A hilltop in Dilijan, Armenia’s lush alpine region, was not the obvious scenario for an identity crisis. But there I was, dripping with sweat, trying to haggle for jars of honey with a ruthless babushka who kept bees beside the medieval Haghartsin monastery, feeling a fraud. After a humid two-hour hike uphill and with little of the Sunday-school Armenian I learned as a child flowing back to me, I could only jab away in broken phrases – despite having learned the language since I was three.
My holiday in Armenia this summer, just the second time I’d visited, was filled with moments like this, reduced to a clueless tourist in the land of my ancestors. A “familiar stranger”, as Stuart Hall’s memoir had it. This is a common feeling among the half-and-halfs and bit-bilinguals among us. But this year, the detached discomfort of the diasporan has felt particularly acute.
Days after I left Armenia – an otherwise joyous trip fizzing with apricot beer and high-altitude lake swims – Azerbaijan invaded the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. In just 24 hours, the 30-year bloody war over disputed territory – left as a lost cause by both the Americans and Russians – came to a stark end. Azerbaijan won. Around 120,000 citizens in the self-declared republic, which Armenians call Artsakh, left as refugees. A queue of Ladas and Soviet marshrutka minivans inched along the Lachin corridor, the only road left open to Armenia.
This year Israelis, Palestinians, the Sudanese, Ukrainians and Armenians dispersed around the world have watched events unfold in ancestral lands many of us have never lived in – our knowledge of them limited to what we’re taught in the comfort of our parents’ and grandparents’ adopted homelands. Keeping in touch with relatives, donating to charity, protesting and posting on social media is all we can do: a tick-list of guilt and helplessness, and sometimes of well-meaning misunderstanding.
Tensions had been building in the south Caucasus during my holiday, after the Armenian government announced joint military drills with the US in an apparent rebuke to Russia (whose peacekeepers had failed to protect the Karabakh Armenians). “It’s just some mountains; people are more important,” one young local told me then. “Too many men have gone to fight and die for this. We need peace.” It hadn’t occurred to me, from my faraway perspective, that the younger generation (the average age of Armenian soldiers killed in the most recent conflict, in 2020, was 23) might have concerns closer to home.
Having learned in my childhood about Nagorno-Karabakh, and written about it in the New Statesman, I felt bereft. I had never been, and now never would. Dadivank monastery, snuggled into a mountainside – a place my late dad, who read books about its architecture, dreamed of one day visiting – would be closed off. I would never taste locally made jingalov hatz, a flatbread stuffed with wild herbs and baked in an underground oven.
Many in Nagorno-Karabakh couldn’t bear to leave their homes to an unknown fate, burning their dwellings and gardens down before they fled. “I thought about setting my house on fire, but I didn’t,” said one refugee in an interview. “I washed the dishes, arranged them on the shelves, as if I was waiting for visitors. This year, the crop of dates is very good. Let the Azeris eat them. I left them a letter: ‘In this house lived hard-working and honourable people. Keep it clean. And please water my flowers.’”
British Palestinians and Israelis I hear from feel a similar ache when they see the footage of Gaza City pummelled to rubble and kibbutzes streaked with blood and bullet holes. Britain’s modest Armenian diaspora of 18,000 or so complains that the UK government and media have ignored our cause. It seemed extraordinary that Nagorno-Karabakh’s rapid ethnic cleansing barely bothered the headlines. But I don’t envy those who find their pain picked up and twisted in the public eye. Thousands of miles away from the Middle East, the diasporan experience in Britain – where attacks on Jews and Islamophobic hate crimes are rising – is visceral. Community tensions are co-opted in bad faith: defence of Israel is weaponised by the far right, the pro-Palestinian cause exploited by anti-Semites. Perhaps we Armenians should be careful what we wish for.
The feelings of those who live at a remove from our family history are more complex than any reductive ideological binaries drawn by, say, a British home secretary yearning to prove that “multiculturalism has failed”. It is hard to watch our ancestral lands fragment precisely because our identity clings to fragments: songs and recipes we learned growing up, pointing out places on maps to our English friends. It’s the treacly crust around the lid of pomegranate molasses in my kitchen cupboard; the jagged gold “A” – the first letter I learned in the Armenian alphabet – I wear around my neck every day.
Back on that mountainside, I finally babbled out the word for honey (“meghr”). I had remembered the afternoons at Armenian school spent reciting word-for-word the fable “A Droplet of Honey”. It begins with a fly landing on some spilt honey. A lizard eats the fly, a cat eats the lizard, and the story escalates until it reaches all-out war. Exasperated by rote learning, my fellow west London classmates and I used to moan about how this wouldn’t help us in later life. But perhaps the lessons of “A Droplet of Honey” were more useful than my teenage self assumed – and not just for buying honey.
[See also: What it means to be Jewish now]
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special