, it’s not Armenia the country. It’s Armenia like my community here. That is the homeland to me. So, personally, the dance group is a huge component of my Armenia, and going back to the idea of the homeland, I don’t have any family left in Armenia. All of my family abroad is in the Middle East and Cyprus, so I think in that fact, in that sense, it’s very interesting how my homeland is my homeland, right? Armenia the country is my country, I guess, but it’s not really where I feel at home. I feel at home when I’m with the Armenian dance group, when I’m in the downstairs studio. When I’m performing at these productions, at these picnics. That is my homeland. But then again, I did go to Armenia last summer, and it was undoubtedly the most meaningful experience of my life. So I think in that sense, it’s kind of like a double sided thing. But for my purposes, the emphasis is on the community and the people that I have.

Even having been to the physical Republic of Armenia, Lusineh feels more at home with the Armenians she knows and loves in Chicago. The community is her homeland, and her community is found through dance. Thus, as Gaïdz and Lusineh exemplify, Armenians can use dance to bring a sense of homeland with them in diaspora, even as their lost lands are inaccessible, perhaps indefinitely.

Note: This piece is part of a series. Read parts one and three here.

44Տարազ (traditional Armenian clothing)
45 Ազատ, Անկախ, Միացիալ Հայաստան (Eng: Free, Independent, United Armenia)
46 Ծովից Ծով (Eng: From Sea to Sea)
47 As described in Kasbarian, “The Myth and Reality of ‘Return,’” 359.
48 Աստուած մեծ է (Eng: God is great)